There was a thought provoking Horizon programme (Do I Drink Too Much?) on earlier this week about alky-hole, investigating the nature of this most socially acceptable of drugs and the hold it has over regular consumers. As someone who likes the occasional glass of wine or six himself this is something I’ve pondered on at various times in my life, usually when waking with a head throbbing like a blind cobblers thumb and a taste in my mouth reminiscent of weasel’s piss, copper wire and the freshly dropped farts of a sweaty bricklayer who’s just finished eating his second Full English breakfast of the day. From all of the evidence presented by the programme it seems probable that the answer to the question posed in brackets above is, in my particular case, ‘Yes’, and I’d hazard a guess that for most of my readers the answer would be an equally negative positive.
One of the most interesting parts of the programme looked at research being undertaken with monkeys. This section started with some film of wild monkeys living around a holiday resort in the Caribbean (Mon) who were stealing cocktails from holiday-makers on the beach and getting merry and mercurial on whatever they could lay their hairy little hands on. And they weren’t just getting ‘tipsy’, they were getting absolutely ratarsed (rat arsed monkeys – sounds like something you might see on a David Attenborough wildlife documentary about endangered species doesn’t it?), and were quite clearly loving every minute of it, whether crawling on their hands and knees along the street singing the monkey equivalent of Lionel Bart show tunes, falling out of trees and pissing themselves laughing, or squaring up to fight monkeys three times their own size who were obviously going to beat the crap out of them without even breaking into a sweat. The eejits.
Any of that sound familiar? Well you’ll probably not be too surprised, then, to hear that the similarities between your average troop of monkeys out on the lash in St. Kitts and the whoop of human lager-louts you might encounter in your local on a Saturday night don’t end there. On the contrary, as a rather fanciable lady scientist (that’s not the beer goggles talking, BTW, I hadn’t had a drop…) studying the muntered monkeys pointed out, pissed-up primates tend to fall into four distinct categories regardless of which particular branch of the evolutionary tree they might have scrambled up or fallen out of, and the percentages involved seem remarkably consistent cross-genera too.
Just like us, not all monkeys are pissheads: only the vast majority of around seventy-five percent. Of that seventy-five percent most of them will just quite like the stuff; the monkey equivalent of those sensible social drinkers among us who remain only casually acquainted with hangovers and that horrible ‘god, did I really say/do that last night and did anybody see/will anybody tell’ moment that leaves one walking on eggshells for the next few visits to the local watering hole. For around twenty-five percent of monkeys, though, it’s more a case, if given the opportunity, of drinking every day and to a degree of excess, and for somewhere between seven to ten percent the consequences of that will be full-on addiction and alcoholism.
I’ve just looked at the statistics for humans in the UK, and that ten percent appears to be right on the money for us too, with ‘one in ten drinking alcoholically’. The numbers of non-drinkers are also comparable, with around twenty-five percent of monkeys and humans not liking either alcohol or its effects. Miserable bastards.
Now on casual hearing that ‘one in ten’ statistic doesn’t sound that bad, does it (?), but I think the thing here is we don’t really think about it in context, and we tend to lump it in with the twenty-five percent who would ‘drink every day if given the opportunity’ as though it were the same thing. But it’s not the same thing, and looking beyond the percentages at the numbers involved it gets very scary, with statistics for 2008 indicating over five times as many drink related deaths (9031) as drug related ones (1738) across the UK. That figure seems even more startling when you realise that the drug related statistic also reflects deaths resulting from the misuse of prescription drugs, including accidental overdoses and suicides…
My own relationship with alcohol is a complex one, and just like the psychologist, John Marsden, who introduced the Horizon programme, I’m an unapologetic over-imbiber. Looking at the weekly ‘Recommended Maximum Units’ – 21 for men, 14 for women – my intake levels are definitely damaging for my health, but as that 21 units only equates to around two and a half bottles of wine OR nine pints of beer per week I’m guessing few people reading this would be in the position to cast the first stone, especially the Pinot Grigio swigging ladies, who get less than two bottles (hardly a lunch’s worth for some!) of their favourite tipple to play with over the full seven days.
But as I said, I’m unapologetic, because putting my cards on the table it would be no exaggeration to say that alcohol made my adult life – or, at least, provided me with a platform for making it – possible, as without it I was (and still can be, though I’ve got much better at it) so socially inept, withdrawn and uncomfortable that I couldn’t contemplate walking into any sort of social situation in the first place. That probably comes as a massive surprise to some who know and hate me as the loudmouthed gobshite in the pub cracking constant jokes and generally going OTT at the merest sniff of the barmaid’s apron, but it is the simple truth and I have a lot to thank Bacchus and Mr Guinness for despite the often problematic nature of our friendship.
