Category Archives: Drugs and Alcohol

Russian Roulette with a Bottle

"Statistically speaking, the odds of roulette run in your favor. About one out of every thirteen Americans has an alcohol problem, so any individual can confidently put a bottle to their head on the expectation that they will be one of the twelve who gets lucky."

“Statistically speaking, the odds of roulette run in your favor. About one out of every thirteen Americans has an alcohol problem, so any individual can confidently put a bottle to their head on the expectation that they will be one of the twelve who gets lucky.”

The True Cost of Drinking
      One gun. One bullet. Spin the chamber. Pass it around. Each person puts the gun to their head and pulls the trigger. One person dies. The others live and call it entertainment. Sound barbaric? Americans play the game on a daily basis, but we don’t use a loaded gun. Instead, we use a loaded bottle, and it is just as lethal.
      Almost any adult can name at least one person they have lost to alcohol. A parent. A sibling. A cousin. An aunt or uncle. A childhood friend. A neighbor down the street. For some, it was drunk driving. For others, it was binge drinking or cirrhosis of the liver. Others never tasted alcohol, but were mowed down by someone who did. Many who lost their lives are not dead. But alcohol cost them their job, their marriage, their family, and their dignity. Some lost their mobility and dreams to a beer-belly and never regained their freedom. Controlled by alcohol, the bottles and cans stack up into great piles for the dumpster, or hang on wires around the garden to scare away the birds. Nearly everyone can think of someone who lost their life to alcohol in some way or another, but strangely that knowledge doesn’t stop people from drinking.
"The odds are less favorable for some people than others. Kids who start drinking before age fifteen have a one in six chance of becoming alcohol dependent. Adult children of alcoholics are most at risk, with approximately one in three becoming alcoholics like their parents."

“The odds are less favorable for some people than others. Kids who start drinking before age fifteen have a one in six chance of becoming alcohol dependent. Adult children of alcoholics are most at risk, with approximately one in three becoming alcoholics like their parents.”

      Statistically speaking, the odds of roulette run in your favor. About one out of every thirteen Americans has an alcohol problem, so any individual can confidently put a bottle to their head on the expectation that they will be one of the twelve who gets lucky. The odds are less favorable for some people than others. Kids who start drinking before age fifteen have a one in six chance of becoming alcohol dependent. Adult children of alcoholics are most at risk, with approximately one in three becoming alcoholics like their parents.
      Statistics vary from source to source, but according to the Council on Alcoholism, about 85,000 Americans die from alcohol-related issues every year, including about 16,000 from drunk driving or drunk drivers. Alcohol is also implicated in about one fourth of all emergency-room admissions, one third of all suicides, more than half of all homicides, and half of all incidents of domestic violence. Alcohol is associated with unplanned and unprotected sex, sexually transmitted diseases, unplanned pregnancies, and abortions. About 1,700 college students are killed in alcohol-related incidents in the U.S. every year, but they are generally considered expendable because they are someone else’s children, not ours. It is part of the cost of roulette. We accept their loss as necessary in order for the rest of us to have a good time.
      That is the reality of Russian roulette. It is a game. It requires winners as well as losers. The odds are pretty good for any one individual. It is only a question of whom we are willing to sacrifice for our entertainment. Point the bottle around the room at friends, family members, and strangers.
"Whom do we consider expendable? A brother? A sister? A niece or nephew? Our own child or someone else’s? We don’t know who the winners and losers will be. We only know that roulette requires participants, and we willingly gamble with other people’s lives every time we reach for the bottle."

“Whom do we consider expendable? A brother? A sister? A niece or nephew? Our own child or someone else’s? We don’t know who the winners and losers will be. We only know that roulette requires participants, and we gamble with other people’s lives every time we reach for the bottle.”

      Alcohol will ruin the life of one out of every thirteen people in the room, whether or not it actually kills them. Whom do we consider expendable? A brother? A sister? A niece or nephew? Our own child or someone else’s? We don’t know who the winners and losers will be. We only know that roulette requires participants, and we willingly gamble with other people’s lives every time we reach for the bottle.
      In the effort to make roulette safer, people are encouraged to “drink responsibly.” Put the bottle to your head. Just don’t get trigger happy, or at least don’t try driving after you’ve blown your brains out. Responsible drinking works great for the winners, not so great for the losers. How many people have been seriously maimed or killed in a drunk driving accident after attending a funeral for someone who died driving drunk? Sadly, it happens all too often.
"Montana has the highest alcohol-related fatality rate in the nation, and our state is the national champion of drunken driving. Teenagers are killed in drunken driving accidents all the time, and nobody cares enough to change their own behavior."

