It’s Time to Redefine Our Relationship with Drink and Drugs

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Many are the tales I could tell about me, my family, and our occasionally vexed relationship with intoxicants – but let this one stand as proxy for all the rest. I was in the snug of an old pub in Padstow with my father when the landlord came barrelling over to us. “You cannot buy a brandy for your son on these premises!” the man expostulated, his rubious face suggestive of both rage and his own – quite possibly considerable – alcohol consumption. “Why?” my father rejoined, uncharacteristically insouciant. Meanwhile, the landlord’s staring eyes were fixated on my downy face. “Because he looks to be about 12 years old!”

This wasn’t the first time that my father had flouted the licensing laws, nor would it be the last. He seemed to view them more as guidelines than hard and fast rules. My brother and I were served watered-down wine at home when our ages were still single digit – the French did such things, and to my parents this meant they were sophisticated and desirable. At the pubs we visited frequently on walks and other outings, lemonades and ginger beers mutated into shandies, then full-blown halves and pints of beer by the time we reached our teens. I never remember any great subterfuge around this – the drinks were bought and handed to us. Anyway, underage drinking was rife, and a lanky youth such as me could get served in any number of pubs in our neighbourhood by the time I was 14.

“We need to turn our intoxication into a positive social ritual.”

But the Padstow incident had been different, and different in a way that I think draws out some of the most ingrained – but for all that unconscious – aspects of our relationship with alcohol and intoxication more generally. It had been a cold, wet morning, typical for a Cornish summer, and my father and I got soaked on the coastal path. We went on short walking holidays together quite frequently. My parents had separated for the first time when I was nine, and while my father had returned to the family home, it wasn’t for long. Until I left myself, aged 18, the time I spent with him was pretty much limited to these tramps. Concentrated into these holidays was all of our being-a-father-and-son, which meant – and I see this now, with the benefit of hindsight – they also contained a lot of my father’s unhappiness with his marriage.

He was usually pretty good at concealing this unhappiness, but on this trip he’d been out of sorts for days. After we were thrown out of the pub, he bought a half-bottle of Scotch and took to his bed in the B&B, leaving me to amuse myself in the rain-dashed streets. I was upset that he was depressed. And even aged 12 (the landlord was spot-on), I felt a profound uneasiness: the queasiness imparted by the brandy (I’d managed to down it before we were debarred) combined with a sense that the rules and conventions governing that queasiness were themselves becoming unsteady. My father always drank – true enough – but it was in certain set circumstances: pub, golf club bar, cocktail party, at ours and other homes. Not in a bed for hire and beneath a candlewick spread.

My father recovered himself by the following day, and we went on along the coastal path. He never – as far as I was aware – descended to this level of alcoholic anomie again, but he did go on drinking. He drank, in fact, every day of his life and regarded himself as a “moderate drinker”, consuming, as he often told me, around a bottle of wine a day, or its equivalent. By contemporary standards, however, dad was unquestionably a heavy one, consuming 70 units a week while never hearkening to the government’s advice that you shouldn’t drink for more than three days in a row. He died – of liver cancer, of course – aged 79. But should we attribute that death to alcohol? After all – and it’s an idiom he would have approved of – 79 isn’t such a bad innings. For all we know, he may have had co-morbidities that would have seen him off the pitch at around that score anyway.

Sinking Spirits

Perhaps the key words in the preceding paragraph are “contemporary” and “standards”. In what follows, I hope to excavate the present so as to discover – if you like – the archaeology of our current relationship with alcohol and intoxication more generally, thereby establishing the how and the why of the way we view our consumption. Let’s face it: we all have this line inside us that divides problematic intoxication from what is acceptable.

During the pandemic, many – if not the vast majority of us – have been subject to novel social circumstances, the most salient being our removal from the familiar arenas of work and leisure: the office and factory, the pub and club. Withdrawn into our domestic arena, we’ve had to face up in some instances to family units that were, we realised, not nurturing for their members, and in others to an isolation that we began to experience as loneliness. Under such circumstances, is it any wonder that we cross that line and reach for the bottle, or the spliff – just as we reach for the remote so as to substitute a softly glowing screen for the harsher reality we find hard to cope with?

We will have to wait some years for the complete picture to emerge, yet anecdotal evidence and a few early statistics suggest that while some people have been drinking and drugging more since the first UK lockdown began in March 2020, overall consumption may have fallen. Retail sales of alcohol might have increased – by some estimates as much as 20% – but the wholesale collapse of the hospitality industry (one analysis puts the decline in sales on licensed premises at 90%) has more than offset this. With drugs, all we have to go on are the police statistics, and while these show a marked increase in arrests for both the possession and the supply of drugs, this could be simply because interdiction becomes more effective when the streets are empty. Certainly, round my ’hood, if you see a young
man travelling at speed on an (illegal) electric scooter, wearing athleisure and a mini-Adidas bag in sporran position, the odds are that he may be on his way to being just such a statistic.