In a nutshell, then, my reason for becoming a regular drinker in the first place was not that I had a ‘drink problem’ but that I had a non-drink problem that was bigger and more potentially damaging than the drink itself, and that’s the way it has remained throughout my life. I’m fortunate in that respect, because if I had been born with the kind of addictive personality (or, to put it more accurately, the kind of brain pathology) that lights the grey-matter up like a pinball machine when introduced to an addictive substance and demands it to the exclusion of all other considerations, I think there’s a good chance I would be an alcoholic or recovering alcoholic by now. I think if you are unfortunate enough to have that kind of brain pathology willpower and choice don’t really come into the equation.
There’s an old AA saying that there is no such thing as an ex-alcoholic, there are only alcoholics who haven’t had a drink. MRI brain scan imagery featured in Do I Drink Too Much? certainly appeared to confirm that assertion.
One big change in my drinking, and I’m sure it’s one that many will recognise, was the shift from pub drinking to drinking at home. Thinking back to the days when wine choices in most supermarkets were of the ‘Black or Blue?’ variety (thanks, Roddy Doyle, for that bloody excellent joke, btw) I can clearly remember (or should it be not remember) never drinking indoors. Similarly, I can remember as a child my parents having a drink cabinet full of Christmas booze (Gordon’s and Johnny Walker Red for dad and Babycham and Cinzano for mum), but when the cabinet was closed on January 2nd it stayed that way until December 24th.
Then came the eighties and an influx of affordable and drinkable wine and suddenly we were all guzzling gallons of the stuff whenever a friend or neighbour dropped in. Fast-forward another five years or so and you don’t even need the neighbour; it had pretty much become the norm to pull the cork on a bottle just to sit indoors on your own and watch telly.
As it stands I almost never drink through the week unless I’m in a pub, and I only go to pubs very occasionally for very specific reasons – my writer’s group, for example. On a Friday night with my curry I’ll have a couple of beers and a whisky chaser, and this sets me up for the rest of the weekend when I’ll quietly drink a goodly amount of lovely red wine (a tad more than that recommended two and a half bottles ;-)) while mourning the days before parenthood when I would have been in a pub getting noisily hammered.
To be honest I’m a bit of a lightweight these days when it comes to the fighting fluid, a bit of a one pot screamer as the Aussies might put it. By the time I’ve had three or four pints I’ll generally be annoyingly cheerful, but as I tend to not have an off switch when it comes to booze I’ll usually pace myself with the first two so as not to run the risk of going over quota (and out of control) before closing time. Mostly I’m a happy drunk, but I’m often a loud one, and being fairly thin-skinned in the first place I can sometimes slip into that ‘tired and emotional’ state that’s ultimately embarrassing for me and irritatingly boring for anyone who happens to be around me, especially if I’m talking about my lovely son and the complexities of parenting a non-neurotypical child.
That aside, however, drink, even today, seems for me the lesser of two evils, though I’ll confess to experiencing a slight chill when listening to some heavy drinkers on the programme talk about their dependence in terms of a progressive disorder. It got me wondering whether I really should be giving in to temptation quite so readily (and joyously) as I am on those weekend evenings when I don’t actually need alcohol for ‘doing social’, and whether that internal voice I sometimes hear suggesting a midweek tipple is potentially more destructive than I appreciate. It’s a sobering thought…
OH, PS: I noticed another programme last night looking at the subject of drug abuse, where they were slipping volunteers a couple of Es and monitoring the outcome. For many years now my own view has been that drug prohibition creates more problems and more criminality than it solves, and that the solution to the drug ‘problem’ lies in decriminalisation and effective management.
After seeing what the ready availability of alcohol has done to society and the impact it has had for those who can’t control their drinking I’m not so sure where I stand on drugs now, because once the genie is out of the bottle (if you’ll excuse the pun) there will be no going back. We’ve only got to look at the American era of prohibition to see that, and we’ve only got to look at current marketing trends for alcohol in the UK to see that even with legislation the people profiting from sales will do everything they can to ensure the next generation are ready to swallow their increasingly attractive and ‘user friendly’ baits hook line and sinker. That’s assuming, of course, that they haven’t already…