“Montana has the highest alcohol-related fatality rate in the nation, and our state is the national champion of drunken driving. Teenagers are killed in drunken driving accidents all the time, and nobody cares enough to change their own behavior.”

      Drinking alcohol is a mimicked behavior, and participants are recruited early into the game. Give alcohol to a child, and they will likely recoil in disgust the first time they try it. But adults act like alcohol is special, fun, and tastes good. Drinking and partying is glorified in television and movies. Drink it enough times, and a child learns to like it. Some families are so alcohol-oriented that every party and family reunion is a drinking escapade, as if they wouldn’t know how to interact with each other as authentic human beings without alcohol. Children learn that it is necessary to drink in order to have fun, fit in socially, and play the game. In my home state of Montana, drinking is a way of life, indoctrinated early.
On July 14, 2011 Megan turned 20 years old, and only 2 days later on July 16, as she celebrated her birthday with friends by floating the river and drinking, Megan thought she was okay to drive. She crossed the center lane and was hit by on-coming traffic and she died instantly.

On July 14, 2011 Megan turned 20 years old, and only 2 days later on July 16, as she celebrated her birthday with friends by floating the river and drinking, Megan thought she was okay to drive. She crossed the center lane and was hit by on-coming traffic and she died instantly.

      In rural communities, the bar is often the town center. Kids flow in and out of the bar as they grow up. They play pool while the adults drink. But teenagers drink at the bars, too. I stopped by the town bar one lively night this past summer to check out the music and street dancing. My recently graduated son’s eighteen-year-old classmates were also at the bar, drinking beer and totally smashed. The adults knew they were underage. The cops knew it. Nobody cared. As one of the boys said when he went on a camping trip with us, “I’ve never been in the woods when I wasn’t drunk before.” It is a way of life here. Montana has the highest alcohol-related fatality rate in the nation, and our state is the national champion of drunken driving. Teenagers are killed in drunken driving accidents all the time, and nobody cares enough to change their own behavior.
      I was fortunate to grow up in a family where alcohol wasn’t particularly important. It wasn’t celebrated, and it wasn’t a game. Nor was it consumed in sufficient quantity to change anyone in that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde way that is often encouraged by other people. I’ve tried alcohol, but never drank enough when I was younger to acquire a taste for it, and at this point, probably never will. I don’t mind when other people drink, unless they make a big deal out of it and carry on like they are mimicking some party scene they saw on television. I would rather socialize with real human beings.
      As a nondrinker, it is perpetually incomprehensible to me why anyone would desire to drink until they puke their guts out, then engage in behavior that results in a trip to the emergency room or an unplanned pregnancy, only to suffer through a hangover the following day — all in the name of “fun.” There are a million ways to have fun without getting wasted and feeling lousy. It is a sad commentary on the quality of life in our culture that people find it necessary to get drunk on the weekends to forget for a moment how dreary their lives are the rest of the time.
Beer bottles discarded in a dumpster... by the recycling bin.

Beer bottles discarded in a dumpster… by the recycling bin.

      Roulette is not so great for the planet, either. Beer commercials often highlight beautiful scenery, but there is a direct connection between getting wasted and wasting the planet. Beer cans and broken beer bottles are strewn along millions of miles of highways. They can be found littered along most floatable rivers. They accumulate in fire pits and around the parking lots at campgrounds and outdoor recreation sites. We would be lucky if litter was the beginning and the end of the problem, but it isn’t. It is fundamentally an issue of self-respect. People who lack the self-respect to take care of their own bodies are less likely to respect other living beings and the environment. Here in Montana, for example, beer and guns are a common combination, as people drink while blowing away ground squirrels for entertainment. Those who lack respect for themselves are more likely to work meaningless or environmentally destructive jobs. Getting wasted on the weekends only ensures continued entrapment to destructive behaviors.
"People learn that alcohol is a means of escape, rebellion, and freedom, but it is ultimately a tool of entrapment."

“People learn that alcohol is a means of escape, rebellion, and freedom, but it is ultimately a tool of entrapment.”

