Alcohol Awareness Month – Two Sides to the Drinking Equation

Alcohol Awareness Month – Two Sides to the Drinking Equation

Alcohol Awareness Month – April, 2014 – raising awareness about both sides of the drinking equation.

There are two sides to the drinking equation – the person doing the drinking that causes drinking behaviors and the person on the receiving end of the drinking behaviors – that is, the person experiencing secondhand drinking (SHD).

It is an unbalanced equation to be sure.

Raising awareness about both sides of the drinking equation - drinking behaviors and secondhand drinking.

Alcohol Awareness Month 2014 Raising awareness about both sides of the drinking equation – drinking behaviors and secondhand drinking.

The secondhand drinking side is conservatively estimated to be five times the number of persons on the drinking side. This means approximately 90 million people are directly affected by SHD – a person’s drinking behaviors, while roughly two to three times that number are indirectly affected.

As such, it is likely most readers know someone or know someone who knows someone or they are the someone who has experienced secondhand drinking. For secondhand drinking is the term to describe the negative impacts that coping with, or being forced to cope with, a person’s drinking behaviors has on others – the co-worker, fellow-student, innocent bystander, spouse, child, parent, in-law, close friend – even the tax payer and citizenry of a community.

Adding Secondhand Drinking to the Alcohol Awareness Month Celebration

April 2014 marks the 27th annual Alcohol Awareness Month celebration. It was founded and is sponsored by the NCADD (National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence), and this year’s theme is “Help for Today. Hope for Tomorrow.” This theme was chosen “to draw attention to the pervasive impact that alcohol, alcohol-related problems and alcoholism has on young people, their friends, on families and in our communities.”

So part of my effort to spread the word about April as Alcohol Awareness Month this year is to raise awareness about the other side of the drinking equation – the side of secondhand drinking. This awareness effort is not about stopping a person’s right to drink. It is about sharing the impacts, causes and remedies of SHD in order to help the 90 million Americans directly affected and the millions more who are indirectly affected.

What Happens to the Person Experiencing Secondhand Drinking?

To give you an idea, ask yourself if you (or someone you know) have been on the receiving end of behaviors described in the above sidebar? Have you ever experienced the repercussions of those exchanges – deeply hurt feelings, coping with the fall-out of someone driving while impaired, trying to survive in a neighborhood riddled with nightly drinking behaviors and paying the social costs thereof – especially the trauma impacts on children, recovering in hospital from a concussion after a brutal beating, debilitated by depression or anxiety, forced to leave work frequently with crippling migraines, taking medications for stomach ailments or sleep disorders, questioning yourself and believing somehow there was something you did to provoke the behavior or just being the innocent victim of a person’s drinking behaviors or another’s SHD experiences?

Take Joanne, for example…
Joanne was the designated driver for her company’s Happy Hour one evening. She sipped her Diet Coke® with lemon and watched her co-workers’ antics escalate as each one insisted on buying the next round. She’d spent most of her time talking to the woman from accounting who had stopped drinking after the second round. But Joanne lost control of her car on the drive home, when her last drop-off, Jackson, the most intoxicated of the group, grabbed the steering wheel, shouting, “Turn here!” Jackson had unclipped his seatbelt just moments before and was thrown from her car when it rolled on impact. He is quadriplegic now; Joanne refuses to leave her house.

Joanne’s secondhand drinking experience freeze-framed that moment in time from whence her life was chunked as “before the accident” or “after the accident.” And it sent secondhand drinking ripple effects deep and wide throughout Joanne and Jackson’s extended families, as well – a young man in a wheel chair completely dependent on 24/7 care, remodeling the home, changing jobs in order to share caregiving shifts, draining all financial resources for medical bills, marriages destroyed under the strain as siblings’ lives were consumed with helping Jackson – and equally Mom and Dad, legal wrangling to get coverage from Joanne’s insurance, even though it wasn’t her fault; and – a young woman’s family emotionally processing the inconceivable, relieving the horror for months on end through depositions and endless hours of insurance and legal dealings, constantly searching for how best to help their daughter overcome her despondency and despair, wondering if Joanne will ever get married, have children or become the vibrant, talented, lover-of-life Joanne she was – before the accident.

