“I intimately know the scorn and danger of not drinking,” says Shelley Burn-Fields. (Photo: Josh Olalde, Unsplash)

Shelley Burne-Field grew up in a big-drinking family and learned to hate the effects of alcohol on her whānau and friends. Here she reflects on being a non-drinker in a culture where she’s very much in the minority — just as we head into another season of spirited partying.

 

Twenty-two years ago, my husband and I got married. We wanted our wedding to be alcohol free — but we weren’t prepared for the fallout. In the weeks and months leading up to it, people threatened to boycott the wedding. We had family members turn up at our house, trying to convince us that we were wrong about even suggesting there’d be no booze. “You gotta have a few beers! It loosens. It flows. It lowers inhibitions. It’ll be no fun without it.’’

In the end, we caved in.

Later, during the wedding reception, a drunk friend tipped a half bottle of red wine down my wedding dress. Yay. Around 10.30pm, I noticed half the males had disappeared. They’d gone down to the pub to watch the rugby test match between the All Blacks and France.

My tāne describes alcohol as an aphrodisiac. It increases sensory pleasure and decreases pain. The lure of alcohol is hedonistic and alchemistic. Lubricating pain into pleasure. Who wouldn’t want that? It feels good. So good. But alcohol also has an ick factor: some not-so-lovely effects on us and our families.

Alcohol is so much a part of Aotearoa New Zealand that it feels like sacrilege to speak openly about its defects. Over the last few years, it’s been interesting, and wonderful too, to see Patrick Gower and Guyon Espiner and Lotta Dann publicly speak about the effects of alcohol on our society. And about their personal battles too. Kia kaha koutou!

A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I rocked the night away to Robbie Williams at the Mission Estate concert in Taradale. It was glorious. Always an eye-opener to be marshalled into narrow gates by brown workers, alongside the largest white privileged audience in Aotearoa New Zealand, many of them under the influence. You may think I’m being a bit of a Karen, but facts are facts.

But I knew Robbie William would save the night. And he did. He sang. And he blew the roof of the natural amphitheatre. He also spoke boldly, too, and with vulnerability, about the struggle of addiction, and about giving up alcohol 24 years ago. Slightly ironic in a winery full of drunk people.

His monologues were beautiful and insightful. For me, it was a revelation and a free therapy session. But for some others in the 25,000-strong crowd, it was all a bit too much. “Hurry up and SING!” became a drunken mantra when Robbie got even more vulnerable between songs, and asked the crowd whether this was a “safe space” to share his story.

Well, it was, and it wasn’t. I mean, it was at a winery.

I’ve grown up with drunk white people and brown people my whole life in Te Matau-a-Māui, Hawke’s Bay — and been to a few winery concerts, too. And these spaces aren’t very safe for non-drinkers. But we always go prepared.

My husband Bernie and I don’t drink alcohol. I’m grateful for this. Both our families of origin were, and are, big drinkers. Big. Huge. Over the years, enough kegs and crates and jugs and bottles of piss have been emptied through our family’s bladders to fill many Olympic-sized swimming pools. I hate the effects of these rivers of wine, beer, and top-shelf on whānau — and especially on our children.

Bernie is a recovering alcoholic. He gave up drinking 37 years ago, way before I met him. He went to rehab in the 1980s, got some tools for life, and hasn’t touched a drop since. Not one drop. Once he learned about addiction and understood the pain he was carrying, once he learned to love, trust, and be honest with himself, it was easier to give it up than he ever imagined. I’ll always be grateful to him for blessing our whānaunga with this gift of sobriety. What a champion.

Many people recognise the bliss and horror of the frenemy, alcohol. Its mind and body-altering effects have become the universal glue that holds everything together in Kiwi and Aussie culture.

Apart from awe-inspiring outliers like Robbie Williams and my husband Bernie, alcohol can dominate every behavioural layer of society. Think about where it sits in our lives. We love it, support it, finance it, defend it, and reverently teach its etiquette to our younger generations.

Did I mention that we love it?

I’ve never been addicted to alcohol, but it had me in its embrace as a tamaiti, through others’ addictions. Once I was old enough to enforce some of my own boundaries, alcohol became a phantom, its power completely taken away. Over the course of our marriage, my husband and I have built up hard-won boundaries — to keep ourselves and our family safe. We are our own in-club, and it feels so good.

