health

'I am a functioning alcoholic and I’m not alone. This is what alcoholism looks like for Australian women.'

I know I drink too much.

In terms of the latest government directives, safe consumption stands at around six units per week for women, which is why I pretend I live in the US when I have a big week, where the allowance is almost double.

By Australian standards though, I am a functioning alcoholic. I’m not slipping vodka into my gym water bottle or blacking out, but I’ve reached a point where I’m not functioning as well as I’d like to when I drink.

Interestingly, most of my friends tell me to stop being neurotic when I admit that I’m worried about my drinking.

“Stop worrying!” they say as they top up my glass. “Who knows how much time we’ve got left.” And yet, I’m becoming increasingly conscious that it will be more if I stop drinking.

I blame my drinking on the pressure to ‘have it all’ – the pressure to be successful in my professional life, as well as a perfect wife and mother – and I’m not alone.

Ever wondered why wine memes on social media are so popular?

Well, women have become one of the most worrying groups when it comes to compulsive drinking.

A study in 2016 by the University of NSW National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre determined that women are catching up with men in terms of alcohol consumption. And while I’m a feminist who believes in equal rights, I’m also aware that women – particularly older women – don’t process alcohol in the same way as men, and it also increases our risk of common cancers.


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As Paul Dillon from Drug and Alcohol Research and Training Australia told me, “Women have it tough in this area. We tell them they can’t drink as much as men (but really we have done a terrible job of explaining exactly why that is the case). At the same time, alcohol companies continue to develop more and more products specifically designed with females in mind. Alcohol advertising and product placement promote the idea that drinking is the ‘norm’, yet when a woman admits to possibly having a ‘drinking problem’ she experiences far more stigma – particularly if she has children – than men in the same situation.

“For a long time this was very much a ‘hidden problem’ that was swept under the carpet and those women experiencing difficulties with their drinking really had nowhere to go. The good news is that we are now talking about the issue and acknowledging that some women are really suffering in this area and it can’t be ignored.”

***

As an addict, I tell the biggest lies to myself. I tell myself that the government campaigns to increase awareness aren’t targeting me, but the alcoholics who end up dying from one of the thousands of alcohol-related illnesses – ie. People like me. I tell myself that I can stop drinking whenever I want, even if Dry July has a strange habit of passing me by each year. I tell myself that I will be one of those women that live to 100 and still drinks every day. I tell myself that I don’t drink during the day – often, that I don’t think about alcohol when I wake up in the morning – some mornings – and I exercise and eat healthily to counterbalance the damage.

Out of the myriad of excuses I could give you for my drinking, none of them have anything to do with a lack of education about the dangers of alcohol.

With general anxiety disorder and a predisposition to health anxiety, I could probably list every type of condition and cancer caused by alcohol. Added to which, I have watched several friends battle alcohol-related illnesses and witnessed the destructiveness of addiction in my own family. Nevertheless, it’s hard for me to shake off that feeling that alcohol ‘completes me;’ that it makes me more outgoing, interesting, and funnier.

When I drink, I feel like the person I aspired to be. The person I believe I deserve to be.

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So Why Do I Drink?

1. Anxiety – The condition is on the increase and is a large factor in my drinking. Most people suffer from anxiety at some stage of their lives, and for some drinking takes the edge off fear. I drink to appear confident in social situations and to stop myself becoming irrationally angry about minor things that others cope with naturally.

2. PTSD – I’m not ashamed to admit that due to some childhood trauma, I’m a little vulnerable to over-analysis. The loss of my mother as a child blew my confidence, affecting my marriage, my career ambitions and my relationships with my own children. Add into the equation a child with special needs, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out why I lean on the crutch of alcohol.

3. The relentless journey as a woman to ‘have it all’ – The pressure to succeed in my own right as well as have babies and create a perfect home (with little extended family support) is significant. Motherhood didn’t turn out to be the job I was ‘made for,’ after all. But when something had to give, I did put my children ahead of my career, and drinking helped me come to terms with what I saw as a personal failure.

4. Targeted marketing and culture – I see myself as an educated, discerning customer when it comes to advertising, yet no one is immune to the influence of clever marketing and the drinking culture in Australia.

There are many other reasons why women drink. I speak from the perspective of privilege, but let’s not forget about the women that are discriminated against, in the grips of mental illness and financial hardship, or in the aftermath of divorce and domestic violence.

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Alcohol can be a substitute for happiness, a cloak from fear, and it has scored me the types of wild friends that timid little me back at school could only have dreamed of. It has kept my head above water when I felt like I was drowning.

As Hannah Sutton, author of blog, My Life With No Filter, and a recovering alcoholic admits, “As I got in to my thirties, my drinking became less fun and more of a necessity to deal with life. I think the problem comes when alcohol turns from lubrication to self-medication. So rather than just enjoying the odd drink I found I was drinking every night to relax, de-stress and cope with my life. I used it as an anaesthetic to blot out the pressures to have it all.

“And when do you become a problem drinker as opposed to someone who likes a drink? Quite simply, when you want to stop but can’t.”

Women are feeling compromised. Without undermining the pressures faced by men, many women are responsible for their day jobs, raising perfect kids and managing the household, as well as the innate societal pressure to look amazing at all times. Something has to give – so is it any wonder that it’s their livers?

No one I know who is close to ‘having it all’ is sober.

And worryingly, the statistics inform us that young women are following this trend. Whether you believe that the root cause of alcoholism lies in bad genes, trauma or culture, there appears to be a similarly worrying trend of dependency in younger generations. Granted, they still believe themselves to be immortal, but unless something changes and they are relieved of some pressure, it is likely this problem will get worse.

Alcoholism is a silent killer.

Alcohol is an intoxicating depressant that camouflages itself as our best friend, takes us to the best parties and forms a close attachment. When the relationship starts to feel toxic, we make the decision to part for the sake of our health and sanity.

The problem is, it can be hard to forget the good times.

If you are struggling with alcohol or substance abuse, help is available. For support, please call:
Counselling Online on 1800 888 236
Alcoholics Anonymous on 1300 222 222.

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