Life can sometimes pile on in ways that seem unfair, particularly when compared to those people better prepared (if only financially) for the vagaries of existence. Most will view a job layoff, the loss of a family member, or being dumped as exceptional and not something to be taken personally. Those more accustomed to misfortune might view such events as evidence of diminishing luck and regress towards a fatalistic outlook. And if you swallow the idea that the exception has become the rule, then a drink, or something like it, can help keep the mind straight as conventional coping mechanisms will become increasingly ineffective under chronic stress. Of course, drinking is a conventional coping mechanism customarily employed by the masses to smooth nerves frayed by a demanding boss, a looming deadline, or a shrinking bank account. Social drinking can also ease communication with prospective love interests or at least cushion the trauma of personal rejection (is there any other kind ?) so it’s not without benefit. However, when pursued over time and ritualistically, (e.g. happy hours, nightly cocktails, weekend benders, tail gating), it can facilitate an incremental nadir involving a special blend of raw misery, legal problems, and self-loathing – which lends credence to the expression:
If you have 100 problems and 1 of them is drinking, then you really have only 1 problem
Alcohol (or an opioid) is no respecter of persons. It exhibits a profound normalizing effect across socioeconomic and racial groups. To wit, there are plenty of well-heeled sloshes who find themselves quivering through withdrawals in a sweat-soaked hospital bed, lying next to a homeless guy as both wonder “how the hell did I wind up next to him ?” At that point, they have more in common than not. My personal view is that addiction is a spiritual tapeworm which intercepts any good that might ordinarily be destined for the better parts of yourself. The addiction flourishes even as you don’t and inversely so. A deteriorating physical state and decline of self esteem will correspond to an increase in cravings.
I’m no Carrie Nation. So, if and to what extent someone drinks or “uses” is really their business until it spills over (no pun intended) onto spouses, children, co-workers, or strangers at which point it does become a larger issue. Morally though, if you wish to supplement, limit, or expand your consciousness then no problem as long as you keep your personal revelations away from me. After all, I did my own brand of experimentation and also worked in a liquor store which involved frequent encounters with urban shamans hawking their drug-and-booze-derived philosophies. Stewart Avenue was mostly a hard drinking section of town though one had easy access to any thing including LSD, the Ayahuasca of its day, which promised deep insight otherwise available only to the Mystics or meditating mountain dwellers. Despite its undeniable entertainment value, it didn’t really “fix” anyone or anything. A friend, and one time prelate of the local LSD scene, offered:
If I’m being honest, the wonderfully intricate answers that were so solid in the trip, would easily disintegrate with the first bit of returning reality. All that insight ran for cover when I sat down in front of that unpaid stack of bills.
Evidently, knowing life’s underlying scared geometry doesn’t help with the tedium of daily living. What a surprise ! The power company doesn’t really care if you just spent 7 hours circling the rings of Saturn while mind melding with The Universal Architect. Just pay your bill there, Dr. Leary, and we’ll turn the lights back on so you can experience some REAL “illumination”.
Geez ! What’s Got You So Worked Up ?
But what started this particular post (rant) ? Ah yes, this 1980 video of Richard Burton being interviewed by Dick Cavett. A friend of mine sent me the link and I recall seeing this interview when it originally aired. Well I think so. I might have been out partying and saw it later in reruns. I always liked Burton and in addition to being a quality actor he possessed a velvety smooth baritone which I emulated in my youth (minus the accent) to unintentional, humorous effect. Anyway, he discusses a number of things though it’s the topic of alcoholism that interests me. Let me be clear that I’m not particularly interested in roasting Richard Burton or entertainers in general though this video so well captures the struggles of substance abuse that it merits discussion. The majority of the video commenters cast him as an unwitting victim, unfairly targeted by alcohol, whereas I see someone in denial who continues to play an active role in his own demise. Being equipped with abundant financial resources and a certain level of fame meant he didn’t have a particular boss to please. Nor was there a looming financial disaster that, for those of fewer means, might motivate a life change. He could, and did, delay his descent even though his persona had already become inextricably linked to alcohol. Unlike Dean Martin, who comically exaggerated his own drinking to good effect, such an approach would not be helpful to Burton who was, after all, an accomplished thespian who generally took on serious and challenging roles.
Accommodations were made for his “situation” which involved accepting work beneath his talents and for less money than he commanded in previous years. Anyone seeing the will know instantly that something went horribly wrong. Merely taking the role raised eyebrows. To be fair, It was a bad movie all around so its failure can not be attributed solely to Burton, but he was supposed to be the ace in the hole to ensure its success. The funny thing was that both Burton and Boorman, (the director with an unfortunate surname), thought separately that each was doing the other a favor. I suppose what really concerns me about the video are his references to maintaining abstinence via “my particular form of self control and, of course, the enormous assistance of my wife” as if either could realistically sustain abstinence in the long run. And was it really her job to monitor his behavior ? I’ve also never met someone, firmly in the alcoholic grip, who could summon enough self-knowledge or will power to effectively control addiction. There are heavy drinkers who are not at all alcoholic who can stop given sufficient motivation. They distinguish themselves from “real” alcoholics by being able to not drink without experiencing the crippling anxiety exhibited by one who has become “pickled” and not only wants the drink but “needs” it.
How Much Is Enough ?
In my experience, Burton was not simply a heavy drinker who accidentally got a bad rap. He wouldn’t cop to being an alcoholic though readily concedes, “I’m right on the edge of being one”, something I’ve heard numerous times from people invested in the idea that a drink remains a reasonable option despite all evidence to the contrary. In this regard, the video can be as harmful as it might be helpful in raising awareness to the problem of addiction. In Burton’s case, what was once a stellar career ended 4 years later at the age of 58 due to complications from alcoholism. Just so you won’t think I’m singling him out, take a look at this video of Oliver Reed and this one of Jack Kerouac both of which serve as evidence of decline hastened by substance abuse. Reed passed away from a heart attack attributed to a drinking bout during a production break from filming The Gladiator. I’m not sure that I ever fully bought into the idea of chemically assisted inspiration though admit that getting out of one’s own head can lead to productivity though in no way guarantees it.
Without giving too much away I will say that I’ve tried such an approach (like it wasn’t already obvious), but found that it offers diminishing returns – and might even present a bill. Your mileage may vary. I recall reading The Pleasures of Opium by Thomas de Quincy and nodding (no pun intended) in agreement with his description of “portable ecstasies” and how “happiness might now be bought for a penny, and carried in a waistcoat pocket.” For the uninitiated, he is talking about opium but substitute in the name of any popular recreational chemical and you get the point. Also, substitute in the word “inspiration” for “happiness” and you will understand why creatives might be loathe to forgo use of something that at one time might have worked for them. The Stewart Avenue Kid © 2019.