We need to listen to those impacted by alcohol abuse - ​Karyn McCluskey

Speaking about alcohol, our use and abuse always divides people.
Alcohol addiction is an often hidden slippery slopeAlcohol addiction is an often hidden slippery slope
Alcohol addiction is an often hidden slippery slope

Population level interventions like minimum unit pricing, or the debate about the association between alcohol and gambling spawn endless column inches about the benefits or unintended consequences of proposed action.

What is less divisive is listening to those most affected by the harm. There is always something to be learned from those who have come through the other side of alcohol, drugs or gambling issues; what worked and what didn’t.

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And it’s also important to listen to those who’ve experienced it happening to loved ones. MSPs Monica Lennon and Miles Briggs have shared powerful stories of losing their dads to alcoholism in a bid to reduce the stigma and start conversations about alcohol misuse.

I listened to someone recently tell an audience how alcohol took over their life, how it permeated every recess of their existence. Someone with a family, a job, a house and an externally ‘normal’ existence, who consumed 30 units of alcohol a day. That’s about a bottle of vodka or three bottles of wine.

The expense, the physical and psychological harm, the deceit, the anxiety, the endless need to have alcohol available to meet the addiction – all laid out in their full stinging intensity. The immense burden of keeping everything hidden, ticking along, nursing the addiction was almost too difficult to hear. We knew what was coming – a reckoning. If I had been watching a film, I would have had my hands over my eyes trying not to look.

But a reckoning there was; police, investigation, recriminations, shame, loss, prison and more. There was the detoxing, the moment when the secret became an open discussion, the realisation that everything had changed and the world had tilted on its axis. Nothing would be the same again.

For many in this situation, there is a double edge in this. Despite the trauma of the situation there is relief as everything has to change. I don’t need to lay out the harms of alcohol in Scotland – they are well rehearsed. Often the terrible deaths around drug use take up the bandwidth of press headlines and we discuss others’ alcohol problems with a can of lager or a glass of wine in our own hands.

There has been change in the justice system about how we recognise those with alcohol issues. A decade ago, I went to Glasgow Sheriff Court - one of the busiest in the UK - to ask whether the sheriffs would set up an alcohol court. A senior sheriff looked over his glasses (a tactic reserved for sheriffs and teachers) and said ‘Ms McCluskey, every court in Glasgow is an alcohol court’.

In 2018 an alcohol problem-solving court launched in Glasgow with Sheriff Iain Fleming at the helm, working alongside services and support to help individuals address the issues and harm caused where alcohol is a correlating factor.

Many of us have a recognition that others’ misfortune could be one’s own, such is the slippery slope of alcohol use. Listening to the experience of someone whose life unfurled I wondered how the drama became a crisis? How many ignored the signs and how our own embarrassment about alcohol abuse prevents us asking others if they need help.

Karyn McCluskey is chief executive of Community Justice Scotland



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