Happy New Year! Why Some Expats Are At Risk For Alcohol or Drug Issues

Expat Living: Dealing with Potential problems - Escort Girl. Expat companion, alcohol, party“Hey, I’m going to be in town in about a week. I was told you were the one who could arrange some “company” for us while we’re there, maybe a little party?” a male voice inquired.

“Sure,” the expat offered. “What variety are you in the mood for?”

And it was that easy.

The resident expat told his caller that he had a few favorites on speed-dial. He could also hook his guest up with “party favors” (mood drugs) as well.

[This story isn’t a fictional account. The expat was a respected member of the professional community.]

In countries struggling to get their economies up and running, often the last things to be tightened up are the sales of alcohol and the shadow economy- specifically, the availability of illicit drugs and/or “professional company” (male, female, trans), all readily available and which can make for lucrative sources of additional tax revenue from bars or from shakedowns and bribery payments paid in exchange for authorities to look the other way. No one acknowledges this openly but it’s well-known among expats who are looking.

At the local expat hangout, the restaurant/bar combination, where the owner is often a single expat entrepreneur or a couple who have settled in for the long haul, retired in place after having done their stint with the multi-national firm, the drinks flow liberally among a crowd of regulars who stop off on their way home to have a pint with the lads or a girls night out. Also on tap, a selection of locals to round out the evening pleasures.

Expat Living: Isolation, Loneliness, and Loss lead to dependence on alcohol for socializingAccording to expat author, Robin Pascoe (expatexpert.com for FIGT.org), “You won’t find global companies shouting this news from the hilltops, but it’s hardly a secret: there’s always an employee or family member abroad on assignment who regularly has too much to drink at a party, consumes his or her first gin and tonic long before the sun sets, or is addicted to prescription drugs easily purchased over the counter or to recreational drugs readily on offer.“

Some expats fall into drinking, drugs, and other risky behaviors when it comes with the business territory (entertaining clients, greasing the wheels to make a deal); some take advantage of what’s forbidden at home yet freely available abroad; yet others give in to social pressures, or as a way to numb the pain of isolation.

In some countries, such as Japan, the drinking culture is incredibly important to business and co-worker relationships. Declining to attend a social function or can be met with criticism and may impact on opportunities. This can cause significant stress for people who are unsure of the cultural traditions and can see that alcohol is integral to business.

Some expat wives report being left out of business engagements as other females are already hired for clients. It’s the way business is done…

“Expatriate assignments often involve extensive networking as part of the role. It is often the job of the expat to facilitate and participate extensive social functions such as lunches and dinners as the representative of the company they are working for. These events typically involve alcohol and lots of it. Some may even involve use of other illegal drugs though this would be behind closed doors.”

“The pressure of meeting performance expectations, succeeding in the job and new life is magnified by the loneliness and isolation that expats experience. This can push some expats to abuse alcohol or drugs. For others, the life overseas offers them a hard-to-resist lifestyle where they can drink and use drugs to excess without being watched or criticized by others.” We don’t often talk about these dirty little secrets, but we should.

Gulfnews.com XPRESSS reported in May, 2011 that in Dubai the number of residents battling alcohol abuse is on the rise in the UAE where boozy brunches and binge drinking are the order of the day. By that time (2011) the problem had assumed such epidemic proportions that authorities began considering offering alcohol rehab services to expatriates. It was the first time this service had been offered to residents, regardless of nationality, rather than to Emiratis only.

One commenter posted this response: I agree that unlimited alcohol served at restaurants can become quite a nuisance. However, no one realises that one of the biggest contributory factors to increase in alcoholism is that alcohol is sold at extremely low rates …”

The ground-breaking treatment plans followed a 2011 National Rehabilitation Centre (NRC) report titled Disease Burden on Individuals and Society. It said “5.3 per cent of the total deaths in the UAE are due to alcohol use or illicit drugs, coupled with an expected “considerable proportion of hidden users”.

The Gulfnews.com XPRESS article went on to say, “Statistics culled from a 2010 survey by research firm Euromonitor show that alcohol consumption in the UAE has increased by an alarming 30 per cent in the past five years. At the same time, instances of alcohol abuse have also spiked. The frequency of Alcoholic Anonymous Arabia (AA Arabia) meetings which address the issue has registered a staggering 700 per cent increase, from three per week back in the early ’90s to 25 per week today.

Hesham Farouk Al Arabi, NRC head of Health, Training and Education, knows an increasing numbers of expats are battling the bottle just like Emirati patients. Evidence of this, he says, is in the number of inquiries for NRC care, 35 calls per month last year shooting up to 150 calls per month this year.

British expat Gemma Daly, in Dubai for eight months, had her first five-star brunch experience this year and describes it as four hours of pure indulgence, all for Dh400.

“It tasted amazing and it was wonderful mingling with glamorous people floating around on a Friday afternoon. But as expected, a number of people in our group showed they were unable to handle their alcohol and were intent on drinking what they had paid for. They certainly got their money’s worth, but the hangover was included for free,” the 24-year-old says.

