Today is the first day of not drinking. Just like every day after a binge. And I will continue with this train of thought the rest of the night. And much of tomorrow. But there is a good chance that around 8pm tomorrow I’ll forget- or conveniently ignore- all the reasons I have given myself to not drink.
Like other areas of my life, I’ve never shied away from, or tried to hide the fact, that I have a drink problem. Most people are aware of it. I’ve written about it before over at Shattering the Stigma, and even used the article as the basis for a monologue in a play.
When you have a drink problem there are many who are supportive, but there are many that also refuse to accept that drink problems, and alcoholism, are anything more than selfishness on the part of the drinker. People don’t accept alcoholism as an illness- but addiction is. Addiction isn’t our natural state in relation to things like alcohol, drugs etc. Alcoholism is accepted as an illness by the medical community, whether people accept that or not.
Now I have always skirted around using the word “alcoholic”. I don’t tend to apply it to myself even though others might. I don’t like the word because of the stigma surrounding it. I might fight against the stigma of my mental health, but the stigma of my drinking issues is a little harder to deal with because of the stereotype people have of alcoholics. That they drink from morning to night, that they drink to the extent where they are loners, violent or abusive. That they live in squalor, or are homeless. Though these may be true for some, most people you meet with drink problems will appear disappointingly normal, and you may not even notice they have a drink problem.
To an outside viewer I may well appear to be a regular, functioning person who just happens to like a drink. Well, I don’t “like” a drink. To be honest, I’ve never found an alcoholic drink that I particularly like- I just tend to drink the drinks I dislike least.
Now I know I need to stop drinking. This isn’t really up for debate. When I say I can’t stop though, it may seem weird- I mean, considering what it takes to get to drink number one you’d think it would be simple. In order to get drunk I have to: Get ready to go out, walk to the shops, buy alcohol, walk back, then make the decision to pour the first drink. Surely I could just not go out? Not put on my shoes and jacket? It all sounds so ridiculously simple.
But you need to understand the mind of a drinker.
It’s a compulsion. A need. If you smoke you’ll understand similarly- you could just not buy fags, but you need to. You might even try fighting yourself. The process above is the simple physical actions, but the mental ones are far more bizarre. You see, its almost autopilot, the rational part of my brain is screaming at me yet I silence it. All the way to the shops I tell myself “don’t buy booze, don’t buy booze”. And then I spend some time milling around the shop, walking up and down aisles as if I’m looking for something but don’t know where it is- when actually I’m thinking “Should I get two bottles of cider, or two six packs of cans? Should I maybe get a couple of bottles of wine instead? Maybe some gin?”. But eventually I buy it. Whatever I settle upon. Then it’s the walk back, and all the way telling myself “Okay, you’ve bought it, but you’re not going to drink it”. And then it kicks in- the justification to myself. “Well, I don’t have anything to do tomorrow. Nothing to do tonight. It wont hurt to get drunk”. But it does hurt.
Maybe it doesn’t hurt physically, that comes with the hangover. But if hurts me as a sentient individual. I hate looking back over my Facebook and Twitter the next day, dreading when I open it up to see 5 new messages and 30 notifications.
And yet, I do all of this to myself. I knowingly do it. I wouldn’t say willingly because when you have an addiction its difficult to fight it. It would be nearly impossible to make someone fully understand just how difficult it is to say no if they’ve never had an addiction themselves. Worse still are those who have overcome addictions and rub it in your face “I did it, so can you. You’re just being lazy” they say condescendingly. I’ve heard it said that there is nothing worse than an ex-smoker if you still smoke. There are indeed some, not all- and maybe not even many- that will insist that they did it and if you can’t then you’re weak and worthy of insult and ridicule.
As with the people who insist alcoholism isn’t an illness- this doesn’t help. Shaming people is not a good motivator. Shame me and I’m going to sink back into the bottom of the bottle.
