Adolescent drinking is a dangerous thing. It’s taken me 36 years to realise.

[First Published on the  soberistas website]

There’s been a lot of coverage in the news lately about the dramatic increase in hospitalisations amongst baby boomers, due to their disastrous drinking habits – a trend that is counter to all other groups in society, we’re told. The cause of this spike is something to do with the boomers’ adolescent experiences of alcohol back in the 60s and 70s.


I think I (just) qualify as a baby boomer, being born in 1964. I can certainly identify with the point made in a recent article by a lady baby boomer who said that when she went to University in the 70s her family warned her about the perils of “pot”, not alcohol. She was told to stick to cider, presumably on the basis that cider would bring her no harm, while marijuana would very likely lead to heroin addiction. There was clearly a lot of naivety around in the 70s. My parents, who were not generally unworldly, truly believed that drugs would have you “hooked” (their favoured term) in an instant. They also believed that alcoholics were very different sorts of people to anyone else. Alcoholics in their view would drink white spirit or mouth wash if they couldn’t get hold of alcohol. I remember dad saying that an alcoholic would drink boot polish if alcohol weren’t available. It had a lasting impression on me.


For us, as a family, alcohol was always seen as a special treat. When it appeared, it was in hushed excitement – usually at a birthday. I think this was because it was expensive and sophisticated, not dangerous or deviant. We children were allowed sips to start with, and later small quantities of our own. It was part of growing up, and I for one, waited patiently for the day when I could drink unrestricted, like an adult.


In wider society, alcohol was associated with ceremonies of all kinds, including religious ones (the “blood” of Christ), and its place in 1970s culture went absolutely unchallenged. If anyone drank too much, that was no doubt due to their own weakness, not society’s – and very much their own business.


In the 70s people were less inclined to point the finger at other people’s habits anyway. I remember the big fuss made about the infringement to personal liberty brought about by motorcyclists’ compulsory wearing of safety helmets. The Liberal Party was dead against it. So, you can imagine what people would have made of interfering with other people’s drinking habits.  It was no one else’s business but yours when you had a drink. The idea of printing the Government Health Inspector’s recommended number of weekly units on the side of a bottle of beer, wine, or spirits would have sparked riots.


I don’t think the 70s attitude was particularly laissez-faire or bohemian either. Pubs were closed for most of the day and alcohol wasn’t available in anything like the number of places it is now (though oddly I remember there being a station-bar on the platform at Sloane Square Underground, and at Baker Street!).

It’s just that alcohol was no worse than many other things that were taken for granted as part of life’s rich tapestry – obesity, unsaturated fat, sugar, tobacco, lack of exercise, food-additives, pollution, amongst others.


I am sure that my own eventual psychological dependence on alcohol emerged from a desire to get hold of it as soon as I was old enough to do so. My subsequent problems of over-reliance have in part been down to this. Once it was established as my principle source of relaxation and entertainment, I couldn’t see a way of enjoying life without it. I was terrified of alcohol being denied me, especially at social occasions.


On and on it went like this for 36 years until 3 and a half years ago I realised I had had enough of it and wanted something new and different. How long that desire for change would last, I had no idea, but here I am, 3.5 years later, feeling as confident in sobriety as ever. More so in fact. I feel as excited as a child most days, at some point. There is still a novelty in being free from the burden of worry about alcohol (drinking too much of it; not having enough of it, spending too much money on it, hiding it…) There is also the joy of discovering new things about myself; the things I like doing and not doing; where my priorities lie in relation to family, work-life-balance, free time, holidays. Alcohol clouded my judgement of these things, usually because it was more important to me than anything else, even if I wasn’t prepared to admit it at the time.


Today I am empowered, in control and overjoyed. Alcohol never allowed me to feel any of those things for longer than a few hours, after which their opposites took over. Round and round I went on the same cycle. It was a waste of time and money, and it took me 36 years to realise it. But as soon as the penny dropped, everything clicked into place and I haven’t looked back.


I think what my journey conveys is the ease with which a determined drinker, like me, can change. My story is not one of crash and burn. Far from it. I believe I could have carried on drinking for another 20 years at least. My message is: if a “successful” and committed drinker like me can change his mind, so can other big drinkers.


You just need to reach a point when you say “I don’t want this anymore”. You might have gone to hell and back in order to be able to say those words, or you might have sat on the bus to work one day, and it just pop into your head. There are many circumstances – all of them different – in which the desire for change emerges. But desire is the essential thing. And it can happen to anyone, at anytime! If it happens to you, I urge you to go with it; nurture it. You may never look back!