New Orleans: A City of Drunks?
With its spicy mix of French, Spanish, and African heritage, Louisiana’s culture is hard to pin down. However, if cultures are defined by what those cultures love, here in Louisiana, literature, language and architecture all play an important part, as does music, food, and, of course, booze.
Louisiana’s culture is often described as “European,” partially due to the easy way Louisianans mix alcohol with their celebrations. New Orleans’ relaxed “European” attitude to alcohol undeniably adds to its already considerable tourist appeal. During 2014, a study conducted by the University of New Orleans (UNO) showed that the city attracted more than 9.5 million visitors. Collectively, these visitors spent more than $6.8 billion, much of it in New Orleans’ numerous restaurants and bars. And, according to the real estate website Trulia.com, New Orleans has more bars per capita than any other city in America.
For many people, both in Louisiana and farther afield, having a drink is synonymous with having a good time. And who would argue that good times roll even more if you have two drinks? Perhaps even three?
Bar Culture in New Orleans
“There is a real bar culture in New Orleans,” said journalist and author Brian Clarey, who worked as a New Orleans bartender for more than a decade before moving to North Carolina in 2000. “Bars are an integral part of the chemistry of the city. For regulars, the bar is their family structure. Before cell phones, if you were looking for someone in New Orleans, you would call up their bar. ”
Social drinking is an ingrained part of New Orleans’ culture, according to Amanda Walker, Director of Clinical Services at the Council of Alcohol & Drug Abuse for Greater New Orleans (CADA). If so, then exactly where does the line between “social drinker,” “functioning alcoholic,” and full-blown alcoholic fall?
“Alcoholism is a progressive disease,” explained Walker. “At its crux, addiction is something that you continue to do despite negative consequences. Alcohol addiction crosses race, age and all socio-economic lines. Statistically speaking, in New Orleans, I don’t think we have a bigger alcohol addiction problem that other major metropolitan areas - but we do have problems treating it, because drinking is so socially acceptable here.”
The Human Cost and the Causes of Alcoholism
According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCAAD), alcohol is the most commonly used addictive substance in the United States. A 2014 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stated that alcohol is responsible for more than 88,000 deaths in the U.S. each year. According to NCAAD, more than 17.6 million, or one in every 12 adults in the U.S. suffers from alcohol abuse or dependency.
It is difficult to pinpoint specific reasons why some people develop alcoholism, but scientists do agree on common contributing factors, such as genetic predisposition, environment, and mental health issues. Many people are familiar with the typical short-term physical after-effects of consuming too much alcohol – slurred speech, dizziness, vomiting and nausea. However, long-term alcohol abuse causes irreparable damage to major body organs, such as the heart, stomach, and central nervous system. Other common side effects include high blood pressure, sexual problems, and even cancer.
Withdrawal symptoms can be fatal, and alcoholic drinking patterns vary. Some alcoholics get drunk every day, while others alternate binge drinking with periods of “white-knuckled” sobriety. Some so-called “functioning alcoholics” even manage to hold together the semblance of a normal life, despite their heavy drinking habits.
Safe Versus Legal
Yet, according to addiction counselor Martin Thibodeaux, the term “functioning alcoholic” is, in itself, a misnomer.
“Drinking problems start small, but they end up big,” said Thibodeaux. “When people seek help, while they always want the negative consequences to stop, they don’t always want to stop drinking. They want to learn how to drink and still function. People have misconceptions about alcohol. They confuse two words in the English language – safe and legal.”
Because alcohol is both legal and enjoys widespread consumption, said Thibodeaux, nascent alcoholism, at least in its early stages, often escapes the societal condemnation typically associated with the abuse of other addictive substances, such as opiates or amphetamines. Signs of alcohol abuse often start off small: missed days at work; engagement in high-risk behavior such drunk driving or unprotected casual sex, while dismissing warnings from friends or family. Signs of alcohol addiction include being unable to control how much you drink; needing to drink more to get the same effects; or having withdrawal symptoms when not drinking.
