Two Yorkshire women are helping other middle-aged, middle-class women who, like them, have struggled to beat alcohol problems. Sheena Hastings reports.
FIFTEEN years ago, Sarah Turner was a North Yorkshire housewife living in a lovely house with a loving husband and animals, a great job and busy social life. But the middle-class idyll was clouded by one problem: Sarah drank too much. Looking back, she says alcohol was like a love affair for her.
“I’d been an 80s girl who did everything to excess. Yet at 32 I had a baby, and managed not to drink during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Then I hit the booze again.” By “too much” Sarah means a bottle of wine before dinner, a bottle with dinner and another one after leaving the table. She never suffered a hangover, although a shot of vodka in the morning would perk her up. She held down a job and kept to all her other commitments.
“I was in control,” she says. “But my husband was getting increasingly mad with me and felt helpless. I sometimes embarrassed myself by drinking far too much at parties, so I stopped going out, But I got to the point where I was worried about my relationship. I went to the GP but he just said ‘Pull yourself together.’”
In the 1990s the family went through hard times, with their business going bust and the repossession of their home. Around this time Sarah saw the writing on the wall and went into a rehab clinic. It was difficult and painful but she has been sober for 12 years. It hasn’t all been plain sailing – in among this she suffered breast cancer, a disease much more prevalent in women who have a history of heavy drinking.
“I think we learn our behaviours very young, and both my parents were alcoholics,” says Sarah. “If your mother is at ‘wine o’clock’ at the school gates, you think it’s normal. In the old days a mum had a cup of tea at 5pm, now for some it’s a 250ml glass of wine.”
She felt so much better and friends saw a visible change – her skin was better, she lost weight and had brighter eyes. A couple of girlfriends who were themselves struggling with their booze asked her for help.
Eighteen months ago Sarah set up a website called Harrogate Sanctuary, a resource for women who feel their drinking is a problem. She got a qualification in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, but says there is no “one-size fits all” solution.
“I decided to stick to a demographic I know, dealing with middle-aged, middle-class women with children like me.” So far Sarah has helped 58 women to stop drinking successfully, following her six-week programme which starts with an in-person consultation then involves a lot of changing of routines, diary keeping and other strategies, plus regular follow-up by phone, with Sarah available 16 hours a day to her clients.
She also puts those she thinks will get on in touch with each other to create peer support. The fee she suggests to each client is the equivalent of what they would have spend on booze in six weeks.
“On the evidence I am seeing, drinking at home is growing among women – whether it’s due to boredom, stress or some other cause. For many, like me, it’s as though they have a faulty on/off button and can’t stop at one. I’ve been helping a GP, and another doctor I know says ‘Thank goodness you’re there. It keeps them out of my surgery’.”
Sarah says what she’s seeing is the tip of an iceberg. “There are many women out there behind curtains with a glass in their hand and feeling very lonely. They can’t talk about it and fear the stigma if they do admit it.”
Lucy Rocca, from Sheffield, also had to take her drinking in hand, and since recovering has set up Soberistas, a social networking site to help other women who are struggling.
Lucy had a middle-class upbringing in Dore, with easy access to the well-stocked wine cellars of her friends’ parents. She was well educated and had a good job, and for years was what she calls “a regular binge drinker” whose weekly consumption grew to 100 units. Later, after her divorce, she would wait until her child was away and go out on the town. It ended when she woke in hospital covered in her own vomit, having been found lying in the street.
“I never drank again. It wasn’t difficult physically, but mentally giving up was very tough. When the crutch was gone I had to find out who I was without alcohol.” She read self-help books and continued her detox with a friend who was in the same boat. Part of the reason she started Soberistas was that she realised life without alcohol could be lonely and learning to have a social life again without drink presents its own problems.
“It’s available 24/7. You chat to people like you who are trying to give up, and share experiences and tips. You can also talk to people who’ve successfully stopped drinking and get their perspective.” Soberistas has built up 1,300 members in its first seven weeks. The average user is aged 35-45.
Middle-aged drinkers of both sexes are costing the NHS an increasing amount, says Emily Robinson of the charity Alcohol Concern. “In 2011-12 1.2m people in this age group were admitted to hospital with alcohol-related problems. Middle-class women working in a larger organsation or with higher managerial jobs are drinking twice the amount of women in manual jobs, and the regularity of their drinking is what leads to addiction.
“There’s an element of ‘stress and reward’ for some women in pressurised jobs. Drinking at home is on the increase generally, and alcohol has become just another grocery, not a treat as it used to be.
“Men are still drinking more than women, let’s not forget, but for a certain kind of woman who many be doing a job and looking after her family, but also steadily drinking too much most days, it’s very difficult to ask for help because it’s a taboo subject.
“Our society has extreme attitudes to alcohol. On the one hand people laugh about how drunk they get, but if you admit you have a problem they can be judgemental.”
Robinson says women need to be aware of the wide array of health risk associated with regularly drinking more than is considered safe and sensible. Breast cancer, as well as mouth, throat and liver cancers are an increased risk, as are high blood pressure and stroke.
“As part of the government’s new Alcohol Strategy, anyone having an NHS health check will be asked about their alcohol consumption as well as whether they smoke. We’d like to see anyone who goes to the GP about anything being asked how much they drink. It may be easier to talk about if the doctor raises the question.”
Katherine Brown of the Institute of Alcohol Studies says: “Between 2002 and 2010 alcohol-related hospital admissions for women aged 35-54 almost doubled... A lot of the national concern around drinking is about young people, crime and anti-social behaviour, but there is this issue of drinking behind closed doors, with many people using alcohol for stress management.”
The IAS would like to see the government going beyond its current commitment to increasing the price per unit of alcohol and the banning of multibuys in off-licences, supermarkets and small shops.
“We want restrictions on the marketing of alcohol and because it is everywhere, as is alcohol companies’ sponsorship of sport and TV programmes. It’s a fact that young people exposed to alcohol marketing drink earlier and drink more.”
No social stigma appears to be felt among younger female drinkers. Dr Gillian Tober, a psychologist at Leeds Addiction Unit, sees adult patients of all ages. The unit has always treated a steady trickle of middle-aged women, but a greater worry is the growing number of young women who drink recklessly. Women used to drink less than men, but now it’s equalising. In the 18-25 year old group, women are now drinking more like men.
Drinkline (NHS national alcohol helpline offering information, advice, support and counselling): 0800 917 8282
Sensible or harmful?
The government advises that adult women should not regularly exceed more than 2-3 units of alcohol a day, while the limit for men is 3-4 units a day. Harmful drinking is consuming such quantities of alcohol that will cause significant harm to physical and mental health, and may cause substantial harm to others. Women whose alcohol consumption regularly exceeds six units a day or more than 35 untis a week are at highest risk, along with men shoe consumer eight units a day or 50 units a week. Binge drinking is consuming large quantities of alcohol over a short time. 13 per cent of women aged 16+ drink on at least five days a week and 13 per cent drinking more than 14 units a week.