On Thursday 29th July, I presented my first documentary for ITV about rising alcohol harm and what we need to do, as a society, to combat it. This blog is about what I discovered whilst making the programme.
You can catch up on the documentary via this link: https://www.itv.com/hub/tonight/1a9757a0116
My addiction to alcohol ripped through my life like a tornado. It began in my teens and almost killed me in my mid-twenties, when my liver decided enough was enough.
I drank all day, every day, until I passed out, which made the damaging blows to my body and mind constant and substantial. I broke the hearts of those who loved me over and over again.
Fortunately, I had an amazing family who never gave up on me; family who twice fought to get me a bed in rehab. Not everyone is that lucky.
I am now almost five years sober, my liver is no longer diseased and I am rebuilding my life.
As soon as the pandemic began and lockdowns were introduced, I knew that alcohol would become a crutch for many: the pandemic created the perfect breeding ground for addiction.
Isolation, furlough, restrictions and death led to stress, anxiety, pain, and grief for many – alcohol offers a temporary escape from all of these. The problem is, I know how easy it can be to allow that crutch to become the centre of your universe.
In May 2021, figures from the Office for National Statistics all but confirmed my fears.
In 2020, alcohol killed more people in England and Wales than in any of the previous 20 years – by a considerable margin. The ONS reported that 7,423 people died from alcohol specific causes, up 20% on the figures for 2019.
A recent poll by YouGov for Drinkaware – shared exclusively with the Tonight Programme – shows 13% of UK drinkers are consuming more alcohol now, than before the pandemic began. That’s the equivalent of 5.8 million people.
In September 2020, a study by the Royal College of Psychiatrists found that an estimated 8.4 million people were drinking at a high-risk level: almost double the number who were prior to the pandemic.
These statistics tell me that we are in the midst of two pandemics: Coronavirus and alcohol-harm.
Through the Tonight programme, I wanted to find out how, as a society, we can reduce alcohol-harm and prevent the suffering of thousands.
Firstly, I looked at intervention and spoke to a doctor on the front line of dealing with the consequences of alcohol consumption; Dr. Ryan Buchanan works on the hepatology ward at Southampton hospital.
He told me that the liver ward was the busiest ward in the hospital last Summer – something he had never seen before. But, what really shocked me was the fact that the majority of patients he treats for liver disease are not people who drink to the extreme like I did, but people who drink a bottle or half a bottle of wine every night.
Hearing this made me think that you may as well throw the stereotype on an alcoholic out of the window. People are holding down great jobs, living pretty normal lives, only drinking in the evenings but still doing devastating damage to their livers.
In some ways, I am grateful that I drank the way I did. I became very ill, very young, which gave me a choice – stop drinking, or I will be dead within a couple of years. Some people do the damage over ten, 20 or 30 years and then find out their liver has stopped working.
I fear that there are currently thousands of people walking around with livers on the brink of failure; a fear I shared with Dr. Buchanan, and he confirmed it.
The documentary then explored what treatment is available for problem drinkers. I visited a rehabilitation centre (“rehab”) for the first time since I was discharged as a resident. The manager explained to me that residential rehab is an effective form of treatment for alcoholism because it offers 24/7 support. It teaches healthy routines, relapse prevention and coping strategies.
On the other hand, he said community rehabilitation with local support services may only offer someone half an hour of face-to-face support a week.
This is worrying because since some local authorities began cutting their alcohol service budgets, rehabs have been closing at a rate of knots. The Care Quality Commission told me that the number of rehabs open in March this year was 130, down from 209 in 2012; the budget cuts began in 2013.
When it comes to the pandemic, every single resident I spoke to said their drinking got worse during the various lockdowns. If this is a trend for all people battling alcoholism, we are in big trouble.
Their answers did not surprise me; I would have really struggled during lockdown if I was at the beginning of my recovery. The loss of my usual routine would have massively affected me. Luckily, I was in a really good place when the virus took hold.
