Driven to drink: From many backgrounds, for many reasons, some people can’t stop at a cold one or two
By John Lundy
April 26, 2015
For Michael Walke, the end of his second marriage led to the binges.
“They would be like two- or three-day events, sitting in my chair here,” the retired hospital administrator and amateur actor said as he sat in the front room of his tidy bungalow on West Skyline Parkway in Duluth. “Drinking myself to oblivion and way beyond, and then getting deathly sick.”
“We would get up early in the morning and go to the CHUM, take our showers and change our clothes and eat something for breakfast and then walk around and panhandle for a drink,” said the soft-spoken Hazelrigg, who now lives in an apartment at Duluth’s New San Marco. “And we drank most of the day.”
Matt McIntyre’s drinking began to spiral out of control, he said, when he was still an underage freshman at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
“I had to drink every day or I had to use drugs every single day to get through the day,” the fitness buff from Woodbury, Minn., said. “I didn’t go to class unless I had something in my system.”
Alcohol is a legal substance, consumed by 7 out of 10 of adult Americans, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. The vast majority do so with few or no ill effects.
But a much smaller segment of the population does most of the drinking.
Research shows that 10 percent of drinkers consume 316.5 drinks per month apiece, or 75 percent of all the alcohol sold, said Gary Olson, CEO of the Center for Alcohol and Drug Treatment in Duluth.
“Most people who drink drink responsibly, but most of the alcohol is not consumed responsibly, because 10 percent of the people drink most of the alcohol,” Olson said. “The industry is supported by that 10 percent.”
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 38 million American adults — about one in six — drink too much. That includes people in four categories: pregnant women who drink, those under age 21 who drink, excessive weekly use of alcohol and binge drinking.
The latter is defined by the CDC as men consuming five or more drinks and women consuming four or more drinks on one occasion (within two to three hours).
Talk to the residents of the New San Marco, a five-story brick structure facing Third Street in downtown Duluth that’s popularly known as a “wet house,” and you get a more direct definition.
“Every day,” said Alice Wakemup, 66, when asked to define binge drinking. “Sometimes maybe two cases a day.”
“It’s like drinking every day,” agreed Joseph Michael Goggleye, 50. “A lot.”
However it’s defined, binge drinking crosses income, gender, ethnic and cultural lines — although it’s most common among men, young adults and people who make more than $75,000 a year, according to the CDC. But it can afflict the homeless and impoverished, students, blue-collar workers and professionals.
The cost of problem drinking is substantial: It causes about 88,000 deaths in the U.S. each year, according to the CDC, and costs the economy about $224 billion annually.
Those include the costs of health care from injuries and chronic health conditions; property damage from fire and motor vehicle crashes; increased crime and criminal justice system costs; and lost worker productivity because of absenteeism, diminished output while at work and reduced earnings potential, according to a 2013 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
The annual economic cost in Minnesota, as of 2007, was $5.06 billion or $975 per person, according to the state’s health department. More recently, Health First Wisconsin reported a $6.8 billion annual cost — $1,200 per person — in that state.
It hits the Upper Midwest harder than other parts of the country.
“We … live in the binge-drinking capital of the United States,” said Megan Perry-Spears, dean of students at the College of St. Scholastica.
If applied to the larger region, the numbers support that claim. According to America’s Health Rankings, an annual report by the United Health Foundation, the states with the most binge drinking are, in order: North Dakota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota.
It’s a regional difference that Olson saw firsthand when he moved to the Northland in 1972.
Olson grew up in Los Angeles and was employed at UCLA working with heroin addicts when he decided to make the move to the Duluth area, where he had family.
“I lived in Redondo Beach … (where) there’s probably 300,000 people,” Olson recalled. “And there were probably three bars, and I never saw people drunk on the street.”
He moved here for a job at what then was known as the Center on Problem Drinking. While waiting for the detoxification unit to open, he took a summer job with a road crew on the Iron Range. It was, Olson said, an “eye-opening” experience.
“We were based in Gilbert,” he said. “There were, like, 14 buildings and 10 of them were bars. And they were full every night. … The road construction guys would go out every night and get hammered.”
