How Scotland’s double standard on alcohol is killing us – Alex Watson

In Scotland, people are criticised for both drinking too much and failing to drink 'enough' (Picture: Cameron Whitman/Getty/iStockphoto)
In Scotland, people are criticised for both drinking too much and failing to drink 'enough' (Picture: Cameron Whitman/Getty/iStockphoto)
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Alcohol claimed the lives 1,136 people in Scotland last year, while thousands are admitted to hospital due to alcohol-related mental health problems, writes Alex Watson as she tries to stick to a policy of moderation.

I’ve been thinking and talking a lot about my relationship with booze lately. Sometimes in the pub, with a drink in my hand. The irony isn’t lost on me. My name is Alex, and I’m not an alcoholic – but I am trying to cut back. Now that I’m approaching my 30s, my hangovers are getting difficult to bear. It’s not the physical symptoms I can’t stand, but the psychological ones.

After a heavy night, most of us wake up at least a little anxious about what we may have said or done while our usually sensible prefrontal cortex was impaired. It’s a common mental phenomenon, sometimes known as ‘hanxiety’, or simply ‘The Fear’.

What I now realise isn’t so common is the extreme level of anxiety and depression I’ve started to experience after ‘a big sesh’. As good as it makes me feel when I’m drinking it, alcohol is a depressant, after all. The rest is just science, really, isn’t it?

Starved of serotonin and dopamine, I’m plagued by a sense of dread I can’t shake, sometimes for days. I catastrophise and fixate on my drunken behaviour. This is exacerbated when I can’t clearly recall the previous night’s events which – I admit, past a certain number of drinks – I often can’t.

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There is a whole side of myself I simply don’t know, because I can’t remember her. Is this how Dr Jekyll felt? My friends assure me my version of Mr Hyde is “fine” and “fun” and always “on good form”, but I’m sure she’s a monster.

Here’s the kicker, though – drinking might have the power to cripple my mental health, but I don’t want to give it up altogether. On one hand, I don’t have an alcohol problem in the traditional sense. On the other, my relationship with alcohol is problematic – and I know I’m not alone. It’s a realisation I’ve noticed quite a few of my peers having recently. But can we learn our limits and drink moderately for the sake of our sanity, or will we inevitably have to give booze up altogether some day? Can we have our cake and drink it, too?

The good times are killing us

It certainly feels like the odds are stacked against us, as a nation. Think of Scotland, and you think of booze. Whisky, Tennent’s, Buckfast.

Drink is so ingrained in our culture, that it’s difficult to prise the two apart. But it’s killing us.

Alcohol was the underlying cause of 1,136 deaths in Scotland during 2018. There were 35,499 alcohol-related hospital stays in 2017/18. That’s almost 100 every day.

And the way we drink isn’t just affecting us physically. In 2015, 8,509 Scottish residents were admitted to hospital due to mental ill health and behavioural disorders caused by alcohol.

If my attempts at moderation repeatedly fail and my low spells get longer and darker, could that be me?

Is moderation a realistic solution?

I’m not saying that we all need to give up booze, or even that everyone in the country should drink less. If your mental health is affected by your alcohol consumption, chances are you already know about it.

“The real reason I stopped [drinking], was that I started having panic attacks. But they were so severe that I thought they were possibly heart attacks,” 36-year-old John (not his real name) from Edinburgh told me.

Scotsman columnist Kevan Christie, 51, who gave up alcohol 14 months ago after three decades of heavy drinking, similarly remembers unrelenting “anxiety and crippling panic attacks” that even led to him calling 999 – all as a result of booze. “I also constantly thought I was about to have a heart attack,” Kevan said.

Seven months ago, 38-year-old Claire Niven realised that, rather than easing her worries surrounding alcohol, drinking moderately was actually making them worse. “The truth about moderation (when you’re not very well wired for it) is that it’s a big bringer of anxiety,” Claire told me. “Should I open some wine, or will I end up drinking the whole bottle? How many glasses of wine is too many tonight? It’s really quite liberating when you realise how much easier it is to just say no.”

I have a ‘three-drink rule’ (inspired by the book Mindful Drinking by Rosamund Dean) which feels like a brilliant lifehack, when I manage to successfully stick to it. In some situations, saying ‘no’ takes an incredible amount of willpower – often more than I have the strength to summon.

It’s time to change

Scotland’s attitude towards alcohol is perplexing. We judge those who we think drink too much, but (in the same breath) we criticise others for abstaining, or not drinking ‘enough’.

Even telling my nearest and dearest that I’m trying to cut back for the sake of my mental health has been surprisingly daunting. Writing it down here is nothing short of nerve wracking.

The thing is, I can still have a great time at the pub with a non-alcoholic beer in my hand. I don’t need to be drunk to have deep, existential conversations – those are my favourite kind. And, as I always say, I don’t have to be hammered to talk nonsense, either.

Drinking is Scotland’s national pastime. It’s good fun, but we put far too much emphasis on it. I’m a product of a society that tells me I’m weak for having to drink less, and that makes me ashamed, so sometimes I just shut up and drink up. On the face of it, it’s making life easier. Really, it’s not helping anyone.