Monday, 27 April 2015

Low Bottoms

Day 57 - Eight weeks!

I've just finished reading Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. It's a brilliant, page turning, thriller - but that's not the main reason I bought it. The truth is that I was listening to a (glowing) review on the radio and discovered that the central character - Rachel - is an alcoholic.

If you're planning to read the book - and I highly recommend that you do - don't worry, I'm not going to reveal any crucial plot twists!

Now Rachel is hugely believable. A terribly flawed, deeply troubled 'heroine'. And I'm all for anything that draws attention to the issues that alcohol can cause people and society. However, I don't think that Rachel has done us any favours...

You see, Rachel is a classic 'low bottom' drunk. She has huge memory black outs pretty much every time she drinks, which is pretty much all of the time. She's alienated almost all her supporters. She's constantly hurting herself and other people. She's lost her husband, her job, her house, and is about to be thrown out of her rented bedroom.

The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence have a 26 point scale of dependence (which I'll do a post on if you're interested), and according to this, Rachel would be classified as a 'final stage' alcoholic. But in fact, only 3-5% of alcoholics are your classic 'low bottom' drunks. The vast majority of us are 'early' and 'mid stage' alcoholics, and manage to function quite admirably for many years.

"So what?" you may ask. This is fiction, and the 'final stage' alcoholic is way more interesting than a boring old 'high functioning' one. But the problem is that a bestselling novel like this just re-enforces all the massive pre-conceptions that people have about 'alcoholics'. It loads more and more negativity on the 'alcoholic' word, and makes it increasingly hard for any of us to want to admit to being one of the tribe.

Not only that, but had I not already quit drinking this book would have been classic wine witch ammunition. I would have read it, chortling away at Rachel's antics, feeling a massive sense of relief that that was what a proper alcoholic looked like, and that definitely wasn't me. Oh dear, poor Rachel, pass me another glass of that Chablis, please...

The truth is that there is always someone we can look at for reassurance - to convince ourselves that we are actually okay. And we are masters at surrounding ourselves with them. We seek each other out and then judge each other as a way of making ourselves feel better. As Caroline Knapp says (in my favourite book Drinking, a Love Story) "When you're drinking, the dividing line between you and real trouble always manages to fall just past where you stand."

I bet thousands of women will use Rachel as reassurance that they don't need to worry about their drinking. But the truth is that once that switch in your brain is flipped, once you've turned from a cucumber into a pickle (read Moderation. Is it possible? Part 2 if you've missed the post on pickles!) the only way is down. The only possible progression is from early to mid to final stage.

We shouldn't laugh at Rachel, scorn Rachel or dismiss Rachel - because Rachel is waiting for all of us at the end of the elevator. So don't wait until you get to the bottom! Get off as quickly as you can while it's still (relatively) easy.

Do read the book - it's great. But don't take it as reassurance. See it as a warning.

Love SM x


  1. I am only part way through the book, but Rachel seems familiar enough to make me uncomfortable.
    She is definitely where I would have gone.
    Getting off the elevator early is a great choice.

  2. Hi SM, I read this a few weeks ago and couldn't put it down! But yes, I totally agree with you...the one key thing that has kept me drinking for so long has been the fact that I have never had a black out. As black outs are always seen as a real sign of alcoholism, I have always felt unable to join groups like AA as I don't feel I qualify. I'm going to try and keep that cucumber and pickle analogy in my head to help me accept that I do have a problem with alcohol. Love your posts! Nikki x

    1. Hi Nikki! I've always been smug about no blackouts too - I suspect we dodged a bullet ;-) x

  3. Replies
    1. There are many things I wish I'd been able to forget, lushnomore! X

  4. Dear SM,
    I finished the book too, and I loved it.
    For several years I didn't get help because I was still "high bottom", "high functioning".
    Finally had a blackout and that was scary enough to wake me up!

  5. Sounds like an interesting book. I might have tor to read it! We are lucky not to have hit that low bottom, but who knows what the future holds? I hope I never get there. Congrats on 8 weeks SM!! A x

  6. Hi, will defo get that, was on the look out for another book. Glad you enjoyed A love story....stayed with me a long time, i went on to buy the Merry Recluse a collection from her weekly columns over the years. xx

    1. Thanks so much for the recommendation Kats! I'm going to be quoting it endlessly! How are you doing? I was thinking about you just this morning! SM x

    2. Hi I am great thanks! I am not counting days or anything like that but glad to have given the booze a break for now. I have gone on / off it a few times over the last five years. For now though i have little ones so its just a no brainer, minding a baby with a hangover is actually torture!! This blog is great thou and a few others for keeping me focused although i have restricted it to 5 as otherwise its just outta control and blog overload!! i think you will enjoy the other short essays she wrote. I just ordered the other one, can't wait to start!! thx xx

  7. In the last few weeks I’ve really enjoyed reading a series of books called The Sunday Philosophy Club by Alexander McCall Smith. The central character, Isobel Dalhousie, is a person who leads a very civilised life mulling over moral dilemmas and enjoys a glass or two of wine pretty much every evening. Despite the regularity of her drinking habits she never obsesses over when wine o’clock starts, never turns to the bottle to numb the stress of a difficult day and never drinks too much. Although I really love these books I have found myself wondering what the authors motives, conscious or subconscious, are in creating such a character. Ultimately though it doesn’t matter, she is a fictional character and I’m struggling to think of anyone in the real world who, with her drinking habits, really doesn’t have an alcohol problem. Flossie x

    1. Written by someone who's never been on first name terms with the wine witch!