Or Susan…
Secondhand drinking is what happens to Susan most nights when her husband, who repeatedly promises to stop or cut down on his drinking, can’t seem to keep his promise. When Susan confronts him, he starts his offensive attacks. He accuses her of checking up on him and stares her down as he pops open another beer, and asks, “What’s the big deal, can’t a guy have a couple of drinks after a hard day at work.”

Susan gets defensive and soon they are engaged in a crazy, convoluted argument. The next day at work as a detective with the Oakland Police Department, Susan rehashes those arguments over and over in her mind, unable to fully concentrate. Her co-workers know something of what she’s going through and cover for her because “she’s such a good person,” and “it’s what we do.”

But there’s more. Suzanne’s partner and fellow detective is experiencing major stress-related symptoms due to his constant worry about Susan’s ability to “cover his back” when out in the field. He keeps having to pick up the slack back at the office, as well, while she robo-dials her husband and spews seething sound bites of what happened last night when he does answer his phone. And now her partner is going home tense and angry and has trouble sleeping at night.

Or Adam and his mom…
Secondhand drinking is what’s been happening to Adam and his mom, who are the family of a veteran who turned to alcohol after his tour of duty ended –alcohol to relieve his untreated PTSD, fears he will never find a job and confused feelings about returning to civilian life.

Secondhand drinking is the impacts of a person's drinking behaviors on others. These impacts can cause significant harm to a person's physical and emotional health and well-being, as well as the quality of their life.

Secondhand drinking is the impacts of a person’s drinking behaviors on others. These impacts can change a child’s life, and through that child, change the experiences of fellow classmates, as well.

For Adam, the SHD was most obvious at school. One example occurred on a Monday after a particularly rough night of his parents arguing about the drinking and his dad’s “accidental shoving” of his mom. Adam couldn’t concentrate in class and was embarrassed when his schoolmate snickered because he failed to answer the teacher’s question. He was fuming by recess and tracked down his classmate, punching him in the face. For that, Adam was sent to the office, only to have his parents called because he’s a behavioral problem – again. Adam’s mom had to take Personal Time Off (PTO) from work to go pick him up. Though she has PTO, she knows her boss and co-workers are fed up because her absence will mean another delay in the production schedule. She checks the review mirror to change lanes en route to Adam’s school but rests momentarily on her reflection, startled that it’s her face – she looks nothing like she remembers.

But it’s not just Adam whose classroom experiences have changed. Through him, SHD unwitting passes along to his teacher who now dreads Fridays (along with Mondays) as that’s when Adam really seems “off” [what his teacher doesn’t know is that things at home get even crazier on the week-ends and that this is due in part to the unhealthy coping skills his mom has developed around the SHD]. His teacher leaves her home running through scenarios of what she can do to help Adam, beyond not calling on him in class, because Adam “is getting worse” – he goes “looking for trouble” and usually finds it. She knows this “whole thing” is unfair to the other students, who keep losing lesson time when Adam experiences one of his outbursts, but she also knows being sent to the office isn’t helping Adam change his behaviors. Lately her principal has been questioning her ability to control her class.

and John’s Co-workers….
Secondhand drinking is what happens to John’s co-workers when he shows up for work hung over more times than they care to count. He’s their shift supervisor and the only certified forklift operator. They know he is still impaired – it’s obvious. But what can they do? He wasn’t drinking on the job, and besides, what are they going to say? He’s their boss. So they go along with John getting behind the wheel, in spite of the risks to their safety.

For more on the impacts of Secondhand Drinking, please click here.

What causes drinking behaviors?

Obviously, it’s drinking. But this is where things usually go sideways because people offer all sorts of excuses for the drinking behaviors because “s/he’s not an alcoholic” or “he hadn’t eaten all day” or “she’s such a nag, she provoked him.”

