In Stop Drinking 4 Life…Easily!, Jason Vale, the addiction aficionado turned juicing junkie, used a great analogy about giving up alcohol.
The 1999 book – which I thoroughly recommend to anyone wanting to enact the title – invites readers to replace the idea of drinking alcohol with downing the same quantity of milk.
Imagine telling friends that you insist on drinking at least one glass of milk with dinner; that when you go out on Friday night, you tend to drink as much milk as you can feasibly lay your hands on. Or that when you are at a party with a large group of people, you regularly get egged on to drink shots of milk in swift succession. Add into the mix that you cannot seem to sleep without having several glasses of milk before bedtime (but you wouldn't dream of drinking it before noon) and pretty soon your mates are going to grow increasingly concerned that you have developed a problem. It seems that you can't simply take it or leave it.
Yet curiously, no one seems to apply the same thinking to alcohol. The very idea that we mark every social occasion – from cradle to grave – with booze never seems to strike anyone as odd, or even obsessive.
It's your birthday: have a drink to celebrate! You've been fired: drown your sorrows! You're at a funeral: raise a glass to the dead! People would probably consider you strange for not doing so on such occasions.
Indeed, boozing has become so established that teetotalers like me constantly find ourselves having to justify why we aren't doing it.
As a society, we have been conditioned to accept alcohol as a "normal" substance despite the fact that it has been found to cause both social and health issues.
According to Public Health England, alcohol misuse is the biggest risk factor for death, ill health and disability among 15- to 49-year-olds in the UK, and the fifth biggest risk factor across all ages. The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics suggest that there were 7,423 alcohol-specific deaths (around 13 per 100,000 people) in England and Wales in 2020 – a 19.6 per cent increase from 2019. The statistics also show that serious drinking problems are largely shrouded in secrecy: in England, there are an estimated 602,391 dependent drinkers, of whom just 18 per cent are accessing treatment, according to PHE.
Yet a YouGov poll commissioned by The Forward Trust to mark Addiction Awareness Week this week reveals that over 64 per cent of all adults know of someone struggling with an addiction. This is something that affects all of us, in one way or another, at some point in our lives. And if we really applied some sober thinking to the matter, we would swiftly conclude that abstemiousness should be the norm and drunkenness the very rare exception.
The trouble is, most people are socially conditioned to think the opposite, thanks to a centuries-long myth that we are somehow so benefited by the hard stuff that we should continue to throw as much of it down our throats as possible. Despite pubs and bars being closed during the pandemic, heavy drinking continued in lockdown; one poll found that after the first lockdown lifted last summer, more than a quarter of British adults admitted to drinking more. There was also a shift towards drinking more frequently; before lockdown, 33 per cent of people drank twice a week or more, which rose to 38 per cent during lockdown. Figures quoted by the Duchess of Cambridge at the Taking Action on Addiction launch suggest that 1.5 million people increased their alcohol consumption in lockdown, two million people with a substance abuse problem relapsed and one million more young people showed an increase in addictive behaviour.
Why, then, are we busier saying hurrah for gin and pretending that there is nothing wrong with the occasional binge or blackout than questioning why on earth we keep doing it? It's fun, I suppose – until it isn't.
I gave up alcohol over a decade ago because my mother had drunk herself to death at the age of 54. Although I would never have described myself as an alcoholic, I was certainly a problem drinker. The phrase "one is both too many and never enough" applied to my alcohol consumption.
I am not anti-drinking – just anti the sort of excessive kind that has now become endemic in our society. I appreciate there are plenty of people out there who treat alcohol with the respect it deserves, have one or two drinks and call it a night – but unfortunately they are in the minority, the latest statistics seem to suggest.
The issue is not just that alcohol-related hospital admissions have gone up by 19 per cent over the last decade, that 24 per cent of adults in England and Scotland regularly drink over the Chief Medical Officer's low-risk guidelines or that 27 per cent of UK drinkers binge drink on their heaviest drinking days, according to Alcohol Concern. It is that the nation lives in this strange state of denial that there is nothing wrong with drinking to excess simply because everyone else is doing it.
Heavy drinking seems to have become the most acceptable addiction in the world. People treat it differently to other dependencies – and appear to have lost sight of what problem drinking even is. They do not seem to realise that if drinking is causing them problems, they have a drink problem. Ever since I have written about my own issues with alcohol, I have been inundated with emails and messages from people who want to address their own problem drinking but fear being socially ostracised as a result. My experiences have also caused others to view there's in a different light: one reader wrote that my conversation on Bryony Gordon's Mad World podcast forced her to come to "terms with being angry with a parent who is dead as well as [my] own drinking". Being labelled an addict can put people off seeking help – there is no shame in admitting to an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, yet society still appears intent on shaming those who do.
Trapped in a constant cycle of trying to cut down, or having periods off the grog, they fail to see that they are actually struggling with something bigger than they care to admit. They are alcohol-dependent – and the only thing stopping them from quitting is fear. Initiatives like Go Sober for October are great, but for the vast majority of those who take part, it represents their only annual break from booze – even though health experts recommend a much higher frequency of alcohol-free days than most people care to adopt. At the age of 95, the Queen has decided to give up her favourite tipple – a Martini before bed – on her doctor's advice, proving it is never too late to change the habits of a lifetime.
I am neither a puritan nor a preacher. If you want to drink until you reach oblivion, knock yourself out. But let's not pretend there is anything remotely "normal" about it, let alone functional. Or turn a blind eye to the fact that we live in a skewed society that wrongly views non-drinking as antisocial, when actually it is the other way round.