Addicted to Alcohol: Why These Perth People Stopped Drinking
You enjoy a couple of cocktails after work on a Friday. A bottle of wine with dinner. Maybe even a blowout on the weekend. But how much is too much? And when does casual drinking turn into addiction?
It’s hard to tell. Especially when your friend gets drunk off two drinks, but you need six before you feel the effects. And when the culture in Australia sees drinking as a prerequisite to socializing – problem drinkers rarely see their drinking as an issue.
Knowing when enough is enough is different for everyone. Alcohol addiction is as much about how you feel about your drinking, as it is about the drinking itself.
We spoke to people in Perth who felt their relationship to alcohol had become unhealthy. They gave up drinking for good, and couldn't be happier.
Drinking to deal with emotions
Wholistically Healthy’s founder Renee started drinking when she left home at 13. Her drinking helped ease anxiety, and made her more comfortable in social situations.
“I remember taking my first drink and I felt lit up, like a party on my inside and I wanted more of that,” says Renee. “Alcohol made me feel comfortable with myself."
Perth musician Troy barely went a day without having at least six beers. He spent all his money on alcohol, even budgeting how much he could get away with not spending on food so he could buy more beers at the pub.
Like Renee, Troy believes he used alcohol to self-medicate his anxiety. Alcohol gave him relief, albeit momentarily.
“I thought I would feel better once I had a drink. But after a beer or two, I actually felt worse,” says Troy. “I was using it as an escape.”
Drinking out of habit
“The boozy culture in Australia is pervasive and inescapable. Australia is awash in it,” says Western Australian mother and business owner Bec Archer.
She's right. Drinking is habitual, and our social occasions are centered around alcohol. Last year’s DrinkWise study found 28% of people who had increased their drinking attributed it to social reasons.
This was the case for comedian Luke. He wanted to get sober for years, but pressure from his peers meant it took awhile for sobriety to stick.
“I often found I’d start again to put someone else at ease, like – ‘Come on man, just have a beer with me!’" says Luke.
Perth hospitality worker Penny felt her alcohol dependence grew out of habit. She was newly single and socializing more as a result. She began drinking a wine or two after work, but it soon got out of hand.
“I don’t think I was one of these people who was drinking addictively from the beginning,” says Penny. “It was almost as if I trained myself to rely on it on a daily basis. It became a habit, and quickly turned into an addiction.”
When drinking becomes a problem
One of the scariest parts of addiction is the loss of perspective. When you cross your own line of acceptability, you would think this would be motivation enough to change. But one way in which our interviewees were similar is that when they wanted to stop drinking they were unable to.
Wholistically Healthy’s Renee was one of them.
“If I want to do something, I can generally get it to happen. But when I tried to stop drinking, I couldn't,” says Renee. “Time and time again I would find myself with a drink in my hand going, ‘how did this happen?’ I was baffled by it.”
Troy was drinking for years before he could see that alcohol was the problem. It wasn't until he had a major depressive breakdown that he was scared into making some changes.
He began exercising, eating healthier, and drinking less. After two years of slowly cutting down his drinking, he decided to quit for good.
“I kept drinking out of habit, a beer or two at a gig,” says Troy. “But after a couple of years, I began to prefer my life without it.”
For Renee, it was a friend who had her own struggles with drinking who helped her identify that alcohol may be the problem. But things got worse before she was able to stop completely.
It wasn’t until her work started breathalising people that she decided to come clean with her boss and ask for help.
“I had many rock bottoms prior to that, but that was actually the turning point I needed. I didn’t want to lose my job,” says Renee.
Penny’s rock bottom came after two years of drinking nearly every day. Her behaviour became increasingly worrying to her and those around her. She began to do things she would regret the next morning.
“It wasn’t my first blackout, but it was the scariest,” says Penny. “I had no idea what I had done. I woke up, and realised over the course of the night I had messed up a new relationship. I had completely lost control.”
