Misplaced Alcohol Awareness

In March 2007 Sir Ian Gilmore of the Royal College of Physicians argued that theGovernment’s alcohol awareness campaigns focus too much on young binge drinkers.

He stressed that older people drinking at home were also at risk of the severe health consequences linked to high alcohol consumption.  More adults in the UK drink at home than in any other European country. Alcoholic liver disease has increased tenfold over the last three decades.

Today, I hear and see that normal drinking has become an everyday occurrence, measured always in glasses, often in bottles of wine. We never measure units at home, just how many refills we have. Two or three glasses are considered acceptable. Taking into account that most of us now drink out of 250ml glasses, three of them can easily represent a bottle. In a cohort study from the 1970s, drinking more than 9 units of alcohol a week was considered to be harmful. Nine units is not even 1 bottle of wine. So now perceived as normal or at least condoned, is very often 70 units a week for women.

The cost to health is being measured, but as Sir Ian pointed out, ignored by Government. The over 55s are now the biggest burden in terms of cost to the NHS in alcohol related illnesses. This of course does not take into account the human and emotional cost that has been wrought before these people become seriously ill. Figures of 3 to 4 billion spent are bandied around, as if that also is acceptable.

To reach 55 and over, and succumb to alcohol related illness, you have to have been caning it for some time. You have most probably been parenting and working. I have asked the question so many times and been pushed to one side, that is, where does the Government think the young binge drinkers have come from? Do they not think that their behaviour could be linked to the home? If I explain that now it is not unusual for 14 and 15 year old girls to go to a party with a bottle of wine, supplied by their parents, because if they think it’s safe, after all Mum is a role model to many. She is successful, managing the work and life balance with precision, juggling bills and sports days, whilst knocking back a couple of bottles of Pinot on Saturday and whilst trying to be a Yummy Savvy Mummy. No one will see the damage until she is older, and one of the 60 medical conditions to choose from related to alcohol is diagnosed. It seems so obvious to me that we should intervene, in a completely non preachy way, if only to give women like this, options.

We all know that stats are under estimated, none more so than those collected on alcohol misuse, as a once practiced member of the Denial Club, I cannot count the number of times I defended my position, with as much skill as a downhill racer.

Yet the Gold Standard of 12 steps is still adhered to, even though, clearly alcohol misuse and its consequences are on the rise. Surely it is time for change? Crucially, I believe, gender specific care. Or I am I talking too much common sense, with far too simpler a view. Looking at my stats, that don’t lie, I think tailored care has to be the way forward, and alcohol awareness be focused on the pivotal role of women and Mothers in society.

Far From Sublime



As over eight million TV’s beam into our sitting rooms most evenings, I am constantly amazed at the amount of both subliminal advertising and situations that make you NEED a drink.

Buying a sofa? You better have a bottle ready. In all of the Soaps, most I think revolve around a pub and the social salve, Emmerdale, Eastenders and dear old Coronation Street.

Before they all start, you can have another good excuse to pop the cork with teatime Come Dine With Me. Any reason you need to drink is covered by them, for their staple solution is a few pints, vod and ton, or a couple of gallons of wine. Christmas becomes one of the biggest excuses/reasons of all, and even now, in the middle of November, the offers are starting for stocking up for a really big hangover or worse.

Sadly, social media and TV, especially reality TV, presents role models, no matter how off kilter that may be. Sometimes it seems the more desperate characters are the more popular they become. Fiction and cyber space are real, and Reality is not.

There is no let up from it. And of course that gives us, alcoholic misusers/problem drinkers a massive problem. If we were recovering from an illegal drug, we really do have a sporting chance. It’s not available, acceptable and everywhere.  In an article in the Independent newspaper Jeremy Swain, Chief Executive of Thameslink, a leading homelessness charity, said that his charity’s clients were harmed more by super strength lager than by heroin and crack cocaine. It takes some effort to score.  None of the television programmes recommend it as the ultimate cure all, unlike alcohol.

Choice will only be a term that can be meaningfully applied when people are made aware on the packaging of beers wines and spirits that they are buying a powerful addictive drug that has been aggressively marketed at them, that it is an aggravating factor in the vast majority of violent crimes, features in most of the NSPCC’s recorded cases of child abuse, and as latest figures suggest, causes an additional 22,000 deaths per year. This is not about price in my opinion, it’s about visuals. We live by them.

So, I believe that giving up alcohol is one of the most difficult challenges of any drug. The marketing subliminally suggests that we are doing ourselves no favours by not drinking. Makes us different, not part of the crowd and often I have had the raised eyebrow treatment. Whether they think I am pious or just a little strange, I don’t know, but I do feel sometimes almost as stigmatized for not drinking as I did for being a drunk. A caveat to those that know me, and drink around me, realise that I have no evangelical mission to make the world sober far from it, just a desire to help women who have crossed the invisible line of social fun to dependent and needy drinker.

