Alcohol and Trauma: A Recovering Addict’s Warning to Women in Hawke’s Bay & Beyond

The water might have subsided, but the oncoming tide of trauma has only just begun in weather-affected areas such as Hawke’s Bay. Elaine Atkinson, recovering alcoholic and founder of Ocean Hills Detox and Rehab Clinic in Hawke’s Bay, urges caution to women especially who are dealing with the stress of pulling their lives back together by reaching for the bottle and combining alcohol and trauma.

As I sit in Hawke’s Bay in a state of anxiety because the rain has started to fall again after Cyclone Gabrielle, I wonder where all the collective trauma we’ve experienced from severe weather events is going to take us.

For me, trauma leads to addiction – that’s my personal and professional experience – and although I know that link doesn’t exist for everyone, there is a strong likelihood that’s where many people will end up after experiencing significant stress.

Trauma, trauma, trauma, you might say. It’s just another ‘wellness’ buzzword. But even though it’s in danger of becoming overused – I overheard someone complaining about the trauma of missing out on a table at their favourite cafe the other day– it’s great we’re talking about it. We need to.

Alcohol and trauma: Understanding what trauma actually is

So what exactly is trauma? Depends on who you ask. A doctor might describe it as a wound or major impact to the body. A psychologist will start explaining it as a deeply distressing experience.

I agree with the mental health professionals, but I will add that trauma is deeply personal and looks as unique as every human being does. What I experience as devastating trauma and how you classify it may look completely different.

That is, until a cyclone hits and then we’re all in the same boat, whether we’ve lost a loved one, a house, a precious pet, a business, or if we are watching catastrophic, apocalyptic scenes on the telly in disbelief.

What do we do with trauma?

Again, everyone’s different. Some people talk about it, reach out for help and try to heal the unbearable. Some seem to be champions at getting through a crisis and then leaving it in the past. 

And then some of us have a drink. Fair enough. Why wouldn’t you want to escape pain? It’s only natural to avoid feeling bad and nothing is as good, cheap and legal as alcohol. It’s the Kiwi way and what we know. We love our booze, it’s everywhere and is a brilliant social lubricant. Hell, mums even have a few wines now while watching our kids on playdates.

I don’t want to talk about the dangers of alcohol, although you might think I would because I founded an alcohol and drug rehab as a recovering alcoholic. We all know the perils of drinking too much but we still partake because for most people, it’s not a problem.

What I do want to discuss though, is the relationship between trauma and addiction and how that can happen to even the least problematic drinker.

Alcohol and trauma: A shadow that can overtake lives

In my 17 years of recovery and during the last four years of running a rehab, I have seen how insidious addiction can be. It can creep up people before they have a clue how deep they are in its hole, even if they’ve been a moderate drinker in the past.

During the pandemic, for example, any Kiwis, especially women running households, homeschooling kids, taking care of everyone’s mental health and working in jobs, drank more alcohol than they normally would. It relieved boredom, stress and was something to look forward to when everything was so hard and unpredictable. It was a comfort for some people and was relatively harmless. They deserved it, they said.

But a dormant seed of addiction can sprout and thrive, even with seemingly small increases of alcohol. 

Lisa’s lament

Take a woman, let’s call her Lisa, who has a drink or two when she gets home from work to get her through the witching hour: kids’ homework, cooking dinner, cleaning up and keeping up with cleaning and laundry. She never gets drunk – unless it’s on the weekend with friends – and rarely feels badly hungover. Granted, her pours are generous because let’s face it, 100ml of wine (a standard drink) is barely more than a sip. So for her, a couple of drinks is about half a bottle of wine. She’s okay with that because she handles it well, lives a healthy lifestyle and is a responsible mother, partner and employee.

When COVID-19 hit, like all of us, Lisa was stressed to the max trying to juggle everything and everyone, 24/7. She didn’t have a minute to herself and added a third glass of wine to her nightly ritual. Her weekend evenings were spent Zooming with friends and family over a few more glasses. Waking up a little hungover was a small price to pay for badly needed social connection.

After a few weeks, tedium and the stress of uncertainty around the lockdown ramped up a few notches. Rather than leaving one glass of wine in the bottle each weeknight, Lisa threw caution to the wind and treated herself to the final glass. Who knew when they were going to get out of this lockdown? If she’d ever see family and friends overseas again? What would happen if they caught the virus?

‘Thank God for wine!’ laughed her and everyone she knew. 

Lisa was feeling a bit rough around the edges in the morning after drinking a bottle of wine every day, but she still managed to look after herself and everyone else. She tried to not to overindulge in food, never missed a chance to get out walking and even took up mat Pilates.

And besides, she thought, as soon as this lockdown was over she could get back to her normal routine.

Eventually, a new normal arose. The kids were back at school, she was able to keep working from home and face-to-face socialising was back on the table.

Time to cut back on the vino, she announced. She was almost looking forward to it because the hangovers were now a drag and she noticed she’d gained weight and lost patience with her kids. She was just in time for Dry July. What better way to break a habit than to go cold turkey and give her a body a reset?

The first night without a drink was not easy. She was snappy, felt agitated and had trouble sleeping. When she woke after a fitful snooze, she looked at herself in the mirror and saw a sweaty, pale woman staring back at her. She wasn’t hungover but it kind of felt like she was – she had a headache, her stomach was churning and she felt anxious. And was she shaking? She held out her hand and saw it tremble slightly. She must be sick, she decided before doing a COVID test that turned out to be negative.

After two days of feeling awful and sleep-deprived, Lisa had had enough. What was wrong with her? Dry July now seemed unimportant and she decided a wine that night would provide some much-needed comfort and she was right, she instantly felt better. A few more, and she felt great. 

So no harm done, right? She was a normal mum dealing with the trauma of the world turning upside down from a pandemic.

Except now she was physically dependent on alcohol. She was no crazy drunk but without her bottle of wine each night, she experienced withdrawal symptoms that went away as soon as she had a drink.

No going back

What many people might not know is that once you’ve become physically dependent on alcohol, it is almost impossible to go back to ‘normal’ drinking. This can happen to anyone who increases their alcohol intake daily. 

Women are especially vulnerable to building a dependence: our bodies are smaller than men’s, we process alcohol less efficiently. We carry stress for our families, friends and employers and our wine culture has made it more normal than ever to have a drink when we’re sad, bad, mad or glad.

Add a trauma to this and even a responsible drinker like Lisa can become an alcoholic.

I gaze out the window at the rain pouring down and I think about what my community is going through. How are we going to deal with this trauma? Will we drink our way through it? Unfortunately, I know the answer to that.

Will women who regularly drink more than recommended 10 standard drinks a week be at risk for becoming dependent on alcohol if they add another drink or two to their daily drinks? It’s entirely possible and happens far more than most people realise.

The other thing daily drinkers should worry about is that detoxing from alcohol can be dangerous and a withdrawal seizure can be potentially fatal. Te Pou, the addiction workforce’s development agency, recommends a medically supervised detox for people who are drinking more than 7-10 standard drinks daily. That is the milder end of the spectrum but the risk of seizure cannot be eliminated. It does vary from person to person but the message is, it’s not safe to suddenly stop drinking without seeing your doctor and being honest about how much you’re drinking.

Whether we start drinking because of a trauma, or increase daily drinking because of trauma, addiction will become the biggest trauma if we’re not careful.

I’m one of those people and was lucky enough to escape with my life but it was close. The people who come to Ocean Hills need professional help to stop drinking.

Don’t let it get to the stage.

If you need help because of trauma, reach out and talk to a mental health professional before you reach out for a drink. Your life could depend on it.

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