I went to Uni with this bloke called John. John had “a problem”. He was thrown out of halls of residence for his drinking. He would get paralytic at parties, wet himself. John was notorious for his drinking. Everyone knew of him, we saw him every day, wasted and hopeless. We’d all shake our heads and roll our eyes. No one was as bad as John. John was as bad as it got. And so we kept drinking.
Not all alcoholics are created equal.
I had a friend called Karen. Karen didn’t look like John. Karen couldn’t drink like John. Karen had what we might, (mistakenly) refer to as an alcohol abuse problem. Sometimes she could control it for a few weeks at a time. Sometimes she could not. Karen went on yet another binge. Not that unusual but it scared her. She wanted to stop. She was frightened. She sent her friends a message telling us she was definitely through this time. That it was over. That she was done. That her dad was going to come get her so she could go stay with him for a while and then begin her life teetotal. She took time off work, cleaned her flat and was going to get an early night before he came.
Karen’s dad arrived the next day to find she’d died in her sleep. Turns out she was right. She was done. Her body couldn’t take it anymore. Karen was 40.
This is how it happens.
I don’t frighten easily. I lived in a constant state of fear for so many years that it takes a lot to reignite it and take me to that dark place now. But when I see people using end-stage alcoholics to measure their own drinking against? It frightens me. When I see the media latch onto one person, the exception to the rule that has been able to subject their body to horrendous amounts of alcohol abuse and still just about function? It frightens me. Alcoholism is not a p*ssing contest. There is no glory to be had in being further up the sliding scale than these individuals. Yet we all do it. We all have our own example of someone who drinks more than us. Alcoholics do it too. And when this person dies? We find another one. And another.
John was not always John. End-stage alcoholism is not the full spectrum of alcohol abuse. Once upon a time John had a John to compare himself to and feel safe in the knowledge that he was not there yet. Karen had a John. It did not save her.
I had a John. It did not save me.
The way I drank, my actions when I did drink-how many people did I keep in a place of alcohol abuse because they looked at me and assumed they were clearly fine by comparison? How many lives did I affect by participating in my own p*ssing contest with my own John? Why are the tolerance levels for alcohol abuse so high in our society? If someone is hurting themselves and those around them by their alcohol consumption we cannot wait until they are at the end stages of alcohol abuse to say something. Because the truth is most people die before they get there.
Rehab centres are full of people who are not yet at end-stage alcoholism. Would it surprise you to know that many people suffer a mental breakdown way before a physical one due to alcoholism? That this is why they seek treatment? Or that our hospitals are filled with people whose bodies have given up on them way before end-stage alcoholism?
So are our morgues.
There are many stages before John. There are many stages before Karen. And yes, before me. No one has to get to the points any of us were at before asking for help. To win this particular p*ssing contest you have to actually die. Today someone will. And it will have taught us nothing. And I’m frightened for all of us when I think about that.