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

“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 real cost of consuming alcohol? Does the cost solely affect the person who is drinking or is there a web around them where the people who are close to them get stuck and end up paying their own cost as a result of the person who drinks too much? And how can we dissect what the cost really 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 in 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 learnt from research, the limit of the 14 weekly recommended units does not constitute a safe amount, but rather it should act as a kind of damage limitation. In a statement published on the research journal The Lancet, WHO (World Health Organisation) 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 have 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 useful and quite thorough (albeit more time consuming for the exact reason of being so thorough) is using a very well-known life coaching tool called the Wheel of Life. 

The Wheel of Life

The Wheel of Life simply consists of a circle, a wheel, divided in a certain number of slices, and each of them represents an area in someone’s life. In Personal Development Coaching, it is usually used to work out how satisfied someone is in each area of their life, such as family, social life, work, etc., to then help them identify what needs to improve. I decided to adapt it to the work I do now and stared using it with my clients to explore in a honest and open way how their alcohol use affects each area.

We all might have an inkling of the overall impact that our habit has on our life, but what this practice allows us to do is zooming in on particular aspects of our life and shine 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 is 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, 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 to have 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 of course you are working with a Sober Coach, Therapist or Keyworker and you choose to have their input or support to make changes and/or make yourself accountable.

What are really 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 learnt to live with as the necessary collateral damage of normal 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 hangover the next day, so it can be tricky to realise how much of that could actually 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 they were 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 you could not wait to get them to bed as soon as possible so that you could finally have that glass of wine that 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 made plans with a friend to meet them on the next 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 really make an herculean effort to push down my grumpy little monster and tap on my very limited acting talents. Or you may have a friend who always has to come to the rescue to make sure you are okay and they say they don’t mind. I have been on both sides and it had become an exhausting routine on one hand, and on the other, I can see how it was not fair to lay on others the burden of being saved you 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 on the taxi home that you have to take because you have drunk over the driving limit, and the food stop later on the night due to the alcohol fuelled 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 but 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 made the decision 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 are based on the availability of alcohol. You might say that there is no cost there, but the cost 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 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 are able to do a lot whilst drinking, but the analogy that comes to mind is like 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. If you didn’t have to, you could fly and achieve so much more. 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. Blood pressure, cancer and even aging. 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 properly by tricking your body to think it needs to release more water that 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 from 2018 concluded that “the risks outweigh the benefits, and drinking more than the recommended limits will have a negative effect on your health.” We really 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 quite mild, contributing to the onset of stress, anxiety and depression. So, dig deep on 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 basically 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 persons is, IS giving back. I have met people who have used volunteering to occupy their time in order to help them with their new-found 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.

A new wheel of life

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 in the cocktail though (pun intended), we just add an extra layer of difficulty for us, 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 almost never 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 of our life will improve if we only looked at that and change it. 

What would that wheel look like if every single slice of it was not tainted by your alcohol use? Most of us don’t even realise that we don’t have to drink and certainly we 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 actually not. But most of us won’t even question the presence of it. But you can, and I invite you to do just that.