My alcohol awareness journey

Until recently my alcohol awareness was no more than a collection of half-remembered news items, fictional accounts, anecdotes and personal experiences. I was, in other words, completely normal.

And what a collection I had amassed? Where alcohol is concerned anything goes, from the disturbing, tragic and gruesome to the romantic, magical and hilarious, with all suggestions between and beyond acceptable.

Alcohol plus people produces surprises. These twists, in turn, spawn stories, which reproduce like saccharomyces cerevisiae, the yeast which excretes alcohol. And so it goes on.

Saccharomyces cerevisiae

The science-based stories I read left an impression of confusion and uncertainty, meaning nearly anything was still possible, once more freeing the imagination.

Ever the optimist I chose to believe there were so many stories that the chances were good that at least some were useful, just as haystacks are unfairly written off as hiding places for needles.

No thanks to common sense

Craving explanation
This always seemed unsatisfactory. I remember wanting something better even as child. In what other area of life would I be asked to rely on such a knowledge lottery? Space rockets and computers are not the products of common sense.

My concerns went underground, but never went away. If a jumble of alcohol-related hearsay really was a reliable guide, alcohol would not play the enormous part it does in mental and physical health problems, and many woes besides.

Deep down I wanted an understanding which looked beyond appearances, something adaptable, verifiable, generalised and offering explanation at a deeper level, something, in a word, scientific.

As I started to inch closer to my second childhood than my first I decided it was time to try to find it. I wanted to satisfy my own curiosity, but as a journalist, I also hoped it could be something I could find a way to share.

Packing my metaphorical bags, I set off on a metaphorical journey through several hundred scientific papers. I was very lucky in my timing. The science of alcohol had grown up over almost exactly the same time-frame as me.

Messages from a bottle
The most important message from this ongoing walkabout is that our relationship with alcohol can and does change. And we can shape it to our advantage, with alcohol awareness improving our chances of success.

Outlining the detail of this in my book, Alcohol Companion, was both more challenging and more rewarding than I expected. Beyond the dizzying complexity of the core subject, it gave me a new perspectives on science, and our need for belief and belonging.

Stories can play an important part in meeting our needs. Alcohol awareness is not as whizzbang as space rocketry, but is no less awesome for it. Its potential payoffs far outweigh the alternative, putting it well on course to become the new normal.

Published for Alcohol Awareness Week 2017, organised by Alcohol Research UK, Alcohol Concern and Adfam.

Alcohol’s most important lessons

Exploring the science behind alcohol is a fascinating journey, revealing interlocking ideas which together can help inform our wider outlook.

It helps us see how our shared beliefs shape our choices and perceptions; How our genetics guide us; How we can misread our own thoughts and feelings; The limitations of our will; How we might better harness the power of the placebo; The sources of sustained happiness; Our need for feelings of social connection. And, in all of these, the astonishing, unifying complexity of our brains.

Alcohol’s effects show us how the highest level of our brain function—our self-awareness, our capacity to make choices and to imagine—are entirely physical. Our mental and physical health are not separate entities, no matter how separate they may sometimes feel. They are part of the same thing.

Our mental lives do not lie on a lofty plane, aloof, disconnected from the rest of us. Alcohol shows as clearly as any PE lesson we are inextricably plumbed into our bodies and the physical world we inhabit. This is not simply a philosophical curiosity, because embracing it helps safeguard our well-being.

We are completely reliant on a teeming back-and-forth of nervous signals. It maintains our physical being and provides substance for our thoughts and feelings. At the core of it is the coordinating whirl of our brain.

Learning from disconnect
We can never fully separate any part of this system from another, but some substances can create a change in our brain activity which comes close.

Alcohol and other household psycho-actives, like caffeine and nicotine, are no different from illicit ones in this, bypassing the usual channels and altering our brain function regardless.

Of the three commonplace mind-alterers, alcohol’s effect is the biggest by far. We have evolved to be resilient to alcohol, which is naturally abundant. After a brief one-off exposure our brains return to their previous patterns in hours.

Extended binging and other heavy use, however, might make us become forgetful, tense, grumpy or disorganised between bouts. If these disrupt us enough, we may wonder if we are alcohol dependent. More likely we discount them as annoying personal quirks.

Top down
We tend to be rather oblivious to the ebb and flow of our thoughts and feelings, as we wrestle with the management of our day-to-day affairs.

We work mostly from the plush, top level, like a complacent CEO surveying their charge from the boardroom of a skyscraper. This fat-cat perspective, though cosy, is perhaps one source of our disconnect.

We can see for miles around but can easily overlook the problems being faced by our middle-management and on the mental shop floor. Research, however, can help us identify when it might be worth stepping in.

Some of the effects can become apparent at the top level, that of “executive functions”, a catch-all which covers our ability to allocate our mental resources, plan and adapt to change.

As dependent drinkers we tend to underperform in them. As binge drinkers we may also become forgetful, bothered by extraneous thoughts or easily distracted. Even at lower intake we may notice more memory lapses.

As teenagers, when our brains are still growing, it seem we are more vulnerable still. Drinking then also increases our likelihood of drinking to a level which queers our executive functions later.

