Recent figures show it’s middle-class professional women aged 45-64 who are now drinking the most, not teenagers.
For Jennifer, it was a family Sunday lunch that made her realise she had a problem.
Her daughter and son-in-law were coming over with their young children. Jennifer also invited her new neighbours, another young couple with children of a similar age.
The food was good, the children were happy, conversation flowed – and so did the wine.
But while the guests stopped drinking after a couple of glasses (the drive home/work the next day/children to put to bed), Jennifer kept going.
For her, the latter part of the afternoon becomes hazy.
‘I remember freeze-frames, flashbacks,’ says Jennifer. ‘My loud voice blathering away. My daughter’s mortified face. Her husband shepherding the children out of the door.’
When Jennifer woke some hours later on the sofa, with her usual dry mouth and aching neck, her house was dark and still. Her daughter had cleared up for her and left the place tidy.‘The worst aspect was knowing that I hadn’t drunk much more than I do most days,’ Jennifer admits. ‘The only difference was that this time there were people to see it.’
At 63, Jennifer, an affluent semi-retired therapist who never touches spirits but knows her wines, may not seem like the typical ‘problem drinker’. But that’s just what she is.
Recent figures show it’s middle-class professional women aged 45-64 who are now drinking the most.
A report by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development reveals that women in the UK are twice as likely to be problem drinkers if they have a good education: one woman in five who has been to university regularly drinks too much compared with one in ten among those with lower levels of education. The problem drinker is not the teenager bingeing on shots and alcopops – it’s the professional woman respected by her peers, perhaps retired, divorced or bereaved, who drinks wine at home, after 6pm.
And overwhelmingly the drink we’re talking about here is wine. It is regarded as a socially acceptable tipple, and women now consume significantly more wine than men.
The problem drinker is not the teenager bingeing on shots and alcopops, or the lonely man with cans of Special Brew – it’s the professional woman respected by her peers, perhaps retired, divorced or bereaved, who drinks wine at home, after 6pm, which she buys online with her weekly supermarket shop.
In some senses, Jennifer is the poster girl for this phenomenon.
Divorced 15 years ago, her professional life winding down, she spends increasing chunks of time by herself. Drink has featured in the background throughout her life – with friends, colleagues and at home with her husband.
‘My mother didn’t go to university, she didn’t work outside the home and I don’t think I saw her drink more than a glass of Advocaat,’ says Jennifer.
‘I’m the generation that wanted it all – and enjoying a drink was part of that liberation.’
In recent years, though, alcohol has switched from being fun and sociable to being her company.
‘You’re alone, there’s emptiness. A glass of wine and your problems retreat – but then you feel guilty about finishing off a bottle by yourself. So you open another to stop yourself dwelling on it. I’m a therapist – I see what’s happening.’
Ann Dowsett Johnston also developed alcohol dependence in her 50s.
Now 61, the Canadian writer has charted her struggle in her bestselling book Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol.
‘If you’ve been a career woman, raised a family, juggled, then wine has probably helped you decompress,’ she says. ‘If you’re a sophisticated professional, you’ve come to know your wines. It has become the modern woman’s steroid.
‘You get home from work, start cooking dinner – you don’t have time to do an hour of yoga so you pour a glass of sauvignon blanc instead. For years, one glass was enough for me but my 50s were difficult. There’s a perfect storm that happens in women’s lives,’ Johnston continues.
‘There was the menopause, my son leaving home, the sense of time passing. I was divorced and had moved to another city to take on an extremely stressful job. In the evenings, one glass became two and two became three.
‘It’s how women self-medicate if they’re anxious, lonely, stressed, depressed. It’s legal, it’s everywhere and it’s way easier than going to the GP.’
This rings true for Margaret, 71, who sought help for her drinking last October with Harrogate Sanctuary. A mother of two and grandmother of three, Margaret enjoyed a fulfilling career as a nurse, midwife, and counsellor (‘There are 27 letters after my name,’ she laughs).
She founded support groups for people with HIV, set up community treatment programmes and, through it all, barely drank a drop.
‘When I watch Holby City or Casualty, they’re all drinking after work, but that never happened for me,’ she says. ‘I was too busy and had to start my shift the next morning at seven.’
Based in various hospitals in the North, Margaret and her husband moved to a village in the Yorkshire Dales for her husband’s job.
‘He loves it here,’ she says. ‘I hate the isolation, but when I was working, it didn’t matter.
‘When I stopped, I felt alone. We live in a six-bedroom house in the middle of nowhere. In the daytime, our road is deserted – everyone’s at work.
‘My daughter and son live two hours away and are busy with their own lives; they only call when they want help with the grandchildren. My husband’s happy watching TV and pottering around. I love him, but he doesn’t talk much.’
