Last Woman Drinking

Last week, I was interviewed by Be Sober‘s Simon Chapple about my relationship with alcohol, and how I managed the transition to a sober life. I talk about how writing my memoir made me realise that drinking had had a huge impact on my life from the time I started in my twenties until my early fifties, when I gave up. Many of my (bad) decisions and behaviours had taken place under the influence of alcohol, including asking the wrong man to marry me. You can hear me talk about my story below, and of course, read the book here (leave a review!).

I also wrote a blog post for Simon, which I’ll share here. For me, it’s all about awareness and choice – if you’re aware of the realities of drinking, you can make an informed choice as to whether to do it or not.

Last Woman Drinking

I knew that I’d hit rock bottom when the young designer next to me in my bed was on the phone to his very understanding girlfriend, reassuring her that he was ok, and that nothing had happened. “We have a very honest and open relationship,” he said, looking at me shyly.

I’d got him so drunk at some work drinks that he hadn’t been able to get home. We’d both slept next to each other, fully clothed, and now it was time to face the harsh light of day. And the fact that I was his boss…

As a senior manager in a publishing house a few years ago, I organised a weekly ‘Prosecco Hour’ every Friday at 4pm. I’d say it was ‘for the staff’, but now I realise it was also for something else: it was a way of enabling and validating my own drinking by having everyone around me join in.

The publishing world is made of prosecco hours; they’re everywhere, from book launches to book fairs. We’d whip out a bottle with the merest whiff of something to celebrate, even if it was just the end of a stressful day. But over time, I noticed that the numbers joining in had dwindled, and they were more likely to be peers my own age gathering around the fizz while other younger team members backed away politely, saying they needed to get to their yoga class. I couldn’t understand why they’d prefer that over booze and I scoffed at their lack of party spirit.

I’d got a name for myself. “Lisa likes a drink,” I’d hear people say. I’d laugh with them about my inability to ‘just have one’ – everyone knew I’d drink one bottle, not one glass. I didn’t know I had a problem. It was what everyone was doing, wasn’t it?

Writing my memoir, Cheat Play Live, made me examine where my drinking began. I knew it had started in the nineties with my entry into publishing and ladette culture. We all drank Stella with the boys and fancied ourselves as Bridget Jones, Ally McBeal or the girls in Sex and the City. I drank as a reward for triumphs at work and as a commiseration for the stress. But I was also using alcohol to numb the grief of losing my father as a child and to cope with my mother’s dementia.

As the decades passed, I started drinking on my own in bars. My feminist self justified it as a woman exercising her independence and freedom, but really it was further validating my habit. My drinking gathered pace over time, until it reshaped itself into something I could cope with: bingeing.

Before I stopped drinking almost three years ago, my life was largely constructed around alcohol. I was successfully managing my career, and my drinking. I was trapped in a binge-recovery cycle that I told myself was ‘cutting back’. I’d restrict my drinking to three nights per week and felt smug about my nights off. In reality, I needed those days in between to recover from the bottle of prosecco (or two) that I was consuming on the other nights.

Leading UK alcohol charity, Alcohol Change UK, states: “…a generation who drank heavily in the 1990s and 2000s is bringing those habits into middle age, with potentially serious consequences for their long-term health.”

I spoke to Lucy Holmes, the charity’s Director of Research and Policy who said, “Many women drink half a bottle of wine per night, not realising that it represents a third of their weekly recommended intake. They are unaware of the health risks and the links between alcohol consumption and cancer, stroke, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.”

I am proud of the fact that I’ve never smoked, having lost my dad to cancer (he was a heavy smoker). I was ten years old when he died and I swore I’d never touch a cigarette, even though everyone around me was doing it. As it was, I also managed to avoid alcohol until I was in my early twenties – and if I’d been told that drinking alcohol was equally harmful, I never would have started. But of course, we know that the alcohol industry is worth £10bn to the government – they’re never going to highlight its harms in any meaningful way, even if £3.5bn of that income has to be spent on managing alcohol’s damage to our health.

