[7 minute read]
Are you who people think you are? Are you even who YOU think you are? Or are you playing a role? Maybe acting out a characterisation of someone you want you or others to think you are?
This is my first post on a series about authenticity.
To a younger Antzus (that’s me! The author), drunkenness was largely a caricature – those silly red-nosed men on TV that can’t hold themselves up straight. Tsk tsk Captain Haddock, been drinking again have we? I’m sure my parents and older siblings had their moments, but drunkenness wasn’t something I was so well acquainted with.
Then, I went away to university…
Smoking is relatively unpopular in this country, but the other government-sanctioned drug has an impressive fanbase. Like almost all the other uni students around me, alcohol had found in me a new friend. But it was once of those weird friendships, which your mum disapproves of, and where this friend takes things too far, one too many times, and forces you to re-evaluate your relationship.
Back then I didn’t even know what a pschomology was, but some human behaviours presented themselves clearly enough, that I could make some observations.
#1) Getting drunk changes behaviours.
I’ll start with the obvious, so you at the end you see where we’ve come from. You’ve already made this observation as well. Talking to a drunken Alex is a different experience to talking to sober Alex.
#2) The amount and style of change varies.
This, too, is something you’d have already seen and noted. Not everyone reacts the same way to being drunk. One guy might get really annoying, the other might become really amusing. There is even variation within the individual. E.g. “Oh don’t let me drink rum. I get all aggressive on rum. I’ll just stick to whiskey.”
(Though, technically alcohol is alcohol. It’s the same chemical molecule, with the same effects on your body, whether distilled or brewed, mixed with cola or hops or soda-water. What can affect your behaviour is your expectation of what a particular alcohol (e.g. rum) does to you. The importance of this is explained more below).
#3) Getting drunk is often used as an excuse.
A mate of mine in undergrad, Ronny, became a stand-out example of this. Despite having a girlfriend (“back home” somewhere), he was quite a Cassanova. Whether or not Ronny was drunk for all his romantic escapades I cannot say, but in any case, his response the next day (for nothing could be kept secret very long in college) was always “oh, but I was drunk.” Let’s call this the OBIWD defence.
Ronny’s OBIWD became a bit of a cliché amongst us, but everyone in the college had their own variations (if we combine observations #2 and #3). After drinking, some tended to get angry and punchy, some got adventurous and took to creative vandalism, many become louder and talkative, some just turned plain weird. And of course many became flirtatious and sexually open like Ronny. Challenged the next day by friends — those familiar with their sober versions — their answer? OBIWD.
And the next week, they will do it all again.
#4) People WANT this change.
I don’t think Ronny was ever really interested in his girlfriend. Or at least, not during his college years; I’m not sure what happened to him. But the frequency of OBIWD suggests he wasn’t really disturbed by his dalliances.
If his drunken behaviour truly attacked his core value system, would he not at least take steps to change? Or to follow his OBIWD declaration with some plea for help or understanding? No, Ronny wants this drunken version of himself to come out.
What actually is this alternate personality that comes out under the influence of alcohol? For all appearances, it seemed to me that he willingness of people to transform themselves is an indication of a deep inner desire. Ronny, at least in part, preferred his drunken flirtatious self to his sober monogamous self.
#5) The characteristics that come out when I’m drunk is a display of the sort of person I want to be.
Or at least, an aspect of what one would want to be. Wait what? People want to be “that drunk guy”? Let’s pick on another college mate of mine to see what’s going on here.
Drunken Nathan likes to start silly antics in stolen shopping trolleys. Now, Nathan obviously doesn’t want his whole life to be a series of bruise-inducing antics. But Nathan does wish his life involved more of this reckless silliness. So what’s stopping him? Why does he only try ride trolleys into the air when he’s drunk, not when he’s sober?
