What happens when you start buying drinks for yourself because you “deserve” a drink for doing a good job? Are you toasting yourself? Are you the only one celebrating? You might be entering a phase called “reward drinking,” which is often an early sign of trouble. The transition from social drinking to reward drinking is gradual and insidious. It happens every day, even to some of the smartest and best cops.
Let’s look at this transitional drinking stage in more detail because, like an X-ray, it could save your life. Remember back when you’d never tasted booze before and didn’t know what you were missing? Maybe you were curious about drinking because other people around you were doing it. Then one day, you tried it — behind the house, after a homecoming dance or maybe as a young recruit on the Department. The specific who, what, why and where don’t matter. Whether you loved it instantly or hated it doesn’t matter. I know officers who were champion drinkers right off the bat, and I know others who required years of practice before they could hold their alcohol. The significant point is that sooner or later, you liked what alcohol did for you. Maybe you drank because you liked the taste. Maybe you liked to drink because it made hanging out more enjoyable. Maybe you liked the idea of taking part in a tradition. Maybe it was one of a hundred other things. Underneath any of the reasons you offered, chances are you drank because of the good feelings you got from alcohol.
Perhaps that’s when you discovered Friday night happy hour — the warm, friendly atmosphere and talking with the guys at the end of a hard week. You rewarded them by buying them a drink, and they paid you back by buying you a drink. That worked fine until you discovered there was midweek happy hour, too. Soon you were rewarding yourself twice a week. You probably didn’t notice that some of your co-workers seemed to get enough “reward” with one or two drinks once a week, while you had progressed to a double dose. Why didn’t you notice?
Maybe you began to select friends based on how much they would drink. It happened one night when you and a friend were at the bar. You wanted to reward him with another drink, which of course meant that he would buy the next round in return. Suddenly, and to your amazement, he left his beer half-finished and went home. To you, that was downright weird. It gave you an eye-opening insight into your friend.
A little angry, you picked up your drink and moved to the other end of the bar where you met the regulars — guys who hit the bar almost every day. Almost instantly, you felt more comfortable, especially when they agreed that leaving a beer on the bar is weird. Though no one dwelled on it, a part of you made a decision never to drink with your friend again.
Gradual and insidious, isn’t it? For that reason, I recommend that every now and then the smart social drinker should give him or herself a test. Ask yourself a few simple questions: Can I be happy without a happy hour? Does everyone I know drink more days than not?
If you’re having trouble gauging your limitations or are not sure of how to set them in the first place, give me a call or talk to one of our doctors at Psychological Services Bureau (PSB) at (213) 738-3500. Together, we can try to get you back on the right course. But remember, you are the only one who can take the first step.
The people listed above have agreed to give up their anonymity so that others in need of help can access support from a POF member. Don’t worry about bothering them; helping those with drinking issues is one of the ways they stay sober.