20 February 2021

Square Eyes

 "You'll get square eyes", mum used to say, if I sat huddled up to our black and white television set as a child. She was from an era between world wars when you listened to the radio and occupied yourself with make-do-and-mend. To her, in those early days of my childhood, the advent of television was still something you watched on high days and holidays.

She was right really. Too much looking at a TV screen was not good for you, rather more because you weren't doing anything really useful or getting any fresh air, than because it would harm your eyes. But nowadays, screens are everywhere and not just on televisions. Computer laptops, tablets, smart mobile phones vie for your attention too and screen time has increased our attention. Mothers nowadays plonk their children in front of the TV or give them a tablet to play with, while they themselves scroll down through endless social media chats. Screens have taken over our lives.

Living as I do in lockdown, in complete isolation as I shield from any passing Covid germs, and with only the rare outing round the block once a week to get a bit of fresh air, I have found I too am facing a screen for a lot of the day. Try as I might, there is only so much dusting a girl can do and the recent inclement weather has not made gardening a barrel of fun, so I have had to make distractions where I can. I try to telephone someone at least twice a week - usually someone I have not seen in a year or more - and catch up, but then again there is a limit how many times I can do that without appearing needy or racking up a huge phone bill and so screens have helped me out a lot. 

As soon as I open my eyes each day, I grab my mobile and check BBC News,  BBC weather and emails to see how I should shape my day. That can take half an hour luxuriating in my bed as something else will inevitably catch my eye on other apps.  

Mid-morning with a coffee, I have started in the last two months learning Italian on the tablet Kay bought me for my 70th birthday. I can already speak German fluently and French to A-level standard with a smattering of Russian, so another language has not been too taxing. The Duolingo course online has been amazing and I have already made some progress. I am not sure how useful "the turtle is eating the red spider" (la tartaruga mangia il ragno rosso) will come in handy for a trip to Venice, but who knows? There might be a red spider in my room and I can ask the hotel reception to provide me with a hungry turtle.

After half an hour or so of Italian animals and verb declensions, I progress to my laptop to do some admin or write emails. Then lunch beckons, so I make a snack to eat in front of the midday news on TV. 

Mid-afternoon, I'm back on the laptop as there might be a zoom meeting I have joined. I have taken part in various Covid studies and there have been quite a few zoom meetings on their findings. The foodbank where I used to volunteer pre-Covid often has zoom meetings too. In addition to all that I have joined a choir online and they regularly send backing tracks and lyrics for you to practice the song before the next zoom session, all done (you've guessed it) on my laptop. Sometimes, those zoom meetings are the only human contact I have had all week, so they are a godsend. Thank goodness for technology!

By suppertime, I am winding down for the day and will cook a meal and eat alone whilst watching TV. Before I know it, four hours have passed in front of back-to-back TV and the evening is long gone. It's often just a noise in the background to drown the silence in the room.

I do feel rather embarrassed that I have spent so much of my day in front of a screen, although to be fair I was more out and about before Covid came along but obviously cannot do that again yet. Screen time has kept me connected with the outside world during the pandemic and distracted me from my isolation. It's educated me too. So I justify it to myself.

Soon it is bedtime. Time for me to turn off the light and rest those square eyes. Sorry, Mum!

06 February 2021

Alcohol in a pandemic and a soap story

Growing up as a child in the 1950s and a teenager in the 1960s, alcohol wasn't even a word in my vocabulary. I came from a fairly working-class background - I was the first in the family ever to go to university - and alcohol was only something we had at Christmas as a special treat. My father had two jobs to afford the mortgage of our modest terrace house - by day as a patissier manager at Fortnum and Mason and then five evenings a week teaching patisserie to bored housewives at evening school. At Christmas we would splash out and buy a bottle of sherry, some advocaat (egg flip) and maybe a few cans of beer or my Dad's favourite tipple of Guinness. I cannot ever recall us buying wine or ordering it on the very very rare occasions we went out for a meal to celebrate a major birthday. Supermarkets, such as there were in those days, did not sell alcohol and the only place to buy it was in pubs or off- licences that had strict opening times. Things have changed a lot in the following decades. Alcohol is available everywhere and most hours of the day and night - in supermarkets, corner shops and petrol stations, as well as pubs, online deliveries and specialised wine and beer shops. Little wonder that alcoholism is on the increase.

