Addiction in Society

Addiction—the thematic malady for our society—entails every type of psychological and societal problem

Paul Newman's Beer Drinking

Successful famous people drink and use drugs.
One reason we don't know people drink regularly or take drugs while leading normal - even distinguished - lives is because they are not allowed to tell us. After his first autobiography, Giant Steps (1983) was criticized for describing his collegiate drug use, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote a second autobiography, Kareem (1990), which didn't mention drugs.

When a biography of Louis Armstrong revealed he smoked marijuana every day of his adult life, the information was omitted from all descriptions of the book and the life of the legendary jazz musician. Whenever I mention this to drug professionals, they deny it.

Paul Newman often referred to his beer drinking, and was identified by it. His obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle listed: "Mr. Newman reveled in certain aspects of stereotypical male behavior. He loved drinking beer and playing elaborate pranks on friends." In the New York Times, best friend A. E. Hotchner recounted long days "on Long Island Sound, drinking beer and scaring the fish."  But Newman's predilection for beer is not well known -- perhaps because it is incongruous with his image.

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I thought of this when I had lunch with several friends, and one said, "Paul Newman had a six-pack of beer every day." Everybody else in the room denied this factoid out of hand. I believe they thought that a happily married man, successful professional, and philanthropist like Newman - one who moreover never entered the Betty Ford Center - could not have been a regular drinker. It just didn't add up. (They might have added that Newman was an anti-drug activist, due to the drug overdose death of his son from his first marriage.)

Although I'm not aware that Newman ever addressed this "controversy," I imagine he might have said, "I lead an active, healthy, engaged life, in which I regularly drink beer. I hold myself responsible for being a productive, positive person - and I don't see anything wrong with regularly consuming a potent psychoactive substance, so long as I am true to my own values" (and presumably his wife's).

Since alcohol is legal and widely available, and drug use is quite prevalent (100 million Americans have consumed illicit drugs), Americans - human beings - all have to somehow come to grips with what we might call the Newman paradox - making peace with psychoactive substance use (including alcohol). And, despite all of our anti-drug efforts, as National Institute on Drug Abuse director Nora Volkow has recently announced, this task is becoming exponentially more difficult with the proliferation of powerful pharmaceuticals among current generations of children.

But schools are not allowed to talk about this. Certainly school authorities are not going to bring in successful actors or athletes who confess they have used drugs, or to talk about their enjoyment of drinking. The prevailing prevention approach is to tell everyone not to do these things, claim no one successful has ever done them, and carry on with what everyone knows to be a complete fiction. (Think of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.)

When I speak with a group of parents - or parents and students - I begin by asking, "How many people in this room drink alcohol?" Looking around at the majority of parents (in an upper socio-economic and ethnic state like New Jersey) who do, I ask people, "What does this say about your school's DARE program?" A parent will then reply, "I was always afraid to voice my concern that the zero-tolerance message they teach our kids - it just doesn't make sense. Look around you!"

Here's Kareem Jabbar's resolution of these issues in Giant Steps: "Drugs are an open secret on all strata of America society: . . . [So] each man and woman, from the most known to the least, should have the confidence and the strength to create and live by his or her own beliefs and not be led blindly by others who may not be qualified for the job."

"I don't really care who's doing drugs in the NBA as long as the scene isn't adversely affecting my team and teammates. I've known enough drug users--going as far back as grade school and the streets of New York--not to view them as pariahs or lost souls. I've certainly smoked more than my quota of weed."

Whoooa! But Jabbar is not endorsing drug use willy-nilly here: "For a while there at UCLA I didn't want to hang out with anyone who didn't smoke reefer, but that was as parochial a view of the world as any uptight antidoper's, and I got over it quickly." And he notes as a professional athlete, "serious drug use, whether it's pot, cocaine, amphetamines or heroin, will wrestle with your conditioning."

Jabbar, like Newman, was coming to grips with the complex demands of a constructive life lived in a modern world of ever-available psychopharmaceutical stimulation. As yet, we have not come up with a way to teach this.

Stanton Peele, PhD, JD, is the author of Recover! and developer of the online Life Process Program. He has been a pioneer in the addiction field since publication of Love and Addiction in 1975.

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