Perhaps the most notable thing about the passing of essayist Christopher Hitchens was not that he retained his atheism to the end, but rather that he retained his love of alcohol. His esophageal cancer, which owes its appearance partially to genetic factors, was not aided by a lifetime of pre-noon scotches. But he never apologized for his drinking. He was born, he drank and wrote prodigiously, and then he died. At no point did he waste time with regret. A clean and sober Hitchens may have been humorless, or perhaps he would have reached Einsteinian levels of insight. Ultimately, his drinking was a choice he made that shaped who he was and how he died.
The choice to drink excessively is becoming increasingly controversial, primarily because alcoholism is considered to be a genetically inheritable disease. In the U.K., Prime Minister David Cameron has proposed legislation to outlaw cheap liquor in an attempt to prevent people from drinking themselves to death. But when have economic sanctions ever effectively modified human behavior? (See: Cuba, Syria, Iran.) If seriously motivated boozers can’t get drunk cheaply, they may just start stealing the stuff.
Booze is the outward manifestation of a person’s attitude, a kind of liquid gauge of mental health. People drink for all sorts of reasons: to quell their sorrow, to soften their rage, to bolster their mood, to stiffen their resolve. The appropriate level of consumption for each person shouldn’t be determined solely by health concerns. People drink too much when neither they nor anyone else is enjoying their company. Dedicated alcoholics, the ones who gradually cut off or abuse all of their family, friends, and income opportunities in favor of a full cut-glass tumbler, are drinking too much. Two fictional examples that come to mind: once-gilded Sebastian, from Brideshead Revisited, and Nicholas Cage’s sad-sack suicide boozer from Leaving Las Vegas. Each of these characters uses alcohol to preserve his misery like a rare specimen in formaldehyde.
So when my mother asks during the holidays, “Do you think Aunt Belinda* drinks too much?” I have to say that it’s a complicated question. Yes, there was the incident with the Christmas tree, which resulted in the destruction of several decorative bulbs and the permanent scarring of a house cat. But there is also my Aunt Belinda’s inspired YouTube mixes and her impromptu falsetto impressions, displays which tend to whither under the harsh sun of unmitigated sobriety.
The majority of Belinda’s atrocious accidents, such as inadvertently water-skiing on her skull while being towed by a motorcycle, occurred in her blank-check youth. She talks about the time she was left overnight in a locked elementary school closet by a neglectful janitor after she’s switched from wine to whiskey, and the time she was cavity-searched by the Vietnam-era Canadian border patrol once the whiskey gives way to Sambuca. But these are not tragic tales. Thanks to the booze, Belinda is able to share atrocities like they were bittersweet chocolates. Whether she’s sitting at the dinner table or hanging out on the floor of a crowded warehouse, she’s always surrounded by laughter, a kind of emotional alchemist, transmuting pain into joy via a bottle of Crown Royal. More importantly, she’s always been able to keep a job. She doesn’t drive drunk, operate heavy machinery, or launch off into vicious personal attacks while under the influence.
Make no mistake–alcohol will kill you. Excessive drinking corrodes the liver, dries out the skin, causes blood vessels to burst and impairs mental function. But much like Christopher Hitchens, Belinda is smart enough to realize that while drinking won’t preserve her health, it may preserve her sanity. Being able to drink to excess when she wishes is the way she has chosen to live, and undoubtedly, it will be the way she chooses to die. All I can do is raise my glass to her.
*not her real name