It's funny that we all "have a relationship" with alcohol. It's maybe the only thing we consume that we feel the need to directly relate to the rest of our lives. I've never heard people open up about their toxic relationship with gorgonzola, or how they're working on their relationship with Coke Zero. But alcohol? From heavy drinkers to teetotalers, we all have a personal bond.
Like pretty much everyone else, I have a relationship with alcohol. In fact, like pretty much everyone else, nearly every significant moment in my life revolves around drink. As an eight-day-old Jewish baby, I was given the snip, put to sleep with a little drop of wine. My first proper kiss, at Reading of 2009, was fueled by a blend of vodka and cola. My 18th birthday was just an excuse to get trashed. First week of college: gin, Jägerbombs, and Kronenberg. Celebrations, commiserations, falling in love, and gut-wrenching heartbreaks have always seen me—and my contemporaries, elders, and ancestors—reaching for a glass.
So when statistics surfaced earlier this month that suggested young people in Britain and Scandinavia are drinking less than ever before, I started thinking about my own behavior. As I wandered home from the pub one night, a few glasses of wine down, I asked myself: Is my relationship with alcohol really OK? I'd always thought that everyone my age was drinking a little bit too much, but that, y'know, it was kind of OK because we're the first generation to be worse off than our parents; we're stuck with a lifetime of debt; we'll never be able to buy a home, etc., ad infinitum. But turns out that's just not the case.
My roommates reassured me that of course I was healthy. I work nine to five, Monday to Friday. I don't drink alone, rarely in the daytime, no blacking out after nights at the pub. But, at the same time, it dawned on me pretty quickly that my lifestyle involves drinking most nights of the week. I rarely drink to the point where things get too wobbly, which, until now, I'd told myself, meant things were nowhere near out of hand.
But I wanted to be certain, so I decided to keep track of my drinking habits for a week. Monday night I was heading down to an event in central London. After the job? Well, everyone headed to the pub. Tuesday was a Turkish dinner with a glass or three of wine, Wednesday work drinks, Thursday my roommate passed me a beer on the sofa. I was never drinking huge amounts, but there was a bottle there every night of the working week. On Friday evening, I was off to Wilderness Festival, and I had a few gins when we got there. By Saturday lunchtime, I was heading down to Brighton Pride. I tried to keep a tally of units, but to be honest, I couldn't easily keep count. I imagine that's probably not a great thing.
I decided to get in touch with James Nicholls, director of Research and Policy Development at Alcohol Research UK. Before I started panicking about whether or not there were any issues with my relationship with booze, I wanted to work out if the amount I consume is a problem for my health. If not, then why worry?
"The revised government guidelines are 14 units of alcohol a week for both men and women," said Nicholls over the phone. "The guidelines set out how much you should drink to keep your risk of dying of an alcohol-related condition below 1 percent."
It didn't take me long to realize, after checking what 14 units represents, that I—and most of my friends—could get through that in an afternoon. Six standard glasses of wine? Six pints of beer? Over the course of an entire week, that seems like nothing. But maybe it's not; only 25 percent of the UK population drinks more than the recommended weekly limit.
Yet, this didn't worry me too much. Sure, at 23 I'm drinking way over the recommended limit week-on-week, but that's a risk for my body that, for now, I'm willing to take. We make decisions every day that see us risk our bodies to some degree, for pleasure, for comfort, or for a thrill. As far as I could see, what was vital was that drinking remained a choice and not a necessity, and when it came to my own drinking, I still wasn't 100 percent sure where I fell.
Dr. Sally Marlow is a Fellow at King's College London, with an expertise in addiction and the stigma that surrounds it. "There's no single trait or gene, no single answer that says whether you're addicted," she explained from her home. According to Marlow, the kind of thing you see in the Daily Mail when it comes to alcohol addiction is a "crock of shite." Instead, she assured me that alcoholism spawns from a "complex interplay between your genetic makeup and the things that happen to you in your life."
In short: There was no easy answer to the question, "Do I have a problem with drinking?"
What Marlow also made clear is that you can't judge a drink problem solely on the amount of alcohol you consume. "A heavy drinker can build up a tolerance where you need more and more to get the same effect," she said, pointing to smoking or heroin addiction as similar examples; you might start off slowly but soon increase your intake to feel the same effect.
"It's the same with alcohol, but it's slower: Over a couple of years, you might need more and more to be relaxed, to be a party animal, to be self-confident," she said. "People who can knock back a couple of bottles of wine might only get the effect of a few glasses."
So it's not in the quantity alone that points to a problem. Instead, Marlow pointed me toward the types of behaviors that might signal alcoholism: can't get to work due to hangovers; arguing with your friends, family, or partner because of the drink; getting busted for drunk driving; drunken accidents or getting into fights; feelings of shame and guilt; or blackouts where you continue to function but you don't recall what was going on. Marlow says these are all red flags—behavioral signs that you might have a problem.
Speaking to Marlow, it was clear that what she described is not the way I—or many of my peers—drink. However, it's also clear that casual drinking can easily mutate into problem drinking.
I got in contact with an Alcoholics Anonymous member named Jack. Now age 30, Jack has been sober since the age of 21, when he realized something just wasn't right. "From the outside everything was perfect: I had a good job, a long-term relationship, a nice flat," he said, "but I looked in the mirror every day, and I hated what I saw."
For Jack, drinking was a way of escaping. "I feel happy? Have a drink. Feel like shit? Have a drink. When I was without alcohol, I was irritable, snappy, an arsehole—I was worse sober than when I was drunk."
I asked Jack what it was that made him realize he had a problem. Turned out it was a work lunch with his office when things, as he put it, got seriously fucking bad. "I nearly lost my job, I lost clients, I lost the company a lot of business. I embarrassed myself," he said. "Let's just say: When you're trying to get a contract with a client, it's best not to offer to sleep with them when their wife is also there."
When Jack was drinking, he didn't know whether or not he was going to carry on long into the night. "I might go out for a drink or two, and sometimes I would [only have a couple], but other times, I'd wake up the next day and not know where I was."
British drinking culture can make it difficult to spot an alcohol problem. On the surface, my consumption—and that of most people I spoke to while writing this article—should probably be setting off some alarm bells. But really, it's just become normal for many of us to drink like this day-to-day.
I can't help but think about a close friend of mine, a journalist, who did Dry January earlier this year. Yes, he managed nearly 31 days sober, but he moaned about it every night of the week. Does this mean he has a problem? If it does, it also means basically everyone who did Dry January also does.
The line between healthy and dangerous is alarmingly murky, but trying a period of sobriety and seeing how you're left feeling seems to be a pretty solid way to test the water. Either way, I'll now be keeping much closer tabs not just on how much I'm drinking, but why.
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