Confessions of a Binge Drinker

If, as the CDC suggests in a new report, binge drinking leads to violence, spread of sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancy, and risky behavior, then why am I doing just fine?


I binge drank. I did it just last week. In fact, I did it about four times in the last month as a recent Center for Disease Control (CDC) Vital Signs report entitled "Binge Drinking: Nationwide Problem, Local Solutions" indicates is common among my kind.

Who are my kind? According to the report, the definition of a binge drinker is someone who drinks more than five drinks in "a short period of time." Other studies considered by the report list it as on "one occasion." Since it's unclear, would you like to know just what my last drinking binge was like?

It began at dinner with a group of friends in a popular restaurant. What followed was a series of wines paired to dishes, including some rather unusual wine selections by our very talented sommelier. I became a bit tipsy but, after nearly four hours, delightful conversation, and an amazing meal, what I felt most was satiated.

I consumed seven drinks in total, or about two per hour. I finished with a Scotch just to cap the night and then took a taxi home where I watched half of an episode of How I Met Your Mother before tip-toeing to bed.

The CDC tells us that binge drinking is a "bigger problem than previously thought," suggesting that it can (and often does) result in risky behavior, leading to violence, suicide, spread of sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancy, car crashes, and alcohol dependence. They also insinuate that binge drinking causes crime. By their measure, binge drinkers rack up over 223 billion dollars annually.

But during my binge drinking session I didn't start a fight. I didn't engage in unprotected sex or infect anyone with a sexually transmitted disease. I didn't worry about becoming dependent on alcohol, crashing my car, or suicide. I didn't engage in crime. I just had a great time and then went to sleep.

Even if the CDC does, I don't think most people would consider my gastronomic evening to be binge drinking. Or, if they do, it's unlikely that they would assign it as problem drinking. (It is, after all, my job.) That's because defining the nature of the occassion is important and is entirely missing from the CDC's report. What about a fishing trip, Super Bowl Sunday, or wedding reception? All of these are common drinking occasions and, if we're to be honest, many of them would exceed the limits of what the CDC defines as binge drinking, even if they don't lead to a sex-fueled crime spree.

To describe drinking solely in terms of statistical correlation to problem behaviors may undermine the complexity of what it means to drink and even to drink a lot. Anthropology may offer a more nuanced view than the CDC's focus on epidemiologic and economic risk factors. If, as the CDC suggests, alcohol causes problem behavior, other cultures should have the same lack of moral inhibition when they drink.

Dwight Heath, perhaps the foremost expert on drinking and culture -- and a professor of anthropology at Brown University -- describes drinking as a bio-pyscho-social experience in his International Handbook on Alcohol and Culture. Heath describes cultures that, despite drinking almost lethal amounts of alcohol, sit peacefully while imbibing, with no instances of violence, crime, or suicide. Many examples of peaceful, safe drinking exist (even within our culture) and show that, while the act of drinking alcohol engenders certain physical effects, our cultural interpretation and psychological state determine what those effects mean.

Anthropologists Craig MacAndrew and Robert B. Edgerton in Drunken Comportment: A Social Explanation, are more to the point:

...[S]ince nowhere is it the case that once one is drunk, anything and everything goes, we submit that it is highly misleading to construe that state of drunkeness as if it were an interval during which all sense of right and wrong has, as it were, gone on holiday.

We, as a culture, set the rules. When they're broken it's not solely the fault of a drink or even five. It's the underlying message accompanying the way that we drink. That's something I believe we can change by recognizing drinking as a meaningful activity and by addressing problem drinking, which involves a more complete assessment, with culturally relevant programs and not with fruitless pleas to "drink less."

The last thing I wish to do is minimize these problems or even suggest that alcohol is without sin, but there's no way to understand the true impact of alcohol within society without understanding how culture shapes its use. If I'm a binge drinker, then so be it. I'm a binge drinker. But this only obscures real problem uses of alcohol since, as a binge drinker, I seem to be doing just fine.

Illustration: Derek Brown.

With Clare Kelley.