Recently, I decided to come out of the closet. And by closet, I mean liquor cabinet.
No, I’m not an alcoholic. Quite the opposite – I rarely drink at all, although I’m not a teetotaller either.
The way ‘my kind’ are often made to feel in social settings – that we’re some type of deviant for nursing a glass water when everyone else is onto their fifth or sixth alcoholic drink – left me apprehensive about admitting I was dreading another grog-fuelled Australia Day, which is what I wrote about in a column for my newspaper, The Daily Telegraph.
I assumed I’d be jumped on, accused of being a wowser, a prude, un-Australian, my “shortcoming” ridiculed in a culture that normalises drinking to excess. But our society’s unhealthy relationship with alcohol was a topic too important to ignore to be concerned with any type of criticism it may attract.
I could never have anticipated the response. The column was picked up by our national website news.com.au, and within minutes, I was being inundated with so many tweets and interview requests, I couldn’t keep up. My little piece had clearly touched a nerve and sparked a national conversation about booze.
I was overwhelmed by all the other non drinkers and light drinkers out there, who felt similarly pressured to imbibe when out with friends or colleagues, whether that pressure was overt “It’s un-Australian not to drink on Australia Day! What’s wrong with you?” or discrete “C’mon, just one more. Why not?”.
People confided in me their own experiences of being shamed for not drinking.
One woman in her late thirties lamented that she’s now reluctant to go to friends’ birthdays after being called a “party Nazi” for declining a drink at a 40th.
I was even approached by an anti-binge drinking movement to become a celebrity ambassador, the term‘celebrity’ obviously being applied very loosely.
Predictably, I also copped abuse from people who were likely unwilling to examine their own dependence on alcohol and how ubiquitous it has become in all our lives. “Harden up, princess” was a familiar theme.
Of course, my confession absolutely pales in comparison to the bravery exhibited by people who publicly acknowledge they have a serious drinking problem and take steps to address it. Think Talitha Cummins, the Channel Seven newsreader who recently created shock-waves by confessing she had been an alcoholic.
What was particularly shocking for many was Cummins is a beautiful, young successful woman, not the “typical” drunk portrayed in movies and television shows.
Yet the truth is, young women are increasingly represented among drinking statistics. In Australia, more than one in three women binge drink, perhaps in a bid to prove they can keep up with their male peers.
As more women like Cummins – indeed more people from every walk of life – step up and admit they have a problem with alcohol, we are slowly seeing the tide turn.
The public have embraced sponsorship drives to abstain from alcohol, with month-long campaigns like FebFast now adding up to half the year. Yes, we’ve got to the point where we actually pay people not to drink!
The media can play a vital role in this cultural shift, by reporting the dangers associated with excessive drinking and helping de-normalise the behaviour.
Traditionally an industry in which drinking plays a leading role (certain pubs are so frequented by journos, they’re now famous as hack hangouts), the culture in journalism itself is also gradually changing.
Paul Dillon, from Drug and Alcohol Research and Training Australia, told me there was no way a mainstream newspaper editor would have run a column about not drinking in previous generations.
The latest secondary school figures show we’re on the cusp of a cultural change in our attitudes towards alcohol. The Victorian survey found the proportion of students aged 12 to 17 who drank was lower in 2011 compared to previous studies undertaken in 2005 and 2008.
And that is seriously something to cheers to.