“By the time you read this, I’ll be almost 800 days sober…”
Moderation… What does that word mean to you? How would you define it in terms of your own or others’ drinking? Last month we experienced both International Men’s Day and Alcohol Awareness week. A powerful combination of topics to prompt awareness & discussions around physical health, mental health and alcohol use. Research shows that in general we are there for each other but don’t ask for help; that most adults want to change their relationship with alcohol; but more often than not, bow to peer pressure to drink more.
In this article I want to encourage you to be curious about your own drinking and also consider Military drinking culture explored through my experiences in the Army. But why should you read on..? Being curious about alcohol is good for your personal development, it can support our wider military community and protect our reputation. I want to encourage you to be a good colleague or friend to others as we approach the infamous ‘silly season’ and consider the risks that the collective demand to be jolly can pose to others in the form of isolation, spiralling and self-harm.
Talking to some fellow Commanding Officers we all agree that most of our discipline has drink as an aggregating factor or a root cause. Perhaps we’re just not talking about this stuff enough, or perhaps we’re not approaching it in the right way.
All good stories start at the end; by the time you read this I’ll be 800 days sober, six months in as a Commanding Officer and well into my nineteenth year of service. My battle with booze has not affected my vetting, has won respect not scorn from my reporting officers and I’m truly a lot happier. I never intended to become sober, that’s just how it turned out and when your family tell you “you’re nicer sober” – that’s some powerful guidance.
Knowing When to Face up to Your Habits
I’ve been a serial ignorer of my drinking habits. From the Mess as a junior cavalry officer, to being outlandish as a Squadron Leader, the weird environment of British Army Training Unit Suffield (BATUS)1 and the hot house of both doses of Intermediate and Advanced Staff College (where Officers go for their education). In all that time I simply wasn’t curious about moderation, control or my relationship with booze.
My perceptions about drinking had become warped. Alcohol became a central part of my Army persona, I began to confuse popularity with professionalism. As a Subaltern (Junior Officer) I lived the cavalry lifestyle to the maximum: Champagne, the ‘traditions’, big blow outs; all of it. Behaving like this wasn’t wrong, I absolutely loved working hard and playing hard but I had started to lose control and I didn’t realise it. My Officers’ Mess bar bill was excessive, I was over generous, and some were happy to lap it up, literally. I was a ‘legend’ in the Squadron Bar, a “dominant and important presence in the Mess”. My moderation filters were warping well beyond the normal.
‘Drinking me’ was a ‘popular me’. Confident, an excellent host, a ‘dangerous’ corner of the table, leading the crowd astray. The same was true at Staff College2; an incredibly competitive peer group, quad-service, where the achievement scores for being a ‘good person’3 remains a genuine thing. It’s a weird environment, quite an isolating set up with the bar, the classroom, the solo bedroom and the gym all in the same building. If you wanted to be in the bar every night you could be and nobody would consider this strange or even monitored it. The course is a paradox of hyper-connectivity to colleagues and peers, but with nearly complete isolation at the same time. We see this a great deal with our single living accommodation in barracks.
The Confessional; Coming to Terms
I sat in the office opposite the Commander’s office, sweating. I didn’t know Col Jim that well, and he’s a slightly funny fish. “Fuck it – I’m going to tell him“. I walked in, shut the door and blurted out:
“I can’t walk past the fridge without having a beer every night. I’m never drunk, but I do have a beer every night and I thought you should know”.
Col Jim stopped typing.
“Fuck… This is it. This is where I get sacked. That was fucking stupid” I thought.
“I know” he said, “I’ve had that too, It’s going to be fine”.
We talked about pressure, the BATUS environment, stress, safety and much more. Afterwards he simply asked: “Can I trust you?”
“Yes,” I said.
In that moment he had won my loyalty and I had won a sponsor and advocate. It was a profound moment. He chose, in a split second, to back me and support me. He didn’t judge me, or question me, he had no desire to appear decisive or protect himself and the organisation over my needs. He listened, cared and kickstarted my recovery. We never spoke about it again. Even when I reach milestones and thank him, he politely refuses my praise. This was real leadership.
Learning About my Problem
I came to learn that my issues with booze are likely to stem from before I joined the Army. I grew up in an environment where moderation didn’t exist, and wellbeing was a significant issue. I could talk about this more, but not here, just trust me, my normal, wasn’t normal. I think predisposition and risks are more common than we realise, and something we should keep in mind with colleagues, subordinates and friends. It’s something worth being curious about.
My family often realised I was slipping. They know the back-story but “I always wanted that conversation with you, but I knew it was so dangerous and so volatile, I never could”. I was becoming darker, more isolated, more angry. Always angry. I looked for excuses, people, postings, Directing Staff4 (although they still make me angry), the course, the commute. Reality is harder to admit. When your moderation blinkers go, so does your perspective. Why am I so tired, muggy, pissed off, depressed, quick to anger? Booze. The answer was booze. I needed a better tool kit and I found it in a friend, a book, a soundtrack and a network.
A Sober Seeker or Curious Moderator’s Tool Kit
The Friend. A mate from the Army, who I hadn’t seen for years, noticed my dark mood and sent me a podcast (thanks Bomber). It was the author David Brooks selling his book the Road to Character5. Once you get past the impossible posh intro, it’s a great listen. It became my hymn and still is now. The Big Me versus the Better Me, Boyd’s to do something or be someone.
