This article originally appeared on VICE Australia/New Zealand
If I'm honest, it takes three beers for me to really give a fuck about anything. And I know this sounds like I'm depressed, but I'm not. It's just that a three-beer buzz lends my weeknights a significance and a special glow. It makes me nostalgic for the present. It transforms a situation into a moment. Some people say mindfulness or yoga can do this for them, but I assume those people haven't tried drinking. Drinking is really fantastic.
The problem is that drinking kills people, and it's not particularly cool. People put family, friends, food, gym, banter on their Tinder profiles for a reason. No one writes getting slightly boozed whenever possible because I don't find things as exciting as I did when I was a child.
But I don't lose friends and I don't really get hangovers. I get up early, I work hard, and no one seems to be getting hurt. But I still wonder if I'm cashing in my elderly years. Can I really drink three beers most weeknights, then totally blow off the doors every weekend, and still live a long and healthy life? And, if not, do I find drinking important enough to ignore my own mortality? I mean, do I really not care about getting sick and dying?
I'm probably not alone with concerns like these, so I figured I should get some answers. For all of us.
I got on the phone with Dr Amelia Stephens who is a GP in Brisbane. I described my drinking habit, and asked her how many years I might get. She said it was hard to say, but admitted—as a medical professional—she "would be concerned."
"Alcohol is listed as a class one [meaning the highest level] carcinogen," she explained. "Aside from liver damage you'll do, long term drinking greatly increases your probability of getting cancer."
As Dr Stephens explained, the real issue is in the way the liver breaks alcohol down into stuff called acetaldehyde. This is used to produce perfumes and disinfectants—as well as nasal tumours in rats, and laryngeal tumours in hamsters. Regularly flooding your body with acetaldehyde is a bad idea, although we kind of gloss over that by calling the experience a hangover."So I can't tell you for sure," Dr Stephens warned, "but I would suggest that drinking will catch up with you. But there's no sure way to say. It's really a lot to do with your genetics."
This conversation made me think I should find a different expert. But on the other hand, Dr Stephens did mention my favourite excuse—genetics. I'm not sure if doctors realise, but that line about how "it's all to do with genetics" undermines a lot of health warnings. This is because naturally I assume I'm unlikely to get sick, which is a well-established psychological phenomenon called "optimism bias." This states most people believe they're less likely to experience a negative event than others.
For me, this is a big part of why drinking feels ok. The thinking goes: I'm taller than average. Therefore I'm less of a pussy. Therefore I won't get sick. Of course that's gigantically stupid, but it feels right. And feelings are enough to keep going in the face of medical evidence.
I'm not the only one. People everywhere know they're choosing between death and cigarettes/drinks/pharmaceuticals/heroin/whatever but they still take the drug. It's insane but, again, it's not a rational choice. We're humans and we do what feels right.
So I wanted to find another medical expert, one who would level with me. So I called Dr Joel Porter who's a clinical psychologist, addiction specialist, and one of the leading brains in the field. I told him I like getting drunk and that I honestly, genuinely believe the advantages outweigh the drawbacks—even if maybe I get sick some day. Then I asked him what that future looks like. Could I accept some level of risk, but otherwise steer a long-term, sustainable course?
Surprisingly, Dr Joel Porter didn't reach for medical reasons to stop.
"The truth is you can lessen some of the health risks with exercise, a good diet, and by ensuring you have meaningful relationships in your life," he said in an enjoyable, low-slung Texan accent. "A lot of the people I see who are drinking heavily are also eating crap diets." He then went on to describe how lifestyles that foster addiction often come with other destructive facets.
"You know, if you really decided you wanted to drink, you could probably ask a nutritionist to build you a diet and exercise plan," he said. "You could design the other aspects of your life around it, but most drinkers don't do that."
There was a moment where I got pretty excited about this. I saw a golden, relatively healthy, and consistently buzzed future. But Joel warned about this too. "Just be careful," he said. "You might become dependent in ways you don't foresee. This is what happens to people. They start drinking to get over a Sunday hangover, then this turns into Monday, and then slowly it starts to affect their personal relationships, and then they have other reasons to drink.
"If you enjoy feeling drunk," he said, "try keeping your tolerance low."
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