This never gets me down though. I have got to a place where I know that I will wake up in the morning, every morning, clear headed and in control, without that awful feeling of what in God’s name did I say or do last night?

I can be honest and at the same time gentle with myself, because when I sleep, I am really tired, not passing out, unlike the old days, one wine, two wine, three wine four, five wine, six wine, seven wine, floor! Moderate drinking does little harm as long as those who live by it actually stick to the guidelines. Personally, I would rather have a fabulous few Mocktails with no fear of a wobbly measure that would put me or another in danger.

Life really should not be about rules and judging others, but surely we owe it to ourselves to be the best we can be.

Them and Us

Are you someone who drinks wine? Nice wine? Do you work hard, play hard, manage perhaps family and the home with precision and seeming ease? Are you horrified by the story in the news a while ago of a child being left by his Alcoholic Mother for so long he mummified in his cot? Or do you tut at the anti-social behaviour highlighted by the media of the drinking culture of the young, and the massive burden they put on the ambulance service and A & E?

We were once the same, oblivious, or at least in denial that quite possibly as dependent, home drinkers, with the odd foray out to dinner parties and nightclubs, we were sinking between 100-150 units a week of alcohol. Not once were we faintly observed as alcoholics, we just were not like them.

We had nice jobs, nice clothes, a nice lifestyle, but hidden behind the interlined curtains, we were drinking at least on a par with the reckless overtly boozy Brits. We would have giggly conversations the morning after the night before, on how amusing it was that we had got a bit tipsy, but nowhere near as sozzled as another. Another was the party piece among our friends who got so drunk she made us feel so much better about ourselves.

Because we appeared to be in control, articulate and reasonably intelligent, we were never really questioned about our drinking habits. The old guffaw about not being an alcoholic if you still drank less than your doctor was rolled out across a well-polished walnut table.

Yes that is them, and this is us. Our drinking was cleverly disguised, consequences were few, and as we progressed down our particular River of Denial, when the things started to fall apart, we just managed, barely, to cover it up even more, terrified that someone would ever point a finger and accuse us of being alkies. In fact so bad was our bigotry that we self-harmed to the point of almost killing ourselves. Too frightened to confess that actually we were not just drinking three glasses of wine a night, but preloading, and secretly drinking in our bedrooms. Hiding bottles in cupboards and wellington boots. Re-organizing the re-cycling so that even the bin men would not suspect.

And yet we judge others, because they are not like us. The fact is that they are just like us, just less fortunate or not as good at hiding it.

The over 55’s are now the biggest burden on the NHS in terms of alcohol related illnesses. The lowest cost to our health care and society as a whole are the under 35s. 20% of the population of this country suffers from liver disease, alcoholic liver disease mainly. So why is that the middle aged are never regarded as a problem? Because we are so adept at hiding it, until it’s too late to deal with the progressive nature of this. Not everyone likes drinking anymore, they are just pressured into drinking so that they don’t feel different to what has become the norm.  The overall cost of the problem, latest figures from 2007, was estimated at £55.1 billion by The National Social Marketing Centre. Quite sure that figure has increased since our country has been in recession.

27% of my clients over the last three months have come from the health sector, both clinical and mental health. The average age is 47 years. Not 16. These women are the Mothers of the drinkers who are often out there on the streets getting hammered. Do you think they have perhaps learned a habit? We hear of girls of 14 taking bottles of wine to parties, because if Mummy drinks it to help her relax, then it will help us do the same. After all she isn’t a drunk.

With the Sober Revolution Lucy and I have tried to inspire rather than bang on about the less savoury effects of our past, for surely the time has come to change the treatment of problem drinking, so that is becomes acceptable to not only talk about it, but better yet, to be proud and congratulated for overcoming the most accessible, acceptable and dangerous drug on the planet, without any kind of slavery to having to confess the sin for the rest of our lives, but to accept that we just don’t want to be imprisoned anymore or apathetic, and move on. This is not preaching to regular drinkers, you are still having fun with it, but for those who are not, let’s just start to fight back.

It’s time to start the conversation about US, and not them, because in terms of cost, to ourselves and others, we are right up there with the worst Friday night ever televised by car crash TV. Except for us, no one will ever see until it’s too late.

Why Middle Class Women Are Dying For A Drink

‘ As I sit down to write this article, I’m about to pour myself a drink. After all, it’s 7pm, I’ve had a long day and a chilled glass of white wine would perk me up.

Had I not become suddenly and acutely aware of the irony of knocking back a unit or two while writing about middle-class alcoholism, I’d probably have opened the bottle.

I resisted, but there is no doubt that I, a middle-class, middle-aged, professional, working mother – like the vast majority of my friends in London and the countryside – drink too much.

