The terminology of problem drinking

8 Jan
Lovely Day for A Guiness - historic advertising

Lovely Day for A Guiness – historic advertising

Over on the BBC News Magazine today, Olivia Sorrel-Dejerine raises a question of terminology – whether there ought to be a word for those who aren’t quite alcoholics. The piece goes on to discuss the need to find another phrase, seemingly more socially acceptable, to use in relation to people who aren’t strictly alcholoics – ie. they aren’t dependant on the substance.

A rose by any other name would still smell like a pub after chucking out.

It is incredibly easy to adopt a position of aloofness when dealing with alcohol – it is after all one of the most socially acceptable drugs within our society, alongside caffeine. The backlash that the tobacco industry has met – so brilliantly exemplified in that scene in The IT Crowd where Jen is forced to walk miles in Soviet-style conditions to have a sneaky smoke break – has yet to fall on alcohol. Where there aren’t studies to support the health benefits of smoking in the modern day, there are studies which suggest moderate intake of alcohol is acceptable. We can use it in our cooking, and it is a socially acceptable thing to suggest heading to a pub to indulge in the drinking of several litres of the stuff in a party environment. (You try asking your chums to head out for the night to smoke 60 Benson and Hedges and see what sort of reaction you get).

The ubiquitous nature of alcohol however means that we are somewhat numbed to its detrimental effects unless we (or a close friend/relative) is carted off by police for being drunk and disorderly, or we encounter a homeless-type person on the streets, begging 20p while a can of special brew sits forlornly beside them.

Sorrel-Dejerine quotes Joseph Nowinski, c0-author of Almost Alcoholic: “There has never been a word for people who come to the point of asking themselves the question, ‘Do I have a problem or not?'” and then seeks to find one. However, many people with alcohol issues never stop to ask themselves the question in the first place, or, like the article seems to suggest, decide that their alcohol intake is not at problem levels because they aren’t like the extreme alcoholics one finds in the gutter or paddy wagon.

The reality is, that even with a problem evident, the socially acceptable status that alcohol takes in our society means that problem drinkers do not seem themselves as such and will continue to kid themselves with a string of justifications until their bodies pack in, or their wider lives are detrimentally affected, and even then perhaps not.

In a previous job one of my colleagues had an alcohol abuse problem to detrimental effect. Her professional and domestic life became clouded by her drinking, and eventually she lost her job because of it, and even the efforts of another colleague to support her at appeal came to no good. I saw her once some time after that, and her drinking hadn’t eased off – and now she looked emaciated because her eating had suffered. Before long she was dead.

I don’t know enough about her to speculate on the reasons she started drinking, but it seems that once started it can be very difficult to stop or show restraint.

There’s a certain middle-class attitude to drinking too which leaves the consumption of bottles of wine around the dinner table each evening by an individual completely appropriate, while someone in receipt of state benefit guzzling a can of lager each night is somehow uncouth. Yes, I’m stereotyping, but you instantly have pictures in your head and one is more acceptable than the other.

I have friends who would admit to drinking more than they probably should, and one or two who have half-jokingly suggested they may be borderline alcoholics, but they also seem to be functionally so. While they can’t do without their little pick-me-up when they come home, and a night-cap before bed, they are well under the limit come the morning for driving, and don’t have it interfere with their day jobs.

A few years ago I started asking questions about my own drinking, which had over a couple of months suddenly increased to a nightly level and a tendency to get tipsy of an evening. I didn’t drive, and I was sober come work the following day, but I became aware one night and made a concious decision to stop drinking there and then – just to make sure I wasn’t developing an addiction. Never an easy thing to do at festive time.

Since then my drinking is back towards its old levels, and with frequent dry spells. I’ve been drunk since then more than once (naughty), but all within manageable levels and the vast majority of the time well under governmental recommended levels.  Getting me to cut out on caffeine is a harder vice to break.

One certainly shouldn’t feel guilty having a drink – and at one stage that was exactly what I did feel – even a drink every evening isn’t exactly something to be concerned about. But when you can’t do without, and when it starts to impact on the rest of your life then you should worry.

Without naming names, I was called by a friend last year who had had some very unpleasant reactions to alcohol to the point where it made them violent and left them on the verge of loosing their family. Over the course of a number of months the intake had increased right through from the glass of wine when coming home each evening to the bottle, and then to multiple bottles. The ins and outs of the exact circumstances aren’t important – what was important was that reduced to living on a friend’s sofa they reached out for help. Recognising and admitting the problem, they say, is the first step to recovery, and I’m pleased to say they’ve come on leaps and bounds since then. While they aren’t dry, they have built a support network around themselves and I hope they don’t take the chances they did before.

