Neknominated

There have been lots of headlines about the Nek Nominate craze in the past week, and plenty of people and organisations weighing into the argument about what it all means and how it can be stopped.

For those that don’t know, it is a craze where people film themselves drinking ridiculous/dangerous concoctions, and then nominate another candidate to do the same, usually with increased risk and quantity of booze.

The media loves this sort of story. It is a recognisable craze, which comes with its own shocking footage, and the deaths that have been associated with it are genuinely alarming. Added to that, it is a craze which has floated up from the murkier depths of the internet, which always makes it a story. Maybe it is even tempting to imagine that without these new technologies, we wouldn’t be in this mess.

The phenomenon was supposed to have started as a joke in Australia, another nation with a fixation on drinking bravado, though perhaps not as heavy drinking on us (more on geography to come in a later post).

There have been calls for Facebook and Twitter to intervene in some way. I doubt whether this would actually be effective however, and any warning messages might even encourage it more.

It’s a long time since I would have contemplated drinking two pints of gin, and even when I did, it would have been over a (reasonably) longer period of time than the seconds it takes to down them. I still can’t help but think such things take hold in cultures which already have a bravado around drinking.

Why wouldn’t this take off on the internet, in a place where people routinely get bullied into doing shots on a Friday night, or even drinking in rounds, which generally pushes everyone to drink at the same pace as the fastest person?

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Dating and drinking

If I was looking for more evidence that we are living in a booze-obsessed culture, I found it in an article about dating in one of the women’s weekly mags. Some Americans had written a book about the “rules” of dating, which all verged on the high camp, so old-fashioned were they (and all predicated on the idea that all women are desperately trying to find a husband in order to validate their existence, tedious).

The Americans had advised, among their least ridiculous tips, to abstain from drinking on a first date/s, while the editors had added the caveat that “you might want to have one or two drinks, just to calm your nerves.”

It was striking that even in this situation, where you might have an imperative interest in remembering what the other person says and maintaining razor-sharp judgement throughout the night, the British default response is that having no alcohol is unthinkable. I have often been in conversations with people who have suggested “one or two” as the answer to difficult situations in which others are drinking. It proves to me that some alcohol at least is considered the norm, while total abstention is viewed as an extreme, even impractical or unrealistic approach.

Where do these assumptions come from? Why do we talk in the playground to each other without needing a social lubricant, but then hit our late teens and can’t talk to strangers without it? What happens to our confidence that we can’t meet strangers sober, that the very idea is thrown out before being properly considered?

I must come clean here. I’ve  had “one or two” on a number of occasions now, with the almost superstitious fear that doing that might be the road to ruin. Another unquestioned assumption is that all those who drink too much will have to abstain forever or risk falling back into old habits. I know there are people like that, and I have no idea if I will continue with this approach or go back to nil by mouth, but so far I have been able to have a single glass of champagne at weddings/Christmas parties etc. with no ill effects. I will keep coming back to this here, as I do think the existing approaches to problem drinking deserve more scrutiny and analysis.

That declared, the British way of combining vast amounts of booze with their love lives seems nothing short of disastrous to me. When I first started dating (I hate that word, but that was what it was) after giving up booze, lots of friends openly told me it would be impossible sober. Best have one or two, then. There is no doubt it was incredibly nerve-wrecking, but equally I didn’t end up in the arms of anyone I didn’t really like, and felt pleased with myself that I was able to do it. We all have to do job interviews sober, so why not this? One guy who I met and liked was so drunk on the second occasion, I texted him to cancel our third date, saying I thought our different drinking habits made us mis-matched. He didn’t even respond.

Another guy tried to hug me and hold my hand not long into the first date. When I said afterwards there wouldn’t be a second, he apologised and said he’d had a lot to drink beforehand. Yet another was clearly upset about getting to nearly 40 without getting married. Which I would never have known about if it wasn’t for his habit of drinking at home alone and sending me bizarre, slightly alarming and dreadfully maudlin chat messages about his desperation to settle down. The assumption was that whatever you do in drink, no matter how unpleasant for others, is basically ok and not to be judged by sober standards. I ended that one as well.

In yesterday’s Sunday Sun, in the Fabulous magazine that comes with it, a sex survey revealed that 46% of British people surveyed had had sex they were too drunk to remember. I suppose for the majority, it just wasn’t very good, but for others, these experiences are disturbing and lonely. The alternative to the painful process of internet dating, which we Brits generally drink heavily through, is the meeting of bodies in a mentally unconscious state, and the waking in an unknown bed with pounding head, overwhelming nausea and no recollection of how you got there.

