June 21, 2013

How many more?

Piping and pipe bands have a reputation problem. It’s called booze. But it’s not just reputation; it’s reality.

Our connection with alcohol is part of our tradition. The image of the drunken Scotsman, the piper downing a dram – these are as predictable with the general public as tartan and “Amazing Grace.”

Virtually every competition, concert or band practice ends with alcohol. For sure, it’s an essential social aspect of what we do. It’s one of my personal favourite parts of the piping scene, and I am not for an instant suggesting we stop enjoying ourselves in moderation.

I’m not sure that in reality pipers and drummers have any worse a problem with booze than other musicians. Just about every club or community likes to share a drink among friends and, in that sense, we’re like everyone else.

What I’m talking about is recognizing, confronting and helping those with serious alcohol dependency problems. I’m sure that you know at least one or two pipers or drummers who are probable or full-fledged alcoholics.

Our drinking tradition is also a tradition where it is customary to sweep problems under the rug. We turn a blind-eye to those with serious alcohol problems and, in fact, we often encourage them. We buy them drinks. We coax them. Just one more. Give us a tune. Have another.

For every world famous piper who dies of alcoholism or suicide due to its associated depression and relentless demons, there are far more we never hear about. When it happens, not much is said except for the euphemism that he “died suddenly.”

Thankfully there are those among us who have recognized their problem and, with the support of others, work every day to stay sober. To a person, those pipers and drummers I know who are recovering alcoholics struggle at social settings to decline offers from their drinking pipers and drummers to “go ahead . . . one won’t hurt you.”

In 1987 I wrote an editorial about this very same topic in the then Canadian Piper & Drummer. Living in Edinburgh at the time, I happened to run into a group of Queen’s Own Highlanders off-duty soldiers on a night on the town. One of them was a prominent piper who expressed his extreme displeasure with the piece, accusing me of “ruining all the fun.”

I understand that others will not like this being talked about again here. It needs to be said. I am bothered greatly that we traditionally tend to sit there and watch our friends be destroyed by this disease, and some of us even egg it on. If there are those who feel that these things should not be spoken of, well, I’m afraid that you’re part of the problem.

This isn’t about stopping the fun. We can coexist with alcohol, and this blog even uses an image of whisky as symbolic of discussing various sides of what we do and who we are as pipers and drummers. This post is about friends who might need help.

Alcoholism and depression will continue to affect pipers and drummers just as they will continue to impact all other walks of life. Addiction and illness will not go away. But at least let’s all of us try to do something about it by eliminating the taboo of talking.

That starts by confronting the problem, discussing it, and reaching out to help each other.


  1. Wise words. We all know someone we’ve lost to this Devil and many of use know several. No one is immune. For most, moderation works. For others, only abstinence. At the end of the day, we are our brother’s keeper…..at least we have to try.

  2. Concur heartily. That said, part of the reason I left my former band is they stopped going out after practice and gigs. It felt like all work and no play.

  3. When I hear of pipers and drummers struggling with addictions of various kinds or heaven forbid, taking their own lives, or their careers suffering because of their emotional difficulties getting in the way, it stirs up a wee idea inside me about something specifically for the piping and drumming community. Whether that would be cut price sessions supported by some Trust, – face to face or skype, or whether it would be that they were coming to a psychotherapist with some knowledge of the piping and drumming world, I’m not sure, and the pros and cons would need to be thought through. But just as I work with the general public, and from time to time this includes someone who has been on the verge of taking their own life, it seems a crying shame that some piper somewhere might be in dire straits and there seems no way out. Talking to someone really does help – a lot. There’s an organisation here in the UK which organises therapy for musicians–the name escapes me–but there were leaflets in the COP – therapists offer half price sessions under this scheme. And I’ve heard of the Musicians Union Benevolent Fund financing therapy for musicians. But it’s not really finding the money for therapy that’s the problem, it’s the making of the decision to phone up a therapist and get the ball rolling, and removing the stigma that it’s weak or bad to feel upset or that you’re struggling in life. We all struggle in life to greater or lesser extents and at some points in the timeline more than others. Far from a weakness, I think it shows a strength if someone can pick up the phone or fire off an email that says ‘I’m struggling here, I need help’. And once the person gets into therapy if that’s the route decided upon, well then there are two people thinking about the problems, not just one. And that in itself makes a huge difference, never mind anythng else that might come out of the process. While appreciating that for some, they really do reach the end of the road and feel all is lost, it seems such a needless waste. Especially when talking to someone trained to listen (or even maybe just talking to ‘anyone’) could have made all the difference. It’s quite simple in one way–just talk, share it, don’t bottle it up, literally.

