This post was originally published on October 28, 2016.
“Last call” means something completely different to men than it does to women, according to a recent New York Daily News story on drinking habits. While statistics about men and booze remain as sobering as ever (70% of the people who die alcohol-related deaths are men, the article reports), research data doesn’t show men turning away from the bottle as a result. In fact, in many cases, the social pressures for men to drink alcohol are hard-wired into social interactions. “Many stereotypical male social activities revolve around alcohol: watching the game, playing a round of golf or spending a night out at the bars,” the article observed. “Men rarely meet up with friends to go shopping and grab lunch or to get manicures and coffee.” Still, men’s dangerous relationship with alcohol reveals a great deal about masculinity, peer pressure and why men simply can’t “just say no” to alcohol.
Are Real Men Supposed to Drink?
By almost any measure and in almost every society, men are expected—often encouraged—to drink. It’s not a social norm that affects women in the same way. While my female friends can be depended upon to post vacation cocktails on Instagram or Facebook or about their much-deserved glass of wine at the end of the day, it’s almost cute in comparison to the destructive, joyless drinking men are notoriously capable of. Plain and simple: drinking is different for men. (Hell, I once felt like less of a man early in my sobriety, as if I was abandoning some fundamental part of my masculinity.) As the Daily News article notes, “In some European cultures, not drinking is seen as an insult to the host and fellow men, which make not drinking simply not an option in social settings.” Truth be told, I used to use this as an excuse to keep drinking. I told myself that I didn’t want to offend anyone—like I was surrounding myself with easily-offended European dinner hosts, or something. While that was never really true, it’s still a stomach-turning realization for a newly sober man to come to—that “men who decide to drink less are subtly ridiculed and can be ostracized from their social groups.”
The fact that “men can’t turn down just one more drink for fear they will be seen as weak or not ‘one of the guys’” resonates on countless levels with me. I would’ve given anything to be the guy who could just have one drink and be done with it. Unfortunately, that’s not how I’m programmed. I was so “all-in” with my drinking that I had to be equally “all-in” with my sobriety. There were no middle gears. Unfortunately, that’s not the case for many men. As the Daily News story says, “Men carry on drinking, and pressuring each other to drink ever more…[and]hangovers come with bragging rights and are worn as a badge of courage, proving strength through tolerance and bravery by risking health and wellness in the name of ‘living on the edge’ and ‘having a good time.’” For men, drinking is at once a responsibility and an identity—both of which oftentimes shackle them to a life they neither want nor deserve.
“Permission Not to Drink”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that roughly 88,000 people (62,000 men and 26,000 women) die every year from alcohol-related deaths, “making alcohol the fourth leading preventable cause of death in the United States.” It’s an eye-opening figure that says as much about the alcoholic gulf between men and women as it does the fact that men continue to drink in the face of very clear evidence why they shouldn’t. Interestingly, as the Daily News article reports: “Privately, many men often report they are unhappy with how much they drink, and wish they were able to drink less. Drinking even affects body image, with ‘beer bellies’ being a top complaint men have about their physical appearance.”
The Daily News piece doesn’t stop there, either. It reports that “of the 17 million adults in the US who suffer from alcohol use disorder, 66% or 11.2 million of them are men,” which echoes the prevailing thought that men are twice as likely to abuse alcohol than women. The consequences are little harder for men to swallow, too: suicide, the article, says, is 120 times more likely in adult alcoholics,” with men “representing 78% of all suicides.” That means men “take their own lives at nearly four times the rate of women,” thanks to alcohol. It’s a truly staggering figure, considering that our social norms are feeding the very problem we’re trying to fight. As the article smartly says: “As a society we need to give men permission to be cautious with alcohol and permission not to drink.”
Breaking the Cycle
When it comes to drinking, men may simply be genetically behind the 8-ball. The article says that “studies show that men had significantly greater dopamine release than women despite similar levels of alcohol consumption.” Dopamine, of course, is the chemical that controls the brain’s pleasure and reward centers. In other words, it tells you what feels good. The fact that dopamine is released in greater quantities because of booze “suggests that men’s brains are learning to crave alcohol at a faster rate than women.” And what’s worse, as that craving becomes routine, so too does the pleasure that comes from drinking, “meaning that men who habitually drink may no longer truly enjoy it.” This is also because, for men, dynorphin gets released by the brain. As the article points out, this “naturally occurring painkiller” has also been connected to depression—mainly, because it numbs all pleasure equally. With heavy drinking, “dynorphin levels are so high that even the alcohol ceases to provide the illusion of pleasure.”
To break the cycle of alcoholic addiction, the article argues that society needs to lighten up on the pressures it imposes on men. From expecting men to drink more than they want to, or simply shrugging off all the devastating facts and figures out there, we collectively need to change what we’re willing to accept, the Daily News says. It’s not as simple as flipping off a switch when it comes to men, society and alcoholism. If nothing else, maybe it’s actually harder for men to stop drinking than women. Given all the headwinds and hurdles men face when it comes to alcohol, both internal and external, it’s potentially more meaningful when men find sobriety. While men may be powerless over “last call” in a bar—those precious, desperate seconds before they’re cut off and cast back to reality—they should realize they’re simply powerless over alcohol and all the ways that society continues to push them toward a literal “last call” in life.