Girls just wanna have fun
If you still think the image of an alcoholic is an old man with a can of Special Brew, you are out of date. According to campaign groups, today's picture of drink dependency is the city-dwelling professional woman in her mid-twenties to early thirties.
The Portman Group and Family Circle magazine have just launched the 'Cheers without tears' campaign to draw women's attention to the government-recommended daily benchmarks for sensible drinking, and to show how easy it is to exceed that limit. Specially produced alcohol-unit calculators have already been distributed to over a quarter of a million women around Britain. Sue Clements, project manager of the Women's Alcohol Centre in north London, claims that most of their clients used to be unemployed women over 45. Now they see 25 to 35-year old professional women, many of them teachers and nurses, in the waiting room.
So what do you have to do to be classified as a woman with alcohol dependency? Officially, you need only drink over 14 units of alcohol a week (one unit is the equivalent of one (small) glass of wine). Alcohol Concern has a questionnaire with which you can test your potential alcoholism, asking questions like: do you ever drink more than you intend to? Do you ever drink alone? Do you say things you later regret when you are drinking?
Of course you do. The concern with professional women's alcoholic tendencies seems to focus on the kind of behaviour that women with good jobs and social lives indulge in as a matter of course. And to prove it, I took Alcohol Concern's little survey around my colleagues.
Kerry, 25, a recently married subscriptions manager, told me that a bottle of wine a night was the perfect way to forget the stress of work, wedding arrangements and interfering relatives. Her 'winding down' advice is to have a long bath and lie naked on your bed with the lights off, with a cold bottle of wine. Julie, a 29-year old internet coordinator, likes the sense of occasion that she gets from choosing wine in shops like Threshers, and attends regular Sunday Times wine-tasting evenings. Debbie, an editor for a drinks magazine, is constantly out and about schmoozing with brewery and distillery PR staff. She has the most impressive drinks cabinet and a great social life.
In fact, all the women I spoke to about their alcohol consumption knew exactly what was meant by an alcohol unit, and regularly exceeded the recommended level (which they tended to think was lower than 14 units). They all ticked far too many boxes on the questionnaire. But so what? Instead of demonstrating alcohol dependency, these women thought their behaviour and lifestyle demonstrated that they were enjoying the many benefits of independent, social, single life. Far from being 'the new addicts', they all seem very much in control of their lives.
As a 29-year old marketing manager in London, I calculate that I probably notch up at least 28 alcohol units per week - which I know is quite ordinary. And I find campaigns like 'Cheers without tears' pretty insulting. One of the most distressing features of this campaign is that it has the full backing of New Labour. Is this how our government views successful, professional women - as pathetic, addicted and sad?
Reproduced from LM issue 122, July/August 1999