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High Sobriety: a new book sharing one journalist’s experiences with (and without) alcohol

High Sobriety, a new book from Jill Stark, a senior writer at The Age, is likely to be of interest to many Croakey readers, particularly those with an interest in addressing alcohol-related harm and Australia’s drinking culture.

In the Q and A below, Jill reveals why giving up alcohol for a year turned out to be “the most rewarding and transformative 12 months of my life”, and also suggests that public health advocates need to speak in terms that resonate with the community, and to avoid “preaching”.

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Q: Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

Jill: I started my career as a newspaper journalist in my native Edinburgh in the late 90s, which is also where I learned to drink. Being Scottish and a journalist you could say it was inevitable that alcohol would play a central role in my life. Epic drinking is as much, if not more, a part of Scotland’s national identity as bagpipes, tartan and Arctic weather conditions.

When I moved to Melbourne in 2001 with my then partner, I felt right at home in a country that had also turned binge drinking into an art form. Not only did workers get a day off in November to get pissed and watch a horse race but I could also drink at the football – an alien concept to someone who grew up watching soccer in dry stadiums, segragated from friends who barracked for the opposing team. My love of the Hawthorn Football Club was cemented not long after my arrival, during a glorious triumph over Collingwood at the MCG which I watched through a Carlton Draught-fuelled haze. I quickly got tired of the taste of warm, over-priced mid-strength beer in a plastic cup, but despite frequently playing badly enough to drive me to drink, I’ve never lost my love of the Hawks.

Q: How/why did you get interested in the idea of alcohol and health?

Jill: I started at The Age as health reporter in 2006 – a round that I fell into by accident – and the following year I was commissioned by then Saturday editor Michael Gordon to write a feature series on Australia’s binge drinking problem. While it’s hard to imagine, given alcohol is now the subject of daily news stories, there hadn’t been a lot written on the issue back in 2007. Illicit drugs were still the main focus, with alcohol seemingly getting a free pass due to its ubiquitous nature and the enduring belief that drinking is an intrinsic part of the Aussie way of life.

But the more addiction doctors and researchers I spoke to the more I realised there was an enormous emerging problem affecting Australians of all ages. My “Alcohol Timebomb” series started with a page one story outlining the scale of the issue and looking at both the problem and the potential solutions. I went on to write more than 40 stories in the series and continue to cover the issue to this day. Of course, the irony was that during the week I wrote about Australia’s escalating alcohol problem, and at the weekends I wrote myself off. It was Gonzo journalism in its purest form.

Q: What is your view of the Australian alcohol culture? Different from other countries?

Jill: Australia’s alcohol culture is well engrained. Drinking is a ritual that accompanies almost all our social and sporting events and our celebrations, commiserations and commemorations. I was told on more than one occasion during my year off the grog that it was “Un-Australian” not to drink. I was also told by a proud colleague that Australia sits at the top of the world drinking tables (It doesn’t. According to the World Health Organisation, Australia ranks 30th for per capita alcohol consumption, coming in behind Nigeria, South Korea, Uganda and many countries in Europe including Ireland, France, Germany and the United Kingdom) and that if I wanted to embrace my adopted country I should be drinking more not less.

World renowned alcohol researcher Professor Robin Room from Melbourne’s Turning Point Alcohol and Drug Centre, says that the notion of binge drinking being “who we are, and who we’ve always been,” is part of Australia’s national myth and plays into a romantic self portrait of ourselves as a country of loveable miscreants thumbing their noses at civilised society. The truth is a little more nuanced. Room believes that in fact, our drinking culture has largely been shaped by market forces that have turned alcohol into a commodity as benign as tea or butter. In that regard, it’s similar to the UK, which is also experiencing huge alcohol-related health and social problems.

In the book, I go back to Scotland to examine the drinking culture I grew up in and find that in some parts of Glasgow liver cirrhosis rates have increased by 450 per cent while rates in most of Western Europe have been falling. Part of the reason for the difference, I think, is that in European culture – in countries such as Spain, Italy and France – drinking usually accompanies a meal and is incidental, whereas in Scotland and Australia it’s often the whole point of the evening.

Q: How did the book came about and what it’s about?

Jill: I had been thinking of taking a break from alcohol for a while before I actually gave it up. When I say “thinking about it,” I mean toying with the idea for a few minutes in the depths of a raging hangover, before dismissing it as an exercise in planned insanity. But my hangovers were hitting harder and lasting longer.

Something had to give. It was meeting Chris Raine, CEO of Hello Sunday Morning that first planted the seed in my mind. Here was a guy in his early 20s who stopped drinking for a year and wrote a blog about it which then turned into an online social change movement encouraging thousands of others to give up booze for 3, 6 or 12 months and share their experiences.

