real life

Are we a nation of "happy" high functioning alcoholics?

On Sunday I read a story by a Brisbane woman, Elspeth Muir, about the death of her brother.

And, sitting in my quiet living room on an otherwise uneventful Sunday afternoon, I began to cry.

Reading the article – an excerpt from her book, ‘Wasted: A Story of Alcohol, Grief, and Death in Brisbane’ – it’s not hard to understand why it’s upsetting. It follows the death of her brother Alex, who was in his early twenties when he died five years ago, jumping off a bridge after a big night drinking with his mates. It’s awful.

Elspeth writes beautifully and honestly, documenting the shocking loss of an older brother, in such heartbreaking circumstances.

But this wasn’t what was what upset me.

What upset me was the familiarity – this could literally, without any stretch of the imagination, be ANY young Australian.

We are a nation of ‘bad drinkers’; and the more I read from Elspeth, the more I begun to wonder if I was one of them.

I too hail from Brisbane, and her opening lines took me back to the place of my childhood. She describes the muggy summer heat, the sound of cicadas, the smell of rotting mangoes. Almost immediately I was reminded of those unbearable summers, where there was little to do but sit around and drink.

Eskies and eskies of beers, rum and cokes, bottles of wine, shots of tequila. The sickly sweet smell of a half-empty bottle of Bundy as flies perched along its sticky rim. The frothy crack as a can of beer was opened, another can, another can, another can.

From my early teenhood, our social lives revolved around drinking. Whether it was by a backyard pool, or in the hot breeze of a pub’s veranda; everything was marked with booze. Fridays, birthdays, Christmas, Saturdays, Easter, deaths, births, marriages, Thursday nights, getting a job, losing a job. Hot weather. Cold weather. Football wins. Football losses. Football in general.

Literally everything came with a clink of a glass and a wink, as another pint was thrown down your gullet.

Accompanying the excerpt was an old photo of Elspeth and her brother, Alex. He could have been any of the young guys I grew up with – the messy hair, scrappy beard, sunburnt nose and lopsided grin. He was just another lad, a larrikin who enjoyed a drink.

But as Elspeth points out, it is exactly this attitude that led him to die.

For the years following his death, Alex’s family has grappled with their understanding of drinking and faced their own demons at the bottom of the beer glass. His brother, Patrick, describes the difficulty of doing so, when everyone around you are drinkers.

“When we talk about it, I think: I do have a problem.

But I’ve never really looked at it like that, because if I have a problem then every single person who I hang out with has the same problem.

I guess that’s just the lifestyle that we live.” – Patrick Muir.

In the eyes of his family, his friends, even complete strangers looking at his life, Alex Muir was not an alcoholic. He was 21, for God’s sake. And yet, with an alcohol reading of 0.238 – five times the legal limit for driving, and 0.11 points below the bracket for overdose or death – Alex was more than just a bit drunk.


He was so inebriated, that he was compelled to walk along a 30 meter high bridge, take off his clothes, and jump. He had a problem with alcohol. He had done this sort of thing before.

So did this not make him an alcoholic?

As I write this, I try and think about the last period of my life in which I abstained from alcohol completely. Like many of you, I can’t. Sure, the ‘big nights’ of arriving home in the early hours, stumbling and pissed, are few and far between the older I get – but still, the Friday night bottle of red, the Saturday afternoon beers, the mid-week cocktails with friends? They are a constant.

In an essay she wrote for the Griffith Review, Elspeth reflects on her own history of drinking.

“I drank when possible, and when possible to excess, although I wasn’t notably wild. I didn’t drink at school, I didn’t drink every weekend, I didn’t even steal my parent’s liquor and make rocket fuel. I was fairly lame compared to the other girls.” she writes.

“Despite that, my first empty memory is from when I was fifteen, when I drank half a bottle of rum at a friend’s brother’s eighteenth birthday party. All I know is that I was hauled out from under their house by a man covered in my vomit. My friends told me the next day. I called it contraceptive vomit and tried to make them laugh.”

For many young Aussies, this kind of night is just a rite of passage until you 'learn how to drink properly'. That is, function.

Something tugs at my guts as I remember similar experiences - hurling green Midori vomit all over the carpet of my parent's car. Sheepishly sitting in the gutter as I wait for Mum to collect me after drinking too much at a birthday party. Sculling whole bottles of cheap sparkling wine just to take away the nerves of talking to boys.

Brisbane - and much of Australia, I presume - has  this dependence on booze instilled in them from a young age. It was taught to be almost medicinal, numbing unpleasant feelings and making you the brave, roaring, raucous personality you always wished to be when sober. The happy-go-lucky Aussie.

Scratch the surface, and the internet crawls with self-help click bait to self-diagnose alcoholism: 'Ten signs you're an alcoholic', or 'Five steps to diagnosing your drinking problem'. Most of them all ask the same thing.

Are you regularly binge drinking?

Are you having blackouts?

Do you drink when you’re alone?

Do other people are worried about your drinking habits?

Do you lie about your drinking?

Dr Rochford's DrinkWise's 5 point plan. (Post continues after video)

Video by DrinkWise

Behind nicotine, cocaine and heroin, alcohol is the most addictive substance, and the most difficult to quit. But no one tells you that at 15, when a cold beer is thrust into your hand. Just drink it, mate. Don't be a pussy.

Despite its immediate success and beautiful, beautiful writing; not everyone wants to read Elspeth Muir's book. It's uncomfortable.

It calls out all of those drinking habits that - as her brother Patrick pointed out - 'are just the lifestyle we live.' But what if we managed to start viewing the Australian way of drinking as problematic, instead of humorous? What if blacking out, or drinking a bottle of wine to yourself, or drinking so much you can't remember who the guy is in your bed - what if that wasn't funny? What if it was a problem?

As Elspeth says, "How might it have been different if, instead of laughing at my brother's drunken exploits, I had been alarmed by them?"

He might still be alive.

Alexander Muir was 21, and at that age, it is almost expected that you act like a bloody idiot. Men and women alike use that age to mediate heavy drinking with simply functioning through life, and often it doesn't work.

They crash their car, or lose their license, or get fired from their job. With a ruffle of their hair and a, 'It's alright mate, you won't do it again', the status quo is set. You may drink, but you must function.

And so, functioning alcoholics are born.

When do you call it quits? When does your drinking start to impair your judgement, beyond a place of safety?

And by the time you reach my age, 27, booze is so willfully wound into every corner of your life that it's all but impossible to escape.

Like the steps to our national dance, you learn how to drink. You learn how to get a taxi when you're pissed, you learn how to hide your hangover the next day. You learn about panadols and bottles of fizzy water and hair of the dog. You learn that it's not a problem, because everyone drinks. It's just part of being an Aussie.

And maybe this is what knocked the wind out of me when I read Elspeth Muir's piece on Sunday, this inescapable culture of dangerous drinking, and my place within it.

I don't know how to change it. I don't know why we do it. But maybe I saw of bit of myself in her, a bit of my family in hers. It struck a chord: we should be more careful, drink less, but we don't. Or, scarier again, we can't.

So does Australia have the problem, or do we?