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Women and alcohol – when ‘normal’ drinking slips into problem territory

Posted on 22 August 2013 | 6:08am

A while back I posted a guest blog by the founders of an online group set up to help women worried about their drinking. Now Lucy Rocca, one of the Soberistas, has co- written a book with Sarah Turner, The Sober Revolution, – Women Calling Time On Wine O’Clock, and the response suggests there are a lot of women out there fearful that what was once the odd glass of wine has turned into a habit, quantities have grown, and social drinking is in danger of becoming problem drinking.

Young women and alcohol is the subject of my next novel, My Name Is…, which charts the life of Hannah, from the day she was born to the her descent into alcoholism, the story told through the eyes of others. Who knows where ideas come from? Partly my own experience, as a problem drinker, but I think the idea of focusing on a woman came from the film I made on middle class alcoholism for the BBC, and the interview with liver specialist Nick Sheron, who said that when he started out, his patients were nine to one men. Now fifty per cent are women.

So there is an issue here. I hope my novel adds to the debate about it, as Lucy and her colleagues have done with their website and, now, The Sober Revolution. My Name Is… is published next month by Penguin Random House, and, for anyone in the East Midlands, I will be talking about it at the Nottingham Playhouse on September 7. For now, here is Lucy’s guest blog. I will be writing one for her when My Name Is… comes out.

‘Alcohol holds such a strange place in the heart of our society. For some it is their nemesis, responsible for every awful, gut-wrenching element of misery in their lives, a controlling monster that they are desperate to tear themselves away from; for others it is a treasured prize, their reward for a hard week’s work and an enjoyable treat to quaff with friends at all the social events they attend. The latter don’t understand why they should have to moderate and the former have had their entire lives wiped out as a result of it.

There is also a third group, hovering on the threshold of a life defined by alcohol. Their boozing does not, however, result in havoc being wreaked each and every time they hit the bottle; quite often it affords them a sense of freedom and being carefree that is difficult to come by when sober. And yet the fear has begun to creep in.

For the people who have a ‘drink problem’, the ones who laugh in the face at ‘responsible’ drinking because for them the drinking has always been about self-abuse and whoever engaged in the act of self-abuse responsibly, the statistics and warning signs on the bottles mean nothing. It is exactly the reason why they pick up each and every drink; they seek to hurt body and mind through excessive alcohol consumption.

The psychology behind ‘irresponsible drinking’ runs much deeper than simply deciding to get drunk. There is a chasm of difference between happy people who enjoy a few drinks with friends, and the people who are so unhappy and filled with self-loathing that they are compelled to numb it all away with glass after glass of alcohol; the ones who drink to hurt themselves are gripped by the power of addiction.

But where do the third group sit? Are they drinking for fun or to numb out emotional pain and stress? Are they still in control of alcohol or has it begun to control them, and if they are to ultimately lose the power in their relationship with the bottle, at what point will they know this shift has occurred?

The Sober Revolution was written with those in mind who can see the train wreck approaching – the wheels have not yet fallen off but it is only a matter of time before they do. In a world which glorifies and advertises alcohol in such a ubiquitous fashion it can be an inordinately difficult task to separate one’s self from the ‘responsible’ drinkers – if someone is yet to consider themselves ‘an alcoholic’ they are unlikely to seek advice from (for instance) Alcoholics Anonymous. And yet if the pervasive thought that booze has begun to take far more than it gives is ever-present, surely it is at exactly this point when help really needs to be sought.

Many alcohol support agencies, through no real fault of their own, do not seem relevant to those who aren’t quite sure if they have crossed the invisible line from ‘responsible’ drinker to full-blown alcoholic. Their appeal reaches out to the overt problem, rather than the hidden one. And yet it is the secret drinking culture amongst the middle classes, and in particular women, which is the one nurturing a massive future public health crisis – statistical evidence points to this demographic being the one most likely to drain the NHS over the coming years with regards to alcohol-related illnesses.

Far too many are coming close to seriously and permanently damaging their health as a direct result of knocking back a bottle of Chardonnay of an evening after the kids have gone to bed, a fast-track route to unwinding and forgetting the stresses of the day. The AA holds no relevance to these people for that is where alcoholics, a label which appears too severe for many, go for help. The issue is made yet more difficult owing to a stigma in our society with regards to women who drink heavily; many are terrified to go to their GP for help and feel unable to talk openly for fear of being judged – being scared to talk only compounds the problem further.

Enabling people to come forward by beginning an honest conversation about alcohol dependency in which people are not judged for unwittingly crossing the line from fun, social drinker to alcoholic, would go a long way to help those who feel they are walking a hazardous path towards a life defined by the need to drink. It’s not about criticising people for drinking per se, or about labelling those who have developed a dependency on alcohol simply because we don’t want to question our own relationship with booze – the conversation needs to be geared towards offering a way out before the wheels fall off, for the thousands of people who are terrified of how their one-time friend in the bottle has gradually morphed into a secret enemy.

  • Michele

    I’m looking forward to your book but find the topic terrifying. Don’t have a daughter but have worried myself silly when my son is out on the many stag dos/does (?) in his crowd in recent years.

    Am very glad of the volunteers who staff temporary/pop-up refuges at weekends in some cities and who seem to have more women as overnight guests than men although the genders must be equally vulnerable in differing ways when sloshed.

    Drink was the cause of most problems in my family, three grandparents and both parents and the revolting pancreatic cancer ‘did for’ them so I’m now not tempted past half a bottle of wine, the days of pints of beer, no matter how good it is, are over …… a potbelly …. no thanks!

    Another deterrent was the series of paintings by French artists of people, mostly women, ruined by dependence on absinthe.

    Perhaps I’m too possessive about my self, I’ve sometimes felt as if I’m watching me having a lark but felt disembodied. This was after eating something, not boozing but either way I wanted full ownership of my good times.

    The beans the beans, spilled!

  • mike693

    This is a very powerful blog – the slip from enjoying a few with the lads and secretly boozing at home inbetween is rather less than many think. I got awake up call after visiting my dr on returning from holiday. I had a bug and wanted anibiotics – but I had been on the beer every day for 10 days (the Alps, New Year and xmas,….) and my blood test came back with markers for liver distress. I told my dr what I had done and a second test came back blank. But any time I feel its got out of hand at all – I think back to that shock and leave it alone for a while. It’s not easy in booze britain