On Febfast and Alcohol: changing the conversation

It’s not just about health.

I feel very strongly about Febfast, even though I myself am not particularly good at fundraising. It’s not because I think that alcohol is The Devil or that people shouldn’t be allowed to have a drink without feeling guilt or woe. It’s not that at all. I am, myself, fond of champagne, a dry chardonnay, and cider (which I am avoiding at the moment more because of its high sugar content than anything else). I am considering cultivating a taste for Scotch. I have been drunk in the past and will, doubtless, be drunk again (or at the very least, tipsy). I don’t mind alcohol as a concept, but the situation is more complicated than that.

Febfast forces you to confront the role of alcohol in our society head-on. When you give up drinking for a month, you suddenly realise not only how many opportunities there are to drink, but how expected it is that you drink. You realise how often you expect yourself to drink. You might come to realise that you rely on alcohol to relax enough to socialise properly (trying to dance sober may be a revelation). You might notice that people start to look at you strangely when you refuse alcohol. If you’re a woman, you may start receiving insinuations about a possible bun in the oven (since, apparently, pregnancy is the only reason you might decide to take it easy for a while). Some people will get quite defensive, even aggressive, as though your decision to not drink means that they’re expected to stop as well (even though it means nothing of the sort). The word “wowser” might make an appearance.

There is a strong social pressure to drink.

“Red wine is good for you!” people will say, having skimmed through some fairly complex research to get to a take-home message which is only very mildly supported.

“Loosen up and have fun!” another person might say, implying – although they do not realise it – that you can’t actually have fun without three cocktails and a whiskey chaser.

“You can absolutely have alcohol with antibiotics!” other will utter in response to your protests, ignoring the fact that, even if this is true*, perhaps putting another stress on your body as you’re fighting off an infection is not the most sensible decision (although: to each their own).

(*this is actually true. There are two classes of antibiotics that are contraindicated by alcohol, and one possible outcome is projectile vomiting. I prefer my stomach acid to remain in that organ. I’m just wacky that way)

People who are drinking seem to have a vested interest in other people drinking, which seems odd to me. The first time I realised this was when I attended a conference during Febfast. The poster night was a particular revelation. Free cocktails everywhere (I should have bought a time out for that).

We normalise and even celebrate heavy drinking, and in turn this can normalise alcoholism. We have a strange shared delusion of what an alcoholic is, and what they look like, and that means that people with very serious drinking problems can easily tell themselves, that they don’t have a problem, because they don’t fit that description. There are really self-aware people in this world; the sort of people who think to themselves: “You know, I’ve been drinking a bottle of red every day, by myself, when I get home. That’s probably not so good,” and they turn it around on their own. That’s excellent, when it happens.

It doesn’t happen for everyone.

Excessive drinking can lead to liver problems. It increases your risk of cancer. It’s not so good for the leetle grey cells, as Monsieur Poirot might say. We all know this, even though some of us get quite cross whenever the information is updated. “How dare you tell me how much to drink! Stop interfering!” says the commentariat, when politely presented with an approximate guideline for alcohol consumption that will statistically reduce their risk of side effects. The fact that they are simply being given the best information to aid in decision making – not a moral judgement, but data – is apparently overlooked.

But it’s not just about health. I said that at the start. Febfast raises money to provide support and help for children and families affected by substance abuse; this money goes to run programs for children to get away from these problems for a while; it goes to helplines, places for people to call when they really need help; and it raises awareness of these problems.

I’m going to paint you a picture now. A hypothetical, that obviously isn’t.

Imagine you’re a teenage girl. Imagine that you live in a slightly remote area, with one single, stressed-out parent. None of your friends live nearby. You’re at school, and then you’re at home, and it’s just you, and this parent, and that’s it. Just you and this one person alone in the mountains. That defines your world most of the time. You’re an adolescent, going through all the normal crap that adolescents go through.

And you begin to form the suspicion, a suspicion that burns in your gut like acid, that this parent drinks too much. Waaaay too much. After a long, stressful day at work (and they are all long, stressful days), the parent comes home and produces some cask wine (cheap riesling). You’re aware that there’s something not quite right about them – that this has always been true – but during the day you can usually reason with them, even if you can’t talk to them the way you’d like to.

When the box comes out, though, the rules change. The game changes entirely. You can’t reason with them. You can’t talk to them. You can’t even be in the room without them starting to yell at you (and say some truly horrible things, things that you know aren’t true but which you internalise anyway, because you’re an adolescent and your undeveloped brain is like a sponge). So you leave the room, and hide in your own space, and even then sometimes they will knock on your door, and on a good day all they will do is say horrible things and shout at you; on a bad day they might hit you in the face, and break your stuff. Sometimes you are called out from your room so that you can be yelled at in a different part of the house. Even when they’re in a good mood, they take on a sort of rambling, cheery madness that is even more frightening than the rage, because you don’t know where it’s going or what it will turn into or how you are supposed to respond.

Sometimes you walk the roads at midnight, because it’s the only way to get enough air in that tiny house.

But that’s not the worst thing. The worst thing is that you are too young to take care of yourself, and there’s nowhere else you can go, and there is one person – just one – in the whole world who is taking care of you. One adult, legally and morally responsible for your well being. You might have friends, you might have other family, but when it comes down to the line, this is what you are stuck with. One person.

And that person is, as near as you can tell, absolutely stark raving bonkers.

If there had been someone to call, that might have made all the difference. If there had been anyone to talk to, to start to say “This isn’t normal… is it?”, that might have changed things. If there had been more support for the parent in question, more awareness of red flags that would suggest that they need help, that might have changed things.

But as a society, we don’t really talk about alcohol. Australia, as a society, drinks too damn much and is too damn defensive about it by half. We give alcoholism a place to hide, to the point where we question if it’s even there. On the one hand, we reduce substance abuse to an issue of willpower, as though only really weak people get caught in that trap, and under those circumstances, who would dare to admit to that problem? On the other hand, we accuse anyone who dares to suggest alcohol should be moderated of being some sort of interfering, busybody fun-police.

We leave people – children – alone in these terrible situations, and if we question whether it’s normal to use alcohol in this way, we become the wowsers. There’s no escape. There’s no way out. There’s just cheap, shitty wine in a box.

This is not something I usually talk about in public, but I know too many people who are uncomfortable with Febfast; who feel uneasy about the idea of raising awareness about substance abuse with this particular substance, and I wish they understood why it is so important to have this conversation. I don’t want people to go through what I went through, and worse than what I went through, because of this idea that everyone’s entitled to a drink. That may be true, but it’s also the language we use to cloak a problem.

Febfast is trying to change the conversation around substance abuse on the one hand, and effect real, practical change for the people who are suffering on the other. It’s fighting an important battle on multiple fronts, and changing lives.

Please donate.

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One thought on “On Febfast and Alcohol: changing the conversation

  1. […] felt emotions are a private thing. There’s a story there, a very long story, and it’s why this post makes me feel naked and sick, but I leave it up because I think some stories are important and need […]

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