As someone who uses alcohol as a prop myself, I can see there’s a problem

  • Post category:World News

More nagging about  booze. How  tiresome. A  new study, from the universities of  Newcastle and Sunderland and published in the public health journal BMC, claims that: “Middle class professionals who drink at home are the country’s biggest problem drinkers because they think they know better than health experts.” I’m not sure that drinking because you think you know better than experts can really be  more detrimental to health than drinking because you have absolutely no idea what experts may think. But nevertheless, the study does offer some insight into the nation’s alcohol habits.

From The Guardian

By Deborah Orr. Friday, May 10, 2013.

The authors of the report are very keen on emphasising the social issues that emerge from their research. The people they surveyed believe that because they aren’t driving while drunk, or getting into fights in the street, or vomiting in gutters, or breaking the law, or ending up in A&E on a Saturday night, then they are drinking safely.

The report suggests that the government and the media have placed far too much emphasis on the antisocial aspects of alcohol abuse, leading people to persuade themselves that if they are not drinking lairily in public, then that’s good enough. Yet, the report warns, these people are still drinking enough to  damage their health, and put an extra  burden on the NHS.

What’s interesting is the way the subjects of the research tend to justify their relationship with booze. A pattern emerges whereby simple alcohol dependence is placed in a justificatory framework as a treat that has been earned, rather than a craving that has been indulged. One of the 49 interviewees even claimed that having a drink after the children went to bed “makes me feel like an adult again”. Weird. There’s nothing in this world, surely, that makes you feel more like an adult than being a parent, having total responsibility for a life. If anything, a  drink makes you feel a tiny bit less responsible, a tiny bit less like an adult. But people will come up with all kinds of reasons to justify the fact that they feel a need to have alcohol. I will, anyway.

Typically, people said that alcohol helped them to relax, manage their stress levels, or get off to sleep. I can certainly identify with that. Yet, in truth, alcohol is the solution to only one problem, and that’s awkwardness in the early stages of a social gathering. But people aren’t drinking at home, alone or  with their nearest and dearest, in order to break the social ice. Home is supposed to be a sanctuary from all that stuff. The worrying thing about all of this talk of using alcohol to manage stress or regulate sleep is that it suggests that alcohol is being used not for enjoyment, but for self-medication.

Former Corby MP, Louise Mensch, wrote a piece for her blog, Unfashionista, explaining that in her case, this was  exactly what was happening.

Recently diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, she found that having the condition treated also lessened her desire for a big glass of wine in the evening. She now barely drinks, and is evangelical in her exhortations that others should consider doing so as well. The more important point is that if you feel that you need alcohol to get you through the day – however you choose to justify it – then something is probably up, something that could be tackled better using a less broad-brush technique than drowning your sorrows.

The mistake “health experts” make is  failing to understand that general pleas asking people to moderate their drinking in a vacuum, regardless of the personal situations or pressures they feel offer justification for alcohol use, are  just too big an ask. Indeed, Mensch herself misses the point. She stopped drinking because the problem that was compelling her to drink was tackled.

The “health experts” of the survey aren’t offering such a service. They’re focused on the problems that alcohol is  causing, rather than the problems that alcohol so very often is, however crudely, addressing.

Many people see neurological conditions such as ADHD, or psychological conditions such as stress, as a fad, and the huge rise in their diagnosis a signal that the whole world is looking for an excuse for personal failings. This is an  almost hilariously ignorant view. Subscribing to it is a baseless act of faith,  central to which is the belief that the human brain and central nervous system, in all its myriad complexity, always develops typically, without any physical flaws or systemic malfunctions, and always should be able to bear the demands made upon it.

The view that diagnosis of neurological atypicalities, or psychological symptoms, has become much better is a  far more likely explanation. It’s also likely that the contemporary world demands much more of the human brain, and therefore exposes its frailties  more starkly.

The trouble with the “health experts” cited in the research is that they have tunnel vision. They see alcohol as causing physical health problems. If  the  alcohol abuse stops, then the physical health problems will stop. But  it’s actually quite likely that lots of  alcohol abuse is the result of stress, worry or other mental health problems, large or small, and may well be a cheaper way of dealing with those – in the short-term anyway – than more sophisticated medical intervention.

How many people have looked back  on periods in their lives when they  drank too much, and declared that back then, they were really screwed up?  Masses. I’d say that where the experts go wrong is in emphasising the  consequences of alcohol – whether they  are long-term health problems or  short-term antisocial behaviour problems – rather than the troubles that drinking can be the consequence of. If you’re so stressed by putting your children to bed that you feel you deserve to  reward yourself with a glass of wine when it’s over, then there’s something wrong, with them or with you.

Certainly, such an approach would take the shine off the pervasive idea in  the UK that drinking to excess is glamorous and wild, a sign that you’re Good Fun. (One to which I subscribe myself – I’m writing here as a person who does use booze as a prop, not someone who thinks they know better.)

The thing is that everyone knows there’s a line beyond which drinking stops being an excellent shortcut to a  top night out and starts being self-destructive, frightening or dangerous. Perhaps it’s time to start asking whether that line should be drawn using the impersonal logic of units per day, or  with more unsettling suggestions about what an inability to drink sensibly may say about the state of people’s heads or their lives.

One thing’s for sure: you can only ever say that it’s your own business and  nobody else’s if you’ve taken out private health insurance. Annoying as it  might be, the idea that the state should have a role in telling you how to  behave in your own home goes hand in hand with the idea that looking after the health of the nation is and should be  part of the work and responsibility of  government.