‘Everyone has something to add to this conversation'
From the language we use, to digital interventions and considerations from those working on the frontline, this issue brings together authors from different backgrounds to share their insights.
Our purpose is to highlight how individual and complex alcohol use and misuse can be. Alcohol consumption impacts everyone differently. To open, we asked each of the lead authors for some personal reflections on the topic.
Much has been made of the decline in young people’s drinking this century, though some have described 2004 as the point of ‘peak booze’. Having personally been a teenager in the 1990s, when alcopop adverts populated billboards and buying alcohol under-age didn’t seem to be a problem, I embraced ‘binge drinking’ as a key part of my identity.
During my time at university I began experiencing physical health problems. This led to me trying to change my drinking. I was shocked by both my own difficulties achieving this, and the particularly disapproving reactions of many ‘friends’.
Going through that change led me into working in the alcohol field, as well as eight years of unplanned abstinence during my 20s. During that period I struggled to make sense of what my ‘alcohol problem’ meant, but eventually came to the conclusion that I was confident enough I could drink ‘in moderation’. I felt happy enough as a teetotaller that if it turned out that the ‘sensible’ approach didn’t work, I’d go back to being alcohol-free.
Nearly a decade on, I’ve maintained a low-risk drinking pattern and become increasingly interested in how stereotypical ideas of alcohol problems revolve around the belief that abstinence is the only solution. Whilst abstinence may indeed be the best option for the majority of problem drinkers who end up seeking help or treatment, most people who experience alcohol harms do not meet the criteria for dependence and do ‘recover’ on their own. In our article we explore Adrian Chiles’ BBC documentary as a powerful exploration of how society’s view of alcohol problems is still heavily reliant on a narrow frame of alcohol misuse, and the all too common stereotypes that dominate our conversations.
I too was a teenager in the 90s, and my initiation into the world of alcohol involved cheap ciders and alcopops. My friends and I would look forward to the weekend when we would give an older friend, or someone’s brother, the £2 needed to purchase the two cans of Diamond White each that would free us from the constraints of suburban teenage life, if only for a short time. Later on it was ‘Hooch’ or ‘Two Dogs’, as I recall, a lemony, sugary, and all in all much more palatable way of escaping the boredom.
At 18, I started to work in pubs and bars, and some of my most long-lasting friendships are those forged behind the bar of The Mitre: a large sports bar by day/disco by night melting pot, where students got drunk side by side with the locals, generally on amicable terms. From our vantage point behind the pumps we observed a myriad of drunken comportment, from overexuberant student pub crawls (which often ended in us drawing straws to decide whose turn it was to clear away the vomit), to testosterone- and lager-fuelled viewing of sporting grudge matches. If things got heated on a weekend night, we would retreat to the kitchen to avoid the airborne pint glasses, while the bouncers broke it up. If they got heated on a weeknight, we became the mediators, encouraging the angered party to agree with our regular pleas; ‘he’s not worth it’ or ‘come and have another drink’.
Later, in my first job, our social events were centered on drinking. We would celebrate meeting monthly targets by drinking in the office; we celebrated Thursday and Friday by drinking; we invented ‘Monday night drinking’ both to get some release from the tedium of Monday, and to give us something to do with Tuesday – to suffer together in the shared bonding of a hangover.
These experiences, alongside other more personal formative exposure, do, of course, influence my perceptions and interests. Now I find myself in the position of only very recently accepting and embracing that I am an ‘alcohol researcher’ first and foremost. I had planned an escape into physical activity and healthy eating research, but the alcohol drew me back in, with its bubbly promise of fun and fascinating human behaviours. Its ubiquity and seemingly impenetrable role in our lives is part of the draw.
The endless contradictions and the stories we tell ourselves to justify our behaviours seem amplified around drinking. Let’s not forget that alcohol is a drug. We drink because we want to change our consciousness, just the same as we do if we decide to take any other drug. The desire to alter our conscious state has always been a part of human experience. That such a powerful and harmful drug is the one sanctioned by society provides another compelling reason to be an ‘alcohol researcher’. Come on in, can we tempt you to join us with one for the road?
Alcohol has been present in many aspects throughout my life. I distinctly remember trying my dad’s beer at six or seven years old and being horrified that anyone would drink such a liquid through choice. Whether it was watching my family have a drink at weekends or being allowed small quantities at family occasions, alcohol is something that I’ve been aware of from a young age.
Throughout high school alcohol became even more prominent, with frequent house parties where every parent was fully conscious that alcohol was consumed. Yet this was considered a ritual of high school. Learn to drink at home, branch out to drinking at parties, and then go to university and fly free. Throughout university, alcohol was something which held a powerful allure for many students and many of the bonding activities centered around the student’s union and nights out.
