Saw an old acquaintance this morning. My buddies and I were doing our usual 6:00 am run down to Matheson Hammock, chatting about nothing, telling the same jokes we've been regaling one another with for the past several decades. After running around the lagoon--the "pee pool" for those of us who grew up in Miami--we stopped at the water fountain and to watch the sun come up as we have pretty much every Monday morning since the invention of yeast.
There, in a rusting van in the parking lot, was a woman whom I knew tangentially from the neighborhood. We had seen each other occasionally at dinner parties, fundraisers, and events in years past. I remembered her well enough to know that she had been articulate, charming, and easy going. She always had a good story, a crowd of attentive listeners, and a glass of wine in her hand. I knew she had been a strong tennis player and regarded as something of a "catch" when we were growing up.
We had lost touch, not that we had been especially close to begin with. Our kids no longer attended the same pre-school; I hadn't seen her in close to 15 years. I thought I remembered hearing somewhere that she had an issue with alcohol and that her ex-husband had custody of the youngest of their three children, the only one still living at home.
She wasn't looking so good now, drinking beer from cans in a van with an unpleasant looking man, smoking rolled cigarettes. It was clear from 100 yards away that her glass of wine at a fancy dinner party had become several cans of beer before the sun came up. Of course, her road from society mom to high functioning alcoholic to cliche drunk hadn't been as distinct as my photographic images suggest. Her real life had been a movie of incremental slipping and sliding, one grain of sand at a time. However she got there, her current life--drinking beer in the morning in an old car with a fat guy--was unenviable.
Before you say, that decline could never happen to you or to anyone you know, consider the following: this woman is exactly like you--same neighborhood; same education; same hopes, dreams and fears; same number of children; same religion, same books on the bedside table. Alcohol is an "equal opportunity destroyer." She never had the chance to make a distinct choice: "I'll stop drinking at Beer Number 4637 because I will be an actual, card carrying, certifiable alcoholic if I reach Beer Number 4638."
I mentioned this woman my current class of college admissions counseling students. A dozen rising seniors met at my house this morning to write essays. During a study break, I mentioned this woman and her addiction to alcohol. I told them how sad I was to see her is such an unhappy life. My students "pushed back:"
"Everybody drinks; not everybody has a problem with alcohol."
"My family is from France. Every family has a bottle of wine with dinner. There aren't that many alcoholics in my country."
"How do you know she isn't happier now than when she was living in a big house? Maybe her marriage was bad."
"Do you want to bring back prohibition?" (My students are nothing if not well educated.) "It didn't work then and it wouldn't work now."
"We have lost the war on drugs. You can't stop them."
"Are you suggesting that an unmarried couple in their late 20s can't share a bottle of wine over dinner then go home and have consensual sex?" (OK, my students didn't actually say this. But I bet this is what they were thinking.)
I had no response to any of these cogent arguments. My students are right. I don't know the first thing about public policy; I don't know how to stop illegal drugs from coming into the country; I don't know why prohibition didn't work; I don't know how to distinguish who will become a wine connisseur from who will become an unhappy drunk whose life depends on receiving a kidney transplant.
I do know I wouldn't want to trade places with my old friend smoking home made cigarettes in that broken down van drinking beer before the sun comes up.