glass of wine

'Oblivion Drinker'

‘Oblivion Drinker’.

Are YOU an ‘Oblivion Drinker’? It’s the chilling new term for middle-class women using alcohol to blot out the stress of trying to be perfect like Ruth and Jackie

  • The phenomenon is increasingly common among career women
  • And more so if these high-powered women are also juggling motherhood
  • Alcohol gives such women an escape from the pursuit of perfection
  • 81% of women admitted that they drink above the safety guidelines weekly
  • They said they did so to ‘wind down from a stressful day’

By Antonia Hoyle

PUBLISHED: 18:23 EST, 27 October 2013 | UPDATED: 09:28 EST, 28 October 2013

Oblivion drinking: Drinking to de-stress and escape the pressures of the workday is alarmingly common among women with demanding careers, especially if they are also juggling motherhood

Oblivion drinking: Drinking to de-stress and escape the pressures of the workday is alarmingly common among women with demanding careers, especially if they are also juggling motherhood

Like many women, when Liz Hill wants to relax after a stressful day, she opens the fridge and pours herself a large glass or two of her favourite Australian chardonnay.

A successful entrepreneur and owner of three tourism businesses in Hereford, she starts work at 8am. After endless meetings she networks with potential clients and, once home, is often still at her computer at 10, 11 or even 12pm.

‘My job is relentless but I love it,’ she says. ‘But because I’m working so late my brain is still buzzing at bedtime. Wine helps me wind down – it’s a release that says the day is nearly over and everything is all right. And it helps me sleep.’

While Liz’s evening habit is one many busy women will identify with, experts are now warning that her behaviour – and that of millions like her – is part of a dangerous trend they’ve termed ‘oblivion drinking’.

While you might imagine drinking to ‘oblivion’ means drinking until you pass out, in this instance, it’s actually about drinking to forget the day, or to escape into sleep.

And it’s become alarmingly common among women with demanding careers – especially if they are juggling them with motherhood – who find that, after a long day in the office, the only way to switch off is by opening a bottle of wine.

Indeed, experts are suggesting that alcohol abuse has become the modern ‘mother’s little helper’, replacing the widespread Valium addiction of Sixties housewives and offering multi-tasking women a temporary escape from the pressure to look, behave and perform as the perfect wife, mother and colleague.

Psychoanalyst Jan Bauer, author of Alcoholism and Women: The Background And The Psychology, who coined the term oblivion drinking, explains: ‘Alcohol offers a time out from doing it all – “Take me out of my perfectionism”.

‘Superwoman is a cliche now, but it is extremely dangerous. I’ve seen such a perversion of feminism, where everything becomes work: raising children, reading all the books, not listening to [your] instincts.

‘The main question is: what self are these women trying to turn off? They have climbed so high that when they fall, they crash – and alcohol’s a perfect way to crash.

Ruti Ahronee
Jackie Brennand

Burn-outs: Both Ruti Ahronee (left) and Jackie Brennand developed worrying drinking habits to cope with the stress in their lives

A recent British survey confirmed her observations, with 81 per cent of women who admitted they drank above the safety guidelines every week saying they did so ‘to wind down from a stressful day’.

‘This is an epidemic. High-functioning, intelligent women are using alcohol as a coping mechanism to take the edge off and stop their brain going at 300 miles an hour,’ explains Sarah Turner, co-author of The Sober Revolution and owner of the Harrogate Sanctuary for middle-aged, middle-class women who drink too much.

While relaxing after a hard day with a drink is nothing new, it’s the scale and sudden increase in the problem that has now worried experts. Thanks to the recession and an uncertain job market, more than half of 35 to 54-year-old women say they are more stressed than they were in 2008 – and many are relying on drink on a daily basis to help.

But just one large glass of wine, which contains around four units of alcohol, puts a woman over her daily recommended limit, while two bottles a week (around seven glasses) is 20 units – well over the recommended 14.

Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones, a consultant psychiatrist specialising in stress and addiction at the Capio Nightingale Hospital, is deeply concerned about the rise in mature professional women drinking their stress away. ‘I see so many senior female lawyers and bankers who rely on a couple of glasses of wine at the end of every day – they can’t imagine life without it.

‘It’s a huge problem … These older women, usually with children, are drinking at the end of the day, often alone and in increasing quantities as their tolerance to alcohol grows.

‘Although it’s not alcohol dependence in a traditional sense, there are dangerous side-effects such as increased irritability, mood swings and the risk of liver damage, especially for those also on medication.

And, ironically, drinking to sleep better actually makes the problem worse, because alcohol interferes with rest. When you drink close to bedtime, you go straight into deep sleep, missing out on the usual first stage called rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is when the body restores itself. This means you become even more tired, creating a vicious cycle where drinking nightly is the only thing that helps you wind down enough to sleep again.

Although Liz Hill insists she worries more about eating too much cake than her drinking, she admits her partner of ten years, Tony, 38, a draughtsman, doesn’t join her. ‘It keeps him awake, so he drinks hot chocolate before bed,’ she says. ‘But he’s learned not to stop me.’

Happier days: Ruti started drinking to distract herself from her job as a City trader navigating the roller-coaster world of stocks and shares

Happier days: Ruti started drinking to distract herself from her job as a City trader navigating the roller-coaster world of stocks and shares

Oblivion drinking is insidious. ‘It’s now seen as acceptable to knock back two or three glasses of wine a night, but if they’re large ones, then that’s a whole bottle,’ says Sarah Turner, who regularly sees clients at Harrogate Sanctuary who have been drinking one or two bottles a night.

