The hidden problem of alcoholism in British Punjabi communities

Alcoholism in the United Kingdom’s Punjabi Sikh community has long been hidden behind a wall of stigma and shame. But slowly, more people are sharing their stories and getting help.

[Muaz Osman/Al Jazeera]

“The hardest for me were the Punjabi weddings – they were the worst, with lots of alcohol on the tables,” explains 55-year-old Sukh Braich, who was born in India and grew up in Canada, but moved to the United Kingdom in 1999.

“I would be itching for the religious ceremony to finish, so I could head to the party and hit the bottle.”

A father of two, Sukh was a social drinker at first. He would go to the pub at the weekends, “[but] it slowly became a regular thing”.

“Every time there was a stressful situation at home or I felt upset with work I would use drinking as a coping mechanism for stress. I thought drinking was the answer, but the problem was still there when I was sober.”

He started drinking during the week as well, and going to work events just for the alcohol.

Overlooking ethnic diversity

Alcoholism has long been an issue in the UK, and there is evidence that rates of alcohol abuse have worsened under coronavirus lockdowns.

According to new research from the alcohol education charity, Drinkaware, almost one-third (31 percent) of drinkers in the UK say they are drinking at “increasing” or “high-risk” levels – meaning they drink more than the chief medical officer’s recommended guidelines of 14 units a week.

A little over one-quarter (26 percent) of the 4,003 UK adults surveyed at the start of December 2020 said they believe they need to cut down on the amount they drink. Overall, 16 percent of UK adults reported drinking more alcohol than usual since March.

The gathering of such data is imperative if addiction services are to be able to provide adequate care and counselling to those who are afflicted. But charities say a lack of data about how alcoholism impacts ethnic minorities can hinder service provision within those communities.

Official statistics about alcoholism in the UK are broken down by age, gender and region, but not by ethnicity. This means there is a major gap in knowledge about how Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities in the UK are affected, says charity Alcohol Change UK. In a report published last year, researchers at Alcohol Change UK wrote: “While the research literature reports high levels of abstention from alcohol across minority communities, service providers argue the prevalence of problematic alcohol use is under-estimated.”

Among other things, the research concluded that “there are concerns about the prevalence of problematic alcohol use among Sikh males, refugees and asylum seekers”.

Sarah Galvani, a professor of social research and substance use at Manchester Metropolitan University, believes it is major flaw in “national policy that more attention has not been given to … alcohol and drug consumption” among minority communities.

“There is no room for overlooking ethnic diversity in commissioning, developing and delivering alcohol and drug services,” she says.

Drinking within the Sikh Punjabi community

In response to such concerns, the drugs and gambling support charity, Aquarius, has issued new guidance for people from the UK’s Punjabi community who are suffering from problems with alcohol.

The guide has been developed in partnership with researchers from Manchester Metropolitan University and the University of Birmingham. It is based on an evaluation of an alcohol service initiative for a Punjabi community in the West Midlands – the first of its kind in the UK.

Richard McVey, Aquarius’s head of service, explains: “Our work with the Shanti Project [an initiative that provides support to people in the Punjabi Sikh community] has informed our understanding of the needs of a particular Punjabi community and has led to our development of the guidance on how to set up a similar service.”

The report’s co-author, Dr Surinder Guru, a senior lecturer at the University of Birmingham, says: “Drinking within the Punjabi community is very gendered. Heavy drinking by men is common practice but women’s drinking is frowned upon. This creates tensions in families and women can suffer rejection and shame within the community and family.

[Muaz Osman/Al Jazeera]

“Mental health is another taboo in this community, as not much information is out there so it’s not understood properly by this community and this lack of awareness leads to shame and stigma linked to the illness.”

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), which says calls to its helplines have risen by more than 20 percent under lockdown, is also responding to demand from the Punjabi Sikh community in the West Midlands region of the UK. It has recently published its main piece of literature, the Big Book, in Punjabi and there is a new bilingual English-Punjabi AA meeting that takes place in Birmingham.

Shunned by the community

Sukh says he believes drinking is a big problem in the Punjabi community. “People see you as a man if you drink and if you don’t they look down at you.”

