With a concerning uptake in the number of middle-aged professional woman soothing their stresses through alcohol, Aleney de Winter reveals why taking a break from booze is always a good idea.
An Australian study released in January 2022 shows that a staggering one in five women aged between 45 and 60 are drinking at “binge-drinking” levels. I admit that, until recently, despite my best intentions, I had become a member of the problematic portion of that statistic.
It shouldn’t have happened. You see, I come from a long line of problematic drinkers, which is a gussied-up way of saying raging alcoholics, and I had zero desire to follow in their staggered footsteps. So, I kept an eye on how often and how much I drank. But, suffering from acute social anxiety, I did tend to rely on at least one or two when I was out. Unlike Hemingway, who said he drank to make other people more interesting, that chronic self-doubt saw me having a drink or two to make myself more interesting. This occasionally led to me behaving quite interestingly indeed and making an absolute tit of myself in the process, ironically leading to even more social anxiety. Young and stupid, I failed to see the connection.
In my early thirties and struggling to start a family, I decided to give up the giggle juice altogether and focus on my health. It paid off. Two amazing kids later, I drank only occasionally and sparingly: after all I had offspring to keep alive, and it only took a single hungover day with small kids around to ensure I’d never hit repeat on that situation again.
But as my kids got older and less inclined to climb my face at 5am, and the juggle of work, parenting and managing life became overwhelming, the occasional relaxing glass of wine after work became two and sometimes three. Things came to a very well-poured head after the one two punch of caring for my terminally ill mother and losing my beloved father in quick succession. Add the fallout from a malicious, and unwarranted, public attack that triggered every single one of my lifelong social anxieties and I adopted Shiraz as self-care. Those few glasses quickly became a bottle and occasionally became every night.
In June last year, I looked in the mirror and the sullen skin and dull eyes looking back at me bore a striking resemblance to my alcoholic ancestors. I was suitably horrified. While I didn’t, and don’t, identify as being an alcoholic, it was in the post.
At the same time, I stumbled, quite literally and rather inelegantly, across the story of Australian journalist and former TV news presenter Talitha Cummins and her battle with alcohol. Now Sober for 10 years, Talitha’s bravery in giving up the liquid courage she had relied on for so many years, is equalled only by her bravery in sharing her story with the world. Originally a band aid for her shyness and social anxiety, her dependence on drink had morphed into debilitating alcoholism before she confronted the disease.
I recognised myself in her story. And with chatter about Dry July buzzing across my social media feeds, I decided it was a sign. After 12 months of too much, it was time for me to back off the bevvies before I fell into the family binge drinking business.
Breaking up with booze
My attempt at Dry July proved a success, as 31 days later, my skin and eyes were glowing with good health, and I felt the best I had in a year. Had it not been for the months of COVID lockdown that immediately followed, and with it lots of gifts of boredom busting bevvies from clients, I doubt I would have stopped my self-imposed booze ban when July ended.
While giving up completely is still a work in progress, 12-months later I have a much healthier relationship with alcohol and go weeks and even months between drinks. I have more energy, sleep better and my skin is no longer a depressing shade of cadaver grey. Social anxiety aside, I’m also finding life more manageable.
As I write, the Dry July annual campaign is again underway and thousands of sober curious women have pledged to abstain. For those embracing Dry July’s temporary sobriety, it is an opportunity to tune in to see that life is very liveable sans alcohol. And its benefits are huge.
The impact of alcohol on women
Anyone who’s had a few too many already knows that alcohol can result in killer headaches and major embarrassment, but the long-term mental and physical health risks of excessive alcohol use are significant. Simply put, alcohol is a toxin.
Consuming large quantities of alcohol can lead to digestive problems, liver disease, high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke. It is also related to an increased risk of breast, mouth, throat, oesophageal, liver, colon, and rectal cancer.
While many people drink for the short-term positive mood boost it can offer, it’s long-term use has the opposite effect. Alcohol impacts the central nervous system, slowing down parts of the brain and resulting in impaired cognitive function. Hence the confusion, clumsiness, and slurred speech we suffer when we have one too many. Unfortunately, these effects can build over time and excessive drinking can lead to long term mental health disorders such as memory loss, increased anxiety and debilitating depression.
And no, these effects don’t only happen to “other people”. None of us are are immune.
Talitha Cummins’ story
Of course, Dry July doesn’t work for everyone as I learned from chatting with my unknowing alcohol accountability buddy, the amazing Talitha Cummins.
Before giving up alcohol for good, she too attempted Dry July many times, succumbing each time after only a few days. But she still believes it’s a powerful tool in helping people address the role alcohol plays in their life.