Being made aware of potential physical harm has a huge effect on our smoking and drinking habits. The increase in non-drinking among millennials and Generation Z is largely attributed to their awareness of alcohol’s harmful effects (as well as its cost). Similarly, many women my age are proud of giving up smoking because they see it as a greater harm, having swallowed health campaigns such as the British Lung Foundation’s Stoptober. Like me, they’ve also seen the effects of smoking on their ageing parents. A friend of mine, Cheryl, 51, a press officer living in Brighton, admits, “I don’t worry about my drinking,” she said, “it’s the late nights and the cigarettes I smoke when I am drunk that I worry about.”

Public Health England found that high-risk drinking increased from 16% in 2019 to 19% in 2020, most of which was driven by women during lockdown, specifically those between 35 and 54 years old. (High-risk drinking is anything above the recommended limit of 14 units, equating to one and a half bottles of wine, six pints of beer or seven double gin and tonics, or anything above 5 days per month of binge-drinking.) Women my age used alcohol as a way of coping with the increased stress around working and schooling from home during lockdown.

I relied on zero-alcohol prosecco to see me through, even though I did spend some time staring at the shelves of the real stuff. It’s the most I’ve been tempted since I gave up – I wanted to break up the day, numb the boredom and anxiety, and celebrate when it was all (apparently) over. On ‘Freedom Day’, I watched two women taking a bottle of prosecco and two glasses down to the beach and I so wanted to join them. But I didn’t.

The UCL report showed that while the numbers of women drinking during lockdown increased, the numbers of those trying to give up also showed an upward curve. I know that among my friends, their increased lockdown drinking scared them a little into cutting down. Candice, 42, single mother and a senior lecturer in sport and fitness in Hampshire, worked from home and homeschooled her 13-year-old daughter during the pandemic. She drank gin and tonic every night as her life became more stressful. “I use alcohol as a reward or something to help me unwind, and during lockdown,” she told me. “It was something I used to break the day into evening. That kind of habit forms very easily and after lockdown I decided to cut back for the sake of my health.”

Since the pandemic, Candice has reduced her drinking to two to three nights a week: “I now consciously have nights off alcohol, drinking a cup of tea or a hot chocolate instead. I try to only drink at weekends and I’m happy with that. All my friends have done a similar thing.”

A number of celebrities who were heavy drinkers in the 1990s and 2000s have recently embraced the sober life. Kate Moss, 47, has been alcohol-free since 2018 and Zoe Ball, icon of ladette culture, quit in 2016. More recently, Susannah Constantine, 59, spoke about her own alcohol dependency: “The truth was, not only was I dependent on alcohol, I enjoyed life better when I was drinking. Until I didn’t… Drinking had ceased to be fun. I had ceased to be fun. I was no longer in control of my drinking; it was controlling me.”

I had a very similar epiphany to Susannah. My own sober journey started nearly three years ago with therapy, yoga and reading ‘quit lit’ such as This Naked Mind by Annie Grace – the sober bible for so many people. Drinking alcohol had stopped making me feel good and I’d begun to question why I was ordering the first drink, never mind the second. The only part that was every truly good was the anticipation of it and that first sip. Drinking started to feel increasingly disappointing after that point and I did and said a lot of things I now regret while under its influence.

Reading This Naked Mind and William Porter’s Alcohol Explained revealed that what I was drinking was literally a poison – a toxic depressant – and it made me give up for good. But this was a message I was opening to hearing at a particular time of my life. When I’ve told friends who are still drinking that they are putting flavoured ethanol into their bodies they just look at me blankly. But is the message slowly seeping in?

Some of my friends gave up drinking at the same time as me (literally the same day I told them), seemingly relieved to being given social permission to do so. Others have read my blog and my book and felt they could give it a try too. My friend, Cheryl, who recently fell down some steps on her way home at 3am and knocked herself out, said, “It made me question why I can’t just have the one and head home. When I’m dancing away in a club I feel great, but the next day, I feel dreadful and a bit of an idiot. If my friends all slowed down then I probably would too – I don’t want to be the last woman drinking.”

Since becoming sober, my life has completely changed. I’m more likely to stay in, because I’ve realised how much of my going out was tied to drinking. I’ve reclaimed mornings and now use them as my ‘evenings’, where I walk, meet friends for coffee and muse on the day ahead before I start work. At 54, I look younger, have a clear, (mostly) anxiety-free head, and I’m more able to cope with menopause symptoms which are known to be worsened by drinking.

But that, my friends, is a subject for another book…

Cheat Play Live by Lisa Edwards is out now (Redwood Tree Publishing, £4.99 (ebook), £6.99 (paperback). Buy the book, read reviews and listen to more interviews here.

