Towards reducing intoxication in activist spaces

Reducing intoxication in activist spaces doesn’t only address accessibility for people in recovery – it also opens the door to people who have been impacted by the alcoholism of parents, partners and others and can enhance efforts to make those spaces safer. An anonymous survivor of parental alcoholism shares their perspective as part of our series of articles on activism and alcohol.


Understanding the impact of the past

Awareness of my parents alcoholism didn’t surface until my late 20’s.

It was difficult to recognise given my parents weren’t the stereotype of alcoholics – no one was assaulted (though there was plenty of yelling, passive aggressive and manipulative behaviour), they both held down full time jobs (though my dad’s position was in constant threat as he barely managed to fulfill his duties most weeks), we weren’t destitute (though working class and struggling), and my mum prepared our lunches and ensured we were well clothed (though she was emotionally unavailable for us).

My parents qualified their excessive drinking by way of describing it as a management strategy for the constant anxiety of ‘making ends meet’. A common working class story.

I came to understand the lack of attention, the stress my parents felt and the drinking were all part of being working class. Wasn’t it middle class parents who spent lots of times with their kids because they had more resources and felt less stressed? Looking back, as an adult, I can see it for what it actually was. I was a lonely, anxious child, cared for by two adults in active addiction – a victim of neglect.

We slipped under the radar as a fairly ‘normally functioning’ nuclear family. The lack of visibility surrounding my parents’ alcoholism is, of course, not unusual. Simple mythology prevents us from dealing with the extent of addiction and alcohol dependence surrounding us. It is the lovers, friends, children and families who become the unseen victims in these situations.

The normalisation of drinking culture is perpetuated throughout society constantly. This is most commonly seen through advertising as the white, working class men around the BBQ after a hard week at work, drinking tins of beer, gathering together in a ritual of working class socialisation and solidarity. This kind of stress relief has uncritically manifested through leftist forms of socialising, as other writers in this series have elaborated upon.

As we come to a time in activist history where there is more awareness of safety and emotional needs than ever before, we begin to question, who are these spaces not accessible to? Being around intoxicated people can be a source of strong discomfort for the person whose family, lovers or friends are or have been in addiction. This experience can be many things, but unpredictability goes with the territory. Children of addicts learn many different coping strategies, however it is highly common, as was my experience, to develop high anxiety, an alertness for sudden change and danger that may come your way.

As a result I mostly avoid spaces of high intoxication as they give me the same sense of unpredictability I experienced growing up. As people become further inebriated my tolerance begins to decrease, my anxiety heightens. I tend to withdraw from these spaces that, as others have said, are strong components of socialising amongst activist communities.


Looking toward the future

Over the past decade or so radical communities have embraced the concept of ‘safer spaces’ as an expression of the desire to foster community spaces that are ‘safe’ for a diversity of people to co-exist in, with the expectations that community members take responsibility for their own behaviours. Whilst ‘safer spaces’ policies are being critiqued and re-considered, I would like to advocate that heavy drinking needs to be part of these conversations.

Conversations surrounding alcohol in activist communities are detrimental to implementing practices that minimise violence (sexual and otherwise) and make spaces and communities more accessible for people in recovery and those who have histories of loving and/ or living with those in addiction.

  • How do the spaces and communities we partake in make room for people with histories of/ or relationships with, those in addiction to fully participate?
  • How can we support people in addiction, rather than turn our heads and/ or laugh about how ‘wasted’ they get?
  • Who else may be suffering the consequences of this? Do they have lovers/ kids/ parents they’re caring for?
  • Is this your friend or a collective member who is routinely drunk, unable to remember what occurred during the night?
  • What kind of vulnerability might they be putting themselves in? And how might others be vulnerable as a result?

In re-considering ‘safer spaces’ and it’s relationship to drinking and dependency I wonder how we might consider space beyond the physical, but extended to relationships and interactions within the community.

I really appreciate Sunny Drake’s suggestions regarding the creation and maintenance of less intoxicated spaces, including those without dependencies drinking less or less frequently, so as communities can be more available to adequately support those needing alcohol and hence create safer spaces for everyone. However, communities need to consider what it would mean to implement this.

In my experiences, the spaces where there is light drinking tend to draw attention to those who are heavily intoxicated. These people, in isolation, can attract cruel/ awkward laughter and withdrawal from less intoxicated/ sober people as there is a discomfort or uncertainty about responding to someone pushing social (and sometimes personal) boundaries. How can we meaningfully establish communities of safety and care?

Making change takes time, as activists this is a concept we should all be familiar with. Activist communities need to find ways to have these difficult conversations, make change and be generous with one another as we stumble, learning new ways of being together with less alcohol. If we don’t take this time, we limit not only people’s access and safety, we restrict what our communities can become.

Thinking about the activist spaces you are a part of – who is included and who is excluded? How do we ensure compassion, care and safety underpin our organising?