Last weekend, several UK newspapers and websites, including the BBC news, reported that researchers in Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester have been studying drinking patterns from the 1980s up to 2011. What they found that deaths from alcohol in young men initially rose, but has been falling since the early 2000s. The same is not true for young women. In all three cities, the number of deaths from alcohol rose in women aged under 34. In Glasgow, at the start of the study, the figure for that age group was 8 women out of every 100,000. Now it is 20. Other studies in other cities suggest the pattern is nationwide. Reports from the USA suggest the same trend is occurring there, with a new book recently published about this issue.
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Nobody knows for sure what has caused what is described in most reports as this “worrying trend.” Researchers suggest it could be because women are more independent now and so have more disposable income, because alcohol is now cheaper in relative terms, and because it is culturally more acceptable for women to drink than it used to be. The picture is far from clear. According to some reports, in the UK and USA women in higher economic groups are more likely to regularly drink more than the recommended limits of alcohol. Yet research by Biomed Central found that deaths caused by alcohol were higher in lower economic groups.
A quick look at cigarette usage suggests that money is not the main factor in developing addictions. In the UK smoking has declined over the past 40 years. Smoking is now banned from all public places and no longer seen as the norm. The numbers of people smoking used to be roughly equal over all socio-economic groups. This is not so now. Smoking is most prevalent nowadays in the lowest socio-economic groups. If the cost of cigarettes was the main factor, this would not be so. If the affordability of alcohol was the main factor in determining how much people drink, all millionaires would be alcoholics and the homeless would be teetotal. So while affordability might play a part, it’s not the whole story.
Making something culturally unacceptable does appear to reduce its usage, as has been shown with smoking. But it goes deeper than that. Why did it ever become culturally acceptable to regularly get roaring drunk in the first place? What creates the need for that in our culture?
As the woman interviewed for the Independent in this article says, when people drink, their shyness disappears, their feelings of social inadequacy disappears, they feel as if they fit in. For most of us, one or two drinks is enough and there’s no harm done, or after few times of going overboard and feeling terrible the next day we decide it’s not worth the suffering. Because of course, we don’t really become someone else when we drink. The shy or anxious person underneath is still there, but with a whole lot of extra feelings of shame to overcome.
You might be wondering, what does this have to do with writing? Good question. The answer, from my perspective is: two things. First, I’ve been rereading (bits of) Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way and in it she writes about how drinking helped her get past the fear and enabled her to write – up to a point. Drinking to be creative, as Cameron points out, gives you a very short window of time: “…before the booze closed in like a fog.” Yet when she stopped drinking she feared her creativity would dry up. Instead she learned to “get out of the way” and let creativity take over. She also went on to teach this method to dozens of students and through her book to thousands of people world-wide.
Until I reread The Artist’s Way I had forgotten that some people see a connection between drinking and creativity – or getting stoned or high to create. I guess that their reasons are much the same as Cameron’s were – getting past the fear of inadequacy. Our history is littered with poets and artists who tried to fuel their creativity with alcohol or drugs and instead ended up – well ending. Success doesn’t stop this either as the death of Amy Winehouse, among others, shows.
More often heavy drinking actually stifles creativity. Julia Cameron goes as far as to say we choose to block our creativity with addictions – which could be to food, sex or work instead of alcohol. We choose to block ourselves because free creativity takes us into aspects of ourselves we don’t recognise and so fear. We fear our whole identity disintegrating.
The second reason I’m discussing alcohol in a blog about writing is because Stella, the main character in my novel Drawings in Sand, is an artist who at the novel’s opening is blocked and drinks heavily. I hadn’t read Julia Cameron when I wrote the first draft of this novel, and I didn’t even make that connection until recently. I wrote the novel, not because I wanted to explore the effects of avoiding creativity with alcohol so much as I wanted to explore the effects of avoiding feelings of inadequacy and of trying to escape from fear by drinking. I wanted to show that until we face what we fear we will always need some way of running away.
Actually, although this became my intention for Drawings in Sand, its beginning was more as a reaction to the glamorisation of the Scottish heavy drinking culture in literature. I wanted to show the devastating effects it can have both on heavy drinkers and on their families. It’s interesting to me that some of the women interviewed about the research into the rising number of young women dying alcohol related deaths cite the glamorisation of drinking and the UK’s “ladette” culture as a factor in their decline into alcoholism. One of those women, Lucy Rocca, has started a website Soberistas to support people who want to get sober.
I’ll end this post with an extract from Drawings in Sand. This is from a chapter where Stella has thrown up in front of an elderly colleague and feels hopeless and ashamed. But to Stella’s surprise her colleague offers her kindness not judgement. This is Stella’s turning point: