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.

Author: Sarah Turner

Founder of the Harrogate Sanctuary.