Having packed them off to bed, you flop on the couch, reach for that glass of red and finally chill. The stop-off on the way home from work at your local petrol station or Aldi is becoming a constant, the few glasses of wine at the end of the evening your great unwinder, your reward at the close of a hard day.
You’re not alone. Recent years have seen three changes in the nature of Irish drinking.
We’re drinking more at home — 50% of alcohol bought here is now bought for home consumption. We’re drinking more wine. Seven percent of alcohol consumed in Ireland in 1990 was wine — this almost quadrupled, to 26%, in 2011.
And Irish women are drinking more. Four in 10 women drinkers here report harmful drinking patterns.
The Slan 2007 Survey of Lifestyle, Attitudes and Nutrition in Ireland found a “notable” increase in alcohol consumption among women aged 45 to 64. The trend is reflected at treatment centres, where more women are seeking help for all alcohol-related problems.
Mick Devine, clinical director of Tabor Lodge Addiction Services, says the trend is changing the old ratio of two men to one woman in treatment clinics. “The gap is closing. At times, you have more women in treatment than men — maybe for five or six days at a time. That never happened before.”
Psychologist and addiction specialist Colin O’Driscoll (www.changepsychologyservices.com) is a former treatment director of Forest Healthcare. “Between 2004 and 2010, we saw a higher presentation of middle-aged women with alcohol problems. Drinking wine at home would have been a major issue. By 2005 about 25% of our patients were women — that female demographic went over 50% between 2005 and 2010.”
The trouble with drinking at home is that boundaries very quickly become blurred. “There’s nobody calling time at home, unlike when you’re drinking in a supervised environment like a pub or hotel. There’s nobody measuring the quantity of alcohol. The barman by law must adhere to strict serving sizes. These considerations don’t necessarily apply at home,” says Fionnuala Sheehan, CEO of drinkaware.ie.
There aren’t the same natural boundaries of opening times, closing times and appropriateness of opening times, says Colin O’Driscoll.
“If the pub’s open at 1pm, it’s unlikely a woman will be there sculling back the pints, whereas at 1pm at home there might not be the same taboo around having a glass of wine at lunch. A woman drinking a bottle and a half of wine at home on a Sunday afternoon seems a lot more appropriate than a woman in a pub on a Sunday afternoon drinking the same quantity in pints.
“And once you blur the line between drinking in company and drinking alone, once the context starts to break down, the time span you spend drinking starts to widen. It genuinely becomes confusing as to how to re-establish those boundaries.”
Wine has a high appeal for women. It carries an air of sophistication. And it’s cheap. “As a woman, I can reach my maximum weekly drinking limit — 14 units or just under two bottles of wine — for less than the hourly minimum wage of €8.65,” says Fiona Ryan, Alcohol Action Ireland director.
Alcohol consumption has dropped in Ireland from its 2001 high when we drank 14.5 litres of pure alcohol per head of population. In 2009, we imbibed 11.9 litres — which is still very high by European standards, says Dr Declan Bedford, specialist in public health medicine. “If every adult in Ireland drank up to the sensible limit, we’d be drinking nine litres per head of population. We’re top of the class when it comes to binge drinking — one in four of us do it on a weekly basis. We’re slow to have just one drink — on seven out of 10 occasions, we take three or more standard drinks.”
We may have borrowed wine from the French but we failed to learn their good sense around how to drink it. “In France, they have a different relationship with alcohol,” says O’Driscoll. “At a house party in Ireland, people drink wine all night — in France they stop when the meal’s finished. They’ll have two bottles of wine on the dinner table.”
A 2012 British survey found two-thirds of people rely on alcohol to relax in the evenings. Experts here believe the same is true for about half the Irish population, with O’Driscoll remarking that it’s becoming increasingly normalised. Dr Aric Sigman, author of Alcohol Nation, agrees. “The ability to relax has increasingly become through self-medication. People say ‘I’m dying for a drink’. There’s a normalisation, through popular culture, of women ‘chilling out with a nice glass of wine’ at the end of a long tough day. Women’s days are longer and tougher than they used to be. They’re told to have it all. Having it all is hard — the good relationship, the lovely children, being slim, wrinkle and cellulite-free, being a good cook, sexy for your husband and successful in your job. With all these lovely expectations, women are coming home in the evening and reaching for the bottle.”
It can seem harmless enough — the few glasses of wine in the comfort of your home. But, says Rolande Anderson, an alcohol/addiction counsellor and author of Living With A Problem Drinker, Your Survival Guide, it’s a problem even if someone’s drinking just one glass of wine a night. “People are advised to have some nights when they don’t drink.” Anderson has met many female patients who’d have had the “couple of glasses of wine on a Friday night and it developed into a full-blown dependence problem. Along the way, they developed certain symptoms — memory loss, rows with the partner. They thought ‘I’m ok. I’m not falling around the place. I’m working’.”
Of course, while many people abuse alcohol in Ireland, they don’t all develop addictions. “Most don’t,” says Colin O’Driscoll, who doesn’t want to scaremonger those who drink at home. “Some will fall into the trap [of addiction]. For the group who fall victim, it’ll invariably come back to how they use alcohol psychologically and emotionally, whether they’re using it to prop them up emotionally.”
O’Driscoll recommends anyone drinking to relax to find another way of relaxing and only have a drink when you’re already relaxed. “If you’re relaxed by the time you take a drink, you don’t develop a dependence.”
Many women elevate wine to the status of a healthy elixir. Yet, calorie-wise, a bottle of wine is the equivalent of two bars of chocolate or a regular burger and chips. And drinking three to six standard alcoholic drinks (half to a bottle of wine) a day is associated with a 41% increase in breast cancer risk. It’s also untrue that women can drink “pint for pint with the lads” and not be any worse off than their male counterparts.
Females metabolise alcohol very differently to males. For one thing, women have more fat than men, leaving less opportunity for alcohol to be diluted within the system.
“Women get all the alcohol-related problems much more quickly and much more severely than their male counterparts,” says Anderson.
The nightly few glasses of vino may also impact on the kids. When you’re tipsy, consistency of parenting is liable to go out the window. You might over-chastise a child or say inappropriate stuff and forget you ever did.
“In extreme cases, a child may wonder what’s happened to mam or dad if they can’t rouse them. Sometimes parents can’t collect children because they’ve been drinking. All sorts of emotional and physical neglect can happen,” says Anderson.
Parents who’ve fallen into a nightly pattern of drinking to relax may also need to ask what message they’re giving their children. Aric Sigman points to a study, which found that children — whose mums had wine after a stressful day — preferred the smell of rotten eggs to that of alcohol because they associated the alcohol smell with their mothers being stressed.
We need, says Sigman, to ask if we’re teaching our children that alcohol is an acceptable coping mechanism.
Here are some indications of when you need to be concerned about your drinking habits:
* If you’re drinking more than the recommended weekly limit – up to 14 units for a woman and 21 for a man, One unit equals: half pint beer or single (pub) measure spirit or small glass wine (100ml).
* If, as a result of drinking, you do something that’s out of character or inappropriate.
* If you’re concerned about negative consequences from drinking but still can’t cut it down.
* If you’re getting drunk too quickly or drinking too fast (gulping).
* If someone close says they’re worried about your drinking.