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Alcohol is not an Excuse.

25 September 2014

Drunk people do terrible things. We’ve all experienced this. Whether because we’ve done something stupid and horrible while drunk, or because we’ve been harmed by a drunk person whom we know. And we know these people, or we are these people, and so we also know that they, or we, would never do such things sober. It must be the alcohol. It makes us do terrible things, when we drink too much. Alcohol is the problem.


I don’t believe that alcohol is the problem. I don’t believe that alcohol is my problem. Yes, I’m an alcoholic and because I’m an alcoholic there is no safe amount of alcohol I can drink, because I can’t stop after a safe amount of alcohol. I will keep drinking until I can neither walk nor see. But before that, I will drive, brawl, insult, harass, or do any number of other terrible things that I know are wrong.

Alcohol is not the problem, because I know all those things are wrong, and I know that I don’t do them when I’m sober. And yet, knowing that, I chose to drink. Alcohol didn’t make me do bad things. Alcohol allowed me to do things I know are wrong. It allowed me to slip off the constraints of social propriety and say what I wanted to say, do what I wanted to do, express my desire for instant gratification and consumption, despite knowing that those things were wrong.

I do not believe that any habitual drunk is under any illusions that the things we do when we’re drunk are wrong. Not just later when we sober up and look back (or are told, because we don’t remember) and cringe at the messes we’ve made. But immediately. In the moment. We know what we’re doing is wrong, is injurious, is insulting, but we don’t care. And we knew that we would be brought to that state by drinking, and we drank in order to get to that state.

The matter of choice and compulsion in alcoholics is strange and delicate. There’s a duality that is not entirely reconcilable. I drank in a way that was utterly out of my control. I had no capacity to moderate or abstain. I knew what I was doing. I made the choice to drink every time. I enjoy the effects produced by alcohol. I knew the consequences of my drinking, and I drank anyway, fully aware of the choice I was making, and its effects on others and risks to my health and liberty.

But alcohol is never an excuse for bad behavior. It is not exculpatory. If anything, it is aggravating. When habitual drunks drink, we are doing it precisely because we like how being drunk makes us feel. We like that more than we dislike how our behavior hurts others. But we are not blind to it. We may be in denial about it, but denial is not unwittingness. We are not deceived by our denial.

Alcohol is an aggravating factor rather than mitigating because we know how we behave when we drink. We know it hurts others, and yet we continue to drink. We drink on purpose in order to put ourselves in the situation where we can behave badly, and use the alcohol as an excuse. To say, “I’d never do that sober, I wasn’t me! You can’t be mad at the real me.” To have a convenient scapegoat for our misdeeds.

But that is alcoholic insanity perfectly encapsulated: we know how we hurt others, and yet we drink again. It is not insane that drunk, we commit crimes, we harass women, we endanger ourselves and others. That’s what drunks do. The behavior isn’t the insanity. The insanity is that we see that, we suffer the humiliation when we sober up, and then we drink again. Because we prefer our intoxication to the rights and agency of others.

Recovery must include a genuine recognition of this behavior. Of our choice to harm others rather than to modulate our own actions. And we cannot simply apologize, again, for our drunken destructiveness and expect to return to our position in our community. Even if our change is real, it takes time to rebuild lost trust. Apologies are not amends. And sometimes our drinking costs us permanently. To be sober, we must accept and even embrace that. To regain stature anywhere, we must be willing to accept that we may have permanently lost it elsewhere.

We don’t recover in order to regain what we’ve lost and erase our humiliations. Recovery from alcoholism is about deciding that the way we’ve been living is bankrupt, and we need to become people worthy of respect. From ourselves. From whatever we believe in. When our own acts are objectionable to us, not because they cost us stature, or cause us humiliation, but because we cannot live as persons who place our own indulgence above others’ welfare. Then we may recover. Not only ourselves, but among those we’ve harmed.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. tehbride permalink
    25 September 2014 17:28

    It is interesting as the relative and friend of several alcoholics to see things this way. I think you’re right that drinking is used as an excuse, and one I have sometimes accepted. I think you’re also correct that part of choosing to drink is looking for that excuse. Thought provoking post.

  2. 27 September 2014 21:21

    There’s another kind of insanity that I experienced when I picked up. I hoped and actually believed that “this time” it would be different. I did not accept that I would act horribly, again, just like I had for the last thousand times. I had learned my lesson. I would do it right this time. So many times I did not want to repeat that behavior, but I felt that I had to drink. Acknowledging that the same and worse would result is a return to sanity I only gained by working the program of Alcoholics Anonymous.

  3. Syd permalink
    15 October 2014 21:23

    I have heard a lot of alcoholics say that they thought that they could control the drinking or that they would not drink on a given day. But then they would. Until they were utterly brought to their knees by drink. Until there was nothing left and they prayed to not drink. But it was the utter defeat of alcohol bringing them to their knees that eventually brought them to the rooms of AA. Powerful stuff.

  4. Sophie permalink
    18 June 2015 22:03

    I have lost my entire family over a situation that has been reversed on me and how? About 5 years ago, my soon to be brother in law tried putting his fingers in my panties while we were out and I let it go thinking he was intoxicated and didn’t tell my sister about it thinking he’ll forget tomorrow and there’s was no need to cause trouble between him and my sister. A few days ago it was his birthday so my whole family was there and everyone was drinking having a good time. I fell asleep on the couch towards the end of the night, holding my 3 year old niece in my arms when suddenly got woken up by screaming. It was my husband and soon to be brother in law. I was so confused until I got into the car and my husband told me that he caught my bro in law not once, but three times trying to touch me in an indecent way. First time he rubbed my leg, then moved up to my backside and finally in between my legs with his fingers. All this happened while asleep on the couch in the living room where my husband, nieces and sister (his wife to be) were present. After this incident I told my sister about it happening 5 years ago and now I’m the villain who causing trouble because I didn’t tell her 5 years ago not believing it will ever happen again. My own mother is telling my husband and I to forget the whole thing and that he was drunk and didn’t know what he was doing but how do you ‘forget’? My families reaction is ‘insane’!! The next day my husband and sister were discussing the situation over the phone trying to convince her that this is ‘sick’ behaviour. It’s beyond me how everyone has gone against my husband and I. I don’t know what to do. I’m so hurt that they’ve taken his side over mine. I’m the one that was touched, not once but twice!! She’s marrying this guy in 5 months and I feel sick. How can I attend this wedding? I won’t. Am I being harsh? Am I not giving him the benefit of the doubt? I did the first time. But twice?? Grrrr… I just needed to vent cos I feel like this situation is driving me crazy!!!

  5. Mary Okorn-Jimenez permalink
    7 April 2016 21:23

    Brilliant. Kudos.

  6. 22 April 2017 16:06

    Dude, if you don’t think that alcohol is your problem then why don’t you go out and try some more controlled drinking?

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