Growing up, there was never any alcohol in the family home. My mother drank red wine at parties, a glass of champagne at Christmas and in later years, a gin and tonic with me on a Friday evening. My father drinks a single beer with his dinner.
As a result, I don’t remember either of them ever having a conversation about alcohol with me, either positive or negative.
But even very early, I knew that alcohol was cool, and that drinking it was an excellent idea. I remember a party that my mother hosted when we first arrived in Australia. I would have been about twelve, and somebody brought along a wine cooler; white wine and fruit juice mixed together in a cardboard box.
I have no idea who invented such a vile concoction, but it did have one redeeming feature; it could be drunk by a twelve year old. I remember sneaking a couple of glasses of the stuff and drinking them in my room on a dull Sunday afternoon. I also remember being surprised that the room didn’t spin and nothing felt different.
Nothing daunted, I did the same thing a couple of years later. By this time, my mother occasionally travelled overseas for business, and when she did she would bring back a large duty-free bottle of gin, or white rum, which was then stashed in a high cupboard. Both spirits being clear, it seemed to my fifteen year old self that I would be betraying teenagers the world around if I didn’t pour myself a glass and top up the bottle with water.
It doesn’t escape my notice, now, that my first drinks were illicit, and underwhelming. But what intrigues me more is that I wanted to drink so young. Intrigues, but doesn’t surprise: I was a precocious reader, and by twelve I was reading books written for adults. Jilly Cooper was a particular favourite, and as anyone who has read her works of utter genius knows, they are packed full of impossibly glamorous dissolutes who do things like swig champagne from the bottle at fourteen, roll up to play in international sporting matches with awful hangovers, or wake up in a rumpled bed of blondes and drain the glass of red wine that is still there from the night before. Her oeuvre is basically an ode to problem drinking, and there I was, reading them before I hit my teens proper.
Cooper wasn’t the only influence on my young mind, telling me that drinking was a sure-fire route to the louche, beguiling person I wanted to be. There was Dorothy Parker, and Fanny Hill. Later there was David Bowie, eyes glittering with cocaine and booze, Cocker singing about dancing and drinking and screwing, all these twisted, glamorous deviants using drink to set them apart from the herd.
When you’re young, you want so desperately to become someone worth being. And since you can’t see the insides of your idols, you try and mimic their outsides. Perhaps the quips you admire come from the long swallows from the bottle they carry; their eye liner frames a world you want to see too. You can’t sort the good from the bad, when you’re young, so you adopt things almost at random, layering personalities like charity shop finds.
More important than the voices telling young people about the glamour of drinking are the voices that are missing: the voices that talk about the danger of alcohol and the way it can turn on you. I knew that alcoholics existed, as a child. I didn’t know anything else about them, though. I didn’t know alcoholism doesn’t discriminate and doesn’t announce itself. That you can be as respectable, and as careful, and as conscientious as you like, and you can still find yourself, one day, apologising for a drunken rant you don’t even remember.
I wish people would talk to their children about alcohol, before the world does, because the world lies to children.
Drinkaware, a British charity funded by the alcohol industry, aims to raise awareness of responsible drinking for young and old. Their current campaign is aimed at parents and recommends that parents talk to their children from as young as eight, to deliver messages about the potential harm that comes with drinking before the world drowns them out.
The things we teach our children are the things they take with them throughout their lives. The voice we use becomes their inner voice. Parents have power. This is an area where it’s worth using that power, because if we say nothing, other people will.
Some ideas from Drinkaware about talking to your child are here.
(For transparency: this is not a sponsored post. I reached out to Drinkaware because I noticed their campaign on Twitter and I believe in it)