We Need to Talk About Alcohol
Of all the revelations from the last 12 months, one of the most ‘sobering’ was a grim statistic: alcohol-related deaths have hit a record high.
Data from the ONS states that 5,460 deaths between January and September 2020 were caused by alcohol.
Now, I’ve been thinking about writing this for a long time. It just so happens that this gloomy press release landed in the same month I decided to give up alcohol. Even more timely, the nation is in uproar over the possibility that pubs might open in April…without booze.
Why I gave up alcohol
This isn’t an excuse to be pious. I’m not a reformed woman. I’m not a juice-cleansing, Pilates-practising, affirmation-chanting monk. Far from it. Rather, the social pressures of Dry January (fact: scientifically impossible as am Capricorn) got to me this year.
So I’m trying Dry February instead. Nine days ago I had a ‘Skinny’ beer before bed. What a wild ride it’s been.
Building up tolerance
If you’d asked me when I worked full-time, or indeed, even before the pandemic, I’d probably have called myself your classic ‘binge drinker’.
It always amused me how such a pejorative term could be used for people who seldom drink. Others get through a magnum per night, but just because muggins here ends up getting arrested when she drinks, she’s worse.
(I’ve never been arrested.)
In truth, I’ve probably been building a ‘tolerance’ — if tolerance means easier hangovers — since 2019. I won’t depress you with the details but my dad was dying and my family spent a lot of those months together. Drinking.
Add a pandemic to the mix, and boredom/craving social interaction suddenly becomes drinking at home. During the week. Take that, binge haters.
Why do we drink?
If you want some comfort, 40 per cent of us have been drinking more during the pandemic. Why? I speak for myself when I say, for one, it’s to alleviate boredom. For two…well, that’s sort of related to one. When I drink, I get silly. When I get silly, I make stupid Instagram videos. It’s a public service, really.
But seriously. Here’s what people say. Turns out, it’s quite the contentious topic.
- “To relax, let my hair down, forget about real life, be more confident, get the ‘tipsy feeling’.”
- “To unwind at the weekend.”
- To accompany certain foods.”
- “To separate WFH from home life.”
- “For the effects, not for the taste.”
- “For the social aspect of meeting with family and friends.”
- “We enjoy the taste of it.”
- “To explore new tastes.”
- “I have children.”
- “A brief feeling of invincibility and profound oneness with the world.”
(Some answers have been conflated due to similar themes.)
But let’s examine the themes in more detail. Many of us are drinking to relax. If we’re to look at this in one of my respondent’s terms, what we’re actually doing is self-medicating.
Anonymous says: “My psychologist told me that people self-medicate with booze to suppress their issues. If you’re drinking to unwind, you’re using alcohol medicinally, not recreationally.”
There’s some weight to that theory. When we drink, alcohol binds to our gamma-aminobutyric acid receptors. These neurotransmitters are responsible for ‘reducing excitability in the nervous system’. Alcohol also slows the breathing and the heart rate, so it’s no wonder we feel relaxed.
Certainly, with the stress of home-schooling, poor job security and being locked up, we’re bound to be a little agitated. But I feel there’s more to it than that.
Alcohol is in our culture.
Now, we could look at this in the historical or global context. Sources suggest we’ve been drinking for more than 7,000 years — starting in Asia but gaining far more pace in Europe from about 6,000 BC onwards.
Indeed, a 2016 study into drinking culture states that the three most ‘up-to-date’ reasons for drinking are:
- Hedonism — regular consumption, excessive drunkenness and general lifestyle choices
- Function of use — religious rituals and interpersonal relations
- Social control.
Alcohol has always played an essential role in social occasions — be they ‘convivial drinking’ (Bales, 1946) or during religious ceremonies.
Based on its ubiquity alone, I think the real reason we drink is because it’s so relatable. Especially in a pandemic.
Breaking the ice
How many of you have had that awkward small talk where you crack a gin joke? Or bought a wine-themed birthday card? Or had a traffic cone in your student kitchen?
In Britain, if nowhere else, alcohol is the cornerstone of our humour. They say no great story ever started with a salad, but there’s something about alcohol that puts us all at ease.
“Have a lovely weekend — drink lots of wine!” It rolls off the tongue. And that is why it’s so hard to tell people you don’t drink.
No one stands around making jokes about how hammered they got on a rack of ribs, only for a vegan to pipe up. Abstinence from anything else — smoking, meat, even sex — is not frowned upon. But it soon shuts a conversation down when someone makes that awkward confession.
Should we give up?
You don’t need me telling you the benefits of going teetotal, any more than you need me to tell you to give up chocolate. Better skin, reduced cancer risk, weight loss. (My skin actually got worse for the first few days — likely because I’ve been replacing the sugar with chocolate.)
But will it benefit us socially, or even professionally? Can we function without our secret ‘confidence weapon’, or that instant rapport with new clients?
Like my anonymous friend says, if we are indeed medicating the problem, then giving up alcohol might be more beneficial than we think. It might give us the chance to be introspective and tackle the problems that matter.
And of course, before the pandemic, I’d have argued that keeping schtum about drinking was better for your professional prospects. But we’re all locked up so most of us are getting pissed — let’s be honest.
You do you, honey.
Around this time last year, my sister told me: “You’re coming out of this lockdown a hunk, a chunk or a drunk.” I’m working on all three.
If you want to quit or reduce your alcohol intake, that’s fine. If you want to carry on because you like the taste, that’s fine. If you’re drinking to medicate, well…that’s not so fine. Reach out and talk to someone. Talk to me if you want.
Get in touch. It’s my round.
Bales, R.F. (1946). Cultural differences in rates of alcoholism. Quarterly Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 6, 480–499.