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Health, psychology & science stories


Alcohol and what it does

20 May 2000


Published in the Byron Shire Echo

Business empires rose on it. Sporting clubs float on it. Novelists would die and journalists kill for it. Famously, it gives you the lie, but takes away the performance.

Since the Greeks, alcohol been the West’s main drug of choice.

And like all things we get too close to, we have long been blinded to its dangers. Our language was the giveaway: until about 30 years ago, "drugs" were what doctors prescribed, or outlandish-looking foreigners smoked in long, curved pipes.

A drink was just a drink.

Alcohol affects mood and thought at least as powerfully as cannabis, amphetamines or heroin. It’s the most widely used mood-altering substance in Australia.

Alcohol is also a depressant. This doesn’t mean it makes you depressed - rather, that it slows down the activity of the central nervous system. In small doses, it will make you more relaxed, extraverted, confident, disinhibited.

Unfortunately, we still don’t seem to have mastered those small doses. Australians drink more alcohol than any other people except New Zealanders.

Alcohol is involved in two out of five separations or divorces, three out of four violent assaults, one in three road accidents and drownings, and about half of all serious crime.

Annually, over 6,500 Australians die from its effects. This represents over a quarter of all drug deaths.

Had alcohol been invented in 1990, it would have been banned from every country on Earth. Selling it in back alleys would probably incur penalties as serious as those for selling heroin.

It takes the liver about an hour to break down one standard drink. Nothing will expedite this process - not exercise, black coffee, fresh air or vomiting. Drunkenness is only expiated by time.

Lots of time in some cases. A big night out can see you with a blood-alcohol reading over .05 next morning. Quite a few road accidents are caused by people with "hangovers" on the way to work: actually they’re still drunk.

Alcohol was involved in 44 percent of road fatalities in 1981. This had dropped to 29 percent by 1996: the result of public awareness campaigns, and greater testing and enforcement.

But we have much ground to make up. 160,000 people were killed on Australian roads since 1925 - nearly double the number killed in our major wars - and probably more than a third of these were due to alcohol.

The effects of long-term heavy drinking include loss of muscle tissue, memory loss, high blood pressure, stomach ulcers, weight gain, 

Reasonably heavy drinking will shorten anyone’s life - and will lower its quality in the meantime. Women can do equal damage to men with less liquor.

Last week we saw that dope-smokers who are "poly drug users" are at higher risk. The same applies with drinkers: other drugs have a "multiplying" effect on the risk of mental and physical illness.

More specifically, combining alcohol with other depressants such as sleeping pills, tranquillisers or cannabis can tell the central nervous system to close down the brain and heart. As with so many drug overdoses, the first symptom may be sudden death.

O for a beaker full of the warm South,
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stainèd mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim.
Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The wearniness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan.

Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale speaks of the desire everyone has to escape the difficult, the banal, the painful - in the world, but especially in oneself. Joseph Campbell - who studied more human cultures than perhaps anyone - spoke of the universal human need for transcendence.

Like most drugs, alcohol offers a short-cut to this transcendence, and takes away the hard work. But of course it’s a mirage. You waken from the night of gay laughter, whizzing bon mots and colorful friends to a thumping head, a dread of the day, and a mouth that feels like the bottom of a parakeet's cage.

Liquor is a brilliant companion in moderation. It can offer tantalising glimpses of Keats’s paradise. Not for nothing did the Romans say, In vino veritas.  ("In wine there is truth.")

But as a drug of addiction, it can delay self-knowledge as surely as any vice in Dante’s repertoire.


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