‘It’s scar­ily easy to lie to your­self about your drink­ing’

Bri­tish women are among the heav­i­est drinkers in the world, knock­ing back an av­er­age three drinks a day. Here, Cather­ine Gray (right) re­veals how she fooled her­self that a bot­tle of wine a day was OK…

Grazia (UK) - - Contents -

when i read about TV pre­sen­ter Adrian Chiles be­ing ‘hor­ri­fied’ to re­alise that he was putting away around 100 units of booze a week, I re­lated, hard. He rea­soned that given he didn’t drink alone, get into fights, wake up with strangers or suf­fer from hang­overs, he was ‘fine’.

It’s so easy to widen your eyes, point a fin­ger and cry, ‘Oh my, 100 units?! I would NEVER!’ Con­ve­niently ig­nor­ing the Tracey Emin-es­que art in­stal­la­tion of bot­tles in the kitchen af­ter a din­ner party; or that week’s hol­i­day when you supped three cock­tails a day; or the gi­gan­tic G&T you pour ev­ery night af­ter work, telling your­self it’s ‘just one drink’. In fact, new re­search shows that Bri­tish women now rank as the eighth heav­i­est drinkers in the world – and yet how many of us would ac­tu­ally own up to the ex­tent we booze?

I quit drink­ing five years ago, aged 33, hav­ing re­alised that I was ‘sip­ping’ seven or eight bot­tles of wine a week. Yet, be­cause I was a pass­able func­tion­ing adult – mak­ing money in­ter­view­ing celebri­ties, putting on nice dresses, speak­ing in co­her­ent sen­tences – very few peo­ple said, ‘Great idea!’ when I told them I was quit­ting. Most re­sponded, ‘Isn’t that a bit ex­treme?’

My drink­ing had started scar­ing me five years be­fore that, when I was 28. I wrote a story for a mag­a­zine in which a doc­tor said (read: I found a doc­tor will­ing to say) that 30 units a week, or three bot­tles of wine, was prob­a­bly safe-ish. ( The lat­est Gov­ern­ment rec­om­men­da­tion is no more than 14 units a week for a wo­man; that’s a bot­tle and a half of wine.) Painfully aware that I was drink­ing four or five bot­tles of wine a week, I em­barked on a ‘mod­er­ate drink­ing will be mine!’ quest.

I bought a beau­ti­ful golden note­book and dili­gently recorded the units I con­sumed, mark­ing four nights a week in ad­vance as ‘ND’ to stand for ‘no drink­ing’. (I needed code be­cause my ini­tial ‘drink less’ quest was an en­tirely se­cret one.)

It was a dis­as­ter. I was drink­ing four or five nights a week, and only man­aged to keep it un­der 30 units once or twice. I would spik­ily scold, ‘ This amount can kill you long-term!’ next to my unit diaries, like a furious teacher mark­ing an es­say.

At first, I started do­ing some cre­ative drink ac­count­ing, telling my­self that quadru­ple-shot cock­tails were two units and com­pletely dis­count­ing aero­plane­sized bot­tles of wine on the train... Un­til, aged 29, I stopped keep­ing the ever-so-de­press­ing di­ary al­to­gether. 

Here are the lies I told my­self to power my de­nial.


In our twen­ties, it’s YOLO ( you only live once). We’re young, yo! Then in our thir­ties, it shapeshifts, so that half-a-bot­tle in a fish­bowl glass is our re­ward for sur­viv­ing the working day.

We watch Naomi Watts or­der bour­bon in Gypsy to un­lock her even­ing al­ter ego; even Scan­dal’s Olivia Pope has a bot­tle-anight habit. Fem­i­nist ceil­ing-smash­ing and hard drink­ing are a horse and car­riage.

And if you’re a par­ent? Wine is like par­ent­ing anaes­thetic: cru­cial. ‘I “de­served” a drink be­cause I have young chil­dren,’ says Emma – a sober friend who was once a master of drink­ing de­nial. ‘Be­cause I was present and par­ent­ing all day, at 5pm I could check out with booze.’


If you hoke around on the in­ter­net for long enough, you will find pop­py­cock say­ing that a drink a day is good for your brain (re­al­ity: even ‘mod­er­ate’ drink­ing shrinks your brain), or that tee­to­tallers are less healthy than mod­er­ate drinkers (since thor­oughly de­bunked as twad­dle). I know, be­cause I found all of this fake news my­self.

