CHRISTMAS is usually thought of as a time of merriment, wine and song, with many celebrations revolving around drinking.
But the festive season can also prove a recipe for disaster for some, spoiled by hangovers as they drink to excess - while at its worst, for people with serious addictions, Christmas can bring unbearable temptation to try ‘just a drop’ of alcohol.
For the Sheffield Alcohol Support Service, based on Abbeydale Road, December traditionally sees a spike in calls from drinkers worried about being surrounded by pals offering them a tipple. Then in January the service normally sees a rash of new faces whose drinking has spiralled out of control over the Christmas holidays.
Matt McMullen, the service’s activities co-ordinator, said ‘moderation is key’ to drinking sensibly at Christmas - and has offered a series of tips to ensure booze boosts - rather than kills - revellers’ festive spirit.
“For us, as an alcohol service, we’re not an abstinence-based charity,” said Matt. “We don’t preach to people not to drink at all. We just want people to make sure they’re safe, and give guidelines as a good place to start. It’s pretty impossible to avoid drinking at Christmas, people don’t tend to hide away from it.”
Matt said partygoers should consider booking a taxi for a certain time, so they are not as likely to stay out all night drinking. “If, for example, you know you’re going at 11, you have an exit strategy,” he said.
“Another good tip is not to take out too much money - if you have access to it, the likelihood is you’re going to spend it all. Then there’s the obvious tips - alternate alcoholic drinks with soft drinks like coke and soda water, order less strong drinks like white wine spritzers and avoid shots.”
He said buying drinks in ‘rounds’ as part of a group is also a bad idea.
“Going into rounds, you tend to drink a lot quicker, as there’s always someone who finishes their drink first, so getting out of that whole round scenario is a good idea.
“They are not bad tactics to use. Also, if you’ve got things on the next day - like cooking Christmas dinner - you’re less likely to drink and you’ll have that awareness as well.Of course, there’s no magic cure for a hangover, so if you do have a heavy night you will know about it the next day.”
Matt continued: “There’s a massive emphasis on Christmas and New Year’s Eve. People are spending more than they can normally afford, mixing with family and friends who they might not necessarily get on with - throw in a few drinks and it can be a recipe for disaster. There’s a high expectation of it.”
The alcohol support service has been running for more than 30 years, and has over 40 volunteers, many of whom have been through recovery themselves. It provides peer support for alcoholics and holds meetings three times a week, all year round, as well as referring individuals to NHS treatment services throughout Sheffield. Last week the service held its first-ever Recovery Celebration Ball at the Megacentre on Bernard Road in Sheffield. The event attracted 250 people recovering from alcohol problems, with a dry bar, two bands, a comedian and DJ. “Not one person didn’t like it,” said Matt. “You can still go out and have a great night out without any booze. The idea you’ve got to have booze to loosen yourself up is a massive misconception.”
He added: “Christmas is difficult for people newly into recovery. If you’ve still got a lot of friends arranging nights out you can feel a little bit of isolation and exclusion from things. If you’re strong-willed you can still go out, but the danger is, if you’re new to recovery, it’s easy to get led astray and thing one drink isn’t going to hurt.
“The pattern can then start creeping back in. It’s really difficult. People associate Christmas with a perception of going out and having fun, that you’ve got to be jolly and got to be drinking. For some people in recovery it can be when they had some of their worst times when drinking.
“We get a lot more calls, especially after the New Year. In the run up to Christmas you see a lot more new faces, a bit anxious about Christmas and New Year, then in January there’s a massive spike with individuals who drank to excess at Christmas, and people have told them they might have a problem.”
Matt said social isolation, anxiety and boredom are three of the main reasons why people turn to drink.
“If you’re socially isolated and you know a drink will make you feel a bit better, or you get anxious and the only way you can deal with your nervousness is to have a shot of whiskey or whatever, then that creates problems. It’s a vicious circle. Moderation is the key.”
Visit www.sheffieldalcoholsupportservice.org.uk or call 0114 258 7553.
Matt’s tips for sensible drinking
Try a night without alcohol – you might surprise yourself
Drive - the perfect excuse for a sober night out
Arrange a night out that doesn’t revolve around alcohol, such as bowling or the cinema
Avoid driving the following day after a night’s drinking
Be prepared to refuse more drinks
Go out later and choose drinking friends wisely
Drink a few glasses of water before you go out
Avoid lunchtime drinking that leads to an all-day session
Eat before you go out
The biggest cause of accidents in the home
Alcohol consumption in Britain increases by around 40 per cent in December, according to figures from charity Drinkaware.
Drinking is the biggest cause of accidents in the home, and around one in three fires are caused by people under the influence of alcohol.
Two-thirds of people who end up admitted to hospital - or die - from burns have been drinking beforehand.
The government guidelines for regular drinking are three to four units for a man, and two to three units for a woman. An average normal strength pint of beer or 175ml glass of wine is 2.3 units.
People who have downed 15 units or more in one session are vulnerable to a condition called Holiday Heart Syndrome. This is when high levels of alcohol causes the heart to beat irregularly, which results in shortness of breath, changes in blood pressure and an increased risk of heart attack, and even sudden death.
Other useful phone numbers include the Fitzwilliam Service - which provides counselling, rehab and detox treatments - on 01143050500, the Sheffield Drug and Alcohol Team on 01142736851 and Alcoholics Anonymous on 08457697555.