'Dry January' ... of a sort

Drinkers like me

in Reviews

‘Dry January’ seems a good time to review the drinking habits of an ordinary man who was obliged to accept that he had strayed far inside the danger zone.

At a drinks party the other day I overheard the following snatch of conversation between two of the guests. “Apparently he’s an alcoholic,” said the woman, lowering her voice to a whisper, as though in anticipation of a prolonged analysis of this piece of gossip-worthy intelligence. She had, however, picked the wrong customer. “Really?” replied the man, quite unconcerned. “Aren’t we all?”

At the heart of this exchange lay a question that exercises a good many of us, especially over Christmas and the New Year. In the depths of the bleak mid-winter we review our drinking habits, seldom without a sense of misgiving. What, we wonder, is an acceptable level of alcohol consumption? At what stage does a heavy drinker become an alcoholic? And what, come to that, is alcoholism? The whole thing seems … well, rather fluid.

Appropriately enough, confusion about all this was the starting point of Drinkers Like Me, a documentary presented by the amiable Adrian Chiles and broadcast on BBC2 in the middle of what, for many viewers (Pissed-off Toff included, to his surprise) is ‘Dry January’. 

Only minutes into the programme, it is clear that there are any number of competing theories about alcohol and alcoholism. Alcoholics Anonymous, for example, maintain that alcoholism is a disease in the clinical sense; that either you have it or you don’t; and that if you have it, you are physically incapable of drinking moderately, and your only hope is total and permanent abstinence. AA’s secular counterpart Soberistas subscribe to a similar dogma. Others disagree more or less strongly. Proof seems lacking, either way. Thus the virulence of the debate.

In search of some sort of certainty, Chiles turns to the doctors, and is soon informed that in medical terms he is ‘alcohol-dependent’. But what, I wonder, does this mean? Does it mean that he has to have his fix? Or that a bad habit has got a grip on him? Or just that he does enjoy a drink or two? Again, it’s all rather fluid. Less fluid, however, is the fashionable new term of ‘heavy use over time’. Now, I feel, we are getting somewhere, with dogma replaced by a concept which we can all understand.

As Chiles explains, the recommended maximum intake of alcohol used to be 21 units a week for men and 14 for women; but now it’s 14 units for both sexes. Since a bottle of wine is 9 units and a pint of bitter is about 2½ units, this means you are meant to drink no more than 1½ bottles of wine or six pints of beer a week. 

Let’s put that another way. If you wish to earn the approval of the Chief Medical Officer, you can have one third of a bottle of wine (like those 25cl bottles they give you on aeroplanes) for five days a week, with nothing on the other two days; or you can have one pint of beer six days a week, with nothing on the seventh. Not only this, but it is clear that the medical establishment is trying to nudge us towards something approaching complete abstinence. “If alcohol were invented today,” says one doctor, “it would be banned by law.”

Chiles has suspected for a long time that he ought to reconsider his drinking habits. Thus this programme. But he is horrified by the sheer stinginess of these limits, and by the impossibility – surely? – of sticking to them. Virtually everyone he knows drinks. Chiles reckons he consumes perhaps 75 units a week, the equivalent of just over a bottle of wine a day; and sometimes … well, sometimes a bit more. Is that so very shocking? He doesn’t think so to begin with, but as the programme unfolds, and as we continue the journey from competing theories to simple fact, he has no choice other than to change his mind.

What seems established beyond any reasonable doubt is that regular excessive alcohol consumption is a vicious circle. First, you feel stressed or depressed, so you drink. The drink calms the brain, and this makes you feel better … temporarily. However, after the temporary relief, the stress and depression return even worse than before. And so on, in a downwards cycle.

Then weight. Booze is stuffed full of calories. It makes you fat. Childes himself is definitely overweight, and his cheeks are fat; much too fat, in fact. This is all down to drink.

Just in case Childes needs any more convincing, he undergoes a series of check-ups on his liver. The blood test – this is the standard one – says that his liver function is all right. However, a second test shows that he has a fatty liver, which is bad; and a third test reveals scars on his liver, which is also bad. The results of these three tests are perfectly compatible with each other, and the unavoidable conclusion is that the amount of alcohol that Chiles consumes represents a health risk that cannot be ignored.

As a further warning, Chiles now visits a man whose life revolves entirely around eating and drinking. Lunch is always preceded by several spirits-based drinks, and the day proceeds from there. He is a repulsive sight, and he has a meek little wife who scuttles round in the background.

The stick has been wielded, and now, by way of a carrot, we meet a woman who used to drink three bottles of wine every evening (“How is that possible?” asks Chiles), who hit rock-bottom as a result of this, and who, from one day to the next, decided to stop, without seeking any help. She now drinks a bottle of wine a week, just two-thirds of the lowest recommended safe limit for women; and is infinitely happier as a result. This reminds me of something I read recently about an alcoholic rock star. “One day I got bored with being drunk the whole time,” he said. “So I just stopped.”

Easier, perhaps, for some than for others; because as Chiles points out, his whole social life – and the social life of almost everyone he knows – revolves around the consumption of alcohol in more or less copious quantities. An ordinary evening at the pub with his mates … that’s a good four pints, say nine units of alcohol. Multiplied by seven, that’s 63 units a week … 4½ times the new (lower) officially sanctioned level for men. And take another day of festivities upon which Chiles embarked before he started filming this programme: 32 units in one day, he worked out … well over twice the weekly limit consumed in one single day.

Here, we have a problem. That is to say: even if one wishes to reduce one’s intake, how is this possible, granted the social environment? Plus: “Not drinking is boring,” says Chiles’ elderly father, who is off the juice for medical reasons. Also, in the words of a friend of his who is now a total abstainer: “My social life has never recovered from stopping drinking.”

In the end, Chiles finds himself faced with a three-way choice. Firstly, total abstinence (an option which is vigourously advocated by several people on this documentary); secondly, responsible drinking (or ‘mindful drinking’, to use a fashionable new term); and thirdly, carry on as before, with all the dangers involved. Sensibly, I think, he goes for the middle option; and the programme resumes one month later, after Chiles has been observing the officially-sanctioned limits throughout that time.

And how much better he looks! Not slim by any means; because he was pretty chubby before, and it will take more than a month to get him into shape. But something has changed, and one sees and appreciates it. Well done, Chiles!!

Let us summarise:

  • Chiles, a heavy drinker, accepts that his drinking is excessive, and he accepts the necessity of cutting down to sensible levels;
  • He rejects the complete abstinence that various ideologues urge him to adopt;
  • He opts, instead, for moderation and a rule-based regime;
  • At the end of a month of this, he looks and feels a great deal better;
  • But he is dismayed by how easy it is to drink the recommended maximum weekly intake of alcohol in one go.

That’s all for now. But I will return to this topic anon …

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