Chloe told her­self the third glass was the only way she could get to sleep. I told my­self that drink­ing cured my so­cial anx­i­ety, when it ac­tu­ally ex­ac­er­bated it.

It’s an in­con­ve­nient truth, but our bod­ies hate us drink­ing. While drink­ing, I threw at least five sick­ies a year, telling my­self I had ‘the start of flu’. Nope. I’ve been sick a to­tal of twice in the past five sober years.


I would re­gale peo­ple with bull­shit about my Ir­ish her­itage, claim­ing that it meant I could drink more than your av­er­age bear, and that I never got hang­overs. But I suf­fered – big time. I once wound up on crutches af­ter a two-glasses-of-wine fall, and I would reg­u­larly sit on the Tube in the morn­ing will­ing my­self not to faint. ‘Maybe I’m travel sick?’ I’d think.

‘I blamed chronic tired­ness on my de­mand­ing job,’ says Jen. Char­lene’s nau­sea was al­ways caused by the dodgy chicken on the way home, rather than the booze that pre­ceded it. And Sarah told her­self that her work­place toi­let-vom­it­ing was ‘meet­ing anx­i­ety’. The lack of food be­fore the pub… The tonic wa­ter, not the gin… We blame hang­overs on any­thing but the booze.


I pro­gressed from squir­relling my empty bot­tles un­der boxes in the re­cy­cling to slid­ing them ca­su­ally into a pub­lic/a neigh­bour’s bin as I mo­seyed on by.

We find ev­er­more wily strate­gies to keep the re­al­ity of our drink­ing in our blind spot. Kathryn switched to boxed wine. ‘It’s much eas­ier to dis­pose of a crushed box than it is five bot­tles of wine,’ she says. We avoid fin­ish­ing bot­tles, at all costs. ‘I’d kid my­self that I’d had just over half a bot­tle when there was only a small glass left,’ says Nat. Liz would move on to beer be­fore fin­ish­ing the bot­tle. Suzanne told her­self that since she bought ex­pen­sive wine from a wine club, she was ‘a con­nois­seur’. Mean­while, Jo would have en­tire con­ver­sa­tions with the owner of her lo­cal wine shop about which wines to buy for her imag­i­nary din­ner party.


I ac­tu­ally be­gan to be­lieve that I had done a dry Jan­uary. Oh, apart from when I went to that party. I never ac­tu­ally man­aged a whole month. I could have done, had I stayed at home the en­tire time, but the thought of go­ing out-out and not drink­ing was anath­ema. Iron­i­cally, the fact I was able to stop my­self from drink­ing at home – al­beit while feel­ing ut­terly mis­er­able, de­prived and un­able to think about any­thing else – kept me drink­ing for many years. Be­cause I could grit my teeth and ‘prove’ to my­self that I could do it.


‘I sur­rounded my­self with peo­ple who drank sim­i­lar amounts to me,’ says Donna. As did I, Donna. If some­one didn’t drink, they were au­to­mat­i­cally ir­rel­e­vant. Here’s the thing. You can al­ways, al­ways find some­one who drinks more than you. I didn’t drink as much as Adrian Chiles. So what? My drink­ing was a se­cret hell for me, and I am much hap­pier sober, so it doesn’t mat­ter what any­one else’s booz­ing looks like.


By far the big­gest lie that we con­tinue to tell our­selves is that we should be able to drink ‘mod­er­ately’ or ‘re­spon­si­bly’. That if only we ap­ply our in­tel­lects to this more, try harder, it will click.

Given that we now know that the av­er­age Bri­tish wo­man sinks three drinks a day, we know that not be­ing able to mod­er­ate is ac­tu­ally the norm. Why? Al­co­hol is the ‘prob­lem’, not us. It’s a rare per­son who can use an ad­dic­tive drug in a non-ad­dic­tive way.

I chased the myth of mod­er­a­tion for so many years, like a man in a desert crawl­ing to­wards a mi­rage, be­fore fi­nally re­al­is­ing that none is so much eas­ier than the elu­sive ‘one’.

Cather­ine in her boozy YOLO days (above) and em­brac­ing life sober (be­low)

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