We need to stop vilifying the people who can’t stop drinking.
Alcohol makes us happy. It stops us from living the way we want. It creates atmospheres of romance and conviviality. It ruins lives.
Alcohol is deeply beloved and readily available. It causes around 88,000 deaths in the US every year. It makes us feel good. It is the third leading cause of preventable death. It helps us relax.
If alcohol were a person, it would be the most toxic person at the party. But the situation is so much more complex than that. And it affects all of us.
Because no problem drinker is created in a vacuum. We grow up in alcohol-loving spaces, with our TV heroes getting wasted and beer advertising itself on our walks home.
Alcohol’s inherent juxtaposition played out in my family. My uncle died an alcohol-related death. My family adores alcohol.
My uncle died of multiple organ failure, caused by alcoholism. He drank ‘too much’. He had the disease of ‘alcoholism’. He did it to himself.
The problem with this, the disease model, is that it places the fault with the ‘alcoholic’. They have lost the ability to drink ‘normally’. They are to blame. It is implied that there is something wrong with them, wrong with the way alcohol affects them.
Lyndsey Moon, a counseling psychologist who has worked in the NHS and voluntary sector with drug and alcohol-related problems, believes a social learning model would be more helpful.
A social learning model would allow more room for contextualizing a person’s drinking and acknowledge alcohol’s role in helping people cope, as well as educating about its capacity to harm.
Moon is in favor of this model, which she observes has lost footing in the UK’s alcohol services during the years of continually slashed funding they have faced under a Conservative government.
“Twenty years of working with people who had alcohol-related problem has told me that no one woke up one morning and decided to drink until they dropped. Patterns of drinking sit inside social systems that influence attitudes, approaches and understanding about the use and serious abuse of alcohol.”
In so far as we subscribed to anything, my family subscribed to the disease model of understanding alcoholism.
This meant, that in spite of my close proximity to my uncle’s misfortune, I didn’t learn about the dangers of alcohol.
I learned that alcohol was a charmed substance, bringing joy and relaxation, and I learned that my uncle was a hopeless alcoholic. There was no connecting tissue between these two ideas.
The adults who raised me didn’t mean to put me in danger. It is simply a fact that their: “patterns of drinking sit inside social systems that influence attitudes, approaches and understanding about the use and serious abuse of alcohol.”
If a social learning model were more prevalent, perhaps I would have had more awareness of the fact that a) binge drinking is alcohol abuse and b) consistent alcohol abuse can lead to an Alcohol Use Disorder.
In a fascinating and enlightening essay, Been there, seen that, done it! An auto-ethnographic narrative account of alcohol use, Moon discusses some of her personal experiences with her family and alcohol, from her own perspective and from the perspective of a fictional therapist, an amalgamation of various therapists she’s seen over the years.
She removes these stories from the therapeutic realm and considers them within a more social context, considering the gender, age, sexuality, ethnicity, etc. of those involved.
In this auto-ethnographic account, she takes on the drinker’s perspective, revealing the harmful drinking behavior she witnessed as symptomatic of a long history of unaddressed trauma, induced by unbearable and tragic conditions created by inequality related to class, gender and economics.
The effect is an astonishing exercise in humanizing the all too often demonized, ‘alcoholic’.
“the vilification of those who use alcohol should be ended.” — Lyndsey Moon
Moon’s work illustrates the way in which alcohol can become a seemingly innocuous part of the tapestry of family history. Invisible, to an extent, to those accustomed to it, and yet affecting every thread.
Therapy can help us to understand the ways that alcohol abuse plays a part in wounding us, while not exploring the broader structures that alcohol abuse occurs within.
Moon’s approach allows space for the social and historical contexts that alcohol abuse is co-produced by.
She suggests that we create:
“new spaces where there is cooperation and integration, then it can alter the way we understand those who use alcohol and drugs in a more open and loving way.”
This would certainly have been kinder on my uncle. His ‘alcoholism’ and the way that he was vilified for it, meant that his isolation grew in tandem with his drinking problem. He died alone, and I wish I had been better informed so I could have helped him.
Moon thinks that a wider range of approaches to Alcohol Use Disorder, funded by those who make alcohol so freely available would improve things. More preventative work needs to be carried out, especially around young people and, most importantly, “the vilification of those who use alcohol should be ended.”
People drink to soothe their pain. If we can better cooperate with and integrate the problematic drinkers in our society, we have a stronger chance of reaching them.
Empathy and kindness are required if we are ever to reach those lost in alcohol’s soothing fog.
We all have a responsibility to do better. To remember that no problem drinker is created in a vacuum.
If you’re struggling to control your drinking, know you aren’t alone.
Do whatever it takes to stay sober for 30 days: go to your doctor, try Smart or AA or Hip Sobriety or Soberistas. Listen to Recovery Elevator and SHAIR podcasts. Read This Naked Mind. Try Moderation Management.
There is a whole community of people just waiting to help you. Reach out. Something better is waiting for you.
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