As we sit sipping our second wine of the evening, it’s worth pondering the issue a little more.
You don’t have to watch television for too long before coming across the ubiquitous scene where someone reaches for a drink to cope with a bad day. The attitude this fosters is that if you have a difficult issue or event to deal with, then having a drink will make you feel better.
If our colleagues, kids, spouse, finances or workload trouble us then we reach for the bottle to ‘take the edge off’. This has become an acceptable and socially sanctioned way to manage life. But it doesn’t mean it is healthy. And it may actually be more related to the street brawls than we would like to think.
ALCOHOL USE WORLDWIDE
When I speak to an Italian colleague about our society’s overuse of alcohol she says, “Oh it’s just Anglo culture. You are all repressed and need alcohol to loosen yourselves up. This wouldn’t happen in Italy or Greece. We teach our kids about alcohol from an early age, then it’s no big deal for them.”
Another person says, “Australians and New Zealanders aren’t cultured enough. Look at a country like France. They know how to manage alcohol. They’re more civilised than us.”
But such stereotypical views are not borne out by the facts. Five million French people drink too much and two million are alcohol dependent. It is the number one health problem in France and a government-commissioned report says one in 10 deaths are directly linked to alcohol. French youth binge drinks just like teenagers in Australia and New Zealand.
So what about Italy and Greece where children are supposedly introduced to the responsible use of alcohol at a young age? It turns out that as these countries have become more affluent and permissive, alcohol abuse has become a growing problem. In Italy, which has a population of 60 million, there are 60,000 alcoholics across the country and 1.5 million people between the ages of 11 and 24 are at risk of alcohol abuse. In Milan, for example, 34 per cent of 11-year-olds have had problems with alcohol. So much for healthy Mediterranean drinking habits.
Closer to home, 41 per cent of Australian adults have at least one drink each week. In New Zealand, 23 per cent drink at least once a week. Almost 15 per cent of New Zealanders aged 12-65 years binge drink at least once a week (for males this means more than six standard drinks and for females, four) and 56 per cent of young people aged 12-17 had consumed alcohol within the past 12 months.
DEFINITIONS OF ALCOHOL USE
Problems with alcohol are not just about a specific culture. They occur right across the developed world. Nevertheless, someone opening their nightly bottle of wine can still feel that the issue has nothing to do with them and that they couldn’t possibly be an alcoholic.
As a psychologist I have heard many people say something like: “Alcohol’s not a problem for me. We have a bottle of wine with dinner and sometimes I might drink a bit much on the weekend, but I’m not an alcoholic or anything.” This is the same person who is turning up for counselling with his partner because they are having constant arguments that are ruining the relationship. Or they might be seeing me because depression has become an issue. They fail to make the link between alcohol use and their presenting problem.
Personal problems can have a link with alcohol even if the person is not an alcoholic. Most people think that you only have an issue with alcohol if you are the ‘classic’ alcoholic who has their first drink in the morning and continues all day from there. But the harmful influence of alcohol can be a lot more subtle.
Let’s start by getting things clear about differing levels of alcohol consumption. An alcoholic is a person who is said to be ‘alcohol dependent’. This means that the person continues drinking despite evidence of negative psychological or physical consequences, such as depression or liver disease. They experience craving for alcohol, need to consume greater amounts to get the desired effect and may experience withdrawal if they stop.
A lower level of consumption is called ‘alcohol abuse’. This is where there are recurring adverse effects from alcohol consumption, such as interpersonal problems, drink driving or lowered performance as a result of hangovers. There is a spectrum of alcohol abuse and most people at the lower end of the category would see nothing wrong with what they are doing. It is considered normal in our culture for people to regularly drink to excess. Many don’t realise that their low-level depression, lack of motivation at work or constant arguments with their spouse are related to this regular drinking.
Although not officially categorised, there is another level of consumption that I would call ‘using alcohol as a crutch’. This is where people are only drinking one or two drinks a night, but they would really miss it if they had to stop. It helps them cope with life. It takes the edge off, relaxes them and is a reward for dealing with the stresses of life. It is like popping a happy pill à la George Orwell’s 1984. It keeps people ‘comfortably numb’.
Most people would see nothing wrong with daily drinking since even doctors say it has health benefits. Physiologically it might be manageable to have the recommended daily alcohol intake. Whether it is psychologically healthy is another thing.
So when does drinking become a problem? When is it an addiction and when is it being used as a drug?
YOU BOOZE, YOU LOSE
Consider these statements. Do any of them sound like you? “I need my glass of wine at night to cope with the stress I’m under.” “I can’t have sex without a drink. It helps me relax.” “I can be more open and lively after a couple of cocktails.” “Life is boring without a drink. It makes everything more fun.” “Alcohol helps loosen everyone up. It makes the party run smoothly.” These are some of the many reasons why people drink. They are so common and so ‘normal’ that we often wouldn’t think twice about them. But it is worth a re-think.
Marion* is a senior administrator for a community organisation. She was experiencing mild depression and put it down to the difficult work dynamics she was dealing with. We addressed these issues, but still, the low mood remained. Marion eventually conceded that alcohol was contributing to this depression.
“I’m not an alcoholic by any means. I only have one drink a night. But you know, I have it every night. I could stop but I don’t. It’s too comfortable. I look forward to that glass of wine at night. It adds a little spark to things. It helps me chill out.”
