Like a drink? Here’s a sobering thought
Lucy Atkins asks where the social sipping stops and alcoholism starts
‘Ilove drinking,” says Rosie Mills, 39, a TV producer. “A drink at the end of the day is the bit I look forward to the most.” Four or five times a week, she and a group of single friends, all “forty-something single party people”, meet in pubs, clubs and bars in London. Alcohol is the linchpin of this wild social life.
“I do ask myself important questions about my drinking levels,” says Rosie, “but the answers tend to get lost in another glass of wine.”
Most of us are unclear as to where social drinking stops and alcohol dependency starts. A heavy-drinking student is fairly normal, but a 40-year-old party animal? A sozzled 60-year-old? At what point do the questions demand a serious answer?
Recommendations from the Government are that men should consume no more than three to four units of alcohol a day and women only two to three units (that’s only one large glass of wine). Of course, committed “social” drinkers of all ages often ignore units, taking comfort instead from the fact that they are not reaching for the Glenfiddich before their morning commute, and their friends are drinking as much as they are.
The warning signs can be blurred, however. Rosie, for instance, drinks 35-50 units a week. “I’ll regularly polish off a bottle of wine on my own at home,” she says. “But if the wine at a party is vile, I’ll only have a sip or two, so I figure I can’t be that desperate.”
According to the charity Alcohol Concern there are several benchmarks – besides alcohol units – to determine whether alarm bells should be ringing (see box, below). You can even test yourself online. This could be worth doing – drinking too much over time can cause anything from liver damage to high blood pressure, fertility problems, impotence and mental health problems. Three per cent of all cancers, including breast cancer, are caused by alcohol (the relative risk of breast cancer increases by six per cent for each additional unit consumed per day).
Such dire medical facts are, however, unlikely to stop the truly committed drinker. “Alcoholics have a lot of fun,” says Tom Sykes, author of What Did I Do Last Night?, an account of his descent into alcoholism in his 20s. His heavy drinking peaked when, as a bar critic for the New York Post, Sykes was putting away 250 units of alcohol a week. “I’d start each evening with three or four pints of beer, then there would be a bottle or two of wine over dinner, then five or six large Martinis,” he recalls.
There is no simple answer as to why one person’s social drinking can be solved by restraint, while another’s escalates crazily. Frank Soodeen of Alcohol Concern says: “Some people simply have a greater predisposition to becoming addicted than others.
“Drinking alcohol triggers the release of dopamine, a ‘feelgood’ chemical, in the brain, which gives you the pleasurable sensations. If you continue to drink regularly, it takes more and more alcohol to trigger the same sensations.
“While there may be a genetic contribution to alcohol dependency, most of the current thinking is that social and psychological factors, such as stress or depression, are generally more important.”
The key is to face the music. Government figures show that about one in three people who have an alcohol problem can reduce their drinking, or stop altogether, without needing professional help. But treatment can help in other ways. “These days it’s not just about cutting down,” says Soodeen. “It’s about editing your life to remove the reasons you are drinking so much.”
If you are reading this with another hangover, it could be time to get out your red pen.
Message in a bottle: be aware of the signs of alcohol dependency