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What Women Want is Relief

December 18, 2023

Alcohol consumption tends to be high at this time of year, as we socialise more, have more stress around finances and family, and are eager to wind down from our busy year. However, drinking may become a problem for some as alcohol is seen as a way to get relief from ongoing life stress.

After hauling your Christmas decorations out from storage, wiping back sweat, did you soon after pour a glass of wine – just to take the edge off?

You would not be alone. And for women, those pre and post-Christmas drinks are often being swung back not so much in cheer, but in exhaustion – as they seek energy and relief to get through the Christmas shopping, present wrapping, feast making, family organising, holiday planning and budgeting. All on top of the usual work and home responsibilities!

Christmas often falls to women to deliver. In many households, they organise the seasonal rollout while everyone else around them slips into holiday mode. And for those becoming overwhelmed by the stress of the season, the way to cope may be to have a few drinks, and then some more.

Drug ARM’s Brisbane North clinician could feel Christmas coming as her calendar filled up with people seeking support, many for increased use of alcohol, and women were among them.

In fact, in the past year, almost a quarter (24.26%) of all the women who came to Drug ARM for support across all our Queensland adult, day or corrections programs, sought support for alcohol as their main drug of concern. Our male clients were the same – a quarter of those coming to us for support were doing so for alcohol.

Alcohol continues to be a problem.

“It’s the relief they get from it (alcohol) – that’s what they’re in love with, not the alcohol itself,” Drug ARM’s Brisbane North clinician said. “Knowing that alcohol numbs you, consciously or not, they look for that numbing and then ultimately seek more and more as tolerance grows and the initial one or two drinks are simply not enough, the relief is no longer as great.”

So where does the line slide from needing a few drinks to wind down and cope, which is seen as culturally acceptable, to it becoming a health and safety issue and then stigmatised as an act of shame and guilt?

Signs that drinking may be a more serious problem can be seen in many ways as it often leads to other life problems. A drink driving charge. A relationship break-up. Problems at work. A family row. An accident. A major health issue.

For women it can be any of those things, though often, for mothers, it is the risk that their drinking poses to their children that brings on the crisis and the need for change and support.

For *Anna, one of our past clients, it was the love of her kids and the fear she could lose them, along with ailing health, which finally prompted her to reach out to Drug ARM.

Like many women, Anna didn’t set out to have a problem with alcohol. Looking back, she sees it was a combination of a failing marriage, moving to an outback mining town where she felt isolated, starting a family without much support and work-related stress from running a business and living on a farm.

What started out as a few drinks at the end of a long day turned into drinking more and more, earlier and earlier. At her worst, she was drinking heavily each day, sometimes three to four bottles in a single session.

How did she get there?

She said her drinking had worsened after she finished breastfeeding her youngest child and had been diagnosed with postnatal psychosis. Anna recalls it was a time when she could hardly function.

“The medication I was on was putting on weight. I couldn’t do anything, couldn’t run the farm. I just kept drinking. I was miserable,” she said.

The young family moved to another rural town, another farm, but the marriage disintegrated further. Two years later, Anna finally walked away from her husband, emotionally drained, angry and with little self-worth.

Not in a well place, she started pushing everyone who was close to her away, and looked to numb herself with alcohol.

“Instead of after dinner, I would start drinking at 5pm. It was after the kids were home from school as I had to drive to get them. After that I’d hit it hard. Then it got earlier… I’d start at 4pm.”

She said it wasn’t until her GP pulled her up on her drinking and the effect it was having on her health, in particular her liver and stomach, that she made the call to Drug ARM.

“It wasn’t much of a choice. The doctor said you have to do something or you’re going to lose your kids. Well, the kids needed me and I couldn’t lose them, so I did it.”

Anna completed 12-weeks of alcohol and other drug counselling with a clinical worker at Drug ARM.

“We brought it down slowly – it wasn’t a cold turkey quit. My mental health got better. I got a job and was working again. I was in a better frame of mind and was able to overcome it.”

