Health Committee - The Government's Alcohol StrategyWritten evidence from Miss Renate van Nijen (GAS 03)

Summary

I am a Dutch-born writer and artist, currently residing in Spain. 12 years of living with an English alcohol-addicted partner. Holistic approach to the wide-spread and often denied problem of alcohol-abuse and/or alcoholism. Interviewed partners, mothers, children, friends of alcoholics, plus alcoholics themselves, and health workers in the field of recovery to show the human face behind alcoholism.

1. The increasing problem of alcohol abuse in modern society has been highlighted in many television programmes, newspapers and through other media.

2. As an ex-partner of an alcohol-addicted man, I am pleased wider attention is being paid to this subject. However, I feel an important part of the problem is being under-represented. The focus always seems to be on the “drinker” and how he or she is costing society a lot of money by placing additional burdens on, for example, the police force (to deal with anti-social, aggressive, etc. behaviour) and the health service (increased accident and emergency admissions). What about the larger—and mostly hidden—group of people affected by alcohol abuse such as partners, children, victims of alcohol-related crime?

3. Recent reports estimate three in five people will be negatively affected in their lives by alcohol abuse—either directly or indirectly. It is said that the life of one alcoholic will have an impact on the lives of at least six other people.

4. I’ve heard journalists and drink-industry representatives state that alcohol-abuse concerns only a “minor element” in today’s society. This is completely inaccurate, not to mention misleading, when the above groups are taken into account.

5. The medical world is increasingly concerned about the price this excess use of alcohol is exacting on tens of thousands of people, physically, and governments are worried about the future health costs for society as a whole. There is no easy answer and no magic bullet. Alcohol is a legal drug and it is difficult to imagine a world without it.

6. Responsible drinking—whatever that is—is recommended, but we are also made to feel boring if we don´t join in with a few glasses of wine when we meet up with friends. Mixed messages are to be found all over the media and the age at which people start excessive drinking seems to be getting younger and younger, with its related problems accelerating at an alarming rate.

7. The mixed message of society also creates a sense of shame in those affected by the disease of alcoholism. People would rather not talk about their own alcohol issues, ashamed to admit that they even have any. Erecting a façade of normality is typical among the family and friends of someone who is suffering from alcoholism. Nobody seems to understand, so why try to explain? Everybody seems to judge, so why invite criticism? The frequent result here is that people suffer in the privacy of their own homes. Children are forced to witness awful and sometimes dangerous situations between their parents due to verbal or sometimes physical abuse and may sometimes become the object of abuse themselves.

8. Children, partners or other family members find themselves utterly isolated. The alcoholic seeks isolation because he or she feels it is impossible to deal not only with their own sense of worthlessness and be judged by others as well. The victims are frequently too scared and/or ashamed to seek help for themselves. Yet, there are ways out.

9. Recovering alcoholics, who have found such a way out of their addiction, often come together in meetings (where anonymity is guaranteed), which diminish this deadly isolation. In such situations, they are able to share their experiences with others who have been there and who fully empathise, and they can find this fellowship to be a powerful and comforting healing tool. They are now not alone. Their problems are not unique. The relief of realising this up-close-and-personal is immense, both for the alcoholic and their immediate family alike. But the necessary anonymity in this form of recovery process seems to confirm society’s ignorance and denial. Modern society is in denial of the problem, just as those affected by alcoholism are often in denial of their situation.

10. Many visualise an alcoholic as a dishevelled homeless guy sleeping under a bridge or on a bench in the park. If only they knew the truth. It is hugely misunderstood as an illness and even “science” hasn’t accepted that it might actually be a mental illness, like schizophrenia. In general, especially in Europe, it is not even regarded as a medical problem and, therefore, hardly any funds are made available to find a “medical solution”.

11. I believe that it is possible to lift the veil of guilt and shame surrounding alcoholism by showing how healing can take place through understanding, compassion and kindness.

12. Having lived with an alcoholic myself for many years I know that the alcoholic is suffering and that inadvertently this suffering is also inflicted on others, usually the nearest and dearest. I strongly believe that alcoholism is an illness, but when we accept that alcoholism is an illness, we have only put a label on the problem. However, trying to understand what drives the human being behind a vague term like “an alcoholic”, and getting an idea as to why addicts behave the way they do, could create a shift in the general attitude of denial by society.

13. Why do people affected by alcoholism feel ashamed and the need to cover up their problems, more often than not creating a situation of utter isolation? Society is sending out mixed messages. We do not approve of alcoholics who cannot control their drinking. They are regarded as weak, not part of civil society. At the same time, there is a culture of being made to feel guilty for not joining in the drinking. You are called a bore and, in general, people would argue that “one drink won’t hurt”.

