Saturday 24 March 2018

A note to Leo Varadkar: 'Upping the price of booze won't stop alcoholics in their gallop'

Increasing the price of alcohol won't make any difference to those living with a drink problem, writes a recovering alcoholic.

Increasing the price of alcohol won't make any difference to those living with a drink problem, writes a recovering alcoholic
Increasing the price of alcohol won't make any difference to those living with a drink problem, writes a recovering alcoholic

I wonder if Health Minister Leo Varadkar has ever been to an open meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous? I doubt it, because if he had he could never think that putting up the price of alcohol would make a blind bit of difference to the nation's drink problem.

The idea of putting health warnings and calorie counts on alcohol labels is a pretty cool one, too, but it sounds rather feeble to me - a recovering alcoholic who knows other women who have gulped back mouthwash just to get a hit.

The problem with alcohol dependence is that few people understand the blind compulsion to drink. It goes well beyond reason, beyond health warnings - and certainly beyond the price of a bottle of wine.

When I drank, I drank against my will.

It's hard to get your head around that. As soon as I took that first sip, something happened that is hard to describe. Other alcoholics describe their addiction as a physical yearning coupled with a mental obsession. That gets part of it.

However, it doesn't address the pervasive - and enduring - attitude to alcohol in this country.

Read more: Could you stop drinking if you wanted to?

I remember walking into my first job to be greeted by a kindly senior woman who told me, rather unnervingly, that she hated the thought of women drinking.

"Horrible," she said.

I nodded, with the ridiculous enthusiasm of a rookie.

"Myself," she continued, "I drink red lemonade, but it makes me break wind so I put a drop of scotch in it to dull the fizz." We guffawed wildly and repeated the joke several times while drinking a toast with our glasses of scotch and red raised high.

I had tippled before, but my drinking career really started there.

Read more: Former GAA star Oisin McConville on his gambling addiction: 'I felt as if the walls were closing in on me and I became suicidal'

What strikes me now is that nobody had much money then, back in the depressing, dank days of the '80s, but that never seemed to stop us drinking.

We saved up, or went on blow-outs at the weekends. Everyone did it. And everyone did it to excess.

That's what we do in Ireland. And it's even worse now. We binge-drank on pints of lager, which seem like holy water in comparison to Jägermeister and Red Bull.

The point is, now or then, nothing was going to wreck our buzz - not a health warning or a few extra quid on a bottle of wine.

Not everyone is going to develop a drink problem. Most people got a little bit older and learned the trick of moderation.

I didn't inherit that gene. Instead, alcohol became - with apologies to WH Auden - my working week, my Sunday rest, my noon, my midnight, my talk, my song.

Read more: Are you a problem drinker? Inside the AA's 12 step programme

Part of the problem was the physical compulsion, yes, but the bigger part of my alcoholism was considering the cup that 'cheers' as the answer to everything.

No matter what the emotion - fear, joy, grief, anger - there'd be a pint of lager to mark it.

When the pints started to give a bit of trouble, I moved to spirits. Fewer chemicals, I thought. When they produced horrendous hangovers and deep paranoia, I moved to wine.

And so began a merry dance of denial that would keep me dependent on alcohol for over a decade.

Read more: How to avoid the dreaded work hangover this Christmas

If Leo Varadkar wants to address the nation's drinking problem, he will have to try to define it first.

Alcoholism, for instance, is not the poor man down on his luck with a bottle in a brown paper bag.

It's the woman, like me, who goes home from work and cracks open a bottle of wine to take the edge off the day.

It's the functioning worker who can't bear the thought of tomorrow's presentation without a sneaky nip of vodka.

It's the mother who rewards herself with a glass of gin for getting through the day. She used to have that glass at 7pm but now makes excuses so that she can break out the Gordon's a little earlier.

I always shiver when I pass through Dublin city on a Saturday night and see revellers in various states of plastered-ness.

Leo Varadkar is bang on the money when he says that Irish adults drink too much.

He is also so right when he lists the devastating impact on our society - illness, higher health costs, public order offences, domestic violence, road traffic accidents, injuries, absenteeism. What he proposes to do about it, though, will have very little impact. Well, it wouldn't have stopped my gallop.

Read more: Drinking when pregnant: Is it harmless or an act of denial?

But what would? I often wonder what might have stopped me if I knew then what I know now. I think the biggest single difference would have been a shift in attitude. I grew up with people who believed a woman was at her best after two vodkas.

I wasn't the only one who thought that a good celebration meant getting completely scuttered. On a trip to Florence once, I was horrified (and strangely delighted) to find that Italian friends made merry on a Saturday night with ice cream.

When I first walked into an AA room, I thought my life was over. Who wants to imagine a social life in community halls, sitting around in a circle, drinking tea and eating biscuits?

You have to be desperate to take such a step - and I was. I was in trouble in work, missing days and arriving late and when, one evening, I drove drunk even though I swore I would never do that, I knew the time had come to get help.

I didn't quite realise how much help I needed until I started to tease out the corrosive effect that alcohol had on my life and on my relationships. It had made my world smaller. I was fearful, unwilling to trust and was becoming withdrawn.

Friends hadn't seen me in months. I'd bail out of family events with a feeble excuse and hate myself for it. I didn't feel so bad when I heard, in AA, that other people had done the same and were now trying to imagine a life (one that could be full and happy and free) without alcohol.

The truth of it, though, is that AA teaches people to imagine a life in brilliant technicolor without alcohol It's not an easy journey and if I could have an occasional (and more expensive) glass of wine, I certainly would.

It seems to me that the challenge now for the Health Minister is to find out why - and how - people drink. Then, as a nation, we need to give 'sober' a makeover. It can be seductive, sexy, saucy and stonking good fun.

Irish Independent

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