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Brendan O’Connor: Are we all just problem drinkers in huge denial?

As the debate about alcohol intensifies, TV presenter Adrian Chiles has been honest about his drinking, says Brendan O’Connor

A lot of men I know are vaguely uncomfortable having read TV presenter Adrian Chiles’s interviews about his drinking over the last week.

Chiles, once TV husband to Christine Lampard, and more recently a football and miscellaneous presenter, has a documentary about drinking on the BBC next week.

When he initially thought about doing a documentary about how what we regard as an ordinary level of drinking can actually be problematic, Chiles thought he probably didn’t drink enough to qualify to present the programme. Which is probably what most of us would think in his position.

And that’s the bit that I think people are finding uncomfortable. It turns out that Chiles, without knowing it, was drinking more than enough to qualify. But he only really found that out when he did the documentary.

While Chiles seems to be still in two minds about giving up drink, despite what he found out in the course of doing the show, he does have one simple message. Measure what you drink and don’t lie to yourself.

The easiest way to approach Chiles’s extraordinary honesty about his drinking was to think, “That guy definitely has a problem and he drinks way more than me. I don’t drink that much.”

But then again, that’s what Chiles used to think. He doesn’t seem to get drunk. He doesn’t fall down. He doesn’t fight.

He doesn’t usually have a drink until six or seven in the evening. He stops drinking and is in bed before 11 or 12 at night. His partner does not think he is a problem drinker. He says it has never affected his work or his relationships, though he could possibly have been more productive without drink.

As he says himself, he doesn’t tick any of the boxes of being a problem drinker, apart from the fact that he managed to drink an enormous amount.

And in fairness, it sounds like he did. As far as I can tell, he seems to have drunk 16 drinks at a party one night while doing the documentary, and his total units for that week added up to 100.

In reality, many of us have probably hit those numbers on a long day and night or on some kind of festive/stag/holiday week. But would you be doing it while you’re making a documentary? What’s he like when he’s not behaving himself for a documentary?

Then there’s the four pints he has one morning. In fairness, that was before going to a football match that was an early kick-off. But then again, there’s always a reason, isn’t there? And it’s still four pints in the morning. Again, many of us have probably done it, but there was probably a reason when we did it too. But it was still four pints in the morning.

When you dig a bit deeper on Adrian Chiles, it might give you a bit more comfort that you are not a problem drinker in denial.

Is drink on your mind all the time? It is for Chiles.

Is your life built around it? It is for him. But the example he gives of that is when he’s out filming, he’s thinking of getting back to London to get a few pints in.

And you wince and think a bit.

Many of us have been there too, haven’t we? You’ve got something difficult or stressful or boring to do, or a heavy day or few days at work, and your little reward to look forward to at the end is a pint. And you think about that first beer, that first taste of freedom, that first taste of reward.

So your life might not revolve around drink, but it’s in there all right. You might not go to bed later that night, like Chiles, with heartburn, high blood pressure and some anxiety. But again, you might have done that at some stage too.

And a therapist might not tell you, as one told Chiles, that he used alcohol to change his mood because he didn’t like who he was or how he felt. But again, who among us hasn’t reached for a drink to change the mood, to cheer us up, or calm us down, or relax us?

Where Chiles, perhaps, departs from many of us is that he suffers from anxiety and depression and is on and off medication for them. And he admits that alcohol probably doesn’t help with this.

Which is probably a bit of an understatement. Indeed, many people’s only experience of anxiety or depression will probably be from alcohol. The ‘fear’ from a bad hangover is an accepted fact of life in Ireland. So all in all, you might imagine that, unlike you, Adrian Chiles should possibly give up drink.

But then, Adrian Chiles wonders what he would do then, because his social life largely revolves around going for a few pints with various people. And while the rest of us may have a broader social life than just that, having a few pints is, for many of us, probably omnipresent, even after we indulge in healthier pastimes.

A good chunk of Irish people will judge how successful a night at the theatre was based on whether they managed to get a pint at half time without queuing for too long, and whether the show ended in time to get to the pub.

Chiles certainly didn’t think he had serious health problems due to drink, and indeed blood tests showed he had normal, healthy liver function. But a deeper test, a scan, showed that he was on the road to death by cirrhosis of the liver. Not that far along the road, presumably. But on the road.

So most of us probably think that Adrian Chiles drinks far more than we do and it is far more woven into his life than it is to ours.

But then he thought he was drinking normally too. But what is normal? Chiles reckons that those of us who think we are normal drinkers, ‘the constant drinkers, the topper uppers’ are the problem.

Chiles seems to be unable to stick to three or four consecutive dry days every week as recommended to him by a doctor, something that probably wouldn’t be a problem for most of us. He also has trouble sticking to the 14 units a week limit, something that might be more of a problem for some of us.

I’m not going to start tracking my drinking. Because I obviously don’t feel I need to, apart from the odd night.

But I might take on board another bit of Chiles’s advice. He bemoans the fact that most of the drinking he has done was probably mindless, rather than mindful. It was often pointless, and done just out of habit.

“How many of the drinks did I really need, want or enjoy?” he asks. And he could possibly have a point there. Some beers are more worth it than others.

And as he says about giving up. “It would be a pity to be robbed of that lovely feeling you get from the first pint just because you have been so f**king stupid pumping yourself with drink you didn’t really enjoy.”

And many of us will empathise with that.

But then, there are many who would doubtless say Chiles is an alcoholic and needs to face up to it, and that the rest of us, judging by the fact that we are even thinking about this, are addicts too.

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