14. I have first-hand experience of living with an alcohol-addicted partner and all the complexity this involves. The secrecy surrounding alcoholism in society as a whole, and the non-acceptance and judgemental attitudes of my family, friends and outsiders, have driven me to interview people who are in one way or another affected by over-consumption of alcohol. I have comprised their stories in a book called Cheers, the hidden voices of alcoholism—a compelling book, which shows the human face behind alcoholism.1

15. In order to create a holistic perspective, I have interviewed not only partners, children, parents and friends of alcoholics, but also health workers in the field of addiction, and alcoholics themselves. In this book, I recount their remarkably candid experiences, openly, yet anonymously, revealing my own and their incredible stories of desperation and pain, but ultimately also of hope and escape.

16. It highlights the person/people behind the problem. This book will help to raise awareness of the growing problem of alcohol abuse; and help those affected by alcoholism to find a way to cope with—or, indeed, to discover a way out of—this widespread, yet frequently misunderstood, disease. Compassionately written, Cheers offers information about some of the many avenues of help currently available to those affected both directly and indirectly by alcoholism.

17. I believe alcoholism is the symptom of an intricate web of cause and effect. Layers of causes build up in an individual and erupt in the effect, which is the disease of alcoholism. The underlying cause is the emotion of fear. The individual’s essential problem is one of fear and society’s reaction to an individual’s alcoholism compounds the problem by also being one of fear.

18. The individual fears loss, failure, loneliness, rejection, not being good enough, sadness, lack of security, not being loved and suffering. The effect of this fear is seen in anger, depression and despair. The individual, who lacks emotional awareness, will not be aware of these causes or of these effects. A society that lacks emotional awareness will react towards the alcoholic with harsh judgements, anger, despair and disdain.

19. In my book Cheers, I seek to address the negative effects that the lack of emotional awareness, judgements and reactions of society as a whole have on the disease of alcoholism.

20. It is my passion to show that alcoholics, and all those close to alcoholics, should be treated with compassion, love and kindness. I feel very strongly that without those positive and healing emotions the alcoholic cannot be healed and neither can those who are close to them, nor society as a whole. If a person is drinking too much and society treats them with the same emotion that gave rise to the drinking problem in the first place, namely with fear, then the problem will be compounded and help will not be sought.

21. If the alcoholic is driven into denial, then those close to them will be too. Many skeletons in family cupboards are not mentioned because an alcoholic brings back too many emotions related to fear. That means children are not made aware of the dangers of alcohol or the potential genetic link to alcoholism that they may carry. Through society’s denial, advertisers are not properly held to account and so the disease continues down the generations.

22. I want to bring the problem out of the cupboard so that everybody can discuss it, find out about it, dissect it and lay it to rest without harsh judgement. It is my aim, possibly through lectures and my book, to arouse a strong feeling of compassion in people so that the healing can begin:

Cheers, the hidden voices of alcoholism” by Renate Van Nijen is published by Palcho Publications and printed and distributed via Lightning Source and is an amazing account of real life stories about the people in and around alcoholism. Each story offers a message of profound insight and ultimately of hope. It lifts the lid on alcoholism to reveal the person behind the alcoholic.

23. What has been interesting to me is that I had no problem finding interviewees for my book—in fact, once the word was out that I was writing it, many people volunteered to tell me their stories. It was clear that a group of people had emerged, who wanted to speak out, but had no outlet.

24. I would like to see the media, and society as a whole, explore the problem of alcoholism from the perspective of those indirectly affected by it as well. The experience of interviewing people affected by the problem showed me not only how having “a life consumed by alcoholism” can happen to anybody, but also how those indirectly affected by it feel they have no voice in today’s society. It seems living with alcoholism and its effects tends to exile people into the shadows of society, ashamed and isolated, which (of course) doesn’t make the problem go away. Rather it makes it worse—for the individual and for society as a whole.

25. I suggest that by concentrating only on the alcoholic’s perspective, a valuable point is missing. Those indirectly affected by the behaviour of alcohol-abuse will also have an impact on the health system of society and on society as a whole. The number of people indirectly affected by alcoholism is far greater than those directly affected by it.

26. I’d be happy to contribute my experience (as a writer, and also as an ex-partner of an alcoholic) and help your researchers in any way I possibly can.

April 2012

1 You can read the first three chapters of Cheers, via the following link: http://www.save-our-trees.org/books/renate_van_nijen/cheers/

Prepared 21st July 2012