From a woman who became a “full-blown alcoholic” at 18 to rough sleepers who drink hand sanitiser and mouthwash, thousands of Australian lives are ruined by alcohol addiction. And it does not discriminate.
Samantha Hoult was a “full-blown alcoholic” by the time she was 18. When she was 27, she was rushed to the emergency department with liver failure.
“The fact that the doctor said, ‘If you have one more drink, you will die’, it just hit me like a tonne of bricks,” she said.
“And I knew that something had to change.”
Ms Hoult, now 32, has been sober ever since.
It is no ordinary feat for someone who started drinking when she was 14 to “deal with issues” in her life at the time and basically spent her whole life drunk.
“Because I started so young, I didn’t actually learn how to deal with issues without alcohol,” she said.
“It got to the point where I was drinking from the minute I woke up. Otherwise I would get the delirium tremens [severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms].
“It affected every aspect of my life.”
‘I pretty much lost everything’
Ms Hoult dropped out of university, went bankrupt, and lost multiple jobs, her driver’s licence, relationships with partners, friends and family members.
When she was 27, the Cairns woman felt unwell several days after a “particularly boozy weekend” and visited a doctor.
“He called me the very next morning and told me that I needed to get to the hospital within the next 30 minutes, that my liver was shutting down,” she said.
“Your liver enzyme count is supposed to be between zero and 45, and mine was 14,380.”
Ms Hoult described that moment as her “rock bottom”.
But it was a turning point, and it has been four years and two months since she touched a drop of alcohol.
“It was incredibly difficult,” she said. “I had to learn to do everything again sober. Even sleeping, eating, socialising, dating — I’d never done anything sober.”
Ms Hoult started seeing a psychologist, took up exercise, joined the State Emergency Service, and went back to university to finish her nursing degree, becoming a high distinction student.
She is no longer tempted to drink, even playing competitive pool in pubs and enjoying socialising without alcohol.
But she said she was often perceived as odd being a sober person in a society that encourages drinking.
“I think there’s a huge culture in Australia for drinking and I think alcohol’s one of the worst drugs out there,” she said.
‘A novel approach’: Giving alcohol to alcoholics
While Ms Hoult was able to overcome her addiction, for a minority of alcoholics getting sober is unrealistic, according to some experts, who believe they should instead be given small, regular doses of alcohol.
This minority is primarily homeless people with severe alcohol dependence, some of whom consume hand sanitiser, mouthwash and shaving cream because they cannot afford alcoholic drinks.
Professor Kate Dolan, from the University of New South Wales’ National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, recently travelled to the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom to study managed alcohol programs.
The programs administer hourly, regulated doses of alcohol to clients, and also provide support services and accommodation.
The Northern Territory Government has commissioned a feasibility study into introducing managed alcohol programs in high-need areas of the NT as part of a new harm minimisation plan.
Professor Dolan said the novel approach could help vulnerable chronic drinkers in “dire straits” and should be trialled in Australia.
“It is pretty much the typical skid row person: a male, 50 to 60, very long history of very heavy drinking, numerous attempts at treatment, pretty much has given up, society has given up, and they’re on their last legs,” she said.
“I am aware it’s controversial, and it won’t sit easily with a lot of people.
“I think it’s being pragmatic … These people are pretty desperate. To be drinking non-beverage alcohol, they’re going to be drinking anyway.
“The people who were in the programs who spoke to me said it was a life-changer,” she said.
“They were able to reduce the amount of drinking so they could actually function … organise their lives, get their health back on track, reconnect with their families.”
Alcohol industry needs heavy drinkers ‘to stay profitable’
Australia’s estimated alcohol consumption per capita has fallen to its lowest level in more than 50 years.
The proportion of people who drink excessively (more than two standard drinks a day) has also been declining since 2010, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
But Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation president Alex Wodak said the heaviest drinking 10 per cent in the community accounted for about 50 per cent of alcohol consumed, while the heaviest drinking 20 per cent accounted for about 70 per cent of consumption.
“So unless there are lots of heavy drinkers around, the drinks industry is in trouble. Despite what they say, that’s the truth,” he said.
Dr Wodak said alcohol abuse cost Australia more than $36 billion annually and was linked to 5,000 deaths each year, yet was dealt with “very poorly”.
He said the taxation of alcoholic beverages in Australia was “a dog’s breakfast” and reforms were long overdue.
“It makes no economic or public health sense whatsoever, yet we can’t get that changed,” he said.
Dr Wodak called for drinks to be taxed according to alcohol content, not beverage class, and for alcohol to be made more expensive, as some drinks were “ridiculously cheap” and abused by the most disadvantaged, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.
“It’s exasperating that the alcohol beverage industry is so powerful that they can block almost every attempt to bring about some effective policy change,” he said.
But industry body Alcohol Beverages Australia said its members were “leading the way in Australia, and globally, in the fight against harmful consumption”.
Executive director Fergus Taylor cited a report released this month by the International Alliance for Responsible Drinking (IARD), a not-for-profit organisation funded by the alcohol industry, which detailed a five-year campaign by beverage producers to combat excessive drinking through media campaigns, strengthening marketing codes of practice and providing consumer warnings.
“The downward trends we see locally in key areas like underage drinking and binge drinking both reflect and encourage this important industry participation,” Mr Taylor said.
Figuring out best way to live, with or without alcohol
Chris Raine is the founder of online portal Hello Sunday Morning, dedicated to supporting people cut back or cut out their drinking.
Hello Sunday Morning came into existence nine years ago when Mr Raine, then 22, decided to stop drinking for a year and blog about the experience.
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