Sunday 23 October 2016

That daily 'wine o'clock' bottle is a killer

Let's be honest in admitting when a 'deserved' drink becomes needed, writes Carol Hunt

Published 17/04/2016 | 02:30

Carol Hunt enjoys a drink at home. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Carol Hunt enjoys a drink at home. Photo: Steve Humphreys

There's a story Graydon Carter of Vanity Fair tells of the late, great Christopher Hitchens's ability to consume alcohol and remain supremely compos mentis. He recounts an afternoon lunch in New York with the author and public intellectual, where "pre-lunch canisters of scotch were followed by a couple of glasses of wine during the meal and a similar quantity of post-meal cognac. That was just his [Hitchens] intake."

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After "stumbling back to the office", Carter is astonished to see Hitch produce "a 1,000-word column of near perfection in under half-an-hour".

Sadly, as Carter concedes, the genius and stamina of Hitchens was, dare he say it, a "gift from God" like few and far between. The rest of us mere mortals are hard pressed to produce readable material when stone cold sober and sometimes not even then. Which is probably just as well.

Hitchens was famous for giving advice to young writers on how to successfully booze while working and how alcohol is a good servant but a bad master.

Which is true. Alcohol can be wonderfully relaxing, it can even be beneficial to our health, as Hitch once gleefully reported: "Drinking a glass or two... of alcohol every day can significantly reduce the risk of suffering a heart attack, according to a large new study that is the first to examine whether drinking occasionally or daily is the best strategy for taking advantage of alcohol's benefits."

And so many of us are in the habit of pouring ourselves a glass of whatever we fancy when we feel we deserve it. What of it?

How can it be harmful if we can continue about our daily lives with little or no ill effects? I mean, if you can get out of bed at seven every morning and put in a full day's work, surely you're entitled to that large glass of wine with your dinner? And the one after when you're doing the ironing. And the one after that...

The problem, of course, is identifying when a habit becomes an addiction. It's something I regularly ask myself as I reach for that glass of wine which marks the end of the working day - or sometimes the beginning of an evening catching up on housework.

Thankfully for my liver, I can no more work creatively and drink than I can ice-skate blindfolded. This is very much in my favour as I work from home and the fridge with that open bottle of Chardonnay is never far from my sight. Like many women my age, I used to wait eagerly for the cliche that is 'wine o'clock' and tell myself I deserved it, when in fact I needed it. It had become a habit.

Over the past decade or so - when I first wrote on this subject - I have been deliberately attentive to occasions where I would notice my alcohol intake increase. I now consciously try to alleviate stresses and tensions with exercise and meditation, instead of alcohol. Most of the time.

There are still those evenings, after long stressful days, when the only thing that will do is a large glass of chilled white wine, preferably followed by another one.

Is that so bad? Well, yes, it can be. Even though our consumption has fallen dramatically since the boom, many women are still in thrall to their bottle of wine. Or two. Because sometimes we don't know when to stop.

Around 57pc of Irish women binge drink, followed by 33pc of British women, making us Europe's biggest bingers. Last year's Global Drug Survey showed that Irish women had the highest dependence on alcohol of all women worldwide (as did Irish men).

Liver damage in women is rising and, as Dr Orla Crosbie, fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland, has noted of her female patients with liver damage: "Often these are women who are not dependent on alcohol, but are in the habit of regularly drinking. They buy wine and other alcohol as part of the weekly shop."

How did we get to here? Research suggests that women in problem relationships tend to drink more than other women. As do women who experience depression and those who have suffered abuse of any kind. But the biggest increase in habitual drinking seems to be among women who are "stressed".

During the boom years, many women were stretched to the limit as they tried to juggle long working hours with childcare and housework. Most multi-tasking women with families and careers would need a month (on their own) on a desert island in order to de-stress sufficiently. But that's obviously not on the cards, so we self-medicate instead.

"Drinking makes many women feel like we can do the heavy lifting in an ever evolving, complex world," says Ann Dowsett Johnston, author of Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol. We tell ourselves we need alcohol just to survive, when in fact it could be killing us.

Wine is cheap, it's everywhere and it doesn't make us feel like we're doing something we shouldn't. Until we pay a visit to the doctor and we learn that there has been a doubling in the number of deaths from cirrhosis of the liver among women and that alcohol is one of the leading causes of cancer in women.

One in eight breast cancer cases in Ireland are associated with alcohol consumption and the proportion of alcohol-related deaths from cancer among Irish women, at almost four in 10, is significantly higher than the European average.

But that's other women, we tell ourselves, as we pour another glass. Not us. We're fine and dandy, just like Hitchens, of whom it was said, " he could drink like a Hemingway character; continually and to no apparent effect". Or at least he could, until he died at the age of 62 from esophageal cancer, for which excessive alcohol consumption is known to be a major risk factor.

It seems that Hitch, like the rest of us, was mortal after all.


Sunday Independent

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