I promise that I do try to avoid taking a judgemental or opinionated approach to this topic, as I know that I used to drink a lot myself, and there are no easy answers to a lot of this. Not every drunken experience is terrible, even including drunken dates and liaisons. However, I can’t help but think we’d actually have a lot more success meeting potential partners without being so hammered all the time.

Why do some people get addicted and not others?

Sugar-10

This is the question that I come back to a lot. While on the one hand, a lot of people seem to drink and even take drugs recreationally without it getting out of hand, others get seriously affected by it to the point where giving up is the only option. Lately, I have been very aware that not all of these people are really as free of a dependency as they would claim, but the fact remains that some people definitely do appear to get more hooked than others.

Perhaps it has been even more on my mind since I have tried to kick my sugar habit again this week, with dire psychological consequences. It leads me to believe some people do indeed have “addictive personalities.” It really seems impossible to indulge in moderation, and if I try this, within days I’m back to gorging obsessively on cakes and sweets until I feel sick.

I have researched this topic a bit but I expect I’ll always be looking for the answer. What came out of what I’ve read so far was the idea that there are indeed genetic propensities towards risk-taking behaviour and poor self-control, though these are not fate. The brains of people who are more sensation seeking do actually look different, according to one Cambridge scientist. However, other factors also need to be in place, such as a social environment in which the drug is prevalent (such as a workplace with a drinking culture, or – dare I say it – living in the UK).

Other factors which can activate these genes include childhood trauma, and other mental health problems, for which the person uses drugs/booze/whatever to self-medicate.

On the subject of youth, one US study found that 40% of people who drank before aged 14 went on to become alcoholics. That’s quite a staggering figure if it’s true. I do remember starting to drink at that age, as many in the UK do. There must be something in it – you are starting a habit when you’re still so young, that perhaps it fixes something in you forever if you’re not careful.

Sugar is the latest media demon, with a lot of the focus on how much “hidden” sugar gets into our food without us necessarily being aware. There is obviously also something about the substance itself which is addictive, but I wonder how many other people can eat it from time to time and not get fixated like I do.  A recovering alcoholic once told me: “What addicts have in common is they can’t tolerate the emptiness.” That emptiness exists for all of us, but for some reason, some try to fill it with everything they can while others can tolerate better the world as it is, sugar-free and sober.

Should we use a word other than alcoholic?

There was an article on the BBC recently about whether or not there should be a term for “almost alcoholics.” The argument was that some people who are most definitely heavy drinkers wouldn’t see themselves as fitting the criteria to be an alcoholic, and so they wouldn’t seek help or address their drinking. Other terms such as “alcohol dependent,,” or even terms which were used hundreds of years ago, such as “inebriate” or “drunkard,” were suggested.

I can’t help but see this alongside a general move away from clear use of language and towards euphemisms for everything. So you can be a sex worker instead of a prostitute, a victim of “friendly fire” instead of shot by your own side, and so on. If people believe that they are not alcoholics because they still have a job, for example, or because they have never drank first thing in the morning, this is really an example of someone seizing on a detail to aid them in their denial, not  the fault of the word itself.

When I first quit, a friend of mine with some drinking issues of his own said he wouldn’t recommend AA. “Everyone there when I went was quite old. And Irish,” he said, as though that alone would have been a powerful deterrent. I thought about it, even looked up some meetings, but for some reason I never went. I think I thought it would a lot of war stories from people’s drinking days, and theirs would be much more dramatic and devastating than mine, so I would feel quite out of place. Where was the home for almost alcoholics like me?

I suppose I have hesitated at using the ‘a’ word, especially as I know that’s what some people are fishing for when they find out I don’t drink. The bias towards drinking is so strong, that you must give a really dramatic, life-and-death reason for not doing it. Unthinkable that you would just prefer your life without it. I resent it because I think a lot of people are “alcohol dependent” to the same or an even greater level than I was, so I don’t want to be tainted as the alcoholic while those people are just viewed as folks who like a drink, or like to party, or whatever other weak euphemism there is out there.

Now just past two years since I stopped, I am able to have the occasional glass of wine at weddings, etc. without turning into the Incredible Hulk, as we are led to believe alcoholics inevitably do. Perhaps it is a sliding scale of dependency, and people’s dependency can be as unique as they are. I’m going to continue to give it some thought regarding my own case, and the drinking in our culture generally however. Nobody wants a label but maybe there are quite a lot of us out there who are a bit more than “almost” when it comes to alcoholism.

Dry January

I look forward to the increasingly popular Dry January, even though it is nearly two years since I gave up drink, mainly because it means the number of occasions I have to put up with shouty, repetitive drunks dramatically decreases, and I benefit from people’s desire to spend time doing other things socially.

