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Adrian Chiles’s documentary proves how many of us are in denial about our problematic drinking habits

It was only after I stopped drinking completely that I was able to see just how deeply ingrained my denial was – and how I was far from the only one to rely on the stereotypes to justify my alcohol misuse

Claire Gillespie
Tuesday 28 August 2018 17:07 BST
Drinkers like me Adrian Chile's documentary about boozing

Like Adrian Chiles, whose documentary Drinkers Like Me aired on BBC Two last night, I didn’t think I had a problem with alcohol until I finally figured out that my biggest problem with alcohol was, well, denying that I had a problem. I couldn’t be addicted to booze because I didn’t drink every day. I couldn’t be a problem drinker because I was surrounded by people who drank just as much as I did, just as often as I did. I couldn’t be an alcoholic because my life wasn’t falling apart.

Similarly, Chiles’s own justification for drinking 100-plus units of alcohol per week (government guidelines for both men and women are no more than 14 units a week, the equivalent of seven pints or a bottle and a half of wine) was that he didn’t misbehave, fall over, fight or drink during the day.

I finally stopped drinking in June 2017, after years of using alcohol to self-medicate for anxiety and depression, to fit in, to cope with the difficult, the boring, the irritating and painful realities of life. Unlike Chiles, who reveals at the end of the programme that, two months after filming, he has cut his alcohol intake to around 25 units a week, I got sober.

It was only after I stopped drinking completely that I was able to see just how deeply ingrained my denial was – and how I was far from the only one to rely on the stereotypical picture of an alcoholic to justify my alcohol misuse.

While Chiles comes to realise – following advice from various health professionals, including renowned neuropsychopharmacologist David Nutt – that his admission, “on some level, I need to drink,” may be the only answer he needs to the question of whether he has a problem with alcohol, the dedicated drinkers he interviews for the programme remain firmly in the nonacceptance camp.

“We’re addicted to [alcohol] without being alcoholics,” says one, while another declares that her binge drinking can “never turn into alcoholism.”

An absence of drinking in the morning appears to be Chiles’s drinking buddies’ most favoured rationalisation, reinforcing the delusion that the time you pour your first drink of the day serves as some sort of unofficial marker for where a person sits on the alcoholism scale.

In fact, health professionals are trying to move away from the labels “alcoholic” and “alcoholism.” The NHS favours the term “alcohol misuse,” which is defined as “drinking excessively, i.e., more than 14 units a week. The Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT), a 10-item screening tool developed by the World Health Organization (WHO) to gauge alcohol consumption and alcohol-related problems, serves as a good starting point for determining whether your alcohol use could be hazardous or harmful.

With over a year of sobriety under my belt, I’ve learned that labels – and guidelines and screening tools, to a certain extent – are largely irrelevant. I know people who identify as alcoholics and people who don’t (and those who don’t may have been heavier drinkers, in terms of weekly intake, than those who do). My problems with alcohol were so much bigger, so much more complex, than whether I had my first drink at 10am or 7pm, whether I drank seven days or four days a week, and how often I threw up after drinking.

Any conversation we have with ourselves about alcohol, whether we want to quit completely or cut down, has to address why we drink in the first place. Even by the end of the programme, Chiles is still resistant to sobriety, clinging to the hope that he can continue to get “the joy out of drinking.” Yet he doesn’t seem able to define what this “joy” is, admitting that “I need to drink because I don’t like how I feel, I don’t like who I am” and describing alcohol’s hold on him as a “quiet, vice-like grip.”

Like Chiles, I drank to change the way I felt, and I always found a reason to drink (a celebration, a commiseration, a good day, a bad day, a Wednesday). I was hiding behind misconceptions and seeking reassurance from people who drank as heavily as I did. Breaking free from the vice-like grip was only possible when I faced up to that difficult truth.

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