In news that will disappoint those who like to regard all society’s ills as originating with the disadvantaged, middle-class children have been found to be almost twice as likely as poorer classmates to consume alcohol, according to the NHS. As with the figures for female drinking – particularly rampant among the highly-educated argues the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) – it is the privileged who are our most kamikaze booze hounds.
As Andrew Misell, of the drink awareness charity Alcohol Change UK, observed: “Perhaps in more affluent families [there] is the belief that our European neighbours avoid many alcohol problems by introducing children…early on. In reality, the amounts of alcohol given to children in the wine-drinking countries of Europe are very small; and…occur as part of an overall moderate drinking culture. The situation in the UK is very different.”
I’ll say. As I write, I am shortly to turn five years’ sober. “Didn’t that fly by?” you may cry. Actually, no. A year into being on the wagon, I wrote a long account for this paper in which I explained that - if my tone sounded uncelebratory – then that was about the sum of it. Atheist that I am, I was reminded TS Eliot’s Journey of the Magi: a “cold coming,” hard, thankless, the benefits of which might be grudging, yet vital; a birth that was like a death, and a return to an old life in which “an alien people” clutched at their gods. Christians may dislike the comparison, but this was a postlapsarian existence, scales fallen, sight restored.
Now sobriety is just real – occasionally dragging, but finally stable – life. Back then I could see it all clearly: the way the mother’s ruin had impacted upon my work, my relationships, my brain; the way I’d created my very personality around the constant hit of a drink. Because, like so many Brits, I started young. In my drinking days (or rather daze), I took being introduced to wine at the domestic dinner table to be the great liberal ideal. Now I’m not so sure. I adored my permissive parents – and would be a permissive parent myself – but, by normalising booze, we induct our children into Britain’s cultishly alcogenic society.
In and outside the home, my parents let us teenagers drink in a way that they would never have contemplated allowing us to take drugs or smoke. My father drank with dinner so was happy for me to drink with friends. I was aided by the fact that I looked older than I was. At 14, I could order a round in school uniform and be asked whether it was wear-your-uniform-to-work day. I had been an awkward, painfully self-conscious child, but alcohol propelled me from introvert to extrovert, and extrovert is what I intended to remain.
Besides, I was good at drinking, born to it, one might say. One Easter, I joked that I had stigmata on my palms. My doctor father informed me that they were more likely to be liver spots. And how I dined – or rather drank – out on that story. Drinking together was how he and I expressed our love. We were big boozers, big characters, taking on the world several bottles at a time. I loved it. I loved him.
Naturally, I continued the “get ‘em young” tradition, creating a “glamorous” cocktail-making kit as my eight-year old niece’s birthday present. In fairness, I didn’t expect her to actually put away these concoctions, but alcohol was how my family interacted. If I understand our society’s obliviousness about booze, it is because I was once most oblivious.
From 13-43, drink was what I did: my sole hobby and lone joy. Once, while participating in a work bonding exercise, I was asked to drive the group on an imaginary bus to wherever I wanted my end up – some epic ambition. I drove it to Claridge’s bar. “Don’t ruin this for everyone,” pleaded the team leader. I wasn’t trying to. It was genuinely where I wanted to be. Boozing was how I defined myself. Drink was cool, fun, feminist, a lifeline as it was a blast. Until it wasn’t.
Once addiction has been defamiliarized, you see it everywhere and I saw it at home. My father’s declared ambition was to drink himself to death, and he succeeded three years ago at the age of 76. Friends still assure me it’s “a good way to go”. It isn’t. It’s a lonely and lacerating demise and I would have done anything to spare him. He wanted his body to be left to medical science, but it was too devastated.
Writing this makes me weep. I know I’m violating my father’s privacy – his final privacy – and will refrain from going into further detail. However, I am determined to use his example – as I will use my own – if it can be of use to other problem drinkers. And, really, how many Britons are unproblematic drinkers?
My father was the brightest and most brilliant of men, but he gave up the last years of his life to his addiction.
No longer a child, I’m finally rejecting his dinner-table example.