Olson theorizes that it has something to do with the region’s ethnic heritage. Many people in the Northland have Scandinavian roots, and northern Europe is noted for heavy drinking, he said. There’s also a sizable Native American population. Statistically, fewer Native Americans drink than those in other ethnic groups, Olson said — but those who do drink tend to drink heavily.
Weather also may be a factor, said Roxanne Frederick, health services coordinator at Lake Superior College.
“What do people do when it’s cold out?” asked Frederick, who is a member of the Tri Campus Coalition, a group that seeks to combat alcohol abuse among college students in Duluth. “They get together, they have a few drinks. … The winters are long here.”
And they have little else to do, especially in the small towns that dot the Midwest, said Perry-Spears of St. Scholastica, which also is part of the coalition.
“I grew up in North Dakota, and you live out in the middle of nowhere, and there is nothing to do and it is winter,” she said. “I think there is an element of: ‘Well, what else is there to do?’ ”
‘Alcohol connected me’
Julie Gehlen can relate to that. Now director of the CLEAN program at St. Scholastica for students who are recovering from drug and alcohol addictions, Gehlen grew up in South Range. Her friends didn’t live close by, and few activities were available for students who didn’t participate in sports, she said.
But Gehlen — whose last name until she married was Gronski — never drank when she was in high school, she said. It didn’t start for her until she was a freshman in college in the Twin Cities.
What she found: Alcohol seemed to fill a void in her life.
“My first night drinking was at a frat party, and I remember countless kegs and countless partying,” said Gehlen, now 32.
“I remember always being that person that was left out. I was kind of an extrovert and a person that loves people, but I could never necessarily find the people that I wanted to make connections with. And alcohol connected me with those people — those people that were fun, those people who thought I was fun, and those people that thought that I was everything that they wanted in a person.”
But the alcohol started to take control. Although while she was in college Gehlen didn’t drink during the week, she drank excessively on the weekends, she said.
“Every Friday and Saturday night I would drink to excess till I puked or blacked out every time, and not know where I was, not know what I was doing,” she said.
The alcohol that had helped her make friends started ruining relationships, she said. Her academic life went downhill. She left school and sought changes of location, eventually winding up in Duluth. She chose jobs that involved alcohol, such as bartending or working in a restaurant. She took a job with a car dealership where the executives would entertain with golfing accompanied by cocktails.
“And after they’d leave, I’d stay and have six or seven after that,” Gehlen said.
She had her last drink on Oct. 31, 2009.
That night, after “a horrific night of drinking,” she drove while experiencing what she describes as a blackout. Driving erratically down Rice Lake Road, she struck 18-year-old Alex Balluff, who was walking alongside the road.
Severely injured, Balluff beat the odds by surviving but was left with a traumatic brain injury characterized by severe short-term memory loss. In an instant, his future changed unalterably.
“To be responsible for almost taking someone’s life because of your drinking behavior is a horrific thing to live with,” Gehlen said.
Gehlen was sentenced but placed on probation after pleading guilty to criminal vehicular operation and other charges. She was sentenced to 60 days in a work-release program after violating the terms of her probation in 2011. She had been pulled over for speeding and driving without a valid driver’s license — she believed her license was valid, Gehlen said.
Although she never drank again, she needed a lot of help, Gehlen said. It came from a relationship with God, from 12-step treatment programs, from the CLEAN program. She returned to studies two years ago at St. Scholastica because of that program, served as a student worker last year and became the director last July.
“I had to realize that I really didn’t know anything,” she said of her state in late 2009. “I really didn’t know how to take care of myself, and I really didn’t know what was best for me. Because my best thinking got me drunk every day.”
Whisky with Wheaties
Kenny Nelson’s introduction to alcohol came much earlier in life. Sitting on the bed in his orderly room in the group residential home section of the New San Marco — set aside specifically for individuals with drinking problems — the 53-year-old Duluth native said he was 7 when he poured himself some Wheaties one morning and couldn’t find any milk. His father, who had people over playing poker, poured whisky on the cereal and told him: “Eat them,” Nelson recalled.
He didn’t start drinking in earnest until he was 15, said Nelson, who speaks softly but holds nothing back. His last “dry spell” was when his wife was pregnant with their daughter. His daughter turned 30 on March 30.