In Talitha’s case it wasn’t a healthy one. Talitha first started drinking when she was 14 to overcome her inherent shyness. The liquid courage made her confident and brazen, and soon she became the life of everyone’s party. Her own life though was on a path towards self-destruct.
By her early thirties Talitha was a high functioning alcoholic, juggling a very successful television career by day and binge drinking by night. At the peak of her addiction Talitha’s problem had become so severe she says it wasn’t unusual for her to drink four bottles of wine a night, often isolating alone to do so.
“I had become reliant on alcohol through a relatively stressful existence of long days and my anxiety about performance and being live on air. I’d come home and drink to calm that anxiety. It reached dangerous levels”, says Talitha.
Even when the wheels were starting to fall off her outwardly perfect life, Talitha did not want to the face the reality of her reliance on alcohol until her health deteriorated to the point where she was landing in hospital, blacking out, and missing work.
“I missed a whole weekend and my concerned chief of staff sat me down and asked if I was OK. Until then I’d thought I was holding it all together and having a normal work life”, she says. The idea of losing her career proved the catalyst she needed to change. “I knew then that it was the end of it or the end of me”.
Ending her relationship with alcohol was a multi-factorial medical process that included daily AA meetings, psychologists, exercise and meditation to help with her depression.
“Within the first few months I was sleeping better and had more energy. People noticed that I looked different as I’d lost five kilos and had my glow back. But I was still a big work in progress” says Talitha.
Today, ten years sober, happily married and a mum of two, Talitha says the greatest gift of sobriety has been clarity of mind. “I’m fit and I feel healthy. There’s no shame, no chaos, no dramatic nights. My life is regulated and more balanced. I don’t need alcohol to feel good. I feel better.”
For many women struggling with disordered drinking it can take many years to admit to having a problem as denial is one of the most insidious symptoms of alcoholism. Talitha’s bravery helped me recognise that alcohol was playing too big a role in my life and showed me where that could end up. Without reading her story and Dry July, I’ve no doubt that for me, one bottle would have become two. So, I thoroughly recommend that if you recognise even a little of yourself in her story, it might be time for you to take a break from the bottle too.
So, what are the benefits of giving up alcohol?
Besides a blissful absence of hangovers, there are myriad cumulative benefits of staying sober, but it can take time to feel like yourself again.
After 1 Month – Not only will a 31-day break from booze give you a sense of control over your relationship with alcohol, but urges, cravings and thoughts about and around alcohol will begin to reduce. There are also significant short-term improvements to health such as improved liver function, increased mental clarity, an increase in libido, lowered anxiety levels and better sleep. However, if you are a very heavy or disordered drinker, an abrupt stop can initially lead to shakes, insomnia, nausea, and anxiety, which are the debilitating side effects of alcohol withdrawal. If this could be you, it is advised to have a medically backed plan and appropriate support in place.
After 3 Months – Stick to the plan for three months and you should be enjoying even deeper, more restorative sleep. You’ll be bathing in compliments as your weight reduces (if alcohol has been a catalyst for weight gain) and about your skin, which by now should have changed from grey to glowing. There will be a bounce in your step from an increase in overall energy, not only from all that lovely sleep but because your liver will be doing cartwheels of happiness as it is finally allowed to focus on its raison d’être: metabolising fats and excess hormones and breaking down non-alcohol related toxins. Your mood will be further boosted by a release from alcohol related anxiety and depression. If blood pressure has been an issue, it should start stabilising around now, and your risk of developing cardiovascular disease is starting to lower.
After 6 Months – Congrats! You should by now be revelling in obvious physical and mental health improvements and enjoying a well-deserved sense of achievement at reaching 6-months alcohol-free. An unclouded mind and elevated self-esteem may see you focusing on healthier relationships and work, along with your overall wellbeing. In the background, amazing things are happening too. Your liver and heart are far healthier and your risk of developing several cancers has reduced. If you need any further encouragement than that to continue your sober journey, just imagine how fantastic you’ll feel in another 6 months.
When can I start?
The sobriety movement of the last few years and with it the introduction if alcohol-free bars and drinks has made the journey to an alcohol-free existence much easier to navigate, as it is normalising sobriety in a culture that has always celebrated drinking.
And, if you’re worried that it’s too late to join the dry July party, there’s always FebFast and Ocsober. But honestly, there is no reason you can’t enjoy an Alcohol-free August, Sober September or No-booze November, all of which I just made up. Seriously, you don’t need a calendar or a campaign to tell when you to abstain. Only you can do that.
This article provides general information only, and does not constitute health or medical advice. If you have any concerns regarding your health, seek immediate medical attention.
- Why women should take a break from the bottle: © DmytroZinkevych/Shutterstock