A friend asked me recently why I liked alcohol so much. What did I get from alcohol that made being drunk such a regular pursuit? My initial response took the form of a kind of idealized alcohol trip report: I greatly enjoy the relaxing disinhibition that alcohol can bring, the relative reliability of the alcohol experience, the easy availability of alcohol in quantity. Unlike marijuana—a drug I don’t enjoy—I find that alcohol leaves me with more of my general wits about me during a greater percentage of the experience, while still being inebriating enough to satisfy me. Alcohol just seems suited to my general temperament.
Of course, my relationship to alcohol is more complicated than that. I was essentially straight edge all through high school, then became a bit of a binge drinker in college. After getting turned on to LSD, I went through a short period of viewing alcohol (and all non-psychedelic recreational substances) with a haughty disdain, before realizing that I enjoyed alcohol too much to keep up such an attitude. Still, it wasn’t until my year without psychedelics—a year that coincided with an especially brutal time in my professional life—that alcohol really took on a prominent role in my life.
Now I drink pretty much every evening, a pattern interrupted only by occasional use of psychedelics or other drugs, and even then alcohol is almost always a part of my coming down ritual. I self-identify as an alcoholic, both to myself and to my friends, to help me stay cognizant of just how much I drink and the fact that my life has taken this turn. I tell myself that I’m not a self-destructive alcoholic; I hold down jobs, I stay active in theatre and music and writing, I practice aikido twice a week, I stay involved in my community, I have a healthy marriage. I contrast this with the only other alcoholic I’ve ever known, the stepfather who raised me until I was eleven and who destroyed his marriage and his career by drinking too much. But that’s a rationalization. By any reasonable definition of alcoholism, I likely qualify. Drinks every day—check. Drinks alone—check. Drinks to get hammered—check.
Still, the conversation didn’t stop there, because alcoholism is an incomplete description of what motivates me. I’m certainly an addict, but not simply to alcohol—I’m addicted to altered states of consciousness in general. I’m addicted to being off baseline. I’m addicted to the kind of recreational drug use that respected members of the psychedelic movement look upon with disdain, and I don’t particularly care. This appetite is comprised of equal, and somewhat contradictory, parts hedonism and escapism. Drug use in my life is a way to make the world “feel better”, while at the same time an attempt to distance me from the world. Psychedelics offer additional psychological benefits, but psychedelic-inspired insight and revelation are happy surprises, not a goal.
I do study with fascination and respect how others in the world incorporate psychedelic use into a spiritual path, but that’s not the road I’m on. I long considered myself a nihilist before recently coming to the conclusion that maybe I’m too happy-go-lucky for that; perhaps I’m more of an existentialist, someone who, as Dictionary.com offers, “emphasizes the uniqueness and isolation of the individual experience in a hostile or indifferent universe, regards human existence as unexplainable, and stresses freedom of choice and responsibility for the consequences of one’s acts.” I extract joy and pleasure from reality in whatever manner works to help me survive the world, keeping in mind strict personal guidelines about not harming others. Drugs and alcohol are an important part of that formula. There’s a richness to the constant seesaw between sobriety and intoxication that drives me, one that defies authoritarian notions of propriety and restraint.
Alcohol, of course, extracts a darker toll from me than psychedelics. I lose my temper more frequently now, embarrass myself more often now, and perhaps most disturbingly, lose chunks of time from memory much more than I would prefer. I can try to moderate these incidents, but my appetite has difficulty moderating dosage. I know that alcohol is physiologically disastrous at these levels. In fact, my friend initiated this conversation with me in part because his wife had observed me completely obliterated at parties recently with what she perceived to be an alarming frequency. I can’t deny any of it. I can rationalize, try to stay alert, and hope to work within drunken confines to change myself, but hope is a cheap word in a situation like this.
But there’s something I enjoy perhaps too much in the wild abandonment that intoxication provides. It’s a grim kind of celebration, a dance on razor’s edge, which seems an appropriate expression of my personality. The fact is that I do enjoy the experience of life—of being in love, of being an artist, of being drunk and high. Another friend sent me a quote from Baudelaire that expresses my feelings better than I ever thought to:
“One must be forever drunken: that is the sole question of importance. If you would not feel the horrible burden of Time that bruises your shoulders and bends you to the earth, you must be drunken without cease. But how? With wine, with poetry, with virtue, with what you please. But be drunken. And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace, on the green grass by a moat, or in the dull loneliness of your chamber, you should waken up, your intoxication already lessened or gone, ask of the wind, of the wave, of the star, of the bird, of the timepiece; ask of all that flees, all that sighs, all that revolves, all that sings, all that speaks, ask of these the hour; and wind and wave and star and bird and timepiece will answer you: ‘It is the hour to be drunken! Lest you be the martyred slaves of Time, intoxicate yourselves, be drunken without cease! With wine, with poetry, with virtue, or with what you will.’”
Of course, after years of drug and alcohol use, Baudelaire died at the age of forty-six after suffering a stroke of “aphasia and hemiplegia”. I refuse to draw the obvious conclusion, mostly for aesthetic reasons.