by Dr. Steven Sainsbury
Ask those people who are close to me, and they will tell you that I have a great sense of humor. I love jokes, remember them easily and tell them well. I love to laugh and smile. Having worked more than 20 years as full-time emergency physician, I have learned to use humor to cope with the stress and tragedies that surround me on a regular basis. But with all due respect to my friend Dell Franklin (founding publisher of the Rogue Voice), there is one subject that I cannot joke about, cannot take lightly, and find clearly and distinctly unfunny: That subject is drunks.
San Luis Obispo County is awash in drunkenness. And I don’t mean the homeless alcoholic, living beneath the freeway overpass, scrounging every day for a daily fifth of hard liquor. Even though we have plenty of those. And I don’t mean the sad, “functional” drunks whose lives revolve around their daily descent into an alcoholic oblivion as their pitiful lives slowly but inexorably evaporate into a hepatotoxic hell.
Instead, I think of the Cal Poly coed who binge drinks after midterms. This is the same person who hours earlier meticulously calculated her engineering problems to the tenth decimal point, but fails to consider, for even a moment, the huge cost that her drunkenness will impose on her future.
Jane is a straight-A engineering student who went out bar-hopping and binge-drinking with her girlfriends on Saturday night after a grueling week of midterms. By 11 p.m. she was grossly intoxicated, and could barely walk without falling. Nonetheless, she managed to hook up with a new acquaintance at one of the downtown bars, and left with him. Her so-called friends were so drunk themselves that they allowed her to leave with a total stranger. I met Jane later the next night in the ER. She had awakened earlier that Sunday afternoon, hung over, achy, and miserable. But even worse, she woke up naked, her tampon pushed up against her cervix, and knew immediately that she had obviously had sexual intercourse with the stranger she had met the night before. Yet Jane had no idea who he was, where he lived, or how he could be found. Tearful and fearful, she came into the ER to be tested for STDs, pregnancy and AIDS.
I also think of the SLO professional, who attended four years of college and another four years of postgraduate training. A smart, well-educated fellow, he must have slept through that day in biology class when they discussed the effect of alcohol on judgment and hand-to-eye coordination.
John, a middle-aged, married father of two, attended a barbeque one evening, along with several of his friends. Carelessly, he drank too much and decided to drive home. Soon thereafter, he lost control of his vehicle, injuring himself and killing his front-seat passenger. His blood alcohol of 0.18, coupled with his subsequent felony manslaughter conviction, landed him in prison. In addition to losing his freedom, he lost his business and professional license. He killed his friend, destroyed his family, and tossed aside his happiness as quickly as he had guzzled down the original 12-pack of Budweiser.
I think of the young father who started drinking with friends while in college, then continued the same pattern as he developed his business in San Luis Obispo. Always limiting his drinking to social occasions, he scoffed at the notion that he had a problem with alcohol. After all, he was successful at work, had a wonderful wife and family, and was in superb physical shape. Even his golf game was steadily improving.
Nonetheless, Ted’s golf game began to suffer as the daily toll of social drinking escalated in his life. Ten years after moving to San Luis Obispo, Ted was fired from the national company that had employed him since college for his unreliability and lack of productivity. His long-suffering wife, weary of his increasingly frequent drunken binges, filed for divorce. His children soon began to dread the court-ordered visitations, which became less and less frequent. Within just a few years, Ted had several outstanding alcohol-related warrants, a series of failed jobs, no money, no home, no driver’s license, no wife or family, and his health was failing. His life and golf game were in shambles with no hope on the horizon.
Most readers see a drunk staggering out of the bar and laugh at his silly attempts to walk without falling. I see a drunk who will come to see me in the ER in an hour or two, because he actually will fall, whereupon I will spend an hour sewing up his face, trying to ignore his vomit-laced beer breath that permeates my clothing and breathing space. Or worse, I will see his wife for a broken jaw and blackened eye because she dared to complain about his drunkenness: Loads of laughs, those staggering drunks.
Many of you, as you hear your friends lament about getting arrested with a DUI, console them as if they were some type of victim. Your friend’s huge fines, loss of license, and mandatory probation time invoke feelings of sympathy and compassion. Not for me. Those who drink and drive, every single one, instill in me only feelings of anger and disgust. You see, I look at your same drunk-driver friend and see a potential (or actual) murderer—someone who willingly takes a multi-ton weapon and propels it at 60 or 70 miles per hour at anyone who is unfortunate enough to be in their path. Small child, pregnant mother, and frail grandparent—it makes no difference. The drunk driver will plow them all down equally, without so much as a blink of their eye. Twenty years of washing the congealed blood of maimed and dying bodies off my scrubs has removed all trace of sympathy for anyone who so recklessly endangers the lives of total strangers: Yep, real knee-slappers, those drunk drivers.
Consider the following statistics—just try to control your laughter.
Alcohol is a significant factor in 40 percent of all automobile accidents, and responsible for about half of all drowning, fatal falls, and house fires.
More facts to chuckle over: Alcohol is involved in 2/3 of homicides, half of all rapes and domestic violence cases, and more than 80 percent of campus crimes. Additionally, the use of alcohol is implicated in a large percentage of divorces, suicides, and regretted sexual activity leading to sexually transmitted diseases, AIDS and unwanted pregnancies.
So you see, our alcohol-drenched society, and our acceptance of its lethal and painful consequences, fractured my funny bone a long time ago. Work with me for just one shift on a typical night in the ER and you’ll probably quit laughing also. §
Dr. Steven Sainsbury is an emergency physician who works in San Luis Obispo County. He can be reached at Stesai@aol.com.