It has now become quite a big movement, with friends taking part in the Dryathlon (a challenge to raise money for Cancer Research UK by giving up alcohol throughout January), as well as those who sign up to Alcohol Concern’s Dry January challenge, or simply choose to do it alone.

I’ve got mixed feelings about it all. All the official challenges advertise the benefits, such as sleeping better, losing weight, having a clearer head and of course saving money. Alcohol Concern says this is about starting a conversation about alcohol, something which is clearly valuable and focused on the bigger picture, rather than just the benefits of abstaining for 31 days. Perhaps this is a modest start towards rethinking our attitudes to alcohol, and the place it has in our own lives and in British society.

The problem I have with it is I don’t think a month is long enough to produce lasting change. I did this challenge a few years ago, and as promised, I did indeed lose weight, sleep better, experience a clearer head and save quite a bit of money. In that respect, I was like the people in the New Scientist experiment, who after a month of giving up booze felt significantly better, and were shown in empirical tests to have improved the condition of their livers, altered their cholesterol and blood sugar, and  lost weight. However, there are two issues with this:

The first is that the group reported that the only negative was that they socialised less. It is relatively easy to stay in and not drink for just a month (the quietest month of the year during which no one has any money, people can do with a break from socialising after December, and it is freezing cold out, to be precise).

When I gave up alcohol, I found that it was tempting to become reclusive in order to stick to the ban, and the process of learning to socialise without it was a very long one. In time, I found I slept in less so did more activities during the day than at night, and eventually spent more time with some people and less with others as I no longer had anything in common with heavy drinkers. This amounts to a revolution in your life, and one which is not possible after just 31 days.  I also found I initially experienced a great deal of tension which I couldn’t process, and again it was months or longer before I could find new ways of dealing with this. I had probably used alcohol to relax and escape unpleasant feelings since my teens (and yes, I am talking about so-called social drinking), and I was learning how to process these emotions as an adult for the first time, not a quick and easy process. A month is like holding your breath – not easy by any stretch for regular boozers (and I really don’t want to belittle the achievement), but it can be done, and then normal service is resumed.

Which brings me to the second issue – that the gains that are made (and studies point especially to the effects on the liver with this) are lost if the person starts drinking again to the same level as before once Dry January is over. I am really torn as to whether a month is long enough to really change someone’s drinking habits, or if it will just encourage the kind of boom-and-bust bingeing we are so good at over here. Some people never go more than a few days without drinking, so it will be a significant event for them. On the other hand, my previous experience suggests the bingeing is likely to resume once DJ is over, and with a vengeance.

Though something occurs to me just now as I write this. Perhaps my Dry January was a dry run, and I would never have been able to make the move I’ve now made without doing this first. It had shown me the tangible benefits I would get after just a month, and after all, you can’t run a marathon without at some stage running a 5k. In which case, hats off to Alcohol Concern and everyone else who conceived of Dry January.

Another thing I think is important to mention – everyone in the New Scientist experiment considered themselves to be a “normal drinker”, but the article does not say what level that really is. This is definitely something I want to explore more here, as I am coming to believe that what is considered “normal drinking” in the UK is very often problem drinking, if you look at the effect it has on that person’s life, relationships, health and especially mental health. Perhaps the other reason the New Scientist team socialised less is that they were socially excluded once no longer prepared to drink to excess. More later, and a Happy New Year to those with hangovers, those without, and those embarking on a Dry January. I wish you the best of luck.

Christmas Eve… in the drunk tank

One of the hardest things about giving up drinking is going to social events that revolve around alcohol. In retrospect, joining a load of Glaswegians to watch an Old Firm game just months after quitting was probably a bad idea. Nearly two years down the line I am still often shocked at how people behave when hammered, and never quite far away enough from it not to be able to imagine how the evening might seem from their perspective. The gap between the two (perception and reality) is nevertheless bigger than I ever bargained for when I stopped.

No time of year is this starker than at Christmas. Previous Christmases were an emotional and physical rollercoaster, spent sinking into gallons of booze, and plumbing the depths of hangovers. Some years, I would spend the day itself on the family sofa, ill and unable to move, while one year I recall doing the shopping on Christmas Eve while pausing to throw up on the pavement.

The euphoria of each party and night/day out was invariably followed by horrible, visceral attacks of loneliness. As a teenager and a young woman, I invariably was in a relationship with someone but we would spend the few days of Christmas itself with our respective families. The drunken texts and phone calls would take on a maudlin, then finally accusing, aggressive quality. Everything to do with drinking comes back to this enormous hole that must be filled at all costs, and sometimes the mistaken belief that the fulfilment lies in another person.

