Two of the aspects of drinking that I have been mulling over recently is when people post pictures of themselves drinking (or even just their drinks) on social media. I’ve also been thinking about our drinking icons, our heroes and heroines (both real and fictional) whose appeal lies, to a significant degree, in their drinking.
People not only like to show themselves drinking, they also like to see people drinking. Think about Charlie Harper, Homer Simpson, Bertie Wooster, James Bond and WC Fields. Their drinking is a major part of their attraction. Think of the myriad of other people, both real and fictionalised (or often both) who we idolise, in no small part, because of their drinking.
Why do we like to see these heavy drinkers, both real and imagined, and why are we so keen to publicly display our own drinking?
One of the reasons is that we cannot see ourselves. Sure we get the odd glimpse in the mirror, but we can’t actually step outside ourselves and really look at ourselves and see ourselves as other people see us. We can’t meet up with ourselves and spend some time with ourselves and see what we are really like. So we do the next best thing, we interpret what we are like by looking at others that we think we are like, or even that we try to be like. We view ourselves in the same way we view others we think we are similar to, or have similar characteristics to.
This is why we love to sit down and watch Charlie Harper get up to his drunken shenanigans, or Homer Simpson, or WC Fields, and why we love to sit down and read about our personal idols and their drinking escapades. This explains the fascination for hard drinkers like Oliver Reed, George Best, and Richard Burton.
Someone emailed me recently and said the thing that triggered his stopping was he had been on holiday with his family, and in the taxi to the airport on their way home his son asked him about alcohol. He asked his son what effect he thought it had on him. His son answered ‘It makes you tired.’ One of the reasons something like this can have such a powerful effect on us is not so much that we suddenly realise what we are actually teaching our children, but because children (up to a certain age) have absolutely no concept of other people’s feelings, they have no concept of diplomacy; what they say is exactly how they perceive things. My eldest once once asked me why I had a face like Spiderman, and when I asked him what he meant he said because of all the lines on it. Another time he asked me why I had breasts. If an adult said the same thing I would think they were either joking or deliberately insulting me, either way I would assume these were the main motivators and would not necessarily think they genuinely perceived me in this way. But if a child says it you can be sure that this is simply how they see things. It is said without spite, malice or ulterior motive. If your partner said for example that drinking makes you look stupid you’d simply assume he or she was nagging you in yet another attempt to get you to cut down or stop, but if a child says it we believe them in a way we couldn’t believe an adult.
The comments of children are one of the least distorted ways we can glimpse ourselves as others see us.
The problem with our drinking is that it makes us look like idiots, it degrades us and lessens us. Many years ago I served in the 4th Battalion of the Parachute Regiment. One of the many things it taught me was to stand straight, put my head up, my shoulders back, and my chest out, to stand proud and to tackle everything head on. It taught me pride. It taught me that the worst thing that can happen is pain and death, to both ourselves and our loved ones, but even that can be faced without being cowed. It taught me that even a painful and degrading death can be faced with dignity and courage. In fact there is only one thing that ever managed to truly humiliate me, to fully belittle me and to make me look weak and stupid and pathetic, and that was my drinking. In fact everyone knows that drinking makes them look pathetic, and we know it at a fairly deep level. The problem is of course that despite this we still want to drink because it makes us feel good, so we start looking at it from different angles to see if we can’t see our drinking selves in a more favourable light. Our drinking icons are a classic way of doing this; we see ourselves in their image. We see ourselves in the images portrayed by James Bond, Oliver Reed, Marilyn Monroe, Ernest Hemmingway, Bad Moms, Sex in the City, Richard Burton, The Macc Lads, George Best, Sean Penn, Winston Churchill, Olivia Pope, the list goes on. It is not that we necessarily think we are these people, but we see our drinking as they portray it; as comical, rebellious, elegant, tough, cultured, dashing, cavalier, reckless, or amiable. As opposed to the reality; pointless and embarrassing.
We spend a long time building up this distorted and enhanced image but a significant part of us knows on quite a deep level that this image we build up is sheer nonsense, which is why the comments of a child can burst this bubble in an instant, as can someone taking a photo of us or videoing us when we are drunk (Annie Grace actually recommends videoing yourself drinking and watching it).
This process actually goes two ways. We not only deliberately look to see ourselves in this romanticised and distorted way, but we project ourselves in the same way. Hence our posting pictures of our drinking on social media. If you have a glass of wine all on your own at 10am then clearly you have problem, but stick a picture of it on facebook with the comment ‘it’s midday somewhere in the world right?’ or ‘it’s not too early or a glass of wine is it?’ or ‘grape juice for breakfast’ the all of a sudden it’s funny, laddish, roguish, or whatever. Having a vodka and orange for breakfast means you have a serious drinking problem, but when Charlie Harper does it, it’s comical, cavalier, even dashing. Getting up in the morning and immediately knocking back neat spirits is the very definition of alcoholism, but when James Bond does it, it’s tough, gritty, and masculine.
Essentially, the phenomenon of posting drinking images on social media and our obsession with our drinking heroes and heroines both serve the same purpose; it is a way of justifying what we are doing, or normalising it, essentially it is a way of portraying it in a far more positive light. What you have is the same action, but two very different ways of interpreting it. It’s not really surprising that we want to see it in the more positive light. After all, who would want to see themselves as a pathetic, helpless drug addict, when they can see themselves as a gritty, rebellious tough guy?
Fortunately this particular aspect of drinking is extremely easy to dismiss, you just have to look at the reality; it’s all but bursting though the seams of the utterly unrealistic dressing we try to force it into. The images we build up are frankly ridiculous and don’t stand up to even the most cursory of examinations. In respect of the fictional it’s not even remotely close to reality. The general portrayal in films and on television are of people who spend almost all their time with a drink in their hand but it may as well be grape juice for all the effect it has. They never slur, stagger, look tired, get fat, or show in any way shape or form the physical effect of drinking. Occasionally you get an ‘alcoholic’ who knocks back entire bottles of spirits and drinks perfume and mouthwash if they can’t lay their hands on alcohol. Finally you have the ‘normal’ characters who occasionally get fully drunk, usually because they are celebrating or have had something tragic happen. If you had never encountered alcohol and formed your view of drinking from TV, you’d assume alcohol had absolutely no physical effect for the first 4 or 5 drinks, then you suddenly went from stone cold sober to fully plastered with nothing in between. You’d also assume that unless you are compelled to drink 4 or 5 bottles of spirits a day you don’t have a drinking problem.
The ‘real’ drinking icons are just as easy to dispel, but far more tragic when we scrape the surface. WC Fields said when he was close to death ‘I wonder what it would have been like without alcohol?’ Oliver Reed’s legendary death in that bar in Malta was preceded by several months of sobriety (very much putting paid to the belief that he was a committed and unrepentant drinker), and the final weeks of George Best’s life leaves absolutely no doubt that the reality of his drinking was a far cry from the image of him we like to use to justify our own drinking. Vivian MacKerrell (the real-life inspiration for Withnail from the film Withnail and I) was eventually unable to eat or drink anything due to the throat cancer that killed him at the ripe old age of 50, and resorted to injecting alcohol directly into himself through a syringe that was attached to a stomach bag. Near the end of his life he said to his father ‘I never meant to be an alcoholic.’