As an alcoholic, he says, he felt shame and stigma. “My wife and children would tell family that I wasn’t feeling well if I was hungover and would be in my bedroom,” he recalls. “They would never say I had been drinking too much or that I needed help and have a problem. There is a huge stigma and shame associated with drinking in the community.”

It wasn’t until late 2019 that Sukh, an accountant, finally sought help after collapsing at work after drinking during his lunch break. Now in recovery, he describes alcohol as being “like a tornado – it destroys everything”.

“I had mental health issues, I wanted to commit suicide,” he recalls. “I lost my marriage, my son, and I am only rebuilding my relationship with my daughter now.”

He had tried to give up once before, in 2015, after being diagnosed with cancer, but had only lasted a year before relapsing. Sukh tried neuro-linguistic programming therapy (NLP, which aims to tap into the subconscious) to help him stop drinking. But while it would help for a couple of months, he would always start drinking again.

His drinking led to arguments with his wife and, eventually, tired of his behaviour and abusive language, she asked for a divorce.

In the end, he says: “My wife left me for someone else as my drinking was out of control and I wasn’t around to be a loving husband.”

[Muaz Osman/Al Jazeera]

But after he collapsed at work, Sukh went from hospital to rehab, where he stayed for 28 days. He now tries to help others battle addiction with the Alcoholics Anonymous fellowship in Birmingham.

“Alcohol is a silent killer. It makes you feel powerful and that there’s nothing in the world you can’t do,” he says. “It’s really dangerous, and it grabs hold of you. You will drink alcohol first and then it will drink you.”

His community, he says, has not been understanding.

“Rather than offering to help, they make excuses and say things like ‘there’s nothing wrong with you’, ‘you’re a man you should grow up’. I wasn’t aware of any organisations at the time to reach out to for help and support. I felt shunned by the Punjabi community.

“They don’t talk about alcoholism as a disease or an addiction. There’s so much shame and stigma in the Punjabi community. I do feel now things are slowly changing and people are talking about it more and reaching out for help.”

Dr Rakish Rana, founder of Clear Coach, a life coaching organisation, believes alcoholism “needs to be openly discussed and normalised”.

“To support those with mental health issues, there needs to be more awareness in the South Asian community, whether that’s through religious or community leaders, schools and families.”

From his own anecdotal experience, Sukh says people are starting to turn to services outside their communities, such as AA, for help. “I would always find these groups are full with South Asian men and women of all ages. It makes me feel quite sad that this is a big problem in our community and it’s growing.

“But more and more Punjabis are coming out and asking for help, and hence Punjabi-specific meetings are now being organised so people feel comfortable.”

‘My ex said, drink this, it will help you sleep’

Suky Kaur*, 41, a single mother of three, went into rehab in March 2020, just as the national lockdown was starting.

Her descent into alcoholism, she says, was linked to her unhappy marriage.

Her marriage was arranged when she was 18 and she started drinking three years later.

“He was insecure and possessive,” she says of her husband. “He would tell me what to wear and would even ask questions if I changed the colour of my lipstick.”

Suky let people believe she was happy because “what others think of you was really important” to her parents. But she wasn’t, and friends from outside of her community struggled to understand what she was going through.

“I wasn’t ready for children, so my husband told his parents, and his dad said, ‘If she doesn’t want children, I give you permission to go out do what you want’.” By this, he meant that he would pay for his son to have sex with other women, Suky explains.

But she did have children, and after her second in 2002 (her three children are now aged 16, 18 and 21), she began to feel depressed.

When she left hospital after giving birth, she needed help with the children, but her ex-husband was more concerned with going out to see his friends.

He left the house and returned shortly afterwards with a quarter of a bottle of vodka. He told Suky to drink it because it would help her sleep. That was when the drinking began.

“I was in a dark place,” she says. “I lived every day just worrying what was going to go wrong next, what was I going to be told off about, for example not washing up properly or I couldn’t hold my children until my work was done.