It was strange this Christmas Eve to be in a pub, full of shouting, staggering people, and to hear a woman in the adjacent toilet cubicle to mine having the same sort of conversation. “If you don’t want my company, you can just piss off,” she said, in that wasted voice which is both howlingly self-pitying yet somehow devoid of emotion at the same time. I recognised it instantly, and was torn between condemnation and the admission that I was every bit as bad as that in my glory days.

There is a belief among drunks, and to some extent, pervasive throughout our booze-fuelled culture, that what happens when under the influence is always excusable. Eaten your flatmate’s last chocolate when you came in from the pub? Had a liason with a married colleague at the Christmas party? Sent a self-pitying, abusive text? All is forgotten and forgiven, washed away by the landlord at the end of the night, if it was done in drink.

All this made me think with a sudden shame that the events in my life which were not so happy were often not, as I had believed, down to bad luck or any other issue, but largely created by alcohol. Those desperate Christmases, which I fled to another continent to escape, could all have been avoided.

A number of times at Christmas parties this year, I’ve had one drink just to fit in with the proceedings, but what started out as a difficult task ended up being much easier to stick to when I saw the behaviour of others. I know that might sound sanctimonious but I think it’s just the truth. I don’t know if it gets any easier not to drink when all around you are getting stuck in with abandon, but this reminder of my own Christmas past has definitely reinforced the decision.

Five things I have become obsessed with since giving up booze

The comedian Frank Skinner once said that none of the many things he attempted to replace drink with were ever quite the same. Here’s a list of the things I have tried, with varying degrees of success, to use to plug the booze-shaped hole in my life.

1. Cigarettes

No TV representation of an AA meeting would be complete without heavy smoking. I have no idea if this is true as I have never been, and presumably many are conducted in non-smoking venues these days. Nevertheless, when I decided to stop, nicotine suddenly became my best friend. When you’re out with people who are drinking, at least there is an activity you can do if you have cigarettes. It’s definitely compelling, but ultimately couldn’t last as I didn’t want to die for it.

2. Sugar

Post-smoking and post-drinking, my appetite returned. This also coincided with my return to the UK, and a chance to be reunited with all my favourite comfort foods. Flapjacks, peanut butter, Galaxy bars… and everything in the queue for the tills of Marks & Spencer. Sugar is great because it does give you a hit immediately if taken in quantity, and affects your energy levels so it is definitely addictive. It does make you fat and lethargic however, so it had to go.

3. Exercise

At last! A fixation which is good for you. After the booze and the fags but while still on the sugar, I started going to the gym and running. This revealed to me quite clearly that moderation is a somewhat foreign concept to me. After a humiliating half marathon in which a 24-year-old colleague beat my time by half an hour, I decided there was only one way to do exercise, and that is seriously. Physical pain or discomfort is probably not so much of an issue for someone who has dealt with Biblical hangovers every other day for many years, though sticking at something you don’t want to do is another matter. While getting drunk delivers the pleasure first, pain later, exercise is the opposite. Somewhere in there is an important lesson. Despite my tendency to throw myself right in and go hard at the gym on an almost daily basis, it still takes time to see any kind of improvement, which is another lesson. On the downside, the more energy you have, the more you need to burn. Still.

4. Work

Interesting one, this. Having worked in the media all my life, I knew my fair share of functioning alcoholics. An ex-boyfriend of mine had many lurid tales about daily news meetings with his well-known tabloid editor during which he was struggling not to vomit up the previous evening’s bevvies. It never seemed to hold him back, at least not until Operation Elveden anyway.

For me, it was never like that, which is a blessing in disguise I think. I persevered during my working life, but it was in spite of the booze not because of it. It held me back, made me exhausted and paranoid, and caused me to make ill-advised alliances and indiscreet comments while drunk that I was then bound to while sober. There is a certain  benefit to being a member of the pisshead club, which is not quite as formal as the Freemasons but nonetheless has its own ceremonies and rites of passage, and members will help each other out.

Yet suddenly after exiting this not-so-exclusive club, I found that Monday was the same as any other day, I no longer embarrassed myself at work dos, and instead of looking at this working life through a half-open, bloodshot eye as if it were happening to someone else, on a planet somewhere else, I could get fully involved in it.

Here’s the thing: work gives focus and purpose, and fills up all that time, but if all it is is earning money (for yourself but mostly for others) it just isn’t enough.

5. Sex

Well, I haven’t had sex since giving up booze, so we can leave that one off the list.