Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Panorama programme on "Britain's Hidden Alcoholics"

Panorama last night on the BBC had a very interesting programme about Britain's Hidden Alcoholics.  It was presented by Alistair Campbell (I can't say one of my favourite people, he embodies the unelected "spin doctors" that often seem to be more influential in policy setting than the politicians we actually elect these days).  Anyway that is irrelevant to the programme's topic which I thought he presented excellently.

He speaks from personal experience when dealing with problem drinking and alcoholism.  He rightly states that the focus of media attention seems to be on the very public binge drinking culture prevalent in the younger generation in Britain today.   Those endless newsreels of the falling down drunks littering the streets of many inner cities and towns across Britain every weekend. However he believes there is actually a bigger problem with hidden middle, professional class drinking.  Given I was not too dissimilar to Mr Campbell in that I was a functioning drunk for years with a good job that I outwardly was doing well in, two cars on the drive of a nice suburban semi-detached house, two kids, long term marriage etc.  Your typical alcoholic.  No?  Well yes actually, whilst there is no sweeping generalisation of an typical alcoholic a lot of people I know who are now in recovery fitted closer to the stereotype I've just described when drinking than the unwashed, homeless, park bench occupying drunk many have as a mental caricature of an alcoholic.

It was this group of people that the programme focused on.  Those that "have a couple of large glasses of wine to unwind in the evening".  Even that level is beyond what is considered safe by the medical experts, especially if consumed every day.  A consultant from Southampton also pointed out with 24 hour licensing and the overall reduction on alcohol costs when compared to per capita incomes of the last couple of decades we have adopted a European culture of wine with meals both at home and when out but also continue to have our "let's get wasted at the weekend" British culture as well.  He described it as "the worst of both worlds".

As interviewees related their stories I just sat and nodded as I would if hearing a "drunkalog" at an AA meeting.  In part almost everyone who talked on the programme told a part of my story too.  Another (if ever needed) affirmation that I am an alcoholic.

Some stats given in the programme...

  • 41% of professional men drink more than the recommended daily limits
  • All major causes of death in the UK are in decline (this includes heart disease and cancer etc.) by rates of between 20% and 60% except liver disease which is rising at a rate of 100%.  
  • Liver disease now claims 100 lives a week in the UK
  • 9,000 people die a year from alcohol related illnesses

Just pause and relate last one to something you can think of.. That is considerably more than the average attendance at a Gillingham FC home game.  It is approx 17 times the entire population of my daughters school.

One very eminent medical type described it as a "crises", an "epidemic".

Now as you'd expect I have a particular view on my alcoholism.  I tried desperately, and with complete failure, to regulate my drinking for a long time, the last year of my drinking was a constant battle to "drink like a normal person".  For whatever reason I cannot do that.  All that was happening in that last year was I was moving from a daily drinker who "topped up" to an irregular "binge drinker", where the quantity consumed and effects it may have were getting less and less predictable.

In the end finding a solution (the AA programme) which was total abstinence has been for me a practical workable solution.  In the Panorama programme others at a  rehab, no doubt not dissimilar to the one I went to, were now also convinced total abstinence was the best option for them.  Mr Campbell had been "dry" (sic) for 13 years but had started to "have the occasional drink" now and then.  He said he liked the control of saying "no" but admitted openly that it was a struggle to refuse that next drink.  He also said his psychiatrist that has treated his depression thought his return to even some drinking was "a bad idea".  Finally he says that during the making of the documentary he had "stopped again". 

I can't speak for Mr Campbell obviously but my thought on his return to "normal drinking" was - "Why would you take the risk?"  For me I never had a normal, good or balanced relationship with alcohol, I was never really ever a social, normal drinker - on certain days in certain situations yes I put on the front but behind that there was a craving and a yearning I had to feed at some point later... or before.  Getting 5 or 6 pints in before the works social do was common for me so I could appear "normal".  I consider me taking a drink again like playing a game of Russian Roulette - maybe the chamber will be empty; the drink will do nothing I'll walk away and order a cup of tea the next day - however what if the chamber isn't empty and it sparks of that craving for me to ignore all sense and start allowing drinking to dictate my ever waking (and sleeping no doubt) moment.  Planing when to drink, hiding that, not being where I ought to be, letting people down, lying, risking my life and others through reckless acts such as drink driving... etc. etc.

A very thought provoking programme which was closer to home for me than many in more ways than one... one of the interviews was filmed on a bench in a square no more than a long cricket ball throw from my current work office!

If you have found this post because you believe you have a problem with alcohol I urge you to get help.  AA in the UK has a 24 hour help line manned by volunteers who are recovering alcoholics call 0845 769 7555.  You can look at the AA website information for newcomers.   Alternatively talk to your GP or look for Alcohol Services provided by the NHS in your area.

Also at the top of the blog there is a link to a page about My Drinking Story which if you are interested in how I got here might provide a little enlightenment.

Finally all comments are approved by me before appearing on this site publicly.  If you wish to say something to me anonymously and not wish it publicly please do so - just indicate that you want me to delete the comment.


  1. I've recorded this programme to view later today. I fall into that "two large daily glasses (plus another perhaps)" category, myself - and am aware I need to keep a check on it. 'Course, it's so easy to turn a blind eye, ask yourself "Where's the harm? It's not like I ever get tipsy..".

    Yeah, great post.

  2. I have known a few functional alcoholics... at what point does it become an issue that needs to be addressed? And now I'm going to read "My Drinking Story"... it's about time, eh?

  3. I suppose I come at it from a slightly different angle, and more from Mr Campbell's. I liked that he enjoyed the feeling of stopping at a certain number of drinks, which I think is where he is now. It may be that he cannot stick to that and has to reconsider, but is there not an argument for this route? Does that not really kick an alcohol problem where it hurts, if you can move from that on to healthy and sensible drinking? And is it not a realistic answer to our society's way of thinking about drink? We are never going to stop it, or ban it, so should we encourage sensible drinking?

    My angle is different for a reason, and you know that reason. And I completely commend, support, admire those who have to go the whole hog. I, like AC, take a great pleasure in putting the glass back in the cupboard after a drink now, and not looking at the glass for another month or so.

    It doesn't matter as long as it works, I think.

    I don't know much about AC's politics, as you will know. But I do see a man quite battered by life and still standing. For that, and for having the strength, like you, to talk about it, I admire him greatly.

  4. @Pixie - indeed "if you can show the about face and drink like a normal drinker our hats are off to you" (that is a no-doubt not a word for word quote from Chapter 3 We Alcoholics from AA's big book). And Lord knows I tried - ok maybe 6 weeks longest wasn't enough but as I say if frightened the be Jesus out of me and left me bewildered and battered at the end of year where control had completely eluded me. I'll stick to the total abstinence route for myself as the possible ramifications of the alternative do make me shiver in fear - as I say "Why take the risk?" that is for me and others like me not all.

  5. I still haven't seen the other BBC program on drinking and now this one sounds interesting as well.

    But yeah, why risk it, especially after 13 years?? He's further proof that the urge never goes away.

  6. I think UK should also focus in creating more of responsible alcohol retailing and for consumers as well.

    1. You have a point Alex P. but that is the old argument of who is truly responsible for behaviour...

      But it is interesting that there is so much disdain generally about drug dealers/pushers (who often are actually only dealing to be able to afford their own habits) where as publicans and off licence owners are seen as respectable business men/women...

      An interesting paradox that one