The May bank holiday weekend is almost upon us in all its rain soaked glory. Happily enough, whether it’s pissing down or not, tomorrow I am off on my travels again. This time I am off to the Lake District with a good friend and our two wee boys, to a family weekend at a Buddhist retreat. The place itself looks beautiful: an old priory that has been lovingly restored, with an amazing temple in the grounds. Downton Abbey meets downtown China. Something unusual to look forward to, although there will no doubt be a note of sadness following the weekend’s events in Nepal.
While I am excited about the trip, I am a little bit nervous for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I wonder will I be able to cope with a whole weekend of Buddhism? While it may appear to be the least religious of the world faiths, it is still a religion and I am pretty much anti-religious. My worry is, that confronted by too many spiritual men and women in orange robes, I will end up sporting a perma-furrowed brow that gives me away. Or even worse, my cynicism is melted away by happy, loving, zen people. To many that may seem like a positive, but I am not quite sure if I would be me without it.
Secondly, we will be catered for over the whole weekend. This means lots of delicious and healthy vegetarian food…and no alcohol. I can manage without the bacon for a few days but the booze is not so easy. Nearly every Glaswegian I have mentioned this to has suggested I could smuggle a bottle into my bag ‘just in case’. (Just in case of what, I wonder? Delirium tremens?) Either that, or they have said: a whole weekend without wine? Not on your nelly.
What I find interesting is that many of these people say they don’t drink during the week, however at the weekend, it’s almost an essential part of their enjoyment. So why not think of it as a week in reverse? So I have been preparing for this weekend by having my weekend drinks more moderately during the week instead. If I am truly honest (as I suspect most people are not), of late I also find it hard not to drink during the week as well. It doesn’t need to be excessive, just a couple of glasses of wine, but I still like it most days. When I am stressed, which has been a lot of the time over the last year, it can easily be more. My personal relationship with alcohol is complex and not always the healthiest, but with mindfulness and support, it is getting better.
If you ask many Scots about their drinking habits, they will say they don’t drink during the week and drink only at the weekend. Yet the statistics show a different story. From the Scottish Government website:
Alcohol sales data suggests that consumption has increased by five per cent since 1994, with enough alcohol being sold for every adult in Scotland to drink over 20 units each and every week since at least 2000.
Almost a fifth more alcohol is sold per adult in Scotland than in England and Wales.
The impact of this excessive consumption is estimated to cost Scots £3.6 billion each year, that’s equivalent to £900 for each and every adult in Scotland.
Hospital discharges have quadrupled since the early 1980s and alcohol-related deaths are 1.4 times higher.
The impact on crime and anti-social behaviour is equally stark, with statistics showing that 45 per cent of prisoners (including three quarters of young offenders) were drunk at the time of their offence.
Alcohol is a massive part of Scottish culture, from the moderate love of a wee dram or two, to coming of age getting drunk rituals, and the expectation that all celebrations from birth to death and everything in between, are accompanied by alcohol. Not to drink on these occasions will fuel the suspicion that you are either pregnant, ill or a recovering alcoholic. Even then, you still might be expected to ‘take a drink’, just to make others feel comfortable. People across the world are familiar with the stereotype of the incomprehensible drunken Scot. And much as I like to rail against the stereotype, if you enter any bar in Glasgow at closing time on a Saturday night, you will easily find people that match it.
Most of us know first-hand or understand the damage that excessive alcohol can wreak on families, communities and entire nations. In Scotland, and indeed in the rest of the UK, doing something urgently about this is a necessity, but it’s not a vote winner. Witness the relief when alcohol tax is not raised in the Budget, or the complete absence of its discussion by any party during the current election campaign. After all, we wouldn’t want the hard working people of Britain to be punished for their enjoyment or release from the difficulty of everyday living, would we? Good policies have crept in here outwith the election pledges: minimum pricing and best of all, the reduction of the drink drive limit. This has most impact on the morning after: no-one wants to have a skin full and get caught over the limit the next morning.
It’s not a class or gender problem either; the pubs of Govan may be full of men with red faces drinking pints every day, but equally so, middle class women are quietly drinking themselves into oblivion with a lovely bottle of Sancerre they picked up half price while doing the weekly shop. Why? Well, we know why. Life is hard, work is hard and raising a family is hard. Alcohol numbs us and helps us keep going through the tough times.
Even that is too simple an explanation. For those of us who are sometimes shy, or lacking in confidence, a glass or two can help lower our inhibitions, not necessarily to the point where we wake up the next morning in bed with a stranger and the feeling that someone has shat in our brains, but just to help us relax. And what about the giddy joy of sharing a glass or two of bubbly with friends or family? Or enjoying a beer and a nip of whisky after a hard day on the hills? It is one of the joys of life. We have a lot to learn from the French in this respect: they might be smoking themselves into an early grave, but considering they live in the land of lovely wine, they have a healthy respect for the stuff. I have seen young people make a very small glass last an hour or more in the cafés of Paris. So different to here.
Humans of all creeds and persuasions have been using alcohol or other substances to get high, open our third eye, or numb pain since we began. Like everything else in life, the key is moderation. If you need to get blitzed every day, then something is not right. Using alcohol, food or drugs to annihilate every uncomfortable feeling you have, is going to kill you in the end.
That said, alcohol can be a lovely thing. It doesn’t have to be a poisoner of lives and families. It can enhance some of the best occasions of our lives and there is nothing wrong with that. For me, there are a number of pressing reasons to drink less: mainly to be a more patient mother (although let’s face it, there are times when a wee drink helps us relax and find parenting a bit easier but I think I’m doing okay) and to get the most out my training. There is a yin and yang thing operating for sure, but what is the point of paying for a gym if I’m too hungover to get the most out of it?
Most of all, I don’t want to end up in an early grave like my mother. On the successive days where I go booze free, I find I have more energy and more tolerance for others, even if I am grumpy at first. At the ripe old age of 43, I am finally learning ways to cope with the shizzle of life and accepting myself without the need for chemical enhancement. It might be tough at times, but this weekend is part of it. Changing these patterns means I can pop that champagne cork after I’ve kicked that motherfuckin’ Spartan Race’s arse without shame. God help those Buddhists.
Until next time,