More and more professional women are turning to drink - leading to a huge rise in devastating health problems

More and more professional women are turning to drink – leading to a huge rise in devastating health problems

What do I mean by ‘too much’? Well, the official NHS definition of binge-drinking is eight units for men and six for women in one day (one unit is equivalent to half a standard 175ml glass of wine). Yet most of my friends would admit to drinking at least that regularly.

We comfort ourselves that we can go for days without touching a drop, yet that doesn’t mean we’re not capable of knocking back a couple of bottles of wine between us when we get together.

The truth is, as shown by a recent study, women from managerial or professional backgrounds are 19 per cent more likely to drink heavily at home, compared with women from working-class households.

Middle-class women are increasingly using alcohol to counteract dissatisfaction with their lives

And, more worryingly, as many as 50,000 women sought NHS treatment for alcohol problems between 2008 and 2009.

This week, it was revealed that professional women secretly battling alcoholism are heading to Eastern Europe for treatment rather than facing the stigma of seeking help here. I’m surprised that drinking has become such a taboo.

So why are we all drinking so much? Like me, most of my friends work full-time so they’re juggling jobs, children, husband and home. A chilled glass of white at the end of the day is the perfect antidote to our stressful lifestyles – or so we believe.

Alcohol is also the social oil that dissolves our inhibitions and makes even the shyest able to function, open up and – when needed – flirt.

My friends and I often joke ( somewhat grimly) that had we ever been sober when a man made a pass at us, we would still be virgins.

One of my girlfriends even admits to being drunk from the first kiss to long after her honeymoon. And we wonder why so many of our generation’s marriages are on the rocks!

Yet there is a more worrying explanation – from what I can see, middle-class women are increasingly using alcohol to counteract dissatisfaction with their lives.

Though several of my friends are genuinely happy, the majority – including me – are startled to have arrived in middle age to find we’re not quite where we imagined we’d be.

Edina (Jennifer Saunders) and Patsy (Joanna Lumley) became famous for their love of a drink in Absolutely Fabulous

Edina (Jennifer Saunders) and Patsy (Joanna Lumley) became famous for their love of a drink in Absolutely Fabulous

Long gone are the certainties of our mothers’ generation: marriage and motherhood. Baby boomers were told we could have it all – career and babies. Of course, it didn’t quite work out like that.

Some of us did not achieve the professional success we had hoped for when marriage and babies came along and then found it was impossible to battle our way back into the workplace.

Others woke up one morning and realised they’d left it too late to have a child. Some have tried coping with both and are barely coming up for air.

Then there’s the increase in divorce rates and the aftermath of difficult break-ups. New relationships become elusive because men our age seem to prefer to date younger women. We are invisible – and that applies to work as well as our personal lives.

It’s not easy to refuse. If you don’t like drinking, it’s hard enough; but if you do like it, it’s almost impossible not to drink without hiding away

By the time we’ve reached our mid-40s, we have realised that the world is primarily the domain of the young. My friends and I drink to forget for a few hours that we are no longer invincible, pretty young girls.

Yet in the morning our hangovers make us feel like sad old lushes – and every fresh-faced girl who walks past makes us feel still worse.

Of course we vow to stop, but we don’t. It’s a vicious cycle and one that an awful lot of us are caught up in.

When we do try to go on the wagon, it’s pretty difficult to stay on it. I’ve seen that flicker of disappointment or irritation on a friend’s face when I tell her I’m not drinking that night. And I know I’m guilty of reacting in the same way.

Two weekends ago, I was staying with friends in Somerset and my host declared: ‘If I was an addict, I’d much rather be on heroin than an alcoholic. At least you’d have a chance of giving up, but alcohol is all around us. It’s everywhere.’

He’s right. Take that weekend, for example. My six-year-old daughter and I were the first guests to arrive on Friday night. I brought a bottle of Champagne – a de rigueur offering for any country weekend.

After Champagne, our host offered to make dry Martinis. There was plenty of wine with dinner. We’d have been laughed at if anyone had suggested we were doing any more than having a relaxing, casual Friday evening among old friends.

On Saturday, Bloody Marys after breakfast led to wine with lunch, Martinis and Champagne before dinner, followed by yet more wine with the meal. Such excess is far from unusual.

Anyone who associates the term ‘drunk’ with football hooligans or girls in white stilettos and bare legs vomiting into the gutter after a Saturday night out on the town has clearly never been to a summer party in a marquee, a charity auction, fundraising ball, book launch, after-conference party, lunch at a country house, Glyndebourne picnic, corporate box at the races or even dinner at almost any middle- class house in West London.

Many women enjoy a drink after work, but some don't know when to stop (picture posed by models)

Many women enjoy a drink after work, but some don’t know when to stop (picture posed by models)

Yet despite its well-advertised hazards, alcohol remains the fulcrum of middle-class social life.

