Mr. Perfect on booze
Terry Cornick, a.k.a. ‘Mr. Perfect‘, talks about his dad, being a dad and how drinking and mental health tie into the whole story.
That sweet amber nectar. It can taste like “liquid gold,” I tell my wife after my first sip of a cold ale. I chime in with trademark sarcasm, such as, “I don’t normally drink, but go on, then.” The perfect accompaniment to a celebration, a new birth, birthday, marriage, religious celebration (some), promotion, divorce (?!) and sporting victory.
On the flip side, it is also seen as the perfect tonic for tragic news and disappointments, deaths and funerals, divorces (again), losing your job and many more hard knocks that somehow send us directly to its clasp. I can remember my first sip. It was on one rare weekend visit to my dad’s house for his “access,” which went from weekly to yearly to twice in one decade very quickly. But that’s another story.
We usually went to the pub, but on this occasion he must have been struggling for cash (as it was conveniently located 50 metres from his house), so we headed to the Off-Licence (Bottle Shop, for my Australian brethren). Trudging back with a case of Fosters–a terrible drop, by the way–I sat in his lounge on the floor watching television. While laughing he passed me a can and encouraged me to sip it. I winced as I gulped. How could adults ever enjoy this stuff? I would rather drink soap.
Alcohol was present in the early years of my life. At one stage my mum worked in the pub and my dad drank there. I can even remember as a toddler (pre-divorce) wandering around the pub with a pint glass as all my dad’s friends put their change coins in. I had this rotund belly on a skinny frame so they would call me “PB” (pot-belly), poke my tummy then chuck their money in. As strange as that sounds the glass filled up quickly, not a bad racket for a four-year-old.
These fun times were tempered by memories of dad coming home hammered from work and the carnage that followed. Another, far deeper story for my book.
But the reminders of the damage were never far from the surface. At around six years old he came to watch a football tournament I was playing in. He was pushing my baby brother in a pushchair and I never forget seeing half his face covered with a bandage. It turned out he was glassed in a pub after picking a fight with someone. As always, and as an almost silent child, I never questioned it. There were other frightening, dangerous alcohol-fuelled post-divorce events that I experienced watching on as a child. Their impact on my mental health at the time and now, are still deep and processing that can be difficult. I leave that for my Doctor visits.
Back at my mum’s house post-divorce we rarely had alcohol in the house. My mum barely drank anyway and after my sister’s birth in 1995, I would go as far as to say she was allergic. One bottle of Bacardi Breezer and migraines followed for days. So when I finally got to experience alcohol “properly” I was around 13 years old. A few of my friends’ parents were out for New Year’s Eve nearby. None of my close friends were huge tearaways, by the way, but some could be described as troublemakers.
After watching a film and playing PlayStation, one friend suggested we have some alcohol. Eventually I relented and we searched out every kitchen cupboard. We found a bottle of vodka. It’s clear in colour, we thought, like water; what damage could this possibly do? In the lounge ten minutes later we devised a simple game. The loser had to drink “some” of the vodka. Having no knowledge of measures we used a pint glass and poured two-thirds of a glass and downed it when we lost. The burn was deep. Fifteen minutes later the world turned into a wonderful fluffy marshmallow and we all danced around the room, wrestled, laughed and eventually passed out asleep with no real damage.
A couple of years later I witnessed my brother going “out on the town” dressed up and somehow getting into pubs and clubs at sixteen. It must have been the pin-striped pants, shiny black shoes, Ben Sherman shirt and black mafia-style overcoat that did the trick. The look of the day. When it was my turn to try my luck it came about by accident. My friends on the estate we lived suggested we go to a house party near our town centre. On route we realised it had been cancelled and before I knew it, fuelled by two sickly orange vodka alcopops, I was paired with a mate and his two girlfriends that looked far older and confident than we.
Five hours later my mum picks me up from the town centre clearly angry as I try and feign sobriety. My shin the next morning bearing testament to falling up the nightclub stairs and smashing it on the metal step. But a hangover? Anxiety? Depression? None of that. Come midday we all met up to play football for hours.
The university days of life saw darkness creep in concurrently with alcohol. Fresher’s Week, student nights and boredom meant substantial, encouraged drinking. But I never drank for taste. As a shy, introverted guy it was just an attempt to fit in. I figured I would be less visible that way. £3 three-litre bottles of cider before we went out were our poison.
