Anyone who knows me can attest to how much I love a glass of wine (or three). I’m often the instigator of a ‘quick wine’ at the end of the work day, always the one cheerfully topping up glasses at a braai (mine first), and I’m rarely without a bottle of Chardonnay in the fridge. My love of wine has become a part of my character, which, up until recently, I didn’t think was a bad thing. After all, most of my girlfriends are just like me – and they don’t have a problem.
It’s a natural instinct for me to head straight to the fridge when I get home from work and pour myself a chilled glass, feeling the stress of the day melt away with the first sip (read: gulp). Wine was my salvation, my escape and – often – the only ‘me-time’ I had.
The adage ‘I love to cook with wine; sometimes I even add it to the food’ is just one of many fun sayings that normalise drinking, especially for women. But while my almost-a-bottle-a-night habit wasn’t affecting my work, family or social life, I knew it couldn’t possibly be healthy. At the same time as I was becoming more aware of my not-so-sober life, I kept happening upon articles about the rising number of Millennial women dependent on wine. And it’s not a pretty picture.
During my research, I discovered World Without Wine (WWW), a global network of support groups and recovery workshops, the South African arm of which is run by founder and sobriety advocate Janet Gourand. The first thing she tells me is that WWW is not like AA. ‘We are coming from a gentler place. We do not insist that people label themselves as alcoholics and we don’t believe that people must “surrender” their recovery to a “higher power”,’ says Janet. ‘While we recognise that AA has helped millions of people, the approach is now almost 100 years old, and we believe there are many alternative ways to get sober these days. We don’t insist that people quit drinking completely as we recognise that some people are able to self-moderate successfully, and for others a period of moderating and failing is an essential part of their journey. We believe that people are able to take responsibility for their own recovery once they have the tools and the mind shift that we create in our workshops,’ says Janet.
What it’s like to try a month of sobriety
I contacted Janet to attend one of her workshops, but preceded this by committing to a full month of sobriety. When I announced this to my close friends and colleagues there was a resounding chorus of ‘What?’, ‘Are you mad?’ and ‘Do you think you’ll cope? You’re very brave.’ But for some reason, unlike every other time I’ve considered going ‘dry’ (and failed), this time I wasn’t at all uncomfortable at the prospect – it just felt right. In a way, it’s like leaving a bad relationship – it doesn’t matter that you know the relationship isn’t good for you, or how many people advise you to leave, you just can’t break it off until you’re ready. And I guess that I was. My retort to these gasps was always the same ‘Well I haven’t really been sober since I was 16 – I need to give this a go.’ (Said in jest of course, but more truthful than I’d like.)
My dry month coincided with two of my best friends, who now live in Australia and England, visiting Cape Town. From the get-go I was upfront with them that I wouldn’t be drinking; though they both had no idea what was ‘wrong’ with me, they accepted it.
The first week was fine. I eagerly filled a wine glass to the brim with sparkling water and fresh lemon every night, and enjoyed not falling asleep on the couch after dinner, which is a regular occurrence thanks to a combination of stress, exhaustion and too much Chardonnay. I expected to wake up fresh and sprightly every day but this was not the case; I was still sluggish, exhausted and even a bit hazy. This is because the effects of a booze-free lifestyle are only really noticeable in week two, by which stage I was feeling more energetic, more productive and very chuffed with myself for making it that far.
Janet stresses that even though you may not think you have a problem, drinking alcohol regularly is still impacting your health. Alcohol is a toxin, after all.
What drinking is doing to your body
‘The “safe” drinking guidelines for women are one and a half bottles of wine a week (or 14 units), spread out through the week and interspersed with alcohol-free days,’ she says. ‘Drinking more than this on a regular basis can damage your health irreparably. Alcohol is stealthy, and addiction creeps up on you over the years.’
Dr Sherry A Ross, women’s health expert and author of She-ology: The Definitive Guide to Women’s Intimate Health. Period, concurs. In an article for Bustle.com, she says, ‘Alcohol is at the top of the list of what should be removed, or at the very least reduced, in our diets. Also, it should be removed for probably more than one month since it increases the risks of many chronic diseases. For instance, alcohol has a direct correlation to cancer. The more alcohol you consume, the greater your risk of certain cancers. Cancers of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, oesophagus, colon, rectum, liver, pancreas and female breast are all associated with alcohol consumption. We also know drinking alcohol increases your risk of heart disease, liver disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. A recent study showed that 70 to 80% of all chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, is caused by lifestyle. Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women, and we know women who drink moderate amounts of alcohol – two or more drinks a day – increase their chance of developing breast cancer by as much as 41%.’
