The stories we share about alcohol matter
By Nick Bibby, writer and recovering alcoholic.
In this blog, Nick Bibby discusses how we talk about alcohol and how that affects those whose lives have been harmed by it.
The stories we tell matter. We tell each other – and ourselves – stories about who we are, what we believe and feel, what’s right and wrong, how the world works and where to find our place in it.
We tell those stories in countless different ways, through film, TV, the arts and media, through ritual and festivals. We record them in moments of celebration and desperation, moments of meeting and parting, rites of passage and times for reflection and recognition. In a society such as ours, where much of that storytelling process is undertaken by others, we are lucky enough to see our own stories blended with those of others and reflected back to us through the work of artists, writers, performers and many others.
Sometimes those reflections are large and complex – movies, novels, national celebrations – and sometimes they are tiny, fleeting things; a birthday card, a get-together with colleagues at the end of the week, tiny tokens of thanks or welcome.
The way we shape those stories tells us whether we belong; whether our personal story is part of the shared narrative or a separate tale - perhaps something shameful, certainly easy to overlook. If all the heroes are white and all the great romances are straight, if strength is always able-bodied and beauty has to be young, then our shared story makes it clear who doesn’t fit and whose story doesn’t matter.
We’re better than we once were at making our shared stories look and sound more like all our lives, rather than those of a self-selecting few. There is still much more to be done on all these fronts but there are some stories that have barely begun to be told. It is perhaps not surprising that the experience of lives torn apart by alcohol should be further back in this particular queue than some others, but we should still reasonably expect to be part of the process.
As a culture, we have come to accept that the popping of a cork, the clink of glasses or the click and hiss of a ring-pull punctuate the stories that we tell. But that seems to be more the case than once it was. No Father’s Day card seems complete without a joke about beer, the sophisticated hero swirls the ice in his whisky glass, the rugged hero cracks open a beer, the happy couple toasts their future with champagne, and everyone has a completely normal relationship with alcohol except that man on the park bench who dies at the end of the third scene.
The media lazily casually associates alcohol with relaxation and celebration – increasing the price of a pint is always bad, keeping the pubs open longer is always good. The morally weak addict is still too common a trope in entertainment. Advertising informs us that no Christmas is complete unless it’s marinated in booze. We casually accept the lie that the way to distinguish between obligation and celebration is that the latter is served with wine.
And yet, that is only part of our story. In the nearly ten years since I put down my last drink, I’ve made no secret of my own journey, and have happily shared my story with friends and strangers alike. At first, I did so nervously, wary of the judgement of others. After all, I knew that I was ‘other’, the whole of society told me that my experience was deviant, abnormal, a sign of my own failing. “Alcohol”, it said, “is a happy story, with a joyous ending. You’re just doing it wrong.”
And yet, almost everyone I spoke to replied, “My brother…”, “My daughter…”, “My late husband…”, “My friend…”, “Me”.
We should tell the story of alcohol in our lives, but it should be the whole story. When the team wins the cup and shakes champagne over their fans, I really don’t expect a health warning to pop up about the carcinogenic effect of alcohol. But when the child who has already lost one parent to alcohol is looking for a Mother’s Day card, there should really be more than one without a glass of wine on the front.
I really don’t expect directors to stop using the sound of a popping cork to signify that the main action is now over, and this is the happy final scene where everyone turns out to be safe and the romantic lead is getting married after all. But it doesn’t seem too much to ask that media discussion of health policy could be framed in terms other than ‘normal, beery people vs killjoys’.
As a society and as individuals, our relationship with alcohol can be complex. Policymakers, opinion shapers and storytellers could all do a better job of reflecting that complexity and recognising that, like any well-written character, alcohol also has a dark side.
SHAAP Blogposts are published with the permission of the authors. The views expressed are solely the authors' own and do not necessarily represent the views of Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems (SHAAP).