The podcast is laced with important prompts drawn from case studies of people who are a bit messy at 20 and deeply impressive by 70. It includes ‘Ike Eisenhower’ conquering his anger to lead in war and his assessment of humility as not feeling lowly of yourself, but an acute self-awareness from a distance. Brooks breaks down the moments of personal growth and how they occur: you have to conquer your desire to get what you crave, success can lead to the greatest failure which is arrogance and pride; failure can lead to the greatest success which is humility and learning. Try it, you might find you value it too.
The Book. The second key intervention was Catherine Grey’s book “The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober”. As you read Cath’s book you will nod along. At times a little more relevant to the female drinker, but this book has massive utility. It gave me a set of practical social tools to cope with being sober in Army life and normal life. “Stealth drinks”, when to arrive when to leave, to know yourself and what booze can make you think about yourself. Like Cath, I’m yet to conquer sober dancing but I did need the power of music to help me along the way.
The Soundtrack. Music has been really important for me. A sanctuary an escape. Everyone has their own taste but get yourself those feel good tracks, those dark ones too and keep them as a meditation. For me it’s some Macklemore, Foo Fighters and some Country and Western. Nice.
The Network. I tried to stay sober at Advanced Command and Staff Course (ACSC)6 and failed. I failed again when I first got to London. I summoned up the courage to seek some help, attend some meetings. It was anonymous and I had to dot around a couple until I connected with a group. It taught me I needed to recruit some help. I needed to tell people and let them know how they could help. I started telling people at work. They knew not to offer me booze, they went to the bar for me, they provisioned alcohol free alternatives, we had different team events other than the pub, we tried weird sports, watched rubbish movies. Nobody judged me or my choice. This quad-service team were deeply lovely in a way that a pure Army team could not be. More diluted, less masculine, more inclusive. They got me to a month, then another, then another, then a year, then two. I am eternally grateful to them for that time(JP, RP, NW-B, JP, AM, HW, JS, MT etc). The point is two fold:
- We have networks for many things in Defence. Maybe this could be a vital intervention too.
- Have some imagination about team events and be considerate and respectful and cut the expectation of drinking for those who don’t.
So What are the Implications for our Organisation?
Army culture is improving but remains ugly at times – we sometimes forget that core value respect for others: “Why are you so boring? Why don’t you drink anymore?” (some will ask). We respect each other’s choices concerning identity, lifestyle choice or mental health issues but we allow peer pressure and culture to blur respect in this choice. We should be better at supporting positive and progressive decisions. We know alcohol is a massive problem which is at the centre of compromising good discipline and behaviour, often blurring lines and leading people to crossing them. Our approach is usually through draconian measures, such as changing opening times for Unit bars, but we could do much more around education, awareness and support. At ACSC it was cheaper to buy a round of Gin and Tonics than it was for a single bottle of Becks Blue.
But things are getting better. Provision for non-drinkers is changing too, non-alcoholic beers, our improving fitness culture but sadly a toxic form of masculinity still exists. It remains a truth we conveniently ignore and lie to ourselves about. The Military still has a drinking problem (but perhaps many parts of society also do). Within six months of Command, I can confirm that alcohol sits at the centre of four serious discipline cases I have dealt with.
As for me; well this is my story is so far and you can read more about it on twitter (@thepagey). I wrote this article wanting to raise awareness and encourage you all to be more curious about your relationship with alcohol. To consider what risks the festive silly season can pose us as a military community; serving, veterans and families. None of us are strong enough to beat our demons on our own. You need a team to support you, you need a soundtrack and you need some well proven tools to succeed in improving your relationship with alcohol.
I’m writing this as a Lieutenant Colonel and a Commanding Officer because we need to talk about this more and we need to help each other more. Those of us struggling need to be visible and feel we can be visible without judgement or scorn. Judge less, be more Colonel Jim than Colonel Sin. As you read this be curious about yourself and your plans. What level of effort are you putting in to prepare to celebrate this festive season and what level of support has been established to help those in need get through it? What is the climate like in your workplace for that person trying desperately to make better choices around alcohol? Look support and challenges with “One Year No Beer”; Alcohol Change UK and “This Naked Mind”.
Offer help and don’t be scared to ask for it. Together let’s close the gap between choice and peer pressure, being there for each other and asking for help when we need it. Come and join our initiative “4-Alpha” the Alliance for Alcohol Awareness in the Army or get me and some fellow moderately curious people to come and talk to you and your colleagues.
- British Army unit located at the vast training area of Canadian Forces Base Suffield near Suffield, Alberta, Canada
- Joint Services Command and Staff College (JSCSC), where all OF3s (Majors, Lt Commanders, Squadron Leaders) some OF4s (go for formal long course education and training).
- The sort of assessment that isn’t simply based on objective performance, but of character and approach.
- The permanent staff on the command courses
- David Brooks, The Road to Character, an exploration of how to build a life of worth rather than a life of wealth. David Brooks is a New York Times columnist and writer, this is his fourth book
- The mid-career course for selected OF4s from across the MOD who will go on to Command at this level.