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Column: Discussing teen drinking... over a bottle of vino

“Alcohol, to a child, must seem like some sort of guaranteed treat for grown-ups. It’s advertised as being fuel for wit, a stylish accessory, or a national heritage.”

Lisa McInerney

A CLOSE FRIEND was recently dismayed to learn her young teenage daughter had discovered alcohol.

We went over the best method of tackling her newfound interest. Should we demand she abstain from the demon drink, or try to educate her about its dangers, or allow her the odd taste at home, so as not to glamorise the poison? Should she be grounded, placated, reasoned with, or blasted with woe betides? Should we just tape her mouth shut until she reached the age of eighteen?

It’s a process every Irish parent goes through at some stage.

And we discussed it all over a bottle of sauvignon blanc.

After the Phoenix Park debacle of last weekend, we’ve got a lot to think about when it comes to recreational drinking in Ireland. Note the term ‘recreational’. Not ‘occupational’; in this case, the focus isn’t on alcohol dependence, but rather on social indulgence.

Fiona Ryan of Alcohol Action Ireland wrote on TheJournal.ie this week about the negative effects of alcohol on the family and how a parent’s drinking might do untold damage to a child dependent on their care and love. And I’m sure a lot of us nodded sagely and agreed that alcohol is the most abused drug in Ireland, or reminded ourselves of a family we know torn apart by alcoholism.

“Alcohol as a personal salve”

But the tougher fact to face is that you don’t have to be an alcoholic – or even to ever drink to excess at all – for your choice of beverage to negatively affect your fellow citizens. It’s not only our reliance on alcohol as a personal salve that’s so damaging. It’s our acceptance of it as a social right.

Alcohol, to a child, must seem like some sort of guaranteed treat for grown-ups. It’s advertised as being fuel for wit, a stylish accessory, or a national heritage. Alcohol companies sponsor recreational activities like sporting events or music festivals. It’s not just seen as a choice on a fun adult excursion, but part of the excursion itself, implicit in grown-up pastimes as Taytos and Fanta are in childish japes.

I remember being a teen and thinking that being able to go to a pub in the middle of the day and be served a pint with no questions asked would be the most amazingly grown-up thing.

Almost like a personal reception to the wonderful world of adulthood, a mini party to tell you you’d arrived. It’s the same process that makes kids think smoking is cool – it’s a signifier of maturity, that state all children strain for, and all adults… well, drink to get away from, I suppose.

So alcohol is everywhere, and it’s probably about time we accepted that that’s not a great thing. Sure, there’s no real harm in alcohol when it’s not indulged in to excess (even if the social definition of excess is a country mile from its medical definition), but teenagers aren’t very good at identifying and sticking within their limits, are they?

“The next day we compare hangovers”

And to an extent, neither are their adult counterparts. A huge amount of us drink to get drunk. We want enough pints to make us warm, relaxed and misty-eyed about Irish ballads, and the next day we compare hangovers, eat dirty great fries and laugh at our drunken behaviour.

“D’you remember when you fell over the chair leg and splashed your Jägerbomb on that ould wan? Good times!”

The problem is that unless our exploits are completely over the top, we tend to classify them as high jinks, on the grounds that we all do stupid things when we’re under the table. Ending up in A&E is a sign you’re doing it wrong, as is puking in a taxi, putting your head through a chipper window, or swinging for a guard. Everything else is par for the course – sniping at friends, shouting at bar staff, spilling pints on strangers, falling out of our shoes. And the pain of a hangover is, in some sense, pretty communal.

We’ve all done it, so we commiserate rather than tut-tut. We rush to make each other feel better. “You weren’t that bad! You were great craic, sure. Ok, so you twisted your ankle/called your girlfriend’s mother a sow/left your phone in a taxi, but we’ve all been there.”

Yes, and the generation coming up behind us will get there, too. As long as we keep treating binge drinking as a rite of passage and alcohol as a worthy indulgence in a consumerist society, young adults will still drink, and get drunk, and put themselves in danger, and make massive amounts of trouble for everyone around them.

You don’t have to be a gin-soaked degenerate to be draining the cop-on from your kids. But what can we do about it? Prohibition doesn’t work (and no one wants it), and it’s hard to be sensible about alcohol when, let’s face it, mild drunkenness is an absolute ton of fun.

Should we just accept that there will be collateral damage? That the amusement of the many outweighs the safety of the few?

No one wants to be reminded that at the same time they’re getting in the third round, in the local A&E department someone’s getting his nose reset because of a drunken barney. And certainly, no one wants to be reminded that being part of the same soused society means that
we’re all implicated when our boozy culture goes publicly wrong.

Read previous columns on TheJournal.ie by Lisa McInerney>

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Lisa McInerney

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