Drugs

London's Pubs Saved Me from Becoming an Alcoholic

Compared to the situation in my home country, Britain's drinking culture is tame.
11 February 2020, 9:30am
women drinking in pub

It's late at night and I'm being driven home by a man who has just injected himself in front of me. I'm ten years old and not quite sure what's going on, but I'm aware it isn't right.

One of the car's back windows is smashed-in and patched up with a plastic bag. The driver says nothing the whole way home. Aside from his heavy breathing, the only noise I can hear is the plastic bag flapping wildly in the wind. I'm with my family, who are sitting either side of me, passed out from drinking too much.

You're supposed to feel safe with family, but instead I feel scared and sad. I wish these sorts of things didn't stay with you as you grow older, but they do.

I was born in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. While it's a beautiful city, its struggle with the bottle has been such a constant that it seems to have been embedded in its soil: Lithuania is the world's heaviest drinking country, according to the World Health Organisation. Unsurprisingly, all that drinking is reflected in the country's health statistics: it has the second highest rate of cardiovascular disease in the EU, while other leading causes of death – liver disease, accidental poisoning and road traffic deaths – are all associated with high alcohol consumption.

Even as a school kid in Vilnius, I was always aware of an indifference towards heavy drinking and drug abuse, especially in poorer areas. Both of my cousins, a brother and sister, became addicted to heroin at the age of 14. One of them died of an overdose. Their mutual addiction was devastating for the family.

Alcohol was pretty much a free-for-all. If you were able to get a hold of it, no matter your age, you could drink it. I tried my first beer when I was ten. When you're around something constantly, curiosity will always get the better of you. Still, despite my family's – and many of our neighbours' – heavy drinking, my mum, dad and relatives all had jobs and seemed happy.

In 2001, when I was 12, we moved to London. I didn't know then, but it was a move that would end up saving me from becoming an alcoholic, because as I reached womanhood I would, for the first time, discover that drinking was not all about getting comatose at home with your family.

Despite the move, my family carried on drinking as normal. In other words: they chose to drink heavily in the confines of their own homes, using any excuse to get together and get pissed. It was only when I got a little older that I realised other people didn't celebrate International Women's Day by drinking a bottle of vodka each. One plus side is that Eastern Europeans know how to put on a spread: there would be platters of food, soft drinks, snacks and any other party-appropriate stuff you can think of. Sometimes this was fun, sometimes it wasn't.

I love my family and I enjoyed spending time with them, but it always stopped being fun two to three bottles in, when everyone got too incoherent to have a normal conversation.

I began to notice the debilitating effects that the constant alcohol use was having on my close family. It also had a profound effect on my mental health, which still affects me now as an adult, and I could barely concentrate at school. Even so, by the time I was 14 I was getting dragged into their drinking rituals. I can barely recall some Christmases because I was so drunk.

Getting drunk made me depressed, so I got more drunk to deal with that. After sustained periods of this, I found it very difficult to care about anything, so withdrew deeper and deeper into myself.

When I finally started socialising with my friends at school, I glimpsed lives totally different to mine. It began to dawn on me that not everyone's families smashed several bottles of spirits in one sitting and lived their lives submerged in alcohol. I found that, in London, drinking with your parents was not as popular a pastime as it was in my household. No one seemed to do it. Then I began to realise there were places other than your own house – such as pubs and clubs – where you could sit and have a drink, in a fun way.

I know everyone jokes about Christmas being a time for drinking a lot of alcohol, but during my first Christmas away from home – with my boyfriend's family, when I was 18 – the contrast between my family's "traditional" celebrations and theirs was staggering. There was alcohol, of course, but instead of multiple bottles of vodka and whisky we had champagne, Buck's Fizz and a few beers here and there.

As I became more culturally English – having English friends and boyfriends, and going to university – the differences in the approach to alcohol really struck me. There are many, many people in the UK struggling with debilitating alcohol addiction, both publicly and behind closed doors, but compared to back home, the average approach to drinking here seemed to be more about socialising than getting absolutely hammered, in your house, with your family.

Aside from the occasional rowdy pisshead, the atmosphere was completely different at university to what I was used to at home. And the more I was being exposed to the social aspects of drinking, the more I started to enjoy alcohol myself.

On a typical Friday night, I'd see loads of people gathering outside a pub, nursing pints, chain smoking and having fun. In Lithuania, on a typical Friday night you were more likely to see someone shooting up heroin than laughing outside a bar.

So why is there such a cultural difference? In Lithuania, like in many parts of Eastern Europe and Russia, heavy drinking is viewed as respectable by older generations. Until recently, alcoholism – and the many health problems that accompany it – was not a concept a good number of Lithuanians cared to be familiar with.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, many Lithuanians were left in limbo when it came to their social identity. People felt disenfranchised: there was a lack of opportunities and a feeling of hopelessness, which arguably contributed to widespread alcohol and drug dependence. Authorities are now doing what they can to curb problematic drinking, having introduced the toughest alcohol laws in the EU at the start of 2018, but critics say the rules have made little difference.

I moved out of home shortly after university. Luckily, my family’s drinking has become less extreme. They still drink what would seem like a large amount by British standards, but it's now limited to special occasions rather than every day, which means they function much better than they used to. It's a huge relief.

I know British people will be surprised at what I've said here, because this country is portrayed as a land of drunks, but I have no doubts that moving to the UK helped me escape the alcoholism that plagues so many in Lithuania. And Britain's pub scene is part of this: it showed me that drinking alcohol can be fun – that it can be about meeting people and making friends, as opposed to drinking yourself into oblivion with your family.

For me, Britain's pub culture makes drinking safer, because when you drink at home, there are no rules.

@youshallnotpa15