Hangovers at this stage meant anxiety-filled days of barely leaving my bed: heart pounding, heavy chest, curtains were drawn and pleading, hopefully, that I would not have to face anyone that day. The escape of intoxication provided 12 hours previously had long gone. I was quiet and moody by nature, or so I thought at the time, so no correlation with mental health was considered. I did, however, crave Cherry Coca-Cola, a regular saviour post-booze. Post-university, friends and I discovered “Snakebite” (a horrific concoction of beer, cider and blackcurrant juice). Ironically we went to an Australian-themed bar called Walkabout on Friday and Saturday nights and post-football on Sunday. Severe dehydration meant waking up in the middle of the night after a session, usually panicking.
Curiously, I never drank during the week at home. Ever. I always wanted to function well at work, probably more than most. It was rarely in my own culture or those around me to drink at home. You went to the pub for that, the heart of the community. And on an English street, there are more hearts than Hallmark on Valentine’s Day.
Then Australia came calling. “The Great Escape,” as I call it. Unable to come to terms with, or get help for my mental health and sheer pain I was feeling, I somehow ended up on the other side of the world. A shift in my drinking culture followed.
At work I could not believe that we actually got to have a beer at 4 pm on a Friday, while still working! Mind Blowing! That gradually became a Friday lunch, then as I started to do particularly well I realised that in the sector I was working in, it was commonplace to go out on a Thursday night or meet a client for a beer mid-week. We worked alongside Sydney Harbour, after all, everyone reasoned.
As my income increased and my tastes in parallel, I developed a love for red wine or pale ale and cases of $70 craft beers. Spirits or shorts have never been appealing. But with this love has come an increased casual approach to drinking, on the whole a better approach, I think. But that shift has its own challenges.
To add to this, my mother-in-law works for a wine company. Their Hungarian background revolves around family dinners and a glass of wine or schnapps. A responsible yet enjoyable approach to drinking. Temptation is increased further as my wife, Carolina, works for an events and marketing company. Her biggest clients and accounts? Alcohol brands. That means events and freebies.
Some weeks I can drink one or two beers with dinner most nights, then have a few on a Friday or Saturday watching a movie at home. Taste is now more important than quantity. Once a month on average I let my hair down at a wedding or birthday, but by midnight I am in bed.
When stressful times appear and my cloudy spells increase, there is no denying I am thinking, “When I get home I am going to have a beer.” Thankfully, I do not have the urge to go on an all-night bender. Occasionally when this casual intake creeps up I have ways of dampening it for the good of my head. I managed to do a dry January, a huge feat for me. But some other useful strategies have emerged, some by accident.
Carolina barely drinks anymore. Motherhood has certainly affected that. And with this has become a tradition of hers. At 8:45 pm every night I make her a camomile tea. It has become so ingrained in our routine, and on most nights this influences me to not have a beer. With a few Best Man appearances and bucks parties on the horizon to organise this year, these will test my currently strong resolve.
By far the biggest influencer has been fatherhood. The seismic shift I have previously spoke of means I consider my 14-month-old boy first. They need to be fed, looked after, changed, dressed and played with. You are at their mercy. There are no chances to feel sorry for yourself with a hangover. It is non-stop all day until bed, and by getting outside when feeling a little dusty, it helps no end for my head. By no means am I suggesting having a child to regress drinking, but man, it helps.
My work with Mr. Perfect has increased my determination to develop an even healthier relationship with alcohol. I play sport and exercise regularly, so the balance is there but I have also met some incredible guys at our Monthly Meetups that on the face of it are ‘Mr. Perfects’. They have jobs, family and may be in great physical shape. But you never know from a surface understanding of a person what they may be going through. Some have confided they have been trying to change their relationship with alcohol for years. It fascinates me.
Ultimately I want to understand what my dad went through with his drinking. I used to just hate him for it and his lack of care or presence for his sons. But as I came to terms with my own mental health struggles I conceded he himself had something going on inside. A silent sufferer, as I used to be. He was killing himself slowly with the booze. It pains me to think I will never truly know why. Some family comments have suggested his long hours in his (for some time successful) London job from the age of 16 and the pub lunches that came with it, slowly turned into his addiction. He worked with his dad and he was known to “love a beer” (insert emoji for understatement).
