Do You Drink Too Much?

A Professor of Psychology Tells Why People Drink – and Offers Advice

By Peter J. Hampton

The moderate drinker avoids getting drunk. He does not seek intoxication. He uses alcoholic beverages because he likes their taste and enjoys their soothing effects. Occasionally he uses them also as a means of allaying irritation and assuaging minor pains. Alcohol is not a necessity for the moderate drinker. It constitutes only a small item in his budget.

More than half of the approximately 40,000,000 users of alcoholic beverages in the United States fall into this category. They can take it or leave it alone, for they have complete control over their drinking. This, more than anything else, distinguishes the moderate from the habitual or intemperate drinker.

The habitual drinker uses alcohol almost every day but in view of his health and tolerance for alcoholic beverages, he does not as a rule develop any alcoholic disease. He indulges in alcohol for the lift he gets from it. Alcohol breaks down his reserve and removes his inhibitions, and thus gives him a chance to work up enthusiasm for social activities and self-expression. Alcohol aids him, also, in covering up any neurotic faults he may have.

A credit manger for a retail store claims that drinking makes him a better social companion and at the same time gives him a feeling of importance. "when drinking," he says "I feel like ’a big shot’ and have no worries."

An inspector of machine parts puts it this way: "Because of my backward and timid nature, especially when I have to meet people, I take a few drinks to bolster me up. I feel as though the only time I can assert myself is when I am half drunk. I honestly believe that my being shy, timid, and having an inferiority complex is the main reason for my drinking."

Unlike many of the 7,000,000 habitual drinkers, this inspector of machine parts knows why he drinks. Knowing, he can help himself.

The neurotic drinker has to overcome his fear of people and things before he can regain control over alcohol. The pleadings and prayers of others have no effect on him. It is only when he shakes off his juvenile thinking and begins to realize that peace, contentment, relaxation and happiness come from within himself, and not from the inside of a beer glass, that he is on his way to recovery from the bondage of liquor.

The remaining 3,000,000 users of alcoholic beverages in the United States, grouped under intemperate drinkers, include the normal excessive drinkers, symptomatic drinkers, stupid drinkers and alcoholic addicts. Recklessness, exuberance and mistaken good fellowship are usually to blame for the overindulgence of excessive drinkers. Many are individuals of high alcoholic tolerance who could stop, but do not merely because there seems to be no reason to do so.

The symptomatic drinkers are those individuals whose excessive drinking is the result of a disturbed mental state. They may suffer from hysteria, neurasthenia, psychasthenia, schizophrenia, paranoia or manic depressive psychosis. Their drinking is only one of the many debilitating symptoms of their psychoneurotic or psy-chotic state.

Here is the story of a retail salesman who may be classified as a symptomatic drinker:

"As nearly as I can remember," the salesman told me, "I began to drink heavily in 1927. My average consumption of liquor per day then was two pints of hard stuff. In 1930, I had my first bout with delirium tremens and was hospitalized. When I got out, I resumed my drinking. During the next few years I was under a doctor’s care three or four times. In 1937 I married, more to escape the family and be able to drink in peace than anything else….

"The courts got tired of seeing me and I was probated and sent to a mental hospital. I stayed for thirty days and then got out on probation. Two months later I was back at the hospital. This time I was placed in the strong ward for incurables where I spent the next thirteen months. Thirty days after I was let out, I was drunk once more. My wife got fed up with me and divorced me.

"My trips to the hospital continued, sometimes for delirium tremens, sometimes for epileptic convulsions. Finally in September, 1943, I joined Alcoholics Anonymous. I had my last drink on October 3, 1943, and haven’t had the slightest urge to drink since."

Our friend, of course, is far from saved, even though he has joined Alcoholics Anonymous and has been sober for more than a year. A psychiatric examination shows that he has the symptomatology of paranoia, psychasthenia and schizophrenia, and, by his own admission, he has had epileptic convulsions. His drinking is therefore symptomatic and not causative, and unless the cause of his psychotic tendencies can be removed or ameliorated, he will at some future time relapse into inebriety.

Stupid drinkers are the feeble-minded individuals who drink because they cannot resist temptation and because they cannot rise to any higher form or recreation than the passive one of intoxication. These are the unfortunate individuals who, because of their low intelligence, cannot foresee the consequences of their actions.