Marion decided she was going to stop this habit just as an experiment. She found that very quickly her desire to get fit returned, she went back to the gym and the depression lifted. It also lifted the lid on some deeper issues, but now she had the energy to deal with them. She wasn’t ‘comfortably numb’ anymore.
I have lost count of the number of people who discover similar things about their drinking. One or two drinks a night might seem harmless, but it is enough to cause negative mood changes and it is enough to cover up feelings that need to be dealt with. Alcohol can promise sparkle and warmth, but it doesn’t actually deliver quality of life. It slowly sucks it away.
WHY WE USE ALCOHOL
There are a few reasons why we use alcohol, but they all boil down to the same thing – we want to avoid the emptiness inside. We have lost touch with the fire within our deepest self so we pour alcohol in to fill the void. Instead of joining with our own soul we invite in the ‘spirits’ of the drink.
We are empty because we lack self-love. We are empty because we trade presence and self-awareness for distraction and numbness. And we are empty because we can’t be intimate with the other hurting human beings around us. For all its comfort and wealth, modern life has not delivered satisfaction and wellbeing. The kids having drunken fights in the streets are just crying out more loudly. The rest of us have learned to hide our pain within relationship difficulties or decreased work performance.
Alcohol will not help you manage the stressors of life. If you are using it to help manage or buffer some situation, then what is this really saying about your capacity for self-mastery? If life feels too dull without alcohol, what is this saying about your quality of life? Can alcohol really be a substitute for meaning and satisfaction?
Most people are not alcoholics. Many do not abuse alcohol. But if you were to be completely honest you might find that you are using alcohol as a crutch. It might not be an addiction because you could stop whenever you wanted. But you might be using it as a drug. It is a drug if you are using it to medicate (usually unconsciously) an uncomfortable emotional or spiritual state of being. Only you can determine whether you have crossed the line. And it’s a very fine line, a mere thread. Only total honesty will reveal the truth.
We all have choices in life. Yes, it is ‘normal’ to have a drink or two every night. But better to be honest about what this is really about. If you decide to live life with more depth, you might choose differently.
To stop drinking you will need to have the courage to feel the uncomfortable emotions that might arise. You might have to speak out about relationship issues. And you may have to adjust the circumstances that are causing stress in your life. But in doing this many people find a new level of motivation and life satisfaction results. They get closer to their true self and develop personal strength and self-regard. You can walk through life on crutches or you can walk freely with clarity and grace. The choice is yours.
ALCOHOL IN A RELATIONSHIP
Andrew* and Karen* sought counselling because of their frequent and escalating fights. As their therapist, I helped them uncover issues that were contributing to their disagreements. Both of them faced the problem and began to make positive changes. I remained concerned, however, because it became clear that the fights always happened when they had been drinking.
Like many couples, they both had a drink every night and on weekends. Andrew especially would overindulge. He saw nothing wrong with this because he was not an ‘alcoholic’ so how could drinking be to blame. Even Karen didn’t want to emphasise this issue.
Andrew had a difficult family history that he had never dealt with. He used alcohol to numb the pain from this past although he wasn’t aware this was what he was doing. When drinking he became aggressive and mean. Karen had come from a family where her stepfather was an aggressive man. She had never dealt with the fear this aroused and she was repeating this pattern now with Andrew.
If you have been drinking when you have a ‘discussion’ with your partner, then you put the relationship at risk. The rational, compassionate side of your self gets numbed and the bullying or cruel side gets to take over. Any damage or pain you have denied or buried will be channelled out via the alcohol-fuelled state. Harsh words get spoken and the damage is done to the relationship. Let this happen too many times and the relationship gets worn down.
While Andrew and Karen learnt to manage difficult issues while sober, fights would still arise when Andrew drank too much. With some gentle persuasion, they came to see the link between the two things. Fortunately, Andrew was finally able to admit to his drinking problem and their relationship repair is a work in progress.
FOETAL ALCOHOL SYNDROME (FAS)
Guidelines on how much alcohol is safe to drink when pregnant remains unclear, but FAS action group Foetal Alcohol Support Trust (FAST) is adamant that mums-to-be are regrettably unaware of the full story. “Even the smallest amount of alcohol can cause the unborn child to develop foetal alcohol syndrome if the mother or child is susceptible,” says Peter Bell from FAST. Children and Youth Health, Australia agrees, stating that “there is no safe time to drink alcohol during pregnancy and there is no safe amount of alcohol. Alcohol can harm your baby for life.” FAS can cause babies to be born with heart defects, developmental delays and low birth weight. They can go on to develop learning and behavioural problems. Some babies are harmed by a relatively small amount of alcohol if the mother drinks during the time the brain is developing, but most are born to mothers who abuse alcohol during pregnancy. FAS is preventable by not drinking while pregnant. There is no cure for FAS. If you are pregnant or are planning to get pregnant, no alcohol is the safest choice.
SIGNS THAT ALCOHOL IS BEING USED AS A CRUTCH
– Life without drinking would seem boring or empty.
-You think a drink helps manage stressful times.
– A drink distracts you from the problems you are facing.
– You need alcohol to have fun in a social setting.
– You feel you have to have a drink every day.
– You look forward to the evening drink and think about it during the day.
– Having a drink gives you a feeling of relief.
– You like the fuzzy, numb feeling alcohol gives you.