South african drink­ing cul­ture

Good Housekeeping (South Africa) - - YOUR LIFE -

for about four months when I went on a week­long hike with a friend and four of her friends, none of whom I’d met be­fore. The night be­fore we set off, we had din­ner to­gether, and they were dis­cussing what wine to or­der.

‘Red or white, Sabine?’ one of them asked me.

‘Oh, don’t worry about me, I don’t drink,’ I said.

And there it was, so sub­tle that if you didn’t know what to look for you’d miss it: the blink, the half-smile, and the ever-sounder­stated sum­ming up and dis­missal of the tee­to­taller as a judgy killjoy.

And while I wasn’t a judgy killjoy on that hike – it wasn’t the kind of sit­u­a­tion in which any­body would drink the bar dry and dance on the ta­bles, af­ter all – be­ing in the com­pany of drunk par­ty­go­ers when you’re sober cer­tainly makes you want to slap peo­ple. And not be­cause you’re jeal­ous; be­cause they’re so an­noy­ing.

I’d de­cided, when I quit drink­ing, that I’d carry on as nor­mal. A life­long sin­gle mom to two (then) teenagers with a from-home job that gave me very flex­i­ble work­ing hours, I was an in­vet­er­ate party girl. Lots of my friends were also cre­ative types and free­lancers, not tied down to early morn­ings or of­fice hours, and they’d rock up at my place when­ever there was a lull in their work­ing day. And if there wasn’t a lull, hell, we’d just cre­ate one. A cou­ple of gin and ton­ics on the ve­randa in­evitably turned into reg­u­lar all-night, all-out binges, com­plete with hap­pily crazed con­ver­sa­tions that went ev­ery­where and nowhere.

As a drinker, I’d loved it. As a tee­to­taller, it didn’t work for me at all. By 11pm, when in the old days the party would be just start­ing to re­ally get go­ing, I was al­ready might­ily weary of be­ing slop­pily kissed or ov­er­en­thu­si­as­ti­cally hugged, hav­ing wine spilled on me and be­ing told the same story re­peat­edly, only a lit­tle louder each time.

So it’s been three years since I saw a sun­rise fol­low­ing an all-night jol. It’s been three years since I danced so hard and for so long that I woke up sore. It’s been three years since I fell in bot­tle-bot­tom lust with who­ever was sit­ting across the ta­ble from me.

But it’s also been three years since I passed out rather than ac­tu­ally fell asleep. (The dif­fer­ence between blotto obliv­ion and real sleep is chalk and cheese.) It’s been three years since I be­haved so in­ap­pro­pri­ately that when I woke up, I im­me­di­ately longed to lapse into a coma. It’s been three years since I crawled through the day on a black-dog hang­over, headachy and liv­er­ish, riven with re­gret and anx­i­ety, and binge eat­ing to feed some yawn­ing great ravine in the very cen­tre of my soul.

Which is all de­light­ful. For me, the con­cept of wak­ing up ev­ery sin­gle morn­ing with a clear head was, prior to quit­ting drink­ing, as for­eign as the no­tion that life with­out al­co­hol was a pos­si­bil­ity. South Africa has a big drink­ing cul­ture. As a coun­try, we have one of the high­est lev­els of al­co­hol con­sump­tion in the world, at an av­er­age of 10 to 12 ℓ per per­son per year, com­pared to the global av­er­age of 6 ℓ per per­son per year. Ac­cord­ing to on­line fact-check­ing or­gan­i­sa­tion Africa Check, when look­ing only at those South Africans who drink, con­sump­tion rises to 27,1 ℓ of beer, wine, spir­its and other al­co­holic drinks per per­son per year.

‘Ac­cord­ing to World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion data, the risk pro­file of such drink­ing places South Africa at level 4, on a scale [of 1 to 5], with 1 be­ing the least risky and 5 the most risky,’ the web­site states.

For many South Africans, any leisure ac­tiv­ity, from a kids’ party to a Sun­day brunch, from a week­end away to a pic­nic at a lo­cal beauty spot, is syn­ony­mous with al­co­hol. And, like many South Africans, I grew up in a house with a fully stocked bar, wine with meals and red-let­ter days cel­e­brated with bot­tles of cham­pagne. Be­ing able to hold your booze or drink some­one else un­der the ta­ble was a badge of hon­our, not some­thing to worry about. We – I, my fam­ily and my friends – con­sid­ered peo­ple who didn’t drink bor­ing: they didn’t know how to live!

The truth is, how­ever, that heavy drinkers’ re­la­tion­ship with al­co­hol is of­ten so com­plex that it’s im­pos­si­ble to sep­a­rate cause and ef­fect. Some peo­ple drink to es­cape; some peo­ple drink to for­get; and even­tu­ally, many peo­ple drink be­cause they can’t not. Con­cern­ingly, re­search shows that heavy drinkers very of­ten cross the line into full-blown al­co­holism with­out re­al­is­ing it – it sneaks up on you.

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