Let’s face it, most expats like a drink (or two). Sometimes it might be a “quiet one” after work; other times it’s “one too many” at a party. But how do we gauge whether our drinking is a relatively harmless pursuit, or if it’s becoming something that needs attention? We asked Dee Stephen and Steve Chitty from Verve Counselling to fill in the blanks for us.
It’s easy to think of a “drinking problem” as something extreme, or to equate it with a shaggy-haired man who sleeps rough and is always liquored up by something concealed in a paper bag. The truth is, alcohol abuse can be much more subtle.
A few years ago, a friend decided to put his nightly ritual of a couple of quiet beers on hold. He would usually crack a beer when he arrived home and often have another with dinner. Nothing wrong with that, so why did he feel he needed to give it away for a time? His work situation had started to become excessively stressful and it dawned on him one night, as he reached for another, that his reason for wanting a beer had changed and his consumption level had subtly crept upwards. Somehow, a quiet beer had changed from a relaxing ritual to something that helped dull the pain from work. A subtle difference maybe, but hats off to him for being honest with himself where most would do nothing. After a few weeks, he restarted his healthy nightly beer routine once he was confident he would no longer use it as a painkiller.
Expat life has a number of unique challenges which can increase the likelihood of alcohol and substance abuse. For the chief breadwinner, these can include stress, high performance expectations, travel and loneliness. Add to this an expectation to “wine and dine” clients or colleagues, and it’s easy to see how this can get out of hand.
Trailing spouses also face their own challenges. Many expat spouses wrestle with loneliness, a lack of direction, frustration, boredom and feeling like a single parent. All these factors can weigh heavily on individuals and families, and reaching for drink can become an easy way of to dull the pain and get by.
In fact, studies by Chestnut Global Partners and the Truman Group suggest that expats could be 2.5 times more likely to suffer anxiety and depression, and are at a higher risk for substance abuse disorders and mental health problems. What’s worse is that when we do suffer we are often reluctant to seek help until significant damage has been caused. Unfortunately, there is still a degree of shame and social stigma that stops us from reaching out for help.
Often problem drinking has less to do with the amount we drink or the frequency, but ultimately the consequences of our drinking (both in the short- and long-term) and, most of all, our reasons for having a drink. Are there some helpful indicators that tell us we have crossed a line where alcohol has become a master rather than a servant?
Sometimes it’s fairly apparent that drinking is getting out of hand and sometimes it’s less obvious. After a hard day at work, one person may look forward to a cold beer in the evening, which is then chased down by another and another. His wife comes home so they open a bottle of bottle of wine and so it goes. But what about others? What about those who have a couple of glasses of wine each evening, and may get occasionally get legless at a party? How problematic is that? The answer is: it depends. It takes a lot of strength to be honest with ourselves to decide if our drinking has crossed a healthy line. Drinking problems don’t usually start overnight. They tend to gradually creep up on us, so it pays to be mindful of our drinking – the why, when and how we drink.
Why not ask yourself the following: “When I drink, is it usually with others or on my own? Is it a nightly ritual? Would it bother me at all to go without?”
There are other relevant questions: do you drink because everyone else does and you don’t want to feel like the odd one out? Do you struggle to say “no” or do you feel a sense of pressure to have another? Do you sometimes drink to ease social situations? Is it because when you don’t drink you worry too much, think about the past or feel too much pain?
The question of how you drink looks at the act of drinking itself. Can you have one or two and easily leave it at that or does one or two usually lead to three, four or five (or more)? Do you drink to savour the taste, or do you knock them back? Do you feel you need to hide some of your drinking behaviours?
Finally, be honest with yourself about the consequences. Do you often have to drag yourself out of bed in the mornings? Is alcohol having an impact on your relationships with your children or spouse? Does being “nicely numb” in the evening affect your ability to engage in meaningful activities (such as good conversation)? Do you get verbally or physically aggressive when you have had a few? Is your fitness or your health being affected? Is it affecting your weight?
And perhaps the ultimate question: do you honestly feel you are the person that you want to be?
If any your answers above unsettle you, then maybe it’s time to take charge and make a change for the better. It takes courage to seek help, but in doing so, it may be the best move you make. People worry that having any issue with alcohol might mean they need to stop drinking altogether, and as that thought can be a stumbling block for some, they avoid dealing with it. If you’re worried about your own drinking or the drinking of someone close to you, why not make a simple start and be honest with yourself? And if you feel you need a little more help, maybe it is time to share your thoughts with a trusted friend or a counsellor.