Why we've called time on wine o'clock ...
Lucy Rocca set up Soberistas.com in a bid to put the sexy back into sobriety. She talks to Chrissie Russell about her struggle with alcohol
Lucy Rocca didn't think she had a drinking problem. "I never drank during the day," she explains. "I didn't drink spirits, just nice, expensive white wine and I didn't feel drinking was impinging obviously on my life – I did a law degree, a half-marathon and raised a daughter, all while I was drinking. I would always have said I wasn't an alcoholic."
Then three years ago, she woke up one morning in hospital with no memory of how she'd got there. After drinking three bottles of wine, she'd stepped outside her home to have a cigarette and ended up being rushed to A&E by a passing friend who later saw her slumped unconscious on her doorstep.
"I'd not been out, I'd just been drinking in the house on my own and I hadn't even thought that I was drunk," recalls Lucy.
"It was the shock I needed. I was ashamed and frightened about what could have happened while I was in that state and I decided then that I had to stop drinking. I knew I couldn't control it, I had to stop all together."
Not only did the mum of two from Sheffield stop but she also used her experience to set up the website, Soberistas.com, to reach out to other women in a similar position.
Ireland accounts for the fourth-highest level of visits to the site behind the UK, America and Australia. In recent days, the spotlight has fallen on the dangerous drinking habits of young people but the reality is that they're not the only demographic drinking to worrying levels on a regular basis.
In Ireland, four in 10 women report harmful drinking patterns and one in four Irish women discharged from hospital for alcohol-related conditions is under 30, compared with one-in-six men.
In 1990, 7pc of alcohol consumed in Ireland was wine – in 2011, it was 26pc, something largely attributed to female drinkers. Increasingly, women are matching men in alcohol consumption but dealing with higher health risks, with females more prone to develop liver problems after a shorter period of time drinking – and at lower levels than men. There's also evidence to suggest a higher risk of breast cancer.
But in a society where so many women are counting down the minutes to 'wine o'clock' and a bottle of Sauvignon blanc to unwind after a hard day's work, it's often difficult to identify a problem that might need help.
In her 20s, Lucy found her social life revolved around drinking with her husband and their friends. After they divorced at 27, drinking wine became her 'treat' in the evening. When her daughter (now 15) spent the weekend at her father's, it was an excuse for Lucy to head out and drink heavily in bars and clubs. It never seemed like an issue because everyone around her was drinking, too.
"About a year before I stopped drinking, I remember talking to two women solicitors on a night out and they both had a bottle and a half of wine to drink each," recalls Lucy.
"They were smart, successful and funny and I remember thinking 'how could they possibly be alcoholics?'
"That's the problem," she adds. "We often have a very narrow view of what it means to be 'an alcoholic' and as long as we think it's just a man sitting on a park bench drinking meths, the further we're able to place ourselves from the stereotype and the less likely we are to get help."
Soberistas.com was a bid to shatter this stereotype and since setting up the site in November 2012, it's gained 22,000 members, almost exclusively female and predominantly professional, degree-educated, middle-class women, married and with children, aged between 30 and 60.
Lucy says: "I started keeping a blog after giving up drinking and from the feedback, I had a growing sense that women who don't see themselves as being alcoholic, aren't going to go to AA.
"Soberistas provides support for those women who don't consider their level of drinking to be suitable for AA. It's not the end of the line, they haven't lost everything to alcoholism but they're drinking half a bottle of wine every night and know it's a problem."
It's something Tara (not her real name) (34), from Co Kildare, can relate to. "I was worried about my drinking," she explains.
"My hangovers were getting worse and I was often worried – wondering what I'd said or done the night before. But when I Googled 'how to stop drinking' everything that popped up was about AA and I really didn't think I was as bad as that. I know some people have had great success with AA, but I just didn't feel like it was for me."
Tara would often go out drinking three or four times a week with her husband.
"The fact that we were in nice restaurants made it seem like seven glasses of wine was perfectly normal," she says. "But I started to realise I could never just stop at one or two. I blacked out a few times and had never-ending guilt about what I was doing to myself.
"One day, I stumbled upon Soberistas.com and knew it was a great fit for me. After five months reading other people's experiences on the site, I gave up drinking. Now my confidence has improved, I'm more productive and life is so much easier."
Lisa (35), from Galway who stopped drinking four months ago, agrees. "The list of benefits for me have been endless," she says. "I sleep better, I don't wake up with a sore head or tummy and my anxiety and depression are at a minimum."
Before she stopped drinking, Lisa, who is single and works in retail, was sometimes drinking two bottles of wine a night.
"It started years ago when I would have had the odd bottle of wine at night or at the weekend. Then I started to use any occasion to drink whether it was being happy, being sad, a bad day or a good day – I used it as an excuse to drink."
After a liver function test revealed worrying results, she went looking for help to stop drinking and found Soberistas.
"I found it allowed me to be incredibly open and honest while also remaining anonymous, but I still get a lot of support from people in the same position," she says.
Giving up alcohol doesn't have to be seen as uncool
Psychologist and addiction specialist Colin O'Driscoll (changepsychologyservices. com) believes many women are struggling with pressure and turning to drink to cope.
"When pressure increases, problematic coping behaviours like alcohol abuse do too," he explains. "The danger is that drinking to deal with stress is increasingly normalised and drinking in this way – to cope with anything –, rather than just drinking socially, has a faster route to addiction."
Drinking emotionally as Lisa was, is a big concern. Colin says: "It's not always the quantity that defines a problem but the nature of the drinking behaviour and the emotional investment in that behaviour. Reliance on the drink to relax you is just that: reliance, and reliance is dependence."
But in order to tackle alcohol abuse there's a need to challenge attitudes about being a non-drinker. According to Tara: "When I gave up smoking everyone was delighted for me but when I told people that I had given up drinking, I got the opposite reaction. People assume that you won't have fun but that's not true."
Lucy – who has written a book, The Sober Revolution: Women Calling Time on Wine O'Clock, and has got engaged since giving up alcohol – agrees.
"Being sober isn't presented in a 'sexy' way but that's what I want to do with Soberistas: present living alcohol free as an alternative lifestyle that's actually a bit cool and not something to be embarrassed about," she says.