Clare Bowie (43), a writer from Belfast, has never had a problem with alcohol, but recently felt she was suffering a few too many of the hangovers of her youth. Then she began to understand the concept of emotional drinking.
Here’s the thing: I enjoy drinking, I’m not remotely “sober curious”, I’m not a “problem drinker” and I don’t feel the need to be mindful about my mojitos. In actual fact, (if I had to put a label on it) I would say: I’m a non-exceeder of my recommended units lightweight. But recently, I’ve gone a bit rogue, travelled back in time 20 years and found myself doing things like throwing back the gins, breaking a heel on my shoe and deciding that instead of a taxi I would just amble on home. At 2am. Alone.
Why though? It’s no secret that alcohol use is linked to the part of our mind that monitors behaviour, our guard goes down and we sometimes act in ways that are out of character. But experts have also found that women use alcohol to express themselves in ways they feel unable to when they are stone cold sober — they are literally “bottling up” parts of themselves all week.
Of course, most of us associate alcohol with unwinding, letting go and temporarily forgetting the everyday stress factors which inevitably punctuate our lives. Yet when our drinking surpasses the fun level and becomes a very real source for numbing emotional pain on a regular basis we may have crossed over to what’s know as ‘emotional drinking’ where the desire to switch off for a few hours has been superseded by the desire to overwhelmingly disconnect from ourselves.
With three children at home, my nights out are usually based around having a meal with a few friends, enjoying a catch up and sharing a bottle of wine, all the while keeping a watchful eye on the clock to avoid the mad taxi dash at closing time.
So why had my attitude and alcohol consumption gone from mindful to mindless in a few short weeks?
I had my lightbulb moment when I woke up with what felt like a crashing headache for the third time in a matter of weeks and I remembered that I had walked home alone.
I finally realised that my subconscious had been silently screaming at me, telling me that I was having a bit of a meltdown but it had just taken me a while to hear it.
The strain of the extra responsibilities I had taken on during a family emergency (that I genuinely thought I was coping with) was clearly seeping out during my social life.
Looking after children and parents in typical sandwich generation style had meant that the filling was starting to seep out and unravel.
That explains why I had lost the run of myself, why I was drinking like a demented student when I thought I had been there, done that and fallen down the cellar 20 years ago. By simply taking the time to figure out and understand what was behind my behaviour I felt like I could make sense of it and get it back under control.
According to addiction hypnotherapist, Georgia Foster, who has just released a new book on the subject, a lot of us drink alcohol to subconsciously try to become the opposite of who we are.
Her five-step programme endeavours to train people to change “their thinking not their drinking” and tackles a range of concerns over alcohol. Foster’s ideology makes sense of why I was subconsciously acting in a carefree manner when my life was the exact opposite, full of extra responsibilities stacking up and involving young children and older parents — a situation that I thought I was dealing with.
The knowledge that I could minimise the damage by simply being aware of my own emotions before I had a drink was such a relief. It made me realise that the key to understanding my relationship with alcohol is to recognise that it is a relationship that has changed over time and that alcohol has meant different things in my life at different times, from pure carefree fun to an emotional sticking plaster, and occasionally, a method of numbing emotional stress.
Like a lot of people, alcohol was an inextricable part of life in my 20s, a social life without it was unthinkable and totally undesirable. The only person I was responsible for was me, and if I had a hangover I slept it off physically and shrugged it off mentally.
It actually surprised me when I was pregnant in my 30s and I realised that I was just as confident without alcohol because socialising and having fun has always been associated with having a drink.
It’s a societal norm, a prerequisite for any get-together; it’s always the very first thing we reach for when we meet up, whether it’s a night out, a meal or a party.
Looking back, I realise that I may have had a few very sore heads after the birth of my second child when responsibilities were mounting and nights out were so few and far between that it was hard to find the line between searching for a release and having one too many.
For me, I now recognise the value of mental reflection when things get tough and the importance of getting to the bottom of the problem, not the wine glass when life becomes a little overwhelming. Of course, for some people, their “rock bottom” looks a whole lot worse than a broken heel and alcohol use can be catastrophic.
Psychologist Stephen Joseph PhD explains that “advertisers might want us to believe that alcohol is fun, friendly and part of the good life. But let us be honest. The reality of drinking is far more sordid.”
This kind of thinking seems almost hyperbolic in a society where we are bombarded with messages full of levity about ‘prosecco time’ and ‘wine o’clock’ which undoubtedly minimise any suggestion that alcohol might be a depressant to mask emotions or an essential coping strategy.
Like anything in life we have to try to find the balance and recognise what works for us, not the herd.
Drink Less in Seven Days, by Georgia Foster, RedDoor Publishing Ltd, £10.98
Georgia Foster, a world-renowned hypnotherapist and author of the Drink Less in 7 days Programme’, identifies the main drinking categories that we fall into and the advice she gives to clients for “managing your alcohol, as opposed to letting it manage you”. Her programme focuses on learning “how to drink less alcohol, improve your self esteem and calm your mind and your life so that you can drink less in a more confident way”.
The key is to be able to identify the triggers for your drinking:
By recognising the trigger you can change your thinking rather than your drinking and slow it down by: