“Alcoholism is a disease, but it’s the only disease you can get yelled at for having.”
- Mitch Hedberg
2022 is the tenth year of the official Dry January campaign. Last year, 130,000 people signed up with Alcohol Change UK, who provide a choice of daily coaching emails or a steady stream of encouragement via their phone app, all aimed at helping people get through the longest month of the year without assistance from drink. This 2021 figure was up 30% on the previous record number for January 2020, which I find to be an interesting reflection of where we were as a population this time last year. In fear perhaps? Concerned at how quickly the glass recycling box was starting to fill up? Worried that another lockdown, set against soaring figures for COVID cases and deaths, might send us over the edge? Undoubtedly the pandemic has augmented our relationship with alcohol. But ever before that, just how close, and how toxic had that relationship become that there would be a need for an annual month-long campaign of temporary total abstinence?
Reading the words “alcohol dependence”, people usually think of addiction. They think of people in their lives with addiction problems, or recall battles of their own with alcohol. To describe a person as dependent on someone or something, we mean someone who cannot get by without that person or thing. Alcohol is a numbing agent and countless individuals have found themselves in phases where it seemed the day simply would not pass unless life’s many pains could be numbed. Alcohol is addictive and I am not an addiction expert, so if this paragraph is making you think about drinking or about getting help for you or someone else, then please stop reading and get that help, be that from a friend or an expert.
I’m writing as someone who enjoys a drink. Would I sacrifice half a Bruce Springsteen concert queuing just to have the feel of cold squidgy plastic in my hand? No thanks, I’m here for the music. But nor do I particularly mind that couple next to me who have been yelling for “Born to Run” since before the band walked on and who brazenly defy physics by both seemingly resting their entire weight on the other, while also still keeping their pints aloft. It takes all sorts.
A big drinker I am not. At a wedding over Christmas, I was playing a few songs and accidentally got bought the same hideously expensive cocktail by two different friends. This was at 2AM, and 45 minutes later I was still sipping slowly and dutifully from both glasses alternately, before finally admitting to myself I wanted my bed and that neither drink was doing anything but store up horrors for the next day.
What I am interested in is how society becomes dependent on alcohol. How does someone sitting without a drink in front of them at a social gathering, or worse, leaving one unfinished, come to be cause for suspicion? Or panic even: “Has nobody gotten yer man a drink, and him sitting playing? Quick, have barkeep fetch more vermouth.” How have we built entire cities without places for people to socialise indoors at night-time, other than places where alcohol sales provide the necessary profit motive? How do we find ourselves managing a pandemic while at every turn having megaphone diplomacy with publicans, each of whom offers as objective fact the assertion that if people can’t drink in pubs, they’ll do so less safely at home?
Let’s try for a three-point response: identity, economy and sociability.
As an undergraduate, I queued to see John Hume speak when he visited Galway in 2004. During the Q&A, I raised my hand to ask how Hume would describe his relationship with his erstwhile colleague in the European Parliament, Ian Paisley. He described that relationship as politically adversarial but personally cordial. To illustrate, Hume told the crowd about an encounter at a hotel in Brussels where both he and Paisley happened to be staying. After a day’s travel and political business, Hume was sitting at the bar having a drink with an aide, when an unmistakable figure appeared with his own entourage, inquiring as to whether the kitchen was open.
“Evening Ian”, said Hume.
“Oh, I see you there now Hume”, came the reply, “supping at the devil’s buttermilk as always.”
“Ah sure wouldn’t you join us for a minute?”
“No, thanks all the same, I’ll leave you now to your company and your devil’s buttermilk”.
“Well let me have them send something over to your table,” Hume insisted. “What’ll it be?”
Paisley took in a considerate breath and said, “Well since it’s you that’s buying, I’ll have an orange, and a bitter one.”
The line got the laugh it deserved. But probably Hume assumed a level of cultural knowledge that mightn’t have been mainstream among a young Galway audience. You mean there are political leaders who don’t drink? On this island? In most of the parties in Dáil Éireann, to be known to abstain from pints would have seemed at the time like automatic disqualification for any aspiring Taoiseach (though the current one is known to prefer his green tea). But wait, what, you mean to say up North they have entire communities of non-drinkers, villages with no pubs, not even one?
My point isn’t a sectarian one (hopefully). Church or none, many of us are culturally invested in the idea that we Irish can hold our drink and are not to be out-partied. Many British people have the same conception of themselves. It’s part of a ‘story of ourselves’. Aren’t we such craic. You see variations of the same idea internationally. On an innocent reading, you could view regional drinking patterns and preferences as an expression of how the people of a place connect to the landscape through the drinks they brew with the materials to hand. Not much poitín made in Sicily, nor rosé in Skibbereen. But in an era of global distribution networks, is any of that still true, and where does that truth end and the self-story begin? At the bottom of an alcopop designed to mask the taste of alcohol and artificially tinged with the colour of pure radiation? Who’s to say.
