News and Booze – Our Alcohol-Soaked Culture, And Six Years This Month Of Not Drinking…

My local post office closed down a few weeks ago and the service moved to the newsagents next door. The newsagents has a large sign in the window reading News & Booze and inside, the split of the two is approximately 90% Booze and 10% News.

When I was little, I loved going to the newsagents close to where I lived to spend my pocket money. I’d buy magazines and My Little Ponies, chocolate and stationery items. The shop was about a ten-minute walk from my house, and when my friends and I made the (what seemed like) long trek up there to purchase our weekend goodies, we all felt very grown up.

The News and Booze shop is very different to my childhood newsagents. As I stood in there the other day waiting to post a parcel, I gazed around at the three out of four walls filled with bottle after bottle of alcohol; vodka, wine and whiskey take precedence – I estimated there were at least fifteen different types of vodka on display. As I stood there, a man shuffled in with an empty carrier bag in his hand, embarrassment and shame inherent in his downward gaze. He asked the shopkeeper for a half-bottle of whiskey, and slid it quickly into his bag before paying and swiftly turning on his heel to head out of the door. It was about 11am. I guessed he had been waiting until a ‘reasonable’ time to go out and pick up his morning fix.

Today when I was in the same shop, a woman came in with her two young children. The smaller one, a little girl aged about two, repeatedly wandered to the bottles on the shelf, drawn by the colours on the labels and the shiny glass. She kept reaching out to touch them, entranced by the display that must have stretched up to the sky in her baby eyes. The mother repeatedly drew her back to her side as she tried to work through everything she had come into the shop to do. From behind the counter, the staff member joked to the toddler, “Don’t look at those! You’re not old enough for all that yet”.

And I observed both of these things like an outsider. Alcohol is a strange beast to those of us who used to drink too much of it but now don’t allow it anywhere close. When I drank, I never saw the harm in booze, despite the fact that my life was an alcohol-induced car crash mess – my crap job, my crap relationships, my zero self-esteem, my crap outlook, my crap depression, my crap life. It was all down to drinking too much, too regularly.

But alcohol to me back then was my highly defended best friend – I never blamed it for anything.

Nowadays, when I see alcohol encroach on people’s lives in such negative ways; now, when I see the blanket denial that exists across the board in relation to alcohol and how it never does any harm when we all know it does; now, when I see an alcohol-addicted man shuffle into a post office at 11am on a Monday morning to buy a half-bottle of whiskey; now, when I see toddlers being drawn into jokes about a damaging addictive drug, as if it were no more harmful than lemonade; now, when I see all these things, I feel like an alien. I wonder how those blinkers can be drawn so tightly that people see nothing wrong with alcohol. And yet when I look, I see a poison that nearly killed me and destroyed all my chances at being me, for over twenty years.

We live in a society so awash with booze that it is entirely normal to nip into your local post office to send a parcel, only to be greeted with three-quarters of the wall space filled with vodka and wine. Alcohol is ingrained into the fabric of western society, so entrenched that it can be virtually impossible to imagine living in a world without its omnipresence. And this is, of course, one of the reasons why it can be so difficult to imagine not drinking alcohol – at all, ever again.

More than anything else, the thing that has helped me adjust to being a non-drinker in a world apparently in love with alcohol, is belonging to Soberistas; knowing there are others who share my view of the world makes me feel like I’m not the only one – I’m not fighting this fight alone. Knowing this helps me to see our alcohol-obsessed culture for what it is; the sad outcome of profits over public health, the emergence of alcohol over the last few decades as an incredibly lucrative industry set firmly against the backdrop of capitalist society and a modern world in which lots of people want to escape the daily grind – and are encouraged relentlessly to do so through excessive drinking by alcohol manufacturers.

I am, however, comforted by the knowledge that I’m not the only person to recognise this truth. And I am so very grateful, every day, that I saw the light and waved goodbye to alcohol forever six years ago this month.

img_1168-e1491308621265.jpg

Advertisements

Summer, Soberistas and An Update

In my last post, many months ago, I bowed out of writing my regular entries to this blog other than to update you on the progress of the new Soberistas website. Well, here goes; an update!

We said July, and then it was August. Now it’s September. But finally, it seems as though we are nearly there, on the brink of launching the new Soberistas site. There’s now a designated Forum discussion page on Soberistas.com for anyone with questions about the new site – just click here to take a look. And, on the issue of the long-awaited new site, thank you so much for your patience!

A few months ago, after many a night sitting with my laptop at the dining table, I completed my latest book, The A-Z Of Binning The Booze, a comprehensive guide for helping people to achieve alcohol-free living. After what seems like an eternity (again!), the book will soon be available in eBook format, published on September 10th 2016, and then as a paperback in January 2017 in the bookshops. Alastair Campbell very kindly took a look at my book, and had this to say about it: “This book will help anyone trying to choose sobriety over a life of alcohol dependency. Personal, passionate, convincing.” Thank you Alastair.

