Image: Getty. Design: Tina Tiller.
Image: Getty. Design: Tina Tiller.

OPINIONSocietyNovember 30, 2021

Let’s talk about our drinking. I’ll go first

Image: Getty. Design: Tina Tiller.
Image: Getty. Design: Tina Tiller.

After two decades of drinking a lot, Anna Rawhiti-Connell is ready for a change.

My father once had to retrieve me from a party after I passed out and was carried from the farm shed, where the party took place, back to the house. I had bought and drank a bottle of tequila from the liquor store down the road from my high school. “I don’t think you’re driving tonight,” he said, as I staggered towards the driver’s side of the car. That was the last joke he made for quite some time.

It makes for a slightly funny story now, I guess, but after watching Proof, Guyon Espiner’s new documentary for Radio New Zealand, I can’t help but reframe these “funny” stories in the context of the booze culture he so deftly interrogates.

Guyon is a mate and, as someone who has definitely talked rivers of unending shit at him while drinking, I confess to feeling some trepidation in watching this documentary. Was I one of the charmless piss-wrecked bores he was talking about? The answer is yes, definitely, but he would never say this to me. No one has.

Proof is the story of his own reckoning with alcohol and his decision to “go sober”. It’s a thoughtful and compassionate look at how objectively ridiculous our drinking culture is. Those are my words, not his. Without being preachy or patronising, Proof introduces a new tone to this discussion which has been shut down in the past because, as with drinking itself, we don’t do moderation well.

Guyon
Guyon Espiner in a publicity image for his documentary Proof. (Photo: Claire Eastham-Farrelly; additional design by Tina Tiller)

I had weight loss surgery nearly two years ago. I’ve talked about being defined by my weight and the set of accompanying rules before. I had to have a personality to match my size and make up for it. Big drinking seemed to be a crucial part of this. I wouldn’t say I was forever chasing a high but I have been in hot pursuit of the next “best night ever” for most of my adult life, stockpiling them as bonding experiences to shore up the belief that while I might not be a supermodel, I am super fun.

There are parallels in Guyon’s documentary to my own journey to better understand the enormous commercial forces that make obesity one of the defining health crises of our time.

Food and alcohol sector “innovation” is driven by profit, not the need to feed or water people well. We have been slow to move on regulations that would curb the levels of processed foods in supermarkets just as we have been on minimum unit pricing and labelling for alcohol. The big food and alcohol lobbies are powerful, creating a David and Goliath dynamic when anyone tries to take them on. In some of the poorest parts of this country, you can drive-thru a KFC, a McDonald’s, a Carl’s Jnr and a Wendy’s while passing five liquor outlets within the space of two blocks.

These comparisons end when we consider our social acceptance of personally moderating or restricting intake. We seem perfectly capable of celebrating someone’s decision to stop eating carbs for a month but not to stop drinking. I loathe it but it is far more socially acceptable to discuss your diet than it is to discuss your desire to drink less or not drink at all.

Proof has acted as a propellant for me to finally ask myself some questions about my own drinking that have been lurking for a while. My drinking increased over lockdown. Something about desiring an altered state to alleviate the boredom. But my hangovers have gotten worse and are now coupled with an unrelenting anxious shame that can last for days. I have a lowered tolerance for alcohol after surgery, although some will tell you my tolerance before surgery was a product of my own myth creation. I have always talked about having a “drinks window” that is far too easy to pass through. One wine, two wines and I am gone. Back to chasing the best night ever until 3am, opening a bottle of cheap wine from the cupboard that tastes like piss and vinegar just to maintain the momentum.

I feel ready to stare my history in the face after watching Proof. To admit that I have embraced dutch courage too often. This isn’t a sober pledge. It’s a bid to start drinking less while also making it easier for the people around me to make their own choices and not feel like an outcast.

As we head towards the relative freedom of the traffic light system on Friday, these are a few of the small things I’ll be doing over the summer from my bougie little corner of the world. Feel free to try them yourself:

  • Drinking is not the default. Don’t start by assuming everyone will be drinking which inevitably leads to people having to say “I’m not drinking”. They shouldn’t have to issue a decree. Instead assume “everyone will need a liquid refreshment” and start there.
  • Water. Always serve it, always offer it, always have it at the table when eating. Offer it on arrival, top it up before you top up other drinks. It sounds stupid but I will always drink less if water is readily available.
  • Offer non-alcoholic drinks that aren’t water or orange juice. No one wants an orange juice at 6pm. Ice, soda, lime, sugar-free soft drinks, whatever. But don’t make people feel like a knob by having to ask.
  • If you are drinking, don’t leap into the wine first. There’s no way to introduce this without sounding like a massive wanker who’s just got back from the Amalfi Coast but a little aperitif like port or vermouth with soda or tonic is delightful and far lighter than downing a glass of 12% wine at the get-go.
  • There are a bazillion non alcoholic drinks these days. Some people don’t like them when they’re not drinking because they remind them of things they used to drink. But there are options. Just don’t be offended if people don’t want the one non alcoholic beer you bought especially for them.
  • Clear the table of alcohol and call it a night. When my friends do this, I magically stop drinking. A miracle. Nothing good happens after midnight. I promise you.

Finally, I have to acknowledge that it is far easier for me to plan a summer of lighter drinking with my bougie aperitifs and my good life. A good life makes it easier to make good choices. Not everyone has that kind of life or those choices. As Sir Graham Lowe puts it in the documentary, the government needs to “grow some balls” and start acting in the interests of those whose circumstances make choice more difficult. My life wouldn’t be remotely impacted by the regulatory changes alcohol harm minimisation groups are advocating for. They would make a huge difference in some communities. It would be great if we stopped acting like our God given rights to get on the chop were being taken away by a proposal to introduce minimum unit pricing or reduce the hours that supermarkets can sell liquor. We need to stop treating those who are doing this work like they are temperance movement caricatures or wowsers. Some of them are just our mates.

Members of Communities Against Alcohol Harm protesting outside a liquor store in Ōtara. (Photo: Justin Latif)

At the end of Proof, Guyon lands the rationale behind the title.

“It’s bloody hard sometimes. It’s not that I miss the taste or the feeling of drinking alcohol. It’s that the burden of proof is on me to tell people why I don’t drink. It’s still seen as an essential part of life. It’s a legitimate option not to drink alcohol. It can be done. I’m living proof.”

The morning after the party my dad extracted me from, I woke up knowing something really bad had happened. My parents made me go to the house where the party had taken place to return the bowl I’d vomited in. Hopefully they threw it away. I also had to make shortbread and offer it to the hosts as an apology. I burned with shame. The shortbread probably tasted of it. But shame is a useless emotion, exemplified by me learning absolutely nothing after this incident. These kinds of events are treated as a rite of passage in this country and I went on to pursue drinking too much with an almost vocational commitment.

It’s taken me 22 years to feel able to reflect like this without wearing the weight and load of my choices. In this, my shame was worse than useless – it was regressive. Guyon’s documentary surely must provoke a nationwide conversation that’s been waiting to happen. It’s time for us to talk about our drinking in an informed way, without judgement or shame.

That is the burden of Proof, and also its power.

Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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