Examining the culture of binge-drinking

By Elspeth Muir

The death of her brother was blamed on alcohol. In a new book on her family’s tragedy, Elspeth Muir examines the culture of binge-drinking that she, too, fell into and the deeper issues it may conceal.
Alcohol is probably the most human of all mind-altering substances. It is the catalyst for so many states of being. It is a germ killer and a poison. Photo / iStock
Alcohol is probably the most human of all mind-altering substances. It is the catalyst for so many states of being. It is a germ killer and a poison. Photo / iStock

In 2009 my youngest brother, Alexander, finished his last university exam and went out with some mates on the town. Later that night he wandered on to a bridge, put his phone, wallet, T-shirt and shoes on the walkway, climbed over the railing and jumped 30 metres into the river below.

Three days passed before police divers pulled his body out of the water. When Alexander had drowned, his blood-alcohol limit was almost five times the legal driving limit.

For a long time I blamed my parents for Alexander's death. I raked through childhood memories looking for instances of wrongdoing.

I tallied birthdays they had missed to attend conferences, the small sips of alcohol we were allowed to have as children on special occasions, the pressure they had put on us to succeed at school, any harsh words they had used, my dad's commitment to work at the expense of a home life, my mum forsaking work for a home life; too many after-school activities, no television, too few punishments, too many punishments; that we owned too much stuff, were left with babysitters, went to the wrong schools; the alcohol collection wasn't locked up, the house was too big, no one listened to us, we talked about football too much, we didn't have to do the dishes, we were spoilt, we were neglected, we had too much freedom or not enough.

I hoarded the memories as fuel for bitter recriminations - the list was exhaustive, hysterical and nonsensical. But if I blamed my parents, it was nothing compared to the blame they piled on themselves.

"I read an article about how important it was for fathers to be at home during a child's formative years," Dad said at lunch soon after his death.

"Oh," Mum said.

"I should have been at home more," he said.

"Darling, there's no point thinking about it now. You did what you thought was right at the time."

A few weeks after Alexander's funeral, Mum told me she'd been looking after a plant for my grandma, and it died. "I kill everything," she said, and started crying. Mum never cried in front of us.

Later on, years later, she said that after Alexander died it took her months before she could remember anything nice she had done for him. During this time she would say things like: "Remember that time I was talking to the builder and the boys kept annoying me? Alexander said he was feeling sick, and because I was cross I ignored him. Then you took him downstairs and got him a glass of water. I was so mean that day. Was I always like that?"

A few months ago we were out for coffee and she said: "I should never have let you take sips of alcohol when you were children."

"But Mum, it was only on a few occasions - and we hated it," I said.

"Still, I shouldn't have given it to you. Someone told me that was one of the reasons young people start drinking."

My parents had given us everything: time, money, education, independence, experiences, and so much love. It was unconscionable to think that Alexander's death was in any way their fault, but all three of us wanted someone to blame. They let me have that, too. For a few years I couldn't be near Dad without exploding in anger over any trivial thing. "You have to stop yelling at your dad," Grandma told me one night. Only I couldn't.

Patrick, my middle brother, shook me out of my rage. He said to me: "It's a sh*t hand to be dealt, but it's happened. You can either live the rest of your life miserable and hating each other, or you can pick yourself up. There's nothing that can be changed. He's not going to come walking through the door."

I started writing this book in an idealistic fugue. My brother had died because alcohol addled his brain to the point where he was no longer able to make rational decisions. Had he not been drunk that night he would probably still be alive now. The reason he consistently drank so much was because he was part of a permissive society that rather than condemning huge drinkers and dangerous drinking behaviours, encouraged them, celebrated them. I wanted society to change so that no one else would die like Alexander. Therefore, I reasoned, I too would change.

My inability to stop binge-drinking completely,when I knew it was the cause of Alexander's death, was proof that I was a sh***y person.
Elspeth Muir

Three years after I began writing, the night before Father's Day, I went to a party and imbibed enough whisky to keep me drunk until the following evening. The morning after the party, Patrick and his wife picked me up for breakfast at our parents' house. I had organised the breakfast, but when we got there all I could manage was a hug, then I crawled into my parents' bed and fell asleep. A few hours later Mum woke me up and drove me home. "I'm sorry," I said.

