Wednesday, 29 August 2018

How to make it easier to recognise and address problem drinking

This week the BBC showed a documentary called 'Drinkers Like Me', in which the TV presenter Adrian Chiles explores his relationship with alcohol.  In the words of the BBC, Chiles wants 'to find out why he and many others don't think they are addicted to alcohol, despite finding it almost impossible to enjoy life without it'.  I actually found it pretty depressing viewing as it did almost nothing to investigate the potential for living a happy life without booze, but it did successfully highlight some of the issues I have been reflecting on since I have become sober.  Primarily, it helped to clarify some of the ways we could make it easier for people, who may have an inkling that their alcohol consumption is slightly problematic, to acknowledge and address the issue.

Redefine the term alcoholic 

Throughout the documentary people were stressing that they couldn't be alcoholics because they weren't getting into fights, waking up in shop doorways, vomiting or drinking Sambuca first thing in the morning.  They were all clinging to the fact that because their drinking habits weren't as extreme as more hard core drinkers, they were OK.  This is something I battled with myself before I got sober.  However, I have realised that alcohol addiction has many shades of grey - we don't need to be drinking vodka from a coffee cup at breakfast time to have a problem with alcohol.

I think more should be done to educate people on what 'alcoholic' actually means.  If you look up 'alcoholism' in the dictionary, it defines it as 'addiction to the consumption of alcoholic drink; alcohol dependency' , and if you look up 'alcoholic' the definition given is 'someone who regularly drinks too much alcohol and has difficulty stopping'.  Well, I was definitely dependent on alcohol to help me navigate life: to make me happy, to help me relax, to give me confidence, to help me celebrate, to enable me to bond with people, and to drown my sorrows.  If I hadn't been dependent it wouldn't have been so hard to get used to living a sober life. I also used to drink twice a week and I regularly failed to find my off switch.  That would make me an alcoholic.

Just because we aren't as bad as the most extreme cases, doesn't mean there isn't a problem that needs to be addressed.  If there was more clarity around the signs that indicate we are developing a problematic relationship with alcohol, it would be easier for people to act on it.

Remove the stigma attached to quitting drinking

In the documentary Chiles points out that alcohol is 'the only drug you have to apologise for not taking'.  Tell me about it Mr Chiles!  Over the past eight months I have lost count of the times I have been blatantly interrogated and judged for my decision to go sober.  Ironically, those of us who have quit drinking are the ones who don't actually have an alcohol problem any more!

Last week, The Lancet published research called 'Alcohol use and burden for 195 countries and territories, 1990–2016: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2016'.  This large new global study has confirmed previous research which has shown that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption. The research found that moderate drinking may protect against heart disease but found that the risk of cancer and other diseases outweighs these protections.

This research has been publicised globally and it is being heralded as 'the most important study ever conducted on the subject'.  It is time we faced up to the real dangers of alcohol and applaud rather than ostracise non-drinkers.

Highlight the positives of sober socialising

Throughout the documentary we are introduced to people who admit to finding it impossible to enjoy life without alcohol and Chiles really struggles with the idea of moving away from the allure of the social side of drinking.  Alcohol is so ingrained in our culture that it is the accompaniment to pretty much everything.  However, what does it say about us if we can only enjoy ourselves with a drink in our hand?

Over the past eight months I have experienced sober birthday parties, formal dinners, casual dinners, work events, karaoke, wedding anniversaries etc.  I can honestly say I have had just as much fun as I would have had if I had been drinking, but with the added bonus of remembering everything, not making an idiot of myself and waking up hangover free.  Additionally, I haven't wasted the next day in bed or on the sofa feeling sorry for myself and fretting about what I may have said or done.

Going against the crowd and quitting drinking is tough and at times quite isolating.  It takes bravery, determination and a very strong-will to stand up to the criticism and judgement and set yourself outside the group.  However, that doesn't mean you can't still go out and join in the fun - enjoyable sober socialising is 100% possible.
Sober socialising - just me drinking water by a barrel of wine!

Despite the fact that Adrian Chiles didn't look into living a sober lifestyle, it is really encouraging that documentaries such as this are being commissioned and people are being challenged to reflect on their drinking habits.  I am sure that eventually non-drinkers will become part of the mainstream and we will look back on our drinking culture with consternation.  We just have a bit of a way to go still.

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