America is besotted with pop culture, and we loves us some dish about the chemical failings of a vaunted few. I hadn’t thought about Kris Kross since their backwards-dressing hip-hop heyday, but it caught my eye last week when I saw that half of the duo, Chris Kelly, had succumbed to what was probably an overdose at the age of 34. There were other headlines worth examining, but I had to check out the video of a woozy Reese Witherspoon boisterously declaring her citizenship to the Georgia constabulary before getting fitted for a pair of handcuffs.
Though the nation declared war on drugs in 1971, it signed an armistice with alcohol in 1933. The end of the 14-year constitutional initiative to prohibit the manufacture and sale of ethanol was widely seen as a triumph for individual liberty, but for at least 12 million Americans addicted to that substance today, there isn’t much liberty to speak of.
Alcoholism is a dependency syndrome as old as the republic. Referred to in colonial writings as the “water of life,” and a good deal purer than some of the potable water early settlers had access to, alcohol was an integral part of daily life in early America. With estimates, quoted in Drinking in America, that the average American over 15 years old in the 1790s was quaffing around 34 gallons of beer and cider and six gallons of spirits yearly, it appears there was little concern with alcoholism, perhaps because everyone was sloshed to some degree or other.
Voices of temperance were raised loudly a couple of decades before the Civil War, and in 1851, Portland, Maine was the first site of a prohibition law, moving civic discourse from cutting back booze to cutting it out altogether. The war was no help to this discourse, since soldiers on both sides used alcohol abundantly, not only for recreation but also for painkilling.
With many cities acquiring districts inhabited predominately by alcohol abusers — Seattle’s “Skid Row” and New York’s Bowery, for example — postwar reformers set about to make the nation quit drinking. (A Dr. Leslie Keeley claimed to have found a chemical antidote to alcoholism in 1880, but “taking the cure” proved not to be wholly successful.) Thanks to proselytizing by groups such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, local statutes of prohibition were in force across one third of the country at the turn of the 20th century, well before the 18th Amendment turned America dry in 1918.
People did not quit drinking, and a rise in crime related to the black market in alcohol contributed to Prohibition’s ultimate repeal. The American Medical Association asserted in 1956 what many had suspected for years, that alcoholism is actually a disease. Nevertheless, as recently as 1988, the Veterans Administration was enabled by the Supreme Court to withhold benefits from alcoholic service personnel because it deemed habitual drinking the result of “willful misconduct.”
Ever wonder why there is no national crusade to cure alcoholism, the way we strive to cure cancer, heart disease or even cystic fibrosis? I have a feeling it has to do with corporations making billions of dollars from the sale of ethanol. As long as the disease theory of alcoholism can be de-emphasized in favor of a weakness-of-character theory, brewers and distillers can continue to enjoy minimal restrictions of their output.
I mention all this chiefly because I have spent some time lately with a gentleman in the grip of the disorder and I wonder how he’s ever to escape. He’s a good guy. He loves his family and his friends, classic rock and college football. He just loves Jack Daniel’s a little bit more.
It is not a rapturous romance. He seems to take no special pleasure from his tippling or its effect on his psyche. I am reminded of occasions in my youth, when my father, who was a medical adviser to several abuse centers in Birmingham, sat in on therapy sessions held upstairs from his office in the Terrace Court building. From his waiting room, I’d watch men — many of whom were likely traumatized in some way by World War II only a few years before — take the creaky elevator up, and never once did I see a smile cracked.
The gentleman of whom I speak has folks trying to look out for him. Straight out of the oeuvre of basic cable, he was the surprise guest at an intervention thrown in his honor awhile back. The scenario played out as it ought: there were emotional statements of concern and support from family and friends, portents of what might result if he did not accede to an institutional remedy and, at last, he accepted the recommendations and was whisked away to a verdant locale for the difficult work of quitting alcohol.
He engaged himself in the process affirmatively. He read the books, he did the exercises, he engaged in the therapies, he worked the steps. Then, some weeks later, at a halfway house at which he was readying himself to rejoin society, he stepped away from the regimen and rejoined Tennessee whiskey. They’ve been together ever since.
I hope they’ll quit each other at some point. I hear that can happen in real life.
Meanwhile, Lindsay Lohan and her wardrobe have opted for a rehab site on the West Coast, because the one on the East Coast wouldn’t let her smoke. “I think there are other things I could do instead of going to a rehab center that would benefit me more,” she told an interviewer from the Daily Mail. “The best thing they could do for me would be to make me go abroad to different countries and work with children.”
Mmkay. So when you read one day that Lindsay Lohan has been sentenced to become a nanny overseas, you will know that we are making genuine progress.