Sobriety and wellbeing coach Mandy Manners describes her story as a grey area drinker and how it resembles many other women who join Love Sober, a community interest company set up by women for women.

Are you in a toxic relationship with wine?

I was a mum, I was lonely, I was stressed, I was overwhelmed, and I was in a toxic relationship with wine.

What this looked like for me:

  • I made deals with myself about alcohol, not to drink in the week (which I would break by Wednesday and regret as I woke up at 4 am sweating, full of shame).
  • I loaded up on food as I was so anxious about how much I would drink.
  • I would try to match my drinks to others.
  • Socially I would drink to manage anxiety which. I would either manage not to drink too much when I was out and then wanted to drink when I got home ‘safe’. Or I would forget my rules by the third glass and then end up drunk and sometimes in a black-out.
  • I would plan my life around drinking it was part of when I felt happy, sad, with friends or on the sofa on my own.
  • I would post memes and photos of me with alcohol, I would always have a drink in my hand.
  • I would not eat cakes or carbs and ‘save’ my calories for wine
  • I felt like wine was my companion through my lonely nights as a new mum until I hated it in the middle of the night or felt utter shame for being hungover.
  • Like any toxic relationship, I kept trying to quit. But the wine-witch in my head kept promising it would be different this time, I would try to ‘moderate’ and then it would leave me wrecked yet again.
  • I felt like my life with alcohol was a game of chance.

What was a constant through was feelings of shame, regret and low self-esteem.

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The NHS guidelines on alcohol

The World Health Organisation (WHO) now states there are no safe levels of alcohol, but the guidelines on the NHS are as follows[1]:

To keep health risks from alcohol to a low level if you drink most weeks:

  • men and women are advised not to drink more than 14 units a week on a regular basis
  • spread your drinking over 3 or more days if you regularly drink as much as 14 units a week
  • if you want to cut down, try to have several drink-free days each week
  • fourteen units is equivalent to 6 pints of average-strength beer or 10 small glasses of low-strength wine.

When I read this back now. It is so unbelievably vague. I certainly rarely kept to this from the moment I started drinking around the age of 14. What is a low-strength wine? What is a small glass?

What is a grey-area drinker?

The term grey-area drinker describes those who identify as having a problematic relationship with alcohol, whose life has been 100% transformed by being alcohol-free and I am living proof of that. A grey-area drinker doesn’t identify the label of ‘alcoholic’ because essentially, we got out early on the alcohol use disorder scale before our lives were completely consumed by our drinking.

As we reference in our book Love Yourself Sober the WHO categorises alcohol use disorder as:

1. Hazardous drinking: People who drink above the recommended limits/units but are not yet experiencing harm.

2. Harmful use: People who drink above the recommended limits and experience harm, resulting in effects on their physical and mental health and social consequences. Patterns of use are also a factor: for example, binge drinking has a higher risk of immediate harm from injuries, violence, and loss of self-control.

3. Alcohol dependence: This is a cluster of behavioural, cognitive, and physiological phenomena that may develop after repeated alcohol use. Typically, these include a strong desire to consume alcohol, impaired control over its use, persistent drinking despite harmful consequences, a higher priority given to drinking than to other activities and obligations, increased alcohol tolerance, and a physical withdrawal reaction when alcohol use is discontinued.[2]

Alcohol Use Disorder

Alcohol Use Disorder is a spectrum, and many people are in this grey-area of harmful/hazardous drinking. Addiction is not black and white, no one wakes up one day and is ‘an addict’ that old binary model needs to be removed. It is progressive and it is ever-changing depending on many, many things. Labels are problematic and keep many people stuck. So how you see your drinking is all that really matters. The questions really are:  Am I happy in my relationship with alcohol? Do I want to make a change? Am I happier when I don’t drink at all? Do I have that information? For me, the answers were time and time again, no and yes, yes. It took up all my headspace trying to keep control over alcohol and the real freedom for me was when I removed it completely.

“If you feel the need to control your drinking, the drinking is already controlling you”.

I don’t know who said this, but it certainly rang true for me.

Why are we not talking about alcohol and mental health?

So why then do so many of us try to keep alcohol in our lives? Why is it so ingrained in us that it’s normal to drink and abnormal or shameful not to? Why when we are increasingly talking about ill mental health, are we leaving alcohol out of the conversation? When 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem of some kind each year in England[3]?and 50 percent of individuals with severe mental disorders are affected by substance abuse[4] It begs the question. How many people go undiagnosed and why isn’t this being talked about more?