The covid pandemic has made things worse. With people shut indoors and poor mental health on the increase, it seems people have grabbed for a bottle to still their anxiety or boredom. Financial worries, juggling work with homeschooling, relationship issues, anxiety about Covid-19, boredom, and devastating isolation for many of the over 60s, have left people 'self-medicating' with alcohol to a significant degree. According to the Office for National Statistics,  there were 5,460 alcohol-related deaths between January and September 2020, a 16.4% increase on 2019. For many, instead of a starting time of 6pm for opening a bottle of wine, it had become 5pm, then 4pm, 3pm and then lunchtime, with people drinking throughout the afternoon and evening on a regular basis.

As if that were not bad enough, Amazon has been adding to the problem. Apparently, they have been offering customer discounts if they subscribe to regular deliveries as much as 10% off for fortnightly deliveries. People may be tempted by the benefit of the discount but then having bottles delivered at regular intervals effectively sets a target to finish the previous order. That "pressure" may then encourage people to drink faster and more than they usually would leading to an addictive behaviour or exacerbating an exiting one.

I'm always annoyed when I see alcoholics depicted in dramas. The usual outcome is that they see the error of their ways and they make a miraculous recovery never to have a single drop of alcohol again. They go riding off into the sunset with a happy ever after. The reality is far different of course as the statistics say that only one in ten alcoholics ever kicks the habit and sadly nine out of ten revert to drinking heavily and even die from it. I saw it in Greg - as much as he wanted to stop, he simply couldn't. After every hospitalisation and supervised detox, he was back on the whisky within days of coming home again and so the merry-go-round continued until his death. He never wanted to do rehab as he didn't want to be away from home for too long.  (Note to the uninitiated- detox is just the process of removing alcohol from your system - best done for a few days in hospital under medical supervision to monitor side effects of withdrawal - but rehab goes into why you drink and ways of looking for the triggers - often a lengthy soul-searching stay of some months in an institution away from temptation.) That temptation never truly goes away for the rest of your life and it takes a strong constitution to keep on the straight and narrow forever. Just one drink is all it takes to set you off again.

I was therefore pleased to see the latest storyline in the long-running soap Coronation Street in which Peter Barlow, a recovering alcoholic,  falls off the wagon yet again and is told both that his liver is now beyond repair and that he will need a transplant. (When was it ever that easy? Medics are not keen to do transplants until the alcoholic can live a good six months without alcohol, but we'll skip lightly over that.) At first he decides against the transplant as he knows it is his own fault he is that ill and also because his life is no longer fun. In his attempt to drink himself into complete oblivion again, he ends up in hospital and has a major rethink. Meanwhile he and his family are absolutely surprised to hear from the doctors that he must carry on drinking for the time being.

The times I heard that said too from my visits to A&E with Greg after one of his drunken downfalls. It may seem crazy that doctors would suggest that but there is a good reason. For an alcoholic to go cold turkey is more dangerous, as it will more than likely cause hallucinations or seizures which can be very serious indeed. Alcohol withdrawal is always best done in hospital under medical supervision and then followed up immediately by rehab, but particularly now with beds full of Covid patients supervision is not possible and there have always been long waiting lists for rehabilitation centres (particularly free ones), so reducing alcohol content slowly by as much as one glass or an inch less of a bottle a day, will still achieve withdrawal in the end, but not so drastically that the body reacts in a dramatic way. The onus of course is on the alcoholic to maintain that slow reduction without being lured back into increasing alcohol consumption.  It will be interesting to see how this soap story pans out, but my money is on him sailing off into the sunset and never drinking a drop. Sadly the reality is far from that.