You May Not Be An Alcoholic - But Are You A 'Problematic Drinker'?
The Debrief: Symptoms of problematic drinking include spending the weekend in bed nursing a hangover, losing your possessions or getting into fights. Sound familiar?
When I registered with a new GP recently, I actually told the truth about how much I drink. ‘Twenty five units a week, or thereabouts,’ I said cheerfully. I thought that sounded pretty reasonable once you broke it down. A couple of glasses of wine most nights, more at the weekend… I mean, I’m not exactly waking up with vomit in my hair and a tattoo of a stranger’s name on my arse.
I nodded enthusiastically as she explained how my drinking was going to melt my liver and give me cancer, and then that evening I had a large glass of Sauvignon Blanc.
The experience was timely, given that last week was Alcohol Awareness week, an initiative from AlcoholConcern.org in the run up to Christmas, which tries to encourage us to avoid the dangers of festive excess. ’Tis the season to be jolly, not the season to get plastered and vom on your party shoes, after all.
I tend to ignore health warnings, working on the basis that doctors will be able to cure whatever I end up with soon enough. But after reading about Alcohol Awareness Week, that conversation with my GP hasn’t stopped going round and around my head.
I know that wine isn’t ‘good’ for me. I’m fully aware that if I stopped drinking wine I’d be richer, thinner and more inclined to wake up at 6am to try decoupage (Google it). But the problem is, just like a lot of other women in their twenties, I really like drinking.
Booze rarely brings out the best in people. Yes, a glass of Champagne at a scary party might embolden you to strike up a conversation, but how many of us actually stop at one?
‘When I get really drunk I convince myself that my boyfriend is either gay or cheating on me. I leave him hundreds of missed calls threatening to dump him. It’s not great,’ confesses my friend Liz, 23.
Personally I’ve always thought that Liz was a brilliant drunk, but her confession surprised me. As it turns out, the beverage that makes her the best person to sing Britney with at 4am has also gotten her kicked out of a club for physically assaulting a waitress whom she thought was hitting on her boyfriend.
I’ve always thought the pushing the waitress story was quite amusing. The woman in question was fine and, perhaps rightfully, took great joy in kicking Liz out of the bar. But the more I thought about it the more I started to wonder if we have too much of a sense of humour about the things drinking can do to us.
‘My friends think it’s hilarious if one of us vomits from drinking,’ Bella, 26, tells me. ‘It doesn’t happen every time, but losing your phone or your shoe, being sick, sleeping with someone grim, getting in fights with taxi drivers – it’s all stuff that we take the piss for the next day. No-one ever worries about it. It’s not like it makes you an alcoholic.’
Apparently, part of our problem with drinking, according to Manchester Metropolitan University’s professor of social care Sarah Galvani, is the way that we use the term ‘alcoholic’. ‘We have a very stereotypical view of what constitutes an ‘alcoholic’. We think of that person as scruffy, low functioning or even homeless.
‘We struggle to think of a beautiful, successful young woman as an alcoholic. I strongly encourage the idea of “problematic drinking” rather than “alcoholism”.’
Problematic drinking is a more nuanced way of assessing your drinking. Professor Galvani says symptoms of problematic drinking include spending the weekend in bed nursing a hangover, being late for work because you’ve been drinking, and losing your possessions or getting into fights could indicate an issue.
Which is scary, given that every woman I know has done at least one of the above in the last six months. Does that mean that we’re all problematic drinkers?
Some women look at the cocktail of issues caused by drinking and decide that it’s just not worth it. Ella, 22, says that giving up was the best thing she ever did. ‘I stopped drinking for health reasons. I’d throw up, I’d cry. I was a lightweight anyway, but at uni I was waking up feeling bad all the time and it just wasn’t making me happy. Since I stopped my skin is clearer and I sleep better. I’m just happier.’
Ella’s teetotal life sounds pretty shiny, but my major concern about being teetotal was that it would change my friendship groups and the way that I socialise.
Kait, 28, confirms my suspicions. ‘I stopped drinking because it wasn’t worth it any more. I felt crap, I had anxiety issues and I was drinking alcohol – a depressant – which was ridiculous. It has changed how I go out, though. I don’t want to sit in a bar drinking coke, so I try to do classes and see shows. It means I see different people and some of my friends don’t want to hang out without drinking, but I think that’s more their problem than mine.’
I’ve always been judgemental about non-drinkers, assuming that they hate fun. But the more I thought about waking up without a dry mouth and being able to put my shoes on without feeling nauseous, the clearer it became that I shouldn’t be judging non-drinkers – I should be envying them and their glorious hangover-free lives.
So how do you know if it’s time to quit? Professor Galvani has some sage words. ‘I’d suggest that young women weigh up the good and the bad that comes from their relationship with alcohol and on that basis, they can ask themselves: is drinking actually worth it?’
So there you go. It’s possible to have a happy, healthy relationship with booze, but it’s a lot more likely if you actually think about your drinking. So while I won’t be pouring the Oyster Bay down the sink and quitting completely, I have resolved to spend this Christmas asking myself the question, 'Is this worth it?' before diving head first in to the excess.
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