I was chased down the sidewalk by a breathless woman.
“You’re the guy who made me vegetarian!” she announced between gasps.
I didn’t know what she was talking about.
It turned out she’d worked as a paralegal, years before, at Sullivan & Cromwell. I didn’t feel guilty about not remembering her. We only toiled together once – a grueling all-nighter preparing for an M&A closing.
We ordered take-out burgers that night, and I opted for a veggie burger. She asked why I wasn’t eating meat. At first I played it down – mumbled something like “don’t feel like it.” Carnivores can grow testy if you fail to consume meat in their presence – they take it as a personal affront. I’ve learned to tread lightly.
But she persisted, with genuine curiosity, so I told her the truth:
“You don’t have to go there – no one’s asking you too,” I said. “But if you do go there, you’ll stop eating meat.”
That was it.
Ever since that night, she told me on the sidewalk, she’d been vegetarian.
All it took was going there – well, having someone tell you there was a “there ” to go to, then making the trip.
No, I’m not going to spell out where “there” is – you know perfectly well and I’m not here to preach. I’m here to talk about consciousness-raising, not vegetarianism. Specifically, consciousness-raising around alcohol.
You know, alcohol – those lambent elixirs stored in gleaming bottles; the all-American can of beer that pops open to seal friendship and inaugurate cherished memories; the cork shooting from a pricey bottle of champagne to harken in merriment and delight.
Yeah. Ethanol. Ethyl alcohol. Let’s tackle the popular mythology surrounding this stuff. We can start with what I call the Maya Angelou rule.
Some clients tell me they can’t imagine meeting a stranger without a few drinks in them. It “loosens you up” and “lets you be yourself.”
I asked one of these clients who he would most like to meet in the whole world, and he answered, without hesitation, Maya Angelou.
I asked him if he minded, when he met Dr. Angelou, if she’d had a few drinks.
You might or might not appreciate her poetry – but you probably reserve a modicum of respect for who she is, and I’m guessing you’d prefer that your meeting – your chance to share a few words with a celebrated poet – not occur after she’s been drinking.
The idea is distasteful. That’s because Maya Angelou is synonymous with dignity – and drunkenness isn’t.
You probably don’t want your meeting with President Obama to occur after he’s had a few drinks, either. It would be shocking – and disappointing – to meet someone like that – someone important, impressive, dignified, a role model, etc. etc., after he’s been drinking.
That’s why you don’t want to make your first introduction of yourself to a stranger after you’ve “had a few drinks.” Not unless you want to look foolish. Because that’s how people look when they’ve been consuming alcohol.
There were two direct roots of my choice to be vegetarian. First, I had good friends who were vegetarian. They didn’t proselytize – they lived their lives and didn’t eat meat.
The second input was a bowl of chicken soup I ordered at a diner. I remember staring at a piece of skin floating on the top and thinking, “that’s skin.”
I’ve always had friends who don’t drink. These aren’t necessarily all people in recovery, who became sober after realizing they were alcoholic – some were simply people who decided not to drink. Their behavior – their choice – affected me. It made me stop and think. That’s a healthy thing to do.
If you wish to go further, and experience a major eye-opener, try arriving at a place or event where you would ordinarily drink – and choose not to. You’ll see what alcohol actually does. You’ll go there. It isn’t pretty.
No one is at his best after he’s been drinking. They’re often at their worst.
A client once arrived for a group therapy session drunk. He showed up late, and kept repeating – too loudly – “hey, loosen up, guys – this is the real me!” It wasn’t. We were all, without exception, embarrassed. In fact, we were horrified. It was awful. He dropped out of group, which was probably for the best, since they weren’t eager to have him back, and it wouldn’t have been appropriate to let him return to any of my groups until he’d done a lot of work on himself – and maybe attended a twelve-step group like Alcoholics Anonymous, which is the best place to go when you think you might have a problem with alcohol.
I’m not a “perfect” vegetarian. I’m not vegan. I wear leather. I eat fish and seafood sometimes, despite misgivings about the over-fishing of the oceans and the cruelty and waste involved in the seafood industry.
I make compromises, and I live with them. But I’ll never think about meat and the exploitation of animals the way I did before I “went there.”
It’s the same with alcohol. You might decide to drink in moderation. Maybe you drink a glass of wine or a beer now and then. I do. For many people, that works just fine.
But if you’ve “gone there” with alcohol, you know the truth, and you’ll never buy into the myths again. At very least, you’ll drink with your eyes open; you won’t think alcohol is a magical elixir from heaven – or that it’s going to help you “be yourself.”
Alcohol isn’t necessary – it isn’t even a positive good. In fact, it does enormous harm. Perhaps it has its place in moderation. But let’s all go there, and stop kidding ourselves. There’s a big problem with the role this stuff – ethyl alcohol – plays in our collective lives.
Please check out The People’s Therapist’s new book, Way Worse Than Being a Dentist: The Lawyer’s Quest for Meaning
I also recommend my first book, Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy
(Both books are also available on bn.com and the Apple iBookstore.)