There is no agreed safe alcohol intake to guarantees full mental functioning, although guidelines take it into account. A studypublished only this week linked long-term moderate drinking to mental decline.

Alcohol is, as ever, the motherlode for the ironist because we often drink to soothe our worries, only to sap the abilities we most need to overcome them. This is an irony far too bitter to savour.

The final irony is far sweeter, however: Alcohol helps us that our mental life is not aloof and disconnected, but fully part of our physical being, understanding we can use to live life to the full without it.

Recovery from the most of the bothersome effects typically takes between three months and a year, but reports suggest significant improvements long after. Alcohol’s most important lessons are some compensation. ■

Gain freedom: How to escape your Facebook feed

Processing the jumbled deluge of content on the typical Facebook feed can cause distraction, cognitive overload and intermittent alarm from its cack-handed delivery of serious news. But this formidable mental challenge is made tricky to escape.

Social media’s commercial goal is to gain and hold our attention for long periods rather than efficiently inform, a role it is unable to perform. The Facebook feed is the crowning achievement of the sector, being the most effective technique ever for distracting nosy animals like us.

We find it almost impossible to stop looking at it, just as we find it hard to resist looking through an open doorway as we pass.

Facebook’s master stroke was to pump-prime our feeds by making it the default to follow people at the same time as we add them. This means it is time-consuming and (superficially) socially awkward for us to reverse the compliment, so we tend not to bother.

People even abandon Facebook as a way to avoid the dilemma, but jumping ship carries a cost because Facebook is a useful personal address book, directory and messaging service. The most targeted way to cure Facebook-feed overload is to disable the feed alone, not to desert the platform.

Thankfully, it is possible to completely disable the Facebook feed and any ill-feeling for doing so is misplaced. Outside Facebookland it has long been accepted people should opt-in for updates rather opt out of them. Facebook should be no exception.

It could take a while to readjust to a feed-free life, but Facebook is not nearly as much of a time-sponge without it. And unhooked from the feed you can also choose when to consume serious news, rather than leaving yourself open to unsettling updates from across the planet at any second.

You are not left “out in the cold” this way either. You can still visit contacts’ Facebook pages, and send and receive personal messages. Disabling your Facebook feed transforms the site from chaotic information maelstrom to convivial blog community, message service and directory.

Of course, there are billions of people who are perfectly happy with their Facebook feeds as they are and I do not begrudge them a moment of enjoyment. I had many laughs and learned a lot from mine — not least my limits — before finally finding a way to turn it off.

Instant relief
You can now instantly block the feed on a PC: in Chrome install the News Feed Eradicator or the Safari equivalent; Firefox, meanwhile, has Kill FB Feed.

On mobile phones uninstalling the app and not visiting the site seems to be the only way.

Feed freedom
Facebook makes it difficult to leave the feed more permanently, but it is possible:

The empty stream

(1) Unfollow contacts: You can do this in one go using this app, being careful to unfollow rather than to unfriend.

(2) Unlike pages: This is more painstaking and has to be done one like at a time. Visit your homepage and click “View activity log” at the bottom right of your cover picture and on the left-hand-side click “Likes” and go through them.

(3) Regulate groups: Some groups can be very rewarding, others less so. For the latter go to “Home”, click on “Groups” on the left-hand-side and click “Edit notification settings” or “Leave group” accordingly.

After a lot of arduous clicking, the end result should be as below, saying simply “No posts to show. Find Friends.” One last type of notification remains, most stubbornly on mobile: people’s birthdays. ■

You may also like:

Alcohol, our faulty Facebook

Social media and the brain

Social media’s serious news problem

Embracing imperfection

Weaving happiness into journalism

In praise of politeness

Embracing imperfection

Polydorus: Laocoön and His Sons. (c.200AD)

We are imperfect beings in an imperfect world. We all know that. It is strange, then, that examples of imperfection should bring us surprise or distress, but they often do.

A car which goes phut on damp mornings, or a bus which never comes or a pop-up toaster which flings its contents onto the table can all send us into a simmering rage. We fume over mismatches between our hopes and reality.

With people it is not so different. We can become infuriated by lies, unreliability, a lack of interest or compassion, or leaving the top off a toothpaste tube. It seems we cannot help making unfavourable comparisons.

We often feel this most acutely with people we pair up with someone, as philosopher Alain de Botton says in his thought-provoking talk “Why We Marry the Wrong Person”.  Our capacity annoyance tends to rise in proportion with our expectations.

At its most extreme the disappointment can be between finding “the  perfect being exists who can meet all our needs and satisfy our every yearning”, as de Botton puts it, and the imperfect being we inevitably end up with.

This is easy to understand on a rational level. The real problem is developing emotions which reflect it because most of us cannot find everyday consolation in passages of Kierkegaard.

Wabi-sabi tea bowl (1500s)

What to do?
A more effective route may be by altering our aesthetics, which help guide our feelings.

Most of us are surrounded by the aesthetics of perfection, through the images used in marketing, Hollywood films, sleek design and, more broadly, art and literature drawing on heroic classical models.