  4. Well written Andrew. Having worked the majority of my life in the juvenile justice arena, as well as over 50 years of piping “experiences”, I have been frustrated both personally and professionally watching countless families and individuals disintegrate due to alcohol related problems.
    I agree 100% we need to take this issue out of the closet. Alcoholism is as much an illness as depression. Education and awareness are small but important steps. Thank you for opening the door, again…

  5. Unfortunately, it is a bit naive to think that as soon as you recognize the problem and take action the person will be on the road to recovery. Some people really do find it impossible to change. What are we to do in this case?

    We have a desperate alcoholic in our band who has spent time in detox (about five years back), and a year ago she was taken to the crisis centre at the psychiatric hospital following suicide threats made while intoxicated. The police were involved and everything. She’s seen therapists and psychiatrists, been on and off medications, but it all ends up in the same place. She talks about this very openly with all of us, we aren’t ignoring the problem. She also says that we are the only friends she has now: her mother died of alcoholism at the age of fifty, her partner has kicked her out of the house, and her daughter stayed with him. The responsibility of being her go-to people is a very big burden for everyone in the band, and I have to deal with most of it; I’m the only female in the band relatively close to her in age, so she prefers to talk to me.

    Two months ago she lost her license due to drink driving, and in order to get it back she has to go in for regular blood tests that measure the level of some enzyme in her blood that’s related to alcohol consumption. Of course, she fails them. She still shows up to band practices drunk at least 50% of the time. And you know what? During our last outing, when the organizers offered us free drinks (as they always do) of course she was first in line and went back for more, despite our admonishments. Are we to wrestle drinks away from her? What’s the point when she already probably has a flask in her sporran and more booze at home. She now lives alone in her apartment, which is about a half-hour drive from where most of us live, so it’s not like we can check up on her regularly.

    Personally, I am running out of patience. I have missed work because of her, have spent hours on the phone, taken her to hospitals, and tried to throw out all the booze in her house. But she can always buy more, and I can’t babysit her. Of course a three-month stay in detox sobers someone up, but the doctors don’t see the point of doing it again because she just relapses as soon as she gets out. And she always stops any medication shortly after she starts it. She seems to have resigned herself to the fact that she has lost everything good in her life and that she will face the same fate as her mother. No one, friend or professional, has been able to change her mindset. She now has chronic pancreatitis due to years and years of alcohol abuse. Perhaps instead of suicide she’ll die of liver cirrhosis or pancreatic cancer. The consequences of alcoholism go far beyond depression and interpersonal problems.

    Anyway, sorry to vent about this here, I guess I wanted to make the point that solving alcohol-related problems involves a lot more than just talking about it and getting someone professional help. The outcomes for some people are very, very poor despite all the help and support they could ever ask for. And if you’re willing to get involved with someone, be prepared for a potentially very long and frustrating journey that might not end well.

    1. I hope this poor individual is comfortable with her problem being detailed like it has, in such a public way. Her name wasn’t given, but some people might be able to ‘join the dots’ if they recognise who wrote this post, and which band he/she is from.

  6. Very brave indeed, Andrew. Difficult and sensitive subject. To live is to feel sorrow and pain + hopefully joy, love and happiness etc. It doesn’t always balance out at any given time, or with any given person. I often wonder how the internal barometers are set young for feeling positively vs negative emotions as in glass half full or empty. Certainly it hinges on the genes and upbringing but also life events. We are highly sociable animals and also very competitive, often surprisingly insensitive and overbearing in manipulating others to serve our own agenda without full regard for the cost borne by them. The alphas and the calmly phlegmatic can sail through life’s storms and dark nights of the soul seemingly with few scars – many others are more sensitive. The social network props up most of us at the critical moments in life but again, those internal values (perhaps demons) sometimes prevail against that support. Sometimes no amount of love, atmosphere of positive regard, and successes can convince the driven they are worthy and esteemed enough. Does it all issue from early berating and hectoring where a child is subjected to a parent’s own dreams of pursuing some thwarted aspiration? The same parents can treat different children the same way and end up with very different outcomes.

