Thursday, January 05, 2012

Alcohol does not have to direct your life

Commentary by Lt. Col. Anthony Carr
14th Airlift Squadron commander

1/5/2012 - JOINT BASE CHARLESTON, S.C. (AFNS) -- The 437th Airlift Wing recently achieved an impressive goal; 120 days without a driving under the influence arrest. This indicates a growing trend of strong wingman support and responsible drinking. As we begin 2012, it's the perfect moment to build on that success by focusing on all alcohol-related incidents.

Gen. Jimmy Doolittle was famous for saying that "if we must fight, we should do so from the neck up rather than the neck down." He was talking about thinking our way through the fight before it ever begins. There is a useful parallel in how we approach drinking. Rather than fixating on how to cope with consequences, we should devote more energy to thinking our way through alcohol use before it becomes abuse.

The human relationship with alcohol is complicated. In modern times, it has been glorified as the key to a good time and demonized as a symbol for irresponsible partying. These oversimplifications mask the complex truth: while alcohol sometimes contributes to disciplinary issues, human decision-making is the universal root cause in alcohol-related incidents. This is a fact worth investigating more closely, but first we must first confront two common myths.

Myth #1: Drinking is for "idiots." Alcohol is woven into our societal fabric and its use is not limited to those having poor judgment or low intelligence. The first evidence of wine production dates back more than 10,000 years and the rise in alcohol use has paralleled the advance of civilization. The industrial production of alcohol for sale and export accompanied the ascent of the Roman Empire; it played economic and spiritual roles in the world's first superpower society. Leaders, followers and peers alike must internalize that alcohol is a fixture in our way of life. Rather than discount it as a lesser activity or futilely try to engineer it out of our collective behaviors, it is best that we approach it thoughtfully.

Myth #2: Alcohol is for troublemakers. Devout monks are just as likely to have a drink in their spare time as serial felons. As a supervisor and commander at multiple levels, I've dealt with many alcohol-related incidents. Occasionally, they involve Airmen with troubled records on their way out of our service. More often, they involve good people who engage in unexpected and uncharacteristic actions. I've yet to come across an Airman who woke up one morning determined to ruin his or her life. If we pretend alcohol-related incidents are reserved for those who are prone to trouble, we will make a critical mistake in incident prevention.

These myths are mental shortcuts that allow us draw convenient but false conclusions concerning alcohol use. When we get past these shortcuts, we begin to see alcohol-related incidents as stories of good people making bad choices. In my experience, three main drivers explain most disciplinary incidents that include alcohol use. Thinking about these drivers before we drink is the key to keeping ourselves and our wingmen out of trouble.

Driver #1: Low Self-Awareness. Why do we drink? It's a tough question because we're socialized to consider drinking and thinking mutually exclusive. We must move past this mindset. We should all understand why we're engaging in this activity in order to build objectives and avoidance areas that will apply. My theory is that some people who drink do so for the feeling of being a little out of control. Adult human beings are subject to professional, personal and societal limits on behavior and can't help but enjoy the feeling of liberation that accompanies a relaxed behavioral grip. Up to a certain point, there is nothing wrong with this. However, we each have a transition point from an acceptable to an unacceptable loss of control. Beyond that point, behavior is unpredictable, sometimes uncharacteristic and often beneath reproach, which is never OK. This transition point is difficult to define and different for each situation. Only through self-awareness can we learn how much alcohol can lead to a loss of control and learn to recognize and arrest its onset.

Driver #2: Lack of planning. When it comes to alcohol, failing to plan is planning to fail. Planning is easier said than done because we've been socialized to consider drinking a carefree activity. This is the wrong mindset; it leads to personal and professional ruin. Plan your night. At a minimum, know where your journey will begin, transit and end; who you will spend your time with; and how much you will drink. Once you have that plan, hold on to it as your playbook for responsible fun.

Driver #3: Impaired Decisions. After even one drink, your decisions are compromised. At a mild level of intoxication, you will readily set aside rules because you're feeling less inhibited. At a medium level of intoxication and beyond, you'll make poor decisions based on shifting criteria. Unacceptable outcomes are a likely result. People who get into trouble while drunk are often mystified at their decisions, feeling as though they were made by someone else. The difficult truth is that we are all poor decision makers when we drink. Therefore, no important decision should be made once drinking has commenced. Anticipate situations and decide on responses while you're still sober. Do your best to ingrain proper decisions into your thought patterns before you chemically disrupt normal brain function.

Alcohol, for better or worse, is a part of our culture and has been for thousands of years. We can't wish it away and we can't engineer it out of our activities. What we must do is reason through the human-alcohol relationship and ingrain patterns of action and decision to keep ourselves and our teammates within the bounds of acceptable conduct. Alcohol can be enjoyed responsibly given a high degree of self-awareness, good planning and sober decision making. If we actively think through our interface with it and learn to master it "from the neck up," we can eliminate its unfavorable consequences.

Please continue to think before you drink and carry these ideas into your safe New Year.

1 comment:

Tanya Roberts said...

I am so happy to read this and only someone in your position could say it so well. As a staunch preventionist, I applause your words and apparent successes. The work I do as a social worker is NOT about abstinence (unless you are under 21, pregnant, nursing, on Rx...) or prohibition. I want people to learn to be responsible with alcohol, food, behavior and everything else in our lives. Thank you!