Alcohol can cause mental health problems, and can exacerbate preexisting ones — in fact, it is a factor in more than half of all suicides in Ireland. Denise Smith speaks to two teetotallers who explain why banning the booze was the best decision of their lives
Do you know the one that’s one too many? Maybe it’s that extra glass of wine you have with dinner every night, or the stream of cocktails that have become an essential part of Sunday brunching? And if not, what will it take to bring your drinking into focus?
Maybe it’s the entire weekends you regularly lose to debilitating hangovers, or the negative impact drinking is having on your physical and mental health.
Because the stark reality is, more than 1,000 people die from alcohol-related deaths in Ireland every year — that’s three people per day. Of these three deaths per day, one is either a suicide, accident or as a result of violence, while the other two are due to chronic illnesses, such as cirrhosis of the liver or cancer.
Ahead of EU Action on Alcohol Week (November 18-22), EU policymakers are working to raise awareness around the harmful effect that drinking has on mental wellbeing.
Shockingly, the average adult is now consuming more than 13 litres of alcohol a year, and Irish women are only outpaced by the drinking habits of women in Lithuania, Moldova and the Czech Republic.
For women, the recommended low-risk guideline for alcohol consumption is 11 standard drinks (110g or 140ml of pure alcohol), spread out over the course of a week, with some alcohol-free days. Many women, however, choose to shun these guidelines, and their health is deteriorating as a result.
Teetotalism however, has become increasingly mainstream and there more and more people now swapping pints for Pilates as they join ranks with the Natalie Portmans and Blake Livelys of the world and shun alcohol for good.
For Sarah McNeill (29), who lives in Kildare, the decision to go teetotal was one of the best she has ever made.
The chef now owes her new waistline and renewed lease of life to her clean-living lifestyle.
“After many, many years of abusing my body with alcohol, on January 14 of this year I made the decision to give it up. I knew I needed to cut it out completely because it was having such a negative impact on my life, my health and my mental health.
“I wouldn’t say I am your average alcoholic that you see walking down the street, swigging from a brown paper bag. I want to make people aware that alcohol addiction can affect anyone,” says Sarah.
“I was nine when I had my first drink and that was mainly due to the group I was hanging around with. I remember drinking a can of Old English and I continued on drinking into my teens and late 20s.”
Noticing a marked difference in her drinking habits in recent years, Sarah reveals: “The year leading up to me quitting, I noticed my hangovers were getting worse and my memory loss was getting worse. Before that, I was always a good drunk in that I was cheery and happy and I could remember the night, but in the last two years, my drinking deteriorated.”
Caught in a vicious cycle, the food fanatic finally sought help in the form of a support group.
“I only realised nine months ago that I used alcohol to mask my problems. The day after my birthday, I woke up and I had a terrible hangover and I just said to myself, ‘I can’t do this anymore’.”
At rock bottom, Sarah reveals: “My grandmother passed away, I broke up with my girlfriend and the place where I was working closed down — all in the space of four months. Everything just happened at once and it was a real low point in my life and that really brought my drinking into focus.
“I found support and realised I had an alcohol addiction problem. I would drink seven nights a week and just keep going.
“I isolated myself the first few months after giving up alcohol as I felt it was the right thing to do for myself and my mental health.
“The difference in my health has been amazing: my gut is gone and I have lost a stone and a half in weight — the difference in my appearance is huge.
“I have a picture I always look back at now and I never want to be back to that — I have no eyes in it, I look terrible.
“I’ve just recently changed jobs too and I get to use my chef brain and come up with new food ideas. I do suffer with anxiety, like a lot of people, but within the last few months it is so much more manageable.”
For people hoping to bin the booze, Sarah encourages: “Go with your gut: if you think you have a problem, reach out for support and don’t let people pressure you into drinking.
“It is like any other addiction — you have it in you for life and you have to take it one day at a time, worry about tomorrow when tomorrow comes.”
For people who are concerned about their relationship with alcohol, Dr Hugh Gallagher, a general practitioner specialising in addiction medicine, explains about when alcohol consumption becomes a problem: “In simple terms, alcoholism or alcohol dependence is a compulsion to consume alcohol, despite negative consequences.
“There is a real compulsion to drink on a regular basis and your health, relationship, career or finances are negatively impacted.”
“If you are dependent on alcohol, [on giving up] you would experience withdrawal symptoms like tremors, sickness, headaches and anxiety if you do stop drinking,” explains the addiction expert.
“Inevitably with addiction of any kind, it has an impact on relationships first and foremost.
“Aside from the health risks, intimacy with your spouse will deteriorate and real concern from family members will arise.”
Just over a decade ago, Samantha Kelly was a newly recovering alcoholic and a single mum on social welfare, with two daughters. Now, she has a top following on Twitter as an expert in entrepreneurship and the founder of The Women’s Inspire Network, a global online network of women just like her who want to follow their dreams.
The 48-year-old Tallaght native, who just recently celebrated the launch of her new book The Tweeting Goddess’ Little Book of Twitter Magic — How to Shine, Spread your Message and Build Authentic Relationships Online reveals how abstaining from alcohol changed her life.
“My dad used to say, ‘Stick to the old pints and stay away from those spirits, the wine doesn’t suit you’.
“Looking back, my 20s are a blur. I used to sing in a band and I loved the after-party, but the thing was, I was always the last one up. Everyone else would be drinking tea and I would be looking for more drink, and that is when I knew there was a problem. I didn’t drink every night, but I really looked forward to a Friday, and then I became a mom and realised what was important.”
Speaking about how alcohol affected her parenting, Samantha says: “I remember one sunny day, the kids were outside and I didn’t want to do anything, and I felt so guilty. I didn’t feel like I had anything to offer, I didn’t feel like I was a useful member of society — I felt like a failure.
“I was 36 when I decided enough was enough. I put everything I do now down to being sober — I would never have started my business or achieved what I have achieved if not for giving up alcohol.”
Reaching out to friends, family and a support group, the devoted mum of two reveals: “I am on a programme of recovery and I live a day at a time. I help others and I try and do the right things every day. That is the way I live my life now and for the children it is a domino effect: if mam is well, kids are well.”
Making her health a priority, the entrepreneur adds: “The health benefits have been huge. I lost a few pounds and then I took up running. I always watched runners on the road, promising myself that one day I would do that, and I did. I ran my first 5k last year. I am the healthiest I have ever been in my entire life.
“Self-care becomes a huge part of it. I wasn’t looking after myself — I was the last thing on my list. But now, that has all changed. [Giving up alcohol] has changed my life.
“If you are feeling like you can’t do this... if I can do it, you can too. I didn’t do it on my own, I got support.”
It's that time of year again - Junior Cert results night. If you have a transition year teen, there's a chance you may spend your Saturday morning nursing a hangdog child through a hangover with vats of flat Lucozade, and piles of dry toast.