Our economic reliance on alcohol as a means of keeping money circulating across our economy is the facet of collective dependence which COVID-19 has most starkly exposed. Business closure, job-loss and furlough in the hospitality sector account for a sizable portion of the economic damage from the pandemic. Back in March 2020, it was the decision to finally #ShutThePubs that signalled definitively that a deliberate partial shutdown of the economy as we understood it was what was needed. We must now accept that a level of excessive assumption is part of the routine calculation and forecasting of economic activity on which policy-makers base decisions.
A few months before I heard John Hume’s story about the bitter orange, I was working a summer job and saving up the few Euros I’d need to keep me in buttermilk at Uni. Across the office floor from me was one of the greatest customer service professionals ever to lift a headset. Henry’s job was to assure people. “Henry here, and we’re on our way,” he’d say confidently without ever once having to leave his desk. People who were speaking to Henry were doing so because they’d had a bad day and needed Henry’s help. He had an unteachable sense of what someone needed to hear on a bad day. Of course, one in five of those bad days was a Friday. Henry was extra nice to someone having a bad Friday.
“That’s you sorted”, he’d tell them once they were. “Get yourself home safe now, and go out and treat yourself. Have yourself a few pints and help the economy.”
This was 2004. After the crash, a politician would utter the regrettable line, “we all partied”. The point missed by that politician was that people partied because they thought that patriots partied. How better to redistribute your new-found wealth than purchase pint after pint, magnum after magnum, of job-creating, sales-tax-generating fun potion?
One time, I gathered from Henry’s side of the conversation that the particular customer he was serving didn’t drink.
“And you’re happy having that on your conscience are you? That your fellow countrymen and women are keeping the economy afloat?”
Said in hest, of course, but point nonetheless made.
Social lubricant. Reduces friction. Social friction.
It’s June 2021, a Friday night. Euro 2020 is kicking off, and not before time, but in order to book an outdoor table for a reunion of eight people, the legal maximum, we have had to sacrifice proximity to a television. No matter, we have each other. Finally. How was your pandemic? Yes, the weather really saved the day didn’t it. Wine, oh yes please. Oh they don’t serve those here? You get them everywhere in the States. Hey, what’s the score? No way – who scored?
Irish people don’t usually just go to one place. Once our legally mandated food is digested, whispers begin about nearby spots where they do light bites and more interesting beers. Will they take walk-ins? At this hour? Surely they would. It turned out they didn’t, and so began a mini-odyssey across Dublin city centre, in search of the fabled outdoor seating. Social friction has begun. I try asking Shay, not his real name, how things are at the bank. But he’s antsy, annoyed we’ve been turned away at a few places. He starts walking ahead and finally we find seats, only to realise we have missed the new city-wide time for last orders. So we have seats, but no drinks. To send up the situation, another friend start mime-pouring one another pints and taking pretend sips during a generally pleasant continuation of the catch-up chat from before. It’s too much for Shay though. Shay’s gone. Irish goodbye, off home without so much as a fistbump. Away to chez Shay.
What shocks visitors to Ireland isn’t that we drink. It’s the omnipresence of drink anywhere it is being served. It’s that nobody is ever in a pub without a drink. It’s that nobody goes out for one drink. This does not shock us, but it should.
And it’s not somebody else’s fault. Listen next time binge-drinking is being discussed on a panel show and see if one panelists concludes without mentioning young people. Listen to how young people are discussed, with a mix of admonition and condescension, all supporting the conclusion that they must somehow be educated to drink better. Now wait and listen for the first panelist to say that they themselves drink too much, or admit that they have pressured a friend to stay for one more. The demonisation of young people’s drinking has always been a form of out-group bias, a way for older people to locate society’s problem with alcohol at someone else’s doorstep. It is still that, but is also now factually false, as evidence mounts that younger adults now drink less on average than older adults.
So what am I saying? Sackcloth and ashes on glass recycling day? No, it’s embarrassing enough as it is. To illustrate his point about alcoholism being the one disease you can be yelled at for having, Mitch Hedberg would add two imagined lines of dialogue:
“ ‘Dammit Otto, you’re an alcoholic.’
‘Dammit Otto, you have Lupus.’
One of those two doesn’t sound right.”
We should never have been yelling at alcoholics. Part of the misunderstanding of alcoholism is the idea that alcoholics can’t just have a good time and leave it at that. Well if I’m someone who equates a good time with drinking, then what share of the blame am I willing to take for helping to normalise that. Rather than each of us retreating into a dark room with a green tea, maybe January would be better spent having an honest conversation about how we got to a place we seem to want to escape, if not just yet.