The six new things I’ve learnt about alcohol

Catherine Gray | June 2021 | 8 minutes

Bestselling author Catherine Gray shares six things that surprised her as she researched her new book, Sunshine Warm Sober.

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When I published surprise bestseller The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober, I was four years sober and pretty much thought I’d learnt all I was going to about alcohol; the most glorified, reviled, celebrated, despised, manipulated, marketed and binged substance on the planet.

The joke was on me. In the past four years I have learnt an equal amount again. Which is why I have now published a sequel to that sleeper hit, called Sunshine Warm Sober. Here are some new things I learnt about alcohol while researching the book.

1. The dubious origin of ‘funny’ pro-alcohol memes

In a landmark ruling in 2020, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) chastised the Scottish Gin Society for circulating memes that the ASA said ‘implied that gin could help people overcome emotional problems, and treat depression and pain." The Scottish Gin Society maintained they had not created the memes – one of which suggested gin was a healthier choice than a banana – but all of them bore their logo. It made me question: who is creating these pro-alcohol memes that we routinely share? Hmmm.

2. There’s a privileged correlation

2020 NHS data found that drinking is more common in higher-income households. The same report also re-confirmed that the biggest drinkers among us are Baby Boomers aged 55 to 64. Of that age bracket, two in ten women – and four in ten men – get through more than 14 units a week on a regular basis. Interesting, huh? [Editor’s note: Another interesting part of this is that despite drinking less, people in lower income groups are more likely to be harmed by alcohol. It’s called the alcohol harm paradox, and you can find out more about it here]

3. Alcohol brands + sports sponsorship

Recently, French footballer Paul Pogba became the latest sports star who took a stand against alcohol being synonymous with sports. This objection is nothing new. In 2014, 36 health leaders signed an open letter to the Guardian calling for a ban on alcohol brands sponsoring sports. The letter bemoaned the fact that children see their sporting heroes wearing shirts emblazoned with alcohol brands, and pointed out research that shows early exposure to alcohol advertising leads to earlier – and harder – drinking in youngsters. As a result? Nothing happened. Absolutely zip. Meanwhile, other countries have wised up. Places such as France, Ukraine and Norway have outlawed this. Why haven’t we? It’s confounding.

4. The marginalised face very unique challenges

As a white, middle-class, Generation X, cis, hetero, childfree woman, I represent a very narrow representation of what it feels like to recover from addiction. And so, it was acutely important to me to represent other voices and experiences – including marginalised ones – of which there are 50+ in the book. I spoke to the LGBTQIA+ community on their unique challenges, men who found themselves subjected to binary ‘intoxicated masculinity’ when they quit, and parents who found ‘alcohol is a parenting aid!’ culture to be their main obstacle. Moreover, Laura Cathcart Robbins wrote a dazzling piece on what it feels like to be Black in mostly-white recovery groups.

5. Drinkaware is funded by alcohol producers

Up until 2018 I genuinely thought Drinkaware was funded by the NHS. “Go to Drinkaware for the facts,”, most alcohol labels direct us. “OK, thanks! Hello facts,” I used to think. And then I discovered that Drinkaware is, at its own admission, “funded largely by voluntary and unrestricted donations from UK alcohol producers, retailers and supermarkets.” Yes, you read that right. The body dispensing the information that we are directed to is bankrolled by the very companies profiting from the alcohol sales. Even though Drinkaware claims to be “governed independently”, I personally found this discovery to be disturbing.

6. The anxious tend to be more attracted to alcohol

Alcohol acts as an anxiety eraser, one of the book’s experts told me. “It removes an adverse state,” says psychologist and neuroscientist Dr Judith Grisel. “If you’re using it to medicate anxiety, you’ll like it because it removes the anxiety. It’s a sedative, after all, and it reduces inhibitions. Those not prone to anxiety don’t like it as much. They’re more likely to dislike the sloppy feeling, or their words slurring. But if you’re anxious, you enjoy that blur. It becomes your antidote to anxiety.”

To me, this makes total sense. Even though alcohol can worsen anxiety, I drank to anaesthetise said anxiety and although it then spiked when I quit, now I’m finally in a place where I can soothe myself out of a potential panic attack without deep-diving into a bottle of wine. It feels empowering. And I can safely say now: I’ll never go back.

  • Catherine’s new book, Sunshine Warm Sober: Unexpected Sober Joy that Lasts discusses all of these issues and more. It’s out now and available at all good bookshops. If you buy it on Amazon with Amazon Smile a donation will go to Alcohol Change UK at no extra cost to you.

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