But I live in Brixton, south London, where the culture is a little different to that of the rest of the UK – including effective toleration of marijuana use, if not supply. But such is the nature of intoxication: it’s a cultural matter. However, throughout the 20th century, and – I’d argue – as a function of industrialisation and medicalisation, intoxication came to be seen in an increasingly binary fashion. Alcohol is the prime example: on the one hand, it’s a truth universally acknowledged that there’s nothing more life-enhancing than a drink; on the other, all right-thinking people (and authorities) agree that there’s nothing more self-destructive.

Alcohol was, is and possibly always will be sold to us on the basis that it strengthens social bonds through collective enjoyment and even shared ecstasy. Simultaneously, it’s a scourge and a demon – the one product besides tobacco that’s on open sale but comes with a stiff health warning against its overuse. Or, at least, it does now. Back when the founding father of psychology, William James, was writing on the subject in the early 1900s, licensing laws were laxer, yet he had no hesitation in asserting, “The only known cure for dipsomania is religiomania.” But as the century gathered pace, the good/bad discourse regarding chronic or addictive drinking shifted to a mad/sane one.

Forging Bonds

We needn’t be caught up in any of these binary relationships with intoxicants, whether imposed on us by doctors or priests. One of my favourite book titles of all time is Constructive Drinking. A selection of essays and academic papers, edited by the doyenne of structural anthropology, Mary Douglas, it deals with how people from radically different cultures use intoxicants positively. In her introduction, Douglas observes that from the anthropological perspective, “Problem drinking is very rare, and alcoholism seems to be virtually absent even in many societies where drunkenness is frequent, highly esteemed and actively sought.”

It’s a conclusion that will be surprising to those steeped in a medical-sociological approach that begins from the established fact of degradation caused by booze. But Douglas goes further: “The ethnographic viewpoint has not only added to our understanding of the range of variation in human beliefs and behaviours with respect to alcohol, but to the fundamental realisation that many of the outcomes of its use are mediated by cultural factors rather than chemical, biological or other pharmaco-physiological factors.”

“It intensifies existing moods. Drinking alone can make us feel lonelier.”

Shorn of the jargon, the above seems conformable, to me, with the erstwhile acid guru Timothy Leary’s concept of “set and setting”: the notion that to the basic pharmacology of any intoxicant needs to be added the attitude of the person who takes it and the setting within which this ingestion takes place, in order to understand its overall effects. This contention is pretty obvious to anyone with much experience of intoxicants. We all know the difference between sitting morosely in our cups and carousing merrily as we clink them with others. Alcohol in particular – which does have a basic chemical effect that disinhibits – can seem to intensify existing moods, rather than altering them altogether, with the result that if we drink alone we can often end up feeling lonelier, just as if we drink in company, we can end up feeling deliriously connected to one and all.

Out of Sight…

As someone who foreswore any intoxication whatsoever (bar nicotine and caffeine, those workaday drugs) for over a decade, I can tell you that the collective intoxication that occurs when people gather together for, say, an after-work drink, and all simultaneously attain a state of tipsy semi-abandonment, is a phenomenon not wholly dependent on the capacity of ethyl alcohol to dampen electrical activity in the forebrain. I know this because after some years of sobriety – if I was in a reasonably good mood – I would find myself feeling the same way. This “contact high” was a very strange sensation indeed, because an entirely sober tipsiness would, in due course, be accompanied by its own equally bizarre hangover.

I seize upon this example because drinking and drug-taking are almost invariably social acts, and ones performed in given social contexts, whether these be pubs, parks, or crack houses. The logical correlation here is between socialisation and control, and indeed, this also seems intuitively correct: it’s when we break the rules surrounding the socially acceptable use of intoxicants that trouble usually begins. For drinking not only takes place in social contexts – it actually creates those contexts and, by extension, also creates the world that contains them. Back to Mary Douglas: “First, drinks give the actual structure of social life as surely as if their names were labels affixed upon expected forms of behaviour. Second, the manufacture of alcohol is an economic activity of consequence. Third, the ceremonials of drinking construct an ideal world.”

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Mapping this on to my experience, aged 12, with my father, we can understand just how problematic this situation was. The expected behaviour is that “brandy” should be associated with cigars and the culmination of an impressive meal – or else administered to someone freezing to death from a miniature barrel dangling around the neck of a St Bernard. What the label on the bottle doesn’t imply is that it should be served to a child who has been caught in the rain.

The economic significance of alcohol was, of course, implicit in the publican’s rage: he might well have lost his licence if he’d been found guilty of knowingly serving someone under age. But more than this, the restriction of the sale and consumption of alcohol to adults in certain proscribed circumstances is both a function of the economic closure necessary for drinks manufacturers and publicans to earn a living – and the construction of an idealised social realm in which children aren’t intoxicated.

