In April I spoke at a conference called ‘We Train Moms’ in London. Below is my speech which I thought I would share with you as my blog post for today.
Hi and thanks for coming to listen to me today. I want to tell you a bit about my past, when I used to drink between 100 and 150 units of alcohol a week, every week, and about a website that I now run as a teetotal, happy and healthy woman, which offers help and support to women struggling with alcohol dependency – Soberistas.com.
What does the government tell us is a safe amount of alcohol to drink? Current guidelines are that women should drink no more than 2-3 units a day, or a 175 ml glass of 13% ABV wine.
Two years ago, I drank not one, not two, but three bottles of 13% ABV wine, and a litre of cider. I passed out and woke up in a hospital bed covered in my own vomit, with no memory of how I had ended up there. I’m not a chav, I’m not a teenager, I’m not a bad person. I am a mum, and a sister, and a fiancée, and a daughter. I’m not stupid, ignorant, or apathetic. In the last 15 years I have run a half marathon, achieved a 2:1 in both a law degree and an American History degree, been married and divorced, become engaged, had two beautiful daughters and started and later sold for profit my own business (not necessarily in that order!)
In the last fifteen years, I estimate that I have drunk around 3500 bottles of wine, at a cost of around £21,000.
I drank wine like it was going out of fashion. I liked the buzz it gave me, the self-confidence, the Dutch courage. I enjoyed the occasion of it – how an expensive bottle of Chablis turned an otherwise ordinary evening meal into a dinner party. When I was newly married and a first-time Mum, I used wine to demarcate the end of baby time and the beginning of adult time, Mummy’s wine o’clock.
A few years later when I split up with my ex-husband, I used wine to soften the blow of being a divorcee before I’d hit 30. Pinot Grigio became my best friend, and night after night I sat alone pouring that analgesic liquid down my neck in an effort to self-medicate.
In the UK almost half a million children live with a single parent who regularly binge drinks. 52% of children are living with a harmful or hazardous drinker *. My eldest daughter, now 14, formed part of those statistics up until a couple of years ago. Night after night I consumed a mind-altering substance that ultimately took me away from my child on an emotional level. I wasn’t present when I was drinking. I wasn’t present the following morning either when I was like a bear with a sore head, stumbling about with a terrible hangover whilst desperately pretending all was well – making Isobel’s Ready Brek with one hand clutching my forehead, wincing at every little noise.
I didn’t have the inclination when I was a drinker, to spend much time doing stuff with my daughter. I remember reading her bedtime stories when she was aged about 5 or 6, and racing through the words so I could get downstairs to my wine. Funny how I would never do such a thing in a million years now, but back then I couldn’t see how that was a sign of dependence.
I wonder how much damage I inflicted on Isobel’s sense of security, as she grew up with a binge drinking mum. She rarely saw me drunk, but she witnessed enough of the after-effects to know that all was not well.
My experiences of being a ‘normal’ mum who binge drinks in secret and carries a massive weight of guilt and shame around with her like a ball and chain have enabled me to understand others who are in the same horrible boat, sailing on choppy seas and beaten down by storm after storm. The government and the media would have us believe that the real problem boozers in the UK are the kids on the city centre streets each weekend necking alcopops; they are wrong.
Statistical evidence points to the number of teenagers who binge drink falling, and their attitude towards those who get drunk is beginning to change too, for the better. In just seven years, the number of pupils who thought it was ok for someone of their age to get drunk once a week almost halved, from 20% in 2003 to 11% in 2010.
But unfortunately, it isn’t all good news – In 2010 in the UK, there were nearly 7000 deaths directly related to alcohol. This is a 22% increase on the 2001 figure (5,476). In 2008 it was estimated that the cost of alcohol related harm to the NHS in England was £2.7 billion.
The statistics show that the heaviest drinkers are those who are earning more money, in managerial or professional roles. And the favourite tipple of most women is spirits, wine or alcopops; the hard stuff – the stuff that gets you really drunk.
There has been a 91% increase in alcohol-related liver disease hospital admissions for women in England since 2002.
