I never really understood the term “binge drinking,” as I just sort of assumed it was something that people who don’t drink all the time do when they decide to go overboard. But I now believe it’s when you pick up a drink with the goal of getting, as the Brits put it, pissed (wasted, hammered and shit-faced also work).
As someone who did not grow up with drinking as a part of my family’s culture (although my dad is an alcoholic, he did all of his drinking outside of the home), I was never taught how to drink like a lady—how to enjoy a glass of wine with dinner or drink in moderation. When I got into high school, alcohol was very much the textbook forbidden fruit for me and I considered it the ultimate rebellion from my parents. For this reason, I always drank like I was about to get caught, like there wasn’t enough for everyone, like I was a renegade pirate. This led to countless nights of passing out in cars, in parks, in bathtubs—drooling, vomiting and peeing on myself and whoever was in bed next to me (sorry!). My life was a string of good times that often ended in some form of incomprehensible demoralization because the only kind of drinking I knew was binge drinking.
Drinking to excess is a cultural phenomenon that seemed to hit college campuses some time between the Summer of Love and Animal House. But if you think that binge drinking is exclusive to privileged teenagers in the United States, think again. In 2011, the Center for Disease Control released a study that showed binge drinking costs American society $223-billion a year (medical care for alcohol-related issues, loss of work productivity, property damage due to drunk driving and the financial consequences of criminal acts committed while drunk). But the United Kingdom is not far behind, racking up a $20 billion a year cost (approximately $31 billion USD) as a result of binge drinking.
This past weekend, I attended a screening of A Royal Hangover, a documentary film which features interviews with Russell Brand, among others, and sheds light on the binge drinking epidemic in the UK and all of the surprising support for it and lack of support in stopping it. The film is by Arthur Cauty, a young, Brit who doesn’t struggle with alcohol addiction himself but has soberly watched the people around him destroy their lives and wreak havoc on their country as a result of alcohol abuse. After the screening, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Cauty to pick his brain on the making of the film and what he learned from it.
Danielle: As someone who doesn’t drink, what attracted you to making a film about binge drinking?
Arthur: It is something I see a lot of and just don’t understand. It is such a universal activity but the consequences seems to far outweigh the benefits, so I have always been fascinated by why people do it. The film is me trying to understand it while also educating people about the scope of the problem.
Danielle: What about chicks?
Arthur: What about chicks? I like chicks.
Danielle: Don’t you understand that people like to drink because it helps them get laid?
Arthur: I suppose it’s good for an instant hook-up but that has never been my thing. I have never been looking for something like that.
Danielle: What is your experience as a non-drinker in the UK?
Arthur: There is a lot of pressure to drink to fit in. I never felt like I needed to fit in.
Danielle: Wow. You are definitely not an alcoholic.
Arthur: It’s not like I haven’t drank before—I have. I was even drunk once. I just didn’t like the feeling. It made me feel out of control and I don’t understand why anyone would want to feel like that.
Danielle: What is your understanding of alcoholism?
Arthur: I am still not particularly clear on it but it seems to me like there are different levels. I guess if you are at the point where alcohol affects your life and where you depend on it daily.
Danielle: What did you learn about alcoholism through the making of this film?
Arthur: That there is no stigma at all around drinking—especially binge drinking—yet there is a stigma around getting help. And there is a serious lack of treatment in the UK; in fact, alcohol rehabs are closing down all the time because alcoholism isn’t seen as something you seek treatment for. Rehab is for drug addiction and alcohol isn’t seen as a drug. Drinking alcoholically is built in the culture—the UK is like a massive college campus.
Danielle: What do you think the solution is?
Arthur: We need a huge shift in mentality. It’s not going to be an overnight process but putting restrictions on advertising, like they do in France and in the US, and implementing minimum pricing on alcohol will be a small step. The family unit plays a huge role in alcohol abuse and it will help if it can become a topic of conversation. People need to talk about it. Parents need to help kids develop healthy relationship with alcohol.
Danielle: In the film, you profile your uncle, who—no offense—looks ancient. How old is he?
Arthur: Mid 60s. And he’s always very active his whole life. He used to be a carpenter.
Danielle: Jesus was a carpenter.
Arthur: Yes, and he kind of looks like him, although I don’t know if that is the look he is going for.
Danielle: And he has Wernicke’s encephalopathy, which you say in the film is the alcoholic’s disease. I looked it up and it seems that is the technical name for what many of us know to be “Wet Brain.” But when you ask your uncle if he thinks he is an alcoholic, all he says is that he might be an alcoholic. What are your feelings about that response?
Arthur: It’s crazy. He is in denial about it. He actually thinks it’s a conspiracy—he thinks his issues are a result of drinking too much water. My uncle and I aren’t particularly close because he moved to Costa Rica when I was young and just moved back to the UK a few years ago. So over the last decade, I have only seen him about three or four times. The last time I saw him was three years ago at a BBQ at my dad’s house and he was doing fine. He was walking and articulate and fairly healthy looking. So when I saw him to shoot the film, it was a huge change.
Danielle: What do you hope people will take away from A Royal Hangover?
Arthur: I want people to see alcohol as a drug not as just a beverage or a form of entertainment. People’s mindsets need to change. I want people to think about their own personal drinking habits and look at their relationship with alcohol. I hope it will help some people move towards making healthier life choices.