On January 1st 2011, after a cracking New Year’s Eve party, I woke up with the hangover to end all hangovers and decided this had to be a line in the sand. I opted for a three month HSM but by the time the end of March rolled around I was enjoying the sense of physical and mental wellbeing so much I decided to sign up for another three months. In April of that year I wrote about my experiences of sober living for The Sunday Age. The article got a huge reaction from readers and led to a book deal with Scribe and a commitment not to drink until 2012.

The book charts my tumultuous year without alcohol as I navigate the newsroom sober, try dating without booze and endure censure from colleagues who tell me a year without alcohol is a “year without mates.” I also explore Australia’s drinking culture and what has led to us becoming a nation that health experts claim is “saturated with booze.”

Q: What did you learn out of doing it?

Jill: It’s hard to distil what I learned from the experience into a few sentences because it was the most rewarding and transformative 12 months of my life.

When I set out on the challenge I thought it was just going to be a simple case of not consuming alcohol but I was amazed how much I learned about myself along the way. When you take alcohol out of the equation you’re stripped bare, and forced to examine your emotions and motivations in startling clarity. That can be both confronting and liberating. My biggest lesson was that alcohol is something I enjoy, not something I need. I know now that confidence cannot be measured in standard drinks and that it is possible to dance until 3am without the assistance of jagerbombs.

Professionally, I work a lot more efficiently without the residual effects of my weekend hangovers. My brain is sharper, my memory clearer and I sleep a lot better when I haven’t been drinking.

Q: What impact, if any, does journalistic culture have on how the media reports on and frames alcohol stories? Any examples you’d care to share?

Jill: Journalism is a notoriously boozy profession and in the book I explore this, talking to some of The Age’s veteran reporters about the alcohol-washed lifestyle of the 1970s and 1980s in which drinking was an integral part of the job. That’s changed somewhat now but there’s no doubt journos still love to get on the piss and in many ways I think it’s a reputation we revel in.

However, in talking to Chris Raine from Hello Sunday Morning I realised that this may just be a convenient excuse we give ourselves to explain our boozy behaviour. Raine says that practically every profession he’s engaged with likes to think that they are big drinkers – nurses, teachers, tradies, architects, lawyers – and that really journalists are not unique in that regard. But I do think that editors who enjoy a tipple are more likely to give a story about a study that says “red wine is good for you” or that “drinkers are happier than teetotallers” a prominent run than one that talks up the downsides of alcohol.

Q: Have you any reflections that might be useful for public health/alcohol control advocates? What they do well/badly?

Jill: From the interviews I did for the book it was apparent that anti-alcohol campaigns that focus on violence, sexual assault and car accidents are missing the mark for many young people whose experiences with drinking simply don’t tally with those adverts. While they drink in a way that undoubtedly increases their risk of short-term and long-term harm, many – myself included after 20 years of weekend binge drinking – have escaped without any major incident. Some suggested that if there were campaigns focusing more on the health risks, as we’ve seen with quit smoking adverts, this might encourage them to think more of the consequences and modify their habits.

The biggest lesson I think public health advocates could take on board is that preaching doesn’t work. We live in a country where more than 85 per cent of the population drinks. Alcohol is a legal substance and if consumed in moderation is not harmful. Telling young people not to drink when their parents have taught them that a bottle of wine is how to unwind after a hard day’s work or their idols write hit songs about getting wasted, is hypocritical, patronising and pointless. We all have responsibility for the drinking culture we inhabit. Let’s not pretend it’s just a “youth” issue.

Q: Why might Croakey readers like to buy your book?

Jill: I think anyone who’s ever questioned the role that alcohol plays in their life would take something out of the book. Or anyone who’s interested in what drives our drinking culture and where they fit within that culture. It’s not a book that in any way says alcohol is bad, or that drinking is for chumps, but is an examination of what life might look like if you temporarily removed booze from your daily rituals.

Q: What’s your next book going to be about?

Jill: I’m in discussions with Scribe about what the next book might be and we’re mulling over some public health angles but for now I’m still trying to get my head around the fact High Sobriety has been published and I’m just enjoying the moment!

Q. You are active and engaging on Twitter. What difference has Twitter made for you and your work? Any advice to Croakey readers about using Twitter?

Jill: Twitter has been a revelation in terms of interacting with readers and contacts. The immediacy of being able to ask a question and have someone in your network provide the relevant link to an article or study has significantly cut down on research time. But it can also be a curse. When you post a story, the Twitterverse is not slow to tell you if you’ve got it wrong. My advice to anyone starting out on Twitter would be:

* Don’t tweet drunk.

* Don’t engage with trolls.

* Imagine your tweet on the front page of a newspaper before hitting the send button.

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More reading

• The book is on sale here.

Tracey Spicer at The Hoopla: “Not an alcoholic…yet”

• How different regulatory regimes contribute to different drinking cultures in the US and Britain: an interesting article in The Washington Monthly

 

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