Alcohol is a huge part of female culture – as a celebration, as a coping mechanism, as an accessory, as a symbol of success. But one women’s occasional treat is another women’s daily battle. How do you know when your drinking is a problem, and how do you stay sober in an alcohol-soaked world?
In pop culture, the rock bottom of alcoholism is always very dramatic. Car crashes, arrests, public black-outs. But what if your relationship with alcohol is less dramatic, but no less damaging. For Elaine Atkinson, recovered alcoholic and founder of Ocean Hills Detox and Rehab clinic in Hawke’s Bay, her disordered drinking hid in plain sight for a very long time, due to the pro-drinking culture of Aotearoa.
“My relationship with alcohol was always to drink to have a good time,” Elaine says. “Work hard, party hard and everything I did had to involve alcohol… I was always a binge-drinking party girl, right into my early 30s.”
It was around then that Elaine started to experience black-outs, which gave her a fright. So she reached out to a drug and alcohol counsellor, who told her that if she could stop drinking for 30 days, she wouldn’t count as an alcoholic and “maybe I was just a hazardous drinker.” By this stage, Elaine had had two children and had abstained from drinking for the entirety of both pregnancies, so this new test wasn’t a huge deal in comparison. “I stopped drinking for a couple of months, then slowly I started drinking again and then I was right back into it,” she says.
“I always had a job, I never lost anything from my drinking – and I’ll always add ‘yet’, because if I drink again, I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
“I always had a job, I never lost anything from my drinking – and I’ll always add ‘yet’, because if I drink again, I don’t know what’s going to happen. But then 40 rolled around, and I had a massive birthday party, which was a very messy night. Two days later I ended up in hospital, I’d done some damage to my oesophagus.” This was another warning sign, she says. Another wake-up call happened when one Saturday morning when, upon waking up, Elaine decided it would be a good idea to pour a rum and coke. “I knew I was in trouble when I did that, and I was drunk by 11am.”
For the next six months, her life became more dependent on alcohol. “As an intelligent women, I knew that I shouldn’t drink because I was so unwell, but I actually drank more. I started sneaking drinks at lunchtime at work. I was waiting for work to finish so that I could drink more,” she says. “I had got to the point in my life where I was sick and tired of being hungover and I would promise myself I wasn’t going to do it again. And then I’d do it again. What I’ve learned now is that’s what alcoholism is, and that’s what dependency is. It doesn’t matter how bad the consequences are, the power of alcohol is incredibly strong.”
Her drinking, up until the end, also didn’t particularly stand out from the crowd. “I always drank with people who drank as much as me or more. I think that was a conscious decision, because then your drinking doesn’t look as bad as other drinkers,” Elaine says. “But then even those friends started slipping away and I realised that I’d drunk a lot of my friends away.”
One day, she reached her emotional limit with how sick she was feeling and decided to look up a support group. There was a 12-point questionnaire on the website and Elaine had done everything on the list, because of her drinking, except get arrested. “I thought, ‘maybe I do have more of a problem than I’m prepared to admit. I went along to a support group and that really started my journey of recovery.”
The initial part of this journey was very hard, she says, trying to stay sober in a world that’s full of parties and alcohol. But once she made it through to the other side, she started volunteering to help other women in treatment centres so they knew a post-recovery life was not only possible but really joyful. Elaine’s career continued in the corporate sector but she always had a back-of-the-mind dream to start her own rehab clinic and in 2019 she took the plunge, opening a private clinic in Hawke’s Bay. Ocean Hills started off with four staff and now has a team of 11, where they look at recovery from a holistic programme based on good self-care, relapse prevention, exercise, good food and therapies.
“If you tell someone you’ve stopped smoking, they’re always like ‘wow, how good! Well done.’ If you tell someone you’ve stopped drinking, they say, ‘Why??’”
Working on what she calls her “sober tool kit” has helped Elaine stay mentally and physically healthy when the going gets tough. For so many women, alcohol is marketed and treated as a kind of coping mechanism; “Mummy wine culture,” as Elaine calls it. The ritual of pouring a wine at the of the working day to signal the start of your evening is associated with leisure time and relaxing (and the boundaries of that got particularly messy during Covid-19). But for people who struggle with drinking, one wine is never enough and there’s that panic about when the next drink is coming. “I’ve taught myself that drinking is not my solution to my problem today, drinking causes my problems,” Elaine says.
There is still some stigma to giving up drinking, however. “We always say, ‘If you tell someone you’ve stopped smoking, they’re always like ‘wow, how good! Well done.’ If you tell someone you’ve stopped drinking, they say, ‘Why??’” Elaine’s family and social circle are now used to her not drinking and it’s something that goes without saying, although it’s not always easy beyond that. “Other people can be challenged by you not drinking at the party. I never make a big deal about it, but I will share my story for someone who I can see is struggling, or might need a bit of help. I’m happy to let people know that you can build a life without drinking, build a life you don’t have to escape from.”
It’s been 15 years since her last drink and Elaine is extremely passionate to show other women that there is a way forward without alcohol. “I love seeing someone change their life. For some people, drinking is like a chain around their necks. It’s a real pleasure to live a sober life.”