‘I was drinking to numb my anxiety’: Britain’s women binge drinkers share struggles of hitting rock bottom

As UK women receive the dubious title of world’s biggest female binge drinkers, Lydia Patrick speaks to those who have taken the hard road to sobriety

Saturday 30 December 2023 12:00
<p>A quarter of British women consume at least six drinks once a month, according to research </p>

A quarter of British women consume at least six drinks once a month, according to research

Passed out on the sofa and her body swollen after another dusk-to-dawn drinking session, Issy Hawkins called her mother for help.

Spiralling into alcoholism as a teenager, she hid her problems from the outside world. According to a recent study, she is far from the only young woman in the UK to struggle in the battle against the bottle.

British women were named as the biggest female binge drinkers globally in a report released in November. Research from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) indicated 26 per cent of British women were consuming at least six drinks once a month.

Issy Hawkins first used alcohol to escape when she was 14 and would secretly drink in her room

Issy, now 30, first turned to alcohol “to lower her mask” when she was 14. By 19 she moved to London and quickly moved up the ladder in the advertising world but descended into alcoholism, and by 21 she was sneaking vodka into her work, disguising it as water.

Her world fell apart when she lost her job and her relationship broke down.

“I spiralled out of control, I was drinking to numb my anxiety, the only way to stop me from feeling like I was dying was to have another drink,” she said. “My life ended up in tatters on the floor.”

“I knew from 16 I had a problem and where it was going; people would say you don’t have a drinking problem, you’re a young woman. It’s more difficult for women as people expect alcoholics to be men. When I told people I was sober at 21 they looked at me as if I had grown horns out of my head.”

With the support of her family, she entered a rehabilitation programme. With youth on her side, her body recuperated and she pursued her childhood dream of acting.

Dr Richard Piper, CEO of charity Alcohol Change, said many factors have led to the normalisation of binge drinking in British culture, namely the glorification of drinking from a young age and the “sober shaming” non-drinkers endure.

Widespread alcohol marketing, relatively cheap booze and a “national delusion” about the harm from drinking are key factors in the UK’s drinking habits, he added.

Marketing ploys such as the “pinkification” of drinks and bottomless brunches have “deliberately and ruthlessly” targeted women, he explained.

“I’m hesitant to overdraw the female side out, as twice as many men have an alcohol problem, but women have been trying to compete with men for the past 30 years after a feminist call to drink as much as men.”

And then there are the consequences for the nation’s health as some 1.25 million go to hospital every year with alcohol-related issues.

A Harvard University study has shown women’s bodies to be more susceptible to the effects of drink since females have less alcohol dehydrogenase, an enzyme that breaks down booze before it reaches the bloodstream.

“The huge bit of the missing story is people think you need to be alcohol dependent to die from alcohol, most people who die are not dependent,” Dr Piper said. “Alcohol is the third biggest cause of breast cancer.”

Emma Jones, 38, was given 36 hours to live when she was rushed into hospital with cirrhosis.

Cirrhosis is scarring of the liver caused by long-term damage that cannot be reversed. It can eventually become so bad that the liver stops functioning altogether.

A moderate social drinker in her twenties and thirties, Emma says her habit spiralled out of control when she was living alone in London during the pandemic and dealing with work-induced anxiety.

The 38-year-old bought cheap bottles of wine, and believes supermarket deals enabled her consumption to spiral. Her friends became concerned after noticing her dramatic weight loss, leading one of them to take her to hospital where she was diagnosed with end-stage liver disease.

Emma Jones fell ill with cirrhosis – and was given 36 hours to live

“I looked so unwell, I was jaundiced, I was completely yellow. I was unsure I would survive, I lost all muscle tone in my legs. I couldn’t walk,” she said.

The doctors told Emma they would try their best to save her life if she, in turn, tried to save herself. She was admitted to hospital for six weeks and told she would need a transplant after completing six months of sobriety.

“I didn’t think I would be well enough to make it. I was admitted to hospital seven times in seven months and I had to move home to North Wales; my parents became my full-time carers,” she said.

Miraculously, Emma survived a successful liver transplant in July at Queen Elizabeth University Hospital, Birmingham, and has recently celebrated one year sober.

For many Britons, the challenge is how to avoid drinking in a country that so often celebrates it.

Millie Gooch, 32, became fully immersed in drinking culture as a teenager but has since become the founder of Sober Girl Society (SGS). The organisation, set up in 2018, aims to show a new generation that life can be enjoyed without a glass in your hand.

At 18, Millie admired the women of reality show Geordie Shore, enjoying their “incredible and fearless” alcohol-fulled antics. She pursued a career in journalism and PR, which often led her to boozy events.

“It affected my mental health, I had the worst hangover anxiety. I felt suicidal at times and the feeling would stay with me for a few days,” Millie told The Independent. “I couldn’t remember what I said, what I did, if I’d embarrassed myself.

“In the day I was reserved, quiet, on time. When I drank I was this chaotic demon, I wasn’t fun to be around.”

The SGS founder continued to binge drink until, aged 26, she had an epiphany and decided to quit booze for good, pushing herself to try new hobbies. Even without alcohol, Millie is still the last one left on the dancefloor at the end of the night, she says.

“For British people, alcohol and fun are so intrinsically linked. People don’t do activities that don’t involve alcohol. And with the rise of debt culture, addiction rates have gone up and it’s only getting worse.”

If you need help, the NHS promotes a number of initiatives to tackle alcohol abuse that can be seen here.

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