It would be considered churlish not to offer a visitor a drink, and if you are invited to someone’s house for dinner, it is normal to arrive with a bottle of wine. We drink when we go out for the evening, almost always at dinner and sometimes at lunch.

Try as we might, someone somewhere will always be pressing a drink into our hand.

It’s not easy to refuse. If you don’t like drinking, it’s hard enough; but if you do like it, it’s almost impossible not to drink without hiding away.

‘It’s my birthday!’ ‘I’ve got a new job!’ ‘I’m engaged!’ ‘We haven’t seen each other for too long!’ I’ve heard them all and these excuses lead in one direction only – let’s open that bottle of wine.

Like many of my friends, my experience of binge-drinking goes way back. The first time was at boarding school.

The problem is that denial is endemic to alcoholism. We all know the dangers and, ironically, drink to stop worrying about them

We’d finished our A-levels and the entire year (apart from five sensible and basically uncool, socially ostracised goody-goodies) went into a nearby field with a load of cider, vodka, gin, ginger wine and Dubonnet.

By the time we returned to school, our absence had been noticed and there was a matron at every door. We were sent to the headmistress.

Faced with 30 drunk teenagers, she despaired and sent us running round the athletics track to sober up. Many girls were sick. Others keeled over.

That was just the beginning. It was at Cambridge University that I learned how to binge-drink. Quite apart from the regular Formal Halls (traditional dinners at which students wear academic gowns), where you are encouraged to down glasses of white and red wine and port, the most exuberant display of drinking occurred after exams.

May Week is actually two weeks of parties, culminating in three nights of May Balls, during which it is not unusual to stay up for the duration.

The most notorious May Week party is the Wylie, which takes place in the exquisite riverside garden of Magdalene College. Vodka and grapefruit juice is dispensed by ‘the executors of the late Sir Joshua Wylie’ – really undergraduates dressed in tailcoats who are intent on extreme drunkenness for one and all.

At any time, the executors can challenge guests to a ‘bumper’ (down their drink in one) or risk being thrown in the river. Needless to say, there’s a lot of bumpering.

As the creme de la creme of the educational system, we were being groomed to drink. It would stand us in good stead for Ascot, Henley or any summer drinks party in the years to come. Three decades on, what has become of my peers? Most of us have substantial careers in fields as diverse as the UN, advertising, TV, law and medicine.

And yet out of a group of 50, many are still heavy drinkers – or even functioning alcoholics.

And if you want evidence of the effects of sustained binge-drinking on the body, look no further than us. Shockingly, two women friends died in their 40s from alcohol related liver diseases and three more are close to death for the same reason.

The most sensible of my friends admit they have a complicated relationship with alcohol and attempt to control (almost always unsuccessfully) their consumption.

Last week, a report – Statistics On Alcohol: England 2010, compiled by the NHS – said more than ten million people are drinking at hazardous levels and that one in four adults who drink is putting their health at risk.

In 2008, there were 6,769 drink-related deaths – an increase of almost a quarter since 2001.

Last year, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that one in six women over 16 drinks more than double the recommended daily amount of two to three units (about one-and a half glasses of wine) and that binge-drinking among women has almost doubled in recent years.

The NHS report also found that those aged between 45 and 64 admitted to having drunk alcohol on five or more days in the previous week.

Partly, I blame wine – it is the chosen drink of women because it’s easier to drink than beer and spirits and has made drinking socially acceptable.

My parents’ generation drank beer or spirits. We really began drinking wine as a nation when the Australians flooded the market with affordable Chardonnay in the Eighties. The NHS report shows that wine sales are up more than 50 per cent since 1992.

A bottle of cheap whisky or vodka is sleazy, but knowing how to buy a good bottle of wine for a fair price is a passport to middle-class life. Not knowing about wine is seen as a social handicap.

A woman can order a glass of wine without looking like a problem drinker. A man can demonstrate his social sophistication by ordering a good bottle of Sancerre.

Of course, blaming the grape alone would be facetious. The dramatic change in our lifestyles must also play a part.

We have become a nebulous society. We don’t eat at regular times. We watch too much TV. We don’t have the reassuringly rigid timetables of the past and modern technology enables us to be even more fluid.

Many of us work from home so are faced with having to motivate ourselves. It’s no surprise a drink is often at hand.

As for me, I believe I am on the verge of giving up and certainly cutting right back – most of us do. I like to think I am being far more sensible than I used to be, but my friends might jeer at that.

The problem is that denial is endemic to alcoholism. We all know the dangers and, ironically, drink to stop worrying about them.

In a famous comedy routine, Frank Sinatra asked Dean Martin why he drank.

‘I drink to forget,’ he said. ‘Forget what?’ asked Sinatra. ‘I don’t know – I forgot that a long time ago.’

I first heard that exchange aged ten on my parents’ record player. It doesn’t sound so funny now.