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Everything I’ve Learned From Writing About Booze, Bars and Drinking This Year

In 2018, people still hold tight to some really messed-up myths about alcohol. I'm here to help.

Americans are scared, stressed out and sad. And who can blame us?

Racist lunatics are guiding the country in a quick descent into The Day After Tomorrow. No matter how little we drive or how much we recycle, the planet is fucked. The epitome of rape culture was installed in the nation’s highest court. Black people get shot and killed for things like living in a luxury apartment. 

It’s fair to say we have a lot to drink about, and we’re doing exactly that. Maybe that’s the ultimate lesson I’ve learned from writing about drinking in 2018 (which you can read here in The Shakes, my column for MEL). But there are lots of little things that stick out, too. Such as…

1. We’re Drinking Ourselves Into an Early Grave

Lots of our alcohol consumption is motivated by apocalypse-fueled nihilism. And we do so without much regard for the risks.

In 2017 binge drinking was declared an American public health crisisThe biggest problem with all this excessive drinking is the interplay between binge drinking and other health issues, or what medical professionals call comorbidities, I wrote:

For example: The relationship between mental-health issues and substance abuse is highly symbiotic. People with anxiety, depression and other mood disorders are nearly twice as likely to be addicted to drugs compared to the general population. The reverse is also true: People addicted to drugs are more likely to develop anxiety and depression.

In a report documenting the intersection of those three things drugs, booze and suicide, Trust for America’s Health found that 2015 alone, 127,500 Americans died from drug- or alcohol-induced causes or suicide. “That is 350 deaths per day, 14 per hour, and one person dying of a preventable cause every four minutes. Projections say it will only get worse,” the report reads.

2. We’re Fucking Up Our Sleep

A secondary consequence of binge drinking? Going to bed drunk really messes with your sleep, and this is bad for multiple reasons — most importantly, because it inhibits your dream cycle.

“Dreaming is like the gastrointestinal tract for what you experience throughout the day,” explains Rubin Naiman, the sleep and dream specialist at the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona. “When we dream well, difficult and negative emotions are processed and well-regulated. Without them, we become psychologically and emotionally constipated.”

Per Naiman, the more regularly we go to sleep drunk, the less we dream, and the less we dream, the more likely we are to be anxious, stressed and on edge  —  all things that drinkers know make you likelier to drink more (and more often).

“So many people already understand that they would sleep better if they stopped drinking,” he continues. “Too few, however, realize they could better manage their drinking if they started sleeping.”

3. The Next Big Controversy? Drinking in Driverless Cars

With this excessive focus on alcohol — or, rather, this misguided focus on excessive alcohol consumption — people are super-excited about being able to drink wherever and whenever they darn well please.

As such, of course one of the biggest questions around the advancing technology of driverless cars is whether or not, if your car’s doing the driving, you can let it drive your drunk ass home.

The short answer? Maybe. Sometimes.

But — but — you can totally get on a plane if you’re loaded, because you’re not the one flying, right?

Not exactly. And this opens up a can of worms about public-drinking regulations.

4. Watch Where You Drink Outside

Airport personnel are well within their rights to deny you from boarding a plane if you’re noticeably plastered. In fact, much like bartenders are legally obligated to refuse to serve visibly intoxicated guests, airport staff are forbidden from allowing anyone who is visibly intoxicated onto an airplane. As for specifics, the same things that will get you kicked out of a bar (slurring, having difficulty walking or standing, being aggressive, looking like you’re about to puke) will prevent you from boarding a plane“We really don’t want people to get too drunk,” Scott, a flight attendant, told me“If you start throwing up on a plane, that’s just bad for everybody.”

The weird thing is that drunk in public is not a criminal offense (in fact, laws that attempted to ban public drunkenness were deemed unconstitutional in the ’70s). Drinking in public, however, is another story.

Unless you’re in New Orleans, Vegas, Butte, Montana, or Hood River, Oregon (or various special districts in a smattering of states), drinking booze on the sidewalk, street or in a park is against the law regardless of the container it’s in.

If you are in a designated open-container zone, or hanging out in NOLA, Vegas, Butte or Hood River for the day, be sure to keep it together: It may be legal to drink in public, but drunk and disorderly is against the law everywhere.

