I always thought the notion of being a “mean” drunk was an urban legend.

Until, I suppose, a friend and co-worker told me he gets really mean when he drinks.  It was hard to believe, because he’s one of the nicest guys I know. Besides, I’ve been around mean people before, but usually alcohol has nothing to do with it.

When are a couple of drinks one too many? How many drinks does it take to cause one person to open up, another to pass out, and a third to become a mean drunk?

About the only time I’ve ever been exposed to angry drunks is when I worked at Walt Disney World years ago at one of the hotels, and came across my share of drunken guests.  But they seemed angry for a different reason: usually paying hundreds of dollars a night for their room and having nit-picky complaints about it: the washcloths looked dirty, they were promised a feather pillow and didn’t get one, their kid threw up on the bed 30 seconds ago and why didn’t the maid know this was about to happen and stop it. Sigh. In true Disney fashion, I would lie and say there was a nickel-a-drink happy hour special at Pleasure Island if they got over there within the next 15 minutes.  Then they became happy drunks.

Usually when I’m hanging out with who drink, their reaction to booze is different: they get giddy. Silly, even.  They lose their inhibitions and get a little crazy.  They roll out bad jokes and complain about their mother in law in ways they never would without alcohol in their system.  They whisper their secrets to you. They open up.

But mean? I’ve just never seen that. Maybe I just drink with the right (wrong?) people.

For the record, I should acknowledge that I’m not a “fun” drunk, either – but that’s not because I become “mean.”  I’m really not much of a drinker to begin with, and after just a couple of glasses of wine, I’m already starting to fade off into dreamland.  I don’t get grumpy or irritable, but I do get sleepy rather quickly.  I’m notorious at family gatherings around the holidays for fading before the evening news has come on.  I’ve never mastered the art of consuming large amounts of liquor and absorbing it like you were sipping lemonade.  So unless you want to carry me home, passed out over your shoulder, I wouldn’t recommend inviting me to go drinking with you.

But I don’t mind playing designated driver.  In fact, it’s fun.  I can go out with friends and have a non-alcoholic drink, and relax in a very alert fashion while I watch them down one drink after another after another.

The changes come slowly.  The guys ease into the “Yer mom!” slams.  My women friends giggle a lot.  They shift the conversation to subjects we’d never discuss over lunch at work.

It’s not always happiness, though, that bursts forth in these gatherings. Yes, sometimes the conversations get raunchy and explicit, and I find myself squirming and thinking, TMI, TMI. But if alcohol can open you up to be more frank and honest about issues, it’s not just their sex life that people have a strange compulsion to discuss.

When you’re a good listener like I am, and can nod your head sympathetically no matter what the topic, people open up to you in ways you never expected.  But it’s not always on pleasant subjects.  I’ve had friends tell me about their health care problems in excruciating detail, which makes the conversations about sex seem vanilla by comparison.

I’ve also had friends tell me about abusive parents, about the decaying relationship with their significant other, about how depressed they get, about their anxieties over aging.  After a while of listening to them, you start to understand one thing: they’re not looking for answers or solutions.  They just want to vent, to get it off their chest. The alcohol gave them the strength, maybe even the courage, to do that.

There are times when I think I could be a Prohibitionist.  I’m anti-drug, and not just the illegal stuff, but also all that over the counter junk meant to pick you up, bring you down, help you sleep, relax your mood, etc.  When I think about alcohol, I think about all the drunk drivers who have destroyed people’s lives. I think about the torment of being a child raised by two alcoholic parents.  I think about how alcohol has wrecked families – the mean, abusive drunk that I’ve never met coming into play here.

But instead, I take the libertarian view that we’re all better off making our own decisions and charting our own destinies rather than having the government do it for us.  So I stay anti-drug – meaning I choose not to use them because I think I’m healthier without them, while still finding an occasional drink to be well within reason.

I doubt I’ll ever become one of those people who opens up after a few drinks.  I’ll probably always remain the one who falls asleep by the time I finish my second glass of Cabernet Sauvignon.

I have, on the other hand, seen plenty of instances where alcohol became an amazing therapist.  And for all the folks brought down by drink, I’m amazed that I’ve mostly been exposed to the ones who find it liberating …  as long as they’ve got a good listener by their side.  

Contact Michael Freeman about this column at FreelineOrlando@Gmail.com.

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