Hard Drinkers, Charles McCabe
From his collection, “The Good Man’s Weakness”, 1974
“As an adult consenting drinking man, I draw the line at calling myself an alcoholic. This is not because I’m afraid of the perjorative connotation of the word, but simply because its meaning has become so frightfully confused.
“From time to time some learned medical gentleman issues dire statements which equate hard drinking with alcoholism. As a drinker, and therefore a person who knows more about the effects of ethyl alcohol than more doctors, I know this is just not so.
“If the word alcoholic is to be used at all, it must have more precision than now attached to it, when cops tell you how drunk you are by giving you a roadside test. Towards a definition of alcoholic, then…
“As I see it, there are three kinds of people who drink too much alcohol: the dipsomaniac, the alcoholic, and the hard drinker. These distinctions are important, if we are to view the drinking proflem in the light of common sense.
“The dipsomaniac is one of God’s true unfortunates, a man as clearly pathological, and almost as much past help, as a man who has lost a leg. The dipso does not drink from the usual impulse of sociability.
“In fact, the dipso hates alcohol, since he knows from experience what it does to him. He is nearly always a periodic drinker. When he takes his first shot, he is off, on a flight of desperate imbibing, vomiting, incontinence, and finally coma. He can only stop drinking when his body wears out.
“We have all known dipsos in our life. They do not care for saloons. Their episodes, which are often paroxysmal in nature, resemble nothing so much as temporary suicide. There is no way the dipso can really be helped, until some lab produces something which can control the cause of his craving.
“Even aversion therapy isn’t much help here, since it is designed for the continual drinker, not the periodic. The worst dipso I ever knew went dry for life the day his wife died. Make of that what you will.
“The alcoholic is something less awful; though by no means good. I would say an alcoholic is a man who can’t function without alcohol–whose personal and working life needs completely the support of spirits. And who finally can’t function with alcohol.
“One way to assure you will never become an alcoholic, in fact, is never to take a drink while you are working. Yet a man who does good work doesn’t have to be ashamed of his habits.
“I never take a drink while working. That isn’t saying very much. Usually my work is finished, the writing part of it anyhow, a couple hours after rising. In that he doesn’t really like booze, the alcoholic is closer to the dipso than the hard drinker. The alcoholic simply must have it.
“The alcoholic can be treated, if he is willing to be brutal with himself. Aversion therapy works, and is quite often permanent.
“The heavy drinker usually doesn’t want to be cured. His habit is stupid, it is expensive financially and emotionally, but it is outside the range of pathology.
“The heavy drinker likes saloons and other places where people drink together. He enjoys drinking, unlike dipsos and alkies. What the hard drinker shares with all users of alcohol is distaste for the reality in which he is immersed, and a wish to blur same.
“Now, if something could only be done about reality…
“Granted that no form of drink is much good for anyone, what advice would you give the young who choose it anyhow, as most of their parents do?
“My advice would be Chesterton’s: “Drink because you are happy, but never because you are miserable.” I’ve not always followed this counsel; but wish I had more often.
“When you’re on a real downer, chop some wood, paint some tables, anything so long as it is a job. Drink when you’re filled with self-pity, and the next thing you’re drinking to get yourself through work. Then, brother, you’re headed for trouble.”