Shitfaced & Interesting: Alcohol and Social Anxiety

Using alcohol to relax in social situations is deemed normal in Britain, but as social anxiety plagues a generation of digital natives, drinking can quickly become a crutch. It's time to talk about it

Article by Kate Pasola | 05 May 2017
  • Deviance Shitfaced and Interesting social anxiety

School discos were the highlight of my pre-teen years. I was an extrovert with a bedroom full of glittery platforms and a heart full of Avril Lavigne song lyrics; those Fridays spent necking Panda Pops and performing worryingly accurate Pussycat Dolls choreography were made for me.

There was only one problem – without fail, every time my parents dropped me off I’d be momentarily paralysed by a fizzy dread in the pit of my belly. What if that girl in the year above rolled her eyes at something I was wearing again? What if I was asked out and dumped in the space of a Scooter song again? Those trivial flickers of nervous energy were the start of a mild anxiousness that stuck with me for over a decade, through high school house parties and Freshers’ ice breakers; graduation balls and professional networking events. A tiny little voice that grew over a decade into a distracting bellow: “But what if you make a tit of yourself?” It was only recently that I learned this feeling has a title: social anxiety.

My anxiousness is comparatively mild, and when I’ve found a nice seat and a friendly pal it often dissipates – though it can be reactivated instantly by a side-eye or faux-pas. For those occasions there are remedies: escaping with the smokers into the night air, an unnecessary trip to the human-free environs of a toilet cubicle or deciding I urgently need to check my phone. But the best remedy I’ve found? Alcohol. The greatest, tastiest and most unsustainable of social lubricants. More on that later.

The paradox of both dreading and relishing social interaction is a frustrating one, but surprisingly common. We’re a generation who grew up able to socialise remotely and passively; hours spent on MSN Messenger turning into Facebook stalking and WhatsApping, Instagram posts and Snapchats. We’re nested in our own isolating havens, so the idea of actually meeting up with a friend or entering a room full of real life faces and voices can be pretty intimidating. It’s even worse if you’re juggling social anxiety with other mental health problems.

There is no more bountiful a place for discussion of this matter, and the mental health of young people generally, than YouTube. Because vlogging places a camera lens and editing software between the speaker and their audience, it makes for a pretty handy medium for anxious people who enjoy connecting with others, whether you're the vlogger sharing your stories or the viewer learning that you're not alone. The YouTuber’s trademark sign-off "let me know in the comments below!" indicates a consistent dialogue between video-makers and their audiences. YouTubers are shown just how meaningful and relevant their input really is, and the cup of mental health vlogs now truly runneth over.

Even the YouTube-uninitiated have usually heard of Zoella, a mega-famous internet celeb who’s become the subject of ridicule for slapping her name on mediocre candles and body butters. What’s been ignored, though, is her contribution to the destigmatisation of mental health; specifically anxiety. She broadcasts to a huge demographic spanning tiny pre-teens to the middle-aged and has provided earnest discussions about her own mental health, extensive Q&As and footage of her debilitating panic attacks.

Because YouTube’s algorithms now have me down (quite accurately) as ‘millennial who’s low-key anxious and dabbles in hair tutorials and TED talks’, my suggested videos are saturated with mental health vlogs and discussions. Within the rainbow of thumbnails I’ve noticed there's one topic YouTubers are absolutely smashing – alcohol. More specifically, how drinking habits intersect with mental health.

British 22-year-old Lucy Evenden was one of the first vloggers to break the taboo in her video Hi, I’m Lucy, in which she discussed her disordered relationship with alcohol, and how alcoholism is easily normalised and often invisible: “I’d drink entire bottles of vodka, but I wasn’t worried about it because everyone was doing it, and everyone was doing it to the same degree that I was… From the age of about 18 I’ve known I’ve had some sort of alcohol problem, but it’s always been talked out of me by friends.”

The video circulated globally, and many other influential YouTubers followed suit. Shortly after, 22-year-old musician and vlogger Dodie Clark, who’s known for her earnest coverage of depersonalisation, anxiety and depression, posted a video entitled ‘alcohol’. The vlog shows footage of Dodie “shitfaced”, mid-vomit and hungover. It’s a pretty recognisable state of affairs, the sort of behaviour that tends to be praised, or at the very least joked about, in British youth culture.

That in mind, it feels like a bucket of cold water when the vlog snaps back to a clean-cut, sober Dodie questioning whether her relationship with alcohol is a healthy one. “I noticed it was a problem. My drunk self just has no empathy for my sober self – it would lose all of its inhibitions, and it’s as if there was a voice in my head being like, ‘She’ll forgive you!’”

But it was Savannah Brown who posted one of the first vlogs discussing alcohol within the context of anxiety. An awkwardly charismatic poet and vlogger from Ohio, Brown has covered everything from misconceptions about introverts to eating disorders. In February she released a video called 'alcohol & anxiety', charting her growing reliance on alcohol within social interactions since her first drink at the age of 16. “Drinking made me feel normal for the first time. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, is this how everyone feels in social situations?’... When I’m drunk it’s like, ‘talking to people is the most fun thing I could do right now’, which is so unlike me.”

She goes on to explain a short period of time where she’d take a flask of alcohol when she had social plans, “because I was like, 'I’m not gonna be able to talk to this person if I’m not a little bit tipsy,' which is so messed up”.

Hearing Brown’s familiar tale of tipsiness transforming an intimidating social situation, I wondered whether my own use of alcohol as a social crutch could mutate into a bigger problem, especially as I progress through life; taking on bigger responsibilities, attending more nerve-racking events and parties, trying to impress hypothetical in-laws. I’ve never talked or written about this before because doing so feels self-indulgent, like I’m exaggerating a minor issue. But really, it’s a problem.

We tend to view mental health and alcoholism as a binary; you suffer from mental health problems or you don’t, you’re an alcoholic or you’re not. While it’s important not to trivialise the struggles of those with severe mental health problems and substance dependencies, there’s an area between that we’re failing to discuss. This silence and absence of solutions is a problem for those with mild mental health challenges, for those developing unhealthy alcohol habits, and doubly so for those addressing their mental health problems with alcohol – perhaps without even realising.

Though vloggers like Savannah Brown, Lucy Moon and Zoella are leading a fine online discourse, the deadline for bringing this conversation from YouTube to IRL is well overdue.

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