Medical Examiner

You Don’t Have to Be a Person With Alcoholism to Be a Problem Drinker

We saw many things at the hearings last week. For me, Kavanaugh’s relationship with alcohol stood out as worthy of further investigation.

A person reaches into a cooler stocked with beer cans of Heineken and Bud Light.
Photo by Bryan Angelo on Unsplash.

I have a friend who is a survivor of sexual assault. I thought about her a lot as I watched Christine Blasey Ford testify on Thursday. I made sure to check on her a few times throughout the morning to see if she was doing all right, and I admired the community of survivors online who I observed taking care of each other, thanks to #MeToo.

I took a break for lunch, then turned the television back on to see Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh testify. I sometimes feel the word trigger is overused, and I have never felt entitled to it because I am not a sexual assault survivor. But as I watched Kavanaugh’s testimony, I can only think that what I experienced was triggering. Alcoholism runs through my family, and what I saw every time Kavanaugh was questioned about his drinking was achingly familiar. The defiance, the casual references to “liking beer,” the mentioning of a friend who has a real problem, the insistence that he was the “Ralph King” because he has a “delicate stomach,” the turning the question on the questioner—all are tactics of the person with alcoholism who has been cornered. I’ve seen this scene before—in a kitchen, and in a driveway. But I was stunned to see it on the floor of a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.

I watched some of the news analysis of the hearing, hoping this angle would be discussed. But while there’s been quite a bit of discussion about Kavanaugh’s high school and college habits, there’s been very little discussion about his drinking now. Yet Kavanaugh used the present tense often. He said “I like beer” a number of times. He even asked two of the senators what they like to drink, the implication being now, not when they were in high school. When pressed during the hearing about whether he drank to excess in the past, Kavanaugh avoided the question and instead recited his accomplishments: Yale, Yale Law School, 12 years a federal judge. But high achievement in these realms doesn’t actually tell us anything about Kavanaugh’s drinking habits, now or in the past. Going to Yale is not an assurance of sobriety, and it does not rule out the possibility that he was also a problem drinker.

Based on the testimony of Ford and numerous accounts of people who knew, and drank with, Kavanaugh in college, we have good reason to believe that he abused alcohol in his youth. Liz Swisher, a former classmate, has said, “He drank heavily. He was a partier. He liked to do beer bongs. He played drinking games. He was a sloppy drunk.” Another acquaintance, Charles Ludington, released a statement saying, “On many occasions I heard Brett slur his words and saw him staggering from alcohol consumption, not all of which was beer. When Brett got drunk, he was often belligerent and aggressive.” We do not know whether he continues to drink this way, but the way he responded to questions about his past drinking makes it a relevant question. And yet, even in one of the most charged Senate committee hearings in decades, no one was willing to ask about his current drinking habits.

We have finally moved our understanding of rape from something that is perpetrated by strangers in dark alleyways at night to a more realistic view of the crime as one that is often committed by close associates and even loved ones in familiar places. Just so, we need to adjust our understanding of alcoholism and problematic drinking. It is not just the drunk in a gutter or the person who sneaks shots before work. It is also the people who don’t drink all the time but who have a hard time limiting consumption once they start, people who frequently black out, and people who behave in ways that are inconsistent with their sober selves when they are drinking.

But we don’t talk about this much, because in our culture, drinking is so socially acceptable it is uncomfortable to question another person’s drinking habits. We saw that in the hearing when two senators tried to do it. Sen. Whitehouse looked down. Sen. Klobuchar looked nervous, even after revealing that her father is in recovery. Both times the line of questioning was aborted due to the defiance of the witness. But when the red flags of addiction present themselves, we have a duty to ask these hard questions of family, of friends, and of our public officials in whom we place our trust.

I wish this could be a moment for people to talk more openly and honestly about problem drinking. It is painfully clear that our country does not know how to talk about it, just as once we didn’t know how to talk about rape, but the two are actually very related. Many men in the corridors of power share Kavanaugh’s prep school and frat-boy background. They do not see, or do not want to see, evidence that his drinking may be problematic. But others, like me, may have watched these hearings and may have finally had enough. There is plenty of debate over the scope of the FBI investigation, but I think it would be worthwhile for it to attempt to assess Kavanaugh’s drinking behavior not when he was in high school or college, but right now.