Occasionally I become engaged in conversation with people who are of the opinion that there are two kinds of drinkers in this world; the ‘responsible drinkers’ , people who imbibe nicely and quietly, and don’t cause any noticeable harm to society or to themselves (note the use of the word ‘noticeable’). Then there are the ‘irresponsible’ ones, the drinkers who don’t know when to put a cork in it and switch to mineral water in order to save the NHS and the police a great deal of bother, and to avoid upsetting the ‘responsible’ people by dredging the issue of alcohol up once again (in particular its low cost, ready availability and the largely unregulated advertising and marketing of it) within the media.
The drunk tanks argument, put forward last week by Chief Constable Adrian Lee, highlighted the perceived division of drinkers in the UK as ‘them’ and ‘us.’ Lock ‘them’ up in a cell for the night and charge them £400 for the privilege the following morning as penance for daring to become inebriated on our streets, but please leave ‘us’ alone to enjoy our multiple bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon or Chablis over a delicious Nigella meal indoors.
The ‘us’ in this scenario may not be a drain on society’s resources yet, but an awful lot of them sure as hell will be in twenty years’ time when the health implications of sustained and higher-than-recommended-levels boozing finally catch up with them.
Should we charge the woman who, in her fifties, develops breast cancer as a direct link to her quaffing a couple of large glasses of vino with her evening meal on a daily basis? What about the retired businessman who suffers heart disease in his sixties as a result of the ‘couple of pints and a scotch or two after work’ habit that has defined his existence since his early twenties? Surely they could not be called irresponsible drinkers?
I hold my hand up and say that I was an irresponsible drinker. I drank far too much, on occasion, when my little girl was in bed – not enough to be staggering around bawling obscenities and smashing the place up, but certainly enough to have prevented me from acting quickly and wisely should she have been struck down with meningitis (for example).
What I have noticed in this bizarre and hypocritical nation of boozers in which I live, is that in owning up to the above I have attracted, from some people, a degree of sympathy and pity – as if I am somehow different to they, who more than likely continue to drink far more than is healthy. It is as though in admitting that you recognise the negative consequences of drinking heavily and in doing so decide to cut out alcohol, you instantly lose your membership card of a club – We don’t want you in our group, because you will spoil our fun and highlight what we are doing to our health.
During a radio interview I was invited to take part in last week, the presenter put the proposition to me that the people who cannot manage their alcohol intake in a ‘responsible’ way should be locked up and charged (i.e. thrown into a drunk tank) for their reckless behaviour, rather than the government introduce other measures in an effort to reduce the alcohol-related harm in our country. He said ‘why should minimum unit pricing and better-regulated advertising and marketing of alcohol be imposed, simply because of a minority who can’t drink responsibly? Why should I pay more for my whiskey just because of a few idiots?’
So, there it was – the commonly held perception of those of us who confess to having a ‘drink problem.’ Or was he merely referring to the rough kids on the city streets who swagger around supping from cheap bottles of cider, getting into fights and hurling abuse at others?
The day after this radio interview, Doctor Hilary appeared on ITV’s Daybreak and suggested that there were two distinct ‘problem drinkers’ – those who just drink in a reckless and irresponsible manner with no thought for the people who are charged with clearing up the mess at 2 am, as they slump passed out in the gutter and covered in puke, and those who do deserve our sympathy, the ones who have developed a real dependency on alcohol, and who cannot help their actions.
Would we employ such logic for heroin addicts, where the ‘responsible’ heroin addicts are smoking their drug in a nice living room somewhere, out of sight and out of mind, and the really awful ones are roaming our streets in the early hours, off their heads and discarding used needles willy-nilly for our innocent children to pick up curiously in the morning? Would we support the first group and sympathise with their addiction and berate the second, leaving them to self-destruct?
What is the defining characteristic of a ‘responsible drinker?’ Is it class, appearance, age? Is it whether they drink indoors or out on the streets? Is it their choice of alcoholic beverage that determines their place in the camp of ‘them’ or ‘us?’ Or is it merely because they are devoid of the elusive ‘off switch?’
For all the people out there who do not understand what drives seemingly intelligent people to drink way too much on a regular basis, it may help to know that for many, their repeated drunkenness is part of a journey in coming to accept and understand that this is how they will always drink, that no matter how much they attempt to moderate and drink in a responsible way, the outcome will usually be negative. Partaking in drinking sessions in a culture so heavily marked by its love of alcohol is their way of trying to blend in, to be normal, and to prove that this time, things won’t all go to shit because they do not recognise when they should stop drinking.
Drinking too much happens because the people all around them, and the adverts and films and TV programmes that promote alcohol in a glamorous and sexy way, scream out that booze is actually ok and normal and a good thing to do. The persuasive powers of peers and family and culture permeate the logical reasoning that people with a ‘drink problem’ might otherwise develop.
Excessive consumption of booze occurs because bottles of wine are set out in a deliberately enticing and pretty way in the supermarkets, adorned with price cut labels and buy-one-get-one-free offers. If you are struggling because you are depressed, lonely, miserable, suffering from abuse, financially screwed, hate your job, hate your appearance, hate your life, and the booze is screaming out at you from the supermarket shelves, can you really be blamed for giving into temptation and drinking all your troubles away (or at least trying to)?
And then, when these ‘irresponsible drinkers’ finally get their act together and decide to put an end to the boozy madness, turn AF and get their shit together, they are snubbed by society in general for being ‘boring’, or worse, pitied because they are a ‘recovering alcoholic.’
The hypocrisy surrounding alcohol and the peculiar way in which we, as a civilisation, have come to the common agreement that this drug is ok despite the millions of lives it ruins worldwide each year, but that other substances which result in so much less damage are the work of the devil, is colossal. The story of alcohol in our society is the tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes all over again. And the only ones who can see the truth as it actually is are the people who have taken a step back and chosen to live their lives AF. Bizarrely, we are also the ones who are then pitied and rebuffed purely for having made this wise choice in the first instance.