What truly keeps me responsible is the final sight of my dad, just two days before he passed away. He sat silent and trembling, somehow making it out of bed to his couch to sit in the lounge as his wife and I chatted around him. The conversation was interrupted when my dad grunted. I had no idea what it meant but his wife did. She jumped up and returned seconds later with a tumbler of what I assumed was Coca-Cola. The pungent smell of rum soon told me otherwise.
Starting out as a hobby, Terry created a grassroots men’s mental health support network named Mr. Perfect that is growing by the minute. Although it does not pay a cent, it pays handsomely in purpose. You can check it out at www.mrperfect.org.au
Want to help support our charity and spread our message further? You can represent us in your very own Hello Sunday Morning shirt, singlet or hoodie! Purchase our apparel from hellosundaymorning.org/store
My first AA meeting – the value of sharing
I sat in on an open AA meeting one Wednesday afternoon.
I work in health promotion and wanted to experience for myself what an AA meeting is really like. I wanted to question my assumptions from popular culture and stigma.
It was one of those beautiful blue days where you cannot spot a cloud in the sky. A day where the last place you want to be is in the middle of a big city. The air was filled with humidity and my clothes were sticking to me, almost in an irritating way.
The sliding doors to the community meeting room were open. The fans were on, gently blowing the posters scattered about the walls. Posters for the 12 Steps, yoga and meditation retreats, domestic violence support services and homeless shelters. These were pinned up like offerings of hope to those who previously saw themselves as hopeless. A large notice board in the middle of the sliding doors offered privacy from the street.
There were about twenty people at the meeting. Everyone seated facing the front where the person who ran the meeting and a few sponsors sat. What struck me at first was the diversity of the group. A young woman with her toddler sat opposite me. The child spluttered throughout the meeting with a chesty cough and wriggled around on her big plastic chair.
An elderly lady sat next to me and smiled warmly when we caught a glance. There was a mix of male and female, young and old. Some had been coming to AA meetings for years, others just a few months. The people in the room where just like you and I. Some with great families and careers, others with no family left and a life that has not been so kind to them.
AA meetings are not just about remaining anonymous
They are also about being present for those in the group and the community around you.
The first man to share was sitting across from me. He was wearing a colourful Hawaiian shirt. But the expression on his face did not suggest that his life had been a holiday. The man opened his reflections by introducing himself. “Hi, my name is Dave* and I am an alcoholic”. The first step of the 12 Steps at an AA meeting involves admitting to yourself that you have no power over your ‘disease’. You hand over your vulnerability to a higher power and admit defeat.
The meeting was on a chapter in the book that everyone was to discuss, around the theme of not being too hard on yourself. Dave began by explaining his daily struggle with crippling anxiety. He shared with us how he hates himself for getting into this state of mind. How he panics when he cannot see a solution or an out to how he is feeling. This destructive cycle means Dave cannot hold down a stable job and ends up screwing up every job interview he has had, as he talks himself down and focuses on everything that is wrong with him and the company and the people holding the job interview.
“A community that cares”
“I suffered from feelings of guilt and loneliness as a result of my alcoholism. Drinking was causing a serious problem when my children came home to find me unconscious. I joined Alcoholics Anonymous to learn how to control my drinking and restore balance to my life. Whilst the program was enlightening, it wasn’t as effective as I had hoped for.
“I was stuck in a vicious cycle of binge drinking, blacking out, and losing my memory. One of my biggest fears was that I would fail, but it’s not a test. It’s just about getting you to think about drinking. Meeting other members and getting support has been invaluable.
Sharing is caring
When Dave started to choke up while telling his story with tears running down his cheeks. I looked around the room. The compassion on the face of each and every person in that room was obvious. It was as if invisible hands was reaching out to hold onto Dave. To squeeze his hand and tell him that that they are there for him. When others began to share their reflections on the reading listeners would often nod their head to themselves or clap in a gesture of agreement and understanding. The speaker could take as long as they wanted and there was no judgment from anywhere in this space. This unfortunately is a special treat for many people going through recovery from an alcohol or drug dependency.
