Image: Ourmutchi, Shirin / Seasons Agency
“It’s not like I was out of control, or getting so drunk I couldn’t walk. I liked a drink to de-stress in the evening, but I didn’t think it was a big deal,” reveals Aileen*, a 33-year-old marketing manager. “My high-pressure job made me feel I deserved to cut loose after hours on the daily grind.”
Gradually, over a couple of years, Aileen’s twice-weekly “loosening” drinks at bars in the CBD area, or at home in front of the TV, became a nightly event. “I started to crave the reward of a drink at the end of every day. Sometimes I’d be in a tough client meeting daydreaming about what my first beverage would be, and I started to realise that having a drink was more than just a relaxant. It was an essential part of my day-to-day life.”
Aileen always had girlfriends who were happy to share a bottle or two with her, and she never got drunk enough to find herself lost or in trouble with her family. “They were used to me ‘working late’ or being tired and were often in bed by the time I got home. In my mind I was still fully in control of my life, heading up major projects and making presentations to CEOs,” she explains. “I was just doing so with a fuzzy head and not enough sleep.”
Aileen’s story is typical of the new breed of high-functioning women alcoholics in Singapore. As a nation, we are drinking more than ever. National Addictions Management Service (NAMS) recently reported that the number of Singaporeans seeking treatment for alcohol issues has almost doubled since 2009. Worryingly, a 2015 study by Singapore’s Institute of Mental Health found that alcohol abuse is highest among business owners and those in top management positions.
Also on the rise among young women is binge drinking – having four or more drinks in one session. “Although I never
counted at the time, when I thought about it, I’d easily drink four beers with friends, or down a bottle of wine in my room at night,” Aileen admits.
We all know the dangers of alcoholism, but surely if you’re showing up each morning for work and maintaining relationships, you’re fine, right? Not necessarily, says psychiatrist Dr Munidasa Winslow, who says that the cliche of the “down and out” drunk is outdated. He estimates that he’s treating twice the number of professional women now as he was just eight years ago.
Recovering alcoholic and current Alcoholics Anonymous member Jasmine*, 29, explains: “Alcoholics crave alcohol and often lose control over how much they drink. Two years ago, when I finally realised I needed help, I felt I had nothing
to keep me going any longer. I was completely broken on the inside. But from the outside, my life actually looked like it was improving. For me, drinking wasn’t about getting drunk.
I needed alcohol in my body to feel like a normal person. Without it, I felt uncomfortable and anxious, and I couldn’t manage in normal situations. Alcohol made me feel calm and part of the world.”
“Women have more independent spending power than they used to, and society and culture allow them more freedom,” points out Dr Winslow. “The good news is that women seek help with potential issues earlier than men. And in some recovery groups in Singapore, women make up 50 per cent of the attendance.”
PR manager Sherry*, 30, was encouraged by her boss to share a bottle “so as not to seem rude” when entertaining clients during the first week of her new job. After months of being cordial in this fashion at countless lunches and launches, Sherry began to sneak drinks while at the office. “My job was full-on, and alcohol stopped me panicking about it,” she recalls sadly. “I started to think about alcohol all the time, and would make excuses to skip family dinners to go out and drink instead. I’m ashamed to think about it now, but I kept a bottle of vodka in a filing cabinet beneath my desk. I’d pour some into a water bottle and sip it throughout the day with water. I chose vodka because it never made my breath smell. Nobody ever knew.”
Most specialists agree that “high- functioning alcoholic” is a dangerous term, because these alcoholics often don’t stay high-functioning for long. NAMS counsellor Tan Ming Hui explains that many people with chronic alcoholism have had a past period of problem drinking where they remained “functional” and able to carry out their usual life responsibilities. She says: “Functional drinkers may be perceived as just winding down after work, partying or entertaining others, but people around them may notice problematic patterns over time.”
Dr Winslow agrees: “Even professionals who can hide the effects of their habit from others tend to have some physical problems related to their drinking. Usually, it’s just a matter of time before things fall apart.”
Ming Hui adds: “They may have little or no control over how much they drink, they might do so to cope with emotions, drive while intoxicated and get into trouble with the law, or embarrass themselves in front of family and friends.”
And of course, women are not built like men. Our smaller frames and physical makeup mean that our blood alcohol levels tend to be higher than men’s after consuming the same number of drinks, leading to faster damage. Dr Winslow notes: “Women don’t have the same protective factors as men. If it takes 15-20 years of drinking for the physical signs of alcoholism to be obvious in a man, it would take only five years for the same level of drinking to cause significant physical damage to a woman.” Women drinkers are also more likely than men to suffer liver and brain damage. Scary stuff.
In moderation, there is nothing wrong with a celebratory drink. The fizz of a glass of bubbly always feels festive, and a shiraz can add to the joy of a juicy steak. But Ming Hui warns that if you’re drinking increasingly often or purely to cope with stress, it’s a problem – even if you have a good job and solid relationships, and don’t vomit or get aggressive after drinking.
Experts are rightfully concerned about Singaporean women’s alcohol use, and we all have a responsibility to be mindful, for others and for ourselves. High-functioning or not, there’s nothing cool or admirable about drinking to de-stress.
“I eventually spoke to my boss about my workload, and we worked together to build a better balance where I didn’t have to rely on alcohol to help my mind wind down at night,” shares Aileen. “These days, I’m happier at the yoga studio than at a bar. Of course, I still like a drink, but in moderation. I’m managing my emotions better, feel stronger and healthier, and I look forward to every day.”
This story was originally published in the April 2016 issue of Her World magazine.