Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Imitatio: a drinking habit

I started a mint julep before settling down to this one.

There are very serious problems with the way Mad Men handles Don's drinking.

The big one is that it, like the entire entertainment and literary field, the show has not absorbed the disease theory of addiction. The key point is this: Addiction to alcohol or drugs is a cause and not a symptom. Alcoholics drink because they are addicted to alcohol and not because they have character faults or because they have deep psychological problems or because they have a bad habit of anesthetizing their feelings instead of "dealing with their issues".

You may want to dispute that. You may feel that alcohol abuse is a function of psychological problems or bad ways of dealing with stress. And you can believe that if you want, it's still a free country. But here is the thing: YOU! ARE! WRONG!

You're entitle to your own opinions but not your own facts. And here is what you need to know: every single therapy based on the theory that alcoholism is a symptom of other problems has been a miserable failure. There are no exceptions.

On the other hand, the twelve-step method used by alcoholics anonymous, which is based on the assumption that alcoholism is a disease, has had incredible success. More success than every other method of helping alcoholics live ordered lives put together.

So here is the question: Is Don an alcoholic? If he is, then he needs to go to an AA meeting.

This question has dramatic implications as well. Why? Because whether he is or isn't alcoholic has nothing at all to do with his character or psychology. It's like getting cancer: it's not your fault!

Now it is your fault if you don't do anything about it; it is your fault if you ignore the symptoms.

But that is not the way this show (as well as hundreds of other TV shows, movies and novels) handles alcoholism. It treats Don's drinking problem as if it is a symptom of the way he lives and of the way he handles his problems. And all that is, to use a technical term, bullshit. (Notice the double standard by the way: none of the habitual users of marijuana or LSD have any problems.)

Having a drink at the end of a stressful way is not a bad habit. It will not lead to ruin. It will not cause you to explode like a boiler because you have been ignoring "the root causes" of your stress. In fact men, who are more likely to to do this, tend to have far fewer stress-related diseases than women, who don't tend to handle stress with a drink.

Okay, I hear you say, but Don drinks too much. Yes he does. But how do we explain that? If we put it down to alcoholism then it has no implications at all characterwise.

I think the way out of the problem is to treat it merely as a bad habit. In real life, that is a bad approach because a heavy drinking habit is often, but not always, a sign of alcoholism. But the show can't have it both ways and, since the show has chosen to present Don's heavy drinking as related to his psychology and character, we have to treat it as a bad habit.

Implications for my character J.A.C.? He has to have a bad habit that he has formed through long practice that he needs to overcome. I'm not sure it should be alcohol because, for the reasons stated above, alcohol tends to muddy the issue. I'll have to think about it. (My first inclination is to go with something sexual because, in my experience, the most common bad habit men have is to stick with a woman they are having regular sex with even though she is bad for them and they ought to dump her.)

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