In a bohemian city like New Orleans, according to 56-year-old recovering alcoholic Eduardo, alcoholism often hides in plain sight.
Hiding in Plain Sight
“Alcohol is not taboo in New Orleans,” said Eduardo. “We walk around with drinks. We sit on our porches with a beer. I called myself a functioning alcoholic, but my life was actually becoming unmanageable. But I don’t blame New Orleans for that. Alcoholics don’t need an excuse to drink. Good times or bad times, alcoholics drink.”
As Eduardo’s dependency on alcohol increased, he increasingly went to greater lengths to hide that dependency from his partner and his friends, resorting to concealing multiple bottles of vodka in his home, and either “front-loading” on alcohol before going out socially, or refusing social invitations to places where the extent of his drinking might be noticed.
“At the time, I couldn’t even think about living without alcohol,” Eduardo. “I planned my whole day around drinking. Even though I was a prisoner to the alcohol, I didn’t want to seek treatment.”
It was only when Eduardo was arrested twice on the same day for driving while intoxicated (DWI), that he finally sought help at New Orleans’ Bridge House. He had, he said, run out of options.
Eduardo has been a member of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) since 2013. More than 300 AA meetings take place every week in Greater New Orleans Metropolitan area. If you count those in New Orleans’ surrounding cities, that number jumps to more than 600.
“I didn’t understand what AA was,” said Eduardo. “But it taught me about denial, fear, and acceptance. I’d painted a rosy picture of myself as a happy guy, always partying and smiling. But AA helped me to finally admit that I had no control over alcohol, I was full of resentment and anger, and I drank to escape my fears.”
As of July 2015, Eduardo has been sober for almost 16 months. He attends AA meetings daily and volunteers on AA’s 24-HR Hotline. Helping other alcoholics, he says, helps him “stay connected,” and remain emotionally strong enough to stay sober.
“People can stay sober for 10 or 20 years, but the moment that we think that we have it nipped in the bud - that we have control over our drinking - that is when we relapse,” said Eduardo. “I’ve asked members, when you relapsed were you connected? Were you talking to other alcoholics? Were you going to meetings? Were you talking to your sponsor? The answer is usually no.”
Creating a support system is essential for recovering addicts, according to Amanda Walker. The Council of Alcohol & Drug Abuse for Greater New Orleans offers in-depth substance abuse assessments, referrals, and education programs that teach both adults and children about the physical and mental risks of alcohol and drug abuse.
“If you have diabetes, you can’t just take insulin for a couple of weeks, and then you are done,” Walker explained. “The people who stay in recovery have to make lifestyle changes. To help them, we have to be open and honest about addiction, and stop stigmatizing it.”
As well as education programs, Martin Thibodeaux would also like to see increased access to both treatment facilities, and programs.
“If somebody has a serious problem, and there is no outlet for them to get help, that problem gets worse - not just for them, but for society as a whole,” said Thibodeaux. “But people need something coming in the door - they need to be honest with themselves, take a good hard look at their lives, and be willing to make changes. And sometimes, that is the hardest thing to do.”
Brian Clarey took his last drink in 2011, the same year that his first book, The Anxious Hipster, and Other Barflies I’ve Known, was published. He is now editor-in-chief of Greensboro’s weekly alternative newspaper, Triad City Beat.
“My bartending in New Orleans is huge part of who I am,” said Clarey. “And I carry New Orleans with me wherever I go – not least because it gave me enough writing material for the rest of my life. I love the city. But the risk-reward formula of drinking changed for me, because it can be a toxic lifestyle – with the emotional problems, and all the other internal and external problems that come with drinking every day. The nature of alcoholism is that it retards growth; it keeps you in the one place. I thought I had more to offer.”
*Names have been changed to preserve anonymity.
More information about CADA is available at http://www.cadagno.org
More Information about AA New Orleans is available at http://www.aaneworleans.org