“I learned not to cry but to just pick myself up to show them [her husband and his family] they couldn’t hurt me and I was stronger than that even though I was broken inside. It’s not easy living in an extended family and not having time for myself.”

‘My bedroom was a cage’

“I didn’t have a bank account and wasn’t allowed to drive,” Suky says. “I was restricted from speaking to my family, so they didn’t know about my problems.” She says she also refrained from telling them anything in case they didn’t understand. Life was lonely and regimented: “I was told when to wake up and what I could eat.”

“I would eat spicy beans and Pot Noodles,” Suky says. “There was nothing else. The men would get the first choice of the food.”

This wasn’t the only problem she faced. If she didn’t wash a saucepan properly, she was told: “Your dad should die.”

“It was just a really toxic family and marriage to be in. All of this made me drink more and more.”

Suky would drink alone after putting her children to sleep. She would go to her room and drink until the alcohol ran out. Her bedroom was like a cage, she says, but it was the only place she could get away from her husband’s family.

“Drinking was my saviour; I just couldn’t stop myself,” she says. “My birth family tried to support me, but I didn’t know how to help myself, so how could someone else help me?”

Then, one night in 2009, things got so bad that she decided to end her life. “I called my brother after taking an overdose. I had my children by my bedside and told them how much I loved them. I really believed this would be the last time I would see them. I’m not sure what happened, but when I woke up the next morning, I just felt I had to stop this vicious cycle of turning to alcohol because things in my marriage were not right. So, that was the day I decided to leave. I called my dad, he picked me and the children up and I was back home with my parents. I was safe.”

With the support of her mum and dad, Suky went into rehab last year. Three months later, she was on the road to recovery. She’s learned how to do Reiki, an “energy-healing” technique carried out through touch, which aims to restore physical and emotional wellbeing. Suky says she feels this has helped her learn to live without alcohol.

She says: “I know that if I carried on, I would have lost everything. In the end, it would have killed me.”

‘I was arrested for drink driving’

Jaz Singh started drinking when he was 14. The now-48-year-old father of two from Coventry recalls how his parents, who had moved to the UK from Punjab in the 1960s, worked long hours in their shop.

Jaz would see his father drinking heavily and wanted to know what it felt like. He started skipping school and drinking on the streets with his friends. He would steal alcohol from corner shops to give to his white friends in order to fit in with them and raid the drinks cabinet at home knowing that his parents wouldn’t be back until late.

He would top up the bottles with water so his dad wouldn’t notice, but one day his mum caught him.

“She was horrified and so I lied, saying I was doing this so dad wouldn’t drink any more,” he says. “I was really terrified if my dad had seen me, it would have been all over for me.”

[Muaz Osman/Al Jazeera]

As the drinking got worse, he started to have blackouts. He wouldn’t be able to remember what had happened, but people would tell him he had been angry and violent.

“It makes you feel alive and you don’t want that feeling to go down. It’s initial elation; you feel on top of the world,” Jaz says.

Sometimes he would drink a bottle and a half of vodka a day for days on end. “I was arrested by the police for drink driving,” he says.

Then in 2011, a friend recommended that he try hypnotherapy. “It worked and I never looked back, except for a few relapses and one being in lockdown, which did make it more likely that I would relapse. That was short-lived and I controlled it and stopped before it got out of control.”

Jaz says there is a stigma attached to addiction within his community, which prevents people from seeking help, but notes “Speaking about it has given me more focus, [and] I want to help others.

“People shun you if you’re an alcoholic, but then why do all the weddings and parties with all different types of alcohol laid out? They are encouraging it and then don’t support you when you need it,” he says.

To help himself stay sober, Jaz goes to the gym and teaches children to box. “The stronger you get physically through boxing, the more it prevents mental health problems. Drinking affected my mental health in a big way …. I was a bitter, twisted drunk; always violent and angry. Alcohol can destroy everything.”

His advice to anyone who is struggling? “There are some great support groups out there, don’t feel afraid to reach out. Life is about living it to the best we can. Find a hobby you enjoy and do something that makes you happy and most of all keeps your mind healthy.”

*Some names have been changed for anonymity.

Source: Al Jazeera