Every person who shared their triumphs and their rock bottoms on that day were open and vulnerable. But I didn’t leave the meeting feeling hopeless for the members. Everyone finished their ‘sharing’ on a positive thought. Such as:
“But I know I’ll be okay, because I didn’t reach for the bottle this time.”
Or, “I’m slowly seeing that I need to deal with this struggle with meditation and these meetings and staying away from those who are making this hard for me.”
You are probably wondering what I shared at my first AA meeting
When it came time for my turn to speak I simply said that I wouldn’t be sharing today and that was more than okay. There was no pressure to tell your story. There was no discrimination from the group because you weren’t comfortable opening up. For this I felt truly honored to be able to listen to these incredible stories of strength.
It’s so easy to brush off a comment about how people who are alcohol dependant should just “stop” drinking or using drugs, and their lives will turn around. The men and women in this meeting drank as a therapy and an escape from other underlying issues. Many stories were complex and emotionally scarring that we can only begin to comprehend. They turned to alcohol because for some reason they were not able to get the help they needed early enough. That is what saddened me the most as I stepped out of the room that afternoon.
Support is imperative for recovery, and support comes from community. Unfortunately with the stigma present in our society and our current healthcare system around people who abuse these substances, we do not provide the people who need it most with a community that they deserve.
What other support is available for people?
For those who feel that something like an AA meeting is too confronting to share their deepest fears and darkest experiences with complete strangers, or people who live in remote areas, or have kids and responsibilities that keep them from finding the time to attending these meetings as often as they need, a physical meeting may not be suitable.
Daybreak is an alcohol support group app created from years of experience by the Hello Sunday Morning team. It is a great alternative that provides an anonymous space, with a supportive community of people going through different stages of their own journey to recovery.
– Sober support group
I danced sober in the dark on a Monday night with 100 other people
We have turned July into our dancing month, where we will explore different forms of creative expression to music and encourage you to do the same, as dancing can provide an outlet for a lot of built up baggage. Hello Sunday Morning is inviting you to come along on our journey to experiment with the boogie and increase your groove.
It was sweaty, it was loud, it was electric, and the best part of all? It was Monday night.
We walked into a completely pitch-black room; the walls and floor were vibrating with beats from the speakers and DJ in the corner. When our eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness, dimly lit by a few community hall EXIT signs, we were just able to make out the silhouettes of the dancers all around us.
For the next hour, we found ourselves slowly losing all inhibitions and moving parts of our bodies that have not moved for a long time. Hips were swinging, butts were bouncing and clapping, laughter and yahoos were made out over the blasting of music from old school swing music to classic ’90s hits from Destiny’s Child.
What is this magical dance universe, you may ask?
No Lights No Lycra started in Australia and has grown to provide this community experience in countries all over the world. Check out your area to find your nearest NLNL:
“The dance night grew through word of mouth and within a few months the hall was full of people who shared the same yearning for a dimly lit space to dance as freely as they do in their living rooms.”
Who says you need alcohol to dance?
The darkness at No Lights No Lycra helps you forget about that self-consciousness that stops most of us from expressing ourselves fully. Naturally, you may feel a little tense at the start as we are so used to worrying what other people might think of us. But give it 10 minutes and you’ll notice the endorphins crawling over your skin and words belting out of your mouth as you sing along and crawl out of your protective social shell to move in ways you never knew you could.
There’s no other feeling like it, a smile was glued on my face, a stitch prevalent in my rib cage and my legs ached until the next day.
Would I do it again? Absolutely.
Would I recommend to a friend? Absolutely.
Do I think dancing will cure the world? One Monday night at a time.