That was a few years ago. Now, Anna says she still drinks occasionally but she is much more cautious around it, choosing her times when to indulge. Her drinking now relates to a want rather than a need.

Anna summed up her problem with alcohol as a “a slow spiral out of control after more than 20 years of misery, of feeling no good and being told you’re no good.”

A Drug ARM clinician said women who had problems with alcohol tended to be very hard on themselves and often needed support around taking responsibility for their drinking and not seeing themselves as a bad person or bad parent.

“Women tend to be more savage with themselves. Their focus is on their roles – the role of mother, grandmother, sister, daughter, partner etc. They need to see themselves as a woman first before their role,” she said.

“A lot of the time they start with that winddown wine after dinner which turns into two… or three …then it’s a bottle.

“They don’t often ask themselves why they are drinking until there is a major life problem or issue. And they can get in too deep to realise the risk to their child.”

Yet not all women of all ages are turning to alcohol.

While most of the women who engaged with Drug ARM in the past year were aged between 26 and 35 (38.6% of them), only 15% of these women in this age group named alcohol as their primary drug of concern.

It is the middle-aged women who are mostly seeking support for alcohol. Around half of the women we saw aged 46 to 65 years, named alcohol as their key concern.

What we are observing is that young women, aged in their teens and early 20s, if they are binge drinking, they are now doing it at the same risky levels as male drinkers. Studies have supported this converging alcohol use between men and women. Though across the board, young people are drinking less than people of the same age a decade ago (National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2019).

Women aged in their 20s and early 30s, tend to be starting a family, getting a mortgage and have the stress of trying to balance work and home responsibilities. These women may look to alcohol, that glass of wine at the end of the day, to cope with these stresses. We now know a lot more about the risks to the unborn child if a mother drinks alcohol while planning for or during pregnancy. The expert advice is not to drink any alcohol during this time (NOFASD Australia).

Into their late 30s and 40s, women are still juggling multiple responsibilities at work and at home, including managing their children through education. They are also becoming preoccupied with how they look and how they are aging.

More issues around child safety and domestic violence can appear among this age group. Women in need of domestic violence support can get in contact with DVConnect .

We are now seeing more women in their 50s drinking. They may have problems associated with older teenaged children and aging parents, feel a lack of purpose, or be lonely if single, and marriages may come under review as children become less dependent.

We find that elderly women are drinking, in part, to cope with loneliness and boredom. They may drink if they feel inadequate, uncared for and not needed. They are fine when families and grandchildren visit but in between those visits, they can be devastatingly lonely. They may also be starting to have cognitive issues, which drinking alcohol only aggravates.

Drinking at problematic levels occurs regardless of socio-economic background.

“We see the successful career woman, on high pay in highly responsible jobs, running companies – yet drinking a litre of wine per night,” our clinician said. “They still get up and do everything and slide under the radar for a long time because they are high functioning and society tells them they’re okay. They suffer because they function… though eventually they make mistakes.

“A substance use issue will always show in the end, one way or the other, whether through physical or mental health, or both. It also shows through such issues as the loss of a job, partner, family, home, or disruption and a lack of harmony in these areas.”

“While we are familiar with men becoming aggressive on alcohol, we are not really talking about women and how vicious they can become when intoxicated. They can get very manipulative, abusive, conniving and coercive, and can actually be very cruel.”

She said it was often the case that people didn’t reach out for support at Drug ARM until many layers of issues and problems had piled up, and too often they were no longer functioning well in many areas of their life.

“But it’s never too late to turn it around. At the end of the day, it comes down to our relationship with drinking and why we reach for it. Understand that and you are long way to letting the alcohol go.”

If you would like to get help from Drug ARM call our Intake Service on 07 3620 8800. If you would like to help women like Anna, consider how you can Get Involved.

*Anna, not client’s real name. Changed for privacy reasons. Stock images used.

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