I got the dog in the first few months of my fieldwork. I was lonely and hadn’t made any real contacts yet, and my new partner was studying in the city (a six hour bus ride away). Somehow I found myself with a 12-week old puppy and a deep sense that everything was right in the world. This, like any other subjective personal experience, was bound to change.
It was around this time that I started keeping daily journals – initially as formal ‘ethnographic field notes’ alongside a daily personal journal to keep tabs on my life, and in particular, to record a growing unease about the amount of alcohol I was drinking. The dog features heavily in these volumes documenting my life for the past decade, because he is now a decade old and has been my constant companion. Over time, the ethnographic notes blurred into personal ones, and vice versa.
These journals have become living documents through my anthropological training. Let me explain it this way: in order to find meaning, trends, insights and interpret exchanges of information, data and metaphor in one’s field notes, an anthropologist has to figure out a way to ‘code’ her or his notes. For me, this is nothing sophisticated. It involves a couple of different coloured pens. Text is always dated. Keywords and other reflections added subsequently are always in a different colour with the new date. Simple as that. Even a fucking drunk can do it.Methods to live by!
In practice, my journals look like Mr Squiggle dropped acid with Raoul Duke and recorded the experience. Each page is, in the most literal term possible, a palimpsest – a ‘manuscript or piece of writing material on which later writing has been superimposed on effaced earlier writing’.
These journals document my alcoholism and addiction, and my subsequent, ongoing process of recovery (reflected sometimes in red or blue pen) with the help of an international 12-Step fellowship. The clues are overt (red wine rings browned with age; a snippet of insanity; a wild, nihilistic meditation on alcohol, depression and anxiety) and less conspicuous (a note to call a doctor, a half-drafted and mostly illegible drunk apology letter to my now-partner). They are both autobiographical and ethnographic.
Social Drinking is written in the vernacular of the alcoholics and addicts I know living in Australia: high school, trade and university-educated surfers, punks, layabouts, students, skaters, EDM freaks, metalheads, barflies and stoners.
I hope it will be read by alcoholics – anyone who either has questioned whether their drinking or drugging behaviour is doing them harm, or has a loved one or friend undergoing the personal and family trauma of addiction. The reason the blog is written in this way is because these are my type of people. This is because we have a shared history, one that is peculiar to the complicated and stressful world of those who deal with the consequences of alcoholic drinking or drugging. I make no apologies for this.
To you, my drunk friends, there is a way out.
As an anthropologist the title of this blog shouldn’t come as a surprise. Sure there are chemical, biophysical and genetic, psychological and (some would say) religious, spiritual or psychic aspects to alcohol addiction and recovery, but I’m interested in the social. This is why.
All I ever wanted to be was a social drinker when I grew up.
But, as a kid in Australia in the 1980s and 1990s, where male role models included such luminaries as cricketer David Boon (who famously downed 52 cans of beer on a Sydney to London flight), this modest goal was probably doomed from the beginning.
Social drinkers went to barbecues with mates and met girls, or held engaging, confident conversations with other adults at weddings. They didn’t take things too far with alcohol, or when they did, they didn’t fuck up too badly or too often.
Social drinkers kept nice bottles of wine at home to share with guests. Perhaps a few different beers as well, and some spirits and mixers for aperitif.
Social drinkers were goddamned respectable.
This rule, of course, didn’t apply to anyone under the age of, say 25, who were expected to go through a period of drunken hedonism in order to graduate as fully-formed, well-balanced Australian adults.
In my mind, people evolved from binge drinking hospitality workers, or apprentices who spent every cent of their meagre pay at the pub, or never-ending party-going university students, into social drinkers. It was a natural progression for normal Australians.
Social drinkers had friends, families and fabulous careers. They certainly didn’t get whispered about by people with sad, downcast eyes.
I remember the first time I overheard the phrase ‘he’s an alcoholic’ in an adult conversation. It was used in reference to a school mate’s father, who appeared to spend all of his free time in the garage. It had never occurred to me that what he was doing was self-destructive. I just thought he was introverted like I was at times.
I learned that an alcoholic was the opposite of a social drinker. They preferred alcohol over other people’s company, or only liked other people’s company when alcohol was involved.
Unlike many of my friends who went into trades at the age of 16, I stuck it out at school, got some pretty good results and was given the opportunity to go to university.
Undergraduate university barely exists in my memory as a consequence of my alcohol and drug use. However, in brief moments of clarity, I did learn a few things about a bunch of dead French social theorists.
Pierre Bourdieu talked about people in society having social capital: I like to think of it as immaterial stuff that other people value like being a good friend or a reliable colleague, a loving family member, or possessing that indefinable coolness that allows some people just to cruise through their lives without any apparent effort.
If social drinkers had social capital, then perhaps they could lose it by persistently fucking up? Or maybe this is just some bullshit theory.
Certainly, someone with an ample supply of social capital feels pretty good about it. They strut.
I know, I’ve had those moments too. But then, at other times, not so much.
Like when I passed out on the floor at work, was found by security and wheeled out to an awaiting ambulance. That was the start of my last drinking spree, in early November 2014.
I’ve been sober since, with the guidance and assistance of the women and men of Alcoholics Anonymous, and the help of a supportive partner, family, friends, employer, and of course, the dog.