Alcohol Awareness Week 2023: What’s the Real Cost?

A new wheel of life

“How do you know if you have a problem with alcohol?” I asked a friend who was working as a Drugs and Alcohol keyworker many years ago. “If it’s costing you more than money”, he replied. He did not remember where he read or heard this from, but it’s a simple explanation that he often resorted to when explaining what made alcohol use problematic to his clients or other people who asked.

So, what is the actual cost of consuming alcohol? Does the cost solely affect the person who drinks, or is there a web around them where the people close to them get stuck and end up paying their own cost due to the person who drinks too much? And how can we dissect what the price consists of, what it looks like in real life and what the extent of it is? Here is my attempt to unfold one of the ways to do this.

Running the risk of being unpopular or a killjoy, I would dare to say that there is always a cost to drinking alcohol because, like alcohol consumption,  the cost lies on a spectrum, and it is proportionate to the amount of alcohol consumed, so when one increases, the other one follows suit. As we have learned from research, the limit of the 14 weekly recommended units does not constitute a safe amount; instead, it should act as a kind of damage limitation. In a statement published in the research journal The Lancet, WHO (World Health Organisation), it was confirmed that “when it comes to alcohol consumption, there is no safe amount that does not affect health”.

Being a Sober Coach, having conversations with clients to identify the costs that alcohol has on their lives is an early and fundamental part of the process. There are different ways to do this, and among those, one that I find helpful and quite thorough (albeit more time-consuming for the exact reason of being so exhaustive) is using a well-known life coaching tool called the Wheel of Life.

The Wheel of Life

The Wheel of Life consists of a circle, a wheel divided into a certain number of slices, each representing an area in someone’s life. Personal Development Coaching is usually used to determine how satisfied someone is in each area of their life, such as family, social life, work, etc., to help them identify what needs improvement, I decided to adapt it to the work I do now and started using it with my clients to explore honestly and openly how their alcohol use affects each area.

We all might have an inkling of the overall impact that our habit has on our lives, but what this practice allows us to do is zoom in on particular aspects of our lives and shine a light on the full extent of the effect that abusing or misusing alcohol has both on us and everyone else we interact with.

The slices of the pie chart have to encompass all the aspects of your life, even if they are aspects that are not present at the moment of completing it because the alcohol has taken over in a way that does not make space for them, i.e. if your physical exercise slice is practically non-existent due to your lack of energy or time, it’s still worthy of inclusion because being active is a very crucial element when you look holistically at your life and improving the quality of it.

Here is a list of the usual ones: Family, Partner, Friends, Social Life, Finances, Work/Career, Physical Health, Mental Health, Spirituality, Self-Development, and Contribution/Giving Back.

Once you have your wheel, it’s time for your self-assessment and reflection work to begin. What I strongly and warmheartedly recommend is to be super honest with yourself. Nobody needs access to this information apart from you, and nobody is there to judge you or criticise you for it, not even you. This is only for your own eyes unless you are working with a Sober Coach, Therapist or Keyworker and choose to have their input or support to make changes and make yourself accountable.

What are the costs?

People’s usual tendency is to veer towards thinking about the extreme costs of drinking alcohol, such as being fired from a job, losing your house, a relationship break-up, not seeing your children anymore, develop pancreatitis or liver cancer. These are extreme consequences which can and certainly do indeed happen to people who are positioned towards the higher end of the alcohol use spectrum, the ones who usually sit on the border of when emotional dependency enters the realm of physical dependency. Much overlooked, I find, is the impact of more than moderate drinking – and by this, I mean consuming over 14 units a week, the areas that have come to be known as “grey drinking area” and “binge drinking”. These are the effects that most people have learned to live with as the necessary collateral damage of everyday life, and these are the ones I’d like to shed light on here. So, here we go!

Family, Partner & Friends

How does your drinking affect your family life? People get used to the status quo of wanting, psychologically craving a drink and feeling tired and hungover the next day, so it can be tricky to realise how much of that could be avoided if you decided to either not drink at all or stick to the 14 units a week. Can you think of a time when your children were demanding, maybe just being the most lively expression of themselves, but the reservoir of your patience was running low, and you ended up being short with them and regretted it right away? Or a time when you could not be completely present with them because you had a tiring day at work and could not wait to get them to bed as soon as possible so that you could finally have that glass of wine you had been aching for? Has a little misunderstanding with your partner turned into a full-blown argument or fight because you had a bit of a drink, and your capacity to pause and think was dramatically reduced? Have you ever planned with a friend to meet them the following day but had to rain-check on them because the night out had extended longer than you had planned to? I remember having to do that a few times, and when I really could not get out in any way of my commitment, I had to make a herculean effort to push down my grumpy little monster and tap on my minimal acting talents. Or you may have a friend who always has to come to the rescue to ensure you are okay, and they say they don’t mind. I have been on both sides, and it had become an exhausting routine on the one hand, and on the other, I can see how it was not fair to lay on others the burden of being saved from unbecoming or dangerous situations.

