"You can't change lonely with a bottle of wine"

Mark Leyshon | June 2019 | 7 minutes

17 June marks the beginning of Loneliness Awareness Week, so in this blog Mark explores the complicated relationship between loneliness and alcohol.

Loneliness – the sense of being disconnected from others – is a normal feeling that most, if not all, of us experience from time to time.

But when loneliness sticks around and becomes chronic, it can cause us harm; it’s been linked to an increased risk of physical conditions including heart disease and stroke, and mental health problems like depression and anxiety. That’s why the UK Government has described loneliness as one of our most pressing public health issues.

The relationship between loneliness and alcohol is not a straightforward one. Clearly, turning to alcohol when we’re feeling alone is usually not a great idea. As the Grammy award-winning country singer Alan Jackson recently crooned, “You have to face what's hiding in your mind, you can't change lonely with a bottle of wine.”

Alcohol companies in the UK are prohibited from advertising drinking as a means to overcome loneliness, a recognition that using alcohol to cope with unwelcome feelings does not turn out well for us in the long run.

Many drinkers who have become dependent on alcohol feel a sense of being disconnected from others. Addiction, after all, has been described as the loneliest disease, where the drinker typically becomes withdrawn, remote and emotionally and/or physically distant. People in recovery from alcohol problems have reported that severed or strained relationships with friends and loved ones, who may have doubted their ability to stop drinking, can contribute to loneliness, and these feelings can also mean an increased risk of relapse.

Yet, drinking is often seen as part of avoiding being lonely in the first place; at least, drinking with others. A report from the Campaign for Real Ale describes the positive role of pubs in promoting and widening social networks. Similarly, findings from a study of middle-aged and older drinkers in the US found that being lonely was associated with less frequent alcohol consumption.

Addiction, after all, has been described as the loneliest disease, where the drinker typically becomes withdrawn, remote and emotionally and/or physically distant… Yet, drinking is often seen as part of avoiding being lonely in the first place.

But there are two things to remember before we start looking to alcohol as a way to ward off loneliness. First, the quality of relationships with fellow drinkers is a crucial factor: if the friends you have are your ‘drinking buddies’ but otherwise offer no emotional support or companionship beyond this, you might still feel lonely. We’ve all probably heard the expression, ‘feeling alone in a room full of people’.

Second, while it is of course possible to have close, rewarding friendships which involve alcohol, it’s equally possible to have such friendships without alcohol. Yet in the UK it’s often the case that all adult friendship is expected to involve drinking. The spaces in which friendships happen are often spaces in which drinking happens too. This is one of the reasons that pubs’ increasing investment in alcohol-free options is so positive; we need social spaces where alcohol is not a central player so that drinking is treated as a choice, rather than a necessary part of a sociable life.

This is one of the reasons that pubs’ increasing investment in alcohol-free options is so positive; we need social spaces where alcohol is not a central player so that drinking is treated as a choice, rather than a necessary part of a sociable life.

One thing common to both loneliness and alcohol problems is that we don’t like talking about them very much. The comedian Alan Carr has previously spoken openly about his partner Paul Drayton’s overreliance on alcohol due to loneliness caused by the comic’s hectic work schedule, but public declarations of loneliness or alcohol use, or both, are something of a rarity.

There remains a stigma associated with heavy drinking and dependency, where too often we are reluctant to talk to others about our own or a loved one’s drinking for fear of being negatively judged, devalued and excluded. Stigma also is commonplace around loneliness, which can be framed as a defect or weakness of character, rather than a normal, human emotion.

There are now calls to build a national conversation to raise awareness to tackle such stigma, and this is the theme of this year’s Loneliness Awareness Week, led by Marmalade Trust. Marmalade Trust launched the UK’s first Loneliness Awareness Week in 2017, and last year reached four million people.

To get involved, visit the Marmalade Trust’s website.

If you are worried about your own or someone else's drinking, there’s support available. Find out more here.