For someone who drinks some six units of alcohol per month if that, and comes from a family tradition of a sherry or two at Christmas (to the extent my grandparents probably spent more on replacing the stagnant bottle each year than they did on content consumption), I seem to have known a disproportionate number of alcoholics in my life.
Housemates, colleagues, boyfriends, best friends, others. All undetectable as having a problem to begin with, have entered stage left to recite their part in that ongoing production that is my life, some to eventually disgrace themselves and exit stage right, others to eventually recover to feature in Act 2 and beyond.
Until recently I have always endeavoured to be understanding and sympathetic about alcoholic dependency, taking the view; 'There but for the grace of God go I.' And having survived a pretty challenging upbringing myself, not to mention a difficult young adulthood, I could so easily have turned to drink (or worse). It was all around me after all, along with the entreaties to get it down me from my peers. I have also known my share of despair and loneliness, have suffered yawning chasms in confidence, have endured ill health, have been bullied at school and occasionally work when younger and generally felt the desperate need of some kind of anaesthesia to get me through. To inure me against the harsh realities of life, if not absolve me of responsibility for myself and actions entirely during the times I have felt like giving up.
I understand all too well the reasons why some people feel the need to drink often and copiously. I've felt the same need for something to serve all the functions that alcohol can. Before it starts to take over and potentially destroy. It can be a tough life and 'deal some pretty mean blows' as a friend recently observed.
It doesn't help that we live in a country which recognises alcoholism as a disability and bestows generous benefits on those incapacitated by it, which rumour has it, many do not use for medicinal benefit.
Somehow an inner inkling that alcohol might add to my problems rather than solve them and coming of age in a pre-alcopop era where you had to get over the horrid taste in order to form a habit conspired to keep me from temptation, and books and old films (and chocolates) became my refuge when times were tough.
I certainly don't think I could have kept my intake moderate if I'd allowed myself to develop a taste for it though, hence my empathy for those who come to need a drink as oppose to wanting a drink (the definition of alcoholism).
But years of experiencing alcoholics benign and bad, and my favourite type, reformed, have led me to several conclusions: -
- Alcohol seldom makes anyone funnier, sexier or cleverer, just louder and more deluded about their powers in this respect.
- All alcoholics are inherently selfish. Everything revolves around them and their access to supply and if you become a threat to that, watch yourself. In the worst cases, other people and their needs scarcely form a blip on their radar as far as the alcoholic is concerned, even though they may display symptoms of guilt, remorse or self-loathing when in certain frames of mind and use such to reassure the other person that they are sorry and genuinely do need them. This makes alcoholics supremely time consuming and often high-maintenance as well. Ask yourself if investing too much in them is the best use of your own life, mindful that excess alcohol can impair memory so how much of the time/energy you devote to them do they remember in any case? They may swear they love or value you, but make no mistake, they love and value the bottle far more.
- The 'sweeties', ie those who turn into the human equivalent of cuddly toy bunnies with the batteries running down with each glass to eventually fall asleep on your shoulder, whispering affectionate endearments and reliant on you to ensure they get home safely can be endearing sometimes, and are probably worth retaining friendships/relationships with, but too often and this too becomes wearing.
- Those who turn either verbally or physically malicious and hate-fuelled or controlling when drunk need to be ditched, the sooner the better. They will either value you enough to get help as a result of the shock of your rejection or continue their descent to a place you wouldn't want to accompany them to. These personality types may or may not be psychopathic but why take chances? Parents with children need to be particularly careful about granting such individuals/partners second and third chances and taking them back. It is worth bearing in mind that even the founder of The Samaritans Chad Varah opined that it was impossible to help a psychopath and advised walk away, and he was not known for giving up on people with problems. Not that all psychopaths are alcoholics or vice versa, obviously.
- Heavy drinkers are more prone to cancer, impotence, stroke and dementia than the rest of the populace in addition to liver failure and sudden death through alcohol poisoning, particularly if binge drinkers. New research shows that low level brain damage begins in the right frontal lobe area which houses the emotional quotient (EQ) governing not just the bit of the brain able to fall in love, but memory, empathy, response times, impulses, common sense, self-control and behavioural boundaries among other useful brain functions. The brain, being the world's most brilliant computer, will forge alternative neural pathways and circuitry to bypass the damaged areas to the best of its ability but once it becomes too badly damaged in its own right to continue, a major health failure will occur, often disabling the alcoholic for life if not killing them. This is the future for the average alcoholic who refuses to use their IQ to rescue their EQ and take action against their dis-ease, particularly if they compound the damage by smoking to restrict the blood flow and atrophy the arteries.
To summarise, I have a new personal policy where I'll hold onto the friends I have who have triumphed over or assumed control of their alcoholism through strength of character and determination, have learned life's lessons through a major health failure, or who are making strenuous efforts to seek help, but those who cannot be bothered to help themselves or take their lives and friends seriously have wasted enough of my life.
No longer will I allow myself to be heartbroken and sleepless over the often otherwise highly-intelligent and talented individuals I have known throwing their lives away, or naively optimistic enough to believe that maybe I can make a difference or inspire them to wish to recover and that their alcoholism is a temporary state.
However to be too non-judgemental about alcoholism to my mind risks insulting the alcoholic as a helpless victim incapable of turning their life around, even offering complicit approval for them to carry on killing themselves through smiling support, via this act of passive suicide or possibly late self-abortion...