Just because you get out of bed each morning and can hold down a decent job, doesn’t mean you don’t have a drink problem. Sarah Freeman reports.
Not much shocks Lucy Rocca. Certainly not the scale of binge drinking among Britain’s young professionals. Partly because for a while, as well as holding down a nice, middle class job at Sheffield Hallam University, she was one of the biggest, hardest drinkers of them all.
“When we went out, nine times out of 1o I would be the drunkest, the one texting or ringing the next morning not remembering how I got home and wondering ‘what happened there’,” says Lucy, who set up Soberistas, an social network for those concerned they may have a problem with drink. “For a long time it never even occurred to me that what I was doing was abnormal or dangerous. I was just having a good time.
“I got up every morning to go to work, admittedly sometimes with a hangover, but when I came home the first thing I would do would be reach for the bottle of wine.”
Lucy, who worked as a pre-enrolement officer, is not alone, nor even particularly unusual. The latest report to shed light on the nation’s attitude to drinking came out last week. It was commissioned by Opinium Research and showed one in five young professionals in the UK consider themselves to have a drinking problem.
The poll of 4,000 UK adults also found that a third (35 per cent) of 18 to 24-year-olds said they had got so drunk they could not remember most of their night out, with one in five (18 per cent) admitting they have not been able to recall how they got home.
Nearly half (47 per cent) of young professionals said they thought it was acceptable to regularly get drunk on a night out compared to 21 per cent of the population on average. Meanwhile nearly a quarter (23 per cent) of those aged 35 to 54 said they drink alone at home, with many saying they do it to relieve stress or relax.
“When I think now that on a pretty average week when I would have a bottle of wine a night plus a couple of big nights out when I would be drinking spirits, I was probably notching up 150 units a week,” says Lucy. “That’s terrifying, but it’s not unusual and even the regular blackouts didn’t stop me.”
What did stop Lucy was waking up in hospital and having no recollection of how she had got there.
“I’d nipped out for a cigarette and collapsed. That was my wake up call. From that day I stopped drinking and while I never missed the taste or had any physical withdrawal, mentally it was tough. In this country we find it almost impossible to get our heads around the idea of a life without drinking alcohol and I think it’s particularly difficult for men. While women who drink to excess tend to be seen as old lushes, for men alcohol still has macho associations. Ordering a pint of orange juice in a pub is not something many men feel comfortable doing.
“However, the end result is the same. No on wants to admit they have a problem. I have spoken to a lot of mums who fear they have a problem. They may never drink in front of their children, but as soon as they go to bed they hit the wine. Many of them want help or at the very least are desperate to talk to someone, but they are worried if they go to their GP that their children will suffer.”
It’s two and a half years since Lucy set up Soberistas and it has proved life changing. After hearing stories familiar to her own, she gave up her job and now writes self help books while continuing to run the site which now has a 31,000-strong membership.
“I know how easy it is to trick yourself that you don’t have a problem with drink,” she says. “You tell yourself that alcoholics are homeless down and outs and that’s not you. You have a good job, a nice home, an expensive car, but it’s often just a bit of a mask.
“Certainly in the last 20 years drinking at home and alone has become normalised. Before that, very few people would drink out of habit on a Tuesday night, but the whole culture has changed. Wine manufacturers began increasingly targeting women and if you buy a good, expensive bottle of wine it’s easy to tell yourself that it’s not the same as reaching for a glass of neat vodka or gin.”
The issue of alcohol abuse is not lost on people. Three-quarters of those polled in the Opinium Research survey admitted they thought Britain has a heavy drinking culture while just over a fifth (23 per cent) considered alcohol to be more harmful to their health than smoking.
The survey also found that more than half of those questioned believe the NHS should refrain from treating people who continue to abuse alcohol after warnings about their health, while a similar number (54 per cent) think that it is not acceptable to drink while pregnant.
And yet, the problem persists.
The term ‘oblivion drinkers’ was coined a couple of years ago to describe a new breed of middle class drinkers who can’t or choose not to stop at one or two drinks.
It’s a trend which is already impacting on the NHS. Despite a general decrease in the number of alcohol-related deaths in England and Scotland, the number of deaths of women born in the 1970s has “disproportionately increased” since the middle of the last decade, according to a study published online in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.
Lucy, who admits she got her first taste for alcohol as a teenager, says that when she stopped drinking and admitted to family and friends that she had a problem, she also had to face up to a few other home truths.
“Pretty much overnight my life changed. While I still go out for meals with friends, it tends to be earlier in the evening and I realised that I not only didn’t like the person I was when I drank, but it wasn’t the real me.
“Seeing other people drink doesn’t bother me at all, but since I stopped, my family have also cut down. My sister barely drinks at all and my parents who would used to have one or two glasses of wine a night have also cut back.”
According to current guidelines, men should drink no more than 21 units of alcohol per week, no more than four units in any one day, and have at least two alcohol-free days a week.
Women should drink no more than 14 units of alcohol per week, no more than three units in any one day, and have at least two alcohol-free days a week.
“Yes, I lost some friends,” says Lucy. “But that was my choice rather than theirs. They were still going out getting hammered at the weekend and I just didn’t want to do that any more. A lot of people ask, have I ever thought about having just one glass of wine at Christmas or special occasions, but the truth is I haven’t.
“Partly that’s because I don’t think I could ever have just one drink, but it’s more than that. I have a better life without alcohol than I ever did with it.”
To find out more about Soberistas go to www.soberistas.co.uk