Super-scary stats that make my wine o’clock ‘taking the edge off’ routine actually the complete opposite.
I’m no saint, though. I slipped up four times during the month: once for farewell drinks, another time at my sister-in-law’s birthday party and twice at home. I’ll be honest, I never felt that bad about these moments of weakness – I was too busy being proud of myself for having so many sober days behind me. The slip-ups were also different in that I never went overboard, which is unheard of for me, with my lack of an ‘off switch’, so to speak. I was enjoying drinking for pleasure again – the taste and aroma of the buttery Chardonnay – rather than out of habit. I was definitely experiencing a mind shift.
However, it wasn’t until I attended Janet’s workshop at the end of my sober month that I was really alerted to the debilitating affects of alcohol – and how conditioned we are to think that daily drinking is normal (and safe). Social media, marketing and the entertainment industry have normalised regular drinking, especially for women.
‘Listen, it is difficult to be a woman today,’ says Janet. ‘If we don’t drink then we are seen as “no fun”. We are expected to drink, but if we get drunk then that’s not cool either. The combination of social conditioning and marketing mean that, on a subliminal level, we absorb a set of false beliefs around alcohol. The wine industry has been hugely successful in targeting women to such an extent that women now believe that wine is an essential aid to relaxation – and that life is more fun if you drink excessively. Then we log into Facebook and are bombarded with funny memes that reinforce these false beliefs – like “the most expensive part of having kids is all the wine you have to drink.” The reality is that alcohol is actually a depressant and that drinking more than one and a half bottles of wine a week can seriously endanger your mental and physical health. However, it’s tough to go against the crowd; if we peel off from the pack we make ourselves vulnerable, right?’
Oh yes. I’m used to being ridiculed about my life choices (I’m vegan) but there was a fair amount of bashing during my sober month that I hadn’t expected. Instead of being supportive, many of my friends thought I’d lost my mind and ‘hoped I hadn’t been indoctrinated’. I endured a fair few mocking and uncomfortable conversations about my decision, but I think this only strengthened my resolve. Attending events or outings where I remained sober while everyone else got steadily more ‘happy’ (read: rowdy, loud, wobbly) was a bit of an eye-opener for me.
Now, I don’t want to become all preachy – and full disclosure, I haven’t given up alcohol completely; despite thinking I’d commit to being 100% dry directly after the workshop, I’m currently moderating – but by becoming aware of what I’m really doing to my body when I drink (and why I’m drinking in the first place) has been an invaluable life lesson.
‘I think it started with Bridget Jones,’ continues Janet. ‘She made it okay (and funny) to get trashed and stagger to work with an obvious hangover the next day. I also think many young women struggle to find the right partner and get into the habit of “self medicating” to deal with loneliness. I also see a growing number of professional women drinking at dangerous levels in order to keep up with men, even to “further their careers”. They are expected to put in a long day as well as build and maintain an extensive network after hours. It’s part of a fundamental social revolution, which is still unfolding. After a day of meeting deadlines they race home to an evening of cooking and housework. The first thing they do is to kick off those high heels and open a bottle of wine to smooth the transition from executive to loving mom. Preparing the dinner as they sip that first glass of wine is a modern ritual. Nobody thinks twice about it.’
Janet promised all of us who attended her workshop that upon completing it, no matter what happened (whether we chose to moderate or give up completely), we’d never view alcohol the same way again. And she was right.
World Without Wine’s practical steps for how to cut down or stop drinking:
- Be aware of the ‘safe’ limit: 14 units (that’s one and a half bottles of wine) per week.
- Keep a drinking diary to log the amount you are drinking.
- Make sure that not all the fun activities in your life revolve around drinking – find exercise you enjoy, see friends for brunch or coffee, and go to the movies.
- Try to ‘play the movie forward’. If it’s an alcohol-free day and you’re tempted to have ‘just one glass’, then realistically assess the outcome of this and realise that it’s unlikely to be just the one and that you’re going to feel disappointed in yourself the next day.
- Make a list of all the benefits you will experience if you cut down – having more money, losing weight, being in better health and so on. Keep that list handy and re-read it if you feel tempted.
- If you keep trying to moderate but continuously fail, then the reality may be that you do not have an ‘off switch’ and you may have to stop drinking completely. Many people find that stopping completely is surprisingly much easier than trying to moderate such an addictive substance.
The post I didn’t think I had a wine problem until I stopped drinking for a month appeared first on Marie Claire – South Africa.
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