An Unsolved Case

Most of these blogs, in case you can’t tell, usually start with some random inspiration, are hastily written, and only later edited to make some sense (hopefully). In this case, I was learning about the history of violent crime and how it was studied in the latter half of the 20th century. You know, a little light reading.

What led us from John Dillinger being cheered on the streets for robbing banks to mass murderers, school shootings, and suicide cults with athletic shoe endorsements? Why do people commit the crimes they do now with so much more frequency, and how much stranger and inhuman are they going to get? is there any limit? is there any way to predict — or prevent it? How, and why, are people going to be committing the next horrible level of crime in the future?

So, I started thinking about the how and the way why of alcoholism — the how of our behaviors is married to the why to an extent; we act in a certain way because we’ve observed someone else doing it before, or it seems to make the most sense to us at the time, or it’s the path of least resistance. How we behave — and especially how we react to adverse situations — can lead us into troubling situations. For so often, the “how” of relieving our anxieties involved the simple act of making sure we ignored them.

Without getting into the biology of it too much, when you’re drinking, you’re starving your brain of oxygen — you might as well hold your breath for three minutes and try long division, that’s how little you care to (or can) deal with your problems. Alcohol is also a depressant — that doesn’t mean it makes you depressed, any more than a tongue depressor makes you depressed when your doctor asks you to open wide, but that it’s depressing your nervous system — your fight or flight response, your naturally elevated anxieties in social situations, your pain response, the reasonable part of your mind that says you don’t need pancakes at 4am.

Yet even with most of the biology settled when it comes to alcohol — there are always newer and more complicated substances to abuse, but we’ve been working on this one for six thousand years or so — the why still remains a question. Not so much why do we drink — we drink because we like the “how” it affects us. But why alcohol? Why not a damaging addiction to Garfield comics? Why not gambling? Why not snorting Pixie Sticks like a third-grade dare? Why is alcohol still so prevalent when there are so many other alternatives, most of them now legal?

Is it a matter of familiarity? People started drinking alcohol because it killed bacterium in their water supply — and then they kept doing it because they liked it. We’ve got clean water now, and we haven’t stopped drinking. Has the world become such a more dangerous and unpredictable place that the more positive methods we’ve used as a species to cope with stress (music, dance, exercise, finger-painting horses on cave walls) just don’t cut it anymore? Why don’t we, as alcoholics, have — or use — creative and constructive outlets for stress reduction?

Why, when we understand what alcohol’s done to our lives — not all lives, mind you, but you know what site you’re on, after all — do we still think of it as some kind of solution? Why, even after everything we’ve experienced and learned and suffered through, would we still drink? At some level, I guess that answer’s different for everyone — and if it was easy to figure out, we wouldn’t have so much trouble settling it once and for all. We’d probably have less meetings. If alcohol has so many well-recognized downsides to it, and so few positives (the only one that comes to mind is as a cure for accidentally drinking antifreeze), why are we still drinking?

Because it’s easy? Because we can’t buy magic mushrooms at the grocery store? Because it tastes better than chewing on an old cactus? Because we’re used to it? Why did you drink — why did you choose alcohol specifically? Why do we still think about drinking sometimes? If we found out tomorrow that eating dandelions by the handful made us feel great, would we never think of alcohol again? If, by some miracle, ethanol ceased to exist tomorrow, would we work hard to reinvent it?

Why are we in these meetings trying to figure it out? What is it about alcohol, specifically, that’s caused so many problems in so many lives in so much of the world? We’ve (arguably) been to the moon — why can’t we figure this one out? There has to a be a solution, doesn’t there? Something a little more enlightened than what may have made sense in 1939, surely.

Maybe we just don’t know the full why of the how. Or the how of the why. Or both.

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