Have you got a list of things you’d like to try? If you want to share an experience with us that inspires others to start doing the things they have always wanted to do, we would love to hear about it! Email your story with photos (if you have them) to firstname.lastname@example.org
I stood at the front of a room and danced the Brazilian Samba
Hello Sunday Morning’s Experiments Challenge is all about trying something different, something you have never done or have always wanted to do. For July, our month of dancing, we sent our marketing intern Cara to take on the Brazilian Samba …I haven’t taken a dance class since I was about seven years old, aside from one failed attempt to learn Salsa last year. Maybe the Samba will be easier, I thought, after watching a two-minute video clip on YouTube. My roommates and I showed up to the dance studio in tee shirts and athletic leggings with water bottles in hand. We were prepared to sweat. The studio was on the upper level of a brick building decorated with an abstract mural of bright yellow, blue, and pink. The inside was just as eye-catching: banners of multicoloured flags hung from the ceiling, posters covered the walls, and hula hoops and baskets of feathers lined the hallways. Before our Brazilian Samba class started, we had a look around the studio. In one of the rooms, women wearing beaded scarves around their waists were practising belly dancing. I wondered if anyone in our class would be wearing pieces of the extravagant feathered Samba costumes I had seen in the YouTube clip. When we entered the wood-floored dance studio where our lesson was to be held, everyone else was wearing workout clothes sans carnivalesque embellishments. Phew. People started stretching, so I put my leg on a nearby ballet barre (with some difficulty) in an attempt to appear as though I knew what I was doing. Our dance teacher, an energetic Brazilian woman, burst into the room and immediately turned on the stereo. She instructed us to walk around and “feel the music.” So fifteen of us gathered in a circle and sashayed around the room. We were told to move our arms in small circles at first, then back and forth across our bodies. When our warm-up was over, we spread out across the room, facing the mirrored wall at the front. The first move we learned was a basic footwork pattern that involved three steps. This won’t be so hard, I thought. From my spot in the back corner of the room, I tried to follow the instructor’s movements by staring at her feet, then at mine. I was comfortable at my spot in the back of the room, where I could watch everyone’s feet in front of me. The instructor wasn’t satisfied with our feelings of ease in our places. She called out one woman from the back and requested that she move to the front of the room. Then, she had me move to the front row as well. To be perfectly honest, I panicked a bit. I was able to use the mirror to follow along with the rest of the class, and I finally got the hang of it after everyone else had already seemed to master the steps. Then, we were instructed to combine arm motions and hip movements with the footwork. I started looking around the room to see if I could learn the moves by watching my classmates. By the end of the class, I still couldn’t figure out how to control my arms while paying attention to the fast-paced footwork, given my lack of coordination. I’ll definitely need to return to the studio to give the Brazilian Samba another try, but this time I’ll be finding a spot right in the middle.
Have you got a list of things you’d like to try? If you want to share an experience with us that inspires others to start doing the things they have always wanted to do, we would love to hear about it! Email your story with photos (if you have them) to email@example.com
How childhood temperament can predict heavy drinking
An edited excerpt from Woman of Substances: A Journey into Addiction and Treatment by Hello Sunday Morning supporter, Jenny Valentish.
1982. The UK. The Falklands War erupted. The lowest temperature on record was captured by a lonely weather station in east Scotland, at -27.2°C. Unemployment exceeded three million, the highest since the 1930s. The IRA bombed Hyde Park and Regents Park, killing eight and wounding forty-seven. Thatcher’s Tories were top of the opinion polls. In every kid’s Christmas stocking there was a copy of When the Wind Blows, depicting a nuclear attack on the UK by the Soviet Union. I was seven.
I don’t want to lose your sense of intrigue straight off the bat, but I was a sickly child, matted with eczema and, later, permanently trailing a hankie. The umbilical cord had noosed around my neck upon my grand entrance, rendering me mute. I brought with me a special delivery of postnatal depression and was soon registered as ‘failure to thrive’.
Around our house they called me the Grizzler. My super-powers included a sixth sense for the acutely unfair, and internal combustions at perceived slights. My parents also bandied around ‘sulking’, or ‘sulking again’, but those words didn’t do it justice. When wronged, their youngest child was a kamikaze pilot in a nosedive, unwilling or unable to pull up. Empires should collapse.
‘It’s not the end of the world!’ Mum would exclaim, in an ascending tone. Dad’s favoured description of Mum was ‘wittering’. Mum’s nickname for Dad was ‘Eeyore’. We all did the Myer Briggs personality test one time and came out as introverts with tempers rising. Our default setting was: ‘Expect nothing and be pleasantly surprised.’ Addendum: ‘Any pleasant surprise will be a massive fluke and should be dismissed as such.’
What I’m describing here is temperament. Temperament is observable from birth, and it’s the foundation upon which personality is built. The dim light in which I view 1982 gives some insight into mine.