5. We’re Not the Only Species That Loves Boozing

The drive to get fucked-up is perfectly natural and fairly universal. Humans basically learned what to drink (and eat) to alter consciousness from watching animals.

And in a lot of ways, we learned from the best.

Living things from ants to reindeer enjoy getting off their face and out of their heads sometimes.

In fact, according to psychopharmacologist Ronald K. Siegel, seeking out intoxicants in times of emotional duress is behavior all animals exhibit.

In his book  Intoxication: The Universal Drive for Mind-Altering Substances. Siegel investigates animals’ need for speed, coke, opiates, alcohol, marijuana and hallucinogenic plants. It also makes a very important point: Getting fucked up is an impulse universal to everyone  —  and every species.

“Our nervous system, like those of rodents and primates, is arranged to respond to chemical intoxicants the same way it responds to rewards of food, drink and sex,” Siegel wrote. “These stories will show what intoxication is, why we seek it, its amazing benefits, its destructive consequences when abused and why we have much to learn from other animals.”

One story will that will stick with me forever is that of a grieving mongoose who, when given access to hallucinogenic berries, had initially tasted the berries, seen some shit and avoid the plants thereafter.

Until, that is, he stumbled across his mate’s dead body.

Siegel watched as the mongoose tried and failed to resuscitate his mate and then very intentionally seek out the intoxicating fruit.

He was grieving, Siegel noted, and needed to get away from reality for a while.

6. Total Sobriety Isn’t the Only Way to Recover

Moderation Management, an alternative program for problem drinkers that preaches moderation instead of strictly abstinence, understands that not drinking ever is simply not the best path for everyone looking to change their relationship with alcohol.

“You don’t have to be ‘powerless over your addiction’ to join MM. We don’t believe in relapses. If people want to drink, even drink a lot, that’s really a god-given right to get smashed. I don’t recommend it, but we’re not parental in that way and we understand and make room for the fact that abstinence isn’t realistic for everyone,” Dr. Marc F. Kern, or the Habit Doc, chairman of the board of Moderation Management, told me.

7. People Hold Tight to Some Really Messed-Up Myths About Alcohol

There’s the age-old adage, beer before liquor, never been sicker; liquor before beer, you’re in the clear. There’s the belief that tequila makes your clothes fall off. And there’s my personal favorite myth to shatter: that ‘real’ absinthe will make you hallucinate.

Folks are holding tight to all sorts of old wives’ tales about alcohol. It’s time to give it all up, friends.

First off, the only thing that’s going to keep you from getting super wasted is not drinking a lot.

Next, tequila (and mezcal, and other agave-based spirits) differ from other spirits in that they’re rarely barrel-aged, so they may have fewer naturally occurring additives than brown spirits and, therefore, possibly give your liver less work to do while processing them and cut down on your morning-after hangover. But the same exact thing can be said for gin and vodka.

Finally, absinthe is absinthe. It’s an overproof alcohol, so if you drink enough of it fast enough, damn straight you’re gonna see some shit.

8. Your Bartender Is Misunderstood

I’ve been saying, to anyone who will listen, for the better part of a decade, that the world would be a better place if everyone were required to spend at least a year working in the service industry, ripping glasses out of people’s hands and telling them to get the fuck out.

The drinking public has yet to fully embrace the idea that we bartenders are professionals, that this is our real job and that we really, really like what we do.

They feel validated to write our place of work a shitty review on Yelp for the way we talk. They’re rude as hell to pregnant bartenders. They can’t figure out how to pay their damn tabs.

Which is a shame, because whether or not you drink, bars are important spaces. Bars and restaurants are some of the largest employers of the young and the new-to-this-country; we make up the fourth largest sector of the national economy.

But perhaps most importantly, bars are strongholds in their communities. Bars are where you meet friends or make new ones, plan your wedding, get engaged, share the latest news with your co-workers, dream up a new project or maybe just catch up with your family.

Bars — and bartenders — are always there to make you feel welcome, to share in your good news when you have some and to help pick you up when you’re down.

And let’s be real: With the year we’ve had, nobody can afford to lose that.