A personal experience about drinking alcohol
By Dr Brighton Chireka
Alcohol misuse is of great concern as we are seeing even children and young people being affected by it. I think we need to have a frank discussion about alcohol and I welcome comments from everyone. On this topic, I write from personal experience as I used to drink alcohol. I initially managed to resist pressure from friends at Rusununguko High School and Kutama College but the temptation was too much when I joined the University of Zimbabwe in 1993.
The Student Union would organise an orientation week for all new undergraduates, as was the tradition, and alcohol was being sold at ridiculously low prices. New students were given cash by the government for their upkeep, so money to spend was not a problem. Everyone I knew was drinking alcohol and I tried the ‘brown bottle’ not knowing that was the beginning of my drinking journey.
Little did I know that I would end up drinking alcohol for 10 years and regret it. I had to stop alcohol after being arrested for drinking and driving in Birmingham in 2003. This was embarrassing as it meant that I had to appear before the General Medical Council (a board that registers doctors in the UK) to make sure that I was fit to practice. I then realised that alcohol was going to ruin my career or I could injure someone if I did not take action to stop drinking.
I am glad that I stopped drinking alcohol in 2004 but it was not ease. At times I would go to a pub and try to stick to soft drinks. One day I found myself picking up my friend’s brown bottle forgetting that I was no longer drinking. But this is now history as I have now been teetotal for the last 11 years. When I appeared before the General Medical Council, I was teetotal and found fit to continue practising as a doctor, but the experience was not nice. It’s something that could have been avoided and I do not want a colleague to go through that same experience hence writing this article for everyone to learn from my experience.
I now call myself a wounded healer and want to share my experience with many people out there that are struggling with alcoholism. The message is that you can do something about your drinking if it is a problem. Hopefully, after reading this article you will be motivated knowing that as humans we can be addicted to certain things, but if we are determined we can change our lives for good. I want you to touch my scars and remember that your wounds can be healed and become scars just as mine. Remember not to keep picking your wounds or else they will not heal properly.
I ask myself a lot of questions about our alcohol drinking as Zimbabweans. This reminds me of my days in Harare in the late 90s when, one day, I was drinking alcohol in Highfields with high-ranking police officials. After drinking together they asked me to drive them home regardless of the fact that I was “plastered” with alcohol. I do not know how I managed to drive them and also make it to my house. It’s this culture that I am concerned about if it is still taking place. I would like to believe that things have changed, but the statistics are telling me that things are getting worse.
I was even more concerned when a friend of mine was arrested for drinking and driving and wanted me to join him in lobbying the British establishment for Zimbabweans to have a special law. One day, I decided to just ask a group of fellow Zimbabweans at a party, out of curiosity, and was shocked to learn that, out of the 5 people I spoke with, only two had not been arrested for drinking and driving. What worried me most was that the majority seem to think that the police in UK is racist in arresting them even if they admitted to have been driving whilst drunk.
We have some statistics that are a cause for concern to those who care to read. A study by A. Armstrong in 1998 looking at survivors of gender-violence in Zimbabwe, found that consumption of alcohol was often involved in cases of domestic violence. In a paper entitled “Drug Use, Abuse and Alcoholism in Zimbabwe” published in October 2002, it was argued that alcoholism is one of Zimbabwe’s four top diseases. The paper stated that at least three million people in Zimbabwe were alcoholics. The paper projected that in the next 20 years, which is now 8 years away, alcoholism would be the country’s number one social problem.
A study in 2002 by Fritz KE et al on the association between alcohol use, sexual risk behaviour and HIV infection, found that 31% of the men reported having sex while intoxicated in the previous six months. There was a significant association between having sex whilst intoxicated and recent HIV seroconversion. According to the 2004 Global Status Report on Alcohol, Zimbabwe was ranked number 12 in Africa with per capita consumption of alcohol pegged at 5,08 litres per year compared to an average 4 litres in other African countries.
The year 2012 went down in Zimbabwean history as the worst in terms of the number of fatalities witnessed on the roads during the festive period. According to police statistics, over 170 people perished on the roads, with about 730 being injured from road traffic accidents alone. Experts attributed this phenomenal growth in the accident rate to excessive consumption of liquor which in turn leads to poor judgment, excitement and speeding among others.
The Herald, in late 2011, reported that Delta Corporation, one of Zimbabwe’s industrial giants, had registered a whopping 800 percent increase in beer sales. The former health minister, Dr. Timothy Stamps, in 2011 is claimed to have said that drink-driving accounts for 50 percent of all accidents in the SADC region and alcohol abuse were almost always a factor in domestic violence and child neglect cases.
In England in 2011/12, an estimated 1.2 million hospital admissions were due to an alcohol-related condition or injury. This is a 4% increase on the number of alcohol-related admissions in 2010/11 and a 58% increase compared with 2002/3. In England, alcohol dependence affects 4% of people aged 16-65 (6% of men, 2% of women). Over 24% of people in England consume alcohol in a way that’s harmful or potentially harmful to their health and wellbeing. Alcohol misuse is also a growing problem in children and young people, with over 24,000 receiving NHS treatment for alcohol-related problems during 2008/9.
Our sisters and our children have joined in as well
Gone are the days when it was a taboo for girls to be seen drinking alcohol. Also, children and young people are using alcohol to deal with their frustrations. We as parents, I am afraid, are failing our children at times as we no longer have time to discuss problems faced by our children in today’s world. These young people turn to drinking to run away from their problems as us parents are too busy to supervise them. It’s sad that some of us in the diaspora cannot be with our children. We have children back home in Zimbabwe living on their own without anyone to guide and protect them. These children need our guidance so that they 1) do not do as they wish or 2) are not left to their own vices.
