We are drinking ourselves into a state of oblivion

  • Post category:News

Our country’s alcohol problem is leading to an alarming disconnection from each other and from ourselves, writes a practising psychotherapist.

From Independent.ie

I guess I should declare from the start that I have a problem with alcohol – more than one, actually. My father – a regular at the 19th hole – was a heavy drinker while I was growing up. A few years ago, a relative had to go into rehab for alcoholism. My partner likes to drink, and as I’m sure he’d tell you, it’s been the cause of many rows over the 10 years we’ve been together.

So I have a few issues with drink… well, that’s putting it mildly – I’m fast getting to the point where I just can’t stand it, where it’s making me upset, angry and actually quite scared for the future.

I’m so tired of hearing media commentators saying on the one hand, yes, this country has an issue with drink; and then on the other joking about the regulation hangover after the night before, thereby helping to normalise what is a huge societal, family and individual problem.

As a psychotherapist, I deal both with clients working through the traumatic after-effects of growing up with parents who were alcoholics, as well as the young man or woman for whom going out anywhere and not drinking, a lot, is complete anaethma. I’ve seen the results of parental alcoholism on children, the trauma it inflicts – with clients, with myself and with my partner.

As a boy, my partner used to come home from school and sometimes struggle to open the door because his mother was passed out drunk on the other side. Just recently, he was taking our dog for his last walk of the day at around 11pm and came across a woman walking with a little boy, who was probably four or five years old. The woman was drunk, and was loudly berating her son: “Youse won’t even look at me… you’re so ungrateful for all I do for you…” The little boy caught my partner’s eye and what my partner saw there was shame. Embarrassment that this was his mother. I imagine my partner saw a little of himself in that little boy, so upset was he when he came home and told me about the encounter.

In fact, I don’t think I have any clients without a story to tell of how drink has negatively affected them, their families or their friends.

One former client, who I’ll call Patrick*, told of being horrifically attacked by his drunken dad when he was about nine, managing to escape and hiding in his locked bedroom until his mother came home. His dad fell into the category of the aggressive drunk, and my client bore the brunt on more than one occasion.

Another former client, Beth*, talked of having to have a few drinks before seeing friends – meeting them sober was just too difficult. What might they be thinking of her, how might they be judging her appearance? So she drank to calm the fears.

It’s why I believe many people drink – to dampen down anxiety. The kind of anxiety that is fed by thoughts such as “I’m not good enough”, “I’m not as cool as my other friends”, “I don’t have anything interesting to say”, “I’m not good looking/thin/clever enough”. The kind of anxiety that just knows you are being judged by someone, and judged badly. These may sound like teenage-type fears, but it’s not just younger people thinking in this way; social and generalised anxiety is widespread.

There will be people who will say, “oh you’re over-reacting, it’s always been like this and many other countries are just as bad”.

But I think our drink problem now is worse than it’s ever been. One of the reasons? Technology. Do you see all those people you walk by in the street, or in the park, or sit next to in the bus, who are in their own little worlds listening to their iPods or eyes fixed on their iPhone/iPad?

A friend’s daughter flat-out out refuses to walk the dog unless she has earphones to listen to her iPod, she needs that kind of ‘barrier’ to go out and face the world.

We’re all hiding from one another, it seems, and social networks and increasing technology help us to do that. Alcohol is also really effective at concealing the ‘real us’.

I said earlier I was scared for the future, and this is why: because of the growing sense of disconnection that alcohol feeds into – not only disconnection from each other, but from ourselves. Don’t take my word for it – the National Suicide Research Foundation published statistics last week that found alcohol abuse was a factor in nearly 50 per cent of suicide cases, not surprising with the mood-altering, depressant effects of alcohol already well known.

When did we get so scared of each other? And by that I mean, when did we stop really connecting with people – admitting our weaknesses, our anxieties, our real likes and dislikes, revealing our own uniqueness? When did we decide the only way to live life was by fitting in, by looking to others to decide for us what we should be like, ignoring our own inner voice, ie, what we think, what we want to do?

But it’s not just low self-esteem, confidence issues, depression, anxiety or peer pressure that are to blame. I believe part of today’s drinking culture is narcissistic – that sense of entitlement that many younger people now seem to have.

How many 20-somethings do you know who are still at home – maybe they have a part-time job, but of course not enough to enable them to live independently. They’re not asked to pay rent by their parents, who possibly are happy to have them stay at home because it stops them facing what’s missing or wrong in their own lives. So they foster their adult children’s dependence with nice easy lives – laundry done, meals cooked, etc – and whatever money they have they’re free to spend on the nice things in life: make-up, getting their hair done, clothes, a new phone… and lots of alcohol and drugs.

Whatever they want, they expect to get; and ideas like working hard for what you want, sometimes going without, having willpower, etc, are just foreign to them.

I can quote you statistics from some of the most recent research – for example, a National Advisory Committee on Drugs survey, carried out in late 2010 and early 2011, found that one-third of 18- to 24-year-olds were downing four-and-a-half pints or one-and-a-quarter bottles of wine on a night out – in other words, binge drinking. But this level of intake is modest compared to what I hear regularly in my consulting room.

A standard night out? Well, that could be three or four ciders or half a naggin of vodka before going out; then seven to eight pints while out – and a lot more if you wanted to get completely out of it. And then there’s the new trend – instead of just a pint per round, you get a shot and a pint each time. No wonder none of our “children” can afford to leave home these days, their drink bills are just too high.

So, what’s the answer? Do we all just continue to buy into this as a cultural norm – we’re Irish, this is just what we do. Or, do we each ask ourselves what we can do to help break down this hugely damaging ‘groupthink’ that has taken over our society?

It may mean arriving sober for a night out, saying “no thanks, I’ll switch to coffee/water/juice now” after the second pint/glass of wine. It may mean friends looking at you suspiciously, saying “what’s wrong with him/her?”. But seriously, do you really want friends who don’t respect your choices?

Taking personal responsibility, daring to be vulnerable, to be different – it’s not easy, it’s not popular, but it’s the only thing I can think of that may, just may, put us on a more sober, connected road.

*Names and details have been changed to protect identities. The writer is an IACP-accredited counsellor and psychotherapist practising in Dublin