I was never arrested for drink driving during the 22 years that I consumed alcohol. I was never considered by the authorities to be an unfit parent, or sacked from a job due to turning up drunk. I didn’t develop liver disease or fall down the stairs whilst inebriated.
But I did spend the best part of two decades carrying around a niggling suspicion that I had a ‘problem with booze’. Strangely enough, every time I went on a big night out with friends, I was utterly convinced that I would be able to control my consumption and not end up in the gutter. Sometimes this was the case. But more often than not it wasn’t, and I would invariably find myself involved in countless regrettable incidents as a result of my inability to locate a reliable, internal off-switch.
I once woke up beneath a tree in Hyde Park in the early hours of the morning following a Red Hot Chili Peppers concert, to find two policemen looking curiously down at me. I have no idea what happened during the previous few hours, other than I’d become separated from my boyfriend and missed the entire gig. I quickly discovered upon waking that, in addition to misplacing my boyfriend, I had also lost my phone and my purse.
Another time, I lost an entire nine hours to a total blackout after storming off from my then-boyfriend at a party. I returned to find him at the house where the party had been held the following morning, his head in his hands, convinced something awful had happened to me. It could well have: my memory between 10pm and 7am of that night is non-existent.
I recalled my history with booze recently when I read the stories in the media about Ant McPartlin, who happens to be my age, being charged for drink-driving, a consequence of which was that a small child involved in the three-car collision was taken to hospital. Some of the media coverage was vicious: Shamed Ant McPartlin in Lockdown chastised one headline. Ant McPartlin needs to get a grip, fast added another.
Ant’s personal problems have been well documented over the last couple of years, so I guess it came as no surprise to some when the story broke. But how many of those reading the reports about the incident are themselves hovering close to the invisible line that separates responsible drinking from problem drinking? In England alone, there are an estimated 595,131 dependent drinkers, of whom only 108,696 are currently accessing treatment. That’s more than half a million people on the wrong side of the line – and only about a fifth of those are actively seeking help.
Personally speaking, I never considered myself to be an alcoholic, which meant I never considered seeking help for my little secret – that being, I was not fully in control of myself or my actions when I drank. Sure, I’d have the rules securely in place in my head as I left home ready for a night of drinking and fun with my friends: only drink beer (not as strong as wine), swap alcoholic drinks for water at regular intervals (yeah, right), go home no later than midnight (ditto – as if!) But of course, alcohol is a mind-altering drug and so, as soon as we have one or two glasses of our own particular poison in our system, for many, all bets are off.
Add to this the hypocrisy we witness within popular culture regarding excessive drinking, and it’s clear to see we have a problem. I’m thinking of films, such as The Hangover (grown men drinking so much they end up embroiled in a catalogue of disasters, none of which can be properly recalled by any of those involved) and Bridget Jones (necking bottles of Chardonnay by herself, her subsequent drunkenness being conveyed as charming and cute). Then there’s the endless, jokey greetings cards pertaining to getting smashed on booze and how funny it all is (‘A well-balanced person has a drink in both hands’ and ‘All hail the Queen of Prosecco’ to mention but two current birthday cards available in John Lewis). What you end up with is a confusing social landscape where getting blind drunk is at once celebrated and vilified.
In this social climate, it can be incredibly difficult to actually recognise that you have a real problem with alcohol – and therefore it becomes virtually impossible to approach someone for help.
There’s also the issue of blame – if we regard alcohol dependency as an illness, can we reasonably point the finger of blame at the drinker? What if someone is just binge drinking and doesn’t set out to get drunk? What if he or she is not ‘an alcoholic’ but just a social drinker who occasionally goes too far? And what if each time the drinker starts to drink, he or she is absolutely certain they will be able to control the amount they consume – even if this does not then happen in reality?
It’s a hugely grey area and one of which I am acutely aware - as both an ex-drinker and the founder of Soberistas.com, an online community of 50,000 people, all supporting one another in their efforts to kick the bottle. There are vast difficulties in seeking help for a problem that you’re not actually sure exists, although I do believe that the more honest conversations we have about excessive alcohol consumption, the more we can, as a society, alleviate these difficulties. And the more we open up as a nation about our relationship with alcohol, the more likely it is that we will be able to judge less and help more.
Main image: Getty, others: iStock