After a few failed attempts at quitting drinking for good, it was the six-hour black out that prompted Penny to seek help in a 12-step program.
“Spending time with other addicts made me realise I was using alcohol to deal with my problems,” says Penny. “I found it comforting to know other people felt the same way.”
Do you have a drinking problem?
Good question. Just because you’re still functioning in society doesn’t mean you don’t have a problem. Problem drinkers aren’t just “gutter drunks” – people who live on the street or can’t hold down a job – they can be highly successful people.
Popular media often diagnoses alcoholism with how much you drink, but alcohol awareness initiatives suggest that it’s actually more helpful to observe your behaviour around drinking.
A good rule of thumb? If it’s not a problem, it’s not a problem. People who don’t have a drinking problem don’t sit around wondering whether they have a drinking problem. In other words, if you’re googling “Am I an alcoholic?” something might be up.
Other signs your drinking may be a problem (according to help guide):
You feel guilty or ashamed about your drinking
You get drunk when you don’t intend to e.g. “I’ll just have one drink”, but you end up having ten
You drink to deal with life’s problems e.g. you feel sad so you drink
You lie to your friends and family about drinking
You’ve tried to stop, but are finding it difficult
Life after alcohol
Whether you feel like drinking is a problem for you or not, it can be hard to imagine life without it. The people we spoke to have experienced incredible benefits after giving booze the boot – physically and mentally.
Perth musician Troy believes his life is immeasurably better. The physical benefits are certainly impressive – he’s lost over 30 kilos – but it’s the changes to his mental capacity that he’s most proud of.
“I’m far more productive because I have way more energy. I’m a different person. I used to have to drink 20 beers just to get to sleep,” says Troy. “My life isn’t like that anymore. I feel at peace with who I am.”
Luke’s life completely turned around. His feelings of depression and anxiety went away, and his career took off. He landed his first comedy festival show, began selling out his gigs, and got on TV.
“All these childhood dreams came true because I was awake, friendly, open and positive," he says. “I feel amazing. My brain is sharper and I am calmer.”
Renee believes she would never have started Wholistically Healthy if she had still been drinking. Quitting drinking has given her belief in herself, and empowered her to take risks, business-wise as well as in her personal life.
One thing Renee stresses though, is just because you stop drinking doesn’t mean life will be magically easier.
“All the reasons I drank are still here – fear, anxiety, and living in my own skin can still be uncomfortable,” says Renee. “It’s a constant work in progress, but that’s not alcoholism, that’s just life. Everyone has things they want to improve on.”
Although we’re becoming more aware of the dangers of excessive drinking – we do recognise it as one of the most serious drug problem on Australia – compared to drugs, drinking is socially acceptable.
In her Mamamia article, Louisa Simmonds argues that addiction is still something we’re reluctant to talk about openly.
“The widespread abuse of alcohol in Australia feels like the elephant in the room,” writes Simmonds. “Many people, if they are addicted, do not want to admit it.”
It can be scary talking openly about your struggles, especially in a culture that like to valorise a flawless facade, but you might be surprised at how willing people are to help.
“It’s amazing what happens when you’re that honest to yourself and with others,” says Renee.
Renee believes that being honest about her drinking was one of her biggest life lessons.
"When you put out honesty and face up to your demons... and you’re that humble... well, it was given back to me ten-fold."
It's been 4.5 years since Renee's last drink, and a lot has changed.
"There’s more clarity in my life. I can do everything I want to do, I just don’t drink. I started Wholistically Healthy that I would never have had the fortitude to do had I still been drinking.”
***If you’re worried about your drinking, it helps to reach out:
Talk to a trusted family member or friend
Talk to your GP
Call the Alcoholics Anonymous Helpline: 1300 222 222, or visit https://aa.org.au/ to find an AA meeting near you
Call the National Alcohol and Other Drug hotline: 1800 250 015
Call Lifeline: 13 11 14