Saturday, 1 March 2014

Total: T

Lot's of odd things happen when you're 16. You're given your L-plates and the opportunity to explore the open road, albeit with a parent. The pressure from school starts to mount as you find yourself on the precipice of VCE. All those unspeakable things you've pondered in your head for the previous few years become reality, as you find the opposite sex suddenly willing.

16, for many, brings with it alcohol. For some, this date shifts around a bit; at my school alcohol started to pop up at 14, for others it's only when it becomes legal that it becomes worthy of discussion. Nonetheless, 16 seems to be the "right" age for getting on the grog.

Alcohol and the pressures of being a 16 year old provide a dangerous combination, that often fosters an unhealthy attitude towards drinking. Instinctively, we all knew who the first would be. Soon others would follow; taking every imaginable opportunity to write off their senses and condemn themselves to a hangover the next morning. For the majority, this is a welcome opportunity to try something knew and to expand one's social circle. It also represents the first steps into adulthood (at least so they think).

For me, this was a difficult period. As alcohol transitioned from being the plaything of the fringe dwellers—those who, it could be said, weren't "going far"—to the plaything of everyone who was normal, it became more and more difficult to resist the tide of peer influence and get stuck into the booze. Indeed, I very quickly transformed into a social pariah, when only a few months back I was a completely sensibile 15 year old.

Today, I remain the social pariah. Where it was once acceptable among underagers to be the odd one out and not drink, it is almost social suicide among University students newly liberated from the authoritarian private and catholic school systems. It then begs the question, why?

It is not as though I have never consumed alcohol. In fact, I have from quite a young age. My parents, particularly my father, always encouraged an indifference towards alcohol, and as such, I was trying various beers and wines from quite a young age. Without the thrill of prohibition, I waited until legally aged to indulge in a cider every couple of weeks. This never meant drinking in pursuit of the effects of alcohol; it was drinking for taste.

Nowadays, I don't drink. I can't for health reasons. Even if health didn't prevent it, I would never drink to the point of drunkenness, even to the point of .05. And it should be for this very reason that society at large refuses to drink to these ends.

So often said that is now a cliché, alcohol is a poison is just about the most obvious indicator that alcohol is probably best consumed in small quantities. It is a staple of the six o'clock news to report of the so-called "alcohol fuelled violence) that transpired at the weekend. Though, it must be said that there is somewhat of a contradiction in our media: whilst we are bombarded with reports about the effects of irresponsible drinking and violence under the influence, media personalities then openly espouse alcohol abuse by making constant references to their own binge drinking. Hardly setting a precedent for change.

We already know the acute effects of alcohol well. At the very least, it will give what one often describes as a buzz; an invitation to be more social and generally more likeable. For the truly unbearable or painfully stupid, the buzz isn't sufficient to make their company palatable, and as such, they pursue complete and total wipeout. At this stage, one's system is so chock-a-block with ethanol that any semblance of their original personality is wiped free. This is the aim of binge drinking. To completely wipe away one's senses, to compromise one's memory and to smother any impulse control.

Apparently, this is a desirable outcome. To lose control of one's mind is something that people strive for all too often. It as this stage, with the mind shutdown, that the bad occurs. We've already touched on the violence, levels of which are rising at an alarming rate. In addition to this, other effects of alcohol can include vomiting, syncope, coma and death (ok, so I may have missed a few—google it!). These are all very real and serious side-effects of drinking.

In the long term, alcohol nearly always has a devastating effect. Regular binge drinking—in simple terms—fucks every system of your body. Perhaps most devastating is Korsakoff's syndrome, which is very common those who have developed a chronic dependence on alcohol and results from a lack of Vitamin B. Insufficient vitamin B causes damage to the hypothalamus, causing alcohol induced dementia. There is something cruelly ironic about this disease. It inflicts itself on those who've pursued a few too many good times, those who've sought to wipe their minds for a night, have their minds wiped forever.

After a bit of rambling, and structure indicative of its 2am writing time, this piece has probably left you a bit confused. Indeed, it's left me a little bit confused about just how harsh my opinions. At some parts, you could be forgiven for thinking that I'd ask for an outright prohibition, at others I seem nonplussed about the subject. So let me clear that up for you.

Alcohol has long been a key component of human culture. Ever since humans got lazy with their fruit, and found out that it gave them the aforementioned buzz, they've tried desperately to find pleasing ways to repeat those effects. In fact, it's quite incredible just how diverse our methods of producing alcohol were in ancient history; as is the ubiquity of the consumption of alcohol in all cultures. Alcohol is in many ways a national symbol. It has always been related to identity. The champagne of France, the vodka of Russia, the rakija of former Yugoslavia and so on. These all figure strongly in the identity of these nations.

Just because alcohol has cultural significance, does not mean that abuse of it should be treated with complacency nor the with the reverence it appears to receive in this country. In spite of the cultural links to alcohol, most nations, by and large, treat it with respect. It is a beverage to be enjoyed in the company of friends or in blissful solitude, it is not a means to get drunk. This is, generally, the culturally accepted approach to alcohol in Europe and Asia, with some exceptions of course.

Regrettably, this does not seem to be the case in Australia. Here, a measure of one's strength—male or female—is directly related to the volume of alcohol they are able to consume. This is a worrying culture, and goes far to explain the issues with alcohol that Australia has. That I am weird for opting out of alcohol, that I am weird for refusing to binge drink, that I am weird for not having being drunk is what is truly weird.

Personally, I await the day that somebody in power, somebody of importance, helps Australia make a step towards breaking this culture. What we need is divisive action to teach Australian youth, and indeed all Australians, to respect alcohol. How this can be done in a practical sense is a matter of debate, but a public health approach is needed. I like a model that ensures anybody who's been arrested, or indeed found, drunk receive treatment, though this is my opinion and isn't particularly pragmatic.

To this day, I am proud to be sanctimonious, I'm proud to be the social pariah, I'm proud to be one of the few who quivers at talk of binge drinking—even if it does bear on my social life. Drink responsibly.

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