Drunk at the Worst Time.
I don’t know much about Johnny Manziel. The Cleveland Browns’ quarterback has been in the news for a lot of bad reasons lately. Earlier this fall he was involved in a domestic assault incident, though I don’t see that he was arrested. He was in some kind of treatment facility of an unspecified sort earlier this year. And after finally seeming to get his shit together enough to be given a starting shot, he then went out and got bombed a couple of times, posted videos of it, and was demoted to third string.
A lot of people are commenting about the domestic assault. I’ll leave the commentary on that to others. I don’t know what happened, but I hope that it is appropriately investigated and adjudicated. A lot of people are talking about the NFL’s response to that incident and to the apparent substance abuse problems. I’ll leave that commentary to others as well. I don’t know the NFL’s rules nor do I have a relevant opinion as to what they should be.
I want to talk about drinking at perplexing times. I’m not here to diagnose Manziel as anything. But the behavior he exhibited this past weekend is a behavior that is familiar to a lot of alcoholics. After getting his shot to be starting quarterback, he performed very well on the field, and his coach announced that he would start the remainder of the season. Everyone seemed to think that he’d turned a corner and was ready to go be a force in the league. Instead, he went out and got drunk and made a public ass of himself.
This is a behavior both familiar and maddening to many of us who are alcoholics (And again, for the record, I am not saying Manziel is an alcoholic. I can’t possibly know. But this recent behavior reminds me of alcoholic behavior.) We get drunk at the worst possible times. We don’t seem to mean to. It isn’t malicious. Often times we are celebrating. But we don’t, or can’t, stop after a drink or two. We imbibe copiously and end up in desperate trouble. We sabotage our lives just when everything seems perfect. Or at least, on the upswing.
But there’s a real calculation behind it, even if we are not aware of it ourselves. When alcoholics are active in their drinking, our entire lives revolve around getting more alcohol, in the short term. We cannot risk lack of access to booze, for anything. And so when our lives seem to be slotting into order, we have to disrupt it. Because if we have responsibility and accountability and stature, we can’t be drunk all the time. It doesn’t work. And no matter how much we think we ant those things, we know we can’t have them because they interfere with our ability to drink the way we need to.
And so we get really destructively drunk at precisely the worst time. In order to prevent all that responsibility and accountability from happening. If our families or employers don’t trust us with real responsibility, then it doesn’t matter if we’re drunk. We don’t get in trouble for fucking things up if we have nothing to do. Our disease isn’t threatened by sloth and indolence. Only by accountability and industry.
Seen through this lens, behavior that is baffling to outsiders makes perfect sense to the alcoholic. And to the recovered alcoholic. When a person self-sabotages by getting drunk at the “worst possible time”, it is utterly obvious to me what’s happening, most of the time. The disease is protecting itself. The alcoholic is protecting their ability to drink from anything that threatens it. It is an existential assertion against the terror of being unable to drink as we please. Unable to satisfy what feels like a necessary ingredient of life: intoxication.
If this is what’s happening with Manziel, I hope he gets help. And regardless of what’s happening with him, I hope he owns up to his behavior and takes responsibility for what seem to be, from the outside, some pretty inexcusable acts.
But I get it. I get all of it. The disease protects itself, and we act out whatever theatrical charades are necessary to preserve its access to the only thing that matters. Alcohol. And if that means we have to destroy our lives, and the lives of others? So what. Nothing else matters.