Recently I had a meeting with a therapist about my depression and we talked briefly about how many factors are interconnected. How many are reliant upon the other. I drink, smoke, overeat (To the extent of putting on serious weight) and suffer depressive episodes almost as a package deal. Stopping or dealing with one can help to unravel the threads of the others- if I were less depressed I’d be drinking less, therefore feeling better and more likely to eat better and stop smoking. If I stopped smoking I’d exercise more which would help with the weight and depression and impact my drinking too. If I stop… well, you get the picture.
I want to be very clear- I am not attempting to use my depression to excuse my drinking, only to point out that they are interconnected. Maybe they weren’t always. Like the chicken and the egg I don’t know whether my depression or drink problems came first and which had the greater impact on the other.
What I do know is that dealing with an alcohol problem is incredibly difficult, but also incredibly stigmatised. This is something we apparently choose to do to ourselves- well no one chooses addiction. Its one of those things that kind of creeps up on you and by the time you realise you have a problem you are already in its clutches.
Another issue that seriously needs addressing is our attitude, as a society, to alcohol. Every weekend, thousands (millions?) of people across the county go out and get absolutely steaming. Some several times a week, and they might not see it as a problem, for many it isn’t. But the attitude that this is okay and normal helps to hide the problems many face. If you’re going out three times a week regularly and getting black out drunk, then there’s probably a problem there. Not alcoholism per se, you might be able to stop, but there is something fundamentally wrong with our thinking that we consider regularly poisoning our bodies is a normal and healthy thing to do. And that is directly linked to our attitude as a society that drinking to excess is normal, even encouraged. Clubs promoting cheap shots are absolutely encouraging binge drinking culture. If, as many claim, alcohol is to be savored- like those who collect and drink Malt whisky- then why is there a desire to down shot after shot. You aren’t doing it for the taste but for the drug like effect you get from it. If every Saturday thousands of people congregated in a building to use heroin or opium like the Victorians did, we’d rightly consider that problematic. Yet alcohol gets a free pass. Getting black out drunk is normal and encouraged in our society and there is indeed something wrong there.
Let me clarify- I don’t want people to stop drinking, people can do as they please and if they chose to get black out drunk that’s their prerogative. But to ignore that this is not quite normal and rather damaging behaviour would be foolish.
Now I’ve never been much of a fan for nights out and clubs, my drinking has for the most part been restricted to sitting at home with alcohol. But then again- that’s a problem if I do it by myself. Do the exact same thing with a group of people and its seen as young people having fun. How and why do we draw that arbitrary line? Is the person who goes out three nights a week to drink with friends actually too dissimilar to me? Just because my drinking buddies are Youtube and BuzzFeed and theirs are friends, does it mean that the quantity of alcohol consumed is somehow different? Is their hangover any more or less valid than mine?
This is not me attempting to judge or encourage people to stop drinking, but just trying to address my own thoughts and question our attitude as a society toward alcohol. Blackout drunk alone= bad. Blackout drunk with friends= normal. And I don’t understand this.
Of course societies attitude toward alcohol and how others drink doesn’t address my own alcohol related problems. If society’s attitude changed overnight, I’d still have a problem. Because I’m now at the stage where the culture of drinking has faded and I am now just a drinker. Not a partier, not a student having fun, I’m a drinker. I’m a drunk. At my age it is almost glossed over as well- another key thing about alcoholics is they are middle aged to old. 30 year olds aren’t alcoholics, 20 year olds aren’t alcoholics. No. 45 year olds are alcoholics. And this thinking is also dangerous because by this type of thinking we ignore many, many people who may need help but might not even realise they have a problem because we are told alcoholics and people with varying levels of drink problems and alcohol dependency must fit a certain stereotype.
I have a problem, its too late for me to “not have a problem”. Even if I never drink again, I will still be a problem drinker. One drink and I will fall back into a very dangerous cycle. But this doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try and stop, and it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try and address the drink culture we live in. We are mockingly called “Booze Britain” by many media sources and that’s a worrying nickname. Raising minimum alcohol prices may stop people buying as much booze as frequently but seems to be putting a plaster over a broken limb. The attitude and culture will still exist. And until we address the cause, all we do is deal with the symptom and hope for the best.
How can we address this problem? How can others avoid going down my path? I don’t know. But as with all things, speaking about it is a good start.