Monday, May 13, 2013

High Sobriety by Jill Stark (2013)

“I’m the binge-drinking health reporter. During the week I write about Australia’s booze-soaked culture. At the weekends, I write myself off.”

Years ago, I remember reading this article by the Age’s health reporter Jill Stark. As someone for whom binge-drinking has been a regular part of socialising – not as in I binge-drink a lot, but regular heavy weekend drinking has definitely been acceptable and encouraged in many of the groups I have spent time with – it certainly resonated with me. Following on from the success of that article, this book details the year-long break from alcohol taken by the life-of-the-party Jill Stark. Her personal experiences are interspersed with really confronting and disturbing data about the damage that alcohol abuse can have on a personal, social and cultural level.

As a Scotswoman living in Australia, Stark comes from two cultures where drinking is seen as an integral part of belonging. Stark is called ‘unAustralian’ for not drinking and her friends joke that her Australian citizenship certificate will come with a six-pack of VB. However, Stark finds that Australia’s history with alcohol is not one of larrikin good-natured mateship but a more complicated relationship of politics, marketing and regulatory factors (such as the famous 6 o’clock swill). Although we may believe that alcohol is fundamental to the formation of Australia as we know it, our current levels of drinking are a recent development that is constantly being reinforced by marketing, for example CUB’s ‘Raise a Glass’ promotion. The recent increase in alcohol sale and abuse has not been matched by an increase in funding for treatment and recovery and, according to the picture painted by the experts Stark interviews, the problem is only going to get worse as baby boomers take their problem drinking habits with them into retirement homes.

There were two things I found incredibly disturbing in this book. Firstly, I was shocked at the long-term ramifications of heavy drinking physically – for women, a considerable increase in the risk of breast cancer and for both sexes, an all-over increase in cancer risk – as well the considerable psychological damage that can be done to memory and behaviour. Secondly, I was not aware of the role of industry and government in the ever-increasing ubiquity of alcohol. Over the last ten years there has been a massive increase in the number of places that sell alcohol and the hours in which alcohol is available for purchase. Advertising within the industry is self-regulated, which in practical terms means very little regulation at all. Alcohol is a huge part of sporting events and, disturbingly, a vital part of sports funding. The AFL even has an ‘official beer’, which seems even more ridiculous when Stark points out that alcohol is totally non-conducive to elite sports performance and therefore not used by the athletes whose performances are linked by marketing with booze. It’s a really disturbing situation.

I really enjoyed reading this book. Jill Stark has a frank, interesting writing style and she seems like (ironically) she would be a great person to go and have a drink with. Having completed both Dry July and FebFast, a lot of what she found was true to my experience – the fear of going without alcohol tends to be a lot worse than the reality. We are still us without a drink. Yet just as nature abhors a vacuum, Australians are terrified by a non-drinker and dealing with talking about not-drinking is definitely more painful than the not-drinking is. I also agree that sometimes we drink because we’re bored – we’re at a terrible party or there’s nothing on TV so we crack open a bottle of wine. However, my experience of problem drinking is not the same as Stark’s – I don’t know many people in their mid-30s who go out and have massive nights every week (although, based on the statistics she presented, it seems to be a huge problem with younger people). In my experience it’s the nights in that are the issue – the one glass of wine with dinner that transitions into a bottle three or four times a week. The people I know who say they drink too much drink too much at home, not out and about. I also think because it’s really clear that Stark has a problem with alcohol abuse (although she doesn’t believe she’s an alcoholic because she was able to give it up quite easily), it becomes easy to say ‘Oh, that’s not like me and my friends – we never vomit when we go out’. Because she’s worse, our situation seems not that bad.  

That said, I think this is an important book for people to read, not just for the information it contains but because it’s an engaging, interesting account of a woman’s experiences with alcohol and a discussion of two societies (Scottish and Australian) who are reaching crisis point with their relationship to alcohol. While it suffers from the same problems of many first-person memoirs (overuse of the pronoun ‘I’ and the phrase ‘tears streamed down my/her/his/our face/s’), it is still entertaining and thought-provoking. I give it four stars.

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