It’s 9 am on a Tuesday, and my boss walks into the office. He stops to joke with the business manager about the day of stressful meetings ahead. “Come on!” he sighs. “Let’s just crack open a bottle now. I’ll drink the Scotch, you can share around the white wine.”
Of course he’s joking, although wine, Scotch and beer take up one shelf of our tiny shared fridge, but it snags my ear nonetheless. So I open up a browser window, intending to record any further alcohol references in my day.
Much of my job involves writing, and I keep social media open during the day which exposes me to a range of conversations I wouldn’t otherwise notice, but apart from that I wouldn’t say that I move in an unusually alcohol-soaked circle. And yet.
9.45am: a friend posts in my parenting group about her rough school drop off. Another friend sympathises: “Sounds like you need one or two very large glasses of wine this evening!”
10.30am: read mildly humorous article on parenting small children in the morning. Quote from the article, which is set at 6 am: “Too early for a drink? Fuck it. Where’s the Baileys?”
11am: conversation about who makes dinner in your house and who does the planning. Friend: “Last night we just heated something up. And then had cocktails”.
11.30am: Facebook. Shot of somebody’s whisky glass with the caption ‘last one for the night!’. They’re in a different time zone, and that’s another thing. These little references ping all day; I can’t merely turn off the computer at happy hour and hope.
By noon, a twitter buddy has announced her book launch with an Instagram shot of a bottle of gin, and I have seen at least three humorous e-cards referring to mommies who drink wine. I give up recording.
It’s all very well telling people in recovery to avoid their old triggers – stay out of bars, dump the heavy drinker friends – but that ignores the fact that we live in a media saturated world, and that alcohol is normalised and even glamorised in that world.
There’s an AA saying: don’t judge your insides by another person’s outsides. And that’s a huge issue when we’re talking about social media, because programs like Facebook allow us to curate our lives more carefully than we can in person. If you’re newly sober, and you go to a party, you’ve probably had the experience of watching people progress from those first couple of refreshing glasses of beer to the stumbling, slurring end of the night. Oh, that’s why I don’t drink, you think, and go home relieved. But on Facebook, you don’t see those end-of-the-night shots. You just see the first drinks; the tumblers of whisky lit by the golden light of a London bar, the champagne held aloft in sparkling flutes, the cocktails on a cruise. Look at us, and our lovely lives, with our lovely drinks in hand.
And more than that – you don’t see the lives behind the drinking. You don’t see the hangovers. The irritability. The fact that the couple sharing a bottle of wine haven’t made love in months. Here is an embarrassing story: Eighteen months before I finally gave up drinking, I sent a desperate, drunken email to a friend who I knew had quit some years earlier, asking for help. She offered that help, and I chose not to take it. I made only one change: I started editing my Facebook posts to remove too many references to alcohol, because I knew she read it. By then, I knew that my unedited life showed a problem, but social media makes it easy to spin any story you like. As that same friend put it to me the other day, talking about this subject, ‘your eyes may be blurry, but the camera is clear-eyed’ – and those of us on the other side of the screen see only the clear, sober photographic evidence of a perhaps-chaotic existence.
The truth is that we have no way of knowing what goes on in another person’s life. Social media gives us an illusion of total transparency – but the lament that ‘kids today live their lives right out in the open! No sense of privacy!’ ignores the fact that actually, privacy still exists, and so does untruth. We use the beautiful, sparkling moments of our day to distract from the sordid, like a magician’s fancy cape swirling in front of the rusted mechanism underneath.
It doesn’t matter to my sobriety, in the end, whether my friends are enjoying one drink on a Paris balcony or passing out under the Ponts des Arts. It’s all just outsides. What matters is my inside, and no amount of Instagram shots can threaten that.