HBO's New Doc 'Risky Drinking' Offers a Somber Look into the Lives of Problem Drinkers

By Dorri Olds 12/19/16

The new documentary offers an intimate look at the "epidemic" that affects nearly a third of all American alcohol drinkers.

Still from "Risky Drinking"
Still from "Risky Drinking"

HBO and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) present Risky Drinking, which challenges viewers to recognize when their drinking may be putting them at risk. Nearly 70% of American adults drink alcohol and nearly one-third of them engage in problem drinking at some point. This is a raw look at our national pastime of hazardous imbibing.

This timely documentary follows four people whose problematic drinking behaviors adversely affect their personal relationships. We watch Kenzie, a young Denver professional who binge drinks on the weekends, like so many others who just want to blow off some steam. Kenzie believes she only consumes four to five drinks per evening, but in reality, on many occasions she is racking up 13 alcoholic drinks per night. Kenzie's drinking behavior is not so different from many others her age who like to use liquor to “unwind.”

We also meet Mike, who has struggled with alcohol but is trying to get things under control. His marriage is on the rocks and so is his relationship with his son. The teen comes to visit and we witness Mike, helpless and out of control, risk everything and everyone he cares about.

Rhonda enjoys her weekly happy hour with friends to “let off steam.” But things begin to sour as she witnesses her friend Noel losing control. And Neal, a father of two grown kids and in his second marriage, is desperate to keep it together but he’s blowing it again. This man has been in and out of rehabs and detoxes over a dozen times in four years.

The Fix spoke to Carrie Wilkens, PhD, a subject in the film and clinical director of the Center for Motivation and Change. We wanted to know if there’s anything parents can do to prevent these risky behaviors.

“Use positive reinforcement to support non-using behaviors,” said Wilkens. “Let naturally occurring consequences play a role. Stay involved and be aware of how your child is spending their time. Take active steps to keep things in place that compete with substance use, like arts, music, sports, community involvement and positive family time. And be aware of your own behavior.”

She cautioned that if a parent is drinking too much and relying on alcohol to be social or manage stress, their child is likely to mimic that. “Be sure you are modeling the behavior you want to see,” said Wilkens.

If a parent has three to four drinks to unwind at the end of the day, their child is more likely to abuse alcohol. If family members bond around drinking, the child learns that behavior. If a home is emotionally chaotic or sexually and/or physically abusive, that too can contribute to the formation of alcohol use problems.

Wilkens stresses that it's not always the family's fault. Turning to liquor can be related to traumatic events. “Researchers estimate that three-quarters of people who have survived abusive or violent trauma have drinking problems,” said Wilkens. “As do a third of people who have survived other traumas like accidents, illness or disasters. Studies suggest that almost 90% of those seeking treatment for substance use problems have experienced trauma.”

Many people with trauma use alcohol to avoid thoughts and feelings. “The problem,” said Wilkens, “is alcohol makes many symptoms of PTSD significantly worse and PTSD does not resolve through avoidance. The reality is that the majority of people with alcohol use problems don’t seek help.” 

This must-see cautionary documentary debuts Monday, Dec. 19 on HBO. Check your local listings. 

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Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day and several book anthologies. Find Dorri on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.