COLUMN: Michael Hand- Our relationship with alcohol

I HAVE a love hate relationship with alcohol, perhaps it’s because my maternal grandfather was a part-time alcoholic and my father was a full-time pioneer who had no time for alcohol.
Alcohol has many good qualities, it helps loosen inhibitions, it makes it easier to interact in social situations and the first few drinks produce a nice relaxing feeling and buzz. Conversations can appear more interesting, jokes a little funnier and if we could bottle the feeling of those first couple of drinks it would be wonderful.
Unfortunately that’s not the whole story and so many people have a very destructive relationship with alcohol. In my work I have seen it destroy relationships, livelihoods and lives. As a nation I think that we have a very unhealthy relationship with alcohol and often we don’t know how to drink in moderation. I think part of the reason for this is that we were never taught how to drink in a moderate fashion. It is my belief that the confirmation pledge has contributed to the problem.
What is the best way to get a teenager to do something? Tell them not to do it! At the age of 12 we get our young people to take a confirmation pledge not to drink until they are 18 and going on the forbidden fruit principal that makes alcohol all the more attractive and enticing to young people and many are binge drinking long before they reach 18.
In Germany where young people make confirmation at the slightly older age of 14, they are introduced to having a small amount of alcohol with the rest of the family after they make their confirmation. They are educated in the family how to drink alcohol in a moderate fashion and I believe this leads to a much healthier relationship with alcohol.
For most of my career I have worked in the area of substance misuse and this involves asking people about their alcohol consumption. Most people tell me that it is ‘normal’. When I ask a few questions it usually emerges that while it may be normal in their eyes, because many people around them drink as much as them, it is far from healthy.
Most people’s idea of an alcoholic is ‘somebody who drinks more than them’. I remember asking a man who was drinking a litre bottle of vodka a day, did he think that he was an alcoholic and he said, “absolutely not”. When I asked him what he thought an alcoholic is he said: “Someone who drinks straight from the bottle. I always pour mine into a glass first.”
Many people think that you need to drink every day or first thing in the morning, before you have a problem with alcohol. This is not the case, the crucial thing is when we drink, how alcohol affects us and are we able to drink in a controlled way? The majority of people have an ‘off button’ and know when they have had enough to drink. For some people that ‘off button’ doesn’t work and they want more and more. It’s not that they can’t hold their drink or that they are weak, they have become dependent on alcohol and can not control how much they drink. This leads to regular hangovers, and over time destroys everything that they hold dear, family, work and ultimately it destroys their health.
If alcohol changes your personality and makes you more aggressive or you have regular hangovers then it is worth taking a look at your relationship with it before it destroys your life.
I have seen too many lives destroyed by alcohol and while I recognise that in recent years there has been a huge increase in other drugs that can be equally destructive, alcohol is still the most dangerous because it is legal and so much a part of our lives and culture.
I would appeal to parents to teach your teenagers how to drink in a moderate fashion, first by your own example but also by making moderate drinking part of family life and educating young people how to drink. We educate them about all sorts of things diet, exercise, manners etc, why not educate them how to drink in moderation?

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