On top of this, as can happen with age, Margaret was hit by health problems.
A cartilage injury in her knee meant surgery and weekly injections. She was then diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, despite having never been overweight and always being health conscious.
‘At first, I didn’t drink at home, but I started drinking more at family parties: my 25th wedding anniversary, my daughter’s wedding.
‘I had a few more glasses than everyone else. It made me bright and bouncy like I used to be I could enjoy myself again.’
As the years passed, Margaret started drinking at home, too.
‘Alcohol took me to a different world – and when you’re lonely, you need a different world,’ Margaret says.
‘I was popping out to get petrol or post a letter and coming back with a bottle of wine. It got to the point where I was drinking every day, but instead of making me happy, it made me nasty.
‘When I’d drunk enough, I’d phone my family and give them an earful or start picking on my husband.’
Last October, when her husband warned her that her drinking was going to split up the family, Margaret picked up the phone to ask for help.
The person she called was Sarah Turner, founder of Harrogate Sanctuary, which offers a bespoke service for women drinkers.
The average age of Turner’s clients is 47 – her oldest is 73.
‘For years, they may have denied there was a problem,’ she says.
‘Then something happens – a bad fall; a horrible row with their partner; another lost Christmas where they’ve been too drunk to participate.’.
According to Turner, ‘the myth of wine’ has a lot to answer for. Whether it’s Bridget Jones, Sex and the City or Last Tango in Halifax, it’s seen as utterly benign.
‘Everyone does it on TV, in films,’ says Turner.
‘It’s about laughing and good times, it’s fun and sophisticated. You don’t even need to leave the house to buy it, you can get it delivered. It comes in pretty bottles, not out of a tin – but the outcome is the same.’
Ann Dowsett Johnston agrees. ‘I have friends who are gluten-free, they only eat organic and they’re aware of transfats, but they don’t think twice about what wine is doing to their bodies.
‘Democratically, women are equal to men, but hormonally and metabolically, we’re not.’
In truth, women drinkers are at higher risk than men.
‘The impact of alcohol on women is far worse – even if they weigh the same as a man,’ says Dr Sarah Jarvis, GP and medical advisor for the charity Drinkaware.
Women have more body fat and less body water to dilute the alcohol consumed. They also have lower levels of the metabolising enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase, which helps eliminate alcohol from the body.
‘Women process it more slowly than men, especially as they get older.’
Liver disease sets in earlier for women than men, and drinking more than four alcoholic drinks a day quadruples a woman’s risk of dying from heart disease and increases her risk of breast cancer.
‘The increased risk of breast cancer is particularly worrying because there’s no lower limit,’ says Dr Jarvis.
‘One unit of alcohol a day increases your risk by seven to 11 per cent.’
Alcohol is also a significant risk factor in many other cancers, including colon and throat.
On top of that, for older women especially, is the danger of falls.
‘It’s one of the biggest issues,’ says Dr Jarvis.
‘One woman in three will develop osteoporosis, and alcohol is a major risk factor. You’ve had a few drinks, you’re unsteady, you fall, you fracture a bone. We focus a lot on young drinkers, but the over-55s are the greatest cost to the NHS.’
For women who do decide they have a problem, there are limited options.
‘Alcoholics Anonymous is not right for a lot of the women I see,’ says Sarah Turner.
‘Most of my clients are busy professionals – they don’t have time to go and beat themselves up in a church hall three times a week. They drink in an entirely different way to men.
‘A woman of 50 or 60 who is drinking two bottles of wine from Waitrose a day is not going to sit in a room full of people who are drinking two litres of vodka a day.’
Turner offers therapy online or face to face, for a minimum of six weeks.
‘For my clients, the fear of stopping drinking is as great as their fear of carrying on,’ she says.
‘I don’t say they have to stop for ever. They stop for the six weeks while we look at the issues behind it, reset reward patterns and find new coping mechanisms.
‘At the end of the six weeks, they have a choice.
‘Sarah cleared out a lot of clutter for me,’ says Margaret, who is also making an effort to get out and meet new people – she has joined an art class and a flower-arranging club.
Jennifer has chosen to cut down her wine consumption rather than stop completely. She is keeping at least three days a week alcohol free – and having no more than one or two glasses on other evenings.
‘There are no easy answers, but once you admit there’s a problem, you’re moving in the right direction and when you start waking in the morning with a clear head, feeling good about yourself and full of energy, you really believe that anything’s possible.’
Harrogate Sanctuary is also now offering couples therapy and believes that this will help both parties to understand the differences and issues why they have, perhaps over a long relationship developed an enabling situation.