To Drink non-Disorderly

7th January – and no alcohol has passed my lips for the whole of this year. People are asking me whether I am doing a “dry January”. To which I reply, “I’m not. I’m just taking a break from drinking”.

I’m not alone. Many resolve to take a break from alcohol after the excesses of the Christmas period, or simply as a popular New Year resolution. But to be frank, statistics show that Christmas is just the tip of the ice cube in the whiskey. Drinking is often an all-year round habit which leaves an increasing number of people “on the rocks”.

It is easy to find statistics to show the huge negative impact and cost of alcohol consumption. Try these for starters: –

 Alcohol Issues and Impacts

  • 7% of adults regularly drink over the Chief Medical Officer’s low-risk guidelines
  • There are 600,000 dependent drinkers.
  • Every year in the UK, alcohol: –
    • causes or contributes to 9,000 deaths (88,000 in the US)
    • is the biggest risk factor for death and health issues for 15-49 year-olds
    • accounts for 1.1 million hospital admissions, costing the NHS around £3.5bn
    • contributes to over 50% of all violent incidents
    • results in crime costing around £10bn
    • is responsible for driving accidents resulting in 8,000 casualties including 220 fatalities.

These are serious numbers affecting thousands and thousands of lives. It would appear that alcohol consumption is becoming epidemic these days, with increasing numbers of young people – particularly females and those with lower incomes – binge-drinking themselves to oblivion on a Saturday night.

Appearances, however, can be deceptive – and all of those assumptions and stereotypes are misleading. Have another shot of stats : –

 Alcohol Issues by age, gender and income

  • People are drinking less. Overall alcohol consumption has fallen by 18% since 2004. The proportion of people drinking and the amount they drink have also fallen. 21% of the population do not drink at all.
  • The reduction in overall alcohol consumption is greater among younger drinkers. Older people have the greater problem. The median age for people in alcohol treatment is 46 and alcohol related deaths are highest in the 55-64 age bracket.
  • The alcohol-related mortality rate of men is 4-5 times higher in the most advantageous social class. 77% of the highest earners report drinking in the previous week, compared to less than 45% of the lowest earners.
  • Men drink more alcohol than women.

So, the rather sobering truth is, that as a “higher earner” man aged somewhere between 55 and 64, I am in the highest risk group of over-consumption, health issues, criminal activity and violence. Stand well back!

Over-consumption, according to the aforementioned Chief Medical Officer, is to drink more than 14 units per week (5 glasses of wine or pints of beer) or more than 5 per day (two glasses of wine or pints of beers). It is also advised that we enjoy several drink-free days each week.

My favourite drink is a red wine. The good news is that red wine is practically a medicine and tastes a lot better than Benelyn. It boasts many well-established health benefits, due to the high level of anti-oxidants, specifically procyanidins, quercetin and resveratrol. Try this for the bottle of advantages which red wine delivers: –

 Health Benefits of Red Wine

  • reduces bad and improved good cholesterol
  • fights free radical damage – protecting against degenerative, cardiovascular, and autoimmune diseases, cancer and rheumatoid arthritis
  • protects against weight gain by blocking an immature fat cell’s ability to grow
  • may help protect against Alzheimer’s disease by reducing oxidative stress and inflammation, and work as a neuroprotectant.
  • Has several cardio-protective properties which boost heart health

Okay, so I admit that I cut and pasted some of that medical science, and I don’t entirely understand it. But, it was from a number of reputable sources, and the health benefits of red wine (and some other alcoholic drinks) are indisputable.

However, what is also indisputable is that none of these great benefits come from the alcohol itself. In fact, many of the beneficial chemicals can be found in very non-alcoholic dark chocolate, apples, grapes, passion and other fruits. It’s just that red wine is a particularly effective way of imbibing these substances.

Alcohol is in fact, an addictive mood-affecting and dangerous poison, and responsible for all of the aforementioned social and medical problems. Nobody ever got arrested for being under the influence of blueberries.

Enough of the science and the stats. One can conclude that drinking, like many things in life is okay, even beneficial in moderation, but potentially very damaging to self and others in excess.

There are many reasons why we drink and develop our own personal drinking habits. Some drink for the taste and variety – the wine tasters, cocktail connoisseurs and beer specialists. Others drink socially, persuaded that its helpful to get at least mildly inebriated to enjoy ourselves. Or we may simply want to to “join in” with the group. The “round of drinks” rule is particularly dangerous. I doubt that many of us seriously drink primarilly to improve our health.

For me, I like a glass or two of wine at the end of a long demanding day, to help relax my mind and switch off and float downstream – ultimately – into sleep. Or it can simply be a treat or reward for myself before bedtime, along with some chocolate or a plate of cheese and crackers.