      That is perhaps the great irony of the great escape. People learn that alcohol is a means of escape, rebellion, and freedom, but it is ultimately a tool of entrapment. It is an imaginary escape that leaves a person enslaved to meaningless or destructive employment to pay for a meaningless and destructive addiction. Perpetuating the game is good only for padding corporate profits. True freedom requires breaking free from the game to play life by one’s own rules.
      Unfortunately, no one can legislate freedom or end the game. Alcohol is a cornerstone problem linked to broken dreams, broken marriages, broken families, domestic violence, homicides, and wasting the planet, and yet, there is no person or entity on earth powerful enough to outlaw the game or enforce such a law if it were passed. Prohibition was an utter failure, and arguably only glorified alcohol even more.
      What we can do is lessen the impacts to the greatest possible degree. For example, states with deposit fees on cans and bottles have higher recycling rates and far less litter and waste than states without deposit fees. We can also hold corporations responsible for their part in encouraging addictive and destructive behavior. For example, the bags of cans and bottles that pile up at an alcoholic’s home typically come from only a couple major corporations, such as Anheuser–Busch (Budweiser) and MillerCoors. Ditto for most of the cans and bottles littered along our highways and rivers. These companies profit at the expense of individual lives and should be required to do more to rectify the problems caused by their products, or taxed sufficiently to fund treatment and counseling for everyone who needs it. Local microbrews, on the other hand, are not usually associated with destructive behaviors and should be exempt from such requirements. Beyond that, the best that any one individual can do is to refuse to play the game and set an example for our children, our families, and our friends, that drinking isn’t particularly interesting or important.

      Thomas J. Elpel is the author of six books, including Roadmap to Reality: Consciousness, Worldviews, and the Blossoming of Human Spirit. He has often dreamed of getting into politics and making a positive difference in the world, yet recognizes that it might be difficult to get elected if he cannot sit down and drink a beer like a “regular guy.”

Drinking

Hi Tom,

You wrote an article last year on the destructive elements of alcohol and it’s been really helpful to me quit drinking. I find myself going back to it frequently. It’s been a recurring problem for me but I’ve been fortunate not to get into any serious trouble. Your work is very inspiring to me, thank you.

When you have a lot of Native American blood like me, the odds are really against you. But I’m determined to keep positivity in my life as a focus. Groups like AA don’t take the attention off the problem and can keep someone overly identified with their problems… in my experience anyway.

–Max H.

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The Hitchhiker

Jeremiah could not wait to dispose of his brand new, taxpayer-funded prison boots.

He was walking along the interstate with his thumb out, still within the city limits of Butte, Montana. A young Native American man, Jeremiah wore new blue jeans and a crisp white shirt. He was the cleanest hitchhiker I’d ever picked up. Oddly, his only baggage consisted of a manila folder with some papers and such.

I threw a few things in the back of the truck to make room and off we went. “Got in a fight with my lady,” he explained. Jeremiah said he’d been living with his girlfriend in Billings for the last 2 ½ years, working on roofing jobs until she kicked him out. “She needed some time,” he said. So, he was headed back home to the rez to his brother’s house. The story was oddly incongruent with his crisp new attire and his distinct lack of baggage. “I left it all behind,” he said.

We talked a lot along the way. We had a lot in common – in a really indirect way. He grew up in Saint Ignatius on the Flathead Reservation. His brother did traditional sweats. I went to the Flathead and participated in a sweatlodge ceremony when I was sixteen. Jeremiah’s grandmother did beadwork; I tan hides. He wanted to know how much I charge for my hides. He’d never tanned a hide, but he’d seen it done a lot.

I’ve picked up quite a number of hitchhikers over the years, some that were drunk, some that wanted to be, some that were on drugs, some that tried to sell me watches and junk, some that were delusional, some that were desperate, some that tried to convert me to Jesus, and one that fingered a blunt metal rod with a handle on it as if he were contemplating stabbing me with it, until he finally put it away after I described my background as a survival instructor. So, it was refreshing to pick up a hitchhiker who, aside from the broken relationship, was otherwise a nice, clean-cut young man who seemed to be on the right track in life, “especially for a Native American,” I thought, unable to avoid a bit of racial stereotyping.

Aside from some paperwork in his manila folder, he had a few nicely woven horsehair barrettes that he had made, and he gave me a pair when I mentioned my daughters. I told him about my adopted kids’ older brother who was learning to do beadwork while locked up in Montana State Prison in Deerlodge, as we whizzed by that town on the highway. I suppose the incongruities should have snapped together at that point, but I never gave it a thought.