And as the respite that female career drinkers are chasing becomes ever more elusive, their bodies begin to buckle under the pressure instead.

‘In our 20s and 30s we can deal with it, but as we age our body’s ability to process alcohol gets weaker and things start to go wrong,’ says Turner.

Combine the demands of a career with the pressures of motherhood, of course, and oblivion drinking can become even more serious.

This was the case with Jackie Brennand, 49, the director of her own sales company which turns over more than £300,000 a year. She lives in Rawtenstall, near Manchester, with her husband Chris, 40, and their three children aged 14, 17 and 23.

She says: ‘My drinking started when my children were small and I had an incredibly demanding career running a family company. As soon as I got home at night my “other” job began: that of wife and mother.

‘By the time I’d cooked dinner, done the housework, overseen homework and got the kids into bed, the only thing that could stop my mind whirring was a large glass of wine or two.

‘Without it I wouldn’t be able to sleep. It was escapism from stress, it blurred the edges of the many jobs I did and meant I didn’t have to face things such as worries about the children or relationship problems with Chris.

‘We would often argue, usually about the children, but then never discuss it. I could feel the tension built up inside me and a glass of wine distracted me from it. I didn’t think it was a problem. It ramped up when my husband and I launched our own company in 2006.

‘Like so many women, I felt that I couldn’t ask for help – in my mind that would be like admitting that I couldn’t cope. Instead, I turned to wine and what began as the odd glass became a daily habit.

Initially, Jackie’s husband would join her for a glass but he’d stop at that – while she drained the bottle.

Less than two years ago she was drinking two bottles a night – roughly 140 units a week, or ten times the safe amount.

But Jackie was blinkered by the fact so many of her female friends in their 40s drank in large quantities, too. ‘There were a lot of us in the same boat. It’s the stressful lives we live.

‘It was Chris who confronted me about my drinking in 2011 and told me I needed to seek help. Deep down I already knew I needed to stop – I felt dreadful most of the time, and I knew that I was on the verge of developing a real problem.

After much research, Jackie contacted a therapist called Georgia Foster who created The Drink Less Mind, a hypnotherapy-based 21-day audio programme, that you can download and listen to on your computer or MP3 player.

‘It helped me develop an alarm bell in my head which would ring – and still does – after I had one glass of wine. It made me remember that drinking wasn’t the answer and that I must limit myself to one glass. The irony is that what started as a means of relieving stress added bucket loads of extra stress to my life.

Georgia Foster has seen this all too often. ‘A huge proportion of my clients are middle-class women aged 35 and over who are run ragged juggling successful careers and kids, and using booze as a coping mechanism like no other generation before,’ she says.

‘They’re putting themselves under huge pressure to be perfect, so nightly boozing becomes a crutch.

‘Inevitably this type of drinking can lead to long-term health, relationship and social issues.

This was the experience of Ruti Ahronee, 48, from Bushey, Herts.

Fond memories of an earlier time: Ruti, here pictured on her wedding day, has gone cold turkey since realising her drinking had become a serious problem

Fond memories of an earlier time: Ruti, here pictured on her wedding day, has gone cold turkey since realising her drinking had become a serious problem

The privately educated daughter of an investment banker and solicitor, she started drinking to alleviate stress when she got a job as a City trader. ‘Alcohol helped me differentiate my off-duty self from the corporate woman of my working day,’ she recalls. ‘I felt carefree and not bothered by the roller-coaster world of stocks and shares.

At first, Ruti’s career progressed in tandem with her alcohol consumption. She bought a flat in North London and shopped in expensive boutiques. ‘My drinking still had a veneer of respectability. When you’re enjoying vintage chablis in Michelin-starred restaurants or sipping vodka on a business-class flight to New York, it’s hard to look or feel like too much of a down and out.

But it began to take its toll, and by 29 she reached burnout and left banking to set up a successful, but stressful, property development business.

‘By my late 30s it was rare a day that went by without me drinking at least one bottle of wine,’ she says. ‘Being single, it became my crutch when I felt I couldn’t cope. Other friends had stopped drinking to have babies so I ended up drinking alone.

In June 2008, her property empire folded and, £500,000 in debt, she filed for bankruptcy, sold her home and moved back into her parents’ house. Now she was not only drinking to switch off, but to forget altogether.

One morning she woke up shaking, with an empty bottle of whisky on her bedside table. After 48 hours of non-stop tremors, she knew she had to stop. ‘I thought I was going to die, and when I didn’t, it felt like I’d been given another chance,’ says Ruti, who, realising the extent of her problem, went cold turkey.

This spring, she found a job in the admissions department at Cassiobury Court Rehab centre in Watford, Herts, where she helps other women who have come to depend on alcohol, as she once did.

It may be a long way from the high-powered career of her drinking years, but it is in giving up the pursuit of perfection that Ruti has found fulfilment. ‘At times my career, and the drinking that went alongside it, were incredibly glamorous,’ she says. ‘But ultimately I paid for it with my health and happiness.

It is a warning other women who find themselves seeking relief from their stressful day in the bottom of a bottle of wine might do well to heed.

For information on The Drink Less Mind, visit