The fact of the matter, however, is that drinking behaviors occur when a person drinks more than their liver can metabolize (get rid of). Contrary to popular belief, a person cannot vomit, urinate or sweat out the alcohol – it only leaves the body through the liver. And ON AVERAGE, it takes the liver about one hour to metabolize the alcohol in one standard drink. [Notice I said, standard drink. 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of regular beer and 1.5 ounce shot of 80-proof hard liquor are all equal to one standard drink.]

This average of one hour to metabolize one standard drink can vary widely depending on gender, stage of brain development (meaning teen brains don’t handle alcohol the way adult brains do), whether taking medications, genetic differences, mental illness, stress – there are a host of reasons to explain why one person drinking 2 drinks results in drinking behaviors and another person drinking the same two drinks does not.

Not only all of this, but because of the way the body processes alcohol (through the liver and not the digestive system), it means drinking water, eating a big meal or taking a walk around the block will not sober a person up. The only thing that does is time – time enough for the liver to rid the body of the alcohol in each standard drink. Six drinks will take six hours.

And while the body waits for the liver to metabolize each standard drink, the chemical in alcohol – ethyl alcohol – is traveling though the bloodstream to body organs that are highly vascularized (lots of blood vessels), like the brain. It “sits” in these organs waiting to be metabolized by the liver. While waiting to be metabolized by the liver, the alcohol chemically changes brain function that in turn changes a person’s behaviors. Too much alcohol for their brain and a person slurs their words, can’t think straight (as in thinks they’re good to drive or insists on arguing some random, stupid point), stumbles, looses coordination, says those mean, nasty things, experiences memory lapses, starts a fight – all because the ethyl alcohol has chemically changed the way their brain works. It is these brain changes that cause drinking behaviors, the direct cause of SHD. But as we saw in the examples, there are indirect causes of SHD, as well – like the stress impacts Susan’s partner experiences or the regular disruptions of class experienced by Adam’s fellow students and teacher.

Celebrate Alcohol Awareness Month – Raise Awareness About Both Sides of the Drinking Equation…

Raising awareness about both sides of the drinking equation - drinking behaviors and secondhand drinking.

Raising awareness about both sides of the drinking equation – drinking behaviors and secondhand drinking.

Since NO ONE SETS OUT to cause secondhand drinking and NO ONE SETS OUT to cope with it in unhealthy ways, BreakingThe’s 2014 Alcohol Awareness Month celebration will run posts throughout the month to raise awareness about both sides, including how to remedy the impacts of SHD. In the meantime, here are links to previous posts to help with raising awareness:

Understand How the Body Processes Alcohol – Reduce Secondhand Drinking
What to Say to Someone With a Drinking Problem
Secondhand Drinking Prevention
Screening for Alcohol Misuse and Secondhand Drinking

And if you prefer the more traditional celebrations of April as National Alcohol Awareness Month, click on this link for logos, proclamations, press releases, background information, etc., as provided by NCADD.


© 2014 Lisa Frederiksen

In case you are reading this out of sequence, here are the links to all posts in this series:

© 2014 Lisa Frederiksen

Lisa Frederiksen

Lisa Frederiksen

Author | Speaker | Consultant | Founder at
Lisa is the author of hundreds of articles and 11 books, including "If You Loved Me, You'd Stop!," "Addiction Recovery: What Helps, What Doesn't," and "Secondhand Drinking: the Phenomenon That Affects Millions." She is a national keynote speaker with over 25 years speaking experience, consultant, and founder of She has spent more than 14 years studying 21st century brain research in order to write, speak, and consult on substance use disorders prevention, intervention and treatment; mental disorders; addiction (aka substance use disorders) as a brain disease; adolescent addiction treatment vs adult addiction treatment; effective treatment for co-occurring disorders (having both a substance use and mental disorder); secondhand drinking | drugging; help for the family; and related subjects. In 2015, she founded SHD Prevention, providing training and consulting to companies, public agencies, unions, nonprofits and other entities to address the workplace impacts of employee secondhand drinking and alcohol misuse.
Lisa Frederiksen

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13 Responses to Alcohol Awareness Month – Two Sides to the Drinking Equation

  1. Herby Bell says:


    Here’s to the 90 million…Yeeikes, and that’s probably a conservative number after reading your excellent, relatable and true-to-life examples. It’s an interesting exercise in OMG to think back on being on the other side of the equation, the drinker and the thought process there. Those, my own, coping mechanisms in dysfunctional relationship with SHD coping mechanisms and man, you make something VERY clear that can often escape understanding.