For long periods, Coronavirus put a stop to in-person support meetings such as Alcoholic Anonymous. The meetings went online, but many of the people in recovery I have spoken to, have told me that meetings over the internet are not the same. As we all know, video meetings can, at times, be awkward and uncomfortable.
Alcohol harm does not just affect the person doing the drinking, it affects the people who love them too. In my own experience, it hurts those loved ones more because the family and friends of an alcohol abuser feel completely and utterly helpless.
As a part of the Tonight programme I sat down with my parents to talk about how my alcohol addiction had affected them. To hear my mum and dad both say they thought I would not make it out alive was a huge reminder of how bad things were. It was not just me who lost seven years to alcohol, they did too.
I put my family through hell and I will never truly be able to repay them. But I know that I must not dwell on that; it could be a huge stumbling block for my recovery if I did.
One thing that seems to get forgotten is that those 7,423 people who died last year leave behind tens of thousands of loved ones to pick up the pieces. Tens of thousands of people left devastated and wondering if they could have done more. They need support too.
I spoke to an incredibly brave woman called Amy who had lost her father, Steve, in September following a long battle with alcoholism. Amy’s dad was a proud man, who for many years, was a functioning alcoholic. He held down a really good job and managed to maintain many aspects of a “normal” life. Eventually, the drinking drove him away from his family.
Hearing how the alcohol chipped away at his life and relationships, was another reminder to me of how lucky I have been. Amy told me Steve never admitted to his family that he was an alcoholic. He made some attempts to cut down, but in Amy’s opinion, never accepted he needed to stop completely.
Amy is now helping others as a volunteer speaker for Nacao UK – a charity which provides information, advice and support for anyone affected by their parents drinking.
Pride could be a big problem for many of the millions of people who have developed unhealthy drinking habits throughout the pandemic. Accepting you have a problem with drink is hard and asking for help is even harder.
It is socially acceptable to get hammered on any given night and drinking is part of our culture, which makes it more difficult to realise if you have a problem. I fear that many of those who have never had an issue with alcohol before, but are now drinking at harmful levels, will not ask for help until it has done some considerable damage.
I asked everyone I spoke to the same question: what needs to be done to reduce alcohol-harm? “Minimum unit pricing” was near the top of everyone’s list.
It is a policy that would set a minimum price for what each unit of alcohol can be sold at – effectively making very strong cheap alcohol, such as white cider, a lot more expensive.
Strong cheap cider was all I could afford in the year leading up to my liver disease diagnoses; I only needed £3.70 to buy a bottle of cider, which had the same amount of alcohol in it as half a litre of vodka.
The policy was introduced in Scotland in 2018 and I found lots of evidence that it is having a real impact. Alcohol deaths in Scotland are falling year on year and in 2020 consumption of alcohol was at its lowest level in 26 years.
In a statement, the government said they are aware that alcohol consumption has risen in the last 18 months, and that they are committed to ensuring treatment services are available.
Another top answer for reducing alcohol harm was “Funding”. The cuts to local alcohol service budgets over the years have been substantial and the record death rate would suggest that we are now paying the price for them. If you add this to the fact that millions more people are now drinking at a high-risk level, the worst could yet be to come.
However, it is not just about throwing more money at the problem. It is about distributing the money available in the most effective ways.
Alcohol harm is clearly on the rise in parts of the UK; you do not need to be drinking at 6am to be doing severe damage to your health. Many who think they are drinking responsibly, could actually be damaging themselves and their relationships significantly. I think education has a big part to play if we are to reduce alcohol harm.
I am not suggesting that alcohol should be made illegal; it is part of our culture and that will never change. Many people can drink alcohol responsibly.
But those I speak to who have experience of alcoholism feel passionately that if we are going to continue to allow anyone over the age of 18 to consume something that is highly addictive and bad for our health, we should have adequate services, policies and funding in place to help those who begin to drink at harmful levels or become addicted.