Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Booze and the Modern Woman

ABC612 Brisbane Breakfast Presenter and BMag Columnist Spencer Howson asked on Twitter last night why those of us who don't drink alcohol don't drink alcohol. Twitter has but 140 characters, and it took me less than 5 seconds to realise that 140 characters wouldn't scratch the surface. My response to Spencer's question is below.

I've always been surrounded by drinking, and looking back, I can track a pattern of addictive behaviour through my family. I will stop short of calling anyone an alcoholic, but we got close. Drinking 3, 4, 5...6 beers a night wasn't unusual. These days, that would be seen as excessive. Back in the 70s and earlier, it was just expected that after work, there would be the rush to the local club for as many beers as you could handle before being home by six for dinner. Most people back then were what we'd call just heavy drinkers and smokers. Now, in my wider family circle, my cousin - in her sixties - is drinking very heavily. Her mother - my grandfather's sister - lost a family fortune through the pokies at Epping RSL, and most of the family has had issues with substance abuse at some point.

My mother used to drink socially - I only ever saw her p*ssed once or twice in my life - but about ten years ago, she developed an allergy to alcohol. Even a light beer shandy gives her a migraine. My late stepdad was also a very heavy drinker, but as his health declined, he had to cut back, and eventually stop drinking altogether. My natural father is a devout Muslim, but at any rate, he had no influence on me.*

The result of that background was that I developed a healthy wariness towards alcohol. I usually volunteered to be the designated driver because I felt safer that way. When I moved into the entertainment industry, aged 22, I continued me habit of "sitting on a drink" for hours. My contemporaries (and my boss) would get drunk at work functions - it was the entertainment and media industry in the 80s - but I rarely had more than a drink or two. I think that perhaps I didn't like that feeling of being in control slipping away, particularly around clients and media contacts. I was working in the big leagues - getting sh*tfaced with Elton and Molly was never on my to-do list; I was not comfortable at boozy lunches with the likes of John Laws or Bob Carr; I was much more relaxed having a cup of tea and a bikkie with Peter Allen or breakfast at the Sebel with Alice Cooper. I remember the end of tour party for Melissa Etheridge in about 1990 - it was a fully catered harbour cruise. I drank mineral water and hung out in the cabin, watching the cricket on tellie with Daryl Braithwaite. (And there endeth the name-dropping.)

For a few years I worked for the largest spirits distributor in the country. The culture was very much around social drinking. I found when working for UDV that every social occasion included booze, and there were plenty of colleagues who, in my opinion, were drinking more than was healthy. It was a really social culture; lots of company events and team dinners and conferences and the company always paid for the alcohol. I really started taking notice of the how much people were drinking when one of my colleagues ended up in a wheelchair after wrapping his over-powered Commodore around a tree after a night out with the work Social Club.

This was also the time that Australian liquor companies started to tag their ads with "Drink Responsibly", and while they preached a culture of self-management and restraint, they did little to actually encourage it. Booze was always available, and when you look closely at those messages, they're about drinking as much as you can without ending up in hospital or gaol. Alcohol is their business; they're not about to campaign for a reduced consumption.

After I left UDV, I had a pretty hairy depressive crisis. I wasn't hospitalised, but I wasn't in good shape. I'd been diagnosed with depression when I was aged 19, but this bout was worse than usual. My doctor reminded me then that alcohol is a depressant. Why would I be trying so hard to manage my depression, including taking chemical anti-depressants, only to compromise them by drinking alcohol? That made sense to me - and that's when I stopped. I just stopped drinking.

I survived that depressive episode in 2000 - 2001 and moved to Brisbane not long after that, and almost became a hermit other than family and work. Eventually I made a few friends - also single ladies who didn't drink: one, for religious reasons, and one because her estranged father was an alcoholic with end stage liver cancer. Very occasionally, I'd have a glass of champagne or wine - by that, I mean, maybe once or twice a year. That hasn't changed.

I met Rob about 4 years ago, when we were both contributing to a forum on media and politics. I was in Brisbane; he was in Melbourne. We were only managing to spend a few days together each month, and I noticed he drank rather a lot. About a year later, we were living together, and I could no longer ignore the fact that he was drinking very heavily. It was a problem for us. A few months later, he quit. (The details aren't my story to tell, but you can assume that it wasn't that simple.) Now, we're both non-drinkers, although we'll have a glass or two when we're out with other people who are drinking, or on a special occasion. Our unwritten rules are that we don't drink alone, and we don't drink at home, and we're both okay with that.

So why don't I drink?

  • It's counterproductive and ultimately risky for a depressive to drink alcohol.
  • I have a strong family history of addictive behaviour.
  • Drinking makes me feel as though I'm losing control, and I hate that feeling.
  • It makes me feel physically ill after a couple of drinks.

What about socialising at Pubs?

It's something I tend to avoid, although I make the occasional exception for events I really want to attend. This might sound really uppity and anti-social, but I really dislike being around people who are drunk. I don't mind being with people who are drinking and chatting and's the 'drunk' I don't like. It's also something that I associate with smoking, and as we've both given up smoking recently, I don't want to put us in temptation's path.

It's a frustrating dichotomy, too; I'm terribly shy, and sometimes I long for a drink or three to smooth a social entrance but I don't do it, and because of that, I probably miss out some of the good things in life.

Final Note

Not drinking is not well accepted in our society, despite what people may say. When you're out with a group, the most well-meaning friends will try to encourage you to have "just one". Later in the night, the closest of buddies with a few Cosmos under her belt will buy a round, and the Diet Cokes you've been enjoying all night will suddenly pack a punch - and you weren't even consulted. I've also learned that to refuse a drink can cause offence. It can be seen as snobby, or taken as a personal rejection. I'm even under pressure from my bosses because I'm not going to the Christmas Party this year; getting p*ssed with the troops is considered part of the job. Being a non-drinker is a risky choice.

* I found my long-lost father (whom I had never met) on Facebook when I was 44 years old.
** My shyness and my depression go hand in hand; just this year, I hit a rough spot emotionally, and the one thing that pulled me out of it was a random tweet that lead to a last minute invitation to the Molkies. I did have a Vodka on arrival - which lead to about 3 hours of intense and embarrassing sweating - but hey, I did it! Meeting strangers is hard enough, doing it when you're shy is harder, doing when you're shy and sober is usually impossible. Thank God for the Molkies!

1 comment: