The Friday Fermentable: Apollo 11 edition: Trying not to harsh on your Buzz

Please accept my apologies in advance for taking another edition of The Friday Fermentable to bring you a sober (pun intended) story about alcoholic beverages. The heat, beginning training for a half-marathon, and other stuff have my personal alcohol consumption at nil so I don't have any recent wine or beer finds to share with you, Dear Reader.

Moreover, there have been some prominent stories as of late relating to alcohol and substance abuse such as the pharmacology and toxicology of Michael Jackson's death (which we've discussed here, here, and here) and the prevalence of alcoholism in the food and beverage industry. In addition, my professional interactions with real-life and blogging colleagues have renewed my interest in drugs of abuse, particularly since a great many of these agents are (or are derived from) naturally-occurring chemical compounds.

But if you want something fun about finely fermented beverages, please revisit the rosé wine promotional music video from my local heroes, the owners of the Durham, NC-based artisan wine/cheese/bread/beer/cured meats purveyor, Wine Authorities. I am still peeing my pants everytime I watch this.

i-eefa1d13dfb0f30fee5ab7fd20796568-Buzz Aldrin Magnificent Desolation.jpg

But my serious topic today relates to the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 space mission: a book released on 23 June by Apollo 11 astronaut and second man to walk on the Moon, Col. Edwin Eugene "Buzz" Aldrin, Sr., entitled "Magnificent Desolation: The Long Journey Home From The Moon." In partnership with writer Ken Abraham, Aldrin details his life before, during, and after his central role in one of the greatest accomplishments in human history.

From the Random House book description:

The flight of Apollo 11 made Aldrin one of the most famous persons on our planet, yet few people know the rest of this true American hero's story. In Magnificent Desolation, Aldrin not only gives us a harrowing first-person account of the lunar landing that came within seconds of failure and the ultimate insider's view of life as one of the superstars of America's space program, he also opens up with remarkable candor about his more personal trials-and eventual triumphs-back on Earth. From the glory of being part of the mission that fulfilled President Kennedy's challenge to reach the moon before the decade was out, Aldrin returned home to an Air Force career stripped of purpose or direction, other than as a public relations tool that NASA put to relentless use in a seemingly nonstop world tour. The twin demons of depression and alcoholism emerged-the first of which Aldrin confronted early and publicly, and the second of which he met with denial until it nearly killed him. He burned through two marriages, his Air Force career came to an inglorious end, and he found himself selling cars for a living when he wasn't drunkenly wrecking them. Redemption came when he finally embraced sobriety, gained the love of a woman, Lois, who would become the great joy of his life, and dedicated himself to being a tireless advocate for the future of space exploration-not only as a scientific endeavor but also as a thriving commercial enterprise.

Aldrin's story holds great fascination for me on many levels. During the Apollo 11 mission, I was four years old sitting on the floor of our rented bungalow in Ocean Beach, NJ, listening to coverage with my family on AM radio. My childhood was closely identified with the space program and, like many kids my age, I wanted to be an astronaut. The highlight of elementary school was when my folks took my sister and me to Florida when I was in 2nd grade and we visited then-Cape Kennedy. The passing of Walter Cronkite tonight brought back very warm memories for me as his was the voice I most closely associate with those halcyon days.

What shocks me is that I never learned until today that Aldrin was born, grew up, and went to high school barely 10 mi/16 km from where I spent my first 17 years (Aldrin's official NASA biography). Our home state of New Jersey gets some terrific ridicule around the world but I can't believe that even our own schoolteachers didn't share with us that Aldrin was a homeboy; this fact should have been a source of great local pride. Finally, as my closest readers know, my dear father was another notable New Jersey man like Aldrin who suffered from alcoholism and depression (Dear Dad, With Love.).

Extensive excerpts from Aldrin's book are available at the website of the NBC Today Show together with a video of his interview with Matt Lauer. Here's a good sample of Buzz Aldrin's personal story from the Today post:

More and more, I turned to alcohol to ease my mind and see me through the rough times. Because I could handle my drinking -- or so I thought -- and could consume a lot of alcohol without becoming uncontrollably inebriated, I refused to see it as a problem. I had been relatively open about my battle with depression, but I was not so forthcoming about my drinking problems. As far as I could see, there was nothing wrong. It was a time when almost everyone I knew was drinking heavily, so why not me?

When I was not drinking, my thoughts tended to lead me to a deeper sense of self-evaluation and introspection. What am I doing? What is my role in life now? I realized that I was experiencing the "melancholy of things done." I had done all that I had ever set out to do.

Worse still, when I left NASA and the Air Force, I had no more structure in my life. For the first time in more than forty years I had no one to tell me what to do, no one sending me on a mission, giving me challenging work assignments to be completed. Ironically, rather than feeling an exuberant sense of freedom, an elation that I was now free to explore on my own, I felt isolated, alone, and uncertain. Indeed, as a fighter pilot in Korea, making life-or-death decisions in a fraction of a second, and then as an astronaut who had to evaluate data instantly, I consistently made good decisions. Now, as I contemplated asking Joan for a divorce, I found that I could not make even the simplest decisions. I moved from drinking to depression to heavier drinking to deeper depression. I recognized the pattern, but I continually sabotaged my own efforts to do anything about it.

