My parents have been dealing drugs their whole lives. As General Practitioners, they spend their days listening carefully to the patient's ailment and deciding which drug will be most likely to help them achieve their medical aims. You're depressed? Try these antidepressants. High cholesterol? Take a statin. Diabetic? Here is a syringe full of insulin. And through this ongoing dance between diagnosis and dose they are able to adjust a person's biology to help them live better, longer and happier (most of the time).
I was never smart enough to get into medicine (thankfully) but I did manage to find myself picking up the family business of dealing drugs at a young age. From the age of 15 right through to 22 I made a career out of prescribing copious doses of the drug that 86 percent of Australians consume but rarely consider its diagnosis -- alcohol.
It all started with selling bootlegged alcohol to other awkward high school boys at my boarding school. I made a tidy little profit selling it for all sorts of teenage boarding school ailments. Nervous about talking to girls at a party? "This here is called Dutch Courage." Want to do something you would never do sober? "Take four swigs of this." Can't dance? "Shots!" In my eyes, there weren't many social diagnoses that weren't solved with another dose of alcohol.
As I got older (20) I graduated from my bootlegging ways into becoming a nightclub promoter at a notorious venue on the Sunshine Coast -- a prescription pad for binge drinking. I sold more Vodka Redbulls to anxious university students than Apple sells iPhones.
It was always a curiosity to me that my parents studied for six years to be granted a licence to diagnose and distribute small doses of drugs during the day, but all it took was a loud voice and a penchant for promoting excess in sweaty, dark rooms to be granted a licence to distribute infinite doses of drugs in the night.
Why? The simple reason is we don't like to see alcohol as a drug. We have taken ethanol and wrapped it in so much sugar, sport, culture and marketing that we no longer call it what it is: a drug.
And, yet, this is why we use it. I know first hand because the whole time I was selling it, I was also self-medicating. One for me, one for you. A practice that would get you de-registered as a GP got me praise in my profession.
Alcohol has always been this wonder drug for me. It both stimulates and disinhibits my brain AT THE SAME TIME. The only downside is that once you start drinking, to keep feeling the stimulant effects you have to keep drinking. Once you (passion) pop, you can't stop. For me, drinking is the fastest way towards a liberated, less thoughtful, more fun, more open version of myself.
It still is.
However, as I got older, the hangovers started to get worse. And over the years those hangovers started to cost me a few life-goals: ashamedly, a few months of my drivers license for drink driving; an arrest; an untold number of Sunday mornings.
So in order to understand what I was relying on it for, I did a little experiment.
At 22 I decided I would spend the whole year completely sober. My thinking was that if I completely removed alcohol for that time I would see exactly what I was missing out on. I thought the best thing about it would be that I would at least get my Sunday mornings back, which I duly spent writing about the experience to publish on a blog. You can still read every single one of those posts online; a fact I am reminded of every now and then on second dates.
Little did I know that tens of thousands of people would want to repeat this experiment. Today, nearly 90,000 people have signed up to Hello Sunday Morning and followed in those footsteps, taking a break from alcohol (or just cutting back for a bit) to reflect on what the right dose is for them. I guess other people are curious about this as well.
So what have I learned over the past seven years? If you want to change culture, you have to start with biology. I think it is less about how we drink and more about why; less about the dose than it is about the diagnosis.
For some reason, the notion that alcohol is a drug irks people. But divorcing that acknowledgement from reality is why the blind spots in our culture begin to emerge.
Why is this is a problem? Because when we don't talk about what we are using the drugs for, and pretend it is simply 'culture', we ignore the psychological and social drivers that are behind the decisions we make each day to self-medicate.
Only one in four Australians with a substance use disorder will seek out the necessary help to address it. This is a perfect example of culture hiding biology. By the time we get to a point of addiction, in order to correct the changes we have made to our brains through long-term use and tolerance, long periods of abstinence are almost vital to reshape our brain again. We need to have the conversations and do the psychological work necessary long before it gets to this point.
The only way we will be able to do that is to stop ignoring our biology for culture, and start looking at why we are actually using alcohol for the drug it is.