"It was your father's breakfast, not mine," she replied.

I vomited all day. In the evening I called Dad. "I'm sorry - I don't know what's wrong with me."

When I was growing up my father would get angry at little things - a towel left on the bathroom floor, bad table manners, an unclean room - but he had a reservoir of calm reserved for moments where we had really messed up.

"Els, I was like you for a long time. At some point you realise you have to stop drinking like that," he said.

How simple it was to see something, and for that something to change you. How simple, but how difficult and rare. I was perpetually ashamed of thinking about doing something and not having the strength of character to follow through. I thought that perhaps if I banged my head against the realisation long enough my actions would follow suit, but instead I became filled with self-loathing, unsure about anything.

Then one morning, not so long ago, an old housemate said, "You reduce everything to a story, and in your stories events and characters are entirely one way or another. Life isn't like that. Situations aren't straightforward - there are nuances."

She was right: I avoided thinking about grey areas. It was so much easier if there was a villain and a hero, a right way and a wrong way. Then people, situations, objects and events could be analysed and categorised and not dealt with again, except in the context of the label they had been assigned. In this way I could easily apportion blame.

My inability to stop binge-drinking completely, when I knew it was the cause of Alexander's death and often the source of my own troubles, was, in my straightforward cataloguing strategy, proof that I was a sh***y person. Perhaps that was, in some ways, true - I had always found it difficult to commit to my professed beliefs, to follow through with action, to avoid hypocrisy. But then, perhaps it also wasn't true. Like most people, I meant well, and I messed up. I knew what the right thing to do was, and sometimes I did it, and sometimes I didn't.

Alcohol is probably the most human of all mind-altering substances. It is the catalyst for so many states of being. It is a germ killer and a poison; an unremarkable but integral addition to meals and a beverage reserved to mark special events; able to enhance social occasions and destroy them; best consumed in moderation, but symbolic of excess. The ability of a person to consume it regularly in great quantities is both the sign of a strong constitution and a symptom of illness; to be in possession of particular brands of alcohol can signify wealth or poverty.

Alcohol's effects are lauded in sportspeople, politicians and other high-profile members of society, who are often forgiven for their indiscretions while under the influence, but are considered problematic in minority groups, young people and women, who are blamed for its mismanagement.

Depending on my sober mood, alcohol can make me angry, nasty and weepy; or braver and funnier, more audacious and loving. Like a tapestry hook it pulls to the surface the threads of who you are at any particular point in time.

I knew this, and I didn't want to know this. To accept nuance was also to accept the possibility that Alexander's death could not be contained by the neat tale we had given it - a happy young man who was also a daredevil when drunk. What if, all this time, I'd been picking pieces of crab shell from my mouth and refusing to acknowledge something wasn't right? I used alcohol to be brave enough to live in the world; maybe Alexander needed it to leave.

The possibility that Alexander committed suicide was the one thing those who knew him assiduously avoided thinking about, discussing, or believing; and, in our avoidance, in the way we tiptoed around the topic, maybe we gave it shape.

In an exercise book we found in Alexander's room after he died, there was a line or two about beer. The book disappeared soon after we discovered it - maybe a well-meaning friend wanted to spare my mother any permutations of thought about the cause of Alexander's death - but from memory the line was, in his little-boy scrawl: "Drinking heavy beer makes me depressed, but I do it anyway." We all saw it, but we didn't really talk about it.

It was impossible to address, because it was devastating to think that we might have missed a sign that he was not okay, that somewhere in his unfathomable thoughts were those that might cause him to want to end his own life prematurely. And that they were gestating when he was talking to himself in his bedroom and when he was dancing under the gum trees with a beer.

It was devastating, because what could have caused it? He had everything - people who loved him, somewhere to live, things he loved doing, future plans. And what if we had been able to do something about it?

Maybe that was just the way alcohol toyed with him; those depressive emotions were what the tapestry needle pulled out.

Perhaps what could have prevented his death was beyond what his friends and family were able to provide.

Extracted from Wasted: A Story of Alcohol, Grief and a Death in Brisbane by Elspeth Muir, (Text Publishing $37), out on Monday.

- Canvas

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