Alcohol and the Middle Classes
Alcohol is the most dangerous drug in society. On almost every measure it kills more people, causes more crime, disease and violence, and drains the NHS of more resources than any other drug. But you are a middle-class professional. Alcoholism (or indeed addiction more generally) has nothing to do with you. You look down sadly on the fate of others and the vicissitudes of their unfortunate existence. You are educated, in complete control, and just plain better than that. This is somebody else’s problem. Pass the brandy.
If you are still reading, hope remains. I am also middle class, and I am alcoholic. I have earned the right to criticise because I have been where you are, and because I am who you are.
And I am alive to tell the tale, so keep reading.
We all know what an alcoholic is. We see them piling out of pubs, collapsing in the streets, and living under bridges drinking strong lager. We also appear to have a common view of drinking in relation to working people and their violent, lurid, chavvy behaviour. Societies have held this view down through history: it appears in records from classical times and ever since. Even today many people seem to believe that educated and/or professional people – the middle classes – do not suffer in the same way. Like so much of middle-class opinion, this is claptrap.
For twenty years evidence has been building up about drinking patterns and their consequences in different socio-economic classes. The headlines appear to be these.
· One, alcoholism (and addiction) are largely indiscriminate in terms of who they can affect. You are not immune.
· Two, binge drinking can be worse amidst social deprivation.
· Three, consistently drinking at dangerous levels is, if anything higher among the well-heeled and well educated.
Middle-class drinking tends to be more consistent, less binge-driven, and with a higher price tag (swap fine wine for cider; single malt for cheap vodka). The differences in behaviours and effects between classes are a few percentage points here or there depending on the metric and on precisely which study you read. But it is increasingly clear that they are real. There are distinctive features of a middle-class drinking problem that need to be addressed.
Arguably, the sub text here is that by virtue of better education (and higher disposable income), the middle classes do not see their drinking as a problem. They do not believe they are at risk. After all, a fine wine is not the same as white cider (although a bottle a day is still 70 units a week). Educated people are certainly able to count, one would think. But do they see government guidelines, and national alcohol epidemic headlines, as being all about somebody else? Do they believe they are somehow above all this? Are they somehow better, cleverer, and therefore safer?
Now meet Colin, a real man under a false name, and a good friend of mine back in the day. Colin was, on the surface, a model of the liberal intelligentsia. Colin was an Oxbridge graduate, brought up in a stable household by professional parents. He had a lovely family to an outsider’s view and was a high-flying civil servant of no mean achievement. He died in his fifties. Towards the end he would arrive in work, open a bottle of wine behind his desk top and document holder, and set about great affairs of state. It was an open secret, but nobody tackled him on it. Nor is it likely he would have responded well. His managers knew, but they wrung their hands in despair and did nothing. His family knew but were powerless. In himself and to others he was charming and harmless. To himself he was embittered, self-loathing and ultimately lethal. Neither his intellect, nor his moral compass, both very substantial, were able to save him.
Now meet me. I am in my fifties, extensively and expensively educated, and with interesting and successful career experiences – just like Colin. I have travelled to all parts and met the rich and famous – just like Colin. I have normal healthy interests in outdoor sports and music and a loving partner of nearly forty years. Just like Colin. I make people jealous because I over-achieve without trying. If only they knew…………
What people don’t see, usually until it is too late, is the alcoholic; the self-doubt, the insecurity, the over-reflective character and the sordid mundanity of life behind the façade. And like Colin and others, it never occurred to me that my drinking was a problem until it was too late. I am lucky to be alive where Colin is dead. So, here’s the thing about addiction. Nobody tells you in advance if you are going to be at risk, because nobody really knows. Our research base and our analyses are still too weak and misdirected. It is not, after all, just about total units. It has deep seated psychological, familial and perhaps genetic components. It is complex, and it is largely indiscriminate in terms of education or income.
But nobody wants to hear special pleading on behalf of people who have everything, or at least look like they do. The truth is, we, the middle classes, the professionals and academics, the managers and teachers, the civil servants and business people, don’t want to hear it either. We don’t want to be identified with winos, druggies, drop outs and scumbags. We’re better than that, with our education, our success at work, our kids doing well, and 2.4 Audis on the drive. We are decent people and we have standards, will-power, and a moral compass.
Colin is dead because we carry this arrogance with us like a protective shield. It separates us in our minds from the hoi-polloi. At the same time, it separates us from ourselves so that we don’t have to confront the reality of our existence which can at times be just as fragile and just as empty as the meanest soul on earth. And it separates us from our peers; we feel shamed by them and they by us. (Bit of Sartre there – just for the cognoscenti). We are homo sapiens too. Knowing the difference between Haut Medoc and Pomerol is neither here nor there.
This, by the way, is what makes us so shockingly difficult to deal with in recovery. And I have been as bad as anyone at times. We are used to winning, to knowing, to calling the shots. We resist the notion that we have got it all wrong; that we are in fact lost, broken and useless to a dangerous degree in our present state. Our denial is that much fiercer because we can’t believe we have become so hopeless, that we are so afflicted. We refuse to accept that someone half our age who has just escaped a crack house can tell us anything at all. We confuse the need to be humble with the fear of humiliation.
If you are still reading, just reflect for a moment. I am alive because I received the right help from the right people. Colin is dead because he did not. Never mind that we have been widely regarded as clever buggers. That was of no avail. There is no such thing as an identikit alcoholic (that’s old thinking) and if you recognise anything in this blog, take action. Gird your loins, grit your teeth, hold your nose if you have to, but confront the reality and seek help.
Or just die. Like Colin. But I don’t think that’s very clever.