John Adamson: A - Alcohol

This poem was written by John Adamson and shared on Storying Sheffield, a project based at the University of Sheffield about accessible and universal ideas such as narrative, storytelling, history, and the environment. You can read more about John and why he wrote this at the bottom.

John and his dad, with pints in their hands

He liked a drink, my Dad. I never thought of him as an alcoholic but he was certainly a drinker. He drank every day, though rarely before about 7pm, and nearly always beer or lager. An occasional glass of wine with a meal and the odd glass of port around Christmas, but he was never one for spirits. He enjoyed the act of drinking as well as the effect. He liked drinking volume: a long pour and a frothy head on his beer. A lusty, long gulp of the first three, four, five swallows in one go before bringing the glass upright again, away from the now foamy whiskers under his nose. A satisfied exhalation of “ahh”, followed by the inspection of the raised glass to observe the light through the golden liquid in his glass, and an involuntary squint of the eyes and pursing of the lips, savoring the taste: “That’s better.”

He opened cans or bottles of Theakstons and bottles of Timothy Taylor’s Landlord with the care usually reserved for a fine vintage Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Carefully tilting the glass to one side, he watchfully slid the liquid down the side of the glass, lifting it to the light as it filled, straightening the glass to check the head on it. He liked about a quarter of an inch head on the top of his beer, perhaps half an inch if it was ‘a bit lively’.

At home he liked drinking from a fine beer glass, not your work-a-day tumbler, heavy with thick glass like the old fashioned NHS jam-jars specs of playground teasing. No, he had a small collection of Belgian beer glasses purloined over several, irregular visits to family friends in Leuven. Those bonds established by my Grandad during the Second World War, now all but disintegrated. He thought there was nothing more civilized than the Belgians’ love and respect for beer, the proliferation of different brews, each with its own glass to fully savour the different incarnations of hops, barley and water.

At some point, I’m not sure when, I realized his alcohol consumption was largely a form of self-medication for his mental health problems. It took me, almost a lifetime to realize this. Part of the reason it took so long to dawn on me is perhaps that most people gain some sort of mental benefit from drinking alcohol. We are fully aware that it can calm and relax; it can shrink those things causing our daily stress and anxiety, lower our inhibitions, and make us feel more confident and more sociable. For a while. We are also fully aware that, for some, when drunk to excess those emotions can turn full circle, increasing anxiety, agitation and anger.

And do we not all drink as self-medication to some degree, at some times in our life? Although we may drink for lots of other reasons too, many, if not most of us drink because it makes us feel better, however temporarily. One of my Dad’s mental health problems was depression. If he had not had other issues too I may have categorized him in a negative cycle of drinking because he was depressed and being depressed because he was drinking. But life is never so simple, and that black-and-white thinking does not fit the man I knew. He certainly had a somewhat over-active mind. He suffered from depression, from paranoia and sometimes from psychosis. It sometimes overworked his imagination into all kinds of unforeseen, unreal and implausible scenarios. Alcohol was his self-medication for, well, probably most of his adult life because it worked for him. It dulled and calmed his racing mind. It put some space between that critical, worrying, nagging voice in his head and the joy and fun in his heart.

I wonder to what extent the British drinking culture supports this self-medicating use of booze? One of the things I like most about being British is our pub culture. It’s one of the things I would miss most if I emigrated. I travelled a little in my 20s and, as well as discovering all the amazing things which other cultures have to offer, I also discovered, in absentia, the brilliant things which I love about British culture. Much as I like the French approach to drinking wine at any age, perhaps with a little drop of water for the under 10’s, or, say, the luxury of virtual year-round outdoor drinking in the sunshine of Australia – much as I love that, I also love a British pub. I love a boozer, dark wooden beams overhead, footy on the telly, pint in hand, landlord’s dog shuffling around the pork scratching eaters. It takes some beating. Socializing in Britain is inextricable from the pub or bar. It is not hard to imagine why dependency on alcohol develops in some people and how bloody unfeasibly hard it is to break.


“I am a social researcher who grew up in Peterlee in the north east England in the 1980s. One side of my family was from Easington Colliery, Durham and the other from Stocksbridge, Sheffield. I moved to Leicester in 1996 where I live with my wife and three kids. My dad died unexpectedly two years ago, aged 67. I starting writing an A-Z of Dad ostensibly for my daughter who would never really know him – she was just two when he died – but in reality as a cheap form of grief therapy for me. A is for Alcohol.” – John Adamson

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