Since I started writing about my drinking and my decision to undergo a 12-week process of assessment, both women I have known for decades and women who I have never met have wanted to talk to me about drinking. I’ve been at weddings, work-dos and lunch with old friends, and the same question comes up: “So, how’s the not drinking going?”
The thing is, Shahoo Izadi, my Behaviour Change Specialist, made this clear from the get-go; this process wasn’t about how much I was drinking or stopping drinking or even drinking less. The 12 weeks of conversations focused on why I was drinking.
We are, of course, laughing together, with a hint of shrill nerves, both knowing full well that jokes about hangovers and that second bottle hopelessly hide a deeper worry
And so, I smile and say, “Oh no, I haven’t stopped. I’m just a bit more self-aware and I haven’t got battered on a Tuesday night on a white wine and crisps dinner for a while”. I make a joke of it; the woman laughs. “Oh, god, I know. I’m always doing that!”. We are, of course, laughing together, with a hint of shrill nerves, both knowing full well that jokes about hangovers and that second bottle hopelessly hide a deeper worry.
And despite the nervous tittle-tattle about booze – often with wine in hand – these conversations have been completely amazing because I’ve realised that women everywhere are having these conversations, and we’re all as worried, nervous, and frightened about the role wine plays in our lives as each other.
After this process, I think an important conversation has to be had around wine itself – it’s effectiveness as a drug; that first sip helps you relax far quicker, in fact, almost instantly, compared to a cooked meal or a Nurofen or a pilates class. And of course, wine is marketed and targeted at women specifically. It can be both a sign of taste and class, sneered at like women on a hen do in Blackpool or fawned over as a sign of culture. It is something we bond over and fight over. Wine has a complicated place in our society and that alone is deserving of much deeper consideration – especially in relation to women.
But it was the conversations about how and why I drank which were the most impactful. It wasn’t counting metrics; it was self-examination.
It’s like my mouth is clamped shut and a bottle with my best friend gently pulls it open; the worries come out – and so do the tears
I know now that I drink when I feel nervous, be it with people who I think are smarter than me or work-dos when I don’t know anyone. I drink when I am stressed. I want the instant quick-fix of a glass in hand, the shoulders dropping, the worries melting. I drink when I need to have a difficult conversation about my life or my family and the words won’t come out on their own. It’s like my mouth is clamped shut and a bottle with my best friend gently pulls it open; the worries come out – and so do the tears.
I also know I drink for good reasons too: when I’ve achieved; at a friend’s birthday; over a roast and the papers in my favourite pub. This might sound like I drink all the time, but the point is that a few glasses of red on a Sunday is not a problem. And it’s something I actively want in my life. A bottle of white on a Monday night because I’m frustrated with work, or a drink because of the self-doubt in my own intelligence, or the fact I am choosing not to think about a difficult phone call – that is something else.
And this is what Shahroo shone a light on. Sure, I drink more than the recommended units, but I don’t drink wildly. And yet I do drink at times when I don’t need to, or it would be better for me in the long term if I didn’t. Once a shit day would warrant: ‘“sod it, let’s go to the pub”. What Shahroo has taught me to do is to take a moment; and think at bit further: I’ll walk home and see how I feel, then I might have a glass of wine. Or, actually, what I really need is a good night's sleep and an episode of Last Chance U. If this sounds obvious, lucky you. It certainly wasn’t that obvious to me.
At the start of this process I raised some concerns. 12 weeks on, this is how I feel:
Things I am worried about:
I’m an alcoholic and I just haven’t realised it yet
I’m making a fuss about nothing and wasting someone’s valuable time
If I drink less, I will be boring
Shahroo will think I’m an idiot or pathetic or both
Things I know will happen:
I will cry
I will drink wine
I will curse myself for being one of those people who indulge in personal development
I will applaud myself for being one of those people who indulge in personal development
Things I hope will happen:
I will learn to master the art of moderate drinking for the long term
This last one is a bit tricker.
Has my drinking changed? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. I’m brilliant at falling into the “complacency trap”. I’ll make the decision to not drink, have a good night’s sleep, feel great and reward myself with – yep, you’ve guessed it, going to the pub. I’m under no illusions, the work I’ve done with Shahroo is just the beginning. I’ll be having these conversations with myself for a long time to come
What has changed, though, is what Shahroo set out to do; she hasn’t made me change my drinking, she’s made me feel differently about my drinking. I’ve answered some hard questions, I’ve set myself tests, I’ve passed some, I’ve failed others. But mostly I’ve had a really good look at myself.
I also now have a theory: that wine is a low-level blanket self-medication for a lot of women. We have a lot on our plates: we’re worried about our bodies; our families; our jobs. We are always facing a wall on insecurity; will we still have a carer if we have a baby? Will I be good enough to get that promotion? Will I be happy in my relationship? We are facing that constant current of sexist bullshit that always makes us feel a bit on the back foot or a bit under attack or up against it, and Lord knows, where all doing so much. And then we are sold a drug that makes us feel better, that we bond with other friends and that is socially acceptable. And then it becomes another worry; another thing on the guilt list, another stick to beat ourselves with. And then we’re self-medicating the self-medicating.
And so the one thing I’d pass on: when you feel stressed and overwhelmed and guilty about your drinking, remember Shahroo’s most important lesson: treat yourself like you would a friend – with compassionate, kindness, honesty and forgiveness. And sometimes, at the right time, with a glass of wine in hand.
For more on women and drinking, listen below to Shahroo and Marisa in conversation about our experience together and the wider worries women have around wine.