Here’s a sobering thought: We’re a little too comfortable with booze
The Globe and Mail
Published Friday, Jan. 15, 2016
You may be finding making social plans this month a little challenging. The Dry January thing – where people abstain from alcohol for a month – is catching on. It’s a way to detox after all that holiday boozing, maybe lose some weight, even save some money, and do something pro-active about your alcohol consumption in a kind of New Year’s resolution way that is far less onerous than a longer-term commitment.
In Britain, the non-profit organization Alcohol Concern says a month off alcohol can make a real difference, citing benefits such as better sleep, more energy and more time – “no more hangovers to sleep off!” Also the realization that “you’re actually just as awesome without the alcohol.”
But the campaign has sparked some debate.
One university lecturer in health sciences, writing in the British Medical Journal this week, worries that participants could view their 31 days of abstinence as permission to return to hazardous levels of consumption afterward. He also warns that an abrupt, do-it-yourself detox could be dangerous for some heavy drinkers.
A counterpoint opinion cites a Public Health England statistic: 67 per cent of the participants in the 2015 campaign reported a sustained drop in drinking six months on.
Dry January is kind of gimmicky, and I’m not sure giving up the stuff for a month addresses many serious alcohol-related concerns. But it gets us thinking about how often we reach for the bottle, perhaps without really thinking about it. Making plans with friends or colleagues? Let’s grab a drink. Hostess/holiday/thank-you gift? Bottle of wine. A Dry January makes us stop and realize just how prevalent alcohol is in our lives.
It’s also so normalized. We make wine o’clock jokes and maybe even humble-brag about drinking escapades and morning-afters. The Hangover franchise has turned alcohol-fuelled debauchery into comedic box-office gold. On TV, The Good Wife’s Alicia Florrick and Scandal’s Olivia Pope – smart, successful, glamorous women – love their red wine but rarely do you see them eat actual food (Olivia’s popcorn aside).
But for many, alcohol is neither glamorous nor a laughing matter.
On Thursday, CBC’s The Nature of Things will air a documentary about Mike Pond, a successful psychotherapist in Penticton, B.C., who lost his practice, lakeside home and family (in a divorce) as a result of his alcoholism.
After a downward spiral with low points that included selling his laptop for $20 on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and blowing the proceeds on five beers over 40 minutes – Mr. Pond got sober. He met a woman, Maureen Palmer, online, they got together and even co-wrote his memoir, The Couch of Willingness: An Alcoholic Therapist Battles the Bottle and a Broken Recovery System (being republished this month with new scientific information and a new title).
Living on the streets and in run-down recovery homes, Mr. Pond was repeatedly referred to Alcoholics Anonymous.
AA is a godsend for many; the organization estimates that there are more than two million successfully recovering members in more than 180 countries. Meetings are ubiquitous – and free. But the go-to treatment doesn’t work for everyone.
As the doc, directed by Ms. Palmer, demonstrates, AA wasn’t the answer for Mr. Pond, whose search for evidence-based treatment takes an urgent turn when he falls off the wagon, more than five years after quitting drinking.
You might look at Mr. Pond’s catastrophe and think that it can never happen to you. Chances are, it won’t.
But consider Canada’s low-risk drinking guidelines. These numbers can be, forgive me, sobering. To reduce long-term health risks, women should consume no more than 10 drinks per week and no more than two most days. Men should have a maximum of 15 drinks per week with no more than three drinks most days. Two days a week should be alcohol-free.
So if you wind down with a beer (or two) nightly after work and maybe toss back a few more on weekends, you’re exceeding the guidelines.
Statistics show a significant disparity between how much we admit to drinking and how much alcohol is sold. Canadians are underreporting their consumption. We may be lowballing it to ourselves too.
And consumption increases with accessibility, studies show. In Ontario, beer became available in some grocery stores this month. In B.C., government liquor store hours were extended last year. You can now buy some made-in-B.C. wine, beer and spirits at farmers markets. Local wine sales are trickling into grocery stores too.
Drinking habits – and limits – can be a touchy subject.
“Anyone who talks against alcohol or raises any concerns, I just find… people get insulted,” says Tim Stockwell, director of the University of Victoria’s Centre for Addictions Research of B.C. “People think that you’re trying to control them. So there seems to be a sense that it’s an integral part of our freedom.”
I called Dr. Stockwell this week and learned that he’s in the middle of a Dry January himself. “I’ve spent 35 years clinically researching it,” he said. “The least I could do is experience what it’s like to do without the stuff for 31 days.”
Dr. Stockwell, a chardonnay fan, is supporting the Victoria-based organization BeYouPromise.org with his Dry January. Even starting a few days late, he has faced challenges, including a night out with friends who engaged in some good-natured taunting.
My January has been admittedly wet – I’m partial to red wine myself – but I admire the personal challenge the campaign poses, the fact that results seen over the month could encourage people to keep it up, and I like that it gets us talking – and thinking – about our perhaps too-cozy relationship with the stuff.
Cheers to that.
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