There’s a saying that – on balance – it’s probably better to be a heroin addict than an alcoholic. To a lot of people, this might seem ridiculous. To people like my friend *Naomi in recovery from a long-term alcohol dependency, the words strike a chord. During this festive period, the angst is even more visceral.
The problem is that alcohol is so mainstream in the UK and a part of our culture, a bit like a nice cup of tea, with the exception that taken in excess it can kill, either slowly through the throes of addiction or else by poisoning. Alcohol is all around us, from prime-time TV adverts to billboards and internet banners. For someone who is drink-dependent, the addiction follows like a ghost.
“The festive period is particularly difficult for me,” Naomi says, “as everyone seems to be drinking and getting drunk either at Christmas parties or on TV. This is the time when the adverts for booze come thick and fast and supermarkets push discounted spirits galore. It can be a really difficult time for anyone struggling with this terrible addiction.”
It’s true that in the run-up to Christmas, TV adverts selling a cosy Christmas card fireside scene, wine glasses in hand, or a glamorous Champagne lifestyle filled with beautiful people, predominate more than ever. Supermarkets push cheap booze and festive parties are raucous and irreverent. Switch on TV soaps and the settings are all too often centred on the pub or the wine bar. They are, to programme producers, an easy, perhaps lazy, way of bringing many different characters together. Coronation Street has as a pub, The Rovers Return, as one of its main focal points, as do Emmerdale, and Eastenders. They are the innocuous hubs of their respective communities, and everyone is cheerful, in control and seemingly immune, with one or two rare exceptions, to the effects of alcohol. The festive period is even more jolly with no hangovers in sight!
Dr Paul McLaren, consultant psychiatrist and medical director at the Priory Hayes Grove and the Priory Ticehurst House, explains: “There is a powerful well-resourced marketing industry which convinces us that alcohol is an integral part of Christmas and the New Year. It is part of having a good time, I have had patients with alcohol dependence in the early stages of recovery who say, ‘I know I need to abstain but I would need to have a glass of wine with the family on Christmas day or a glass of bubbly to see in the New Year’, or leaving Santa a glass of port.”
I have known Naomi for years, we met as students at university in the mid-Nineties, when drink was cheap and one of our favourite pastimes was getting drunk. We lost touch and then met again a few years ago through work. Her drinking had caused her marriage to breakdown and she was a physical and mental wreck, struggling to find a way out. I don’t really want to focus too much on her personal story, as it is a story familiar to so many people suffering from this pernicious progressive disease. According to Alcohol Concern, there are an estimated 595,131 dependent drinkers in England, of whom only 108,696 are currently accessing treatment. Alcohol misuse is the biggest risk factor for death, ill-health and disability among 15-49 year-olds in the UK, and the fifth biggest risk factor across all ages. Alcohol abuse is estimated to cost the NHS around £3.5bn annually.
During December, alcohol consumption in the UK increases by 41 per cent. There are numerous reasons why some people end up drinking too much at a consistent level, including the financial strain caused by overspending; the pressure to be upbeat and act as the “perfect host”; spending extended periods with relatives; and the need for confidence in social situations, such as the office Christmas party.
Julie Breslin, head of programme at Drink Wise Age Well (part of UK drug and alcohol charity Addaction) says: “Christmas can be an enjoyable time for many, but for those who have experienced problems with their drinking and are trying to stay alcohol free it can be a minefield. Be mindful of this when planning staff parties and family get-togethers and try to explore alternative options that everyone can enjoy, including those recovering from alcohol problems.”
While alcohol use is reducing in our younger population, this is not the case in over 50s who are drinking more than any other age group. Alcohol abuse can lead to more than 60 health conditions including heart disease, cancer and dementia, according to the charity. The festive period is a time when the clinking of glasses becomes a sign of sociability.
Naomi says: “Not drinking becomes more obvious at this time of year, and even though more people than ever are choosing not to drink, among the 70 per cent plus of people who do, you are almost made to feel like an outsider for abstaining. I try to avoid festive parties as a result, which is a shame. Like tobacco adverts, I do think the drinks industry should be banned from advertising, as alcohol is such a harmful drug.”
Dr Paul McLaren explains: “Christmas party drinking can bring to light longstanding drinking problems and I have seen a number of patients whose problems came to light after they passed out or behaved in a disinhibited way at a work Christmas party and their friends or employers recognised the problem. It is as if they felt uninhibited and drank even more than they would usually do.”
Naomi adds: “Isn’t it time to act real and stop pushing alcohol in people’s faces at this festive time? Perhaps then people will remember Christmas and the best bits, such as spending time together without suffering the collective hangover from drinking too much?”
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.
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