Intoxicated masculinity

Karl Williams | April 2020 | 8 minutes

Karl Williams discusses the pressures men face to drink, how that intersects with mental health, and whether there's another way.

This time last year I was on stage, talking about the reasons I quit drinking, at the Sober Spring event in London. I looked out from my stool on the stage and thought, ‘That's a lot of women!’

Not only was I the only man on stage, but I was one of the only men in the entire room. Curious, no? But what interested me more was what I discovered afterwards.

Most of the people who had purchased tickets but didn't show up were men.

I have seen something similar on my social accounts. Whenever I talk about being alcohol-free, women will quite happily engage publicly in the comments section whereas men will message me privately.

This led me to one of my favourite questions: why?

Whenever I talk about being alcohol-free, women will quite happily engage publicly in the comments section whereas men will message me privately.

Booze and being a man

We all have narratives that shape our lives. We inherit them from our parents, adopt them from our friends or are sold them by the media. Sometimes they work for us, sometimes against us, but they often go unchallenged.

After all, it's easier to stick with what you know than to change. Especially when changing means you go against a social norm.

One such narrative, the one I want to challenge today, is that a manly man drinks. We are told this story, and we hang onto it. Men then push it upon each other unwittingly, which only perpetuates the status quo. And this particular story doesn’t have the happiest of endings.

“What's wrong with you?”

When I first stopped drinking I got asked that a lot. Ironically, no one asked me that when I was drinking, which is when things were wrong.

I decided to go alcohol-free because I was tired of running. I was drinking as a way of escaping my reality and my problems. But you can't escape your problems through a beverage.

Hiding our feelings

If there's one thing men are great at doing, it's hiding emotions, because our emotions are seen by some as an affront to masculinity.

“Real men don't cry. Man up.” Men hear this many times throughout our lives. And thus we drink our beer from the bottle, stuff our emotions inside, and store them out of sight.

But emotions aren't like coal. When you force them underground they don't turn into shiny diamonds. Oh no. They wait and build until the pressure gets too much and then return in an explosion. Usually an angry one, given that is the only emotion men are really permitted to have.

A few beers in the pub might offer a temporary release, but your problems are still there waiting for you the next day.

It isn't working

The NHS estimates that 9% of men are alcohol dependent (almost 300% more than women).

And in 2018, 75% of people who killed themselves were men.

The link between these two statistics is complicated, but both reflect what I’ve seen in my own life: too many men find it hard to ask for help. And too many men feel they are expected to drink, and that this is the only manly way to ‘cope’ with their emotions.

And this is only the ‘extreme’ end of the spectrum – there are thousands more men who would not be classified as physically dependent on alcohol but are drinking in ways that put their health and happiness at risk, and there are thousands more living in pain, without support.

It’s clear that something has to change. We need to stop hiding at the bottom of bottles.

I'm a better man now than I ever was when I drank. I know I'd rather spend my time happy that I'm meeting my own expectations, instead of hungover from meeting the expectations of others.

A different way

Surely there's a better way. A way to re-define some of the qualities we attribute to manliness.

Strong: Not because of how much he can bench, but the hell he's been through, and emerged from better and wiser.

Courageous: Not because he shows no emotions in tough times, but because he accepts his emotions, the good and the bad, and shows up anyway. He is vulnerable, imperfect and not afraid to ask for help when he needs it. According to shame researcher Professor Brené Brown "... vulnerability is not weakness; it's our most accurate measure of courage."

Authentic: Because he knows what's important to him and is prepared to fight for that. He lives a life that allows him to be his best self, for him and those he cares about, even if that means taking a different path.

Or maybe we are missing the point altogether. Maybe the goal isn't to live up to a single definition of what a man is, but to define it for ourselves. To choose our own values and live a life that allows us to meet them, to be the best man we can be on our terms.

This is what I've chosen to do and I'm a better man now than I ever was when I drank. I know I'd rather spend my time happy that I'm meeting my own expectations, instead of hungover from meeting the expectations of others.

The old way isn’t working. It’s time to write a new story.

  • Karl Williams is a coach, writer and speaker who has been alcohol-free for two years. You can connect with him on his Instagram or Facebook, where he writes about habits, health, happiness and sobriety.