A 39-year-old actor named Nelsan Ellis died from alcohol withdrawal today. While the opiate crisis continues to be sensationalized, debated and discussed, nearly 90,000 people quietly die from alcohol-related causes every year in the U.S.
But because booze is apparently the only thing that allows anyone to speak to each other, we'll never fully address the havoc that it wreaks on our bodies, our relationships and our country. Because it's more normal to need to fuel yourself with a literal poison in order to step foot on a dance floor than it is to ever admit that your body doesn't handle that poison so well, we will continue to quietly condone the death and suffering of the addict and alcoholic as something earned or deserved: "He should've just stuck to beer and wine; Why don't you try stopping after two?," we'll say. So long as we can maintain the myth that addicts are people in alleys who shoot hard drugs with needles and not ones who have two bottles of wine for dinner, we'll be able to go on ignoring the fact that alcohol is linked to an increased occurrence and severity of domestic violence or that 40 percent of all violent crimes are fueled by booze.
I surely didn't care about any of that when I was drinking. My maternal grandfather died because of alcohol withdrawal symptoms. He began seizing while he was behind the wheel and crashed his car. I never got a chance to meet him. When I was 15, I drank so much vodka that I nearly killed myself — I woke up the next morning strapped to a hospital bed with a freshly pumped stomach and no idea of what had happened the night before. My father watched his aunt drink herself to death, alone in her fancy apartment. None of these horror stories convinced me to give up my drinking. For so long, living sober seemed like the absolute worst option for life. I would've rather died a drunk then have had to live without booze.
Recently, a friend was talking to me about someone close to her and how nasty he can be when he drinks. I asked if she thought he might have a problem and her reply was: "No! He's not an alcoholic. He just gets full of rage when he drinks."
When we've become so desperate to cling to booze that "rageful drinking" isn't a good enough reason to evaluate your consumption, something is wrong. It's time we encouraged people to get help before they're at death's door. If you don't like who you are when you drink, it's ok to try to stop. It's ok to try to stop a million times. It took me about a million and one. It's ok to relapse — treatment is not a magical cure and recovery doesn't always come in one fell swoop. If you're drinking and you want to stop someday but not today, that's ok. If your drinking makes you sick, but you still can't stop, it is not your fault and you certainly don't deserve it. If you're sober just for today, you don't need to offer anyone an explanation as to why you aren't drinking. There is nothing wrong with not drinking. We need to all stop talking about alcoholism (and the subsequent sobriety) as though it were a death sentence. There's nothing shameful about not being able to tolerate liquid poison very well. Fuck, most of us can't even tolerate gluten these days.
About six months after I got sober, someone very close to me began the fight of her life — in and out of hospitals, going to rehab, detoxing and relapsing, coming close to liver failure and death. She did this for about a year. Somehow, she hung on and today is a vibrant, sober woman who inspires me daily. I hate to think that the world would have missed out on having her if she hadn't gotten the help she needed, when she needed it. If we're going to continue to push a booze-fueled existence as the default option for life, we have to offer better help for those of us that can't hang. We can't keep killing ourselves.