Lies, damned lies, and Facebook

 

It’s 9 am on a Tuesday, and my boss walks into the office.  He stops to joke with the business manager about the day of stressful meetings ahead.  “Come on!” he sighs.  “Let’s just crack open a bottle now.  I’ll drink the Scotch, you can share around the white wine.”

Of course he’s joking, although wine, Scotch and beer take up one shelf of our tiny shared fridge, but it snags my ear nonetheless.  So I open up a browser window, intending to record any further alcohol references in my day.

Much of my job involves writing, and I keep social media open during the day which exposes me to a range of conversations I wouldn’t otherwise notice, but apart from that I wouldn’t say that I move in an unusually alcohol-soaked circle.  And yet.

9.45am: a friend posts in my parenting group about her rough school drop off.  Another friend sympathises: “Sounds like you need one or two very large glasses of wine this evening!”

10.30am: read mildly humorous article on parenting small children in the morning.  Quote from the article, which is set at 6 am: “Too early for a drink? Fuck it. Where’s the Baileys?”

11am: conversation about who makes dinner in your house and who does the planning.  Friend: “Last night we just heated something up.  And then had cocktails”.

11.30am: Facebook. Shot of somebody’s whisky glass with the caption ‘last one for the night!’.  They’re in a different time zone, and that’s another thing.  These little references ping all day; I can’t merely turn off the computer at happy hour and hope.

By noon, a twitter buddy has announced her book launch with an Instagram shot of a bottle of gin, and I have seen at least three humorous e-cards referring to mommies who drink wine.   I give up recording.

ecard

It’s all very well telling people in recovery to avoid their old triggers – stay out of bars, dump the heavy drinker friends – but that ignores the fact that we live in a media saturated world, and that alcohol is normalised and even glamorised in that world.

There’s an AA saying: don’t judge your insides by another person’s outsides.  And that’s a huge issue when we’re talking about social media, because programs like Facebook allow us to curate our lives more carefully than we can in person.  If you’re newly sober, and you go to a party, you’ve probably had the experience of watching people progress from those first couple of refreshing glasses of beer to the stumbling, slurring end of the night.  Oh, that’s why I don’t drink, you think, and go home relieved.  But on Facebook, you don’t see those end-of-the-night shots.  You just see the first drinks; the tumblers of whisky lit by the golden light of a London bar, the champagne held aloft in sparkling flutes, the cocktails on a cruise.  Look at us, and our lovely lives, with our lovely drinks in hand.

And more than that – you don’t see the lives behind the drinking.  You don’t see the hangovers.  The irritability.  The fact that the couple sharing a bottle of wine haven’t made love in months.  Here is an embarrassing story: Eighteen months before I finally gave up drinking, I sent a desperate, drunken email to a friend who I knew had quit some years earlier, asking for help.  She offered that help, and I chose not to take it.  I made only one change: I started editing my Facebook posts to remove too many references to alcohol, because I knew she read it.  By then, I knew that my unedited life showed a problem, but social media makes it easy to spin any story you like.  As that same friend put it to me the other day, talking about this subject, ‘your eyes may be blurry, but the camera is clear-eyed’ – and those of us on the other side of the screen see only the clear, sober photographic evidence of a perhaps-chaotic existence.

The truth is that we have no way of knowing what goes on in another person’s life.  Social media gives us an illusion of total transparency – but the lament that  ‘kids today live their lives right out in the open!  No sense of privacy!’ ignores the fact that actually, privacy still exists, and so does untruth.  We use the beautiful, sparkling moments of our day to distract from the sordid, like a magician’s fancy cape swirling in front of the rusted mechanism underneath.

It doesn’t matter to my sobriety, in the end, whether my friends are enjoying one drink on a Paris balcony or passing out under the Ponts des Arts.  It’s all just outsides.  What matters is my inside, and no amount of Instagram shots can threaten that.

Chasing the High

I’ve taken on so many new things recently that I’m both exhilarated and terrified all the time at the moment. Who needs alcohol when you’ve got a healthy dose of adrenalin, right? It’s all good, satisfying stuff that is for myself; I’m studying, pursuing new career directions, renovating and generally carving out a new way to live.

And yet, somehow, I still feel a lack of something. I’m reminded of the way Mrs D described needing more wine as wanting to feel ‘full’. That’s exactly it. And I’m in an awful spiral of eating junk food in an attempt to do the same thing, and it’s completely unsatisfying – which means that I try again the next evening and in a shocking turn of events, it continues to be unsatisfying. I’m sure it’s an addict impulse, this conviction that if I just find the right substance to put into myself, I’ll feel better (maybe salt and vinegar crisps will do it? Maybe if I go on a special errand to the one store that sells lime and chilli soy snacks?) whereas clearly, what’s needed here is not going to come from external sources.

But I don’t know what it is that I am yearning for. Relaxation? I’m quite relaxed, these days, though. Life is so much easier without wine that I feel like a lady of leisure. Evenings are packed with possibilities, all of them satisfying in their own way; shall I have an indulgent bath? Spend the night cooking and listening to music? Go to bed early with a book? Write another few pages of the book? All of them are things that make me feel good, all of them are quite healthy ways to spend my time. When it stops with the blizzard conditions outside* I may even take up exercise again.

So why do I go back to this idea that I am not full, that there is something missing? A magic key that somehow unlocks a new level of joy or deep satisfaction? Something, above all, that will make me feel satiated.

