When doing work experience for a national newspaper in the summer of 2003, my first assignment was to find a young, professional woman with irreversible liver damage brought on by her love of a binge drink once or thrice a week. I failed.
Back then, the headlines linking affluent young women and increased levels of drinking were growing in number. Health experts, sociologists, commentators — anyone, in fact, with an interest in alcohol for one reason or another — began to join the dots and predict a pending epidemic of alcoholism and liver cancer among women.
Six years on, the message remains the same but the national liver crisis is looming closer. It's a bit like climate change, but there's still time to reverse the damage. This week a report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation claims that the incidences of binge drinking among women have almost doubled since I first went looking for my case study. Those in their fifties and sixties, exhausted by caring for elderly relatives, are as at risk of developing a bingeing habit as young teenagers copying their parents.
Would I have found it any easier to find my guinea pig today? I'd hope my sleuthing skills are much improved, but I cannot see any evidence around me as yet that my generation are being dragged from their frequent drinking sessions to fill up hospital liver units.
But ignorance, in this case, is certainly very close to bliss. The sort of bliss brought on by the tinkle of gin over ice, or the bracing slosh of cold white wine into one of those bumper pub glasses at the close of a long, desk-bound day. I must be shielding myself from the facts on this, or why else would I continue to rack up enough units per week to make Betty Ford blush?
For me, the problem is that alcohol is as normal a part of everyday life as making a cup of tea. It is cheap, it is tolerated, and it is everywhere. At this point I usually start to defend my own binge drinking: I have days off drinking, sometimes weeks; I keep clear(ish) of spirits; I live an otherwise healthy life.
And, my trump card: you have to drink an awful lot to do permanent damage to your liver, which is the cleverest of all human organs and amazingly adept at regenerating itself each morning, unlike the head, which requires at least two ibuprofen and a pint of water before bed. It even annoys me that the Government bothers with the pointless prefix ‘binge’, given that most alcoholic drinks not supped out of a thimble equate to a binge.
Despite these protestations, if the statistics are to be believed then my peers must be suffering. A survey published last December claimed that deaths from alcohol-induced cirrhosis of the liver (of both men and women) have doubled in 10 years, and the condition has increased eight-fold in young people. If the numbers continue to multiply, maybe the effects will be visible to the untrained eye once another decade has passed.
As it happens, I did find a female alcoholic who was willing to talk to me. She didn't fit the terms of the case study I was looking for, as she had never worked, but I spent a day with her and found out how ruinous and sad the life of an alcoholic is, and that's before you've got liver cancer. It was a better warning than a million scare stories.