I was pleased and even excited to see that the subject of alcoholism was going to be featured in a BBC documentary, shown in a prime time slot, on the sensible and serious BBC2 – Adrian Chiles : Drinkers Like Me from the outset looked like it could be a good forum to highlight the serious issue of addiction that is endemic in our society today.
Having watched the program from start to finish, I was left with mixed feelings about the messages that came across from the show. This is by no means a review, and I certainly don’t have the credentials to be a TV critic – but I do know a thing or five about addiction and specifically, my chosen specialist subject, alcohol addiction, so I do feel in a comfortable place to have a reasoned opinion.
What I found refreshing was Mr Chiles openness about how much he drank, and the concerns he openly explored as to what that amount could be doing to his health, both physically and mentally. To be fair to him, he set himself up to be scrutinise and perhaps even criticised for having a daily drink ( apart from Thursdays – he was keen to labour, never Thursdays because he was on air – but then I would always insist I wouldn’t drink on nights before I had a long drive the following day – and I always did #justsaying ), but actually, I think what came across was the fact that his drinking habit is not out of the norm for a lot of people in the UK today.
A bottle of wine a night, a few pints at lunchtime followed by a few post work drinks, a few tinnies during the football, a bottle of Prosecco while catching up with friends, a glass or 3 of Pinot while cooking the kids dinner – whatever the reason, there is a large slice of us who enjoys a regular, maybe daily, drop of alcohol. The line between this habit being a well deserved relief from the stress and pressure of our modern lives, and it becoming something more damaging is blurred at the best of times, even more so when drinking alcohol has been so normalised through advertising and media.
In one clip of the documentary, Adrian ( I feel I’m on first name terms with him now, since I’m delving a little deeper ) was with some friends in a pub at 10:30am pre going to a football match. There was nothing that suggests that he “needed” to have a drink in the morning, but because it was a football day with an early kick off, it was completely normal to indulge in some pre match pints… regardless of the time.
The psychology behind this wasn’t really tackled – I know from my own experience that any event which gave the green light for early drinks was always very welcome – but I am openly an alcoholic. I admit that I have an addiction with drinking and that my relationship with drink is toxic. I guess my point here is – if someone, anyone, feels compelled to drink 3 or 4 pints of Guiness at 10:30 in the morning, what is the rationale for that being healthy?
Because it’s football? – I’ve watched a lot of football sober since giving up drinking, and believe me, it’s far more enjoyable.
Because of peer pressure? – Please. These were men all in their late 40’s / early 50’s – they didn’t seem shy or retiring – if they didn’t want to do something I don’t think they would have any problem saying so.
So perhaps it was genuinely because they just wanted to, and as a counter argument, I have to concede where is the problem with that? They seemed to be enjoying themselves, nobody came to any harm and maybe it did enhance their enjoyment of the game.
Go a level deeper. What is it that made their brain tell them that to make the day better, a few drinks would be a great idea? Stick with me here, because this might become a little complicated, more to do with my written articulation than the actual concept.
To often we assume that what our thoughts and our brain tells us to do is “us” in terms of our conscious being. It’s part of our personality so to speak – so a lot of addicts will berate themselves for being broken, weak willed, a lesser person. All completely untrue. What if, actually, the addiction was born from a physiological reaction that was born into our psyche from a very early stage.
Sugar and alcohol excite and invigorate the part of the brain that is linked to the feeling of reward – a lovely feeling. Over the years of our existence, this feeling is married to memories of when this feeling was stimulated and very cleverly, it links all the pieces of the jigsaw together.
What has alcohol and sugar in abundance? Lager, beer, wine … etc – what occasion does the brain associate with this? In the case of Adrian, football. So the physiological reaction had quite possibly already determined that having a few drinks would result in an instantly good feeling. The longer term damaging effects of those pints is parked for that instant hit of happiness and pleasure. What chance did those poor unsuspecting guys really have of NOT having a few pints when it was hard wired into their psyche that the best and quickest way to have a great sensation would be to get a good dose of the amber nectar down their necks.
Now – a new physiological reaction comes into play. Blood sugar levels. As we have one drink, our levels spike, and just as rapidly start to decline. Our natural reaction is to get more sugar into our veins as quickly and efficiently as possible, all the while maintaining the stimulus of the reward part of our brain. The obvious answer has to be another pint – and so the chain reaction begins, and for many people, becomes hard to end.
I recognise this even today from my daily diet. If I have something sugary early on in the day, the rest of the say, almost sub consciously ends up being filled with bad, sugary or high carb food. My body yearns for it, crying out for another fix.
If I steer clear – I never seem to reach the point in the day where I’m so hungry I’ll eat absolutely anything. So the relationship between ourselves, sugar, alcohol and the stimulating effects it has on us is far closer to the surface of why we are compelled to drink than we think or realise. It has a lot less to do with someone just being “broken” or addicted. And understanding what is in play when you feel the desire to have a drink can help massively in not taking the drink in the first place.
There were two other stand out moments for me in the program. Let me cover them quickly before summarising.
The first – Frank Skinner. Sober for 30 years, Respect to you Frank. But your advice to Adrian to keep on drinking?!!?? Really??? I found this to be so odd. Cutting down or stopping drinking is tough for most people, and a clear message from the program was that Adrian himself had almost unwittingly found alcohol entwined into his daily life – and even just starting to moderate what he drank was going to be difficult. So to casually suggest he carry on regardless was awful advice – but then I did also feel that Frank Skinners whole demeanour towards the fact he had given up drinking was one of almost bitterness. He stated, somewhat sadly, that his social life had never recovered – my own experience of people in recovery is that their social lifes have never been better or more fulfilling.
The second stand out moment was at the end – Adrian revealed that he had cut down on his drinking ( good man ), but was supping a pint of Guiness as he revealed this. So despite educating himself fully on the damage drink was doing to his liver, the impact it could be having on his health and the revelation that it become part of his daily life – as well as talking to and visiting recovering alcoholics and surely hearing their story – he was still enjoying a pint.
This is in no way a criticism, but an observation on the malicious and sinister nature of alcohol. Even when all the facts point towards the unavoidable conclusion it really doesn’t do anything good for us, the most a lot of us do is cut back a bit, and the realistic view is, that period of cutting back is temporary.
Well done to Adrian for tackling the issue head on and giving an honest and interesting view from the perspective of a relatable middle age(ish) person. I loved the program, but just felt that it highlighted even more than ever the blight that alcohol is having on our society without really delving into how to recover from it.