I didn’t have a ‘drink problem’, but I had a problem with the way I was drinking

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I can chart the major events of most of my adult life in glasses of wine. There was the one – crisp and white – I had in a sunny back garden with my parents to celebrate finishing my Leaving Cert.

By Jennifer O’Connell in The Irish Times

There was the taste for Jacob’s Creek I cultivated in a friend’s flat on Waterloo Road during college; the lovely, full-bodied St Emilion I had with my now husband in an attic apartment in Paris, the first time he cooked me dinner; the prosecco I had the morning of my wedding. And there was the much-anticipated first glass I had after the birth of each of my children.

Wine has been one of the few constants of my life and, I’ve always told myself, an entirely healthy indulgence. I haven’t been drunk in well over a decade, and even then, it was probably only an advanced state of tipsiness.

I hardly ever drink more than three glasses in a sitting. When I’ve had enough, I know I’ve had enough.

And yet, at some point over the years, my wine habit morphed from a civilised way to mark the big occasions and the little disappointments into a daily routine.

At home, I would open a bottle of wine just because I had a good day at work. Or a bad day at work. Or because it was Friday. Or Monday. Or because it was sunny. Because there was a good film on television, or because there was nothing on television, or just because.

It’s not that I didn’t notice that the “just becauses” were adding up to an awful lot of days – I did. But there didn’t seem any very good reason to stop doing something I loved. It wasn’t me and my two glasses of wine with dinner that was cluttering up the country’s A&E departments, vomiting into the gutter or abusing passers-by on a street corner.

My regular moderate wine habit wasn’t affecting my work, my relationships or on my children. I read somewhere that a 48-hour break from alcohol each week is all your liver needs to keep ticking along nicely, so about a year ago, I decided to make sure there were at least two wine-free days every week. I sometimes succeeded.

Hardly a week went by that some newspaper didn’t bemoan the rise of the female, middle-class, wine-drinking alcoholic – and hardly a week went by that I didn’t scoff loudly. I wrote a piece making fun of Róisín Shortall’s dire warnings about “middle-aged women” and their “two or three or four glasses of wine before bed”.

I ignored the warnings about fatty livers and high blood pressure and focused instead on the heart and cognitive benefits that are supposed to go with a “light to moderate” wine habit.

But there was a nagging, little voice in my head that wouldn’t go away. I’d been comforting myself with the fact that I wasn’t really, by Irish standards, a “drinker”, but I suspected my liver didn’t really care about whether or not the amount of alcohol I was pouring into it was culturally acceptable.

A ’light to moderate’ habit?

There wasn’t a single moment when I decided to finally tackle my intake, so much as a combination of moments. One of them happened after I looked up the definition of a “light to moderate habit” provided by the US Department of Agriculture and used as the basis for several studies, and realised that it means five fluid ounces a day for a woman and 10 fluid ounces for a man (147ml and 295 ml, respectively).

I filled what passes for a standard size wine glass in my house and measured the contents – it holds about 7.5 fluid ounces (222ml).

So my two glasses a night were about three times the definition of “light to moderate”. On the nights I had a third glass, I was drinking four to five times the amount classified as “moderate”.

Then there was the study published in the American Journal of the National Cancer Institute, which found that a woman drinking an average of two units of alcohol per day has an 8 per cent higher risk of developing breast cancer than a woman who drinks an average of one unit of alcohol per day.

Another study found that women who had three or more glasses of alcohol daily had more than a 50 per cent higher risk of the most common kind of breast cancer than women who don’t drink at all.

In the end, it came down to the fact that I loved my daily couple of glasses of wine, but not enough to risk dying for them. I haven’t given up completely, nor do I intend to, but now I drink only with dinner at weekends, or on the rare occasions I’m out during the week.

This is the part where I’m supposed to reveal how much better I feel. In truth, none of the promised physical benefits have materialised. I don’t feel any more inclination to go to the gym or to learn a foreign language than I did before. I drink more water, and I’ve lost a tiny bit of weight, but I’m still tired in the mornings.

There has been a subtle shift in the way I think about alcohol, though. Now it really is a treat, as opposed to the full stop at the end of every day.

In this country, we seem to have a bi-polar relationship with alcohol. We do the “January thing”, or the “November thing”, and abstain for a month in order to earn the right to get drunk the 31 nights of December.

We don’t drink at all on weekdays – but only because we’re recovering for the first half, and saving up for Saturday night in the second half. We plan to go out and get drunk, as though that’s a perfectly healthy aim, instead of a bit of regrettable over-indulgence.

We also focus too much on labels. I didn’t have a “drink problem”, but I had a problem with the way I was drinking. Like most people, I was lurking down the wrong end of the grey area between the woman with the vodka bottle stashed in the hot press and those with the pioneer badge on their lapels.

Labels are sometimes helpful: there are people who suffer from genuine alcoholism, and they need to name their addiction to get the help and support they need. But there are many more like me: regular moderate drinkers, who could take booze or leave it – except that they mostly choose to take it, whatever the cost to their health.