Then I started drinking beer and discovered that the main draw of Miller Lite was, for me, the same as any beer — it got me wasted.
I first developed a problem with alcohol when I was 16 and received a DUI. It’s a problem that I’ve had to live with ever since. I’ve had long, happy periods of sobriety and I’ve had long, gut-wrenching stretches when I’ve been a textbook alcoholic.
My first effort to get sober was right after high school. I stayed clean for many years with a mix of therapy and, at first, Alcoholics Anonymous.
I would soon realize that the 12-step program didn’t work for me. But I was fascinated by it. My lifelong obsession with psychology kept me intrigued with the stories from fellow drunks at these meetings. One of my issues with AA was its absolutism — you are made to believe this is the only way to quit. But I was also young and just could not relate to these mild-to-wild tales of triumph and failure.
I’d always come back to one specific story as being partially representative of why I thought I’d never “get” AA. Once, a man began to go on and on about the huge temptations he faced daily by witnessing beer advertisements. Billboards, mostly — the poor guy couldn’t leave his home without these product pitches sending him to the brink of drink.
I didn’t get it. “Goddamn billboards!?” I’d scoff.
I’ve grown to feel horrible in recent years for dismissing the man’s issues. I just didn’t understand how seeing a Budweiser sign could trigger one’s instinct to dive back into the bottle. But through my recent struggles to re-recover (I’ve fallen off the wagon more times than a one-legged, especially clumsy frontiersman), I finally got it.
Being bombarded by advertisements for beer since childhood made me immune to them.
I’ll gawk at the attractive people in swimsuits or giggle at the stupid jokes in beer commercials, but it’s never led me to the corner store for a six pack.
My newfound empathy has come from different kinds of alcohol and different kinds of ads that didn’t exist for 90 percent of my life.
I’d long assumed that TV commercials for hard alcohol were like cigarette commercials, which were banned by Congress in 1971. But during my most recent fall from grace/climb back to the top of sobriety mountain, I began to see more of these enticing new “distilled spirits” advertisements. Turns out, television had simply agreed to not air these types of ads for decades. But responsibility like that is unimaginable in our age of “bottom-line or die” corporate economics. And now that the floodgates are open, booze ads are seemingly everywhere.
Once the self-imposed “ban” was gone, spirits makers slowly (perhaps to avoid public outcry) introduced TV advertising, placing commercials on local stations, then cable networks. The gradual expansion reached the major networks, in full force, in just the past few years.
During the initial surge of ads, I had fallen back into my old ways and, unsurprisingly, found myself in fairly dire circumstances again. About 16 months ago, I quit for good, but my other bad habit (television) keeps teasing and tempting me.
I’d always been a “beer and shots” drunk, but during my last “binge,” I developed a taste for the hard stuff. My drug of choice went from Heineken and shots to pint glasses full of Grey Goose and Jameson whiskey. While attempting to stay clean, I started to notice more and more hard liquor ads and discovered my “immunity” was not applicable to commercials for fancy vodka or delicious whiskey.
I felt targeted, in a way, like liquor companies had specifically chosen now — just as I was cleaning up hopefully for the last time — to unveil their flashy advertising campaigns for Jameson and cotton freakin’ candy vodka.
I’ve simply added those ads to my other “triggers” — anger, depression, anxiety, boredom — as things I need to pay attention to vigilantly. Still, it’s an oddly unlucky coincidence for me that what Ad Age and others have called a “stampede” of hard liquor ads began simultaneously with my (hopefully final) quest for sobriety.
It now seems bizarre to me that something as addictive and potentially destructive as alcohol is pushed so hard on the public. But, on the surface at least, those advertisements aren’t aimed at me or other drunkards. After all, most of the commercials insist you “drink responsibly.” Still, in the name of profit, we drunks are stuck in the middle. All we can do is try to overcome it, along with all the other societal lures.
To that guy who couldn’t resist grabbing a sixer on his way home from work because a billboard told him to “head for the mountains” — I apologize. I was wrong to judge. But it does bring up a question for AA — not everyone deals with and experiences addiction the same way, so why should there only be one way to “cure” it?
CONTACT MIKE BREEN: firstname.lastname@example.org or @CityBeatMusic