I used to have a beer on occasion when I went out – in fact I occasionally set myself a rule that I would only drink beer when I was out because for me, wine was falling-over juice (especially with the large glasses that come as standard in bars and pubs these days). But mainly I was a wine fiend – I was sold the convivial, sophisticated nature of Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay, so commonly trotted out on TV ad buffers throughout the evening (anybody watch Come Dine with Me?). I loved getting my pyjamas on and getting comfy in front of Sex and the City with a bottle of Pinot for company, maybe two.
And nobody knew, and nobody questioned the fact that I clearly ‘loved a drink’ when I was out socialising, and nobody told me I should get help.
The funny thing is that for a long time I didn’t know that I needed help – I didn’t actually know that my depressive episodes, mood swings and anxiety attacks – and I had really terrible anxiety attacks, where I thought I was dying I was so short of breath – were in any way related to the wine I was drinking every night. I didn’t know that the reason I was perpetually grumpy and snapping at my daughter and always drifting in and out of bad relationships was because I drank so much wine. I didn’t know that without alcohol, my energy levels would soar, and my mood would level out to a constant calm, as opposed to the up and down, over-the-top, almost bi-polar characteristics that I had always displayed and which I thought was ‘just the way I was.’
I came of age in the 1990’s when the ladette culture so famously personified by Zoe Ball (now also teetotal, funnily enough) was de rigueur. I weighed a couple of stone less then, than I do now but thought nothing of drinking five or six pints in one sitting three or four times a week. It’s what we did whilst singing along to ‘Cigarettes and Alcohol’ by Oasis.
Everyone grows up, and in my twenties I gradually replaced those pints of Boddingtons with a more sophisticated bottle of wine with dinner. All of my friends were ladettes transformed into mums and wives and we drank together, with our husbands or out on girls’ nights. It’s what everyone did.
I’ve spoken and written a lot about ‘crossing the line’; how do you really know that you have a dependency on alcohol? When does it stop being funny that you got so drunk you fell over? When do you stop laughing in the morning when you remember some of the stuff you got up to last night after a couple of bottles of Pinot Grigio? When does the fear set in and when do you know that you have a problem?
I knew that I had an issue with drinking when I began to experience blackouts every time I drank. Sometimes just the odd half hour disappeared from memory; other times it was huge swathes of the evening, and I would come to and look at text messages on my phone from someone I had no memory of, or find bruises all over my legs that I could not explain. Tellingly, I also came to accept the fact that I never, ever had ‘just one drink.’ When I opened a bottle, I would drink the lot and then root out a second.
I stopped drinking because I ended up in hospital one morning at 3am covered in my own vomit. I stopped drinking because I was frightened that if I didn’t, I would die. What I never expected in a million years was to discover that alcohol-free living is an amazing gift that anyone can give themselves, and which opens up a massive amount of doors. Doors that lead to emotional stability, better parenting, self-esteem, a vast increase in confidence, self-awareness, knowing what you want out of life, becoming more in touch with your community, caring more for others and being less self-obsessed, eradication of depression and panic attacks, better skin, more energy, weight loss and greater fitness, a big help in quitting smoking, a much reduced chance of developing breast cancer (3 glasses a night increases the risk of breast cancer by 50%), heart disease and liver problems. I did not expect that giving up alcohol would be, in actual fact, the best decision I have ever made.
There is a misconception, and I believe that some of the traditional types of alcohol recovery programmes tend to perpetrate this, that living without alcohol is a terribly difficult thing to do and that life without drinking is something that must be dealt with ‘one day at a time.’ I disagree with this; I think it is possible to rewire your brain in order to come to the realisation that living alcohol-free is actually a very positive thing to do, and is how we were designed to live as human beings, rather than bumbling along in a hazy fog of alcohol-induced depression and lethargy.
A Buddhist quote – “When one is deluded, it is as if one were dreaming. And when one is enlightened, it is as if one had awakened.”
This quote perfectly sums up how I feel about giving up alcohol.
Since I stopped drinking I have been pretty busy setting up a website, Soberistas.com, which serves as a place where like-minded women who are struggling with a destructive relationship with alcohol talk to each other and offer advice and support. The word ‘relationship’ is not accidental here – I read over and over again on our website that women regard their drinking history as a love story, that alcohol is a terribly controlling partner who alternates between making them feel amazing and then kicking them hard whilst they are down on the ground. Soberistas is a place where individuals can begin their road to recovery, but I think it has another very important function; to help de-stigmatise alcohol dependency.