Finance, Self-Development, Work

The impact on your finances is not only caused by the money you spend on the booze but also on the taxi home that you have to take because you have drunk over the driving limit and the food stops later on the night due to the alcohol-fueled binge. Dinners have become much cheaper since I stopped drinking, and I can afford to eat out more even if my income has not shifted that much. I overheard a conversation years ago where someone was talking about wanting to go to a music festival. Still, I decided not to go because, despite being able to afford the ticket for the event, they would not have the money to buy drinks, so they decided not to go. Such decisions are an indication of your scale of values. This one, for instance, says that your decision on whether to attend an event is based on the availability of alcohol. You might say that there is no cost there, but the price is that alcohol has become the main currency in your ability to have a good time, and you cannot fathom enjoying something you supposedly love without it. And I want to stress that we are talking about a joyful and exciting experience, not a work-do with people you don’t want to spend time with.

Every little helps to make a big hole in your bank account. A hole that, if it wasn’t there, could be used to pay for exercise classes, weekends away, learning a new craft or instrument, further training (or just clothes), all things that would make some positive indents in other spheres of your life, such as self-development, mental and physical health and even your work career. If you don’t like your job, having more financial availability and a clearer mind are ways to optimise the resources (time and money) you already have. I know there are a lot of people who can do a lot whilst drinking, but the analogy that comes to mind is having to live with depression. A lot of people go about their lives whilst being depressed, but doing that is the equivalent of carrying a concrete cloak over your shoulders and having to do all the usual stuff whilst dragging it around with you. You could fly and achieve so much more if you didn’t have to. And please note that by achievement, I don’t mean money, status or career, but your subjective idea of reward and looking after yourself, which can be just choosing to stroke your cat for longer.

Physical and Mental Health

So much already has been written on how alcohol badly affects every aspect of our physical and mental health. Just ask Google about blood pressure, cancer, and even ageing. Even simply having to go to the toilet to pee more than usual is not just a drag, but it depletes your body from the water that it needs to function correctly by tricking it into thinking it needs to release more water than it needs to! And please be cautious about those articles that tell you that drinking wine every evening is good for your heart. A British Heart Foundation study 2018 concluded that “the risks outweigh the benefits, and drinking more than the recommended limits will hurt your health.” We don’t need more encouragement to overload the already stretched and underfunded yearly  NHS alcohol admittance to hospitals.

And as per your mental health, alcohol only adds fuel to the fire, even if your condition is relatively mild, contributing to the onset of stress, anxiety and depression. So, dig deep into what alcohol is taking out of you. I have recently come across the concept of “Recovery Time”, which is the time that people need to factor in when they go to a celebration – be it a birthday, wedding, or somewhere they expect to go on a binge – because they won’t be able to physically and mentally function the next day, which means that the next day will be completely obliterated from their life. That is a cost.

Giving Back & Spiritual Life

Giving back is one of those selfless acts that replenishes our soul with lifeblood. People think of it as volunteering, but for me, making time to ring a friend who has just had a child and is struggling is a form of giving back or one who is going through a divorce and has nobody to talk to. Giving a bit of yourself to someone, whoever that person is, IS giving back. I have met people who have used volunteering to occupy their time to help them with their newfound sobriety because they had so much more time on their hands. And others who have allowed themselves to find a different purpose in life and started to nurture their spirit, the one without the ethanol.

Not being able to be the best version of yourself is indeed a cost, and, at the same time, always being the best version of yourself is an unattainable task. Shit happens, we have to deal with it, and a lot of the time, we have no control over what goes on, so yes, sometimes, we will screw up, apologise, learn, and, most certainly, screw up again, but maybe differently or less, if we have put our lesson to good use. By pouring the alcohol into the cocktail, though (pun intended), we add an extra layer of difficulty because we add long-brewing stress covered in short-term relief.

If we get to distance ourselves from our life and look at all those snippets that are not working or that we would like to improve and change, I find it bizarre that our alcohol use is rarely one of the things we are ready to look at to change, so much so that it doesn’t even come into the conversation unless it becomes a real problem and, by then, it’s even harder to act on it. We don’t realise how much our lives will improve if we only look at that and change it.

What would that wheel look like if your alcohol use did not taint every single slice of it? Most of us don’t even realise that we don’t have to drink and certainly don’t have to do it all the time! You can still go to a pub, go to a gig, a party, have fun and dance without a drop of alcohol in you. I now see being sober as an act of rebellion because society keeps hammering it on us that it’s a necessary element (or evil), and it’s not. But most of us won’t even question the presence of it. But you can, and I invite you to do just that.