I intimately know the scorn and danger of not drinking. I’ve grown up in a household where alcohol, my father, and other male figures were king. Alcohol trumps everything. The toxic fallout from alcohol on family and whānau and community was etched on the inside of my eyelids from an early age.

Drinking validates some social norms. If you don’t validate, then you don’t belong in those spaces. Non-drinkers have a high awareness of drinkers and the perils of not validating the dominant group.

Spaces to drink or to get drunk are crafted physically and psychologically, whether it’s the sitting room, a bar, shed, or car. Spiritually, I believe a drinking space is in some way consecrated. I’m not sure who or what consecrates this space, but I’ve felt the power acutely on many occasions. The space is never dressed for the non-drinker.

Shelley and husband Bernie, at the Robbie Williams concert at the Mission Estate winery in Taradale. (Photo supplied)

Take our Mission Estate winery concert. I’d hazard a guess that, on average, there are 10 to 20 broken bones per concert, including snapped ankles, legs, knees and wrists. It’s a wonder ACC doesn’t ban concerts altogether. What other event would get away with that? Rolling bottles, rolling drunks, probably rolling in the dough, too. A consecrated space.

Alcohol lubricates a path to a place where there’s no awareness of non-drinkers. There’s no awareness of anything else but the present. It’s a place to inhabit, not inhibit, emotions. Distress is normalised. Then it’s zipped back up, like a cadaver in a bag. Until the next time we all have a drink.

Near the end of the night at the Robbie Williams concert, a drunken lass, perhaps 30 years old, Pākehā, well-dressed, absolutely legless, barrelled into us, then through some of the others in the audience, slipped down the hill, clambered back up on all fours, and trampled through everyone’s food looking for her son. Who knows how old he was. I felt sick.

She wasn’t the only one. I didn’t see one drunk brown person, though I’m sure there were some. A fedora-wearing ex-husband found his ex-wife and jumped right on top of her. Hideous and hilarious, but not for the ex-wife, poor thing. When you’re sober, it’s quite something letting the crowd entertain you.

I remember throughout my life trying to escape from alcohol’s embrace. As a kid, I was right into maintaining these spaces for adults. Of course, I was. I was a good girl who folded my arms and sat up in class.

A party at home was a magical time where normally distant and grumpy adults were really nice, at first. At the beginning of the night, there were snacks and laughter and music in a smoke-filled room. Us kids were normally not being yelled at. In fact, we’d been bathed and dressed in our best flannelette pyjamas, our hair wet and brushed back, ready to be called on, but only for special tasks of course. The anticipation was everything.

Once called, as a four or seven or 10-year-old, I’d open bottles of beer by ripping off the metal caps with my teeth. Crrrrrunch. Pop. Good girl. I’m sure I wasn’t the only child to wait on adults.

Go on. Admit it. There are adults you know right now who teach their kids how to be a bartender from an early age. Those kids know well the walk of honour to the nearest fridge or ice bucket or to the back seat of the car, to bring back the prize that will garner them the best praise of their young lives. We initiate them young in Aotearoa New Zealand.

The residual effects of alcohol addiction on a family are so strong that I still get a dopamine hit at the thought of getting someone a drink. The family of the alcoholic often becomes sicker than the alcoholic. There’s a lifetime of processing trauma right there.

One of my other favourite jobs as a kid was crafting smokes with an antique tin cigarette roller, which I handled with awe. I would perfectly roll a pile of those smokes made from tobacco, paper, and filters, then I’d crack open any bottle-top with ease. I was in adult-pleasing heaven, while the adult was in alcohol-induced heaven. The two form a horrifying match.

Did I tell you I loved it? Why wouldn’t I? When I was allowed inside the bubble, I was visible. Seen. Usually, it was grand. Until later in the night. After the party, there’d be fights. Thundering voices. Screams. Fists and heads pounding walls. Bone on skin. Sobbing. Silence.

My younger brother and I would sit on the side of my bed, with the hall light shining in through a crack in the door. I’d put my arm around him and tell him it’d be okay. Tomorrow morning, I’d say, when everyone was still asleep, we could have all the leftover chippies and peanuts and maybe even a bag of orange Twisties.

Secretly, I’d wish for the start of the night again, where I could open bottles of beer with my teeth and roll perfect smokes and make everyone happy — before the feeling in the house would turn.