I also enjoy a glass of wine or beer or two with friends in the bar or the pub – sharing stories, cracking jokes and putting the world to right. Or it might be a glass of wine or two with dinner in a decent restaurant. The problem is, that most evenings in my week qualify for one or more of these justifications. And sometimes the two glasses can become three or more, in the right company. “One final glass?” – is always hard to refuse, as can be the next one.

We have to be careful – and I remember this old song which is particularly pertinent to we world-wide travellers who spend too much time in and hotels and restaurants.

Liars Bar – The Beautiful South

I’m a travelling businessman, I just stopped in for one drink
You’ll find that I’m not like the other men
Their noses are red, whilst mine is only pink
And they didn’t choose their drink, their drink chose them.

And he’s a world-wide traveller, he’s not like me or you,
But he comes in mighty regular for one who’s passing through.

At my regular hotel, the barman worryingly starts to pour a large glass of Sicilian red wine as soon as he sees me approaching.

Our habits can develop and grow without us really noticing – and become unhealthy before we realise it. It certainly doesn’t help that alcohol percentages and wine glasses have both become bigger in recent years, and that alcohol is 60% more affordable than it was 15 years ago. How are we to manage this? I read a very helpful article in the New York Times.

Its Time to Talk about Drinking

“Many who struggle with drinking think that the only way to gain control over alcohol is to abstain. Facing such a severe restriction, they may not try to change unless they hit a mythological “rock bottom”.

Nobody wants to view themselves as an addict, and the fact of the matter is most problem drinkers aren’t. Many people are afraid even to discuss the topic with their doctors for fear of being labelled. But in fact, researchers have long shied away from using the term “alcoholic,” because it’s both negative and dated. The new term to describe problematic drinking is “alcohol-use disorder” — a clunky but more expansive phrase that denotes a spectrum of risky drinking from mild to moderate to severe.

Only about 10 percent of the estimated 16 million Americans who abuse alcohol fall into the severe category. While those in the severe category might need to abstain from drinking, the vast majority of others don’t.”

In another newspaper, I read an account of a woman who knew she was drinking more than was sensible. She had tried moderating herself – but after a few days or weeks of reduction, the situation reverted to where it was –  like a rock rolling back to the bottom of a crevice. She didn’t want to – or feel the need to – become a life-time tee-totaller. She didn’t classify herself as an alcoholic. Here is her story:-

“I started by stopping. I gave up alcohol entirely. I didn’t know for how long– it was a big, frightening change. What if I could never drink again?

As is traditional, I took it one day at a time. After just over a month of abstinence, I had a glass of wine at a dinner. Then another. Then I stopped. I didn’t want to drink a swimming pool of booze any more. I felt great about my month off. My head was clear and the anxiety was gone. I lost weight and my skin was glowing. I didn’t want to go back to old habits. In the end, it wasn’t easy, but it was simple. I had had enough

Alcohol is a dangerous and highly addictive substance. I am amazed people are ever moderate drinkers in the first place. Alcohol is a powerful adversary. We should be kinder to ourselves about taking it on and failing.

Drinking in moderation is not the answer to life, the universe and everything, of course. But I feel, on most days, capable of facing them”

Like many habits – we need to start by breaking them completely, then to establish a new pattern of drinking less, and celebrate the benefits. Here is another account of someone who did just that: –

Jane found her drinking spiralling out of control after her company went under in 2009. She used a harm-reduction suggestion of abstaining for 30 days — at first a challenge — and then re-introduced alcohol while chronicling her thoughts, feelings and cognitive abilities after each drink on note cards.

She recognised a stark pattern: she felt happy and lucid after her first and second drinks, but sloppy and maudlin after her third and fourth.

She taped the note cards on her refrigerator and kept them up for a year as a reminder of how bad she felt after that third drink. Years on, she still thinks about those notes, especially during these stressful times. More often than not, she switches to water.

“Happiness,” she said, “doesn’t come in a bottle.”

I guess as one who is not 100% compliant with the official advice, I have crept into the foothills of alcohol-use disorder. So, I am trying what these two women did. Starting with a period of abstinence.

I have another more personal reason for being very wary of alcohol. Someone very close to me was an alcoholic. To her eternal credit, and after many years of highly destructive drinking, she somehow found the determination and courage and to stop.  She was able to describe herself, with a typical slice of caustic wit, as an  “alcoholic (retired)”. Unfortunately, despite this, all the years of drinking had taken their fatal toll on her liver and finally caught up with her, and she died at the very premature age of 45.

At the end of January, it will be 40 years since she passed away. On that day, I will raise a moderate glass of wine, in her memory – and resolve to take it a little easier for the rest of the year, and the rest of my life.

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