On this latter point, as someone with considerable experience of a wide range of intoxicants, I have always felt – considering how alienated and anomic great swaths of our society can be – that we handle ethyl alcohol pretty well. After all, unlike marijuana – whose principal psychoactive constituent, THC, has an extremely low toxicity – alcohol is formidably poisonous, with a well-attested capacity to make people not only behave impulsively but aggressively. My own problems with alcohol, I’d argue, began not because my father gave it to me when I was a child, but when he neglected to give it me – and I stole it and drank it alone. If the family home had been sufficiently nurturing, he might well have succeeded in turning me into the sort of “moderate” drinker he was himself – but as it was, I realised very early in life that my parents’ attention was elsewhere, and it was in this zone-of-their-unknowing that I began first to drink excessively and then to take drugs.

It’s not too much of a stretch to draw an analogy between an individual neglected child and a neglected adult population. Lockdown became a social world of its own, with its own attendant “culture”, one in which we cultivated new forms of honesty and hypocrisy. When we socialised and drank together IRL, we might well say one thing – “Great new trousers, mate” – but think quite another. But when we socialised on Zoom calls, we began dressing only for our top halves, and what was on our legs – being out of sight – was just as securely out of mind. Our neglected lower limbs represented this further phenomenon: no longer observed or otherwise monitored as we had been by colleagues, friends and even family, we, too, entered a zone-of-their-unknowing, one in which the temptation to behave in delinquent and unhealthy ways reared its head: a snake, summoned by the discordant music of our stress. It became much easier to indulge in more drink and drugs once we were deprived of those socialised contexts within which restraint was inbuilt because the party ended, or the pub shut.

New Measures

Which is not for a moment to suggest that, pre-pandemic, all was truly constructive in the world of (and formed by) us Great Brits getting baked. As I said above, I remain amazed by how well we handle alcohol, all things considered. But this is a socialisation that has taken the many millennia since fermented alcoholic beverages have been in widespread use, and the 500 or so since distilled ones came on the scene. Nor has alcohol’s socialisation been without its attendant problems: alcoholism absolutely does exist in our society – why wouldn’t it, given how many people were suffering physical and mental isolation even before the pandemic? Over the past half-century, by almost every reckoning, Britons’ involvement in collective, participatory activities – whether these be sports, clubs of one sort or another, or even political parties – has declined. At the same time, the average size of families has continued to shrink, while more and more adults do not have long-term partners. Under such circumstances how can it be possible to inculcate in ourselves, let alone our children, the practice of constructive drinking?

drinking culture

And yet this is precisely what we need to do: not problematise then pathologise our own excessive or wayward drinking – which will make us still more reliant on doctors than we already are – but take responsibility for rendering our intoxication a positive social ritual, one that genuinely fosters solidarity. The concerns about growing marijuana use, and the way the debate about the legalisation of all illegal drugs are framed in terms of “harm minimisation”, speaks implicitly to the view of all drug use as inherently problematic. But what we surely need are effective practices that socialise these forms of intoxication as well – and embed them specifically in intergenerational contexts where the young can be taught by (good) example. I was always trying to get my father to smoke marijuana. A reversal of the correct order of things, he would resist, saying: “I’ve no principled objection, it’s just not part of my culture.”

What, unfortunately, can be part of our culture is binge drinking. I’m writing this only a week or so after the relaxation of lockdown rules in England allowed pubs and bars to serve customers at outside tables – and already the statistics suggest that the first few days of trading saw an increase in sales, year on year, of over 100%. To all the other strange sights that the pandemic has given rise to has had to be added that of bevies of beer-drinkers knocking back pints in the freezing atmosphere of a notably cruel April. But as we continue to regain our social liberty, this is not a desirable “new normal”. Instead, I would like to encourage those of you who are worried about your increased intake of – or reliance on – alcohol and other intoxicants over the past difficult year to consider your re-entry to the world of socialised drinking (and quite possibly drugging) as if it were not simply rejoining an existent society, but an invitation to redefine that realm.

A Glass Half Full

Obviously, I’m not talking about full-blown alcoholics or drug addicts here. I can tell you from my own experience – which led to arrests, confinements, the breakdown of relationships, spells in rehab and psychiatric clinics, plus enduring health problems – that beyond a certain point, it really does become impossible to control one’s intake. It’s as if one is on the footplate of a runaway locomotive, while ahead all the points have been switched, such that the only possible destination is another drink, or hit, or fix. But this isn’t the case for many people, who nonetheless may feel that their use has become problematic.

Setting days, times and places when it’s appropriate to drink – incorporating drinking meaningfully into family occasions or friendly gatherings; marking particular events with toasts; and most importantly, instructing the young in how and when to get intoxicated – these are the key issues. Further, in a society currently (and, in my view, quite rightly) preoccupied with male sexual violence towards women, it behoves all responsible older men to school younger men closely in the issues surrounding informed consent and intoxication.

I realise some of this may sound a little hokey, but all constructive activities have to begin somewhere. And besides, what’s the alternative? In other essays for Men’s Health, I’ve pointed out that many of the issues affecting well-being are simply too important to be left in the hands of doctors – let alone politicians. Which is one way of saying: prevention is far better than cure.

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