Becoming Alcohol-Free As A Woman: What’s Different?

Women's Health / Alcohol Guidance

Life and recovery coach and Alcohol Change UK Ambassador, Mandy Manners, gives her view on the specific challenges and experiences that come with going alcohol-free as a woman.

Alcohol followed me through the first part of my life. Being a young woman in the 1990s, drinking was part of my identity. I was a ‘ladette’ and felt proud to “drink like the boys”. I was into music, and it felt empowering to throw off the shackles of the ‘nice’ girl image. To be loud, boisterous, and rebellious was synonymous with being cool in the 90’s popular culture. Looking back, I think puberty hit me hard, it triggered an internal fear in me that I wasn’t good enough. I lacked self-esteem, and so desperately wanted to be liked. I bounced between the free party rave scene and the 'Cool Britannia’ festivals and drinking was a huge part of that.

Being a young woman in the 1990s, drinking was part of my identity. I became a mother at 26. Most of my friends at that time were still working, young professionals and I found myself torn in two between ‘who I used to be’ (the rebel party girl), and ‘who I wanted to be’ (a good mum). This again fractured my sense of self and self-esteem.

About the same time as I became a mum, social media started to take off and I started following a lot of ‘mumpreneur’ instagrammers. There had been this backlash to the perfect lifestyle bloggers, to mums showing what life was really like with honesty and I really related. The reality was, I was finding it hard being a mum. There was a constant juggle between motherhood, trying to hold down a career and keeping up with my social life. It seemed like we had finally been given a place at the table in the working man’s world, yet none of the support needed as a working parent were available to make it achievable.

I had many conversations with friends who wanted to work, but childcare costs were so prohibitive that they stayed at home, or those who wanted to stay at home with the kids but felt like they would be letting down the feminist movement if they did. I felt all these things.

So, I sat at home not feeling like I was doing anything good enough. Soon #mummywinetime #wineoclock and #ginmummy started popping up on my feed and along with it came merchandise, and birthday cards and books. I felt like I wasn’t alone in drinking to cope with life’s stressors.

It was all funny, until it wasn’t. The hardest thing was untangling all the feeling I had that my drinking was part of who I was as a person.

Although some of those mums might have been having a single gin or just the one glass of wine, I wasn’t. I was using alcohol as a crutch; I was using alcohol to deal with trauma I had been through which had left me with insomnia; I was using alcohol to calm my nerves.

Alcohol had become my best friend, my confidant as well as my treat. It was a long road to finally going alcohol-free in 2017, and it took a lot of stops and starts. The hardest thing was untangling all the feeling I had that my drinking was part of who I was as a person. It’s scary to think about taking away something which feels part of you!

I gathered new sober friends and started some personal development and jumped into a new career. But I did, and I am so glad I did. I filled the space that alcohol took up with me! With living a life I feel proud of. I focused on being a present and patient parent. I filled up my life with hobbies and new discoveries. I gathered new sober friends and started some personal development and jumped into a new career.

It’s not easy to break free of all the external messages we have from alcohol advertising about how important alcohol is in life. It feels scary to do something that we perceive is outside the norm; we are pack animals humans, we want to feel like we belong, but you’re not alone. There are many people that don’t drink, many more than I could ever have imagined when I was drinking! The most powerful shift for me was when I could attach my sobriety to my personality, namely my need to push the boundaries… Well, going alcohol-free has to be THE most rebellious thing I have ever done, and I am immensely proud of it!

Going alcohol-free has to be THE most rebellious thing I have ever done, and I am immensely proud of it!

It’s not easy to break free of all the external messages we have from alcohol advertising about how important alcohol is in life. It feels scary to do something that we perceive is outside the norm; we are pack animals humans, we want to feel like we belong, but you’re not alone. There are many people that don’t drink, many more than I could ever have imagined when I was drinking! The most powerful shift for me was when I could attach my sobriety to my personality, namely my need to push the boundaries… Well, going alcohol-free has to be THE most rebellious thing I have ever done, and I am immensely proud of it!

Four things I wish I’d known about women and alcohol:

1. The female body doesn’t process alcohol the same way as the male body, because it produces smaller amounts of ADH (alcohol dehydrogenase), an enzyme which is released in the liver and breaks down alcohol in the body. Compared to males, the female body also naturally comprises higher levels of body fat (which retains alcohol) and lower levels of body water (which dilutes alcohol), meaning women tend to experience an even more dramatic physiological response to alcohol.

2. It’s not a treat. Alcohol is marketed to women heavily as a treat, a stress reliever, and a connector. You see stands for alcohol on Mother’s Day and Grandmother’s Day and back to school promotions targeted at mums. The alcohol-industry spend millions to target women drinkers by “feminising” alcohol brands to make them more attractive. This includes botanicals, pastel colours and tying drinks such as “healthy” seltzers with zero calories to the diet industry.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Despite the gimmicks and clever advertising, all alcohol products are made up of the same things. Ethanol, sugar, water and flavourings. Alcohol is a carcinogen and has been linked to breast cancer. It is a drug which works to both stimulate and depress our system leaving us dysregulated and more prone to anxiety and depression.

3. It makes being a mum harder. It makes me incredibly angry how the alcohol industry has targeted mums, as not only are mums vulnerable to postpartum depression (I think I had this with my second child which was not helped by my drinking), mums are often highly stressed and overwhelmed and going through hormone shifts. Our stress resilience is often low, and alcohol and hangovers make this worse. While every well-meaning parent will just be trying to do the best for their kids, studies show that even moderate drinking can make children anxious.

4. It plays havoc with our hormones. Alcohol can impair the hormone system's ability to work properly, it can raise blood sugar levels, impair reproductive functions, interfere with calcium metabolism and bone structure, affect hunger and digestion, and increase the risk of osteoporosis which can exacerbate both perimenopause and menopause symptoms.

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