We've all seen the photos of the streets of Britain on a Friday night, with paralytic women slumped in doorways, stilettos dangling precariously from their feet. We've seen the shots of boozed-up blokes, bare-chested and sweaty, fighting over the last eligible female, taxi, or kebab. These weekend uber-bingers don't represent the majority of UK drinkers, but this phenomenon does have something to say about the British relationship with booze.
Research reveals that surprisingly large and varied sections of British people are drinking more than they should, more often than they should. It's not just people out partying at the weekend who are putting themselves at risk with their alcohol use. Pensioners are the people most likely to drink every day and middle-class professionals are polishing off liver-damaging levels of wine behind closed doors.
Whether it's the binge drinkers blatantly staggering around the streets at the weekend or the insidious at-home drinkers relaxing with a bottle on a near-nightly basis, many Brits are drinking at unsafe levels. What does it say about us as a nation that we are so reliant on alcohol? Why do we feel the need to drink all the time, whether for socialising, unwinding, staving off boredom, or combating stress?
I am an alcoholic, which means that, through a combination of genetic predisposition and some heavy drinking to self-medicate pre-existing issues, I am someone who is completely unable to control my use of alcohol when I touch it. If I have a sip of alcohol, it sets off a chemical reaction in my brain that makes me crave more and more booze in a way that is completely overwhelming and unbearable. Therefore, these days I'm teetotal. I have to be.
I've had many non-alcoholics tell me that they couldn't do what I do, abstain completely from alcohol. Some of my friends struggled through 'Dry January' or 'Go Sober for October', asking me what they should do about going to a party or unwinding after a stressful day at work. Just a month of sobriety was a little bit much for many of them, even though they haven't got a 'problem' with alcohol like I have.
But they have got a problem, haven't they? And it's one that is ingrained on a national level. It's in our culture, our advertising, our rites of passage, our humour, and our traditions. In Britain, inebriation is celebrated and encouraged, while quality is a secondary factor. Let's face it, most teens start out on the cheapest cider imaginable just for that experience of getting off their face.
People in the UK are taught that alcohol is the best way to help us bond, socialise, become more confident and let go of that stiff upper lip. We've also learned that alcohol can comfort, console and reward us when times are tough. Alcohol is portrayed as an elixir in good times and bad, the answer to everything - no wonder so many of us become so enamoured with the bottle.
What Brits are not taught is to respect and rely on their own inner resources and character to get them through life in a healthy way. They aren't shown how to develop healthy ways of thinking and being that have no negative consequences. As someone who has no choice but to be sober, I've had to learn to use my own resources to make my life better. I've had to learn to use my own mind and body to cope with anxiety, sadness and stress. I've had to use the power of my personality to deepen friendships, boost my mood and have fun.
I can't rely on alcohol to do these things for me because it's not safe to. But apparently it's not safe for non-alcoholics to either. Liver disease is the only major cause of death in Britain that is rising dramatically year after year - and its shocking increase is mainly caused by booze. This is a health problem that, over time, affects not only alcoholics, but also social boozers, middle-class wine-lovers and weekend binge-drinkers.
The UK needs a radical new attitude to how we use alcohol and how we deal with life. Rather than relying on alcohol to change or enhance their mood, Brits would do well to discover how to use their own resources to lead happier, more satisfying lives. The government should invest in teaching youngsters to develop as strong, resourceful people who never feel tempted to use alcohol at unhealthy levels, because they already know they have all they need inside them to get through stress and create their own happiness.
It's Alcohol Awareness Week, and I'd invite you to see where you may be using booze as a crutch or a panacea when you could be using your own resources to remedy your situation. Changing a few habits and using alcohol a bit less often could mean the difference between life and death.
Although you might not wish to go totally sober, there is a genuine power in learning to do things that alcohol once did for you. My own journey through sobriety has been a bit scary, but above all, it's been totally liberating. In essence, I've learned to be me. The real me. I only wish I'd learned these things sooner. That chance to find the 'real you', living with integrity and discovering your resilience and strength is more rewarding, mood-boosting and satisfying than any glass of alcohol ever can be.
Beth Burgess is the author of The Happy Addict: How to Be Happy in Recovery From Alcoholism or Drug Addiction.
Photographs courtesy of Tor Lindstrand, Javcon117*, and lowjumpingfrog.