My Naked Mind

I wasn’t intending to give up drinking alcohol forever, but somehow that’s what happened. And this is Day 50 as alcohol-free Lisa.

Day 50.

I am almost annoyed that I haven’t said goodbye properly, or had one last blast – although I did, on the last day of my Christmas holiday in Goa. I just didn’t realise it at the time.

Like many people my age, especially women who came of drinking age in the ‘90s ladette culture, I’ve been toying with the idea of cutting down or stopping drinking for a while. Last year I joined online forums where people discussed it and I paid particular attention to feature articles talking about it – so much so that algorithms started supplying me with more and more to read.

At first I congratulated myself for increasing my non-drinking days to three, four and eventually five days a week. I even got to eight days at one point. I’d go out once or twice a week and know that I was going to blast through a bottle of prosecco. I couldn’t seem to stop at one or two glasses – I had to keep going. I was a binge-drinker. I admitted that to myself at least.

But I excused myself too. I watched the Adrian Chiles drinking documentary on the BBC, and thought, “at least I don’t drink that much”. I’d started tracking my drinking on an app and being truthful about it. With my one or two days per week drinking I wasn’t exactly a raging alcoholic, but I was at least double the recommended 14 units per week for women (Chiles was well over 100 even when he’d cut down). I kept coming in at ‘increasing risk’ on the health-monitoring part of the app but I so wanted to achieve ‘low risk’ status.

By the time I went on holiday to Goa at Christmas, I knew I didn’t want to spend every day waiting for cocktail hour (which I’d done the year before). I was mildly ill for two days which meant I couldn’t drink, and decided I’d stick with it to see if it suited me. It did. I was going to bed early and getting up early to play with the dogs on the beach and go to yoga classes. I liked the way I felt in the morning. I wasn’t annoyed and anxious. I was smiling and friendly. People smiled back a lot.

On a few nights I had a couple of cocktails and regretted it as soon as the second drink touched my lips. It just didn’t seem to contain the same joy it once had. And it spoiled my beautiful mornings. I went back to drinking nothing. Then came the last night at my favourite bar and I went for it. “I’m on holiday!” I thought. I spent two days after the flight recovering.

Then a chance meeting changed everything. A woman I’d just been introduced to told me she was trying to cut down on her drinking. “Me too!” I exclaimed. She immediately recommended a book she was reading – This Naked Mind by Annie Grace. “I don’t want to stop completely,” she said. “Oh me neither,” I replied. “Just cut down a bit.”

But, dear reader, I stopped as soon as I started reading the book. It was instant. No looking back. Seriously – this book should come with a warning sticker. It promises to resolve any cognitive dissonance you may have around drinking – your conscious brain telling you you don’t want to drink and your subconscious telling you you want a drink very badly. In summary, it works by telling you the science behind your cravings and what alcohol actually is and what it’s doing to your body. Now I know what I know, I can’t go back. It’s very weird – I seem to have known all along that alcohol is a highly addictive drug, but I also didn’t. I also seem to have known it was toxic, because your body rejects it and hangovers happen – but I also didn’t know. When I was on holiday in Goa I read an article that described alcohol as a ‘toxic depressant’. Those words really struck a chord with me, even to the point that later that evening at the bar, I ordered “a glass of your best toxic depressant, please!” in my head.

But it is. It was a depressant for me. I didn’t know that it was the alcohol that caused it. I thought drinking helped feelings of anxiety and worry but in fact it created them and then pretended to resolve them. I didn’t know that the happiness I felt when I picked up that first sparkling glass of prosecco wasn’t the effect of the alcohol – it was the impending satisfaction of a deep craving. A craving that had got worse and worse as the years went on and the addiction grew. There is a reason why people around my age are struggling with their drinking – it’s because we’ve built this addiction up over decades. Although never tipping into full alcoholism as some do, it started to become something we needed and depended on. Anyone who opts out is eyed with deep suspicion. “I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t drink,” we’d say. I said that. I said it last year. I’m horrified at myself now I know what I know. I wish I’d never touched a drop because I never needed it.