Summer is nearly over, and with its imminent departure comes the promise of a return to a more structured existence. The free and easy months between June and August can be a challenge to those of us who don’t drink, not least because of the ubiquitous Prosecco references in virtually every bar, restaurant and shop I’ve walked into recently. I used to find hot weather unbearable when I first quit drinking five and a half years ago; it was so tied up with beer gardens and barbecues and holidays that I always felt as though I was missing out on all the fun.

But as the sober years have passed by, so the desire to drink when the sun appears has diminished, although I’m still aware of how ‘in-your-face’ alcohol is during the summer.

IMG_1825

Last week, I took a short trip to Naples and was struck by how very different the Italian people’s relationship with alcohol is to that of people in the UK.

Every night, we sat and watched a procession of families – young, old, multi-generational – take to the promenade and stroll along, engaged in conversation, looking happy and relaxed, and not a beer bottle or glass of fizz in sight. In the warm, evening air, teenagers joked with their friends and flirted mildly with the opposite sex, couples kissed and gazed into one another’s eyes as they leant against the ancient, stone wall that separates the promenade from the Bay of Naples, and young parents proudly pushed their babies along in pushchairs. Where is the equivalent of this in Britain? A place where people can relax and enjoy the company of their loved ones’ without feeling the need to numb their minds with alcohol? Being there restored my faith in humanity, and I came home with an even greater conviction that we do not need alcohol to have fun, or relax, or for anything else.

As human beings, in our natural states, we are lovely. We are able to communicate properly with one another, to experience emotions fully, to be dignified and proud, and to look serene and healthy. Something went badly wrong with the British culture in terms of the relationship people have with alcohol, but in Naples, I saw a different kind of socialising, a very real and beautiful display of all that we can be as human beings.

I hope you have had a good, restful and alcohol-free summer. Vive la sober revolution!

Lucy xx

Why I Won’t Be Drinking A Pint To Celebrate National Beer Day

Today in the UK it is National Beer Day. This is not an age-old, traditional celebration as you may well have been imagining, but a brand-new invention of which 2015 signifies the inaugural year. I first became aware of National Beer Day as a result of an ironic turn of events involving the lovely people of IOGT International, an email, and a pub in London’s King’s Cross known as The Parcel Yard. Here’s what happened.

Last Thursday I visited London to meet Maik and Kristina (see below – I’m the short one in the middle) of IOGT International (Swedish based temperance movement). I booked us a table in the Parcel Yard and we ate a very nice lunch, drank sparkling water, discussed alcohol policy and how good life is without alcohol, and generally had a productive and enjoyable couple of hours together.

IMG_1056

As a result of this lunch reservation (which I made online) I received an email this morning from the Parcel Yard, which informed me that today is the very first National Beer Day, and to help me celebrate I am entitled to a free pint of Oliver’s Island (never heard of it!) at the pub. Here’s what the email said:

“Hi Lucy

Ale is important. Really important. So important in fact, the British pint was defined for the first time in the Magna Carta on this day 800 years ago! To celebrate this, we’re supporting #BeerDayBritain and want you to join us for a tasty pint of Oliver’s Island. Pay us a visit before the end of the week, show us the code below to get your free pint, and if you’re on Twitter, tweet a photo of you and your friends with your pint and the hashtag #CheersBDB.”

The Magna Carta, the landmark charter of liberties, celebrates its 800th anniversary today. The beer industry has clearly chosen to capitalize on this as a way of boosting sales. Community Pubs minister Marcus Jones got involved in the proceedings which aim to raise the profile of the British beer and pubs industry, and promised to take part in a nationwide toast at 12.15pm today, joining thousands of community pub patrons and beer lovers across the country. This is something campaigners wanted people to capture on social media – using the #CheersBDB hashtag – by posting photographs of themselves with a pint of British beer.

In linking beer with the Magna Carta, the beer industry has been rather clever. Intent on planting an association in the national psyche of beer and what it means to be British, they are hoping for a deep surge of national pride inextricably linked with that wonderful traditional pastime of ours, boozing. And no doubt they will be successful to a degree.

On the National Beer Day website, it states that, “Today beer and pubs are still central to the social health of the nation and in economic terms they contribute £22 billion annually to Britain’s GDP.” There is no mention of the cost of alcohol to UK society, which currently stands at approximately £21 billion per year. It doesn’t take a maths whizz to see that these two figures almost cancel each other out.

