May 31, 2015
Then the Drink Takes You
"First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you." -- F. Scott Fitzgerald*
An acquaintance of mine is (probably**) in the early stages of dementia. Though he's getting assistance from his family, he's not getting much sympathy. I figure that's because the family is of the consensus that he rotted his own brain with decades of drinking.
So now, even though I'm told he's got years until he turns 70, I've seen him not be able to remember his own name or what year it is. He no longer understands how to write checks (all his bills had to be put on automatic payment). He no longer understands how to use a calendar. (I'm not talking a fancy electronic calendar; I mean the paper kind that hangs on the wall with one month per page.) When his medication was placed for him into a weekly pill dispenser with yellow boxes for the day pills and dark blue boxes for night pills, he had tremendous difficulty grasping the concept. Sometimes he even has to have help working his TV remote.
He'd been a drinker for most of his adult life. According to his family, he'd show up to work with alcohol on his breath. His drinking was a factor in destroying his marriages and why he doesn't have much of a relationship with his children. (Because raising children is a lot more than sending child support checks. You have to involve yourself in your children's lives to be a part of their life, and he was involved with beer, a lot of beer.) His family knew not to call him after about three in the afternoon because he'd be drunk. And though, on his own, he stopped drinking cold turkey a few years ago, it was too late. The damage was done --- both to his relationships and to himself.
So now, though there's no history of dementia in the family, there are times he doesn't have the mental capacity of a six year old. Because a six year old knows their own name and a six year old can certainly use the TV remote. There are times when he has the same intractable stubbornness of a toddler ------ the kind of stubbornness that can't be reasoned with because they don't have the capability of understanding reason.
And the thing is, he's otherwise pretty healthy. Unless his abused liver starts causing a problem, he's likely to live --- as a burden to everyone around him --- for another 15 or 20 years. At the rate his mind is losing its ability to function, those are going to be long, rough years. I expect he's going to end up in diapers and a wheelchair drooling himself which is a terrible fate.
When F. Scott Fitzgerald said, "First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you," he was referring to how a bout of drunkenness happens. But there's a deeper truth to the statement because, in the end, the drink takes you, your body, your mind...............the drink takes the person that you are and leaves very little of you.
In a previous piece (Double Identity -- Distinguishing Actors and Their Roles), I wrote about the actor Jan-Michael Vincent who was the first actor I remember having a crush on. (I was seven years old.) According to the legendary actor Ernest Borgnine who co-starred with him in the TV show "Airwolf," Jan-Michael Vincent had a remarkable memory. I'd called it photographic. He had the ability to look once at a page of script and have it memorized. It was a natural ability, not something he had learned to do. He designed and built several of his own houses and that also takes brains. But decades of extremely heavy drinking (so heavy Vincent became unemployable even by Hollywood's forgiving standards) had its impact on that brain. In this 2007 "Insider" interview, Vincent couldn't even remember being in a very serious car accident (while driving drunk, of course). And in this Daily Mail article from last November, you can see what decades of abusing his body has done to the man who was Brad Pitt before there was a Brad Pitt. Vague, barely coherent, his speech hardly understandable, his once magnificent body now a total wreck. He's also completely lost contact with his only child, but children have a way of noticing when your primary relationship is with the bottle, not them. Now, unlike my acquaintance, I don't think that Jan-Michael Vincent has another 15 to 20 years to live. Frankly, with the extreme way he misused his body, Vincent's lucky he made it this far. But however many years he has left, it's all downhill.
When it comes to smoking, no smoker in the U.S. can claim they're ignorant as to health effects of smoking. Warning labels on cigarettes are as old as I am. There have been very visible campaigns against smoking. Though plenty of smokers end up regretting it when the health effects they've known about do catch up to them, people still smoke. They do it every day knowing the effects.
The thing about the health effects of alcohol abuse is that, though it's known, it's not widely publicized. Unlike with smoking, there are no PSAs about the health effects of long-term drinking. Starting In 1988, the United States did require warning labels on alcohol saying, "(1) According to the Surgeon General, women should not drink alcoholic beverages during pregnancy because of the risk of birth defects. (2) Consumption of alcoholic beverages impairs your ability to drive a car or operate machinery, and may cause health problems." ("And may cause health problems" strikes me as being a pretty mild warning.) Though there has been plenty of publicity about not drinking and driving, there has not been the same level of publicity about what heavy drinking does to the body even though, according to the CDC, excessive alcohol usage is the third leading cause of preventable death in the United States.
So do drinkers, like smokers, do it to themselves in full knowledge of what they're doing?
Here are the questions (about their alcohol abuse) that I'd like to have asked my acquaintance and Jan-Michael Vincent, for that matter, if either of them still had the mental capacity to answer which they do not. The questions are, "Did you ever think about the impact of what you were doing to yourself? Did you think about how you were rotting your brain until it's not going to be able to function? If someone had asked you how you're going to like it when your drinking eventually turns you into a helpless, drooling guy in diapers and a wheelchair who can't even feed yourself what would your answer have been?"
Now let me make it clear, my attitude is that "Your right to swing your arm ends where the other person's nose begins but feel free to punch yourself in the nose as much as you want....................No matter how effing stupid I think that is." I believe 100% in the right of people to do stuff I think is moronically stupid to themselves, I just wonder how much thought they give to it being moronically stupid.
* Although Fitzgerald commonly gets the credit for that saying, Fitzgerald was paraphrasing an 1886 poem by Edward R. Sill which which in turn was based on an old Japanese adage. Click here for details.
** I said "(probably) in the early stages of dementia" because he hasn't been diagnosed yet. Other relatives first noticed something was wrong a year ago and spoke to his children. Then his children were told in no uncertain terms about his mental state almost six months ago, but no one's taken him to a neurologist so he can be tested, diagnosed and treatment begun. If you call it karma, I won't argue, but if it is karma, karma's a bitch.
If you're reading this and you're a smoker, you should also read this, "Breathing Is Fundamental."
For much more of my unsolicited opinions, check-out the Archive.