I am familiar with the drug and alcohol problems on the reservations and inquired about the challenges he faced growing up, partly out of curiosity to hear an insider’s perspective, partly because I want to get into politics and make a difference, so I am always looking for new ideas, and partly because I wanted to know how he managed to negotiate that minefield himself. I was curious to know how he had successfully held his life together when faced with challenging conditions.

He acknowledged the problem and said he’d seen a lot of friends die in car accidents. He admitted his own fondness for alcohol and said with some pride that for a while he believed he was “God’s gift to women.” Getting away from the rez for had been good for him.

I described my own fears as a parent of young adult and teenage children in a world rife with drugs and alcohol. I commented that as a society we seemed to play Russian roulette with our children. “Here’s a gun with one bullet in it. ‘Hope you survive.” Some kids live. Some don’t. But we as a society consider the losses acceptable enough that we glorify the party life on the big screen and role model it to our children.

I asked if Jeremiah had any insights or ideas to help the situation on the rez. He acknowledged that it was a difficult situation. “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink,” he said, using this mismatched metaphor to communicate that people have to make their own choices about whether they drink or do drugs.

Jeremiah offered to treat me out to lunch in Missoula, and although I hardly need the handout, it felt right to accept his offer. I drove him to a bank to cash a check and then to Fudrucker’s for burgers. Over lunch he confessed to me that he had been afraid to tell me the truth – that he had just been released from prison that morning. Ah. That would explain the crisp new clothes and the manila folder. Apparently he spent three years locked up for selling crystal meth, along with a felony charge for stolen property.

Given that it is illegal to hitchhike out of Deerlodge (where the prison is located) the wardens had dropped Jeremiah off at the bus station in Butte less than an hour before I picked him up on the side of the highway. So much for being the first hitchhiker I’d ever picked up who actually had his life together!

On the other hand, he really did have his life together, at least for that moment. I’m just not sure how long it was going to last, as he treated me to a twisted ice tea and explained how good it was if you drank a little bit off the top, then filled it back up with Black Velvet. He was going home to a tough situation, a place where people harbored hard feelings toward him for selling meth to his younger friends and relatives. He was going home to all of the problems that landed him in prison in the first place. But what else could he do? What else can anyone do?

I’m not sure that a bigger hammer is the answer. If cracking down with tougher laws was the answer, then we would have cured the problem long ago. But as Jeremiah explained to me, you can even buy weed and cocaine in prison. It just costs a lot more than it does on the outside.

Sometimes I think the answer to our toughest problems is not to face them head-on, but to approach them more indirectly, and in this case, to question why our culture is so empty and devoid of meaning that we glorify getting high and getting wasted as worthy achievements.

When I take junior high classes out into the woods to teach them wilderness skills, I see these kids sparkle as if they had been waiting for this their entire lives. They learn how to start fires without matches; they learn how to cook a stir-fry meal over the campfire without any pans; they learn to make their own dishes and utensils; they learn how to sleep warm without a blanket, sleeping bag, or a tent. But most of all, they learn how to have fun – running through the woods playing stalking games, throwing sticks and rocks at targets, having mud fights, swimming in the river, and engaging in marshmallow blowgun wars, as documented in our video Classroom in the Woods.

We never once bring up the topic of drug or alcohol avoidance or prevention, but that’s absolutely what the junior high camping trip is all about. These are kids who live in rural Montana with boundless opportunities, yet live out their daily lives bored to tears with books and paperwork in school. At home they are saturated with media about fast cars, big cities, and living it up with the party life. These kids are desperately hungry for something – for anything – and they will turn to drugs and alcohol if that’s all there is in life. But when they spend a few days in the woods they experience something real, and it is so simple, and yet so profound, that they talk about it all year long.

Jeremiah had another set of barrettes, which I bought for a friend. I drove him to a department store so he could buy a baseball cap and some tennis shoes. He could not wait to be free from the prison boots he wore. He pitched the boots in the back of my truck, and I drove him another four miles up the highway to the intersection with Highway 93, heading north to the reservation. I wished Jeremiah the best of luck, and I meant it with my heart and soul.

There is a reason why I have worked my butt off my entire life with the hope of one day getting into politics. There is a reason why I would like to someday run for governor. It is because I believe in our children. It is because I believe in our young people like Jeremiah. It is because I believe I can make a difference in their lives, and that propels me out of bed every day to do the work I do.

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