‘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…
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.
LIE ONE: I WORK HARD, SO I DESERVE TO PLAY HARD
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.’
LIE TWO: DRINKING IS GOOD FOR YOU!
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.
LIE THREE: I DON’T GET HANGOVERS
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.
LIE FOUR: THERE ARE ONLY THREE BOTTLES IN THE RECYCLING
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.
LIE FIVE: I DID DRY JANUARY
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.
LIE SIX: I’M NOT AS BAD AS THEM
‘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.
LIE SEVEN: I CAN LEARN TO DRINK RESPONSIBLY
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)