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My drinking problem taught me a hard truth about my home state

Whether it's pursuit of Wisconsin's best beer or too many liquor store runs, the deeper issue is mental health.

Brian Reisinger
Opinion contributor

The lonely streetlight shone like a full moon just for me as I tipped the liquor bottle into the night sky. It was my first time drunk 鈥 mouth numb, head singing 鈥 and trouble was on the way.

First when my parents heard their teenage son was drinking in the middle of town. But much more to come.

It would take years to admit I had a drinking problem. Not seeing it kept me from a healthy relationship with alcohol, and myself. Finally facing it led me to a deeper truth about one of Wisconsin鈥檚 defining cultural characteristics: We must address mental health if we want to stop ricocheting between avoiding and condemning what alcohol means to our home state.

Looking back I can see how my life was primed for alcohol abuse. Growing up on a farm in Wisconsin 鈥 proudly one of America鈥檚 top alcohol states 鈥 in a family descended from German immigrants known for hard work and harder drinking. Later working in journalism then politics, two famous drinking professions.

But, as legendary country music drunk , I had choices.

Alcohol a challenge, cultural touchstone in hard-drinking Wisconsin

A customer enjoys a non-alcoholic beverage at Hekate Cafe and Elixer Lounge on Jan. 20, 2023 in New York City. Alcohol-free bars, dance parties and 鈥渟ober curious鈥 events in New York City are experiencing an uptick in popularity with people drinking less and looking for alternative solutions to enjoying nightlife not centered around alcohol.

As a boy I sat on my grandpa鈥檚 work shoes watching game shows as he snuck me sips of beer. Over the years various family and friends emerged as alcoholics 鈥 sometimes facing job loss or jail, sometimes concealing the turmoil. Others were good role models, people like my dad who shielded us from excessive drinking. Some adults in my life were both.

For me alcohol would be both a challenge and a meaningful cultural touchstone.

Drinking less is having a moment.The sober curious movement is making me wonder why I drink at all.

From early on, I struggled to live up to my dad, a third-generation farmer with talents for cattle and tractors I lacked. As I got older I learned he stood for a disappearing way of life I worried I didn鈥檛 fit, despite his love and support.

College offered new sources of self-worth, and a writing career that would wind through the worlds of journalism then public policy in Wisconsin, Tennessee and Washington, D.C. Drinking followed: College keggers, , D.C. happy hours.

There was good and bad. Harmless party nights drew my sister and I closer after I left home. Darkened barrooms built some of my best friendships. But then there was the first time I chugged a beer before work on the worn linoleum floor of my apartment kitchen. It wasn鈥檛 long before I was many years past college, still doing all-night happy hours several nights a week, followed by weekend benders. Drinking when nobody else was became common.

I rationalized I was just taking the edge off my stressful, driven career. But I was also numbing a feeling I had let my family down, as the first eldest son in four generations not to farm. Drinking let me look away.

The night I called my future wife drunk and broke down crying

Wisconsin is proudly one of America's top alcohol states. We must address mental health if we want to stop ricocheting between avoiding and condemning what alcohol means to our home state.

I want to be careful to not equate my experience with others, and I鈥檓 not claiming to face the same challenges as someone with . I鈥檓 lucky: In the dozen years of my hardest drinking, from age 19 to 31, I didn鈥檛 destroy what I was working toward in life, nobody got hurt, and I never had a relationship destroyed.

But I taxed them. And it took years of growing professional responsibility, finally becoming clear in D.C., to start moderating. Returning to Wisconsin offered ways to reconnect with our way of life 鈥 from helping my dad, to deepening family ties, to spending time on our land, to writing 鈥 but I still fought an urge I didn鈥檛 understand.

Deer hunting is dying.That should worry you even if you don't hunt.

It was dark and lonely the night I called my future wife, and broke down crying. I was unexpectedly drunk, needing a ride, and finally wanting to talk to a therapist. Through years of working on my mental health I realized I felt I was failing people, tying all the way back to childhood.

There are people with problems they can curb, like I was lucky to do. Others face steeper biological alcohol dependence, and decide to quit altogether. But these days I believe whoever it is, we must take a sober look to help them identify their deeper issue, if we want a healthy pastime.

Some issues heal over time. Recently my first daughter was born, and I went to a favorite supper club to get carryout our first week home. I had a cocktail waiting at the bar, and despite the stress and fear of failure accompanying my joy, I felt no need for another.

I finished up, and went home.

Brian Reisinger grew up on a family farm in Sauk County, Wisconsin. He contributes columns and videos for the Ideas Lab at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel,聽where this column first published. Reisinger works in public affairs consulting for Platform Communications. He is the author of the forthcoming book "."

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