Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 December 2014

Sharon Owens: How can we look at Gareth and still want to sup another pint?

Certain church elders used to call it the Devil's Buttermilk. And how right they were

As 19-year-old Gareth Anderson lies seriously ill with acute liver failure in a London hospital, I bet he wishes he could turn back the clock to that fateful weekend when he drank an alleged 30 cans of beer or lager in one weekend.

A staggering amount to consume, you might think. But how many of our young (and not so young) men and women are routinely drinking far, far more than the recommended safe daily limit? And just how did alcohol become such a pervasive and powerful part of the lives of so many people in this country?

I have a great deal of sympathy for Gareth Anderson. I also feel for his loving and devoted parents, who are now desperate to have their son placed on the transplant waiting list.

Gareth needs a new liver urgently. But donated livers are in short supply and each case must be judged on its own merits. In Gareth's case, his liver failure is deemed to be self-inflicted through alcohol abuse, and therefore he must remain sober for six months before becoming eligible for a new liver. Sadly, Gareth might not be around in six months. What a heartbreaking dilemma for all concerned

Obviously prevention is better than cure. But how can worried parents and guardians ever hope to compete against the combined clout of slick advertising? Not to mention peer pressure, cheaply priced alcohol and the relentless pictures of hedonistic celebrities living a 24-hour party lifestyle? It's hard to believe that a couple of dozen cans of cheap, sugary lager have left a fit young man fighting for his life. And probably wondering why he drank so much in the first place? For a few laughs on a Friday or Saturday night? Clearly it's time to re-assess this nation's love affair with alcohol.

Lets look at the facts: alcohol can lower your social inhibitions, yes, and it can make you laugh and relax. But it can also lower your decision-making abilities, and your ability to protect yourself in a dangerous situation. It can send your blood sugar levels soaring. It can put a massive strain on your liver and kidneys.

Combined with cigarettes it can increase your risk of developing oral, throat or stomach cancer. Alcohol can make you think you can dance well when in fact you are making a total fool of yourself on the dance-floor. Alcohol can make you say things you would never say sober. It can make you think you're sexy when in reality your behaviour is either pitiful or threatening.

Alcohol can make you argumentative, aggressive, depressive, promiscuous, and obnoxious to know. Alcohol can make you spend money you can't afford to spend. It can cost you your marriage, your relationship, your friends, your job or your driving licence. It can cost you your looks, your figure, and maybe even your life. Isn't it a wonder then that we in Ireland now appear to be drinking more than ever?

Personally I'm not much of a drinker. I gave it up completely when I was pregnant and I've never really bothered taking it up again. Now I find that even one glass of red wine gives me terrible indigestion so it baffles me how anyone can stomach 30 cans of lager in one weekend.

But no doubt Gareth Anderson was only doing what countless other young men and women of his generation are doing all the time. I really hope he is accepted onto the waiting list and that a new liver is found for him before it is too late. I believe him when he says he will never touch drink again.

But hopefully, if nothing else good comes of it, Gareth's tragic story will strike a chord with people everywhere. And the majority of drinkers will now think twice before binge drinking for even one more time. Now that we all know even one serious binge could prove to be life-threatening, surely the days of over-consumption are on the wane? Or are they?

Alcohol has been with us for thousands of years. It has survived prohibition of all kinds. It has never been cheaper or easier to buy. Still, no amount of glossy advertising will ever be able erase the sad sight of Gareth's jaundiced face pictured against the harsh white of a hospital pillow. No amount of male bravado or girly hen-night capers can blank out the fact that alcohol can be, and very often is, a killer.

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