Last fall, my mom and I sat sipping coffee in her living room, engaged in discussion, when her phone rang. She looked at the caller ID, noting it was her cousin's daughter, and put it to voicemail. She looked up at me and told me the same thing she always does when Alexis calls. "I hope Beth didn't die."
Alcohol addiction runs in the family. Specifically, on my mother's side. She's lost several cousins to it, and Beth is the latest casualty. We've been through this before.
Because I eat, sleep and drink all things addiction, I have an aversion to dealing with it in my real life. It's like how when I was an accountant, I never did my own taxes, or how I imagine gynecologists feel about cunnilingus. I have known about Beth, I have not asked about Beth, I can't stomach what is happening to Beth.
My mom senses this and tends to hold a good boundary, but for some reason this time she wants to explain the severity of the situation. I wave my hand to dismiss her before she can start, "No thanks", and go back to reading my book. But my curiosity gets the best of me, and I decide I want to know the details. I put my book down, pick up my mug, take a sip, and ask my mom to tell me exactly what Beth's slow death looks like.
Beth is 73, around my mom's age. She is over five foot tall and weighs 80 pounds. My mom touches her index finger and thumb together, forming a small circle that she looks at me through. "She's bone." Beth's skin is thin, she says, and literally peeling off her body, and as she says this, she demonstrates on her own arm, as if peeling off a layer of the dermis. The visual makes my feet hurt, makes my whole body hurt.
There is something going on in Beth's throat, and my mom reaches for the part of her own throat under her chin, making a cup with her hand. "It's bleeding, I believe. Not functioning." Beth's stomach is distended and full of fluid; she has to have it pumped daily. She screams when anyone comes close, because human touch is excruciating. She pauses, then finishes with a slow shake of her head.
"She's rotting to death."
Of course she is rotting, is all I can think. Of course her throat has come apart and her skin is falling off. I repeat this thought out loud, head shaking, overwhelmed by how absurdly obvious it is that alcohol is poison. "She drank ethanol, mom. She drank what we fuel cars with." I imagine Beth at a Shell station putting a gas nozzle to her mouth for forty years.
My mom considers my words.
"It's not the same ethanol, is it? Don't we drink something different??"
In the 1950's, before we understood the dangers of smoking tobacco and nicotine, it was not uncommon for a medical doctor to appear in a cigarette advertisement (no actual doctor - depictions of them). The advertisements assured the public smoking was safe. It's okay. It's safe! Doctor's do it!!!!
I grew up in the 1980s. I was taught from a very young age the inherent dangers of smoking tobacco, and my sister and I took turns pressuring my father to quit. Heather resorted to breaking the physical cigarettes, and I brought home literature. When we both started smoking cigarettes in our teens, we knew what we were doing. Cigarettes killed people. End of story. No amount of smoking was safe, and people like Debbie from the PSA ads reminded us of what could happen. To this day, I can't think of smoking without thinking of holes in necks, and I don't think I have ever had a cigarette without thinking about toxicity.
When I look at those advertisements from the 50's, those pictures of old white men with silver hair smoking a Camel, serving as a reassurance to the public that smoking is okay, knowing all we know now I always wonder: How were we ever so stupid? How did we ever buy that lie?
I grew up believing that drinking was normal. There was nothing wrong with getting drunk or nursing hangovers. We are supposed to be able to handle it and incorporate into our lifestyles. We were even told that if we drank moderately, alcohol would do wonderful things for us - red wine has all those anti-oxidants. We are supposed to be able to consume alcohol moderately, with ease, as part of a healthy and balanced lifestyle. If we can't do this, there is something wrong with us and not the substance itself.
It is so normalized, and so unquestioned, that we have essentially drawn a line down the center of a page and put people on one side or the other. There are normal drinkers. And there are alcoholics. For the normal drinkers, alcohol is healthy! And good! And in the words of Cheryl Strayed on her most recent podcast "Wonderful and joyous!!". For the alcoholics, alcohol is bad!
I bought this. I bought into this completely. Until I started shitting blood from it. Until my life came undone, and at age 33 I looked like a 53-year-old woman. Until I started to research and question. Until I realized that oh my fucking God, it's actually poison. We're all drinking poison.
"Ethanol, also commonly called alcohol, ethyl alcohol, and drinking alcohol, is the principal type of alcohol found in alcoholic beverages, produced by the fermentation of sugars by yeasts. It is a neurotoxic, psychoactive drug, and one of the oldest recreational drugs.
"Ethanol is a volatile, flammable, colorless liquid with a slight chemical odor. It is used as an antiseptic, a solvent, in medical wipes and anti-bacterial formulas because it kills organisms by denaturing their proteins. Ethanol is an important industrial ingredient. Ethanol is a good general purpose solvent, and is found in paints, tinctures, markers, and personal care products such as perfumes and deodorants. The largest single use of ethanol is as an engine fuel and fuel additive."
In other words, we drink - for fun - the same thing we use to make rocket fuel, house paint, antiseptic, solvent, perfumes, deodorants, and to denature (kill) living organisms.
Which might make sense on some level, if we weren't a generation of green-minded, organic, health-conscious, truth-seeking individuals.
But we are.
We are label readers. We shun gluten, sugar, dairy, processed foods and refined sugars. We buy organic. We use natural sunscreens and beauty care items. We worry about fluoride in our water, smog in our air, hydrogenated oils, and debate whether plastic bottles are safe to drink from. We replace toxic cleaning products with Miss Meyers and the oh-so ineffective Seventh Generation. We yoga, we run, we SoulCycle and Fitbit, we go Paleo, we juice, we cleanse. We are hyper vigilant about everything we put into our body, everything we do to our body. And we are proud of this. We Instagram how proud we are of this.
We have Whole Food hubris.
And we drink grape-flavored gasoline.
Recently, Laura was talking about The Big Short, the movie about the housing market crash. She mentions that her take away from it was how so few people saw something that the rest of society was blind to, how these few people bet against the housing market, against history and institution and popular belief - and won. A handful of people saw something everyone else could not see because everyone else was comfortable in the majority, comfortable in the safety of ignorance. She told me this because that is how she feels about alcohol, which is how I feel about alcohol.
How can we think that drinking rocket fuel served in a fancy glass is anything other than rocket fuel served in a fancy glass?
How can we all be so stupid?