'Understanding Addiction' Series: Battling the Bottle

John Larson served as Marathon County Medical Examiner for years, and for much of that time, he was also living with the disease of alcoholism.

But, unlike the people he worked on, Larson lived to tell the story to help others.

"For me, it was an escape from phones," Larson said, "pagers and some responsibility."

Larson, who is now retired, was responsible for determining cause of death, but at the time, death was staring right back at him in a liquid form.

"Everybody deals with stress. My job included stress," Larson said. "I can't blame my job for my alcohol abuse. I will never do that."

Larson said his alcoholism started at the age of 15.

"We'd bail hay. We'd work hard all day, and when you were done, if you worked like a man, you could have a beer like a man," Larson said.

At age 52, Larson said he drank almost 30 beers on a day, lost two wives because of his disease and after years of seeing almost half of the bodies he'd work on die with an alcohol component, his denial became a reality: he was addicted.

"You should ask yourself, 'who is coming first?'" Melissa Dotter, of Marathon County Health Department, said. "'Is it your friends and family? Or, is it making sure you get your alcohol for the day?' It doesn't have to be those psychical symptoms to know you have a problem with alcohol."

In 2011, excessive drinking in Wisconsin resulted in 1,529 deaths, 48,578 hospitalizations, 46,583 treatment admissions, 60,221 arrests, and 5,751 motor vehicle crashes, according to The Burden of Excessive Alcohol Use in Wisconsin report.

The report also said Wisconsin ranks No. 1 in binge drinking and in intensity of drinking.

"If they're addicted to alcohol, it's the picture of stumbling in the gutter, have the brown paper bag. It's not that," Dotter said. "It's all professions. It's all levels."

Addiction and alcoholism affects all ages, a new University of Michigan Institute for social Research Study released Monday said 1 in 5 seniors in high school binge drink, and 1 in ten extreme binge drink, which means more than 15 drinks in a short amount of time.

"Parents also need to model behavior. So don't tell your child don't drink alcohol when you've come home intoxicated," Sue Nowak, alcohol and drug specialist, said.

For Larson, he said he sees alcohol differently now, and is proud to be sober.

"I see alchohol almost as a loaded gun," Larson said. "I can put a beer or a drink in my mouth, or I can put a loaded gun in my mouth. The effect is going to be the same. One is going to be a lot messier than the other, and it's not the gun."

Larson isn't drinking anymore, he's been recovering for 3 years.

"Am I ashamed of it? Certainly." Larson said. "But I can't change it. No matter what I do, I can't change it."

Even though he's retired from his medical examiner days, and he doesn't have to look death in the face again, Larson doesn't have any responsibility other than himself.

"My sobriety is my first priority," Larson said. "Without my sobriety, I will have no life."

Larson said for him, drinking was a recreation, and he always put his career first.

NewsChannel 7 will continue to dig into the issue that impacts families in our area through our "Understanding Addiction" series in September.

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