I am an accomplished woman – give me a drink!

The social understanding and acceptance of drinking in this group is at complete odds with what we perceive to be ‘problem drinking’.

Feature image for news commentary on problem drinking. Features a bottle of wine and too many used and unused glasses.
Problem drinking - a bottle of wine and too many glasses...

In Australia, drinking is part of our social norms, perhaps even our national identity, so few people would question a group of middle aged women drinking on a Friday, letting their hair down.

But while we often lament the binge drinking behaviour of young Australians , we rarely recognise it as a problem for older women. Most of us are hard working professionals, busy mothers, and determined artists who enjoy a glass or stubby too many while winding down after work. The social understanding and acceptance of drinking in this group is at complete odds with what we perceive to be ‘problem drinking’.

Dr Janice Withnall, an Australian researcher and expert in alcohol abuse in middle aged women, claims that “…greater numbers of women are drinking more alcohol in the 35 to 60-year age group… We have women retiring and drinking more and women over 65 taking up drinking. At any age, lesser amounts of alcohol for women becomes a need or a habit quicker than with men,”

Even though there are several well documented health risks (NCBI, 2017) of drinking alcohol, frequent news reports of ‘drunk mums’ (60 Minutes, 2018), evidence based research (Patterson, 2014), and the odd podcast (Yumi Stynes, 2017), many middle aged women don’t realise that they have a problem.
But a lot of us do.

According to Dr Janice Withnall, problem drinking emerges once the habit of drinking itself, has become a “developed habit to cope”. Adding that “Women who are drinking more alcohol don’t perceive the alcohol as a problem or that they have a problem it is other people’s fault they need to drink, the circumstances, their history … are the problem”.

For this reason, and many more, we have to recognise when it’s time to reach out and how to do it.

 

“Some of my friends will have a couple of glassesof wine most nights and tend to binge drink when socializing. I do notice many women of my age extremely intoxicated when out socializing.”

- Durga Imani.

 

Talking to a range of women about their drinking problems, yielded some interesting results. One issue, seven questions, and eight women here’s what they think.

 

