Certain kinds of puritanism are widely mocked these days. You’re unlikely to be taken seriously if you believe that not owning a TV lends you a moral superiority over the sheeple who watch Game of Thrones, for example, while Gary Turk’s cloying video decrying social media went viral precisely because of people finding it insufferably smug. Such judgments on how people spend their time are deeply unfashionable and invite almost instant opprobrium. It’s been fascinating, then, to see this piece being widely and approvingly shared. Written by a woman who has spent the past year sober, it presents alcohol as a damaging force and has an overwhelming air of self-congratulation about it. Many of the people sharing it seem to be ruefully agreeing that alcohol has held them back in life while the comments are full of praise for the writer’s bravery and determination.
Is it ‘brave’ not to drink? Certainly we live in an alcohol-oriented culture so it feels instinctively right to say that it takes character to be tee-total. Then again, if we accept that then we could also say that it takes character to avoid the internet, something far fewer people would be eager to celebrate. It surely isn’t a weakness to drink alcohol – most people who do so have no particular issues with it. Why, then, is it such an easy proxy for a sense of personal failure?
When you closely read Kelly Fitzgerald’s piece it’s clear that she had a problem with alcohol. She writes that she was ‘tired of disappointing and embarrassing my friends and loved ones” and unable to “drink in moderation”. She writes of the ‘stupid, embarrassing things’ she did while drinking. She writes of ‘trying and failing for years to regulate’ her drinking and of ‘bad things’ happening when she drank. Rather than being the words of a social drinker who gave up and felt better as a result, these are the words of an addict who is still coming to terms with her addiction. It’s quite incredible that the words ‘alcoholic’ or ‘addiction’ aren’t used once in the piece – yet if they were it would clearly resonate with fewer people.
If you read Kelly’s words as being those of an addict this becomes a very different piece.
My emotions are crazy, sometimes I think this is what it must feel like to be pregnant. I cry at the drop of a hat, I’m offended easily and sometimes I am so happy I feel like I’m going to burst. I actually care what people think about me.
Perhaps I’m completely crazy but to me this emotional imbalance doesn’t sound like a great thing. Yet mood swings which as described sound almost bipolar are described as ‘heightened senses’. Uh huh. Alarm bells are already ringing over unresolved issues here. They becoming deafening with the second ‘lesson’, that Kelly is ‘just beginning to understand’ who she ‘really’ is. She presents some authentic, ‘real’ her that was hidden by ‘constant alcohol blackouts’. Seriously – this is way beyond drinking a bit too much and regretting a hangover. This is an addict with deep emotional problems whose drug of ‘choice’ was alcohol. I think we can safely say that most people who drink alcohol do not need to have some dramatic revelation to understand that they are ‘real’ people.
It goes on – her life is now ‘manageable’, she is ‘worthy of love’, she has removed ‘toxic people’. How you can reach the end without realising that this is a piece about addiction rather than alcohol is beyond me. There are even a couple of mentions of ‘drugs’ but this is never elaborated on.
Of course it’s great that someone with an addiction has been able to regain control of their life but the speed with which this piece went viral raises interesting questions about why it’s resonated with so many. Do they think they have problems with alcohol, even to an extent where they don’t feel like ‘real’ people? It can hardly be a bad thing to examine our own behaviour and think about our relationship with things like alcohol (or indeed the internet or whatever other bogeyman is thrown our way). Yet I don’t believe that most of the people sharing it believe themselves to be addicts (or are addicts). They are rather, like many of us, people who probably drink a bit too much and feel the need to self-flagellate about it to the extent of convincing themselves that they would be different people if it wasn’t for alcohol. This difference almost always seems to involve being more ‘successful’ and ‘sorted’, because that’s what we’re encouraged to focus on isn’t it? The Big Picture. The Bottom Line. The little everyday things – the time we spend with our friends and family, our undramatic jobs, our quotidian engagement with the world – we’re told this stuff is unimportant and that we must achieve in a very particular way. If we haven’t done this, the problem lies within ourselves – we spend too long on the internet, we watch too much TV, we drink too much! Internalise, internalise.
It’s impossible not to comment on the class aspect of this. The public narrative of ‘problem drinking’ and ‘destructive alcohol’ almost entirely focuses on the rampaging working-class hordes who descend on pubs and clubs of a weekend. The debates over issues like licensing hours and minimum alcohol pricing are never conducted with ‘targets’ like the permanently-sozzled posh couple from Gogglebox in mind. No-one ever ponders the drinking habits of George Osborne or Rebecca Brooks. They are ‘successful’ and so have the right to do what they want. The working-class, on the other hand, will have their behaviour morally policed while being told it’s their own fault that it happens. It’s not that we live in a system which ensures and requires that a minority hold most of the wealth while the wages and working-conditions of the masses are depressed as far as possible; no, the problem is that the proles drink too much and ruin it for themselves.
This is the kind of nasty puritanism which Kelly’s piece is feeding into and why it’s so easy to present it as a morality tale about alcohol rather than a pragmatic description of addiction. If you think you drink too much and want to drink less – drink less. If you want to drink less but feel you are unable to – speak to someone (while accepting that it’s difficult to get to this stage of even asking for help). If, however, you’re one of millions who enjoy drinking alcohol don’t buy into this idea that you would be (or even should be) a high-flying millionaire if you would only put down the beer. It’s a pernicious lie and there’s no inherent moral superiority in not drinking alcohol. Thinking there is buys into the pathologising of ‘failure’, the same absurd reduction of our society to the level of the individual which lies behind so many damaging attitudes towards welfare, employment and, as @thisisapollo pointed out on Twitter, mental health. We are never the products of individual effort and we do not stand alone.