But Nelson didn’t really start drinking heavily until seven years ago, when his son died in an automobile accident.
“It was too much for me,” said Nelson, who honors the memory of his son with an elaborate tattoo on his right forearm. “He was 17 when he died. I just keep thinking about it like it was yesterday.”
Nelson eventually became homeless, spending nights in a parking ramp on Michigan Street. He depended on “friends or spare change” to support his drinking. He heard about the New San Marco, inquired and found a place there a year and a half ago.
He loves it there, Nelson said. But he hasn’t quit drinking.
It was early afternoon, and he was asked when he drank last.
“This morning,” Nelson said. “I have to be honest. … But they have me on an alcohol plan where I don’t drink as much as I used to.”
Alcohol ‘was good medicine’
For those who do quit drinking, it’s not always a permanent fix.
“I have lots of practice quitting,” Lori Hazelrigg said, with no trace of irony in her voice.
Michael Walke, 70, knows what it’s like to quit, and then to start again.
He started drinking, Walke said, after returning from the Vietnam War, where he was a combat correspondent for Stars and Stripes. He brought post traumatic stress disorder back with him, although it wasn’t diagnosed until much later.
“The alcohol was a good medicine for keeping the anxiety away,” Walke said. “I was always real careful with my drinking because I wanted to finish college.”
He did, earning a degree in hospital administration. He was a hospital administrator in Two Harbors in 1983 when he founded an outpatient treatment program. Two years later, his drinking getting out of control, he enrolled as a patient in the program he started.
“I had to promise not to pull rank,” he said with a chuckle.
With help from a 12-step recovery program, Walke managed to stay sober for nearly 20 years, he said.
After his second wife left him, he started drinking again for a time. He’s now sober once again.
When he drank, Walke said, it was because of self-pity, anger and resentment. But not really.
“The real reason I binged was because I was a drunk,” he said, in a deep, gravelly voice that has served him well on stage. “We’ll come up with a million excuses for drinking. The sun’s out. The sun’s not out. It’s after 4. … But if we’re really honest with ourselves, we’re drinking because we like the feeling of being drunk.”
It’s not clear why most people drink responsibly while many don’t. Ninety percent of people who drink excessively don’t meet the criteria for alcohol dependence, CDC researchers reported in a study released last November.
For that matter, it’s not clear why people become alcoholics. Studies show that people who have had “adverse childhood experiences” are more likely to become alcoholics than others, said Olson of the Center for Alcohol and Drug Treatment. That seems unsurprising, but researchers don’t know exactly why it happens.
Still, Olson sees it at the New San Marco, a facility whose opening he championed.
“There’s not a single person up there that when you look at their family history you can’t discern that they had some serious adverse childhood experiences,” he said.
Often, they had parents who were alcoholics, or were abandoned and placed in foster care as infants.
Pressure to fit in
In contrast, Matt McIntyre lists supportive family as one of his assets. But he has “bunches of relatives” who have trouble with drug and alcohol addiction, said McIntyre, now a 22-year-old senior at St. Scholastica.
Although he began drinking and using drugs at age 16, the trigger came during that first year away from home at UMD.
“You know, there’s always that pressure to fit in and go out with people, have a good time,” McIntyre said. “Also, the academic pressures that come with college — everyone wants to see you succeed and get high marks to get to grad school.”
After two years, he transferred to St. Scholastica because of its occupational therapy and physical therapy programs. (He’s studying exercise physiology with grad school in his sights.)
But his drinking didn’t change. Finally, during the spring semester of 2014, he realized he needed help.
“One night, I had a long binge,” McIntyre recalled. “I called my brother up and said, ‘Hey, I’ve got a problem, and I don’t know what to do, I don’t know where to go.’ He was like: ‘I know you do. We’re going to get you home, go to the Cities, go to treatment.’ ”
McIntyre said he attributes his change in direction to a higher power.
McIntyre left school for a semester while being treated at a halfway house in St. Paul. When he returned, he enrolled in the CLEAN program.
He has been sober for more than a year.
“I got sober when I was 21,” McIntyre said. “Kind of a rough age, I guess, to get sober.”
Source: “Prevalence of Alcohol Dependence Among U.S. Adult Drinkers, 2009-2011,” U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention