Playing Russian Roulette With Alcohol

Playing Russian Roulette With Alcohol

It was a sunny weekday morning, about 10.30, but I wasn’t working. I was living in north London and my housemate was away. I thought it would make a good start to the day to have a vodka and tonic. Just one. Except when I’d had one, another seemed to beckon. It was over 40 years ago but I have this clear recollection of standing in the kitchen by the fridge, looking on to the towering brick wall at the back of the yard, sipping, pouring, drinking more, drinking faster. Although I had been drinking heavily through my twenties, as well as taking drugs, I remember feeling puzzled that I just couldn’t stop.

I don’t remember what happened then. I probably passed out for the day. There were many more days like that but that’s the one which comes to mind when I read about the steep rise in alcohol consumption during the pandemic. According to the Global Drug Survey published in June, the UK had the most respondents who reported drinking earlier in the day – 46.8% – which was higher than any other country. A third said they were binge drinking more often, that’s downing five or more drinks in a single session. Nowadays that’s often at home, often alone.

The reasons given were boredom, more time to drink, anxiety, depression, worry and loneliness. What the Survey didn’t go into was the likely results. Some of those people drinking may see what they’re doing to themselves and cut down to the guideline six glasses of wine or six pints of beer a week, spaced out. They might even stop entirely. But, as psychotherapist Noel McDermott says, ‘if you go on drinking more, more often, you add more bullets into the chamber of the lethal weapon you’re playing Russian roulette with’.

For those who go on drinking alcohol, these are the likely results, he says:

  • Physical; the many complex health issues around alcohol abuse include hypertension, blood pressure, liver damage, heart damage, brain and neurological damage.
  • Psychological; depression, anxiety, psychosis, suicidality
  • Economic; alcohol, as with all drugs, costs a lot of money, decreases productivity, increases absenteeism and may lead to job loss
  • Relationships: abusing alcohol causes arguments and problems in relationships, which may lead to relationship breakdown; people who are drunk may become violent and domestic violence has risen very significantly.

Vanity might not be top of the list of concerns for problem drinkers but I can tell you alcohol is no friend to one’s looks. Daily life is seldom much fun when you’re getting over a hangover and working out how to get another one. And there’s the all-pervading fear – I used to wake up feeling terrified on a daily basis. I managed to keep working by doing temp jobs so employers mostly didn’t discover the truth. Living arrangements were tricky; even other addicts got fed up, partly I think because I was always so sad. And my pool of friends dwindled to a small puddle.

Eventually, I became one of the lucky ones who gave up entirely. I was cooking at the time. I had woken up one Monday morning in my attic bedroom with a bottle of whisky in the crook of my arm. The sun was streaming in and something shifted in my mind. I knew I could not go on – I didn’t want to die and I knew I might. I went out to replace the bottles I’d raided from the house supply. Then went into work in the City, looked up the number of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) in the phone directory on Reception and made the call.

The brisk Irish voice the other end said comforting words that I can’t recall but she told me afterwards I’d laughed. Not because it was a joke, it was deadly serious. But because it was such a relief to tell the truth and be given simple directions about what to do.

I went to an AA meeting in Chelsea that spring night in 1978 – bolting through the double doors at the last minute to be met by a graceful, grey haired woman in pearls, who said ‘you must be Sarah’. I haven’t had an alcoholic drink since.

Some people used to tell me in concerned tones ‘but you’re a nice girl, you can’t be an alcoholic’. Niceness (whatever that means) has nothing to do with it. Addiction is no respecter of class, profession, temperament, intelligence or any other usual arbiter. It is cunning, devious and loves to get hold of you, drag you down and fetter you. But it is possible to break away and live well and very happily, I promise.

A word about binge drinking: this may not seem as dangerous as full-blown alcoholism but, according to Noel McDermott, ‘even short term binge use of alcohol can have significant impacts on health and wellbeing, and this is is exactly what we are seeing during the pandemic. A vicious circle builds up. Short term it can be managed but in neurological terms we are out of the short term and these new habits will be hard to break’.

‘Catching these sorts of problems early on vastly increases positive outcomes,’ Noel says. Mind, the mental health charity, has a useful list of resources for people worried about addiction and dependency here.

Two things were and still are helpful to me. Firstly, I talk to people about any problems of any sort; I ask for help; and I’m not afraid of being vulnerable – it’s not a weakness, it’s a strength and it makes friends. Secondly, I can still ‘have a drink’ – just not an alcoholic one; so I keep delicious soft drinks in the house and come the cocktail hour, I’ll be putting ice in my tonic water, squeezing in the lemon and sipping a drink, with a bowl of crisps.

There are many more avenues of help available for those who feel the problem is getting serious but I always suggest people who want help try Alcoholics Anonymous first. It has saved many millions of lives including mine. The Freephone National helpline is 0800 9177650, email: help@aamail.org.