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Monday, January 10, 2011

In Memory of John Who Drank Himself to Death

An old friend of mine died at the end of 2010. He drank himself to death. What happened to John (I've changed his name) was not that uncommon. He began drinking in high school, drank heavily through college (although he certainly wasn't the only one), through raising a couple of kids and a long marriage. 

But he had it under control evidently, became more and more successful and finally ended up as the executive vice president of a hospital.

The real downward spiral started when he lost his job a year or two ago. The last time I saw him he was overweight probably technically obese, and as I put it then, looked like a heart attack waiting to happen. Yet he was the face of the hospital to the outside world, and who wants a 300 pound plus man with scarlet cheeks and a permanent flush representing you as the voice of we'll make you better. He lost his wife and ended up in an SRO where someone found him a day or two after he died. He was in his mid-fifties.

So why am I telling this story on a science and alcohol blog? Because I had so many friends in high school and college who drank enormous amounts of alcohol. Whose parents were alcoholics. Who followed in their families footsteps without understanding the risks they were taking.

The science of alcoholism is pretty straightforward. You either inherit the genetic predisposition towards alcoholism or you don't. Even if you have that genetic predisposition towards alcohol abuse, it still takes a long time to become an alcoholic. Research shows that those who start drinking before the age of 14 are almost twice as likely to have a problem with alcohol later on as those who don't. That's a pretty powerful reason to wait.

When you drink yourself to death the science is pretty simple too. By your forties or fifties after decades of alcohol abuse your body starts to break itself down, and eventually it just fails. Without a functioning liver your days are numbered. And alcohol abuse destroys it.

John was a fraternity boy and they never seemed to be without an open keg in any of those houses. On your birthday at the local college bar the tradition was everyone bought you a shot and watched you drink it. The drinking age was obviously 18 then.I never had much of a capacity for alcohol, and if I went to that bar on my birthday, always ducked into the bar's bathroom and hid behind the cluster of sorority girls sobbing over their latest break-up. That was a lot better than drinking all those shots.

Colleges around the country have spent a fortune trying to stop binge drinking which a couple decades after I went, is still frequently considered how to have fun on their campuses. I have a friend whose daughter is in London for school where you can legally drink at 18. Her Facebook page is filled with friends inviting her to various local pubs many nights. In this country, it doesn't end up as public as that.

I don't think anyone is naive enough to think they can stop their kids from drinking in college. But you can help them understand that moderation is key. I'm not just talking about through conversation. Your behavior is the model your kids see throughout their childhood. If you have a glass of wine with dinner that's one thing. If you and your spouse kill a bottle each night, your kids are watching. Think about the message they are getting.

Many of the fraternity boys I went to college with ended up with drinking problems. Some of them stopped, some of them didn't. So for John, and his family, and those of us who will miss him, sit down with your kids and tell them this story as a way of introducing a discussion of alcohol. Like I said the science is pretty straightforward - alcohol abuse will kill you. It takes time, so start talking to them, and thinking about your own behavior now.

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