A Round On Me
By Kymberlie Adams Matthews
I usually leave work about six o’clock, head home to feed the
critters, make dinner and have a drink. I have a taste for good beer,
vegan of course. And sometimes one or two after a day of reading, writing,
and generally dealing with the atrocities that make up our fine world
helps me put my anxiety aside. I don’t consider myself an alcoholic
by any stretch of the imagination. I can also find peace and solace
with a tofutti hot-fudge sundae. What bothers me is the easiness of
relying on a malt beverage to ease the frustration.
I attempted a Google search for articles or studies that looked at
between activism and alcoholism—I didn’t find any. Is this something
that we should be concerned about? It’s kind of an ironic question and
really my point. We are concerned about so much. How do we leave it, let go for
a moment? Every time I walk into a restaurant and see people chowing down a hamburger
or tearing away at chicken wings, I think of an animal being brutally slaughtered.
Every time I take my dog to the park and see the plethora of purebreds, most
likely the survivors of puppy mills, I cringe. And every time I look out my bedroom
window I see the trees decorated with discarded plastic bags, garbage garlands.
And I think to myself there are a lot of every times and they happen every day.
I know that I am not the only one who feels this way. Most activists can’t
help being overwhelmed by the evilness of it all. Many of my ‘free the
world’ friends take comfort in a drink after a hard day of work, attempting
just for a moment to forget all the badness in life. A favorite Brooklyn hot
spot for the Satya crew and friends is the Gate. Simply put, this dog-friendly
haven of 23 beers on tap—managed by a vegan angel, Dawn—and adorned
with anti-Bush sentiments and a dartboard is our home away from home. A place
to meet and socialize with like-minded folk. A place to stick our feet up and
let our minds curl up for a nap. A place to pour over recent stray cat-capades,
play good tunes on the jukebox and share the latest gossip. A little nook in
our magnificent concrete neighborhood. And you know the old saying: Home is where
you make it, home is where your heart lives and your hopes are happy. Well for
us, the Gate is kind of like where ET is, just better.
Longtime animal activist (and Gate aficionado) Lawrence Carter-Long nicely sums
it up: “Loosening up, including occasional indulgence in, ahem...mind-altering
libations, was one of the best things that ever happened to my activism. Somewhere
along the road I adopted the mistaken notion that activism was akin to sainthood,
and my advocacy efforts suffered as a result. I became embittered, not much fun
to be around. I noticed not only did people strangely slink away from the room
when I entered, they stopped listening to what I had to say as well. In time,
as I remembered my smile—and a drink or two came in handy there—others
smiled back. Some of the best campaign ideas I’ve ever had or heard occurred
at the bar with colleagues at the numerous AR conferences I’ve attended.
It’s where we become friends and discover common ground—which is
how all change starts. As I’ve matured, I’ve come to appreciate the
rowdy, raucous spirit that infused warriors like Edward Abbey, Allen Ginsberg
and Chogyam Trungpa. When I look for inspiration, I try to remember their examples;
what they did and how they lived. None of ‘em were adverse to an occasional
bender. Truth be told, neither am I.”
On my Google search for validation, I found numerous studies looking at connections
between alcohol and stress. A theory was introduced by A. Conger (1956) that
led to the tension reduction hypothesis. It’s really quite simple: alcohol
has a sedative effect on the central nervous system and serves to reduce tension,
and because tension reduction is reinforcing, people drink to relax. The study
also indicates that the more severe and chronic the stressor, the greater the
alcohol consumption. Saving the world? Chronic stress? Fixin’ for a beer?
Kids Gone Wild
All through my teen years, I considered myself a straight-edge hardcore girl.
Rejecting mind-altering substances, following a vegan diet and increasing my
awareness of environmental and political issues, I lived to better myself and
the world around me. Although drugs have yet to—and never will—cross
my path, I remember clearly my first sip of beer. I was 20, and had just spent
the day frantically trying to rescue birds from the infamous Hegins Pigeon Shoot—deemed
one of the cruelest events ever to take place. It was an annual pigeon shoot
which attracted hundreds of shooters from around the world, who spent the day
taking aim at thousands of birds, released one at a time from individual boxes.
Most of the birds I saw that day were not killed immediately, but rather wounded
and left on the shooting fields to suffer at the hands of young children known
as “trapper boys” who finished them off by stomping on them, ripping
off their heads, slamming them against barrels, or throwing them into barrels
to suffocate. Activists would scramble every time an injured bird flew over the
crazed audience in an attempt to capture it before a spectator. If we were too
late, members of the crowd would twist necks, squeeze, or bite the heads off
the pigeons. Most of us were covered in pigeon blood. It was a rough day. That
night my sister (also straight-edge) and I brought a six-pack of Sam Adams back
to our hotel room and drank two each.
I am by no means implying that activism causes drug or alcohol abuse. But when
activists internalize society’s perverse attitudes and beliefs, the results
can be devastating. We are constantly fighting for the victims of systemic ongoing
oppression. How can this not lead to feelings of helplessness, despair, alienation,
frustration and at times substance abuse?
We are not simply talking about days of rain, broken umbrellas, streaked mascara
and soggy breakfast. It just makes sense that activists may resort to substances
as a means to numb the feelings of anxiety, to relieve emotional pain or to temporarily
escape their day’s disappointments. Surrounded by messages you see as wrong
and twisted—dealing with uninformed comments and attitudes frequently made
by unknowing friends, family and strangers—can have an overwhelming effect.
Eric Weiss, Satya’s Marketing Manager and former straight edger, makes
the important point, “Don’t activists drink for the same reason everyone
else does? Work is stressful, whether you’re selling stocks or you’re
helping animals. Everyone needs an outlet. Some people have a drink. Some people
just get angry all day. Being an activist can be depressing and it can be intense,
so for some, having a drink with like-minded folks offers a brief respite from
having to think about injustice and cruelty and stupidity all day long. For me,
one whisky makes things better, two makes things really good, but by four or
five my outlook becomes bleaker than it was before I started drinking!”
Love Thy Self
On top of this, how often do we take the time to look at ourselves? Can we even
allow ourselves a moment to put ourselves first? Or would that be selfish—are
we too busy, can’t say no to helping out, who else is going to take care
of my critters, the homeless, the environment...?
When it comes right down to it, this self-imposed burnout is fundamentally an
abandonment of ourselves; an unending pattern of putting others’ needs
ahead of our own. It is a form of self-sacrifice whether we realize it or not.
Long hours and a selfless dedication to bettering the world—to the exclusion
of self-care—can lead to an over-reliance on alcoholic beverages to ease
So what can we do? The best course of action is to find a balance. Take time
to manage your time effectively. Most of us have too many projects going and
the distressing sense that unfinished responsibilities are hanging over our head.
We also tend to set unreasonable and perfectionist goals for ourselves. We simply
need to make ourselves jump on board the neighborhood trolley to Make Believe
and occasionally escape from the pressures of life. Have fun. Laugh. Exercise.
Vacation. Create community. And try to maintain a level of positivism. Focus
upon the good around you, making an effort to balance out the bad. And remember,
intolerance of others leads to frustration and anger. Besides, taking a moment
to really understand the way other people feel can actually increase your influence
over them. Whew…with that said, lemonade anyone?