As figures reveal the scale of alcohol consumption in the UK, Rod McPhee reports on how binge drinking became a pastime of the middle classes.
IT was once the curse of the working classes, but these days it seems it’s their bourgeois cousins who are developing an unhealthy relationship with drink.
To some it may come as a surprise, given that a better education, for example, could be said to aid informed decisions.
But Lucy Roca, who struggled for years with a alcohol problem, knows the truth: clever people don’t always make clever choices, they’re just good at coming up with clever excuses.
“Middle class people just use that class distinction to help their denial,” she says. “I used to buy my wine at Waitrose – you know, a £15 bottle of Chablis – and in doing that I was kidding myself that I was a wine connoisseur or I was choosing it for the meal I was cooking that night.
“It was all just nonsense because, the truth is, I just wanted to get drunk. But you kid yourself, you think that just because you’re not going out and buying some super strength lager it’s different. The only real difference is that lager doesn’t have the same pomp and circumstance that surrounds wine. But, essentially, it’s the same thing.”
In a bid to enlighten and aid other people suffering from similar problems, the 37-year-old, who works as a pre-enrolment officer at Sheffield Hallam University, last year set up www.soberistas.com.
This online rallying point has attracted more than 6,000 members in the space of eight months, partly because it provides a viable alternative to other organisations which can seem intimidating and overwhelming.
Soberistas.com has proved a hit partly because it isn’t just about “being an alcoholic”, a term which alienates people who may have issues.
Lucy says: “The trouble is that if you say the word ‘alcoholic’ to someone they imagine a drunk sleeping on a park bench or something like that. And, of course, people say: ‘Well, that’s not me’.
“But you can have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, as I did, and that is something that you may need help with. But you aren’t going to ask for help if you feel distanced from something?
“What’s been interesting is that we’ve seen quite a few people dipping their toe in the water with the website, they’re curious about their own circumstances and what that means. They might not be an alcoholic, but they are curious as to whether they might just have some kind of problem.”
Worryingly, more patterns have emerged from the website that go beyond mere class distinctions. Lucy has noticed that women make up about 90 per cent of those contacting Soberistas.com.
This might be dismissed as a symptom of women being more willing to talk about problems, but research released earlier this month suggests this change is as real as it is apparent.
Despite a downward national trend 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.
The research looked at deaths in men and women of all ages in Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester from 1980 to 2011 and the spike in that particular gender and age group has set warning bells ringing among the medical profession.
Writing in the journal, the team led by Dr Deborah Shipton, said it was “imperative that this early warning sign is acted upon. Failure to have a policy response to this new trend may result in the effects of this increase being played out for decades to come.”
The report came after the Government announced much talked about plans to introduce minimum alcohol pricing in England and Wales were being shelved. Minister Jeremy Browne admitted problem drinking had turned many towns and cities into “no-go areas” and the cost the taxpayer from related crime and health issues currently stands at £21bn a year. However, he said there was not enough “concrete evidence” minimum pricing could reduce the harmful effects of problem drinking without hurting those who drank responsibly.
While people drink for different reasons, Lucy puts the rise in alcohol consumption in middle class women down, in part, to two factors which she knows all about: the increased strains of motherhood and the ladette drinking culture of the 1990s which many teenage girls were drawn to.
As a single mum who went through a divorce, she appreciates the stress that often leads to this form of “self-medication”.
It took her a decade to fully accept she had a drink problem, so said problem grew up until 2011 when she woke up in a casualty bed after a night of binge drinking. She’d nipped onto the doorstep of her home in Sheffield for cigarette and collapsed.
Fortunately it proved to be the wake up call she need, so she sobered up and started to focus on the trigger points for her drinking. She also realised they are common trigger points for professional women and mothers who, she insists, can easily drink one or two bottles of wine a night, then wake up the next morning and continue a successful career or maintain a family.
“When I got divorced I felt very lonely and I also had financial problems,” says Lucy. “Then my drinking went through the roof and rather than try to deal with my problems I just tried to drown them out
“So I can totally relate to what a lot of women go through – that female experience of drinking. That’s the people we are now aiming the website at: busy mums, looking after the kids, running around, hitting the wine in the evening – and that style of drinking seems to be seen more in women than men.
“And there are a lot of mums out there, like me, who grew up with that ladette culture where it was okay for women to drink, but then, suddenly, you find yourself in your 30s or 40s with a family and it’s not so acceptable, so it happens behind closed doors in private. It becomes ‘mummy’s little treat’ when the kids go to bed. It was my way off flicking two fingers up at the world and at responsibility.”
Lucy can go beyond even class, culture or gender in pinpointing another cause of this growing problem: wine.
“Over the past five or 10 years you’ve seen more and more targeting of young women by the marketing people,” she says. “It’s seen as something you can enjoy with friends in a nice sophisticated atmosphere.
“But actually I think what they’re doing is often targeting quite vulnerable people, because if that marketing reaches someone who is low or suffering from depression its so easy for them to be sucked in. We aren’t robots, we’re all susceptible to human weaknesses and its so easy to reach out and grab a bottle of wine, particularly if you’re getting it rammed down your throat every where you look.
“Alcohol is an addictive substance, like smoking. You can’t always just switch off and say: ‘Oh I’ll just have a couple of glasses’, you can easily loose control.
“Yes, we are all adults, but the way that some women drink it’s almost a form of self harming – they hit the self destruct button.
“If you knew somebody who had an eating disorder or someone who self-harmed you wouldn’t say: ‘Well, they can do that if they want to. It’s up to them, they are adults’.
“If people are suffering from very low self esteem and have major medical problems or underlying health issues, those people aren’t making an informed choice, that’s especially true when you’re talking about an addictive substance. I don’t think most people want to end up dying in their 30s or 40s of liver failure, they’ve fallen into it out of habit. So, as a society we have to be a bit more compassionate about it.”
At present, Lucy feels that society isn’t just unsupportive when it comes to women who drink, it’s actually highly judgmental.
“Men seem to drink more socially whereas with women it’s almost a secret, shameful form of drinking,” she says. “There was telling research which came from the US about the different ways we phrase drunkenness. If women have a few drinks they tend to play it down and say they are a bit ‘squiffy’ instead of drunk, whereas men would say they were hammered after just a couple of pints sometimes. I think that taps into this idea that women are supposed to be nurturing, maternal figures, not irresponsible in any way.
“It’s okay to be irresponsible if you’re in your teens or 20s but any older and it’s not funny anymore. Instead they point the finger and make them feel ashamed. That only feeds into low self esteem and leads to even more problems.”
Fortunately Lucy has conquered this particular demon and, after ditching booze altogether, now fills her time with new hobbies and interests such as running and meditation. She’s also planning her wedding to fiancé Sean and looks after her daughter, Lily, who was born last year.
“Giving up drinking is incredibly hard,” says Lucy. “But I’m so glad I was strong enough to turn my back on it because it’s the best thing I ever did.”