In the aftermath of the tragic premature death of Charles Kennedy last week, his good friend, Alastair Campbell, spoke to Sky News, not only about the personal loss but on the wider issue of creeping alcoholism which is spreading like wildfire throughout the UK. Alcoholism is a disease which hides behind the accepted drinking culture personality of the UK.
Let me just state from the off that I have no personal experience of alcoholism (yes, I know, famous last words of millions of alcoholics!). However, let’s look at the term ‘alcohol dependency’. I think ‘alcoholism’, ‘alcoholic’ and ‘alcohol dependence’ are all thought of as belonging to the same sentence. I think most people, particularly those who ‘like a social drink’, consider ‘alcohol dependent’ and ‘alcoholic’ as interchangeable terms/nouns/adjectives and I’m not so sure that that is right. I think that that is a dangerous misconception.
I believe that one can be alcohol dependent without being an alcoholic.
I was, until about 3 weeks ago, what I guess most people would call a ‘social drinker’. I didn’t go to pubs/bars much at all. I didn’t drink much during the week, just the odd beer when watching a football game on tele at home or if out at a party. I didn’t have a glass or two of wine most evenings as is, in many households, the norm. I was a ‘Shabbos/Shabbat/Jewish Sbabbath drinker’. Friday evenings, through Shabbos, whisk(e)y and wine flows through the streets of Ra’anana (Israel) where I live or certainly within our Kahilla (community). I should point out that that is NOT the norm in ‘Sabra’ communities (a ‘Sabra’ is a person born in Israel). It a social/cultural thing…a habit we Brits brought to Israel with us (‘habit’, of course, can be, for some people, an alarm bell of a word). Weddings and Bar/Bat Mizvahs, ‘functions’, are other drinky occasions.
I’m not sure why I ‘turned’ teetotal. It is probably connected to my having started a bit of a diet a few weeks ago and upping the exercise ante…a ‘health kick’. I was also becoming increasingly aware, and bothered, about how alcohol was making me feel. Of course, there were the hangovers but even one or two glasses of wine in an evening were leaving me feeling rough the next morning. I simply got to believing that it wasn’t worth it. There was also the losing of control of what I was doing and saying at a party or when out for a meal and when I thought about it the next day, I was less than pleased. I had simply had enough of saying to myself the next day “Aggghhhh, why did you say that?!” and “Oh, you idiot, you must have appeared a right fool”. There wasn’t a tipping point, the realisation just dawned on me, I guess.
However, even for me, a man who did not have an alcohol ‘problem’, giving it up is not proving to be simple. There a few dynamics at play here:
I like a glass of good wine. I like my Dalwhinnie 15 and my Balvenie 14 Caribbean Cask. You might say “So have a glass or two over Shabbos or at a party” – the problem is, as I said above, the loosening of the inhibitions, the hangover or just the groggy feeling the next day, I don’t like it;
I was at a party last week. I walked in and there were the drinks, the whiskies, the wine and more. Up until 3 weeks ago, I’d have picked up a glass of wine or a glass of whisky as automatically as washing my hands after answering the call of nature but I didn’t and, yes, I know, early days, old habits die hard, but it wasn’t easy. I felt unnatural;
3) Social crutch
This is the interesting one. I’m ashamed to say that even I, a person who is usually socially comfortable, a man who can ‘hold his own’, so to speak, at a party, in a social setting, I feel very peripheral at a drinky ‘do’ when I’m on the Perrier. That surprises me or certainly the extent of the ‘distance’ surprises me. It is now clear that although I enjoyed a drink for the drink, I liked the wine and the whisky, the ‘habit’ element and the ‘social crutch’ element were playing their part and that makes me feel very uncomfortable.
So, alcohol is out of my life now. I don’t know, maybe it’ll come back. Maybe I’ll tell myself that there’s no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater, that there’s no reason why I can’t have the odd glass of wine, that there is no reason to go to such extremes but I am an ‘all or nothing’ kind of guy and I often find abstinence easier than moderation. I also feel now that no alcohol is better than even a small amount.
As for feeling ‘uncomfortable’ at parties, the one drinking water when everyone else is on the hard stuff, I really don’t care. This is me, for better or for worse. If I feel like talking, if I can talk, I will…if I don’t want to chat, I won’t. If my being sober and not so animated makes other people uncomfortable, that is not my problem. I have never had a ‘spliff’ (is that what they are called these days?), I have always managed without that ‘relaxant’. I can manage without the aid of the social crutch of alcohol.