Q: Who’s a problem drinker? A: Someone who drinks more than me.
This is one of Steve Allsop’s favourite ways to start a conversation about alcohol. It illustrates how hard it is for us to take an objective view of our own relationship with drinking.
Professor Allsop is a harm-reduction expert and he says our language around problem drinking – calling it “abuse” and diagnosing people as “alcoholics” – can help us rationalise our own drinking and distance ourselves from unhealthy behaviours.
“None of us want to think of ourselves as abusers, so we think alcohol problems belong to people who are alcohol abusers and we’re definitely not one of those.
We have this sense that it happens to someone else.”
But dig a bit deeper and there could well be patterns in our own drinking that are worth examining.
Uncomfortable questions to ask yourself
Part of identifying whether it’s time to reevaluate your drinking can include asking yourself some questions, Professor Allsop says.
These questions are not about labels, but actual things you’ve done in the past, such as:
- Have I ever had an argument with a partner or a parent because of my drinking?
- Have I ever been late for work because I drank heavily the night before?
- Have I ever driven my car when maybe I shouldn’t have?
- Have I ever ended up in a relationship with someone I mightn’t have otherwise ended up with?
If answering those questions honestly makes you squirm a bit, alcohol experts have some advice on how to take back control.
Identify when, how much and why you drink
The first step to adjusting your relationship with alcohol is having a clear idea of how much you actually do drink, says Emma Miller, an epidemiologist at Flinders University who researches women’s drinking.
Then, alongside that, recognise what your cues are to reach for a drink.
“It’s helpful to take a diary, like a food diary, and think about: when am I having that drink, how much am I having, what are the things that make me stop?” Dr Miller says.
For women especially, Dr Miller says they often report having a drink while cooking dinner, or after putting the kids to bed, and that alcohol acts as something of a pressure release valve in their busy lives.
“Women have a lot of pressures on their lives … with multiple caring responsibilities, work responsibilities and household responsibilities that seem to fall more on them than their male counterparts.
The more of those pressures that are on people, the more likely they are to drink.”
But those are far from the only reasons people drink – in fact, our culture is such that there’s almost no situation where drinking isn’t involved.
“They might congratulate themselves having done a job well, or they might be concerned with trying to have a good time to get over bad times,” Dr Miller says.
“People drink when they’re happy, they drink when they’re sad, they drink to celebrate an event or commiserate if something terrible has happened. And they often just drink when they’re bored.”
Once you’re aware of your drinking habits, pick a target for how you’d like to be drinking, Dr Miller says.
This might be delaying the time of day when you start drinking, or choosing to have a certain number of alcohol-free days a week.
Knowing your goals ahead of time is they key, she says, because “the thing about alcohol is you do lose your judgement while you’re drinking it”.
Regular drinking above the Australian recommended guidelines of no more than 10 standard drinks a week, and no more than four on any one day, is linked with increased risk of cancer, heart disease, liver disease, dementia, depression and other diseases.
Experts say there is no threshold below which alcohol consumption is perfectly safe, and for some people, not drinking at all is by far the safest option.
Don’t go it alone
If you decide you want to cut back on drinking, there are resources and support services available.
Professor Allsop recommends online support groups like Hello Sunday Morning and telephone counselling services like Alcoholics Anonymous (1300 222 222), Lifeline (13 11 14) or the National Drug Hotline (1800 250 015).
“It’s always easier when you’ve got people behind you,” he says.
If you need help
- Talk to your GP
- Go to an appropriately trained counsellor
- The Alcohol and Drug Foundation: 1300 85 85 84
- Alcoholics Anonymous: 1300 222 222
- Lifeline: 13 11 44