Title slide of 'Problem drinking amongst middle aged women in Australia: What do they think?'
Survey scope slide of 'Problem drinking amongst middle aged women in Australia: What do they think?'
Disclaimer slide of 'Problem drinking amongst middle aged women in Australia: What do they think?'
Question one title slide: Question 1 - Do middle aged women in Australia have an alcohol problem?
Q1-A1: “Most women see drinking as ‘having a great time’ and ‘letting their hair down with friends’. They do not see their alcohol consumption as a problem — ‘here for a good time, not a long time’.” - Sandra Willcott
Q1-A2: “Some of my friends will have a couple of glassesof wine most nights and tend to binge drink when socializing. I do notice many women of my age extremely intoxicated when out socializing.” - Durga Imani
Q1-A3: “I think a minority of Australian middle aged women have a real problem that affects their day to day living. Although too many woman have a too liberal views of alcohol and drink far too much, it seems to be in ‘our’ culture to say no to alcohol at a gathering is often looked as abnormal.” - Ali Wittaker
Q1-A4.1: “I'm not sure that I can give a useful responseto this question. I’ve read some short newspaper and magazine stories on the issue, however, they  were fairly superficial and didn't offer any real detail on research done in this area. I was aware of a TV programme covering this issue, however, I didn't watch it...
Q1-A5.2: ...I’ve witnessed an excessive amount of alcohol  consumption amongst middle aged women during social situations on a number of occasions but notregularly, therefore, not enough to be able to say that middle aged women in Australia have an alcohol problem.” - Jenna Carlsson
Q1-A5: “Not in my circle of friends. I am awarethat loneliness and change of life-stages could cause increased consumption of alcohol inthis age bracket.” - Faiza Hadid
Q1-A6: “I think daily alcohol consumption is a very accepted behaviour in Australia. Middle aged women are no exception.” - Rose Hoffman
Q1-A7: “I believe the vast majority do have an alcohol problem.” - Blaire Bryant
Q1-A8: “Too broad a question to respond to. I would say some do and some don’t.” - Duri Singh
Question two title slide: How would you describe a middle aged woman with a drinking problem?
Q2-A1: “This sounds awful, but typically 2nd or 3rd generation Australian, in my circle affluent women, their children are not quite so dependent on them anymore. Most tend to be functioning and working well in their careers.” - Sandra Willcott
Q2-A2: “Someone whose consumption of alcohol is detrimental to their health, who doesn’t understand that their level of consumption is detrimental or hides their level of consumption from others, knowing that it is detrimental to their health. Unable to carry out normal daily activities.” - Durga Imani
Q2-A3: “Someone who can’t go to a party without drinkinga bit too much. Or someone who drinks at home by themselves during the day or at night. Could have a functional work life or not — but always someone is affected, a child or themselves.” - Ali Wittaker
Q2-A4: “I think someone that drinks daily or on most days of the week. Particularly someone that drinks to excess/binges on weekends on a regular basis.” - Jenna Carlsson
Q2-A5: “Someone drinking every day/night, needing alcohol to feel good, looking forward to a drink everyday and drinking too much.” - Faiza Hadid
Q2-A6: “A woman who feels that she needs a drinkin order to cope with daily life.” - Rose Hoffman
Q2-A7: “Someone who ‘uses’ alcohol to de-stress, relax, and sleep and who can’t have a meal or social chat without it including alcohol.” - Blaire Bryant
Q2-A8: “Someone who is unable to function responsibly or remember her words or actions.” - Duri Singh
Question three title slide: What factors should women consider when evaluating their own drinking habits?
Q3-A1: “Whether they can actually have a few alcohol free days without any consequence (withdrawal). They should consider the example they are setting for their own children, normalizing daily alcohol consumption and binge drinking if their children see them doing this frequently.” - Sandra Willcott
Q3-A2: “How much they are actually drinking? Do they know what a standard drink is? Are they aware of the government guidelines? Are they aware of the associated risk factors for their health? Are they aware of personal triggers for an overconsumption of alcohol?” - Durga Imani
Q3-A3: “Why do I drink? Could I have a social life or have fun without drinking? Do I drink to get happy or forget sorrows? How does my drinking affect my life, family, work, and friends.” - Ali Wittaker
Q3-A4: “Alcohol can greatly affect healthand increase risks.” - Jenna Carlsson
Q3-A5: “Can they stop drinking, do they need a drink with dinner or at lunch, when they do go out socialising? Can they have a good time without drinking alcohol?” - Faiza Hadid
Q3-A6: “Asking themselves — Can I go a day, week, month without a drink? Can I socialize without drinking? Do I need a drink to be able to relax? Do I need a drink to be able to get to sleep?” - Rose Hoffman
Q3-A7: “Do they think that they ‘need’ alcohol. Are they setting a poor example for their children? Are they multiplying their risk for health conditions?” - Blaire Bryant
Q3-A8: “Their responsibilities such as dependents, health, driving, work, environment, effect on others andanything else that they are responsible for.” - Duri Singh
Question four title slide: How can we move beyond the denial amongst middle aged women, when discussing their drinking habits?
Q4-A1: “Many women probably do not realize that they should be having alcohol free days, and that by having a couple of drinks every night is doing their body harm. Alcohol should always be seen as a drug.” - Sandra Willcott
Q4-A2: “Ask the question — why do you drink? Be prepared that they may react negatively and shut you out. Be non judgmental and listen to their story. Give example of what is too much versus normal drinking habits.” - Durga Imani
Q4-A3: “Difficult question. An educational advertising campaign?” - Ali Wittaker
Q4-A4: “Women need to be made aware of the risks of drinking too much. Cancer, brain disease, blood pressure, stroke, liver disease, and weight gain.” - Jenna Carlsson
Q4-A5: “Becoming aware, educating what is too much and the effect on the ageing body of alcohol consumption.” - Faiza Hadid
Q4-A6: “Have these women volunteered to discuss their drinking habits? If they are in denial, I’m thinking that something has happened to make them to reach out? To move beyond the denial, they would probably need professional counselling to get to the root cause of their drinking habits.” - Rose Hoffman
