Now I won’t lie – we’re all a bit of a fan of knocking the froth off a cold one from time to time. We absolutely love a cheap drink, and I’ve written countless articles about alcohol. There’s also no doubt in my mind that the alcohol problem that Australia has is tumultuous, a systemic cycle that borders on toxic more often than not.
But what are the red flags to look out for when you have a sneaking suspicion that a mate, a family member, or even you, have a bad relationship with alcohol? And what can you do to help out? And can you be an alcoholic in your twenties?
I spoke with Kevin Vun, a psychotherapist from The Indigo Project in Sydney, about maintaining a healthy relationship with alcohol, and what to do if you spot some warning signs from the ones you love.
What are some red flags of someone with a toxic relationship with alcohol?
Therapist Kev believes that there is a wide range of signs that could point toward an unhealthy relationship with alcohol – as, with all matters of the mind and the heart, it’s not as simple as it seems.
He told me that there are a few common signs to be aware of, which include:
Drinking alone, and feeling the need to hide this from people.
Feeling like you only want to drink alone, and hide your behaviour from your friends may suggest there is something else at play behind your drinking.
If you have a serious compulsion to drink, where you physically, and/or psychologically need to drink.
You need to drink more to get drunk.
While some people might be heavy drinkers, noticing that you are continuing to push your limits despite negative effects may be a sign.
You can’t stop drinking.
Similar to craving alcohol, when you can’t stop when your body is telling you to, or when it is having a negative impact on the world around you.
Over-relying on alcohol to cope or to get by.
Beginning to rely on it to get through uncomfortable experiences in life, when alcohol becomes a crutch.
As for yourself, and any worries that you might be the one with the alcohol problem, Kev said that it’s all about checking in with yourself from a place of kindness, so you don’t freak out if you realise a hard truth.
You essentially want to pause, stop and notice – with kindness – what is going on in your life when you drink, when you aren’t drinking, and after you’re drinking.
The last thing you want is to be freaking out, or hating yourself, for something that is most likely uncomfortable to admit.
So, what can I do if I think a friend might have an alcohol problem?
“I would be asking myself – how severe is this problem? There is a myriad of different situations, depending on your relationship with them,” Kevin said.
“Are they at risk of harming themselves or another individual? If so, make sure you have emergency services ready on your phone.”
On top of these first responses, Kev recommends a few simple things to do to help your mate, including:
Taking care of them when they are drunk. Make sure they get home safe, or make them some toast and get some water or electrolytes into them if they come home drunk.
Suggesting other things to do that doesn’t involve alcohol. Kev suggested, “starting small” with things like nights in with no or minimal drinks and be the one to initiate the decision to have a sober night.
Don’t be judgmental, or push your friend away. The last thing they need right now is people abandoning them. Your mate might potentially hurt you with their actions or behaviour, but Kev said to “be patient, kind, and understanding of them, supporting them when you can, and if you can’t – and you’re comfortable telling them why – express it to them gently.”
Educating yourself. Do some research into how to support a friend with an alcohol problem, or reach out to professionals. Help is always there. (Therapist Kevin and the Indigo Project team are really lovely, I promise.)
Wait so, can you actually be an alcoholic in your twenties?
Honey, anyone can be anything – regardless of age.
Our 20s, for a lot of people, is about trying on different hats, learning about friendships, relationships, what it means for one to be outside of school. You have more freedom to be an ‘adult’, whatever that means. And what comes with this space, is drinking – one of the most socially accepted drugs.
We are broadening our life experience, and sometimes we develop bad habits, get swept up with the wrong crowd, and things can get hard.
So when does a bad relationship with booze turn into alcoholism?
Kev said that more often than not, the transition from an alcohol problem into alcoholism happens slowly, and subtly.
Life is full of variety, and the scope of the human experience is varied, but if you begin to notice some of the aforementioned signs, then maybe it’s time to speak to someone.
If you are beginning to question what’s going on in your life, stop, pause, breathe, and see if there’s a common denominator in life – aka alcohol. Then maybe it’s time to reconsider your relationship with alcohol.
How can I help to break down that whole ‘being sober is uncool’ idea?
Leading by example is the best way to help remove the negative taboos around staying sober. Kevin recommended doing activities and experiences that don’t rely on alcohol to be fun and inclusive.
He also said that a huge part of breaking down these systemic thoughts is by having a good, honest chat with your mates about alcohol, and how you all interact with it.
“Have open, respectable, and judgement-free conversations around drinking and being sober, but be open to people’s choices,” he said.
“One might enjoy drinking from time to time, the other a wine, another still likes to party, and one might be a teetotaler. Respect their choices, understand it, talk about it if it helps you.”
The last piece of sage advice from Therapist Kevin is all about going “back to basics” – if you’re worried about a friend, or yourself having an alcohol problem, try and lean back on things you and your mates love to do that doesn’t involve alcohol.
Go climbing, kick a footy, have a crafternoon, do some work in the garden, hang out and shoot the shit. Every little bit helps.