As I grew up, I learned to hate the dangerous effects of alcohol on me, my family, friends and whānau. I don’t use the word “hate” lightly. I still hate alcohol, especially as an addictive substance that can take hold of the ones you love so completely that it becomes their everything.

And I really hate the decorative aspect of alcohol addiction.

Just like we create cigarettes for the hit of nicotine, we carve out a place to access the sedative and hypnotic effects of ethanol, or alcohol. They’re the SIDs (or “seemingly irrelevant decisions”) that all lead to the same place. The set-up. Creating the opportunity and the space for drinking. A sitting room, a pub, a garage, an office space, a woolshed, the clubrooms, visiting a friend, or sitting in the front seat of your car — all can be transformed into that familiar bubble.

Sometimes we use actual decoration: ribbons, balloons, glitter, warmth, lighting, food. Sometimes, we use intention only: a few wines with the girls around the kitchen island, a few beers with the boys out back, a few cans in the ute by yourself on the drive home from mahi, a few sips from a flask in the work toilet.

However, the ick factor never disappears. A guy on TV described his addiction to alcohol as his “evil mistress”. Misogyny aside, he’s hit the Madonna/whore symbolism on the proverbial head.

We want to abuse alcohol and get that whip out, but we become deaf and blind to anything except the sensorially magnificent, gratuitous, nipple-rubbing, present moment. Alcohol won’t let us look consequence in the eye. It’s called alcohol myopia. We become a “slave to the present” — and not a very capable slave, either.

When I worked at Mangaroa prison, I taught male inmates about stuff they already knew. I lasted under a year in the Department of Corrections under the Key government’s “Better Public Services” programme. The culture was soul-destroying. However, it was interesting.

When we taught inmates about the effects of alcohol and other drugs, we used the analogy of an operating theatre. The general scenario went like this. You have a loved one who’s about to go under the knife. You realise the surgeon is under the influence of an illicit substance.

The inmates didn’t need an academic study to know that if their mother needed an operation, there was no way they’d want the surgeon to be drunk. They pinpointed, with scary accuracy, that the alcohol would dull the surgeon’s reflexes, and that the surgeon would have an unwarranted “she’ll be right” attitude. They’d suffer from “self-inflation”, as part of alcohol myopia — or, in the words of one inmate, the surgeon could get too “cocky” even though they were a “drunk fuck”. And lastly, under the influence of alcohol, the surgeon’s frontal cortex would fail to regulate any batshit crazy urges.

The inmates scored perfectly on the test. No drunk fucks allowed to operate. EVER.

For individuals, alcohol can offer false as well as real courage, a way to escape or numb pain, to access solidarity and to fit in, and a pathway to sleep, to laugh, to cry, to hope, to forget, or to remember. It also offers addiction and shame and abdication of self.

For families and whānau, alcohol can offer all these things on a macro level. Let’s escape our pain together. Let’s laugh and cry and sing and love as one. Those who drink together, bond together. Drinking alcohol equals love and acceptance, doesn’t it?

I hate the effects of alcohol on families and whānau — and I haven’t even mentioned sexual harm. But there is hope. Hope for children who’ve experienced alcohol’s embrace and who can and do throw it off and cling on to life as much as they can.

Later, they may grow into adults who shake their heads about their upbringing. They may wonder how they even survived. They may wonder what life could’ve been like. They may grieve for and send aroha to their whānau and to the drunk crowds at concerts who still suffer addiction. And they may thank their lucky stars for their own good fortune in understanding it, becoming educated about it, and finally breaking alcohol’s embrace for good.

As a wise, wise person said: “If you sit in the barber’s chair too long, you’re going to get a haircut.” That wise person is my husband, and he gave up sitting in the alcohol chair more than 37 years ago. As Robbie Williams did almost 25 years ago.

They both know that, with help, they were able to choose love and safety for themselves and their family. What true champions.

 

Shelley Burne-Field (Sāmoa, Ngāti Mutunga, Ngāti Rārua, Pākehā) writes fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry. She comes from Te Matau-a-Māui / Hawke’s Bay and is a graduate of the University of Auckland’s Master of Creative Writing, and the mentoring programme Te Papa Tupu.

First published in E-Tangata in 2020, she has since won several awards, most recently in the 2023 Pikihuia Awards for her poem “Another Brown Face”. This week she was named as the 2024 Emerging Māori Writer in Residence by Te Herenga Waka – Victoria of Wellington International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML) and Creative New Zealand.

© E-Tangata, 2023

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