Q4-A7: “I don’t think women will accept it as a problem unless men do so the change has to be across our broader community for societal acknowledgment.” - Blaire Bryant
Q4-A8: “First, show the high functioning middle aged women a visual example of her actions when she has been drinking and is unaware that she is being recorded. Then, when she is sober, have her try to recall conversations and actions from when she was drinking.” - Duri Singh
Question five title slide: How can we help these at-risk women better evaluate their drinking behaviours and encourage them to take action?
Q5-A1: “Awareness of the harm it can do to [their] health — increase risk of accidents, injuries, sleep disturbance, and stress related problems. Awareness of safe drinking habits and standard drink recommendations.” - Sandra Willcott
Q5-A2: “Education is the key. Whenever alcohol is advertised it is always associated with celebrating, having a good time, and socializing with friends. Australian do not see alcohol as a deadly drug, it is so socially accepted, almost part of our culture.” - Durga Imani
Q5-A3: “The anti-smoking campaigns target their ads on people suffering from emphysema, cancer, and the impact on children and family life. Perhaps  demonstrating the effects alcohol can have on the body and the impact of having a parent who is an alcoholic and how this impacts on family life should be highlighted.” - Ali Wittaker
Q5-A4: “Recommend them discussing with their general practitioner (GP). Form a Facebook chat with women and open up for discussion! Listen — non-judgmental.” - Jenna Carlsson
Q5-A5: “Continue to educate women (like teenagers) on the danger of increased alcohol consumption through habit. Provide alternative distractions — support, lifestyle coaching, and exercise.” - Faiza Hadid
Q5-A6: “Encourage a healthy lifestyle — spending time outdoors, good nutrition, seeking support from friends and family, but again, it would be wonderful for them to have counselling and stress management guidance.” - Rose Hoffman
Q5-A7: “Education campaigns (media) and public health and GP programs.” - Blaire Bryant
Q5-A8: “Show visual examples of the effect excessive drinking can have on the factors mentioned in the response to question 3 (dependents, health, driving, work, environment, and others) that should be considered when drinking.” - Duri Singh
Question six title slide: How should we approach friends or family in this demographic, who we suspect may have a problem with their alcohol consumption?
Q6-A1: “They have to acknowledge they have a problem. Discuss the health risk they face. Can be in denial and have an addiction to alcohol. It is a difficult topic but talking to a close family member could be an option too.” - Sandra Willcott
Q6-A2: “So difficult for the untrained person to do this well. Perhaps a general conversation on the topic and see if the friend or family wanted to make the  conversation more personal.” - Durga Imani
Q6-A3: “GP’s are trusted health care professionals in our society, perhaps at every check up they should be asking the questions — how many alcoholic beverages are you consuming on any given day? Week?” - Ali Wittaker
Q6-A4: “Question and listen. Ask if they need help. Lead by example. Come with them to AA meetings etc.” - Jenna Carlsson
Q6-A5: “Educate about healthy food options, alternatives i.e. non-alcoholic drinks served. Offer companionship and women-only exercise groups, circles, friendship.” - Faiza Hadid
Q6-A6: “Simply by talking to them, listen to them,  and spending time with them.” - Rose Hoffman
Q6-A7: “Very delicate situation where the intervention may cause alienation and isolation. ?? No answer I can give.” - Blaire Bryant
Q6-A8: “Show concern and discuss it diplomatically with examples of their actions etc.” - Duri Singh
Question seven title slide: What would you like to see change in Australia's perception of responsible alcohol consumption?
Q7-A1: “Perhaps we should be educating society that [going] over the ‘limit’ will always be damaging your body and health. Clear labels on the back of any alcohol, the limit for women and men. Posters wherever alcohol is served of the repercussionof excess alcohol consumption.” - Sandra Willcott
Q7-A2: “Yes. Acknowledge the harm that can happen from excess alcohol consumption. What is safe drinking and standard drinks. Drinking is part of being social and there is pressure to drink to be accepted by some. It is ok not to drink and still have a good time.” - Durga Imani
Q7-A3: “A clearer understanding of the health implications of over consumption. A change in the cultural attitude that it’s a ‘rite of passage’ for teenagers to get drunk in social situations, that drinking (without the context of a meal or food) is a social past-time in itself. The association between sport and alcohol via the sponsorship of professional sport.” - Ali Wittaker
Q7-A4: “Make adults understand its not ok to buy alcohol to minors. Have fun without binge drinking.” - Jenna Carlsson
Q7-A5: “Advertise [that] it’s ok to socialise and have a good time without alcohol. I do believe that Responsible Service of Alcohol (RSA) is sufficient and observed in public places in Australia.” - Faiza Hadid
Q7-A6: “It would be fantastic if all kids events (social or sports) would be alcohol free zones. It starts there.” - Rose Hoffman
Q7-A7.1: “The European model of having a glass of red wine with a meal is acceptable to me. So is sharing champagne at a celebration. But drinking alcohol for the sake of drinking or as an actual activity (to enhance) at social gatherings should be discouraged as being a ‘normal weekend’...
Q7-A7.2: ...I think it is a sad part of our society but easy to be caught up in. It takes much more strength of character to say ‘no’ because it is considered normal.” - Blaire Bryant
Q7-A8: “Not sure how Australia perceives responsible alcohol consumption but it should be highly recommended and that it is not socially unacceptable to not drink.” - Duri Singh
Helpful resources slide for 'Problem drinking amongst middle aged women in Australia: What do they think?'
Q4-A6: “Have these women volunteered to discuss their drinking habits? If they are in denial, I’m thinking that something has happened to make them to reach out? To move beyond the denial, they would probably need professional counselling to get to the root cause of their drinking habits.” - Rose Hoffman
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Speaking with these women, you get the sense that something is wrong, and also a clearer picture of what could be done to help women if they reach out. Women such as Ali Wittaker, know what questions need to be asked