Well, my body never needed it but the pain in my heart did. I now know that I drank to self-medicate – to numb the pain of existence. I can almost trace the journey back to that moment in the ’90s when my mum was on a downward trajectory with dementia and I’d already lost my dad. I couldn’t wait to get home to the wine in my fridge each night. I didn’t connect the two things until now.

Once the pain had been dealt with during therapy last year, the reason to anaesthetise disappeared. I knew I didn’t need to do it any more. The book simply gave me more ammunition – it confirmed what I’d subconsciously known all along. Alcohol is not good for me. It’s not good for anyone.

What’s crazy is that I’ve always prided myself on opting out of substances that are harmful to me, even if they’re socially condoned. I’ve never smoked, I’ve never taken drugs apart from one puff on a special cigarette, and I don’t take the pill because it makes me suicidal and not ‘the natural me’.

Turns out I was never the natural me under the influence of alcohol either. It takes ten days to fully leave your system. Ten whole days. Which means, in reality, it never really left. I can’t believe I’ve been in the grip of this addictive poison for over twenty-five years, ‘enjoying’ something that is hugely carcinogenic whilst simultaneously feeling smug that I’m not a smoker.

In sobriety, I’ve rediscovered someone I used to be years ago. I remember this clear-headedness and this ability to smile at people and not feel annoyed about everything. It feels as though I’ve gone from a pixelated screen existence to hi-definition. This is me at around 25, almost 27 years ago. I could cry when I think of all that time wasted.

I can’t say I regret everything I’ve done after having a drink – some of my best friendships have been forged in the pub and some of my best lovers have been met at pubs, clubs and parties. I have done bad things as a result of drinking, like proposing to a man that didn’t love me, but also things I’ll never regret.

But now, at this stage in my life, my relationship with alcohol is over. We had good times, we had bad times, but we’re done. In the first few weeks it did feel like a mourning period, looking back on those sparkling moments through rose-tinted glasses (which I now know is a thing called Fading Affect Bias or FAB).

There is also a thing recovering people call the Pink Cloud. In the early alcohol-free days your body and brain are rejoicing in their new-found liberty and they make you think it’s all going to be easy. It’s wonderfully euphoric and it doesn’t last. I know I have some testing times to come but I know I won’t cave in. I know I can now go to gigs on my own without booze, can be on holiday without booze and go to bars with my friends without booze. And all of those times are still fun. More fun, even, because I’m not trying to stay to the end, or go on to another bar or have a seconds night out when my friends go home. I go home to my bed and sleep.

In my first month I read voraciously – apparently it’s a thing, this obsessive reading about sobriety in the early days and weeks. After This Naked Mind, I moved on to Alcohol Explained by William Porter, The Sober Diaries by Clare Pooley and then The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober by Catherine Gray. Where Annie and William both gave me the science behind what I’d been doing to my body, Clare and Catherine put it into context. As women from media backgrounds, they’d both fallen prey to the ever-present alcohol. Their journey had been speedier than most as a result and their recoveries nothing short of epic. They reminded me of extreme versions of me and my friends and helped put everything I’d learned into a relatable context. My voracious reading is not unlike every other sober person I’ve encountered in a forum, including the order in which I read those particular books.

That initial frenzy of content imbibing has now slowed and I don’t need to read other people’s stories any more, but I know they’re there if I need to go back (I read This Naked Mind twice).

The reaction from my friends has been interesting – a couple of them stopped drinking as soon as they heard my news. Some reacted by immediately telling me how I was different to them – they didn’t drink that much, they could handle it, they like the taste, they could never give it up. One thing I’ve learned is that this is a deeply personal journey but one that does touch other people if you dare to share. I read in one forum that people are just waiting for permission to stop drinking, because the social rules are so strongly weighted towards it. If you mention you’ve stopped, pretty much everyone tells you what their relationship is to drink straightaway. They know it’s a problem.
I have always prided myself on acting on choices – to not have children, to not stay in a loveless marriage, to remove toxic people from my life. Just because everyone else is doing something doesn’t mean you have to. The social pressure to join in drinking is perhaps the greatest pressure we experience in the west, along with to get married and have babies, to get a good job and a mortgage. Opting out is hard, which means we often keep it a secret. On my 50th day of sobriety I have decided to share my story – I don’t do secrets. (Well, maybe just a few, but usually to protect other people.) I’ll see you at the bar because I’m still going to be there. But I promise I won’t be making you stay until the end.