The Benefits You Get From Drinking

Most folks, when we ask them, “What benefits do you get from your drinking?” deny that they are getting any. But, realistically, if there weren’t any benefits you wouldn’t be having a problem.

As a way of showing overlooked benefits, I will return briefly to my decade in rural Alaska.

Down the hill from me, several families lived in little old log cabins, most left over from the 1905 gold rush to Minook Creek. Living situations didn’t vary much from one household to another so I will pick Joe and Kitty’s situation to represent them all.

Their cabin was about 16’ x 20’. It housed Joe and Kitty and their 5 children plus Uncle Adam. No electricity, plumbing, or heat source other than a wood stove. Consider winter when there was only a couple of hours of daylight and the temperature averaged -30 with dip as low as -80.

How does one get any privacy?

The children tended to escape during the day to one of three places where there was no drinking: two of their aunts’ houses and school.

Joe escaped into all of the work it took just to manage the woodpile and water buckets.

Kitty and Adam escaped into protective alcohol bubbles – sometimes for months on end.

In far less dire and depressing circumstances, including the current ones, people use alcohol to find some privacy, as many are learning.

The “protective bubble” alcohol provides not only shields us from invasive realities, but also acts as a passive aggressive weapon against intruders, including spouses and children, and the demands that they may make for time and attention.

Of course this is a simplification and only demonstrates common benefits.
But it is relevant to today’s circumstances. Are you using alcohol to insulate? Punish? Pass the time? Escape?

These possibilities are exacerbated by alcohol’s easy short term effectiveness and ready availability. No effort required.

But. Effortless consumption of a depressant, which curtails depression easing activity, is a double edged assault on your moods and interactions with others. Think a bit more about what you can do, and less about whether or not it’s too early to open another bottle? Please?

Years ago I started writing essays about my years in rural Alaska – this one is about emerging from winter’s isolation. I hope you enjoy it and that a few of you will be inspired to write about your own ongoing experience and how you too eventually emerge.


It’s January and it’s very cold, and very dark. Even though the upper Yukon is below the Arctic Circle and should have at least a trifle of Sun every day of the year, the mountains behind me to the south block it out; and it has been blocked out for a month now.

In December I didn’t mind. I’m busy with my students, getting ready for Christmas, busy with my adopted children, baking cookies, wrapping presents, finding a tree and building a gingerbread house. Somehow I don’t really notice the darkness, and the real cold rarely sets in until late December anyway.

Then it is January, and things change in a hurry. Around New Year’s the temperature takes a dive, usually to forty or fifty below, occasionally to seventy or seventy-five. I notice the darkness when it gets that cold and when the post-holiday depression hits. Dark. Dark at 9:00 a.m. and mid-afternoon to mid-morning. Six hour days; heavily shaded hours of false dawn grading into twilight.

I always wait too long. Wait until mid-January when I should have done something about it right away. Finally it’s Saturday after a particularly bleak week and it’s time to go find the Sun. To hell with waiting for it to show up. I know it’s out there. Looking north out of my kitchen windows I can see it shining on the mountains across the river.

Jesus, it’s cold out. 45 degrees below zero. Long underwear and windproof pants; wool socks, felt liners and mukluks; wool shirt and down vest, heavy parka and war surplus flight pants; cotton gloves, wool mitts and lambskin gauntlets; two ski masks and sunglasses to keep the wind from freezing my eyes shut. Open the door and slide the snow-go down the ramp, get it started before it cools down (freezes up).

Then it’s out through the village. Already I feel better. Just the motion and the actions of doing something help to shake off the feeling of being trapped that the weather produces. I’m not cold; too much insulation and adrenaline for that, and the snow-go’s twin cylinders throw off at least a little heat, if you consider air warmed up to 0 degrees to be heat.

Out on the road toward Hunter Creek; running slow, partly because of the wind in my face, partially because at these temperatures snow isn’t slippery anymore and the skis feel like they’re being driven through sand. The road forks and I lean off to the left and race down through the willows.

I know it’s time to be careful and I should be driving slowly. Water still forces its way up through the ice at these temperatures and spreads out like a layer of wet concrete, three or four inches thick, crusted on top so that it looks solid, driving into it would be disastrous. The slush would instantly freeze on the machine’s undercarriage and stop me, cold, as they say. I’d have to get off, risking soaking and freezing my feet, haul the rig out of the overflow, build a fire and thaw it out. I’d done that once. No thanks on seconds.

I don’t slow down; instead I speed up, testing my theory that if I’m going fast enough when I hit a patch, I’ll make it all the way through before I freeze up. Today the theory holds or I miss all the wet spots, skirting the smoking open water at the mouth of Hunter and slipping past the cable trolley the miners used to cross the creek during high water or unsafe ice, I head up.

First through the groves of big white spruce, grown straight and tall here where the warmth from the creek waters has kept the permafrost away from their roots. Then up through the old mining cuts, flanked by tailings piles that feel like low hills under their snowy blankets. Then I rumble through a mess, the trail seems to go everywhere and nowhere. Miners have worked this section from rim to rim and the channel has been buried. Only by carefully picking my way and paying attention to the general direction I want to go can I make any sense out of what I’m doing or where I’m going.

A little further on, I pass a cabin, one of the few remaining ones still occupied by miners; a cabin destined to be a movie star in a few years but nobody knew it then. Past the cold storage tunnel and the dynamite shed and on up into the hills.

It’s getting close to noon and I need to hurry, get a little further up the valley before the Sun starts setting in the south. Another mile along, and I pull off near another cabin. Killing the motor, I wait for my ears to stop ringing and slowly begin getting out of some of my cumbersome gear. Open then parka and unzip my pant legs, pull off the masks and gauntlets. It’s time for a walk and working up a sweat can be deadly; safer to be a touch chilly.

Ahead I can see a windsock attached to a long spruce sapling. I shuffle towards it, heading for an old airstrip that’s been cut on top of the tailings here. And I head for the Sun, the Sun I can see shining through a notch in the hills onto a section of the runway.

I’m pleased and also feel just a touch foolish. If my neighbors knew what I was up to they’d think I was crazy. (“Ten miles in this weather to see the Sun? Edder’s gone loony!”) I don’t much mind. I’ll leave them to their I.W. Harpers and beat the cabin fever my way. I do too. Laying there, my back in the snow, watching the Sun and being ridiculously sure I can feel its weak rays. I know that the next week will be better. A cigarette, a cup of coffee and a few rocks thrown into the sunlight’s frozen silence.