 

“Why do I drink? Could I have a social life or have fun without drinking? Do I drink to get happy or forget sorrows? How does my drinking affect my life, family, work, and friends?”

– Ali Wittaker

 

But as a wider community, we aren’t quite compelled to evaluate our behaviours seriously enough to change. Is this an added consequence to the taboo and perceived shame which surrounds both mental health and substance abuse in Australia? And despite the ‘high-functioning’ alcoholic being a well used social and media trope (Jess Harris, 2018), there seems to be a surprising lack of social and cultural intervention, or extensive clinical and governmental strategies to offer them any help.

If there is to be any change in the future, it seems that its time for women to shift the focus of the conversation ourselves, both in our own minds, and amongst friends. In hopes of de-stigmatising this issue, women across Australia need to begin thinking and communicating with each other in new and healthier ways.

To help you on your way to practicing better self care – here are a series of recommended tips and useful tools to manage your drinking. Some of these may seem easier said than done at first, so take it easy, try a couple at a time, or better yet, gather a group of friends or family to follow along with you.

 

1. Put self-care first; particularly, learn to say ‘no’.

2. Talk about feelings, mistakes and realistic expectations.

3. Develop new capabilities to work with others to meet agreed goals.

4. Share life honestly with others.

5. Enjoy wellness and knowing your worth and potential.

6. Have at least three days a week without alcohol.

7. Drink only with others.

8. Keep to the standard drink volume (100gm) quantity of 1, perhaps 2 drinks in one day.

9. Keep a diary note of when more than four drinks are consumed on one occasion, and consider what and why extra alcohol was consumed.

10. Be kind to yourself.

 

After spending several days talking to middle aged women, healthcare professionals, even my own mother, its clear that women want to have this conversation. And with the help of self care philosophies and inner peace, we need only look to each other to start making significant changes. It is so crucial for us all women to feel that we are able ask for help because, in my experience, we so very seldom do.

Its time we change the headlines from “I am an accomplished woman, give me a drink” to proudly say I am an accomplished woman – I deserve and need support”, instead.

 


If you or a loved one are exhibiting symptoms of problem drinking, please reach out to any of the following hotlines and support groups or get in touch with your GP.

Alcoholics Anonymous
Telephone: 1300 222 222
Book an online meeting
Find a local meeting

Lifeline
Telephone: 13 11 14
Crisis support chat

Beyondblue
Telephone: 1300 22 4636
Online chat helpline

Way Ahead
Mental health support line: 1300 794 991
Anxiety Disorders support line: 1300 794 992
(9:00 – 5:00pm, five days a week)

 

To find a local womens health centre, support groups, and/or general health services in Sydney, please take a look at the map below:

 

Support and womens health facilities – Google My Maps

A map of health centres and Alcoholics Anonymous meeting locations.

 


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REFERENCES

NCBI, J Rehm, GE Gmel Sr, G Gmel, et al. The relationship between different dimensions of alcohol use and the burden of disease—an update Addiction, 112 (2017), pp. 968-1001. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28220587, Last updated 2017, Accessed 8th June, 2018.

60 Minutes, Driven to drink, https://www.9now.com.au/60-minutes/2018/episode-12, Aired 6th May, 2018, Accessed 6th May, 2018

Tanya Patterson, Women to take control on binge drinkinghttps://www.westernsydney.edu.au/newscentre/news_centre/story_archive/2014/women_to_take_control_on_binge_drinking, Last updated 13th November, Accessed 10th June, 2018.

Yumi Stynes, Ladies, we need to talk: Anyone for a drink?, http://www.abc.net.au/radio/programs/ladies-we-need-to-talk/anyone-for-a-drink/8878908, Last updated 20th September, 2017, Accessed 6th May, 2018

Jess Harris, Wine, a bottle shared is a problem halvedhttps://www.facebook.com/WineWebSeriesJessHarris/, Last updated 26th April, Accessed 6th May, 2018

Johanna Aneman
About Johanna Aneman 4 Articles
Designer, writer, and independent projects maker. Current visual designer and lifestyle/womenswear editor-at-large for The Hounds. Current Masters of Publishing student at the University of Sydney.

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