By Camilla Tominey in ‘The Spectator’, 1 February 2020
I’m not one of these teetotallers who frowns on people who imbibe, like an angsty ex-smoker who petulantly swats away vape fumes. It would be rather hypocritical because for years, I was what you would describe as a ‘problem’ drinker. In the sense that, every time I drank it caused problems, not only for me but anyone in the vicinity.
You know those people who end up going home in an ambulance instead of a taxi? That was me. Alcohol didn’t make me unwind; it made me unravel. Having grown up with an alcoholic mother I knew I wasn’t addicted to the stuff — it was more a case of bring allergic to it. So after a solid 15 years of drunken escapades, most of which I don’t remember, I knocked it on the head.
That was about a decade ago. I don’t know exactly. I don’t count the days, unlike those who consider abstinence to be some sort of prison sentence. If anything, I feel quite free — compared to those poor souls who struggled through dry January as if it were a form of self-inflicted purgatory. So go ahead, have one for me. But must you always feel the need to?
The mere fact that Brits were reduced to furiously googling ‘dry January tips’ after emerging, bleary-eyed, into the start of a new decade, suggests that the nation’s relationship with alcohol is way beyond abusive. For far too long now, booze has become a weapon of coercive social control. Take one ‘drink aware’ website which somewhat hysterically advised the gin-deprived to: ‘Keep reminding yourself of the benefits!’
It added: ‘Checking off another No Drink Day on your Drink Tracker is a sure-fire way to keep you motivated throughout the month,’ as if appealing to addicts shooting up crystal meth.
Of course, alcohol is more pervasive than any other drug you can think of. So much so, in fact, that it is much more socially acceptable to drink than to abstain — as I and my fellow ten million teetotallers know only too well. Try going to a wedding without either being pregnant or on dialysis and telling fellow guests you’re planning to lay off the prosecco. They’d honestly react more favourably to you drunkenly jumping the groom in the middle of the father-of-the-bride speech.
Getting plastered is generally regarded as a form of entertainment. Sobriety is viewed as the ultimate fun sponge; a state appropriate only for young children, the very old, the deeply religious or people who don’t know how to download an Uber app. This needs to change, and not just because the normalisation of heavy drinking has seen alcohol-related hospital admissions rise by 15 per cent and alcohol-related deaths rise by 16 per cent over the past decade. Booze remains a factor in two in five violent offences in England and Wales
Britain is a country of humour and merriment. But a society that appears unable to mark any major occasion, or indeed any occasion at all, without raising a glass (or three) is essentially alcohol-dependent —which poses significant challenges not only for our front-line emergency staff, but our relationships with each other. And on public services: the economic burden of alcohol can be estimated at anything up to £50 billion. Factor the hard stuff into all the times you’ve fallen out with your friends, had arguments with your partner, shouted at the kids or generally made the wrong decisions in life, and the true cost is incalculable.
There is no real measure of the familial burden of living with a parent that drinks too much either. In my mum’s case, she lost everything — her looks, her marriage, her children and ultimately her life. She drank herself to death by 54.
According to the National Association for Children of Alcoholics, one in five children are affected by parental boozing — that’s more than 2.5 million youngsters. Yet because of the culture of secrecy around alcohol, many of them are suffering in silence despite being twice as likely to experience difficulties at school, three times more likely to consider suicide, five times more likely to develop eating disorders — and four times more likely to become alcoholics themselves.
To break the cycle, we have to break the silence. Yet while the UK has taken brilliant steps to end the stigma around mental health, there is still no ‘national conversation’ around alcohol that extends beyond: ‘So how many did you have last night?’ I suspect you probably know someone who is a functioning alcoholic (it might even be you), but I bet you a 12-pack of Heineken 0.0 per cent you’ve never properly spoken to them about why they are knocking back so much on a daily basis.
Drinkers are not being honest with each other — let alone with themselves. Although alcohol consumption appears to have gone down in recent years, thanks in part to the government’s new lower unit guidelines, it is widely accepted that people lie about how much they drink. (Believe me, I only ever had a couple of pints. What I used to fail to mention was that it was Rioja.) A study in the European Journal of Public Health found that when you ask people what they ‘typically’ drink, their response tends to miss out the binge-drinking sessions. A report by BMC Medicine found that ‘special occasion drinking’ added over 120 million units of alcohol per week to consumption in England alone. That’s a lot of wasted calories and ruined nights.
But change might be coming. Health-conscious millennials seem to be embracing abstinence. Those aged 16 to 24 are now less likely to drink than any other age group, but they haven’t become recluses in the process (despite their well-documented addiction to TikTok and the like). On the contrary, they are helping to fuel a boom in sales of non-alcoholic beer, wines and spirits, which reached a record high last year. ‘Sober curious’ socialising has even seen an alcohol-free bar, called the Virgin Mary, open up in Dublin, of all places.
So yes, there is another way. These days my biggest problem with alcohol is that drinking has become our default setting.
Camilla Tominey is an associate editor at the Daily Telegraph.