As we approach this New Year’s Eve, a nearly universal time for celebration (meaning any combination of drinking, drugs, gambling, or sex), we need to understand if we or our friends are at risk, learn how spot the warning signs, i.e., what causes us, our expat friends or neighbors to go off the rails, and finally, figure out how we can help.

Expat Living: Isolation, Loneliness, and Loss Contribute to Abuse (Alcohol, Drugs, Physical)

Isolation, Loneliness, and Loss Contribute to Abuse

Gulf News XPRESS spoke to AA Arabia members, agreeing to its request for surnames to be withheld. One of the main dangers that frequently arose in the talks was isolation.

It seems alcohol and loneliness make great drinking buddies. American resident Becky says this is amplified in Dubai where most expatriates are stripped of family, friends and any close support, while the devil’s drink is ready to fill that place. Becky, 55, sobered up after relocating to Chicago where she looked for comfort and company at the bottom of her wine glass, but says if she hadn’t hit rock bottom there, it could have easily been in Dubai where expats face similar issues.

The reality, says former Dubai alcoholic, Sarah, is that most people suffer from alcohol abuse before arriving in the emirate. The misconception among many is that alcohol will be difficult to come by in a Muslim state, so their problem will disappear. But, not so, she says. Dubai’s social scene allows you to have a weekend every day of the week.

There was a period in Dubai, about 2002, where she drank in almost every bar, drink-drove most days and sometimes woke up naked on a beach, filled with self-loathing and vowing to get her drinking under control, but with no idea how to do that.

‘‘I didn’t see I had a problem because I was seeing the same people out as well, but the difference was they began to move on with their life, getting married or getting a promotion, whereas I was still out on the lash.”

She believes many expatriates work hard and keep afloat by unwinding in the alcohol-laden social scene”

Warning Sign: »The blind-spot comment, “I didn’t know…“, “I didn’t realize…” is used.

Five years ago, Mike Flynn dropped out of corporate life in Australia. He was a highly successful advertising executive in Australia, but as he tells it:

”I had a $10 million advertising budget but a part of me was saying: ‘What is the legacy?”’ the former IKEA Australia marketing director said.

After leaving IKEA to start his own agency, Mr Flynn began to drink heavily. ”I didn’t realise I was slipping deeper into the abyss. You don’t notice it, it creeps up, then one day you’re desperate and dysfunctional,” he said.

His life unravelled like an IKEA flat-pack. His first wife left, he attended Alcoholics Anonymous and he found himself alone in a tiny flat in Neutral Bay a long way from the harbour views and fat bank accounts he had known.”

Ladies lunches, mahjong parties, book clubs where there is more wine and less book- all these are places where alcohol and perhaps a recreational joint or two (or three…) may be part of the group dynamic. It can be hard to say no. If the choice is between losing the only friends one has, or having a hit or a drink, it can be easy to justify the first few times as an acceptable compromise. Somewhere down the line, having and keeping the social group becomes the all important factor.

Warning Sign: »Fear of being left out or left behind if you don’t participate; feeling the overwhelming need to be part of a group.

Helpful Tips: »From a post on Expat Living Hong Kong, we are offered these suggestions for understanding whether we or our friends have crossed the line.

Why not ask yourself the following: “When I drink  or [insert other risky behavior], is it usually with others or on my own? Is it a nightly ritual? Would it bother me at all to go without?”

There are other relevant questions:

  • Do you drink or [insert other risky behavior] because everyone else does and you don’t want to feel like the odd one out?
  • Do you struggle to say “no” or do you feel a sense of pressure to have another?
  • Do you sometimes drink to ease social situations?
  • Is it because when you don’t drink or [insert other risky behavior] you worry too much, think about the past or feel too much pain?

The question of how you drink looks at the act of drinking itself. (Ask similar questions for other risky behaviors)

  • Can you have one or two and easily leave it at that or does one or two usually lead to three, four or five (or more)?
  • Do you drink to savour the taste, or do you knock them back?
  • Do you feel you need to hide some of your drinking behaviours?

Finally, be honest with yourself about the consequences.

  • Do you often have to drag yourself out of bed in the mornings?
  • Is alcohol having an impact on your relationships with your children or spouse?
  • Does being “nicely numb” in the evening affect your ability to engage in meaningful activities (such as good conversation)?
  • Do you get verbally or physically aggressive when you have had a few?
  • Is your fitness or your health being affected?
  • Is it affecting your weight?

And perhaps the ultimate question:

  • Do you honestly feel you are the person that you want to be?

If any your answers above unsettle you, then maybe it’s time to take charge and make a change for the better. 

As expat friends, or families of expats, please- ask these questions.

The truest measure of a friend may be the one who is willing to risk everything to ask the hardest questions when it means the most.

Take time this week to think about yourself, your friends, and expats you’re in contact with. Think about how you socialize with them. Care enough to call someone out if the answers to the questions above warrant further discussion.

This is a tough subject to discuss in a normally light-hearted blog, but we really want all of our friends to be around in 2014, safe, sound, and healthy!

Use the resources below for more information. Thanks for caring!

Be safe-

Happy New Year to You & Yours!



(Based on an article first published by the Counselling Directory, October 2013.) 
The Emotional Challenge of Expat Life.


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