Alcohol poisoning

The recent initiative (March 2006) to increase mental health spending is good news.  It makes sense, too, for increased attention to be paid to the effects of recreational drugs on mental health.  But in thinking about the correlations between drug use and mental health it is crucial that we don’t leave out alcohol, simply because it is legal and so widely used.

We live in a country where it is acceptable to be a drunk.  Dangerous levels of alcohol consumption are confused with skewed notions of sociability. “Celebration” often involves at least some people becoming so drunk they can’t remember what they are celebrating. People who struggle to limit their drinking are often pilloried. Many parents see excessive drinking as inevitable as their children move into adolescence.  Excuses are made for people who are violent, irresponsible and sexually promiscuous when drunk.  Women’s drinking is reaching levels as unhealthy as those of men. And countless lives are broken, blighted or prematurely ended because of alcohol addiction. Yet heavy drinking continues to be seen as an acceptable part of our national psyche and culture.

Like every child growing up in the fifties and sixties, I saw the effects of what used to be called the six o’clock swill.  Men would dash to the pub after work, drink in haste, and stagger home drunk. Women who drank, or women and men who drank together, did so in “private bars” where they sat at tables rather than standing in a tiled barn. It was widely assumed that drunkenness was worsened by the limited hours and that more “civilised” hours would result in more civilised drinking.  Now it’s clear that having constant access to alcohol, and far more salubrious places in which to drink it, and even the shift of focus from beer to wine and other drinks, hasn’t resulted in fewer people having serious problems with drink, or fewer problems caused by drink.

As with any addiction, the reasons why people drink excessively are complex. Alcohol is a depressant, yet for many people drinking is a socially acceptable way to deal with unwelcome feelings. Alcohol not only tastes good, it is also a buffer against anxiety, depression, confusion, isolation and self-doubt. It remains more acceptable to get drunk when you have problems than to make the effort needed to understand what those problems are and do something about them. Looking into a glass for salvation is easier than facing yourself – and far less likely in Australia to be derided.

For many big drinkers, the next drink is all that counts. Even the medium-term effects of drinking are lost on people who generally feel better before they feel worse.  Alcohol allows people to feel less inhibited and far more sociable. It also makes them irritable, sloppy, unreliable and sometimes dangerously aggressive.  But as their faculties of judgement subside, so do their internal judgments.  Drinking to excess, people often get a welcome rest from themselves.  Those emotional rewards, as well as the rituals that surround drinking, are themselves addictive and hard to give up.  And in a country where alcohol flows whenever people gather, the courage of someone wishing to stand apart from the drinking frenzy is rarely supported.
It’s easy to understand why.  Big drinkers tend to feel judged by those who remain sober. Their internal “censor” is often projected onto others and a level of disapproval is assumed – and responded to, often unpleasantly.

I have seen the effects of alcohol addiction on many people and have seen it close-up.  Admitting a problem takes raw strength, especially in a culture like ours that is alcohol-needy and dependent. The brilliant work that AA does remains crucial.  But social changes are also needed. Families could show by example that heavy drinking is not essential to a good time – and that emotional problems are worsened not solved by drink.  Drinkers could back off criticising those who don’t drink – and support those trying to drink less. Men as well as women could develop healthier ways to recognise and deal with problems. And we could all talk more honestly about the perils of excessive drinking – and how responsible we are for romanticising and minimising it.

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