Not Your Typical Alcoholic

9th May 2014

According to Alcohol Concern, some of those at the highest risk of damaging their health through drinking are professionals, rewarding themselves after a hard day's work, rather than the young or the unemployed, who are stereotypically expected to be the ones to binge drink. Alex Grey looks at the habits of a group whose glass is habitually too full…

My friend Sarah* is 46, attractive, with a good job and nice house. Like a lot of people, Sarah likes to unwind after a busy day with glass of wine or two. She likes the buzz it gives her when she cooks her evening meal. She probably drinks about four to five bottles of wine a week.

Sarah is not very different to someone else I know. Tony* is a hard-working family man. He is 49, married with two young children, and also likes to unwind after work with wine. Like Sarah, he prefers red and probably drinks two large glasses of his favourite Australian Shiraz a night. Tony spends most evenings on the sofa watching television. Once the kids are in bed, it’s all he has the energy for. Neither Sarah nor Tony binge drink. Neither of them drinks and drives, and, for the most part, they only drink before and during their evening meal. They are both successful professionals. They’re not really doing any harm, are they?

Except that they are, says Alcohol Concern, a leading charity working on alcohol issues. Sarah and Tony are in one of the groups most at risk from damaging their health – professionals drinking over the limit to unwind. In fact, adults living in households in the highest income quintile are twice as likely to drink heavily as adults in the lowest income quintile. Over 45s are three times more likely to drink alcohol every day than other age groups, and those who work are more likely to drink alcohol than those who are unemployed. The problem for both Sarah and Tony is that they are regularly drinking beyond the recommended maximum limit of alcohol consumption a day – four units for men and three for women. Tony’s two glasses amount to 6.2 units a day. Sarah’s Spanish Rioja adds up to 6.4 units a day – over twice the recommended amount. If both Sarah and Tony do this at least four times a week (and they do) they are putting their health at risk…

…because alcohol is known to be a causal factor in more than 60 medical conditions, including: mouth, throat, stomach, liver and breast cancers; high blood pressure, cirrhosis of the liver; and depression. It’s the second biggest risk factor for cancer after smoking. According to the NHS, there is a strong link between alcohol and low moods or depression; it can disrupt sleep and stop you from sleeping deeply. Regular drinking can affect your immune system. ‘The thing is, sometimes drink sneaks up on us,’ the NHS points out in their Change4Life campaign: ‘After a long day, many of us like to unwind with a nice glass of something. But the odd glass in the evening can quickly become two or three regular glasses, most evenings.’

Which is exactly what happened to Debbie*, who only started enjoying a drink after meeting her now ex-husband. They used to sink a bottle of wine or two at the weekend, but when Debbie and her partner split, she became a single mum to her son and had to go back to work full time as well as sell the family home. “I probably do use wine as a crutch,” she admits. “In the last two years my job has become very stressful and I’ve found myself having a larger glass of wine or two to reward myself after the stresses of the day. I tell myself that things will be okay once I am at home, my son is in bed and I am having my first glass of wine. Every Sunday I tell myself that this will be the last glass and I’ll stay dry for the week ahead, but something always happens.” Debbie drinks about three quarters of a bottle a night (around 7.5 units), and a whole bottle on a weekend night if her son is at his Dad’s. In an attempt to limit her drinking, she only buys one bottle of wine at a time – but ends up going to her local supermarket most days. She will also often hide the empty wine bottle in the bin, rather than face the mountain of bottles in the recycling box every week. “Sometimes the harsh truth of how much I drink hits me in the face when I have to go to the recycling centre.”

Unlike Sarah and Tony, Debbie is well aware that she is drinking too much. Then again, so is Alice*, who is one of the 200,000 people that Alcohol Concern reckons regularly turn up to work with a hangover. Her job is in a very fast paced and competitive industry and there is constant pressure often involving intense and demanding periods of work. “There are lots of different teams and skill sets within an agency, so to run successful projects people need to get on really well,” explains Alice. “A large part of this is done through socialising after work. Equally, people drink for stress relief because of the pressure. In the past I had a female boss who I used to drink with at least twice a week with and between us we would get through four bottles of white wine in a night. I was frequently sick on the way home. At its peak I was drinking over eight bottles of wine a week. I put on two stone but switched from wine to drinks with less calories rather than giving up! I’d get caught in a cycle of no dinner, getting drunk, waking up and taking strong pain killers before work and then having a ‘hair of the dog’ in the evening. I’ve seen people in the office barely able to function due to their state of their hangovers, including me.”

‘Cutting down on alcohol can bring some great rewards,’ Change4Life says. ‘Not only will it mean a reduced risk to your health, but you could look better, feel better and have more time and cash to spend on doing other things.’ Their tips on how to cut down include using smaller glasses, having several days a week alcohol free or cutting back a little each day. Tony went ‘dry’ in January, having no drink at all for a month, and now only opens a bottle on weekends. He also bought a mountain bike and now goes out biking two or three times a week instead of being slumped in front of the television. “I got fed up of feeling so tired,’ he says. “I still enjoy a glass of wine, but it’s at the end of a hard week, rather than at the end of every day.”

Debbie joined Soberistas, an online forum that provides support for those seeking an alcohol-free life. The stories there, similar to her own, changed her perspective on drinking: “I realised that drinking doesn’t give me the pleasure or lift that I thought it did and drinking on my own is depressing. I don’t want my son’s earliest memories to be clouded by visions of me dragging him into Tesco’s at 7pm because I just ‘needed to get some bread’ – which was a cover up to get a bottle of red. I also joined a slimming club and it allows me treats of wine or chocolate… so far I have been choosing the chocolate.”

In the hope of getting away from the culture of binge drinking, Alice has changed jobs. It’s given her a new lease of life: “I’m not drinking anywhere near the same amount so I’m actually clear headed and alert in my job,” she says. “I also drive to the station as I have recently moved so I just can’t drink after work. A bit more will power and a desire to get fit again means I think I’m on the road to recovery.”

Sarah, however, still drinks regularly. “I’m not stupid,” she says. “I know it’s not great, but I don’t do anything else ‘bad’. I go to the gym four times a week, I eat very healthily and I work hard. I just have a ridiculous inability not to pour a glass.”

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