I recognise that not everyone who drinks alcohol has a problem with it. I know that for some, drinking can be a pleasurable social activity that does not bring about any real negative consequences. But I also know that as a country, the UK hardly needs any encouragement to drink more; that the number of people under the age of thirty who develop alcohol-related liver disease has doubled in the past twenty years; that liver disease is the only major disease against which we are not making meaningful progress; that the number of alcohol-related hospital admissions each year is 1.2 million; that alcohol costs £11 billion each year in criminal justice costs.

Alcohol is big business. The government continually refuses to either acknowledge or attempt to improve the situation by reassessing its alcohol policies (namely, introducing minimum unit pricing, placing tougher restrictions on alcohol advertising, and raising awareness of the strong links between excessive alcohol consumption and a vast array of diseases and conditions, of which liver disease is only one). David Cameron has made it eminently clear that profits come before public health.

National Beer Day (and other money-motivated alcohol-related events like it) is nothing more than a mercenary, calculated effort to flog even more of a product that causes vast amounts of harm.

The Subtle Impact of Drinking Too Much

blackand whiteI was never a bottle-of-vodka-at-7am type of boozer. I loved alcohol and, as I transformed from a child to a teenager, I never imagined I wouldn’t become a drinker. And I got started early, aged just thirteen. But I (almost) always managed to restrict my consumption to within the realms of social drinking, regular UK-style binge drinking – ‘fun’ drinking. Of course, there were always the exceptions, and, particularly during the last five years of my boozing life, I occasionally veered into the dark world of lone, secret drinking, and seeking a certain level of self-medication via the wine I was buying increasingly more of.

But the metaphorical wheels never fell off spectacularly. I didn’t lose my job, or invite the attention of the social services due to alcohol-related child neglect. I didn’t even look especially booze ravaged, other than on the odd mornings after very heavy, late night drinking sessions.

In fact, right up until I ended up in A&E one morning as a result of passing out after consuming three bottles of wine, I mostly managed to convince myself that the odd negative consequence of my wine habit was just part and parcel of life as a drinker. Blackouts? Didn’t everyone suffer alcohol-induced amnesia once in a while? Snogging someone who I didn’t really like (never mind be attracted to)? It was merely evidence of my rock n roll approach to life. Wiping out yet another weekend due to a debilitating hangover? Ditto the rock n roll lifestyle – I was living life in the fast lane and enjoying myself. Wasn’t I?

The truth was that there were many bad consequences of my habit but I was so accustomed to them because of the longevity of my alcohol dependency that I failed to recognise them as being the direct outcome of drinking: my snappy, uneven mood that manifested itself in me being an inpatient and unpredictable mum; the deeply entrenched feelings of self-loathing that arose each and every time I engaged in regrettable behaviour when under the influence, and lingered beyond; the fact that I struggled just to make it through the morning at work without my hangovers being noticed, ultimately meaning I never strived to excel in the workplace; the endless small change that dripped into the tills at Tesco in exchange for the odd bottle of wine and the accompanying packet of fags, amounting to somewhere in the region of £300-£400 per month; the frequent panic attacks that often rendered me struggling to breathe and terrified that I was having a heart attack. I accepted all of these as life just being the way it was, the hand I’d been dealt.

The thing is that as soon as a few months of sobriety had passed, all of the above were relegated to my history, and I quickly acknowledged that life wasn’t like that for a person who doesn’t touch alcohol. But as a drinker, I was so immersed in the world of hangovers and boozing and planning to drink, that I couldn’t see the wood for the trees. Or, more accurately, I couldn’t see the clear downsides of excessive drinking from the alcoholic fog that I was permanently inhabiting.

If the outcomes of alcohol misuse are not catastrophic, this does not mean that life cannot be immeasurably improved upon by becoming a non-drinker. I will be eternally grateful that I tried my hand at not drinking; it turned out to be the best decision I have ever made.

On behalf of all the ‘Irresponsible Drinkers’ out there…

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.

Booze Britain

“Other explosions, controlled or otherwise, take place every evening in the country’s pubs – those friendly drinking dens for which Britain is famous, and where the emphasis is always social. Intoxicate yourself alone, and you appear pathetic, as though it’s the condition of being you that needs escaping from. Do it in a group, however, and it’s the public condition – having to maintain dignity and self-control and not say the wrong thing – that you are throwing off.”

Leo Benedictus, ‘Is Britain a nation of addicts?’ – The Guardian, Monday 2 September 2013

Leo Benedictus’ article in yesterday’s Guardian is one which I regard as wholly accurate in its depiction of the manner in which Britain has absorbed, across all classes and both sexes, excessive drinking as an entirely normal pastime and one which is rigorously defended by drinkers when faced with the perceived threat of the company of a non-drinker. Simply for their choice to opt for a ‘soft’ drink in a pub when imbibing alongside a crowd of boozers, the teetotaller is regularly singled out. ‘Never trust a man who doesn’t drink’ was a favourite line of an ex-boyfriend’s father, someone who spent inordinate amounts of money on the maintenance of a highly regarded wine cellar.