    Thank you for continuing to bring this awareness with such clarity, especially on the eve of April and Alcohol Awareness Month. Another great post.

    • Thanks so much, Herby – I’m glad to hear it resonated for you. And to your article and new term, “Go-Brainer” (love that, by the way!), for both sides, healing their brains and thus changing their lives and behaviors is the key, with four of the basic brain healers being: nutrition, exercise, sleep and mindfulness practices with healing work around trauma (such as that experienced when growing up with untreated alcoholism or SHD). Thank you for sharing your experiences!

  2. Hi Lisa,

    Great information here. I agree that there are two sides to the drinking equation. That is why it is critical that people get outside help when a family member’s drinking has a negative affect on family members. One of the reasons I like CRAFT so much is that it gives family members tools to use when they encounter the drinking behavior, things that can make a difference. Thanks for sharing this important message!

  3. Beth Wilson says:

    Hey Lisa,

    Having worked at an NCADD affiliate (in Kansas City), several years ago, I have a huge appreciation for all the folks “in the field” who share this sort of useful, information, and easy-to-understand information. Like Herby, I’m guessing the 90 million number is low which brings a twist in my gut for the lives I impacted with my disease. But how far we’ve come. No one was using the term second-hand drinking back then and the shame and stigma associated with alcoholism was much higher than today. Your readers should take heart that we’re living in better times and the more we bring the darkness into the light, the better our future becomes.

    • I so agree with you Beth. All of the new brain and addiction related research is giving us a new, common language that can shatter the stigma and misinformation that keeps all of this so shrouded in secrecy and shame. Thanks much for your comment!

  4. Susan Broderick says:

    Hi Lisa-
    What a great piece – thanks so much for posting this! I am currently serving on the Board of the NACoA (National Association for Children not sure if you remember me, but we spoke on the phone a couple of years ago. I am a former prosecutor in long term recovery and trying my best to raise awareness in the child welfare and justice systems. Would love to catch up with again – your writing is just amazing!

    All my best-

  5. Susan Broderick says:

    Hi Lisa-
    What a great piece – thanks so much for posting this! I am currently serving on the Board of the NACoA (National Association for Children of Alcoholics). We have a Board meeting this weekend and I am going to print copies of this for all of the members! I am not sure if you remember me, but we spoke on the phone a couple of years ago. I am a former prosecutor in long term recovery and trying my best to raise awareness in the child welfare and justice systems. Would love to catch up with again – your writing is just amazing!

    All my best-

  6. Alcohol Awareness Month – a worthy observation. And, given the statistics you’ve provided, it sure makes sense the awareness ought to extend to the less “PR’d” side of the equation (the SHDs). I don’t know, Lisa, may we call them victims? The impact is absolutely astounding – devastating. During a session yesterday a middle-aged client expressed how deeply it still hurts that her mother was a “drunk” when she was growing-up. She loved her mother so much, and remembers her as beautiful. But there was just no way my client could have received what she so desperately needed from her mother. Sad. Well, then, what more proof do we need that the SHD side of the equation needs to be recognized – especially during Alcohol Awareness Month. As always, thank you, Lisa…


    • Thank you for sharing your client’s story. I hear that sort of thing, so many, many times – from children, spouses, parents, siblings…. And it’s important we address it and raise this awareness because the emotional and physical health impacts of SHD are huge and devastating. I appreciate you reading and commenting, Bill!

  7. Lisa, I would like your permission to use this article. My county will be voting on June the 8th to make the county wet. I want to raise awareness about the harmful effects of alcohol.

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