You know the old Arabic Genie in a Bottle story: a fisherman finds a washed-up bottle on the beach, opens it, and out pops a huge cloud-like genie (a djinn). The genie tells the fisherman that it’s so angry after having been locked up in the bottle for two thousand years, it will now kill the fisherman in revenge.
The fisherman, pretending he cannot believe that such a big genie came out of such a small bottle, tricks it into demonstrating that it really fits inside. As soon as the genie is back in the bottle, the fisherman quickly seals the bottle again and throws it away.
In my story today, the genie’s name is Alcohol. But this is not about alcoholism: the story of addictive and excessive drinking is a different thing altogether. Luckily, that is not my own kind of problem. And I really have nothing against social drinking, or sometimes a nightcap. If you need to know, for the first purpose I prefer Dutch beer or a white, dry Chardonnay (red wine gives me headaches) and for the nightcap, get me a real Scotch whiskey please (though unfortunately, the best Malt varieties are a little too expensive for me).
What I want to talk about here, is just the emotional effect of a drink – an effect that often is little more than a nuisance, or not even that, but that can become a danger when you are in a depressed state.
Of course I know that the effects of alcohol can vary greatly for different people: so perhaps this particular story (based on my own experiences) does not apply or appeal to you.
Many of us will at times have taken a drink just to cheer up a little. And sometimes, this will work. I think this works primarily not because alcohol cheers us up anyway, but more because it can sideline unpleasant thoughts. At moments when our thinking is something like a negative treadmill, the effect of a drink can pull such thinking out of the treadmill and send our thoughts happily wandering in other, random directions. Sometimes this is just what we need – but of course there is always a catch.
For our emotions are another matter. They are a deeper layer underneath our thoughts, and the effect of alcohol on emotions appears to be different.
My impression is that alcohol will not change, but rather intensify any emotions and feelings that happened to be already present. Like when you are angry and take a few drinks, chances are you will begin to feel even more angry and start quarreling with everyone. Or when you feel sad, after some drinks you will feel even more sad and begin sentimentally crying. Or when you feel merry, now you will start to giggle and laugh about everything. And so on: imagine any possible type of emotion and then imagine the effect of a few drinks. Your feelings get both more intense, and easier to act out.
This intensifying of emotions can (as I already said) sometimes be a nuisance, or just hilarious. But at a time when you are deeply depressed, this same effect can be outright dangerous: for it can intensify your depression too. And once it does, it can send you spiraling further and further downwards. If in that situation you keep trying to cheer up yourself a little by taking yet another glass, you may end up at the bottom of your depression. Overwhelmed and knocked out not by the drinks themselves, but by your own intensified feelings of sheer desperation, hopelessness and indifference.
Perhaps you can recognize a little bit of that mood in the famous 1876 Degas painting L’Absinthe* I want to show you below. It pictures a woman and a man in a café who have just shared a bottle of absinthe (a strong French liquor). The man may have had too much, but at least he’s defiantly looking at something. But note the expression of the woman. She’s not looking at anything anymore: it appears like the drinks have locked her in a hopeless, indifferent depression pit. Staring into the void, she doesn’t even seem interested in taking her last drink anymore.
Edgar Degas (better known for his happy, elegant paintings of dancing girls) made a stir with this painting. To his Victorian contemporaries, it projected such a desolate we-don’t-care-a-shit-anymore alcoholic sordidness that they found it brutally shocking. Prominent art experts condemned it as disgusting, even immoral. One critic in furious indignation called the woman “a whore”, and the painting “a lesson”. It was barred from expositions, and only thirty years later people began to recognize it as a work of art.
I am no art expert, but in my opinion Degas was brilliant here in picturing a case of alcohol-induced depression mood. I also think the empty seat at the left is a nice touch: like that’s where he was sitting and drinking himself, before he got up and pulled out his iPhone. In 1876…
Right. My summary now. When you are depressed and start taking a few drinks, the genie that will pop out of the bottle may likely be your own depression. Amplified.
Oh, did you notice how I pulled off this entire post without using the word “drunk”? That was intentional: for drunkenness was not what this was about.
• tip: At all times when you feel very depressed, stay away from alcohol. At such moments, a drink is more likely to push you down than to cheer you up. And if you use antidepressants, remember that medication can double the effect of a drink.
* footnote. Many people have been fascinated by this painting, and we seem to know almost everything about it. The pair at the table are Ellen Andrée (an actress) and Marcellin Desboutin (a minor painter). The exact location is known, too: Café de la Nouvelle-Athènes, at the Place Pigalle in Paris.
Under different names, this same café existed until 2004 – so as a tourist in Paris, theoretically I may have sat right there myself. Actually I did, of course: I mean not in the same place, but in that same mood.