With the sober and ‘sober curious’ movements gathering pace across the globe, conversations around alcohol are undergoing something of a renaissance. A groundswell of alcohol-free alternatives, and pushback against sobriety as a negative label, is in-step with new counselling methodologies around how we perceive alcohol and alcohol-free living.
Like many women, reflecting on a decades-long relationship with alcohol and with her own children approaching the age when she took her first drink, Emma Gilmour of Hope Rising Coaching began looking at her life through a different lens.
“I remember I was perched on the edge of my 11-year-old’s bed, glass of wine in hand, when they asked me to leave the drink outside. It hit me – my child didn’t feel safe around my drinking.
“I wasn’t drunk – although I might well have been later – but just having a drink in my hand meant they didn’t feel that I was in control, and that made them anxious.
Perimenopause meets puberty
“I’m perimenopausal, my children are on the brink of ‘teenagedom’, so I was welcoming in a new era of independence. With plenty of wine.
“But in reality, my children needed me more then (and now) than they have ever done. They needed a mum who can truly listen and respond rather than reacting – a mum who is as present as possible. A mum who is capable of helping them when they make their own mistakes – not a mum who isn’t fit to get behind the wheel of a car.
“Instead, at that really crazy time in their life, of hormones and navigating relationships and everything else, I realised I wasn’t actually present in the way they needed me to be.
“Honestly, I’d fallen in bushes, ended up in hospital, and passed out in the back of taxis. But it was that small moment that actually landed with me.
“Alcohol makes kids feel insecure. I didn’t realise that. I had done so much work on myself – I was determined to be present for them and role model a healthy life in every regard. But because of that glass, they didn’t feel that I was. They felt anxious and didn’t want it in the room.”
Started drinking at 13
Originally from England, Emma grew up in Africa with parents who drank, but “no more than any of their friends did”.
“My grandparents, on the other hand, would start the day with a Gin and Cinzano. So, I started drinking when I was 13, maybe even younger. I think a lot of parents in our generation thought, ‘if we let them drink with us then they’ll be used to alcohol and better able to manage themselves’. Yet I am living proof that that approach doesn’t work!”
Pursuing a career in corporate marketing, Emma made the move to London – putting paid to any notion of ‘moderation’.
“It was Soho in the 90s – I was working hard, and boy was I playing hard. I met my husband, we kept partying and then we moved to Australia and had kids. Suddenly I was working at the same feverish rate in my professional career, while trying to raise a family. I was doing contract work for huge brands and always trying to prove myself so I could gain a real foothold in this new country.
“It was a recipe for a complete breakdown, which of course happened.”
Forced to re-evaluate her life, Emma began to realise just how far she had drifted from her own values.
“I’d always thought ‘corporate life, working mum, great example to my kids of what a mum can be’ – and there’s nothing wrong with that, except for the way that I was doing it. I was living an example that would lead them to burn out.
“The final piece of the puzzle landed that December. We had loads of people around – we were always a big party household – and I went to put my kids to bed. My eldest was 11 at this stage, and said to me, ‘mum, can you leave the wine glass out of the bedroom? Because it makes me feel anxious’.
Out of step with parenting values
“That made me sit up and take notice. How does this behaviour that is so fundamental to my everyday life sit with my values and my parenting? It was a wake-up call.”
For Emma, though, part of leading by example meant looking at her drinking very differently – ditching the usual ‘shame and blame’ methods; choosing curiosity instead, and seeking to understand why she drank and the stories she told herself to justify it.
“The fact is, mid-life can be pretty hectic, particularly if you’re sandwiched between hormonal teenagers and ageing parents. Science shows us that the hormonal fluctuations that occur in peri-menopause are on a par with adolescence, so both mums and teens can be pretty volatile!!
“All that leads to excess production of the stress hormone, cortisol, which can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, and more. That constant state of high alert can lead to chronic stress and burnout – triggers for many people to lean on alcohol to ‘de-stress’ and ‘unwind’. Which actually equates to pouring petrol on a bonfire.
“So, there you are, trying to parent a hormonal pre-teen or teenager with a greatly reduced coping capacity. While they’re pushing for increased independence, they actually need you more than ever – your stability and your availability. AND they need you to model the behaviours you want them to exhibit themselves, particularly when it comes to their relationship with alcohol.”
The science of women and wine
As Emma points out, the combination of female physiology and hormonal change make the additional of alcohol like pouring petrol on a fire.
“Already, as a woman, you have less alcohol dehydrogenase – the enzyme that helps the liver break down alcohol – in your body than a man does. And levels decline further in peri-menopause and beyond. Additionally, as we age our cartilage and tendons lose water. The more water in your body, the better it can dilute alcohol. So that one drink or two can hit you like it was a bottle full!
“Then there’s the anxiety – a symptom of peri-menopause. Alcohol is also well known to exacerbate anxiety and depression. So many women experiencing peri-menopausal anxiety reach for alcohol to relieve these symptoms, but are only creating a more intense experience.
“Alcohol also messes with oestrogen, which is a hugely important hormone in our peri-menopausal symptoms. The liver is responsible for processing both alcohol and hormones like oestrogen and, as we get older – especially if we’ve been drinkers most of our lives, our liver gets less efficient. That means it can end up dumping excess oestrogen into the body instead of getting rid of it. Imbalanced oestrogen can lead to some serious counter indications, including urinary incontinence, osteoporosis, heart disease, cancer and low libido.
“And as if that wasn’t enough, alcohol can strip you of nutrients like calcium and magnesium, which you need a lot of during perimenopause and menopause, trigger hot flushes, affect sleep, and generally multiply the effects of hormonal changes.”
Unpick your relationship with alcohol
“But of course, tell a child not to do something and it’s the most appealing thing in the world. I feel like adults experience the same response. If you truly want to break the habit and be at peace with your decision – not living in a state of constant deprivation – you have to actually unpick that relationship.
“It can be anything – food, shopping, work, whatever. But there’s a sense, certainly with women, that we’re not enough and we’re looking outside ourselves for something to make it better. It’s only when you take the drink, or the chocolate, or the spending away, that you can start working on it.”
For Emma, in caring for her children, ultimately, she realised the need to care for herself.
Self-care is all important
“The biggest gift you can give your children is modelling self-reliance and self-love. When we have so little time for ourselves we tend to fill it with the wrong things – we don’t even remember what we actually like anymore! We spend our lives accommodating other people, so starting again means examining all of that.
Find out what really brings you joy and invest in it – because you deserve to be truly happy and fulfilled.
“If putting the brakes on your drinking sounds like it might make sense, know that you won’t be missing out. You’ll be creating an opportunity to peel everything back and work out how to become a more robust human – to love yourself and take care of yourself.
“It’s the best investment you’ll ever make,” Emma reflects, “for you and everyone you care about, and who cares about you.”