When I was eighteen, I intended to write the definitive Australian youth novel, along with almost every aspiring teenage writer out there. It was going to be about my friends and I (along with almost every aspiring teenage writer out there) and our experiences in share houses, at parties, in tangled relationships fuelled by dope and booze. And then John Birmingham wrote He Died With a Falafel in His Hand, so I didn’t bother. Well, and I was too busy with the aforementioned, and also Boys. Anyway, I was going to call it Chasing The High, because it seemed to me even then that that’s all any of us were doing.

The first time we do anything, it has more power and resonance than ever again. Do you remember the knee-weakening amazement of your first kiss? The first time you heard a song that spoke to your soul? The day that you got your first paycheque? The first time you discovered that you could make yourself come? And then we want to do these things again and again, but they wear out with use, they lose their power. The lyrics become trite, the kiss becomes a mere stepping stone on the way to something else.

And of course, if you’re an addict you find an external substance that enhances the sensation you’re looking for, the high you’re chasing. But then you build up a tolerance, and you know how the rest of this song goes. The very definition of addiction is chasing a high.

Right now, I’m on another high, because I’m pursuing a long held dream that is starting to come true. But what happens when the novelty wears off? When the ‘firsts’ stop and I’m back in reality, doing the same things over and over. Even if my entire life is comprised of things I love doing, they can’t be newer and higher and more exciting every time. One day soon, they’ll be routines. The most exciting love affair in the world becomes your daily domestic life eventually. There is no magic formula for living that means that you stay on the high.

I don’t know how to stop chasing highs. I don’t know how to just live.

That’s the hollow inside me that I’m trying to fill, this time with external validation and an audience for my words. A hollow where peace should be. I don’t have peace, because I’m still chasing the high.

*It’s not a real blizzard. I’m in Australia. It’s just quite chilly and there’s some drizzle. But if my English friends can describe 30 degrees as ‘scorching heat’, and believe me, they can and do, then I’m calling this a blizzard.

Talk to your children about alcohol

Growing up, there was never any alcohol in the family home.  My mother drank red wine at parties, a glass of champagne at Christmas and in later years, a gin and tonic with me on a Friday evening.  My father drinks a single beer with his dinner.

As a result, I don’t remember either of them ever having a conversation about alcohol with me, either positive or negative.

But even very early, I knew that alcohol was cool, and that drinking it was an excellent idea.  I remember a party that my mother hosted when we first arrived in Australia.  I would have been about twelve, and somebody brought along a wine cooler; white wine and fruit juice mixed together in a cardboard box.  

Alcohol for people who don't like the taste of alcohol.  Or appreciate anything that is good and right in the world.

Alcohol for people who don’t like the taste of alcohol. Or appreciate anything that is good and right in the world.

I have no idea who invented such a vile concoction, but it did have one redeeming feature; it could be drunk by a twelve year old.  I remember sneaking a couple of glasses of the stuff and drinking them in my room on a dull Sunday afternoon.  I also remember being surprised that the room didn’t spin and nothing felt different.

Nothing daunted, I did the same thing a couple of years later.  By this time, my mother occasionally travelled overseas for business, and when she did she would bring back a large duty-free bottle of gin, or white rum, which was then stashed in a high cupboard.  Both spirits being clear, it seemed to my fifteen year old self that I would be betraying teenagers the world around if I didn’t pour myself a glass and top up the bottle with water.  

It doesn’t escape my notice, now, that my first drinks were illicit, and underwhelming.  But what intrigues me more is that I wanted to drink so young.  Intrigues, but doesn’t surprise: I was a precocious reader, and by twelve I was reading books written for adults.  Jilly Cooper was a particular favourite, and as anyone who has read her works of utter genius knows, they are packed full of impossibly glamorous dissolutes who do things like swig champagne from the bottle at fourteen, roll up to play in international sporting matches with awful hangovers, or wake up in a rumpled bed of blondes and drain the glass of red wine that is still there from the night before. Her oeuvre is basically an ode to problem drinking, and there I was, reading them before I hit my teens proper.

Cooper wasn’t the only influence on my young mind, telling me that drinking was  a sure-fire route to the louche, beguiling person I wanted to be.  There was Dorothy Parker, and Fanny Hill.  Later there was David Bowie, eyes glittering with cocaine and booze, Cocker singing about dancing and drinking and screwing, all these twisted, glamorous deviants using drink to set them apart from the herd.

When you’re young, you want so desperately to become someone worth being.  And since you can’t see the insides of your idols, you try and mimic their outsides.  Perhaps the quips you admire come from the long swallows from the bottle they carry; their eye liner frames a world you want to see too.  You can’t sort the good from the bad, when you’re young, so you adopt things almost at random, layering personalities like charity shop finds.  

More important than the voices telling young people about the glamour of drinking are the voices that are missing: the voices that talk about the danger of alcohol and the way it can turn on you.  I knew that alcoholics existed, as a child.  I didn’t know anything else about them, though.  I didn’t know alcoholism doesn’t discriminate and doesn’t announce itself.  That you can be as respectable, and as careful, and as conscientious as you like, and you can still find yourself, one day, apologising for a drunken rant you don’t even remember.

I wish people would talk to their children about alcohol, before the world does, because the world lies to children.  

Drinkaware, a British charity funded by the alcohol industry, aims to raise awareness of responsible drinking for young and old.  Their current campaign is aimed at parents and recommends that parents talk to their children from as young as eight, to deliver messages about the potential harm that comes with drinking before the world drowns them out.

The things we teach our children are the things they take with them throughout their lives.  The voice we use becomes their inner voice.  Parents have power.  This is an area where it’s worth using that power, because if we say nothing, other people will.

Some ideas from Drinkaware about talking to your child are here.

(For transparency: this is not a sponsored post.  I reached out to Drinkaware because I noticed their campaign on Twitter and I believe in it)