People are very ashamed about being labelled an alcoholic. In a society which celebrates alcohol so widely, and endorses a drinking culture in almost every facet of our daily lives, it is an inordinately difficult thing to do to ‘come out’ and admit you have a dependency on this stuff, that you can no longer control yourself when you’re around it. By the way, ‘coming out’ is exactly how it feels for many people – something which you need to get out there, get it out of the way so that you can move on without people badgering you to ‘just have one’ or not be a party pooper because you are on the mineral water. We live in a society which leaves non-drinkers sticking out like sore thumbs; we are the oddballs, the ones who can’t let our hair down.
Another function of Soberistas, I hope, is to challenge this attitude and to help make being teetotal a bit cooler. I also want the website to help make alcohol dependency less of a taboo subject – I think we have moved on a long way from the hushed gossip of the 1970’s when so-and-so’s mother was whispered about for sitting with the archetypal gin bottle all day in the conservatory whilst hubby was out at work. I also believe that the secrecy of the AA adds to the general feeling of alcohol dependency being something to keep quiet about, a terrible secret that we must hide away in private meetings.
We are all living in a world which promotes alcohol – the films we watch, sports grounds and our favourite team’s kits emblazoned with sponsorship deals with drinks giants, the ad buffers at either end of our favourite teatime programmes, the celebrity snaps in glossy mags showing glamorous beauties sipping champagne elegantly at some premier or other; and then in our own private lives – the parties or dinners we attend, Christmas, Easter family get-togethers, christenings, weddings, Friday night drinks after work, Saturday night in with a DVD and a bottle of wine – ALCOHOL IS ALL AROUND US!
And for people who have low self-esteem, are lonely, depressed, lacking in confidence or coping with bereavement or miscarriage or difficulties in their marriage or with their children, alcohol is just there – an easy solution to ease away the day’s worries and pain. Turning to alcohol to numb the pain we endure in our lives is not something which only hardened alcoholics do – it is a commonplace habit that has become easier and easier, with more readily available and cheaper alcohol than ever before.
And yet if you are perceived to have ‘crossed the line’ from acceptable drinker to ‘problem drinker’ then life can become difficult. Much of what Soberistas stands for centres around regaining control of your life, and empowering women to realise that they can be mistresses of their own destinies without the on-going reliance on a substance which is causing them more trouble than it is resolving. Soberistas not only focuses on giving up alcohol, but encourages a holistic approach to beating your demons. Becoming healthy and happy is, after all, so much more than putting down the bottle – that might work for a while but improving your health in a much more general way will stand you in good stead to beat your alcohol dependency for good.
When I gave up alcohol I threw myself into running. I have always been a fan of running but more often than not I would be doing it through the fog of a hangover, attempting to fool myself into believing that I was ok despite feeling sick as a dog and having a banging headache. Nowadays when I run, it feels much nicer and I am better at it. I use running to beat stress as well as to keep fit and to maintain a healthy weight.
Since quitting drinking I now also take much more of an interest in nutrition – I confess to buying wheatgrass and being a fanatical juicer! Gaining control over your health and fitness, which ultimately means being in control of you, is vital for building self-confidence after (for many people) years of substance abuse have eroded all notion of self-esteem. On Soberistas we are lucky to have registered nutritional therapist, Clare Shepherd, on board who advises our members on all aspects of diet and how eating the right foods can really boost your chances of sober success.
So, why do women seem to give themselves such a hard time in our society? I have a 14-year-old daughter who has recently begun to feel the pressures of reaching unattainable goals, to be thinner and prettier and more popular – Facebook doesn’t help. From an early age women are struggling to meet up to society’s high expectations of them and if you aren’t pinging back into your size 10 jeans six weeks after giving birth, juggling a high-earning career and exuding joy at every turn of motherhood, then you are deemed to be a failure.