    Alcohol consumption is a socially reinforced behaviour and it appears worse in situations like the Military where a lot of tedium, the anxiety of battle and its preparation with endless down time can lend a volatile mix to seek stimulation and escape. It is the hard workout, possible tenseness of competition and cooling off after a hot day in steaming highland garb that can add to the reward aspect of the Games’ beer tent where the camaraderie is lubricated by sharing a pint. Bands are also a perfect unit size for a party on the road and a good excuse for a social get together usually abetted by the drink.

    Coming from various dysfunctional family elements my personal observation is that the reward system’s need for a kick seems a large contributor – hence addictive behaviours. I worry at times that food may be the worst addiction. Tobacco is more tailor fitted to the neural transmitters pharmaceutically and is a physiologically more compelling habit to lose. Alcohol appears to be more detrimental in cost to those around them. Like tobacco it becomes a focus of reward that any amount of rationalizing will serve to get the fix, an animal that takes its own control. And I could uncharitably point to the huge medical costs borne and days of productivity lost due to nicotine with inexorably induced illnesses, whose expense likely far exceeds that of alcohol. But extreme alcoholism is egregiously notorious for creating the squeaky wheels of needy individuals – like the previous poster found in shouldering great costs in time, effort and expense. As a publicly paid teacher I often resented (as a taxpayer) the time and huge energy spent with difficult “problem children” at the expense of their harder working and co-operative peers neglected for the fuller attention they deserved. But life is like that. We attend those ‘sore thumb’ problems which absorb a lot of resources and we take the smoothly shifting gears for granted. Those of us who sometimes drink too often or too much will inevitably upset those around us at some point but there are many points of frictional contact in daily life as well. Ask any hard done by underlings in the work place about the problem boss, overbearing parent, nagging spouse or PM maybe.

    I have known several of those with grey days seemingly endless in extent, and they lacked the energy to seek help pro-actively. Not like the highly accomplished Winston Churchill’s ‘black dog’, it resulted in perennial flattening of emotional affect as the neurotransmitter reward system went pear shaped. No longer able to pull themselves up by their emotional boot straps, some resorted to desperate measures. Others became dependent moaners ragging out on passers by. They all deserve sympathy but the wearing of “The Hours” (in Virginia Wolfe’s terms) become a drag on those being leaned on. There is no joy in sharing depression as may seem apparent (why not have the world laugh with us – and share a wee dram to celebrate?). I agree none of this lends to easy or dramatic, quick solutions which is why recent psychopharmaceuticals (Prozac heaven) have seemed too often the way to go (more drug solutions in a quick fix, but they can be very effective). Not our problem? But no human (Vancouver?) is necessarily an Island unto itself and we are all connected to the Main and must act as our brothers’ keeper when they sink into whatever abyss. It begins with the communication you have initiated.

  7. A very serious topic and a well-written and thoughtful article. I know too many people in bands with the disease (yes, it is) of addiction. Sadly, in pipe band culture they are often revered and their behaviour is not only condoned but often spurred on as if they are the court jester for everyone else’s amusement. These people are fathers, brothers, sisters, uncles, mothers in some cases. They are also friends whom we should have some duty of care for. Maybe I’m getting a bit older and more cautious, especially now I have children and can see it’s not all about me anymore. I love a drink and will make the most of it when/where I see fit. But I’ve seen too often someone being allowed to seek and find oblivion on the drink, only to be abandoned and left to their own devices in the pub after they have ceased to be ‘fun and amusing’ for others and become a messy nuisance. We can argue they are adults and make their own choices, however many would attest to the fact these people are often putting on the face of upholding a reputation for being a big drinker whilst hiding the fact there are more serious issues at hand. There’s nothing wrong with looking out for your mates if they’ve had too many and need some help.

  8. A touching piece for sure, but most people need to hit a bottom to want to accept help, the last thing a real alcoholic needs is people trying to stick their nose where it has business, only when they are prepared to concede can they begin to recover.

    And please remember, there is a difference between a hard drinker and an alcoholic, the first 167 pages tell us that, Andrew reading your post i think you understand what I mean.

    I know many recovering alcoholics in the pipe band world, many now sober for a long time.



Forgotten Password?