This is the view that many have of university students. University life is entirely predicated upon alcohol, right? From my experience, this has rarely been the case, particularly after first year. Big nights out became much less frequent. By final year, you were more likely to order a take-away in your pyjamas than to drag yourself to the union bar each night. Fast forward to leaving university, and the weekly routine of drinking cheap alcohol quickly dissipated and was replaced with increased responsibilities. Instead, we swapped clubbing and 3am kebabs for a glass of wine with a film or catch-up. Some people called this growing up, but for many of us it was not a conscious decision. Rather, hangovers were more severe and it became harder to justify losing an entire day to nursing our heads.
This is not to say I religiously stick to the unit guidelines at all times, but my friends and I are all much more concerned with finding time to share our company and being able to remember these sacred nights. Maybe it’s a process of maturing, maybe it’s this trend of young people reducing alcohol intake, maybe we simply can’t afford the luxury of drinking each weekend. I’m not sure we’ll ever truly find the answer to such a question, precisely because alcohol is such an individual concept.
While many people drink (and many don’t), everyone has their own experience which guides their perceptions and behaviours and this is what makes alcohol such an enigmatic field of research. The in-depth nuances make it an incredibly rich and complex area to work in. Compared to the other authors, my career in alcohol services and research is much younger, but no less interesting. The sheer complexity of the relationship we have with alcohol use as a society is fascinating to me, both personally and as a researcher. I have not once explained my research to a friend, family member, or colleague and not had them relay an anecdote, ask a question, or offer their own perspective. Everyone has something to add to this conversation about alcohol in some way. Alcohol is a unique substance with which our society has an extraordinary relationship and I hope to continue exploring and unravelling this complexity for many years to come.
I don’t like gambling. No, that’s not quite right. I don’t understand gambling.
I don’t mean the policy or regulation, or how odds work (though to be honest, I’m a bit shaky on all of that too). What I mean is that I don’t understand why people do it. I don’t understand the attraction. It leaves me cold. Some might say that makes me one of the worst people to comment on it. If I don’t understand it, how can I pronounce on policy?
Interestingly, this isn’t the way I feel about alcohol. People who know me well tend to find it unsurprising that my job involves looking at issues around alcohol. Since I first had an alcoholic drink I’ve enjoyed and been interested in intoxication. I find intoxication – being drunk – pleasurable, and sometimes it’s a welcome relief from the pressures and emotions of everyday life. I also enjoy (or more accurately have learnt to enjoy) alcoholic drinks as tastes and experiences regardless of whether I’m getting drunk.
But I sometimes worry that feeling this way, or at least admitting it, is unusual in alcohol policy discussions. People are all too ready to define drinking (or at least drunkenness) as problematic in itself, and suggest that people would be better spending their time and money on more worthwhile, productive pursuits. It’s common to hear people claim that intoxication doesn’t have any value in itself, explaining that they themselves never ‘drink to get drunk’.
I don’t subscribe to this view. I’m not sure that going for a run or practising yoga is, in itself, any better or worse than going for a drink. One might be better for your health than another, but we can’t assume that health is always people’s top priority, or that it should be. Perhaps the pleasure of drinking outweighs the health benefits of exercise.
We can still think about behaviour change, though. There are, of course, occasions when we each get these calculations wrong, and regret our decisions – particularly when the intoxicating and habit-forming characteristics of alcohol come into play. And that perhaps explains my work in relation to alcohol. The services I help commission are designed to support people who have identified that the decisions they’re making aren’t always wise. They can see that alcohol is – wrongly – taking precedence over other things they care about.
Coming to this view isn’t always straightforward. People aren’t always ready to change and they don’t always see the harm they are causing to others around them. It’s the job of a good professional to have those conversations that prompt reflection and change – but always based on what that individual wants.
Discussions of alcohol policy, like all other issues, need us to have an open mind about why people behave in the ways they do (often quite different to how we might choose to), and what behaviour is desirable, or even simply acceptable.
Tell us more…
We wonder if these stories have made you reflect on your own experiences with alcohol? Given its ubiquity in society, we suspect each reader will have a view, and that you will read and evaluate our articles though that unique personal lens.
We hope to have highlighted that this collection is brought to you by authors who have also had different experiences with alcohol.
Our main aim within is not to try to categorise, label or influence the ways in which people drink; rather we hope to highlight the complexities of alcohol use and misuse, and raise issues that will provide food for thought (whether you chose to wash that down with a glass of something alcoholic, or a cup of tea).
Whatever your position, we hope you find something of interest, and we welcome your comments and feedback.
In this special collection, you can read articles on:
Challenging the language of alcohol problems - James Morris and Claire Melia discuss.
'Your number one problem substance is alcohol' - an interview with Dr Michael Kelleher.
Finding moderation online - Emma L. Davies, Zarnie Khadjesari, Olga Perski and Claire Garnett on digital interventions to reduce alcohol consumption.
A threadbare patchwork of support - Will Haydock with a report from the bureaucratic frontline.
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