Struggling to cope with the demands of motherhood, lack of sleep and losing your sense of identity following the birth of a child are all contributing factors in large numbers of women turning to alcohol as a coping strategy. I read a lot of blogs and forum discussions on Soberistas which have shone a light on the reasons why women can become seriously dependent on wine – about how a ‘normal’ fondness for wine can develop into something far more sinister because of a change in the circumstances of their lives.
One common reason behind women turning to wine as a coping strategy is single parenthood. I have several years’ experience of this and hitting the bottle isn’t all because you feel lonely and are stuck in night after night dealing with the stresses and financial strains of running a family and a household alone; there is also the additional factor of having a certain amount of time free from the responsibilities of children when they go to stay with their Dad. This was every other weekend and every Wednesday night for me and my drinking went through the roof whenever Isobel stayed at her Dad’s. The other associated factor in this is that after a certain amount of time, a lot of single women embark on dating, trying to find a new partner who they can move forward with. This can be pretty scary, and alcohol is an obvious lubricant with which to oil this potentially awkward social situation.
Whenever I went on dates, I would throw the wine back out of abject terror and end up clouding my perception of whoever I was with on a date, often making arrangements to meet them again when had I had all my faculties present and not clouded by alcohol I would probably have run very fast in the opposite direction.
Nonetheless, it is a ubiquitous and socially acceptable substance and most people consider ‘going for a drink’ to be a normal part of dating.
The other aspect of being a single parent, as touched on earlier, is the loneliness that can be incredibly painful. When your child goes to bed at 7pm and you face yet another evening by yourself, wine can seem to be an easy little pain-reliever, something to get you through.
As I discovered to my detriment, however, alcohol only serves to make things bleaker – here’s how. We all know that alcohol is a depressant but the instantaneous effects of drinking can feel anything but, making it difficult to recognise exactly how much of a negative effect alcohol is having upon our mental state. Not only does alcohol induce depression, it also has a habit of making us say or do things that we would never do in a million years sober.
I would pick my mobile up with dread the morning after a binge, never knowing who I had contacted or what I had said. Invariably the recipient of my drunken texts would be an ex-boyfriend who I would have been wise to forget. This sort of behaviour would leave me with feelings of remorse and self-hatred, and over time (and I’m talking twenty years) these feelings built and built into cripplingly low self-esteem and zero confidence; in turn, this resulted in my lack of ambition which meant I never had cause to be really excited about anything or having much motivation to strive for better. Because I was effectively stuck in a rut within a very small world (work, home, pub), failing to interact with anybody outside of my drinking circle (other than family) and suffering from depression and anxiety on top of all of that, I was powerless to change.
That is, until I realised that the root cause of all my issues stemmed from one thing and one thing only; ALCOHOL.
When I gave up drinking I did not seek help from rehab or the AA – I set about rewiring my brain in order to turn around my belief that alcohol in some way added some value to my life. I read tonnes about addiction and alcohol abuse, I spoke to people who I knew had stopped drinking themselves and I found out how much happier they were now and how their lives had fallen into place. I looked after myself physically and I worked hard at forgiving myself for all my drunken stupidity – this, I believe, is vital in repairing desperately damaged self-esteem. Imagine building enough courage to leave an abusive husband after suffering years of violence and verbal attacks, only to move into the house next door. It’s vital that you leave that part of your life for good; move away, and build new foundations on which to start developing positivity and a healthy approach to living.
Leaving alcohol behind requires building yourself up and protecting yourself with every piece of ammunition you can muster in order to prevent yourself from falling for its charms again. It’s about changing from within so that you do not have to rely on will power to stay on the wagon – it’s about empowering yourself so that you no longer WANT to drink alcohol, so that you can look a glass of wine in the face and say ‘No thank you, I don’t drink.’ And feel great about it.
I’m in absolutely no doubt that the reason behind my very positive mental state these days is the fact that I am teetotal. I cope with pretty much anything life throws at me, my anxiety and panic attacks have vanished, I rarely feel down and certainly never depressed, I look better, I am healthy and energetic and I am a million times more productive and proactive.
I’ll leave you with another Buddhist quote; “If you want to understand the causes that existed in the past, look at the results as they are manifested in the present. And if you want to understand what results will be manifested in the future, look at the causes that exist in the present.”
Thank you very much for listening.