The first discussion forum presented by Festival of Ideas fringe event Festival of Unpopular Cultures was the session: What I talk about when I talk about getting plastered: The sociology of alcohol, drugs and youth. On the panel were Joseph Borlagdan (Research & Policy Manager of Brotherhood of St Laurence), Chris Raine (Hello Sunday Morning), Jon Jureidini (Women’s & Children’s Hospital), Sam Liebelt (AIVL) and Lisa Dempster (Hello Sunday Morning participant).
Geoff Goodfellow opened the session with a poem about a society where alcohol is continuously present and taking drugs means more than what your GP prescribes. We are a drinking and drug taking culture and as moderator Jennifer Greer Holmes stated right up front, we do it to for pleasure.
The panel agreed, from personal experience and with research to back it up, we drink and inject to seek gratification. Yet it was Jon who was quick to point out when it gets out of control it moves from being pleasurable to shielding pain. This was Lisa’s experience. Her decision to stop drinking came when she realised it was a short-term diversion from her underlying depression.
But drinking alcohol is more than just feeling ‘good’ it is sociable, it is how we relate to our peers and becomes intrinsic to how we enjoy ourselves. From Joseph’s research with young people it has become the “moral imperative of today”.
His research has identified that young people gauge the success of a party by how drunk they got. It seems the excitement is no longer about who will be there and what do I wear but what alcohol am I drinking. Then on the night declaring “I am so drunk” is like a badge of honour.
Joseph’s research also discovered that when a young girl decided to stop drinking she felt like she was spoiling everyone else’s fun. Personally she felt like her decision was having a negative impact on those around her who were drinking.
This was true for both Lisa and Chris who talked about the social impact of crossing over to being a non-drinker. Yet it was also a soul searching moment of ‘finding’ themselves all over again and gave way to them seeking ‘pleasure’ in other parts of their life.
This personal insight gave first hand knowledge to what it must feel like to re-examine your world and truly see what role alcohol had in it. One person alone can’t change our drinking culture as Lisa found when she struggled to find ‘dry’ areas let alone sober people to share that space with.
But once she stopped seeking this and instead looked for alternatives within those social settings such as ‘mocktails’, being with her drinking friends was easier. However if these friends wanted to have her around, they too had to change their behaviour too. They had to accept her decision to give up drinking for 12 months and stop the peer pressure to ‘have just one drink’.
Now all I wanted to ask, was after 8 months in to her 12 month Hello Sunday commitment will Lisa drink again?
Lisa’s story only touched on why some people drink and how pleasure can turn to pain. As Jon rightly pointed out, that when it is time to give ‘it’ up it is more than stopping but about taking something else up, replacement therapy. Of course this only works if that something is not doing you harm.
Then there is the harm minimization approach, which refreshingly Jon said as a doctor he found liberating. This approach is about setting smaller targets for people to achieve and has greater results. He just wishes the Health department embraced this more often over more areas.
Now while this blog reads like this panel only talked about alcohol Sam did contribute his parallel view on illicit drugs. He too believed using was about pleasure and agreed that when dependence kicks in it shifts to being harmful.
While Chris and Lisa touched on the ritual of alcohol in our culture Sam believes a hurdle to quitting illicit drugs is the ritual of ‘injecting’ that goes with it. Also an advocate of harm minimization he sees a great hypocrisy around government educational messages that focus on this approach with alcohol rather than just stop drinking altogether.
Sam has seen the harm minimization approach be effective with reducing the impact of illicit drug use but he wants to see it expand to teaching young people how take drugs safely. For him what is stopping that is the stigma still around drug use.
This stigma is causing users to be secretive and that is where the danger lies. We cannot escape the fact that some young people find their identity when they start using illicit drugs. However it is important to show them that is only one part of their life.
While that is what we can do at the coalface we still need government to get on board with effective communication campaigns. The panel discussed the current strategies of campaigns such as “don’t turn a night out into a nightmare” but do young people hear these messages or see them more as a joke?
While there was no young person on the panel (or in the audience) to answer that it was clear the focus on alcohol frustrates Sam. He wants us to talk about taking drugs just like we talk about drinking alcohol. Taking it back a step, this audience member also wanted the panel to talk about softer drugs and the impact that is having.
Whether it is soft or hard, talking about drug taking is an unpopular subject in the electorate and that is why Sam thinks the government is steering away from it. And as Jennifer acknowledged under the Howard government we did at least discuss it ‘as the war on drugs’ but now we don’t even do that.
Instead we are relying on the media to lead this discussion, which they do with stories of celebrities falling off the wagon, police drug busts and young girls binge drinking.
However we should not be relying on the media to talk about a cultural issue that stems generations. We are a drinking and drug taking culture. The Hello Sunday stories highlighted for me especially how entrenched drinking is in our society and sobriety is a tough decision.
As the mother of a 3 year old I started to question how do I raise a young boy in this culture when a glass of wine after work or over dinner is something he regularly sees. A parent from the floor asked if giving a teenager two ‘cruisers’ when going to a party was a sound harm minimization approach.
I felt sorry for this concerned father when the panel shattered his assumptions by telling him his kids have probably dumped them at the party and gone for something harder. Even I could not help but think it is not what we say, it is what we do. We need to show a healthy relationship to alcohol and choose not to drink it around them when we come home from work or excessively with friends.
And as for drugs, as Jon put it, make judgments about their behaviour and but I would like to add as parents we do not ‘judge’ their decisions.