Non-drinker’s Yuletide loneliness
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Non-drinker’s Yuletide loneliness

The season of good cheer, peace, unbridled consumerism and culinary excess is once again upon us. Friendships and family closeness are merrily celebrated and the warm glow associated with the time of year in general and Christmas gatherings in particular is, understandably, much sought after, highly touted and valued. For most of us it is a time of hand-shakes, embraces and proximity. But for a considerable number among us it is a time of desolation and despondency, if not despair.

Loneliness, sometimes the effect of material poverty or emotional withdrawal, but often simply of an isolation born of unfortunate family circumstances or the very rapid social changes our country is undergoing, can be a deep wound, a searingly icy state of being no fire can warm. The feeling of being unwantedly alone is probably painful to an unimaginable extent for someone who, by nature of the species he or she belongs to, is a social being.

We know that the extent of the problem is considerable. Of approximately 9,000 calls every year to Supportline 179, more than a third are by men and women who complain they are lonely. Hundreds turn up for the Christmas lunch organised by Caritas, originally with the materially deprived in mind. More than half of those freely admit that they could afford to pay for Christmas lunch – and indeed donate money to Caritas – but cannot bear the thought that they would be eating it with only themselves for company.

Thankfully there is a rising awareness of the problems of loneliness bedevilling many of our fellow-citizens exemplified by the collaboration between Caritas and the Faculty of Social Well-being of the University of Malta leading to the production of a documentary about loneliness – and how to find solutions for the problem.

There is a pernicious relationship between loneliness and alcohol abuse: people who suffer in solitude may turn to alcohol for company and solace. This situation is dangerous. Alcohol and isolation can be a deadly concoction which is often the stuff that addictions and suicides are made of. It is a tragic irony that the substance which is considered the ultimate social lubricant, the liquid which oils the engine of the festivities and revelries that colour the Christmas landscape, can feature so prominently in the existence of those who are alone and whose mood is anything but celebratory. An effort by all of us who know people who happen to be socially isolated to befriend them, spend time with them and make them feel liked, wanted and welcome, could help avert misery, problems and indeed even more seriously drastic outcomes.

There is a particular type of alcohol-related loneliness which is especially prevalent at Christmas: that experienced by those who isolate themselves in an effort to get away from alcohol. Every year a number of severely dependant individuals whose lives have been very nearly wrecked by alcohol manage to stop drinking, generally with the help of addiction professionals or the voluntary organisations – like Alcoholics Anonymous or Amethyst – which offer services to problem drinkers and their families.

Total abstinence being the only way forward for the severely dependent drinker, this time of the year where rivers of alcohol flow freely and everybody is expected to imbibe can be an extremely difficult time. The temptation to drink can be very difficult to resist in particular situations and the newly sober individual who is rightly afraid that one drink can lead to the resumption of the habit which wreaked havoc in his life, may distance himself or herself from family gatherings and celebrations with close friends.

Those recovering alcoholics, recent or long-standing, who venture into social gatherings may require sensitive support. We should all be sensitive enough to the possible plight of our guests and dinner-companions who may be battling drinking problems or indeed other problems which require permanent or temporary abstinence from alcohol. Pressing people to drink – or indeed enquiring the reason for their refusal to accept alcohol even in small quantities – will only add to the difficulties faced by those who may have excellent personal reasons for not drinking. A simple decision to respect people’s wishes not to drink at this time may turn out to be an act of solidarity and kindness which will be warmly, though silently, appreciated.

The health authorities and the agencies and organisations operating in the field of treatment of alcohol problems should do their utmost to raise awareness in this particular area. Over the next few days we will witness an abundance of TV and radio interviews about the relationship between Christmas festivities and alcohol consumption. These occasions provide an excellent opportunity to drive home the point that no one should ever put any pressure on others to drink.

Christmas can be very tough for people who may be facing particular difficulties. Awareness of these problems may help to alleviate their suffering.  Isolation and loneliness are phenomena which require concerted efforts on many levels to be overcome. Ordinary citizens can play their part too: a little sensitivity can work wonders.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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