I think the term “Alcoholism” makes people really uncomfortable. Especially when its talked about in a real, open, and vulnerable way. We’ve all seen the “wine mum” memes, where drinking excessively is praised and normalised. It’s fun and commonplace to joke about losing your keys and wallet the night before, going home with a random stranger or waking up with no memory of the night before. I’ve heard people joke – myself included- “I think I’m an alcoholic.”
When we talk about drinking it needs to be packaged as a non-committal joke or else people get scared. It’s rare for someone to take an honest look at their drinking habits and think “maybe this isn’t healthy.” Why is this? Perhaps we’ve been conditioned from seeing our parents drink or from being bombarded with images and adverts and dialogue that form our unconscious beliefs about drinking. We need to drink to have fun. We need to drink to be interesting or social at a party. We need to numb ourselves with Smirnoff Ice when we go clubbing or else it’s unbearable. We need to relax at the end of a busy week with a glass of wine.
I talked to Dr Nicki Jackson and Professor Peter Adams, professionals in the realm of addictions and adolescent drinking. They spoke about how drinking has been framed in our society and the impact that it can have on people, especially young adults. Alcoholism has been framed in our society in a very specific way – extreme, visceral, and very visible. It is a rock-bottom image, of a disheveled-looking man passed out on the street with a bottle in a paper bag. Its someone with a DUI, who has lost their family, lost their job, and lost their dignity. Dr. Jackson quoted James Morris of The Guardian who said “to approach all alcohol problems through the lens of alcoholism may be akin to labelling anyone experiencing a period of low mood as clinically depressed.” We have created this extreme version of someone who has a problem with alcohol, because it excuses us from the picture. “I can’t be an alcoholic because…” We create a criteria for what it means to be an alcoholic, so we can feel safe and secure in our habits. Professor Adams says “the trouble with the emphasis on the alcoholic is that it frames drinking into a binary; either you drink okay or you’re a bad drinker.”
The truth is, 90% of those who fit the actual DSM-V criteria for Alcohol Use Disorder (the correct term of Alcoholism), are not actually physically addicted. That means that our image of someone who cannot function without alcohol, needs to drink to get up in the morning, and goes into serious physical withdrawals if they don’t have a drink, makes up only 10% of those with AUD. What does that mean for the rest of us? Especially those of us who are young University Students, where drinking excessively is often considered part of the social fabric of our university experience and therefore relatively normal at this stage of life. If you look at the criteria for Alcohol Use Disorder, you realise it’s incredibly easy to tick the boxes. Here are a few of the criteria:
Spending a lot of time drinking, getting alcohol or recovering from alcohol use
Continuing to drink alcohol even though you know it’s causing physical, social or interpersonal problems
Failing to fulfill major obligations at work, school or home due to repeated alcohol use
Being unable to limit the amount of alcohol you drink
Hangovers get worse the older we get, but that doesn’t stop people from continuing to binge. When I first started drinking in high school, I naively thought that I didn’t “get” hangovers. Now, a few years later, hangovers are taking a massive toll on my mental health, causing intense anxiety and an overwhelming low mood. Many of us plan around our hangovers, writing the next day off for recovery, potentially cancelling plans and commitments and calling in sick to work. Though we may not all have driven under the influence, I know that I have been in dangerous situations from drinking. I once drunkenly swam at night at a beach known for riptides and nearly drowned. I could frame it as a funny story to tell at parties, but the truth is it was risky behaviour that could’ve ended my life. It’s very common to drink more than intended, causing nights where gaps appear and we say or do things we wouldn’t normally do. It’s easy to laugh these off with friends, because it happens to so many of us. We can’t possibly have a problem with alcohol! Why do we continue to partake in behaviours that are damaging to our relationships, mental and physical health, and overall quality of life? If we begin to realise that our relationship to alcohol may not be as healthy as we once believed, Professor Adams says that the current industry has created an individualistic framing where responsibility is placed on the individual rather than any societal or systemic factors at play. At its worst, this can result in cycles of shame, years of secrecy and silent suffering, and only reaching out for help when you have hit rock bottom. Dr. Jackson quoted research that showed 50% of alcohol abuse and dependence cases in New Zealand are developed by the age of 20 and 70% by the age of 25.
While this relationship to alcohol is permitted and even encouraged when you are young, there is also the expectation that when you get to a certain age, get a full-time job, start a family, this behaviour stops. However, for some people, the relationship they have with alcohol when they are in high-school and university, doesn’t just abruptly change. Habits and beliefs have been formed. The undeniable truth is, alcohol is an addictive substance. Maybe not everyone will become physically addicted, or maybe it just happens at different rates for people. We cannot deny it is incredibly easy to form negative habits around the substance. And it is the one drug that we have to justify not taking.
There is not one single gene that is responsible for forming an alcohol addiction in someone. The concept of an addictive personality has consistently been challenged and questioned over the years. Of course there is a genetic factor, but it is not as simple as we like to believe. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) was founded in 1935, with the purpose to help its members “stay sober and help other alcoholics achieve sobriety.” In AA, members identify themselves as addicts, an unchanging fact, a disease that will never go away. AA feeds into the way our society views alcoholics, as separate and different from the rest of the population. People in AA take comfort in the fact that they are powerless to the disease of alcoholism, and the only cure is fellowship, sobriety, and a belief in a higher power. This works for some people, so I cannot write off AA completely. Connection with others and sharing your story is so vital for recovery. But an extreme classification of alcoholism is maintained, contributing to our rock-bottom view on alcoholics. I believe this is dangerous because it makes it easy for people to avoid even questioning the idea that they may have a problem with drinking, which can go on for years and years, until the physical, social, and mental damages are out of control.
We all know that New Zealand has a reputation for its drinking culture. Turning 21 means the inevitable Yardie tradition or downing 21 shots, nearly always resulting in vomiting and getting completely blackout drunk. It’s a backwards sign of “success” and “accomplishment” if you can finish it, though in reality it just freaks out your parents and grandparents who are watching. Getting shitfaced is all fun and good, until it’s not. Everyone wants to be your friend if you’re the life of the party, if you are the most entertaining drunk, if you have the best stories. But if anyone catches a whiff of weakness, then you are relegated to the “other” – the person who has a problem with drinking. In past friend groups, there has been that one person who we all suspect is an alcoholic, but instead of being there for them, we simply stopped inviting them out and started gossiping about them. It’s easier to judge someone than to try to understand their brokenness. It was some twisted power trip, and looking back, I know that I contributed to the very culture of stigma that I am now vehemently against. Alternately, if you choose to get real about talking about the not-so-pleasant aspects of drinking, then you start to notice people slowly back away. No one wants to hear you say at a party “I’m not drinking anymore.”
It matters how we talk about drinking, especially the darker side of drinking. Recently, as I have been getting more real about my drinking, I’ve learnt just how important vulnerability is. Being able to be honest with yourself is the first step to healing. If you are afraid of ever speaking truthfully and painfully about drinking, then you will be stuck in a cycle. The thing that stops most people from having honest conversations about drinking is shame, and the fear of being judged. Many people don’t seek help because they don’t want to be seen as an “alcoholic”, someone they looked down on in the past. Brene Brown says that “shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.” Self-awareness and self-reflection allows us to take our lives into our own hands, and also find out who is truly for us and for our growth. Hard conversations are worth having, because shame is eroded and you realise that you are not alone in your thoughts, feelings, and struggles. This is not an individual battle, and the problem begins when we think it is.