Alcoholism

Charles Kennedy, the former leader of the LibDem political party died recently. There have been lots of tributes to him, such as Gerry Lynch’s (here) on Slugger, which also references Alistair Campbell’s. Remarkably, while a certain ‘reading between the lines’ is usually necessary with obituaries, I haven’t read anything about Charles Kennedy that wasn’t straightforward, or other than complimentary about him, while recognising his ‘problem’. Alistair Campbell, you will recall, was Tony Blair’s ‘spin doctor’ and much reviled for his activities; I can’t say that I’ve ever been a fan of his. And yet, his blog piece is surely one of the most humane pieces of writing from one politician about another. And he isn’t afraid to talk about the ‘problem’ that they shared.

The problem was the demon they both shared, alcohol; it lead to Kennedy’s downfall as LibDem leader.

The association between alcohol and politicians and artistic celebrities is well known; is there a link between their drive and ambitions and their problems, or are they self-destructive prisoners of their fate?  In the UK, the Labour politician George Brown was frequently ‘tired and emotional’; Reginald Maudling wasn’t any better; what about Churchill or Pitt the younger? What of Brendan Behan, Amy Winehouse, George Best, Dylan Thomas, Truman Capote, F Scott Fitzgerald and many, many more. Is there a connection between the creative artist and alcoholism? And if so, what is it?

Alcohol and humans have a long history; alcohol has been found in prehistoric remains. It’s not at all clear when alcohol was recognised for what it is, or when it was first deliberately produced. It’s suggested that the natural fermentation of rotting fruit, or compressed grain in a granary might have been the initial source. Be that as it may, alcohol whether as beer or as wine is well recorded in ancient texts. And with this, there are recognitions of the problems that can ensue.

The ancient Greeks drank alcohol at their evening meetings; it’s use was widespread in the Roman Empire. The early Christians had diverging views; some saw alcohol as a ‘gift of God’, others saw the evils that it could produce. Early protestants such as Luther and Calvin weren’t so against alcohol as some of their successors certainly are. In those times, wine or ‘small beer’ was commonly drunk throughout the day, with rations given out to nuns and others. ‘Small beer’ contained only about 1% alcohol, much less than beer today; it’s suggested that it was safer to drink than water which could be contaminated. It’s wasn’t just the alcohol that killed the bugs; rather it was the boiling required before fermentation that ‘sterilised’ the liquid, and the alcohol prevented later contamination. This was certainly the view of my grandfather, who always drank beer when touring around Ireland decades ago; it was simply safer than the local water.

The problems surrounding drunkenness lead to the emergence of temperance organisations, both in Ireland with Father Theobald Matthew and later James Cullen and the Pioneers; and elsewhere, usually within religious movements. Though the word ‘temperance’ implies ‘moderation’, such movements were really about total abstinence.

The concept of ‘alcoholism’ as a disease began to emerge in the late 19th century, being more formalised in the 20th. Medically, it can be seen as a physical addiction, and it is often associated with depression. (Alistair Campbell has certainly suffered with depression.) A marked rise in vodka consumption has been seen recently in Russia, and is often related to the miserable socio-economic conditions there after the fall of communism; Russian men have seen a marked decline in their life expectancy in the last two decades, almost certainly related to their alcohol consumption. There can be a genetic disposition, suggesting that some people cannot ‘help themselves’. As students, one psychiatrist taught us that alcohol addiction was a response to ‘internal pain’, alcohol acted as an analgesic, a pain killer. Part of the treatment was to try to discover what caused the patient’s pain, for without getting to the ‘root cause’ we would be unsuccessful in our therapy. I’m not sure if this view ever gained widespread acceptance. But there is also a ‘social’ view of alcohol consumption, one of society and the role we play within it; alcohol as a social lubricant, easing conversation between strangers though lowering of our defences, perhaps we even reveal too much, ‘in vino veritas’. And of course, it ‘provokes the desire but takes away the performance’.

Not only are there alcoholics in the classical sense, but also others who might be ‘heavy social drinkers’ or even ‘high functioning alcoholics’. Is excess alcohol consumption related to the stresses of life and the need for relaxation—a learned behaviour, a coping mechanism for life’s vicissitudes; or is it primarily a medical illness, or a bit of both? Whatever your view, it can be remarkably destructive.

If you think that someone you know might be an alcoholic, you should seek advice and help:

The Samaritans are on:  08457 909090 (UK) and 116 123 (Ireland)

Alcoholics Anonymous are on: 0845 769 7555   The Irish group is here.

Al-Anon (support for those affected by another’s problem):  020 7403 0888   In Ireland, (01) 873 2699

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