When you start to investigate the strategies of marketing alcohol, it can be uncomfortable. As why we are where we are with alcohol in society is a lot to do with the skillful strategy of marketeers to drive sales. Yet knowledge is empowering and if you are secretly asking yourself ‘do I have a problem with alcohol?’ it can be a powerful tool to make sustainable change and find freedom from alcohol.

The first real insight I had into how alcohol is marketed to women was the fantastic book ‘Drink – The Intimate Relationship Between Women And Alcohol‘, by Ann Dowsett Johnston. Her personal story with depression resonated with me and I began to ask questions about why I put alcohol on a pedestal. What do I really know about alcohol and the female body? Why are we matching large glasses of strong wine to the weak lager pints of our friends in the name of equality? Why am I cheering with my girlfriends over Instagram that we survived another day of motherhood with a gin and tonic? And what is this substance really doing to my brain health?

Mummy marketing and alcohol

When I look back, I can track the unconscious messaging I received about alcohol and how my relationship with it was impacted by marketing messages right back to when I was a teenager. According to studies on gendered marketing by the Institute of Alcohol Studies. The marketing of alcohol to women really started in earnest in the 1990’s[5]. The alcohol industry saw a gap in the market and so this became their focus. It started with alcopops which was the rebranding of strong spirits to a young market and especially with young women in mind. That was followed by a push to bring wine into the home as a ‘continental’ drinking habit. Again, men were traditionally drinking in pubs and bars, so this enabled much more sales to those at home (in a large part, women).

Also, if you grew up in that era and into the new millennium you will remember that TV shows such as Sex in the City and Friends had alcohol brands as sponsors, advertising on tv included women drinking pints with the lads but also drinking as a young professional and that alcohol was integral in female friendship. As the early adopters of alcopops, two-for-one offers and happy hour binge drinkers grew up, alcohol was then marketed to them as aspirational and empowering, it was skillfully entwined with the shift of women in the workplace and ‘the female economic liberation’ of the 90’s.

The relationship between new mothers and alcohol

With the rise of social media marketeers found a new market, mothers. I find mummy alcohol marketing particularly cruel, as it is a time when women are susceptible to stress, ill mental-health (PND, Anxiety and Depression). New mums especially are fatigued and in need of support and alcohol has been marketed as a way to bond and connect with other mothers. To cope with the strain and stress of modern-day parenting and as a treat. We can see this in the rise of low-price sparkling wines such a Prosecco, the botanical gins how these products are branded. It’s sparkly, it’s pink even if it is strong alcohol. We can even see low-calorie or vegan alcoholic beverages on the market now aligning alcohol with health or as part of breast-cancer campaigns even though it is a cancerogenic. Still pushing the message that alcohol is an essential part of our lives.

Everywhere you look now there is mummy wine or gin mummy products. It’s on birthday cards, mugs and t-shirts what’s so scary is many of these make a joke out of using alcohol to cope with motherhood. The message ‘Motherhood: Powered by Love, Fuelled by Coffee, Sustained by Wine’ is everywhere. As a stressed-out burnout mum, I bought into those messages too, I thought it was funny until I tried to stop drinking and was really worried that I never would be able to.

Mental health and finding support

Bringing this into the mainstream isn’t about shaming mums about their drinking. It’s about asking better questions because there is a need there. Mums are drinking because… And what is that because? Rather than perpetuating these messages. Let’s ask better questions and support the pivotal role that carers have in our society.

What is it you need? What support have you got? How is your mental health? Have you had trauma in your life? Are you really ok?  Let’s be alcohol and marketing aware. For some people drinking alcohol isn’t a problem, but for a lot of people, secretly it is. If a friend of yours says they want to stop drinking support them. Don’t say – can’t you just drink less? Say – well done you, look after yourself.

If you are sober-curious and wondering about whether you would benefit from going alcohol-free – reach out, you’re not alone! If you want to stop drinking alcohol, that is the only justification you need. Just because it’s something we have always done, doesn’t mean it’s something we have to continue to do!

Article by Mandy Manners, addictive behaviours expert and co-author of Love Yourself Sober: A Self Care Guide to Alcohol-Free Living for Busy Mothers with Kate Baily

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References

[1] https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/alcohol-support/calculating-alcohol-units/
[2] Babor, T., 2001. AUDIT, The Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization, Dept. of Mental Health and Substance Dependence.
[3] https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/statistics-and-facts-about-mental-health/how-common-are-mental-health-problems/
[4] https://www.helpguide.org/articles/addictions/substance-abuse-and-mental-health.htm
[5] https://www.ias.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/rp39102019.pdf