The dangers of excessive drinking

Friends of mine often have asked why, other than an occasional glass of wine, I do not drink. Some may even believe that I would be uncomfortable in places where alcohol is served; that sentiment would not be the truth.

What is sadly true is how many of my students, friends, and acquaintances describe the trauma of growing up with alcoholic or prescription drug addicted parents, or who have become addicted themselves. Their experiences vary, but the residue on the psyche remains. Some have been fortunate and found counsel in Ala-Alon/Alateen, or with experienced drug and alcohol counselors. As September arrives, and students head off to college, looking at the issue of excessive drinking and the downward spiral some will experience is particularly important.

The household I grew up in was virtually teetotaling. I saw no evening martinis or even the occasional beer and the only time I saw any liquor at all was on Passover. Once a year, my father would bring home a bottle of sticky sweet Concord grape Manischewitz wine. This is not said to be sanctimonious or hold those with other experiences in contempt; I could just as easily have gone the other way entirely and seen drinking as the forbidden fruit.

What factors contribute to a tendency toward excessive drinking? According to “Medical News Today” (June 27, 2006) and many other sources, “Personality and parental alcoholism interact to influence an individual’s risk of becoming an alcoholic.” The “New York Times” has reported: “Young people at highest risk for early drinking are those with a history of abuse, family violence, depression, and stressful life events. Studies are also finding that alcoholism is strongly related to impulsive, excitable, and novelty-seeking behavior.”

Of course, many other circumstances exist including peer pressure, enticing advertisements, and a lack of acknowledgment that alcohol abuse is the number-one drug problem in the United States. Looking back, I distinctly remember having friends and observing those whose family lives entirely revolved around addiction. While in elementary school, several of my friends had parents who abused alcohol. One would come home a blustering drunkard and scream incessantly at his family. I often spent time at their house and just hearing his footsteps brought up feelings of alarm and terror. Her dad never sought counseling or support groups and drank his way to an early death. Even many years after her father died, my friend is still not able to forgive the terror of living in such an unpredictable household.

Another friend’s mother came home from work drunk on a night I was sleeping over. She crept into the bed where I was sleeping and then proceeded to beat me. I could only imagine what my friend had gone through. Working as a teenage actress, I often spent long evenings with actors as they drank into the night in the bar next to the theater. It was a surprise anyone made it home alive. I was dependent on one for a ride to my home in Englewood. We would stay until closing and, dead drunk, he would drive me home. Frozen with fear in those days before seat belts, I would try to steady the conversation.

I also met actors and actresses with histories of alcoholism who hoped to change their lives, but for whatever reason, it never happened. One particularly poignant person was the actress Diana Barrymore, author of a 1950s best seller, “Too Much, Too Soon.” This autobiographical work chronicled the excesses of the brilliantly talented Barrymore family. Diana was, to my young eyes, a wonderful person who was too vulnerable to stick to her resolve not to drink. Her untimely death was tragic.

Then there were the long ago days in my dorm room at the Pasadena Playhouse when, along with fellow thespians, we concocted strong Cuba Libre cocktails. Despite these debaucheries, I cannot truly say I enjoyed them and, in fact, drank simply to fit in. What I wanted to fit in to was another question, and I soon tired of sitting around and losing consciousness of my surroundings.

The party season is about to begin as incoming freshmen unpack their belongings at colleges throughout the country. For this reason, I am sounding a warning bell about the dangers of drinking to excess. Filled with youthful vigor and feelings of omnipotence, many have long awaited the freedom that living away from home will bring. Friends and siblings have brought back stories of all-night binges and nonstop keg parties. Eager to indulge, some forget why they were going to college in the first place. These hapless students soon fall into a pattern of partying all night and sleeping all day. The wake-up call does not come until it is too late. Ultimately, they are sent home to a family shouldering a considerable financial loss, and the student finally realizes the party’s over.

College and drinking is an old story that has grown worse as more students have had access to unlimited cash and credit cards, allowing them to indulge. With the current tightened financial situation, one wonders if some of the drinking will slow down. Perhaps so, or perhaps the intrepid partygoer will just switch to the more deadly and cheaper ethyl alcohol. This pure alcohol is one of the oldest recreational drugs and is a psychoactive constituent with depressant effects on the central nervous system. I admit to swigging the lethal stuff once at a party in California. That is all I remember — the next was the morning-after headache, thirst and the blues.

Drunken drivers kill one person every 39 minutes in the United States. That is more than 13,000 lives lost forever. ( The pain to families of the victims is incalculable. Since beginning to write this article, Kristen-Ann (Kristey) King, 19, was sitting in the back of a car and killed instantly by a drunken driver. (Ironically, she was to begin her freshman year in the nursing program at the University of San Francisco.)

The tabloids are filled with stories of the mother who drove the wrong way on the Taconic State Parkway in Westchester County, killing eight. The dead included her daughter, three cousins and two men in another vehicle. This woman was reportedly high on alcohol and drugs; an open bottle of vodka found in her mini-van.

It has been said hundreds of times and ignored many more that to drink and drive can be tantamount to murder or suicide. It is far better to be cautious than sorry, and if one does drink, take necessary precautions for safety. If you have had one drink too many, or know in your heart that you abuse or may fall prey to alcohol abuse, help is available. Alcoholism and drug addiction does not have to result in a life or death sentence.