But other aesthetics are potentially more helpful in learning to appreciate reality as it is, instead of seeing it as a disappointing failed attempt at perfection.

Among them is the Japanese idea of “wabi-sabi”, loosely translated as “imperfect beauty”. In this tradition nothing can be said to be truly beautiful without some quirk.


It prefers asymmetry to perfect symmetry, which seldom appears nature. It celebrates blemishes, transience and plain construction. In the case of “kintsugi” pottery it highlights the beauty of repairs (pictured).

Something close is found in the West, only nobody has got round to naming it. We might cling jealously to our  favourite mug despite a chip or we might cherish a car despite misbehaviour.

Photography often celebrates impermanence, while antiquarians savour signs of age, like patina and wear. Part of the charm of the sculpture pictured above is arguably that one of Laocoön’s sons is missing a hand. 

With people too we can be a little wabi-sabi, valuing someone as a whole, including their weaknesses. We might also benefit from being valued this way too, including by ourselves.

Pursuing perfection is a reliable goal, but it is also a reliable source of disappointment. Wabi-sabi-like aesthetics can help us realise imperfection also has a beauty. ■

Weaving happiness into journalism

Happiness provides a rich source of inspiration for readers and writers alike, journalists among them.

Reposting on social media means we more often consume stories when off-balance and in isolation, sometimes without other stories to provide emotional counter-point. We should take care to manage the emotional impact of the stories we consume and those we deliver.

All this is likely to raise doubts over whether the results would count as serious journalism. After all serious journalism is meant to be hard-bitten, raw and cynical. When we think of something serious we tend to think of something sombre and edgy, while something happy is goofy. 

But happiness, as scientifically understood, is not about becoming a beaming emoticon. Happy people are not constantly elated. In fact they tend to experience an elaborate fabric of emotions, with plenty of negative and awkward feelings woven into a backcloth of positivity.

This makes sense even if we are not among the happy few. The things make us happy are often imperfect or visions of imperfection: following a football team, a holiday, a film or novel, a picture, a piece of music, a group of friends or family. All have a balance of high- and lowlights.

The way we tell our stories is something we can change to reflect this without ignoring nagging facts and uncertainties. Relentless confrontational, provocative or alarming angles are unsustainable. Readers will tire and begin to mistrust such monotone impressions.

We do not need to ignore conflicts, crises, uncertainties or tragedies. In fact we should not. We need to face them to improve our understanding and foster solutions. But we also need to be able to come to this understanding without undue unease, which may mean we close down our curiosity.

This, perhaps, does not describe the mental state of many journalists kept going on caffeine, alcohol and a passion for their work. There is romance and excitement to this approach, but being overstretched makes it harder to write stories with an open outlook.

Communication requires recognition of our own needs and adaptation to the other’s. Happiness is among them. With imagination and consideration journalism can be woven in.

For auld lang syne

Closing the bulging manila file on 2016 will be a relief to many. But, with the ink still damp on the tab marked “2017”, it is hard to avoid a nagging concern about what will fill it.

It is easy to be disheartened. But human affairs on every level are as prone to changing for the better as they are for the worse. This is, in part, because we as individuals and as a species are able to learn, value our advantages, avoid errors and find solutions.

The world as a whole still produces far more material resources than it needs and no end of untapped ideas. Democratic institutions generally function well, despite their missteps. Very few seriously contest their central role in the future.

The checks on democratic power can still minimise the cost of representatives’ errors, restraining moves which unjustly harm people’s interests. Votes cast in a bid to assuage negative feelings can be shifted to viable solutions through listening and persuasion.

We are not locked into an unalterable course as individuals or as societies. What we need are attractive alternatives. Their source is the recognition of common interests, alliances, goodwill and ingenuity. Their attractiveness will only increase if they benefit long chains of interests.

Working for such solutions is not a dreary task, coming with a unique payoff: happiness. Happiness comes, numerous studies find, from our feelings of connection, cooperation and capacity to rebound from mishap. Our buzz comes from building, not hoarding or demolition.

Our world of artificial division, knockabout debate and dented confidence offers fertile ground for initiatives, large and small, founded on more accurate analysis. We all have the chance to receive the rewards of contributing through our curiosity, thought, action and influence.

So, for auld lang syne, for old time’s sake, and for new, there is good reason to look forward to 2017. There is no certainty its opportunities will be taken, but they will certainly be there.

In praise of politeness

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Mezica: The Balkan Lord’s

The Mezica cricket ground.
The cricket ground in Mezica, Slovenia.

MEZICA, Slovenia, summer 2013—The distinctive thwack of leather on willow is not the first thing you might expect to hear in a remote alpine valley in the former-Yugoslav republic of Slovenia. But it is almost 40 years since cricket was first played in Mezica, in the far north of  the country, making it the cradle of a growing regional cricket scene and enthusiastic host of international touring sides. Continue reading “Mezica: The Balkan Lord’s”

Alcohol, our faulty Facebook

alcohollogoThere was a social media giant in startup tens of thousands of years before Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter started vying for our attention: alcohol. Continue reading “Alcohol, our faulty Facebook”