Secondhand Drinking: When Your Alcohol Problem Becomes Everybody Else's

By Sean Mahoney 08/19/19

Types of harm from secondhand drinking included being pushed or hit, feeling threatened or afraid, being a passenger of a drunk driver, marital problems, family problems, and financial problems.

Women with drunk friend, secondhand drinking
I couldn’t even begin to come up with a total and comprehensive list of folks affected by my drunken douchebaggery over the years. Photo 22159335 © Imageegami -

In my vast and storied drinking career of 20+ years, the damage to others was minimal. I mean, I was never in a drunk driving accident, I never even got a DUI (stumbling home on foot from dive bars solved that problem); the drunken brawls I was in usually happened at home with my ex, and there weren’t any arrests due to my insane behavior. The only person I was hurting by getting sloppy, blackout drunk seven days a week was me.

Or at least that’s the story I like to tell myself.

In reality, there were countless people affected by my drinking. From the landlords I didn’t pay and the employers I worked for while intoxicated to the innocent cashiers who had to help my slurring and sloppy ass at grocery stores and liquor stores and the cab drivers I would harass from the backseat, there were a slew of people taken down by my tequila-soaked tsunami. When you add those people to the list of family members, friends, coworkers, roommates, and neighbors who all suffered some sort of emotional fallout due to my drinking, the damage doesn’t look so minimal. It looks like a small town after a tornado.

Studies Show Impact of Alcohol's Harm to Others

So when a new study came out last month about secondhand drinking, I could certainly identify.

Nearly 9,000 participants answered questions from two surveys, the 2015 National Alcohol's Harm to Others Survey and the 2015 National Alcohol Survey. They were asked if they had experienced any or all of 10 different types of harm caused by someone else’s drinking. Coming from an alcoholic home and being an alcoholic myself, I feel like I could answer, “Hell, yes!” to all of these questions without even seeing them. Causing other people harm is the only way I’ve ever known alcohol to work. I am not from civilized red wine sipping stock. For the record, the types of harm included being pushed or hit, feeling threatened or afraid, being a passenger of a drunk driver, marital problems, family problems, and financial problems, all caused by another person’s drinking. A staggering one in five answered what I would have answered: Hell, yes, they’ve been affected by the drinking of others.

Researchers believe the number is probably even higher, given the study only asked the participants about the last year of their lives. Personally, this also checks out. I couldn’t even begin to come up with a total and comprehensive list of folks affected by my drunken douchebaggery over the years.

According to the study, 23% of women and 21% of men reported experiencing at least one of those harms during the last year. Not surprisingly, women experienced the fallout of someone else’s drinking in marital problems, financial problems, and being the passenger of drunk drivers. Women were more likely to be the victim of violence, sexual assault, and harassment from someone who was drinking than their male counterparts. Men, on the other hand, felt the reverb in the form of property damage, vandalism, and harassment, in addition to drunk driving woes. Folks 18 to 25, the study found, felt the effects of alcoholism the worst, which makes sense as alcohol use disorder is on the rise in that age group. Children were not interviewed for the study but as a kid who grew up in an alcoholic home, I experienced the ill effects of secondhand drinking on a regular basis. All the things the survey mentions — personal violence, damage to property, feeling unsafe — that’s all part of daily life when you grow up around alcoholics.

Advertising Normalizes Drinking, While Alcohol Destroys Communities

Beyond the super relatable numbers and findings, the study packs an additional punch. The very framing of the study — calling it “secondhand drinking” — is somewhat revolutionary. By labeling it this way, the folks behind the study are emphasizing that drinking doesn’t just hurt the drinker, but it also affects the people around them akin to secondhand smoke. Sure, those of us in recovery who’ve had to write inventories or make amends are well aware of how we’ve effed up the lives around us. But for the rest for the world, drinking is fun, readily accessible, and not as bad as, like, heroin, right? Advertising agencies and big brands have worked really hard over the last decade to normalize drinking in every possible setting — airports, movie theaters, office meetings, and more. Initiating a conversation about how drinking messes up entire communities, economies, and the personal lives of innocent people feels like boldly bucking the system.

This study in fact tells the truth of what people in recovery have known for years: the world is a safer and less shitty place if we stay sober. Beyond the loved ones who have to clean up our puke or the fender benders caused when we’ve had one too many, drinking — or more specifically alcohol use disorder — is destroying lives at an alarming rate.

In addition to being a writer, I also work at a hospital on an addiction medicine team as a recovery mentor. Daily, our emergency room is filled with people brought in by the negative effects of drinking. Yet in a society where drinking is no big deal, these faces are commonplace and will be replaced by new ones the following day.

"It's Not That Bad..."

Last summer in the hospital, I met a nice lady. She had a good life: She owned a successful business, she had beautiful and talented teenage daughters, a doting husband and concerned friends. Everybody lives next door to this lady. Your mom is friends with this lady. Hell, maybe your mom is this lady. And when they brought her in because of the negative effects of her drinking, she reported that it wasn’t that bad, she only had a few glasses of wine a night.

Later, I shared my interaction with a doctor on her team. “Unbelievable!” he said. He told me that moments before I saw her, her medical team showed her detailed pictures of the damage that drinking had caused her brain. During her stay, I got concerned calls from her best friend and her daughters, all of whom had heartbreaking stories of how this woman’s drinking had negatively impacted them. It didn’t matter that she was white or successful or a nice lady. Drinking was ruining her brain, her life, and the lives of the people around her.

In the 1970’s and 1980’s, the discovery of the effects of secondhand smoking changed how we thought about tobacco and nicotine. We started talking about how smoking was making the people around us sick, too. We changed how we smoked in front of children, in front of friends, and in public places. When we talk about secondhand drinking, we’re hoping for the same consideration and results. We’re saying it’s not just the alcoholic affected. It’s everybody around them, too.

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Sean Paul Mahoney is the author of the new collection of essays Now That You’ve Stopped Dying and the co-host of the LGBTQ recovery podcast Queer Mental Condition.