Why giving up alcohol doesn't solve all your problems

By Helen Kirwan-Taylor

Helen Kirwan-Taylor discovers giving up alcohol does not necessarily solve your problems.
Helen Kirwan-Taylor has discovered she has Multi Impulsive Disorder. Photo /Christopher Pledger, Telegraph
Helen Kirwan-Taylor has discovered she has Multi Impulsive Disorder. Photo /Christopher Pledger, Telegraph

I am what they call a "dry drunk"- someone who has given up. For now.

According to statistics, almost one in six women like me have alcohol five or more times a week - and more than half (including me) exceed their safe daily limit on at least one occasion. I've been observing not only my own drinking habits as well as that of my friends for many years now.

Sometimes (often) we drink alone and sometimes (often) we don't eat much with it because we are, after all, middle class, professional women who know the caloric value of every thimble. Truth be told, many of us were borderline or closet anorexics or bulimics in our youth and this is our "transdiagnosis" in full throw.

In other words, as perfectionistic, anxious striving teenagers, we didn't eat at all or we ate too much and purged. Now, 30 years later, we drink too much (and hate ourselves) then stop drinking (and love ourselves); then fall off the wagon and self-loathe, then check into a spa (the new rehab) and feel smug until we're back to where we started again.
My units were way in excess of the guidelines but I could always argue from a European stance (they drink more and worry less) or a genetic one or the middle class one, which is "but I only ever drink (a bottle of) the best French wine."

I definitely fell under the new DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) alcohol guideline's "severe" band, ticking six of the 11 symptoms listed.

These included "have you more than once wanted to cut down or stop drinking, or tried to but couldn't?"

If you say yes to the question "in the past year [note: year, not week] have you had times when you ended up drinking more or longer than you intended?" you qualify as suffering from full-blown AUD (Alcohol Use Disorder).

According to statistics, almost one in six women have alcohol five or more times a week - and more than half exceed their safe daily limit on at least one occasion.

"I don't talk about it anymore," says my friend Lesley, a corporate lawyer with three teenage children. "I'm ashamed of how much I drink."

Lesley stopped drinking for three months, having read all the reports published by the "big bad medical wolf" in order to scare you into sobriety, and her drinking went underground.

"I take a glass of wine everywhere with me: to the laundry room, the bathroom, I'd take it with me in the car if I could," she admits. And yes, she hides bottles from her teetotal husband and yes, she lies to her GP to avoid the look of shocked disbelief on his face (another doctor once told me she dons this look even if the patient admits to drinking two glasses a night).

The popularity of "wine o'clock" has led to a rise in drinking among middle class women.

Like Lesley, I also stopped drinking last year. I subjected myself to two months of total abstinence, after which I gave myself permission to drink again. But I haven't, really. In the past four months, I have had four nights in which wine has passed my lips.

"You are amazing," everyone says. "I can't believe how good you are." "You've never looked better," they chime in jealous unison. My skin is clear: my pelvic bones stick out through my leggings. I remember names (once in a while).

I take my compliments with grace but the truth is: where I thought about alcohol half of the time before, now I think about alcohol from the moment I wake up to the moment I go to bed. I dream about it, too. I am more addicted to not drinking than I ever was to drinking.

I am what they call a "dry drunk", someone who acts like she's downed a bottle of claret when in fact she's only had two San Pellegrinos. Those of us who skip rehab and Alcoholics Anonymous, but wake up to find our problems haven't vanished in the slightest. I blindly assumed that my large, daily dose of alcohol was to blame for everything from my mood swings and lack of discipline to my inability to park a car properly. Alcohol explained why I haven't won a Pulitzer (yet).

I've seen all those movies where the actress breaks free from the clutches of addiction only to start a world famous line of clothing without so much as an eye bag in view. That was supposed to be me. Instead, here I am, much the same except maybe slightly more self-obsessed than before (which is saying a lot).

I am forever asking my husband, children or dog whether I can/should/might drink tonight or not? I haven't given up, strictly speaking, but I haven't got a plan either. "What do you hope to achieve?" someone asked me recently. I couldn't think of a single thing.

The old, manic, hungover me could knock off a work of art (I have a second career as an artist) and a deadline in the same day. Now, I can mindfully drink a glass of hot water with lemon in the morning and that's pretty much it for the day.

Dry drunks don't substitute good habits for bad ones. I never ate chocolate before. Now I'm hiding bars from my family not out of shame but greed. Dry drunks suffer from self-pity or are over-confident (I fluctuate between feeling superior and totally despondent).

Dry drunks don't listen to anyone else because they have all the answers (of course I do.) They show a lack of interest in activities (apart from watching box sets) and may indulge in new vices (I now have a full-blown social media addiction). They assume that life away from alcohol would be paved with glory or at least a best-seller, and the discovery that they're only marginally better at parking the car than before makes them severely prone to relapse.

A top addiction expert once explained to me that I suffer from Multi Impulsive Disorder. This basically means I have no self-control, so if I control one bit of my life, it spills out somewhere else.

My new not-drinking is just as out of control as my old drinking was. He also explained that women who suffered from bulimia in the past (like me, briefly) are much more prone to alcoholism, even the type without the alcohol.

Women who have had eating disorders are more likely to suffer from alcoholism in later life.

"Bulimics think in black and white," says Dr James Arkell, a psychiatrist with a special interest in eating disorders. "The disease is about excess and restraint."

There is also a lot of deceit and concealment amongst bulimics, which makes them very good at being alcoholics. Women my age have often simply transferred a food addiction to an alcohol one. The up and down pattern is the same, as is the shame and self-loathing.

Some specialists, such as Dr Ed Wilson, an addiction expert in Los Angeles who runs intense five-day rehabilitation programmes, think it's more fundamental. We're not all necessarily addicts: we're just sad, anxious, lonely, unfulfilled and tired.

"Most of our female clients slip into harmful drinking in their 40s and 50s, masking the discomfort of fluctuating hormones, the adjustment to an empty nest, the death of parents and other real losses," Wilson said.

Take the alcohol away and we're still sad and now find our problems have gone from hazy pixelation to glaring high-definition.

The advice is not to say "never drink again", because we defy authority. Instead, it's better to push the decision further down the road. Give yourself permission to drink, maybe tomorrow. As for my dry drunk disorder: there is only one cure. Deal with it.

Such thoughts once made me want to reach for the bottle, but now I think a lot about the day my mother (who died of stomach cancer, aged 67) burst into tears when she saw two old ladies having lunch at the table next door.

"I'll never be an old biddy," she said. I may not be an enlightened non-drinker but I am an informed one. Sooner or later your vices catch up with you. The big, bad medical wolves have achieved their goal. Dealing with unpleasant feelings seems a lot easier to me than any one of the 10 horrible alcohol-related diseases I'm destined to get if I go back to drinking.

So, I'm staying sober. For now.

- Daily Telegraph UK

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

SIGN UP NOW

© Copyright 2017, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf05 at 24 May 2017 19:25:32 Processing Time: 985ms