How many units are in the alcohol that you are drinking?
Before we find out if you are misusing alcohol let us look at the units that are in different types and how much is recommended to safely take. Alcohol is measured in units. A unit of alcohol is 10ml of pure alcohol, which is about half a pint of normal strength lager or a single measure (25ml) of spirits. A small glass (125ml) of wine contains about one-and-a-half units of alcohol.
Men should not regularly drink more than 3-4 units of alcohol a day, and women should not regularly drink more than 2-3 units a day. ‘Regularly’ means drinking this amount every day or most days of the week. It’s also recommended that both men and women have at least two alcohol-free days each week.
Your health is at risk if you regularly exceed recommended daily limits. The Department of Health in the UK recommends pregnant women and women trying to conceive should avoid drinking alcohol. If they do choose to drink, they should not drink more than 1-2 units of alcohol once or twice a week and should avoid getting drunk.
In Zimbabwe, some drink traditional beer and a study conducted to determine the alcohol concentration in these beverages found that doro rematanda (seven-day brew) had an average of 4.1g/100 ml of alcohols compared to Muchaiwa with 2.8g/100ml and 3.6g/100ml in one day brew (chikokiyana). We also have Kachasu (traditionally distilled gin) which is thought to contain anything between 10% and 70% pure alcohol and whose effects on the health of consumers are neither documented nor known.
One can imagine the health effects of drinking Kachasu as it is made from unbelievable things such as fertiliser, washing soap powder, acid from old batteries, brown sugar and water. These beverages are difficult to quantify their exact units, but the message is one should assess his or her drinking habit. We know that in times of economic crisis people tend to resort to alcohol drinking as a way of reducing stress levels, not knowing that alcohol can cause depression.
How do I know that I am misusing alcohol?
Alcohol misuse means drinking excessively – more than the recommended limits of alcohol consumption. You are a low risk drinker or sensible or responsible drinker if you drink 21 units of alcohol a week or less (adult men) or 14 units a week or less (adult women). You are a hazardous drinker if you regularly drink 22-50 units of alcohol a week (adult men), or 15-35 units a week (adult women). Hazardous drinking, particularly binge drinking, also carries additional risks such as: being involved in an accident, becoming involved in an argument or fight, taking part in risky or illegal behaviour while drunk, such as having unprotected sex or drink-driving.
Harmful drinking means drinking over 50 units of alcohol a week (adult men) or over 35 units a week (adult women) weekly and experiencing health problems directly related to alcohol. In some cases, harmful drinking may cause obvious problems such as: depression, acute pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas – a gland that produces insulin) and an alcohol-related accident, such as a head injury.
Many health problems that occur as a result of harmful drinking don’t cause any symptoms until they reach their most serious stages. These include: heart disease, high blood pressure, cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) and some types of cancer such as mouth cancer and bowel cancer. This means it can be easy to underestimate levels of physical damage caused by harmful drinking. Harmful drinking can also cause social problems, such as relationship difficulties with your partner or family and friends, as well as problems at work or college.
Alcohol is both physically and psychologically addictive. It’s therefore possible to become dependent on it. Being dependent on alcohol means you feel unable to function without it, and drinking becomes an important (or sometimes the most important) factor in your life. One way to think about whether you’re dependent on alcohol is to ask, “Do I carry on drinking even though I know it’s harming me or upsetting my family?”
You could be misusing alcohol if:
You feel you should cut down on your drinking,
Other people have been criticising your drinking,
You feel guilty or bad about your drinking and you need a drink first thing in the morning to steady your nerves or get rid of a hangover.
Someone you know may be misusing alcohol if:
They regularly exceed the recommended daily limit for alcohol,
They are sometimes unable to remember what happened the night before due to their drinking,
They fail to do what was expected of them as a result of their drinking, for example, missing an appointment or work due to being drunk or hung-over.
How can my alcohol misuse be treated?
One needs to acknowledge that they have a problem, but sadly, the majority classify themselves as responsible drinkers, even though, the evidence points to the fact that they are harmful drinkers. How alcohol misuse is treated depends on how much alcohol a person is drinking.
Treatment options include:
Detoxification which involves a nurse or doctor supporting you to safely stop drinking; this can be done by helping you slowly cut down over time or by giving you medicines to prevent you experiencing withdrawal.
Counselling includes self-help groups and talking therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
Medication: There are two main types of medicines to help people stop drinking: the first is to help stop withdrawal symptoms and is given by reducing doses over a short period of time; the most common medicine that’s used in this way is called chlordiazapoxide (Librium). The second is a medication to reduce any urge you may have to drink; the most common medications used for this are acamprosate and naltrexone; these medicines are given at a fixed dose and you’ll usually be on them for 6-12 months.
I hope this article has come at the right time since Christmas is around the corner and everyone will be in the festive mood. Let’s make sure we take a moment to pause, think and reflect so that we either stop drinking alcohol or we drink responsibly.
If you are concerned about your drinking or someone else’s, a good first step is to visit your GP. They will be able to discuss the services and treatments available. There are a number of charities and support groups wherever you are that provide support and advice for people with an alcohol misuse problem. One group that I would recommend is the AA (Alcoholics Anonymous).
This article was compiled by Dr Brighton Chireka, who is a GP and a Health Commissioner in South Kent Coast in the United Kingdom. You can contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org and can read more of his work on his blog at DR CHIREKA’S BLOG
Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Dr Chireka has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but makes no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health-care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. Views expressed here are personal and do not in any way, shape or form represents the views of organisations that Dr Chireka work for or is associated with.