Signs of change in Kiwi drinking culture

21:24, Jul 28 2014
Angela Gillespie
SOBER CHOICE: Angela Gillespie has been off the booze for 18 months.

Since 2008 there has been a growing trend in Australasia to participate in Dry July or October, when for a month people give up alcohol. Drinking is something so ingrained in our culture that for many people, to go without for a month is quite a stretch. However there is a growing recognition that behaviours around alcohol need to change. Audrey Malone reports.

On any given Friday or Saturday night, people across South Canterbury are getting munted, plastered, or written off - whatever you like to call it.

Kiwi culture is to consume alcohol for the purpose of getting drunk - otherwise known as a good old binge drinking session.

A drink too many resulting in bad dancing, an injury or even a trip to the police cells can be an acceptable water-cooler story on Monday morning.

The police website says on an average day, 52 people are taken home or detained in police custody due to their state of intoxication, and 340 offences occur where police see alcohol involved in the offending, including 100 drink-drive offences.

In South Canterbury every Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights the police are occupied by the antics of people on the booze.


However, Timaru police alcohol harm reduction officer Sergeant Grant Lord said he is starting to see changes in the culture surrounding drinking, not just in general society but also in how police deal with drunken behaviour.

"We are approaching policing not as behaviourally but as intoxication," Lord said.

By that he means the police are working in line with the new laws when dealing with the antics of the intoxicated by assessing their speech, co-ordination, appearance and behaviour.

He believes one of the biggest challenges to changing the drinking culture is the way youth are presenting drinking on social media.

"Some kids think it is their right to drink and get drunk," he said.

Most of them are just having a good time, but there are more productive things they can be doing that doesn't put them at so much risk, he said.

"Look, there is no magic bullet to what is happening. People are realising they need to take personal responsibility for their actions but also look after their mates," he said.

Lord points to the change of behaviour in drink-driving as an example.

Twenty years ago, it was acceptable to drive home after a few drinks at the pub, but now it is frowned upon, he said.

With time, education and positive media attention, people can still enjoy alcohol without taking it to the negative extremes, he said.

"People are changing. They are realising the volume they are drinking can be too much," he said.

One glance at Angela Gillespie and you see a woman in her early 40s who is bright-eyed, slim and attractive. But she has a hidden secret and has decided to bravely share her story in the hope of helping others.

Her ready laugh and vibrant personality denote her as confident and fun-loving.

Yet Gillespie says she is a shy woman who used alcohol to combat this trait.

"What is it they say? I used to drink when I was happy, when I was sad, when I was thirsty," she said.

She grew up learning that drinking was an activity. Red wine was her drop of choice.

"The shopping list would have fruit, veges and a bottle of wine. If I didn't have enough money, I would just get the wine."

She thought she could solve the world's problems when she was intoxicated.

"It only cost me $15 to get drunk."

Gillespie was married to the love of her life - Rangi.

"No matter what, he would always say he loved me before he left to go anywhere and give me a kiss."

They had two children together, and Gillespie's daughter from a previous relationship. Rangi used to sing and play the guitar so they were always out in the social scene.

But one day she got the heartbreaking knock on the door telling her he had died in a motorbike accident.

"He was loved by everyone. Two thousand people came to his funeral. Police were on the street conducting the traffic."

She said it was one of those events that lasted for an entire month.

People came from far and wide, always in and out of her house, camping on the lawn.

"People say I started drinking when he died. That's not true. I always drank," she said.

"I just drank more."

Gillespie said a routine for her was to come home at night and drink her wine and then get on the phone and talk to her friends.

In the morning, she would peel herself out of bed and go to work, foggy. Mid-morning she would get stuck into the greasy food to line her stomach.

It wasn't until a new relationship was going from bad to worse that Gillespie decided to make some changes in her life.

She and her new partner had to make the decision to either try and fix what was wrong with their relationship or keep drinking.

"So we went to A and D [a rehabilitation programme]. First off, I went as his support person, but when I was there I was like 'hang on, maybe this is something I should be doing too'."

At the meeting, she realised her drinking behaviours were also unhealthy, but it wasn't an easy decision to make.

She fronted up to her boss and told him where she was spending some of her free time and what was going on.

"It was so embarrassing," she said.

"He was awesome and fully supportive."

After three or four months at A and D, staff told Gillespie the work she had done surpassed their expectations and she was now capable of changing her behaviours without their guidance.

"I was told there was nothing more they could do for me. I had already made the decision to stop and I wasn't dependant on it."

She also cleared her house of red wine and relied on her family and close friends for support.

"My sister had already told me a couple of years before I needed to slow down on the drinking. I did for a few months but started again because it wasn't something I had chosen to do [at that time]."

Initially she said to herself she would do a year off the booze. It has now been 18 months.

Gillespie and the partner eventually broke up, but she was grateful the break up came from a clear decision and didn't involve any nasty behaviour.

Although she doesn't keep in touch with him, she hopes he hasn't gone back to drinking.

"I think that was our purpose, to get each other off the booze."

Her children tell her they like the mum they have now.

"They say I'm not as grumpy. I thought the wine would take the anxiety away but apparently not."

Gillespie now devotes her life to her children. Her eldest has moved to Australia and her youngest are keen on sports. Whether it's boxing or rowing, she is there cheering them on.

Her life is so busy running around after them that she doesn't socialise as much as she used to. But when she does, it's more likely to be over a cup of coffee.

The groups she is mixing in have also changed because of her children's sports. Parents at rowing and boxing didn't know her beforehand so she hasn't felt much stigma about the huge change in her life.

"They don't know me as Ange who likes to go out and have a drink."

She has also lost a lot of weight. She isn't sure if it's because she isn't drinking so much or if it's because she isn't eating as much greasy food now.

However, Gillespie has an aim to one day have control over how much she drinks.

"At some stage, I want to be one of those people who can go out and have one or two wines with the girls and a laugh."

The Timaru Herald