There’s an episode of the 2012 ABC documentary Life at Seven called ‘Tackling Temperament’. The Australian children it follows have been the subjects of a longitudinal study since birth, and now it’s time to test their response to frustration with ‘The Painting Experiment’.
In groups of three, the children in the documentary are given the task of painting a picture of flowers. Midway through they’re distracted by a researcher, who calls them over to inspect the real floral arrangement more closely. While their backs are turned, one girl – who’s in on the trick – scribbles on their artwork, then slips back to her own easel.
Initially, each child is dismayed to discover their ruined painting – and they’re suspicious, of course.
Child 1 is subdued. She says she knows the other girl did it, but she keeps going with her painting regardless. By the time she skips out of the room, the insult is forgotten.
Child 2 finds another blank page beneath the first and, pleased with his own ingenuity, starts over from scratch.
Child 3 wants to get to the bottom of it, but eventually her desire to continue wins out. ‘I know,’ she decides, ‘I could colour the background in.’
Child 4 is angry. She stamps her foot. ‘That just can’t happen,’ she says. The researcher leans in: so what should Child 4 do? ‘I don’t know,’ she whimpers. Does she have an idea? ‘No.’ She rejects the suggestion of turning over the paper to the clean side, claiming that won’t work.
‘How did it happen?’ Child 4 repeats, aghast. Eventually she’s persuaded to start over, but the sense of injustice lingers.
Perhaps Child 4 adopted a permanent explanation for this ruined-painting scenario. This is a mindset described by psychologist Martin Seligman in his book The Optimistic Child. A positive thinker will regard a setback as being temporary: ‘This picture has been ruined but at least I had only just started.’ A pessimistic child will tell themselves a story with finality to it: ‘This is hopeless. Just my luck. This happens every time. People always have it in for me.’
This type will also have what’s called an external locus of control: the belief that they are a passive victim of their circumstances, rather than the architect of their own destiny. Every time a reasonable solution is offered, they’ll play the ‘yes, but’ game, preferring to nurse that sense of unfairness like Gollum and his ring.
Something might go really well yet by the end of the day it’s catastrophised, remembered as an unmitigated disaster. They might similarly revise their entire childhood, levelling out all experiences to the baseline of the worst. In my memory, for instance, my childhood is like Nordic noir: everyone’s withdrawn and secretive, the sky is overcast, and people drift about wearing thick woollen jumpers (Dad never turned on the central heating). At any moment someone’s liable to walk out into a snowdrift and never return.
That’s the past. As for the future – which in Child 4’s case is the option of turning over a sheet of paper and starting anew – they’re harbingers of doom.
In defence of Child 4, certainly not all pessimistic or reactive children will grow up wanting to funnel the world up one nostril. There are plenty of coping techniques that, with a bit of encouragement, an individual can employ to regulate their moods.
The ruined paintings of the Life at Seven kids were a minor setback. In the case of experiencing childhood trauma, having low resilience – like Child 4 – can be a huge risk factor for adult anxiety, depression and problematic substance use.
One of the most thorough studies of childhood personality began in Melbourne in 1983 and is ongoing. The psychologists and paediatricians behind the Australian Temperament Project have been following the children of 2443 Victorian families. They’ve found that the features of temperament most likely to have long-term influence are persistence, flexibility and reactivity/emotionality, with the biggest predictor of adult behaviour being self-regulation.
Someone with poor self-regulation has little capacity to control their reactions, which include physiological responses, such as a churning stomach when something is upsetting, but also their interpersonal attitudes. Take me. I was one of those kids who, if a friend came over to play and a row started, would rather endure an hour of anvil-heavy, atom-buzzing silence until their mother arrived to take them away, than try to rectify the situation. Not much has changed. Fast-forward thirty years and there I am necking two beta-blockers before resigning from a job, in order to firmly get my points across without hurling a stapler or letting loose a spittled string of expletives.
So why do some people fail at self-regulation?
In part it’s hereditary, but it’s also down to the home environment. When a child’s stress-response systems are activated – which means an increased heart rate, rise in blood pressure and release of stress hormones – some calm intervention by a caregiver can bring these responses back down to baseline. If these skills are not observed and learned, the habit of self-regulation will not be routed into the neural pathways. Failure to learn might be through parental neglect or through watching parents catastrophise minor issues.