There’s a perpetual, unavoidable conflict in Nathan’s life, and it runs deep. People already have an expectation of Nathan — he’s a sensible, level-headed kinda guy. Taking to regular sober trolley stunts will shatter the image people have of him as a man of sensical logic. This in turn brings a risk — that people around him, be they friends, family, colleagues, will change their relationship to him. They might even unfriend him from Facebook. Damn, how can Nathan live our this dream bursting our of his heart, to try against the odds to fly in a steel-wire shopping trolley??? …OBIWD.
#6) These characteristics I desire are always there, even when sober.
Has this ever happened to you? You’re at a party, drinking some potent cocktail. Sure enough, after an hour or so you everyone seems to be more excitable, more daring, more giggly. I guess we’re all tipsy? Only, you find out there next day the fruit punch you were drinking was alcohol-free.
Alcohol is a type of drug called a depressant. It “lowers” us, dampens things down. Our reactions times slow down (making driving dangerous), our minds aren’t quite as sharp, our speech and movements become sloppy (slurred speech; inability to walk in a straight line). It also tends to numb pain to an extent. For someone with a hurting psyche, this can be a dangerous relation. This “dampening” might seem to contradict the feeling some people have of “opening up” after some drinks. This is because a very large, important network of neurons are there just to inhibit other neurons. When a drunk person “lose inhibitions”, that means these neurons are dumbed-down. Your brain is rolling on, but you can only manage to push the throttle in half-way, and brakes also aren’t very responsive.
I used this realisation of #6 to re-evaluate my impressions of college mates (and rivals) around me. I knew that amicable Paddy, who periodically found himself brawling at 3am, harboured an inner anger when he was sober. As charming and chilled-out as he might be during the day, there was a facet in him that wanted, no, needed to lash-out violently. And that facet was always there.
The alcohol doesn’t create any new persona, it merely let’s down the walls so that an existing hidden part of one’s personality may come to the fore. This is an important distinction, because it means what you see as drunken behaviour is actually a small window to an otherwise hidden part of one’s true identity.
The party people of ancient greece knew this too. They have a wonderful little phrase for it – “in vino veritas”; in wine, truth. If you care to take a quick look at the wikipedia entry, you’ll see equivalent phrases in a number of different cultures.
Ok so I’m not so very clever or original in making these 5 points of observation. I’m late to the Bacchic party.
Oh yea thanks Antzus, so now you’re telling me I’m living a lie that comes out in brain damage on Saturdays, that I confess to Sunday morning as OBIWD? Is there any fun left in weekends after reading this article?
I made these #5 observations as a 19 year old undergrad trying to make sense of the world around me. But these observations were reaffirmed over a decade later and after a 6 year sequence of studies in professional psychology. In treating clients with substance abuse behaviours (e.g. alcoholism), it was important to look at what drove this person to drink (or smoke, snort, inject, vape, etc). He wasn’t born that way. And my supervisor pointed out my #5th observation – the sort of characteristics on display when drunk give an important clue as to what it is this person is chasing, or running away from, the DRIVING FORCE that compels him to bring out this drunken personality time and again.
The good news is that your hidden persona that OBIWD covers up for is not a life-sentence. People can, and have, reconciled themselves with this person they want to be (#5). For many, this is a difficult and slow change to make, requiring alterations in many aspects of lifestyle. It is often like taking 3 steps forward, 2 steps back.
Finally, all these passive observations led me a hypothesis which I could apply more actively, by looking into, and at myself. It is something I use as a reality-check on myself, a measuring stick to see if I’m keeping it real, or if I slipped into a role that distances myself from who I truly need to be.
The smaller the difference between my drunken and sober personality, the more authentic and true-to-self I am.
This one article is, of course, in no way a complete program of drug rehabilitation. The intention of this article was to prompt you, Dear Readers, to expand your understanding of yourselves and the world around you, like it did for me many years ago. Perhaps you’re living with someone who seems to consume a bit too heavily. Perhaps you shocked or shamed yourself last time at the bar with the sort of personality that came out on display. Or maybe you haven’t even had a drink in years, but can see a connection between the OBIWD-behaviour and some nagging uneasiness in the back of your mind, holding you back for so long you’ve forgotten it’s there.
What sort of person were you, to have later said “oh, but I was drunk”?