Belfast Telegraph

Gail Walker: As Adrian Chiles proves, the bar is set too high when it comes to admitting to drink problem

Given Northern Ireland's booze culture, it's time we had a wake-up call of our own about alcohol, says Gail Walker

Adrian Chiles
Adrian Chiles
Gail Walker

By Gail Walker

Adrian Chiles made his name as a modern Everyman. A bloke's bloke, devoted to the Baggies, the hopelessly unfashionable West Bromwich Albion. Straight as a die but with a touch of irony; the type of person in fact you'd be glad to run into in a pub and share some unthreatening banter.

Which makes his documentary Drinkers Like Me, broadcast last night on BBC2, even more frightening. Precisely because this Everyman freely confesses that he sometimes has 100 units of alcohol in a week and that 80-plus units would not be uncommon. (The NHS recommends a maximum of 14 units of alcohol in a week).

Promoting the documentary, Chiles also outlined how in a single day he had drunk four pints of Guinness, four bottles of beer, a glass of champagne and five glasses of wine, adding up to 32.4 units - more than twice the weekly limit recommended by the doctors.

No wonder that during the documentary, doctors warned the 51-year-old that he is in danger of developing cirrhosis of the liver and liver failure if he doesn't cut down.

We in Northern Ireland know the truth of Drinkers Like Me. We have a deeply embedded drink culture, whether it's heading out for 'a few bevvies', 'a wee swally' or a 'couple' of pints after work. For those who value upward social mobility, there's the fine bottle (or two) to complement the meal and maybe an aged malt or craft gin, to round off the night. For the ladies there's also the rosés, the spritzers, the fruity ciders. Christenings? 'Wetting' the baby's head. Weddings? 'Toasting' the happy couple. Funerals? A gathering of the clans to 'celebrate' the life of the one now gone. It is hard to think of a formal occasion in Northern Ireland that does not involve the certainty of drink and doing it to excess.

We don't have alcoholic friends. No, they are 'a laugh'. That colleague who has 'a couple' at lunchtime is 'a case'. Even when pretending to be facing harsh truths about our friends and loved ones, at worse they're 'heavy drinkers'. After hospitalisation, they will only be 'problem drinkers'.

After totting up the 33 units in one day, Chiles confessed: "I thought, I'm in trouble here, I didn't realise how much I was drinking. Superficially I had no bad effects from it, it didn't affect me, I was kind of too good at it. I don't get hangovers, I don't fight, I don't wake up with strangers, I don't drink during the day, I don't drink alone. All these things I didn't do, but in fact I was a very heavy drinker without realising it."

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The bar - no pun intended - is set rather high in the common view. As long as you can function, you are not an alcoholic.

An alcoholic, we like to think, is the man who needs a snifter before going into work, the woman who locks herself in the house with the case of wine, in the end the man in the gutter with a bottle of paint-thinner in his pocket.

Of course, the bar is set exactly that high because we are all at it. Deluding ourselves, that is, as well as drinking too much.

Only last week, figures obtained by BBC NI revealed that more than 3,500 deaths in Northern Ireland between 2001 and 2016 were attributed to drink. From 2006 to 2016 alone, there were 1,500 more alcohol related-deaths (2,668) than deaths connected to drugs (1,149).

Once you expand that to deaths connected to alcohol consumption in others - industrial accidents, for example, or road deaths, falls, domestic accidents - the figures would rise sharply.

The irony is that even Chiles - presenting a programme on alcohol abuse - shows signs of wanting to shy away from the truth. Speaking to the Radio Times, he said: "The word 'alcoholic' is outdated, but I am undoubtedly dependent on alcohol to some extent - and if I am, thousands of others are."

The old stylistic issues about 'alcoholism' resurface. The word is 'outdated'; perhaps the concept is also ... Do-gooders and puritans want to disrupt our fun. If there are alcoholics, it's a working-class problem, only an issue out in those estates ... but our Susan or Gerry or Frances or Paul, though, are solicitors and mums and teachers and hard workers, they're just fond of a drink and entitled to have fun; they like letting their hair down. They're great craic altogether. If they have an issue, it's to do with temporary pressure or being too successful; they certainly aren't in the same bracket as those dossers and or even those figures - and as the stats show every family has them - who lost a job, a car, a house, a family, maybe even everything, thanks to the relentless strangulation of the character Bing Crosby famously addressed as 'Mister Booze/don't ever choose./Any game you play with him/you lose'.

Everyone reading this article knows someone who has been touched by the dreadful affliction of drink out of control. The prognosis is often irreversible and rapid, a catastrophic decline in health, with the equally rapid departure of friends and family as the episodes of unreliability, self-harm and harm to others proliferate.

'Dependent drinker' makes everything sound a lot cosier; but Chiles is right about one thing - his story is not about him being abnormal but about him being the average, the unremarkable. And that's troubling because it obviously means that any amelioration involves tackling the culture that actually encourages people to centre their lives round booze, the vast profits it makes and the real dependency our whole society has on the revenue it generates in taxes.

The first step is recognising that we (the collective we) have a problem and that just laughing it away won't wash anymore. Our society needs to make some kind of intervention and tell it like it is.

It can't be 'go on, have another one! It'll make you feel better and make me feel better about my own drinking'.

Alcoholism, as the old saying goes, is the one condition that insists you don't have it and it will wreck your house, hit your spouse, smash your car with you in it and help the police drag you off to the station while proving it.

Well, it's we who have the problem with drink and, as the death toll mounts and as the suffering of those connected with it increases, it's time to put the damage of drink right into the classroom and begin to manage it the way we did with tobacco.

That is, stop grooming children to drink as if it's a sign of being grown up.

Belfast Telegraph


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