Conversely, pandering to a child’s every whim can mean they’ll never experience disappointment and how to adapt to it. Increasingly, drug and alcohol counsellors are seeing clients in their thirties and forties who are living back at home with enabling parents who never learned to tell them ‘no’.
The danger in both cases is that defeat can become comforting. There’s a familiar cycle of disappointment and then – if you grow up to coddle yourself with drugs and alcohol – self-soothing. In time, defeat becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Things are not for the likes of you. Something simply cannot be done. There is no point.
In summary, what we know to be high-risk factors for problematic substance use include low resilience, poor self-regulation, low self-efficacy and reactivity.
This is why it’s vital for any adult addressing their alcohol or drug use to specifically address their resilience and self-regulation, perhaps through counselling methods, such as CBT. Turn it into a game, if necessary: how quickly can I laugh off that slight? How many good things happened to me today before that wrong turn into shit-town? What advantage can I milk from this unexpected situation? What have I learned? Our temperament may be acquired through our genes, but our attributes are gained through our own free will.
Personal reflections on freedom and alcohol
How context frames the things we rely on
It’s been three months now of my first ever prolonged alcohol-free experience, so I’ve decided to write down some thoughts about it. The following reflections are not from someone with a dependence, nor from a party animal or binge drinker. It is not a personal alcohol problem that has triggered this alcohol-free experience, but a simple medical treatment. You might think, “well, what’s the big deal then?” — but these three months without a drop of alcohol have made me question how we draw the line on what we call dependence.
Why is it a big deal?
Being a teenager — an average one, I believe — I was avid to break free from adult rules that decided what I could and couldn’t do. Being a not-yet-adult was so confining! Not being able to work and earn your own money, needing permission to go out with friends, not being allowed to drink or smoke (although, of course, most of us did these long before the legal age). Even though I had relatively liberal parents compared to my friends back then, those limitations were everywhere, and it bothered me that I couldn’t decide when I felt responsible enough to do or try certain things. I think a lot about freedom since those teenage times. I praise it, chase it, and even avoid some commitments. The ability to do what I please at any time and make my own decisions is precious to me.
Teenage-hood is arguably the most socially busy time of our lives, and that’s the time when we are finally allowed to drink. It is not a coincidence that social life goes so hand in hand with alcohol and tobacco, the two hugely advertised drugs that mark our breaking free from our repressed childhoods. No more allowing adults to make decisions for us on how to have fun! Besides, it’s from adults that we’d learned to associate alcohol with friends and fun.
The irony is that, although we become free to choose alcohol or cigarettes when we reach the age of independence (which most of us do, as with anything that has been denied to us previously), choosing drugs as social enablers actually leads many of us to the complete opposite of freedom.
“Anyone can see that a child is not free when he desires milk, nor the drunken man when he says things which he later regrets.” — Rudolf Steiner
I love Steiner’s quote as it illustrates very well how, when we are under the effects of alcohol, even at a moderately tipsy level, we lose control of our will. Free will is the capacity to act and decide independently, without influences. As you might guess, being so paranoid about my freedom, I have always been a bit uncomfortable about losing my free will. I believe that’s one of the reasons why I’ve never drunk too much alcohol. Being tipsy is already distressing for me, besides associating it with sickness, which I believe is one of the most terrible natural opponents of freedom.
Still, I’ve never had anything against alcohol itself. I do enjoy a fresh bitter ale at a sunny terrace, and lately, since living in Australia, I love a glass of Shiraz with a tasty local dinner. And I carry the pride of tequila in my veins as a good Mexican, so for over 11 years living abroad, I’ve been pouring my sweet roots to friends from different places around the world, teaching them how a good tequila shouldn’t be drunk as a shot, but rather slowly, tasting it!
A better understanding
For over nine months now, I’ve been listening, reading and following stories, news, and theories about drinking. Funnily enough, my four months of alcohol-free experience comes at a time when empathising with people who want to drink less is part of my daily life. I’ll give you a bit of background on this.
Less than a year ago, my boyfriend and I moved to Australia: the second-ranked of OECD countries on (pure) alcohol consumption per capita, as ranked by the World Health Organization in 2015. Quite a shocking fact when you’ve lived in Finland, thinking that no other country could beat them!
