Looking back on some of America’s most celebrated novels, it becomes clear that excessive alcohol consumption was commonly romanticized, glamorized, and depicted as an essential part of human relationships.
This is especially apparent in literature published throughout the Roaring Twenties. The period’s most notorious author, F. Scott Fitzgerald, not only cemented its debauchery and excess in his writing, he and his wife downright embodied it.
Today, it’s difficult to glorify alcoholism because we’ve come to understand it as a serious and debilitating disease. We know that excessive alcohol consumption is responsible for 88,000 deaths per year, and that patients being treated for related conditions occupy nearly half of the beds in US hospitals. Lots of studies have shown that alcohol negatively impacts the emotional, mental, and physical health of people who over consume it. And, we are also aware of how alcohol abuse can destroy the personal and professional relationships of the afflicted.
Scott Fitzgerald’s own life was broken by his long and painful battle with alcohol addiction. Born in 1896, the bright young man eventually went on to attend Princeton University. Although his time there isn’t well documented, there’s reason to believe he spent more time drinking and writing than actually studying. By 1917, Scott dropped out of university and enlisted in the United States Army. He met his future wife, 18-year old Zelda Sayre, while stationed in Alabama’s Camp Sheridan.
The couple wed in 1920 and quickly gained notoriety in all the right social circles thanks to the success of Scott’s first published novel. But, their newly found lifestyle of perpetual excess didn’t last. By 1924, the issues that plagued their personal life started to become public. And as the young couple attempted to deal with them, Scott’s severe alcoholism and Zelda’s impeding mental breakdown put the disintegration of their relationship on the fast track.
It’s hard to imagine how the lives of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald would have turned if they were alive today. Thanks to psychology and neuroscience, we now know significantly more about what drives human behavior; why we succumb to mental illness; how to treat severe anxiety and depression; and what makes us abuse alcohol and other substances. We also understand the importance of supportive networks, early intervention, and accessible therapy for successful recovery.
But, what can we learn about relationships and alcohol abuse from the most famous celebrity couple of the Roaring Twenties?
“Addiction: First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald
Scott’s alcohol addiction began years before he met Zelda. Although we can only speculate about what led him to drink as much as he did, there’s reason to believe it had a lot to do with his lack of self-esteem. Fitzgerald was clearly talented, but he never graduated from Princeton, had his first novel rejected for publication, and when he initially asked Zelda for her hand in marriage, she refused because he didn’t have enough money to support her.
Individuals with low self-esteem are prone to taking up behaviors that help them mask or temporarily forget about their insecurities. Carole Bennett, M.A., an author and family substance abuse counselor, believes “some alcoholics are shy, introverted people. Chances are they suffer from low self-esteem issues, and have relied on the effects of alcohol to help them come out of theirs shells, be more gregarious and approachable.”
A strong support system would have been immeasurably helpful for the writer, but because of Zelda’s own fracturing mental state, she was not able to provide it. However, one of the things that could have substantially helped Fitzgerald kick the habit is cognitive behavioral therapy. Because its goal is to help change a person’s understanding of themselves, their world, and the triggers that set them off, Scott’s self-esteem issues could have been resolved, or at least gave alcohol less power over him.
“Enabling: What’ll we do with ourselves this afternoon? And the day after that, and the next thirty years?” – F. Scott Fitzgerald
In 1925, the couple became acquainted with Ernest Hemingway and other members of The Lost Generation while residing in France. Together, they spent their days attending lavish parties, engaging in excessive drinking, and dabbling in other forms of substance abuse. In other words – the group enabled their own alcoholism, and especially that of the Fitzgeralds.
Today, the couple would have likely been advised to cut those ties. Most substance abuse counselors believe that being around people who engage in destructive behaviors is too difficult for recovering drug and alcohol addicts. It’s important for their environment to be free of temptation, especially if they are prone to excessive substance abuse in social situations, which Scott most certainly was.
However, according to Gabrielle Glaser, psychologists at the Center for Motivation and Change reject “the A.A. model of strict abstinence as the sole form of recovery for alcohol and drug users”. Instead, they try to solve the emotional and behavioral problems that may cause addicts to drink by using motivational interviewing, psychotherapy, and goal-oriented counseling.
“Support: Sometimes I don’t know whether or not Zelda and I are real or whether we are characters in one of my novels.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Although Ernest got along with Scott, he and Zelda did not. She claimed that the men were involved in a homosexual relationship. He claimed that Zelda encouraged her husband to drink when she was bored waiting for him to finish working. Allegedly, her boredom led to an affair with a young Frenchman, to which Scott retaliated by sleeping with a prostitute. These events only worsened Scott’s drinking and contributed to the onset of Zelda’s mental illness in 1930.
Today, the spouses would have been encouraged to seek professional help in dealing with their personal and marital issues. According to William Fals-Stewart, PhD., “involving partners in the treatment at some point can be very important in helping the treatment succeed. It is also very important that the problems in the relationship be treated…Many couples are both surprised and disappointed that they continue to have many fights and arguments after the substance abuse has stopped.”
Chances are, the lives of the Fitzgeralds would have been completely different had they been alive today. Considering how far we’ve come in treating different types of relationship issues, mental disorders, and substance abuse problems, Scott and Zelda may have successfully resolved their conflicts and lived happily ever after. Instead, they tragically died 8-years apart. Scott suffered a heart attack when he was 44. Zelda was killed in a fire that overtook her mental institution when she was 47.