Dying for a drink
In a new BBC One Northern Ireland documentary, William Crawley looks at Northern Ireland’s relationship with its drug of choice, alcohol. Here, he reveals what role drink plays in his life and poses some questions many people might not want to answer
It was about 10 o'clock on a Saturday morning — a long sleep after a longer night. Unsteadily, I negotiated the staircase and made my way to the corner of the living room, where a small digital video camera had been set up to record this moment. I felt like my brain had been removed during the night and the replacement brain didn't fit my skull.
Doctors define a drinking binge as more than eight units of alcohol. By that definition, I'd had more than five binges the night before. Beers, wines, cocktails, and spirits — I'd downed everything from absinthe to vodka. Given more time, I might have tried drinks with names beginning with W, X, Y and Z. It was the mother of all binge-drinking sessions, which I approached — slightly clinically perhaps — as part of a new documentary by DoubleBand Films about Northern Ireland's relationship with booze.
Binge-drinking is only one kind of relationship with alcohol, but it's a very common one, and I wanted to examine all those possible relationships from the inside.
After that night of excess, which I have foolishly agreed to have televised, I gave up drinking entirely for a month. As human challenges go, that's hardly going to earn me a place in the record books. But it was, nevertheless, a challenge. Not because I am chemically dependent on booze — far from it — but because so much of our society is lubricated by alcohol. We drink to relax, to socialise, to cope with stress, to wind down, to cheer up, to escape problems, to build self-confidence, to feel more attractive, to lose inhibitions. In other words, we often drink not because we like the taste of it but for the effects.
Drink is our national drug of choice, and we are self-medicating to record levels. In the past few months I have worked as a barman in one of Belfast's biggest pubs, single-handedly brewed 2,000 bottles of beer, spent an evening on patrol with the police, and a night walking the floors of an Accident and Emergency department — all of this as part of the background research.
It's hardly news to report that we enjoy a drink in Northern Ireland and that drinking can sometimes be dangerous. Images of breweries, bars, police patrols and A & E wards tell only part of the story of our relationship with alcohol — and that story has been told many times already.
In the BBC Northern Ireland programme Dying For A Drink, we wanted to go further — to get under the skin of this thing. I also met problem drinkers, alcoholics, social drinkers and total abstainers in order to get a sense of the full spectrum of possible relationships we can have with drink, and to ask a question that gets to the heart of it all: does Northern Ireland have a drink problem?
If we could put the whole country on an addiction therapist's couch, what kind of profile would emerge? I discovered that you can't ask that kind of question without asking another one: why are so many of us are uncomfortable talking about our patterns of drinking? Are we worried that others might think we have a problem, or worried that we might actually have a problem? Instead, we tend to run away from the question, even though discomfort with that question is one of the signs that a person may have a problem.
Why bother even asking those questions? Well, for one thing, our research showed that deaths related to alcohol have doubled in 20 years and other social indicators reveal some very worrying patterns, with alcohol contributing greatly to personal and family breakdown and our nationwide mental illness crisis.
For many of us, this seems like someone else's problem. For me, it's personal, because I've lived in the home of an alcoholic and I've seen what booze can do to a family. Seeing what alcohol did to my late father made me want to stay away from it until I was in my early 20s.
In the documentary, I visit a psychiatrist and talk about my own relationship with alcohol. The psychiatrist explains that a child of an alcoholic is four times more likely to present alcoholic-type behaviour in adult life than other children, and when he looks at my father's pattern of drinking and my own, the similarities (albeit with much less alcohol involved) were a revelation to me.
I am a realist about the potential of television to change a society, and my ambitions for this documentary are suitably chastened. At the end of the programme, I am confronted with the question that has been between the lines of all the other questions we explore: will I drink again? I'm realistic enough to know that's not a question everyone who watches will ask themselves. But I hope this programme will help us talk openly about the place of booze in our lives.
Let's ask why there seems to be are so many confusingly contradictory messages coming from the medical profession across the world; one day a glass of wine is good for your heart, the next day it isn't. Let's ask if anyone has any idea what a unit of alcohol actually means in terms of the branded drinks we consume each week and why so few of us have any idea how much we actually consume each week.
Let's also ask why Northern Ireland is such a bizarrely all-or-nothing culture, with record numbers of binge-drinkers and record numbers of teetotallers in the same population.
Dying For A Drink is on BBC One Northern Ireland on Monday at 9pm. Dying For A Drink is a DoubleBand Films production for BBC Northern Ireland.
‘I’ve lived in the home of an alcoholic and I’ve seen what booze can do to a family. Seeing what alcohol did to my late father made me want to stay away from it until I was in my 20s.’
The Demon Drink: William Crawley examines Northern Ireland’s relationship with alcohol in a new TV show