We lived for over a year in Vietnam in between Finland and Australia, where we were fascinated by always having a fridge full of beer at the office (it was an Australian company). The interesting part was not that we had those beers at work, but that it remained full! There was no need to refill with beer very often. Fridays came, when we had a small get-together at the office, and we foreigners were almost always the only ones with beers in our hands. This isn’t to say that Vietnamese wouldn’t ever drink, but local guys would rather play games, ride their scooters back home safely (or relatively safely), and avoid having their wives angry at them. The women, meanwhile, would take care of their figure by avoiding the calories from alcoholic drinks.
When we moved to Sydney, I was already looking forward to becoming a freelancer working on ethical projects. I didn’t want to work any longer for large enterprises where design was a mere tool to increase profit. I had long awaited the opportunity to use my skills for a cause to make this world a better place. Freedom and inspiration were going to be my drivers from now on. After about a month in beautiful Sydney I was dealing with my lack of leadership and contacts to turn my saving-the-world ideas into a living; then, serendipity hit me, and I joined the inspiring team of Hello Sunday Morning, a small charity with a mission to help people change their relationships with alcohol.
The thing that drove me to Hello Sunday Morning was the organisation’s mindset around alcohol and drug consumption. It conveyed a very positive view where openness, motivation, and support were the tools to help people free themselves from habit. The aim was to use state of the art psychology and technology to help people change their habits to healthier ones.
I’ve been learning a lot since becoming part of the team. Listening to my colleagues’ knowledge, plus interviewing very diverse people from our focus groups and reading about addiction, habits, and behaviour change has been renovating my view of alcohol in society.
I didn’t ever suspect that helping people rise above dependence would be my way to make this world a better place. I didn’t ever consider alcohol as something to worry or care much about. I would often avoid drunk people, even family or friends, and sometimes blamed them for not “controlling” themselves. I would ignorantly assume that people with addictions didn’t want nor appreciated help or concern. We tend to generalise, and I had been doing so for many years. When I was still of a young age, wondering about the reasoning behind those strange things adults did, I would see my dad now and then behave in an odd and embarrassing way after a meet up with his friends, and I would only feel pity, shame — and, a few times, even disgust. I had learned to relate alcohol to grumpy, annoying and careless behaviour. In a way, as Ellen J. Langer explains it in her book Mindfulness, I had a limited view of alcohol dependence during my youth and didn’t consider all the different reasons behind alcohol consumption, nor the possibilities to improve things. The truth is, all of us can do a lot to help people free themselves from dependence and habits, and even prevent it to a certain point. We can all do this with a bit of behaviour change.
From my early views about alcohol, you may assume I would reject it and avoid drinking myself, but that was not so. I was always free to choose what I would see as the non-stupid, non-annoying way, of course. But going out with friends to have fun is rarely an alcohol-free situation, and wherever there’s alcohol, especially when you’re young, there’s a good amount of social pressure to drink to a point where you start to lose that sense of free will.
I have indeed chosen stupidity many times. Once or twice as a teenager I drove a bit tipsy, noticing I had drunk more than I meant when my calculations for driving through a narrow space were not good enough (and later lying to a trustful parent who lent me the car). Luckily for me, a small car scratch was as far as it went. I have never drunk to the point that I lost memory of it, nor have I experienced those terrible hangovers one will often hear about from friends. But we don’t usually realise when freedom disappears. Freedom to enjoy a social life with or without alcohol, to decide whether drinking or not when under pressure, to choose when to have the last drink.
We usually understand alcohol dependence as the point when a person cannot stop drinking on a daily or almost daily basis. But on a normal outing with friends, a simple dinner with your partner, or a Christmas festivity, are we really free from depending on alcohol to feel like we fit in or have fun?
Because I currently don’t have the freedom to choose to have a drink, I realise how easy it is to enjoy life without falling to the pressure of having one. Perhaps I will appreciate that freedom of choice even more after I am allowed to drink again, and may understand better the reason behind choosing to have a beer or a glass of wine instead of water and lime. I will probably savour whatever I pick with more delight and decide based on taste and what makes me feel good.
Originally posted on Hello Sunday Morning’s Medium page by our wonderful Design Lead, Brenda.