In searching for other commentary on Aldrin's book, I came across some superb wisdom on a blog I had never before encountered, The Discovering Alcoholic.

In addition to offering my sincere congratulations to all the Apollo 11 crew for their achievements and longevity, I would like to make two points about addiction. First, Mr. Aldrin is an extremely accomplished man; cadet, fighter pilot, scientist, and one of only twelve people ever to set foot on our moon, his long struggle with alcoholism and depression is testimony to the fact that addiction can strike anyone regardless of their strength, intelligence, and strength of will. Secondly, regardless of what has happened in the past whether it be astounding success or gripping failure, there is always something to look forward to in recovery.

This quote reflects for me perhaps the most important point of this entire post, facts that I have learned in my experiences from growing up in an alcoholic family all the way to my professional interactions with basic and clinical research colleagues in alcohol and drug abuse, substance abuse counselors, and musician friends and others who are predisposed to some manner of addiction. No matter your station in life, successes or failures, rich or poor, roughly 10% of the population will have debilitating problems with chemical dependence at some point in their lives. I have great admiration for Colonel Aldrin: a prominent American hero who has come forward to fearlessly discuss his own issues on the anniversary of this technological triumph. I hope that his story further humanizes the disease of substance abuse and fosters more compassion for those and their families who are so afflicted.

I want to close on one bit of light-heartedness (but not for the filmmaker below) regarding the fact that some still contend that the moon landing was an elaborate governement conspiracy intended to fool the Soviets that we had beaten them. This story was brought to light for me by blogger Greg Laden:

On September 9, 2002, filmmaker Bart Sibrel, a proponent of the Apollo moon landing hoax theory, confronted Aldrin outside a Beverly Hills, California hotel. Sibrel said "You're the one who said you walked on the moon and you didn't" and called Aldrin "a coward, a liar, and a thief." Aldrin punched Sibrel in the face. Beverly Hills police and the city's prosecutor declined to file charges. Sibrel suffered no permanent injuries.
source: BBC

You can send the Jersey boy to the Moon, but you can't take the Jersey out of the boy.

More like this

This week we celebrate the anniversary of the first time human beings walked around on the moon, and as part of that celebration we find NASA releasing improved versions of the original scratchy black and white low resolution images of the first steps taken on the moon by Neil Armstrong. I'm…
This is K2. 11 people died this month trying to climb it. At 28,251 ft (8,611 meters), K2 is the second highest mountain on this planet, and is technically a much more difficult climb than Everest. I've never climbed anything higher than a few hundred feet. Even a passenger jet slashing through…
"Geologists have a saying: rocks remember." -Neil Armstrong Looming up above us, hundreds of thousands of miles away, is the largest moon in the inner solar system: our Moon. Image credit: © 2004 by Ulli and Christian 'Pete' Lotzmann. One of the greatest achievements in the history of our planet…
Three incredible, little-known things about the Apollo 11 mission: 1. Although everyone knows what Neil Armstrong said as he hopped out of the landing module, I've always preferred Buzz Aldrin's elegiac phrase, "Beautiful. Beautiful. Magnificent desolation." This leads me to the next point. 2.…

Thank you so much for this post.
I am a recovering drug addict and am in the process of applying to graduate programs. I have a stellar GPA, have assisted as an undergraduate TA, and have been engaged in research for over a year.
I also have felony and was homeless for 3 years.
I don't hide my recovery from people once I know them, but I sometimes, especially at school, am privy to what people think of addicts when they don't know one is sitting next to them. It scares me to think of how to discuss my past if asked at an admissions interview. Or whether it will keep me from someday working at a university.
I've seen a fair amount of posts on ScienceBlogs concerning mental health issues and academia, but this is the first I've seen concerning humanizing addiction and reminding us that addiction strikes a certain amount of the population regardless of status, family background or intelligence.

I really appreciate this post. Thank you.

@CPP - thanks, homie!

@Anon - Thank you so much for your appreciation. It is I who should be thanking you for coming by to share your story and let us know that very high-functioning and intelligent people can still get dragged down by their biology and situations.

I've served on PhD and PharmD admissions committees and can tell you that if you have come back from from addiction and homelessness to make the decision to go to graduate school, I am in awe and give your tremendous credit. You have far more fortitude and resourcefulness than many of us; if you can come back from those challenges, I anticipate you will do far better with the demands of graduate school than those who did it the "easy" way.

Yes, the felony will stay with you for a time depending on the state you are in and some applications will require that you disclose it, certainly if you are to be employed as a TA or RA during graduate school. However, this does not disqualify you from acceptance for stipend employment as you have seen from serving as an undergraduate TA.

If you don't mind, I would like to repost your comment as a full blogpost here and solicit input from our readers who are involved with the administration of graduate programs. I assume from your spelling that you are in the US and not one of the commonwealth countries.

I equally appreciate you coming by to share your experience and concerns. You are most certainly not alone and I applaud you for having fought this cunning and baffling illness. Comments like yours remind me why I blog. Thank *you*!

@k8 - yes, I'm looking forward to reading it after Unscientific America and Wicked Plants.