Wednesday 18 July 2018

'I was a lone parent and drink became my friend' - Women open up about their relationship with alcohol

The healthcare stakes for women can be high when it comes to over-indulging in alcohol

Samantha Kelly Picture: Patrick Browne
Samantha Kelly Picture: Patrick Browne

Denise Smith

Maybe it’s the half bottle of wine you drink after work every night, the tequila shots you sink every Friday or the stream of cocktails that have become an essential part of Sunday dining?

You may have had a drunken episode you’ve consigned to a ‘one-off’, but how many alcohol-induced accidents have to occur before you start to question your relationship with alcohol? 

Maybe it was losing your iPhone for the fifth time, waking up in a stranger’s bed, or vomiting in public that has brought your drinking into focus.

If you’re female and any of the above rings true, you’re not alone. In fact, women are drinking more alcohol more frequently, and alcoholism is fast becoming an epidemic. 

According to Alcohol Action Ireland, there is a rapid increase in the number of young women presenting with serious alcohol-related conditions such as liver cirrhosis. 

Worryingly, 12pc of all breast cancers in Ireland are associated with alcohol consumption. While 4.6pc of female cancer deaths in Ireland were attributable to alcohol between 2001 and 2010 — that’s 1,700 women. 

Chrissy Teigen and John Legend
Chrissy Teigen and John Legend

Chrissy Teigen is just one celebrity who has spoken out about her dysfunctional relationship with alcohol. The host of the Emmy-nominated TV series Lip Sync Battle and mum-of-one recently revealed: “I was, point blank just drinking too much. I got used to being in hair and make-up and having a glass of wine. Then, that glass of wine would carry over into me having one before the awards show. And then a bunch at the awards show. And then I felt bad for making kind of an ass of myself to people that I really respected. And that feeling, there’s just nothing like that. You feel horrible. It’s not a good look for me, for John, for anybody.” 

The star, who married singer/songwriter John Legend in Italy in 2013, explained: “I used to think it was kind of nutty to have to go totally sober, but now I get it. I don’t want to be that person… I have to fix myself.” 

On home shores, author and wellness guru Alison Canavan has been vocal about her journey to sobriety.  

In an article on her blog, she revealed: “I was a scared, single mum who was lonely, and drink was my friend. But it was a friendship based on secrets and lies. It robbed me of my dignity, self-esteem, health and happiness. I finally decided I wanted to be fully present in my life as I was exhausted escaping and piecing things back together the day after the night before.”

Alison Canavan Picture: Brian McEvoy
Alison Canavan Picture: Brian McEvoy

Samantha Kelly a social media strategist known as the ‘Tweeting Goddess’ can relate to this.

The 46-year-old who lives in Wexford with her partner and two children was once a functioning alcoholic.

“I always liked to party, I loved the razzle dazzle. If there was a party, I was always the last person to go to bed, other people would be having tea and I wanted more.

“I am nine years sober now. You are always an alcoholic by the way; you are a recovering alcoholic. You don’t just stop being an alcoholic because you stopped drinking.

“When I was a lone parent, alcohol became my friend. I didn’t drink every day. A lot of people think that to be an alcoholic, you have to drink out of a brown paper bag, sitting on a bench. I was the typical binge drinker. Friday night was my night, some people enjoy a glass of wine, but I always wanted to get drunk — that’s the difference.”

When Samantha became a mum, she realised that things had to change.

“I remember one lovely sunny day, I had this intense feeling of guilt because I was so hungover. I couldn’t move. I said to myself, ‘This is not fair, I should be bringing my children to the beach.’

“I thought the way I was living was normal, but it wasn’t.

“I went to a meeting and it turned my whole life around.

“If anyone is suffering who thinks they might have a problem, the one way to think about it is, ‘Is my drinking affecting my family life or me or my career?’

“If you are drinking more than a bottle of wine, that is something to look at. If I had one drink, it just flicked a switch in my brain and I needed another.”

Samantha, who runs a business support network for women, adds: “When I turned my back on alcohol, I became more confident. I found other things to do and I had a hunger to do more with my life. I never thought I could add value to society; I never thought I was good enough and now I know I am.”

Around 70pc of all clients with alcohol problems at One Step Clinic, a specialist addiction treatment service in Dublin, are female. The majority of these are regular excessive wine drinkers in the 45-60 age bracket. The clinic’s medical director, Dr Hugh Gallagher, says the nature of alcohol problems and the type of individuals seeking treatment is subtly altering. 

“In simple terms, alcoholism or alcohol dependence is a compulsion to consume alcohol, despite negative consequences,” explains the addiction expert. 

“There is a real compulsion to drink on a regular basis and your health, relationship, career or finances are negatively impacted,” he adds. 

“If you are dependent on alcohol, you would experience withdrawal symptoms like tremors, sickness, headaches and anxiety if you do stop drinking. 

“Inevitably, with addiction of any kind, it has an impact on relationships first and foremost. Aside from the health risks, intimacy with your spouse or partner will deteriorate and real concern from family members will arise.”

According to Dr Gallagher, there is a marked difference in how men and women view addiction problems.

“Women are conscious of the impact of alcohol on their health and relationships. They will often be concerned about their weight, as well as the impact on ageing and their appearance, as they approach middle age. Most are aware that their wine drinking has become habitual, and no longer pleasurable, and they want to break the cycle.

“While men will acknowledge drink is affecting their lives and their control of situations, they are sometimes slower to see the benefit of psychology.”

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.

Meeting for coffee or tea has changed to meeting for a glass of wine
Meeting for coffee or tea has changed to meeting for a glass of wine

Many women, however, choose to shun these guidelines, and their health is deteriorating as a result.

“Since the turn of the millennium a wine culture has developed, portrayed aptly by Sex in the City and Bridget Jones. Meeting for coffee and tea has changed to meeting for a glass of wine,” says Gallagher.

“Drinking during the week and drinking earlier in the day has not only become a habit, for some women, it’s also become an entitlement.”

To tackle the problem, the health professional has spearheaded One Step Clinic’s outpatient treatment for addiction — a 12-week programme that involves the use of an implant, Naltrexone. The implant blocks the effects of opiates and alcohol, quashing the ‘highs’ that prompt continued substance abuse.

“From a public health perspective, you don’t have to drink as much, so limit your drinking and look to alternative social activities,” Dr Gallagher encourages.

“There are no health benefits from alcohol. It doesn’t help blood pressure, it doesn’t alleviate stress. It reduces the quality of sleep and that has a direct impact on stress and anxiety — it is a depressant in itself. Everyone should have a break from alcohol for at least three or four days a week.

“Addiction is a chronic illness that only gets worse with time, not better. The good news is that addiction will respond to conventional psychological therapy and drug treatment programmes that are carefully designed in line with patient needs.

“As with any disease, the longer the wait for treatment, the more severe the addiction and its impacts become.”

One Step Clinic can be contacted on 01 699 1369, via email at or at


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