Turning your back on such a widely venerated substance as alcohol is a lifestyle choice which commonly initiates a variety of unwelcome responses from both family and friends and complete strangers. Whilst some are mildly interested in why your beverage of choice amongst a round of pints and large dry white wines is a sparkling mineral water (“Are you driving/pregnant/on antibiotics?), and some don’t care a jot one way or the other, many can be scathing and downright rude, stunned as they apparently are that anyone should choose not to imbibe alcohol to excess.

If you are one of the many who cannot drink in moderation and who seemingly has no ‘off switch’ (as I am) then it is possible (and preferable for both you and those around you) that sooner or later you will decide that abstinence is the only way forward. As a result it is almost guaranteed that at some point or other your decision will be met with such comments as ‘Oh go on, don’t be dull – surely one won’t hurt’ and that certain members of the drinking population will regard you as weak-willed/boring/a killjoy.

I believe there is something inherent about the British which leads us to excessive behaviour. There is more than likely a degree of truth in the theory that we are somewhat backward in coming forward, a nation of the emotionally stunted and stiff upper-lipped who find it difficult to let rip and just ‘be’ without the aid of such an instant social lubricator as alcohol.

beer-belly

Having not drunk alcohol for two and a half years I have found myself having to relearn how to relax and socialise whilst straight – not an easy task after twenty years of propping up my slightly shy nature with far too much help from the bottle.

I am unbothered by people’s reaction to the fact that I choose to live alcohol-free, whether it be a positive or negative one. I made this choice for my health and the happiness and emotional wellbeing of my family, and it is one which I will forever stand by as the right thing to do.

To those who utter the expression ‘Never trust a man who doesn’t drink’, I would highlight the fact that in the UK, men under the age of 60 are more likely to die as a result of drinking alcohol than from any other cause, that more women in this country are alcohol-dependent than anywhere else in Europe, that deaths from alcohol-related liver disease in the UK have quadrupled since the 1970’s, and that one fifth of British children live with a hazardous drinker.

I believe that living alcohol-free takes balls; it can feel as though you are treading an otherwise deserted path at times, especially when surrounded by people who are all under the influence. If you find it impossible to moderate your alcohol consumption, then standing by your decision to live without booze will go a long way in ensuring that you stay healthier and happier in your day-to-day life, and also in challenging the perception of many that to be a non-drinker is somehow odd. The more people who do it, the less weird it will become.

Something to do at Easter

Yesterday I went out for dinner not far from where I live, in an area filled with bars, eateries and cafes. Trees line the main road from top to bottom and there is a sense of the cosmopolitan about the place. After we left the restaurant where we had eaten in the early evening, I sat in the car for a few minutes with my daughters as we waited for my other half to purchase a few last minute essentials that I’d forgotten to include in the week’s shopping.

From our clear vantage point, we saw a lot of drunkenness; groups of lads out drinking, pairs of girls dolled up in too much make up and high heels they couldn’t walk in, staggering about with bottles of booze and cigarettes dangling from their fingers; older couples – ‘normal’, middle-aged, non-threatening people, just out getting drunk. Because it’s Easter weekend and that’s what people do in the UK.

This morning on Breakfast I watched some footage of the Easter Bonnet Festival which took place yesterday on the streets of Manhattan. It would appear that for New Yorkers, one of the highlights of the holiday is to put huge amounts of effort into making wildly over-the-top Easter headwear (and something for your little dog to wear too, naturellement), and then to showcase the products of your hard labour whilst walking about down 5th Avenue with thousands of others doing the same.

Bandit+Rubio+2011+Easter+Parade+Easter+Bonnet+ZaZUbEs2XWql

I believe that if we invested some creativity and thought into activities in this country that did not involve alcohol, it may go some way to address the binge-drinking problem we have here. Maybe people are just a bit bored, perhaps they cannot think of anything better to do with their Easter weekend days off work than to go out and get drunk.

I’m all for a grown-up’s Easter bonnet parade here in Sheffield – in fact I may just see about organising such a thing for next year (look out Betty!).

NB. For those of you who don’t know, Betty is my Jack Russell/Staffy cross breed.

David Cameron Misses the Point

Earlier this week, I wrote an article about David Cameron’s ‘Alcohol Strategy’ and sent it to Alastair Campbell to see if he would be kind enough to post it on his website. Alastair very kindly published it this afternoon, and you can read it by following the link below.

All comments warmly received – let’s get a debate going!

http://www.alastaircampbell.org/blog/2012/10/26/camerons-alcohol-strategy-is-missing-the-point-a-guest-blog-from-a-recovering-middle-class-alcoholic/