Friday, July 1, 2011

A is for Alcohol

I've had the most difficult time deciding how to start this entry. The topic is a loaded one, and one where my experiences are varied in a way where I know a little, but not enough. I spent my morning at a drinker's hostel in Tower Hamlets, where I'm working as an outreach worker with homeless people and it was definitely an eye-opener.

It's odd to think that for the average university student, drinking is about having a good night and waking up with some regrets and a bad headache. Binge drinking is a recurring activity, and often associated with fun. Movies like American Pie perpetuate a world of partying and boozing that is all light-hearted and easy. While, there are always consequences, they never really seem that bad and even out of control drinking seems within control.

What I saw today would be the total opposite of that. The drinker's hostel is one that accepts clients that really wouldn't be accepted elsewhere because their alcohol support needs are so high. When I walked in, the air reeked of pee and cheap beer. It was incapacitating and I found myself sniffing my sweater for comfort. The client we were meeting had woken up 20 minutes prior to our arrival. He had stitches that needed to be removed (injuries from falling down while intoxicated) and we were taking him to the hospital so that it got done. He's a very impatient man, and without someone there, likely he wouldn't have gone. Before leaving, we suggested he have a glass of water, but his instinct was to pour a glass of super strength lager (someone else's) and drink that first. His hand shook as he poured.

He's frail and had difficulty walking to the hospital about two blocks away. Watching him, I realized how debilitating alcohol can be, and it scared me thinking about how easily this sort of addiction could happen to somebody. Unlike drugs, which are illegal and have a different sort of stigma about delinquency, alcohol is not only readily available, but also acceptable. Although of course, people expect a certain sense of balance, and I guess the difference between a frat party and a drinker's hostel is the difference between alcohol consumption and alcohol dependency. Our client had the shakes, he could not stand straight, or take regular steps. We had to take the elevator up one floor, and have him lean against a wall instead of wait in line. He had barely had a drink when we'd seen him, but the effects of alcohol are long-lasting.

It's difficult to reconcile these two contrasting views of alcohol consumption, whereas one is seen as de-stresser and the other can pull apart someone's life. Our client has siblings, had a wife and child, a job, a home and really, a life full of people who loved him and cared about him. After his mom passed away, his addiction to alcohol took over, and now his days are spent in this hostel, drinking. It breaks my heart to know that this is someone's reality, and I cannot imagine what it would take to break the cycle. How does something that is so accessible, and accepted in society, especially in London (where you can buy alcohol at a 24 hour off-license anytime of day) become avoidable?

It's strange to think that alcohol, something you can sip with dinner, or use for "liquid courage" before a nerve-wrecking moment can be so lethal. In the past two weeks, I have met so many clients who are on benefits, and really do not do anything but drink all day. Working becomes impossible, as does maintaining relationships when your addiction takes over. And rehab is sometimes not effective, because the temptation is far too easy to give into after getting out. In many situations, I have wondered if the drinking led to the homelessness or if being homeless enabled the addiction. It doesn't really matter, just that there needs to be effective ways to address alcohol dependency so that some of these people can get their lives together. I don't know how someone who has spent more of their life drinking than they have working finds the motivation and support to break the cycle and go through the motions of building a life.

In London, there is an added issue (that may exist at home too, but I just don't know about it) of super strength lagers. Alcohol in London can be bought at any hour of the night from just anywhere that is open (gas stations, convenient stores, grocery stores, etc.) Alcoholics are buying 9% proof lager and 7.5% proof cider at rock-bottom prices and then spending all day binge drinking it in large volumes. It is cheap (some less than £1 for twice as much alcohol in one unit than recommended as acceptable daily intake), really harmful, and readily available. Research suggests that increasing the taxation on it would deter consumers of super strength lagers, but passing this policy has been a nightmare.

As it stands, approximately 50% of rough sleepers have an alcohol problem, and half of them have an addiction to super strength lagers. Frontline workers at Thames Reach (where I am interning) have plenty of evidence of rapid deterioration in health caused by super strength lagers, and an escalated dependency. When I was at the drinker's hostel today, I noticed a 2L bottle of White Ace that cost only £3.49. Ever since learning about super strength lagers, I am so easily able to spot it and it is amazing how many homeless people I have seen with half empty cans of "Special Brew" beside them.

A campaign Thames Reach has worked on has been to advocate for policy to increase taxes for brewers to make it economically nonviable to produce them for mass consumption; hard-hitting health warnings like those on cigarette packets indicating that consumption of a single can will lead to exceeding the Government's daily recommended safe alcohol limit and risking damaging their health; and creating a 6% strength ceiling on alcohol content for canned and bottled super strength lagers and ciders. Of course, this has not been easy or successful necessarily. It's amazing that something that seems so simple to benefit society can become so political when it involves corporations and money.

Over the last few weeks, I have seen so much of how different peoples' lives have been affected by different factors. Alcohol is one that has been interesting because I have of course, known alcohol in a completely different sense. To see how it impacts individuals who become dependent, who drink all day and cannot work or get out of poverty because of it... it's a new dimension to how some become homeless and why they sometimes stay that way. I'm very interested in continuing to learn about alcohol and drug support needs, and the sorts of policy around it. I feel that learning about the policies that exist and how they are failing society is what would bring about change.

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