Finally, the alcoholic addict is a person with an uncontrollable craving for alcohol. The outstanding criterion is the inability to break with the habit. Alcohol serves the purpose of creating an artificial social and personal adjustment.

A woman inspector at a watch-case factory tells this story: "At the time I started to be a heavy drinker, I had become very discouraged, not having a husband and a home of my own in which to rear my daughter. All the men I came in contact with were heavy drinkers and I drank with them. I thought at the time most men liked a woman who drank with them. I drank because my marriage had been a failure."

A bond dealer adds: "It was difficult to live with myself. I was not an upstanding citizen. I could not understand myself. I drank because of the threat of divorce and because I was losing custody of my baby son."

From a social point of view, only the 3,000,000 intemperate drinkers constitute a serious problem to society. The symptomatic drinkers and the stupid drinkers, when detected, are as a rule hospitalized in state institutions, with the result that society manages to keep them harmless. The normal excessive drinkers, although troublesome at times, usually contain themselves sufficiently to avoid being public hazards. The most pernicious and the most dangerous of intemperate drinkers are the alcoholic addicts.

Unable to control their drinking, they will go to almost any length to satisfy their craving for liquor. Although many of these people are likable and intelligent, they often become dangerous to themselves and to others. Their main difficulty lies in their absence of deep emotional responses, their inability to profit from experience, and their disregard of social mores. Between alcoholic sprees, they behave like perfectly normal people.

The inability of alcoholic addicts to profit from experience makes them especially liable to asocial and antisocial deeds. The following excerpts, taken from autobiographical sketches of alcoholic addicts in my files, illustrate the point.

A district manager for a business concern writes: "When I was in high school, I worked afternoons and Saturdays at a shoe store for $7 per week. Finding that having money in my pocket all the time added to my popularity, I soon began a system of petty thievery at the store."

A woman running a rooming house writes: "I gradually came to the point where drink was the first thing in my mind. I would lie, steal and deceive to get it. I became a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I treated my mother awful while under the influence of liquor, but would do anything for her when sober. The same thing with my daughter. I even thought of suicide to end the disgrace I was causing my mother and daughter."

Within the last ten years, a group of alcoholic addicts, known as Alcoholics Anonymous, have instituted a program of cure which has led many of these people back to sobriety. In a recent study of the personality structure of alcoholic addicts, I had an opportunity to question several hundred members of Alcoholics Anonymous as to why they became heavy drinkers.

Many of the reasons offered are good reasons, but not necessarily the real ones, for, like most other people, alcoholic addicts are past masters of the art of rationalization. However, the consistency found in the statements reveals a common trend which points to escape as perhaps the most fundamental reason for excessive drinking.

The alcoholic addict may try to escape from himself. Drink makes him gay, lively and happy. He forgets about his emotional immaturity, his feelings of insecurity. He becomes noisy, even boisterous and defiant. He feels like "a big shot" with no worries.

Instead of trying to escape from himself, the alcohol addict may try to escape from other people. He may drink to escape the nagging of his wife, the pettiness of domestic and business relations. Disappointed in his social and financial ambitions, he may drink to escape all social responsibilities. He may become depressed and morose and hides from people.

A manager for a construction company says: "I was unable to secure the financial and social position I desired. I had an adolescent viewpoint-refused to accept things as they were. I tried to find continued escape through alcohol and hide my frustration."

Finally, the alcoholic addict may try to escape from the environment in which he finds himself. He may use alcohol as a means to overcome the fears, worries and anxieties brought on by the real world or as a straight defense mechanism to substitute phantasy for all reality.

An advertising copywriter explains: "I used my first wife’s desertion as an excuse to drink. But I believe it was an effort to escape from all reality. I drank because of boredom, frustration, anger and the weather."

A stenographer says: "I sought to find temporary escape from reality. Mother’s illness, which steadily grew worse until she was finally committed to a mental hospital for senile dementia, made my life drab and miserable. I drank to escape from it all."

These then are the reasons why people drink. There are many ways of finding relief from "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune." Alcohol is one of the worst.

@ Source: Read©, March, 1945

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