There is help out there for those with alcohol problems, and indeed those living with those with alcohol problems (because that old adage uttered by drinkers that “I’m not hurting anyone” is seldom true). Links towards the end of the post.

The NHS website is careful to avoid too much talk of alcoholism or alcoholics, no doubt because they fear that those words are too coded and prejudiced (much as mental health issues are) and that those most in need of help will simply click off if those words are used around them. Instead they talk about alcohol misuse, which they define as regularly drinking more than the recommended maximums of 21 units a week for a man, or 14 for a woman.

To put that into perspective – there’s approximately 7.5 units in a bottle of 10% wine – so less than two bottles a week would put you over the limit if you’re a woman. Or 10 pints of 4.1% Guinness would put you over if you’re a man (ten pints in one week?!). The Drink Aware website has a nifty calculator here.

To be honest I struggle to get through a bottle of wine in a fortnight myself.

Even Alcoholics Anonymous point out that there is no firm guidance regarding when to use the alcoholic tag for an individual, saying that “the majority of our members agree that, for most of us, it could be described as a physical compulsion, coupled with a mental obsession. What we mean is that we had a distinct physical desire to consume alcohol beyond our capacity to control it, in defiance of all rules of common sense. We not only had an abnormal craving for alcohol but we frequently yielded to it at the worst possible times. We did not know when (or how) to stop drinking. Often we did not seem to have sense enough to know when not to begin.”

To refer to someone as an alcoholic is a shorthand then for someone with an alcohol consumption problem – someone who is drinking regularly in excess of the recommended maximum limits, and who drinks to the detriment of themselves and those around them.

I think that the experience of university can be key to unlocking the floodgates for many – discounted booze in student’s unions and a culture of drinking 24/7 while away from home, becomes something which many shake to loose. An association between alcohol and fun, or pushing boundaries, is established. Perhaps if I had done more of that as a student I would have fallen the same way.

Our society now largely frowns upon working lunches in the pub, removing alcohol from the work day, though many still consume on the way home. And there are still areas where alcohol flows freely. Working within the arts, I’ve noticed it isn’t that unusual to find meetings conducted in the pub, or to be at an event and drinking in the bar with fellow guests and festival goers – and if you’re a celebrity (even minor ones), the opportunities for free drink are hard to resist. I know that once a month if I really want to, there’s a perfectly legitimate opportunity to get very drunk for free while attending an event locally, and if you frequent enough gallery launches in a big city, alcohol can become as commonplace as coffee or tea.

Those euphemisms which are used to define someone who has a known alcohol issue are not helpful on a general level. “Heavy drinker” certainly infers a large and perhaps irresponsible volume, but I’ve listened to people describe themselves as heavy drinkers and then insist “but it isn’t a problem”.

“Lush” – another of the words listed in the BBC article – always reminds me of those theatrical types who just seem to always have a drink on them – like less aggressive Withnail and I characters. I can even think of a couple of actors I know who could be described so, as I’ve yet to meet them stone-cold sober. Of course, that in turn brings me back to some of my favourite actors and the tragic waste of their lives through drinking – people like Peter Lorre and Oliver Reed (dear Ollie… I’ll return to you and your drinking in another post).

None of the terminology really gets to the heart of the problem though, which is simply How the hell do you get an abuser of alcohol to address their drinking? The answer I fear, is you can’t. Unless they themselves address it head on you can do little. They run the risk of damaging or killing themselves through their ambivalence, and the impact on those around them is indescribable. I think of the family of my former colleague, who while not surprised by the end, were stricken by the loss. Their attempts to help were met with frustrated stubbornness.


Useful links
Alcoholics Anonymous
NHS on Alcohol Abuse
Addiction NI – Help for Drug and Alcohol Abuse in Northern Ireland
Drink Aware – Facts about Alcohol



One Response to “The terminology of problem drinking”


  1. Vino inertia | The Sherlock Holmes English-speaking Vernacular - July 6, 2014

    […] been thinking a lot about alcohol again recently – or more specifically, alcohol abuse. Probably because I’ve been reading a biography of Oliver Reed, an actor I greatly admire, […]

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