I was very moved by Louis Theroux’s BBC documentary, Drinking to Oblivion, on alcoholics being treated at King’s College Hospital. It was very tenderly filmed and Theroux did not seem to be sitting silently in judgement on the drinkers, but seemed genuinely baffled and saddened by their passion for drink and the havoc it wreaked on their bodies and the people around them.
I haven’t watched his documentaries for a while, because, although they are always entertaining, there was sometimes a knowing, ironic approach to the participants, who seemed to have entered a Faustian pact to gain short-term telly fame in exchange for becoming laughing stocks or freaks for us all to snigger at. That was not the case at all with this documentary.
The drinkers’ stories were so sad. It was very soon clear that alcohol was not the initial problem in any of the cases. High levels of anxiety and sensitivity seemed to be common, so that the break-ups and career setbacks that you and I might shrug off as the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, became such cruel blows that blotting them out with booze was their only solution. Inevitably, this had devastating consequences, and hard lives became harder still. My heart ached for the poor lady who’d been drinking since she was 15 and was now lumbered with the most horrible ‘boyfriend’ you could imagine, or Joe, a middle-class, articulate chap, who had been sent into a helter-skelter of destructive behaviour which had alienated all his loved ones.
The staff at King’s College Hospital coped heroically with these poor souls, but were clearly fighting a losing battle, and one which costs the NHS millions.
By coincidence, this morning I read a Guardian article on a new treatment for alcoholics in Ottawa, Canada. A shelter has been giving homeless alcoholics a drink an hour, all day, and has succeeded in reducing all kinds of alcohol-related problems – the physical neglect that leads to massive health issues, the binge drinking that leads to violence and injury, and maybe most importantly, the chronic anxiety which alcoholics seem to feel about where their next drink is coming from.
This worry is the thing that made me give up smoking, years ago. Having to have a stock of cigarettes around, plus lighters or matches, remembering to take everything with me, or having the money to buy cigs if I ran out, became such an annoying kerfuffle. Something which was supposed to be calming (in theory at least) had become an additional source of stress. So I can see how the Ottawa approach might reduce the anxiety of addiction and allow alcoholics to feel more secure, and then possibly more able to move away from alcohol little by little. It is very similar to the idea of giving methadone to heroin addicts, thus releasing them from a way of life – having to find dealers, get the money to buy drugs through crime or prostitution – and potentially the drug itself.
I don’t know if the Canadian approach would work here. I’m sure people would object to spending taxpayer’s money on booze. But it’s interesting. And buying alcoholics drinks (or making it – the Ottawa project makes cheap white wine on its premises to distribute) might save the NHS a fortune. A can of Special Brew is a lot cheaper than a night in intensive care.
It’s certainly made me question my own drinking.
What do you think?