BBC presenter, author, and advocate of natural living Janey Lee Grace shares her journey through menopause and sober living.
Menopause and alcohol is not a good combination! Alcohol affects the central nervous system, the circulatory system, and virtually every part of your body. While some women recognise the impact of drinking on their menopausal symptoms, I couldn’t see how bad it was all getting, the alcohol was masking a whole heap of problems.
A few years back I accidentally caught sight of myself in the full-length mirror in my bedroom. I had to look again… who was that bloated, ageing woman with several chins and greying hair? I grabbed a towel and took a layer of dust off the mirror, convinced that once sparkling, the glass would show the real me. But no, that image remained – I looked tired, drained, old. I felt winded at the sight of myself, early fifties, yet in my head twenty-five if I was a day. It didn’t make any sense. How had I put that much weight on? How had I got that awful glassy look around the eyes? I was sleeping really badly; I had a dull ache on one side of my body (I now know it was the liver!) and I felt irritated all the time, and anxious. Oh so anxious.
I could see my running shoes, silver, with a Nike tick, bought in a sale in a fit of enthusiasm, still in their box in the bottom of the wardrobe. Who was I kidding? I couldn’t think about running, I felt a sense of desperation just at the thought of washing my hair. I racked my brain for what I could do, Strict diet maybe? I’d tried that many times, the weight went back on. Have Botox? Mmm, didn’t fit with my ‘natural’ approach, and I wanted to be able to smile. Find a bootcamp and start a fitness regime? Joking right? It suddenly hit me, I was terrified of getting old, it was all going south, I didn’t like it and I couldn’t think of a thing to look forward to.
Something was off. Since writing my first book fifteen years ago I had been on a mission to inspire everyone to live more holistically and eat well, to eschew chemicals and practice mindfulness, to enjoy therapeutic techniques and focus on self-love. Was I walking my talk? Well, you wouldn’t find me putting anything on my skin that I couldn’t eat and, I bought the right organic food – I juiced regularly, I did my yoga and I had all manner of treatments, from EFT, TFT, NLP (perhaps I needed ABC!). In other words, I thought I was practicing what I preached, that I was doing everything right – but all the while, I was shimmying around the great big grape-smelling elephant in the room – alcohol.
You see, I loved my nightly glass (or two, or three) of wine, and why shouldn’t I? I was fully functioning, never had a DUI, never missed a day off work, I just drank most days…doesn’t everyone? The problem was, I couldn’t just have one – I wasn’t born with an off switch! But to be clear, there was no rock bottom moment – I was what’s known as ‘high functioning, ‘high bottomed’ (sadly not true in the literal sense for a woman my age!).
Of course, I’d heard that alcohol wasn’t ideal when combined with menopausal symptoms, and I knew that even one glass could mean increased risk of breast cancer… but I had also read that red wine in moderation is good for you, hadn’t I? The truth is that alcohol acts as a trigger for so many menopausal symptoms – it affects sleep, it can make hot flushes and night sweats worse, and of course it often leads to weight gain, bloating and is most definitely linked to depression, mood swings et al. On top of that laundry list, there is also the worrying fact that alcohol can affect bone health – already a problem exacerbated by menopause – meaning that heavy drinkers can be more prone to osteoporosis.
Now at 3 years and 8 months sober, I am absolutely staggered that I didn’t make the connection between just how awful I was feeling and the amount I was drinking. I thought I was just ‘normal’, everyone drank – right? I assumed everyone my age had similar issues. I would wake at 3am almost without fail, heart racing, berating myself for yet again drinking too much, I would be sweating profusely (I now know that drinking can increase your heart rate and widen blood vessels in the skin so increases perspiration). I would hear a voice telling me this has to stop. It’s not authentic to who you are. You are meant to care about your health and practice self-care, so stop poisoning your body with alcohol!
By 6pm the next evening a much chirpier voice arrived. The voice of the ‘wine witch’:
“You’ve had an exhausting day, time for a cheeky chilled Sauvignon…you might give up? Don’t be ridiculous! Sober – anagram of Bores! Everyone is drinking! You can just have one!”
Alcohol is so ingrained in our culture. From baby showers, christening, playdates, parties, weddings, fresher’s week, funerals – from celebrations to commiserations, alcohol is the ‘social glue’ that sticks everything together. We have been brainwashed into thinking we are either ‘good drinkers’ or alcoholic losers. Clearly there are rock bottom drunks who have a serious issue, and the rest of us are happy social drinkers – occasional lightweights who just can’t hold their beer.
I learnt over time that it’s a spectrum. There are many ‘grey area drinkers’ – so many, in fact, that I’d suggest there are at least 50 shades of grey – but sadly not so sexy! Women have been cajoled into keeping up with the lads, and it’s us baby boomers who are the worst. While many millennials are choosing not to drink at all, the biggest rise in drinking is in older women, and yet we are the ones the toxic liquid hits hardest. Alcohol is responsible for 200 different illnesses, including cancer, and it’s notably terrible for exacerbating menopausal symptoms.
I’ve lost count of clients who have told me they rocked up to a GP or a practitioner complaining of mood swings, anxiety, insomnia, wondering if they were menopausal, only to be sent away minutes later with a prescription for anti-depressants, sometimes HRT too, but they were never asked about their drinking. It’s a disaster waiting to happen, that so many women are being offered medication, without being asked whether they are in fact already self-medicating.
To be honest, I wasn’t sure how to stop drinking. It was such an ingrained habit, and I was worried about what others might say, whether I’d be ridiculed and ‘sober shamed’, rather than congratulated for the sober badass I really was! When you stop smoking everyone says ‘well done!’ But if you stop drinking people tend to look concerned and ask if you ‘have a problem’.
You see ‘alcohol is the only drug you have to justify not taking’, and when I finally decided to quit, just for Dry January 2018, I didn’t tell anyone close to me. I felt a sense of shame and guilt that I couldn’t explain. In reality I found that if I stood my ground and said ‘Thanks I’d love a drink, I’ll have sparkling water’, people accepted that, if I hesitated and looked unsure, then they steamed in with ‘Can’t you just have one?’.
I’d given up for short periods before, during pregnancies, etc, but I had always counted the days till I could drink again. This time it was different. It was as if a light had come on, and I didn’t ever go back.
I found that rather than giving something up, I was gaining my life back. I discovered – to quote the most perfect book title by Catherine Gray, ‘the unexpected joy of being sober’!
If only someone had told me before how freaking fantastic life without alcohol is! I’d read about all the benefits that can come when you reduce or give up drinking. Better sleep, regulated weight, better digestion, better sex, better cognitive function, and many people report their anxiety reduces or dissipates. I didn’t lose any weight for a few months and I felt ‘chaotic’, but eventually all the benefits kicked in – and more. All the overheating stopped, no more hot flushes! My eyesight improved (really!) and I got shiny locks, sober hair (who knew!) And I feel younger. Want the best anti-ageing secret ever? Ditch the booze! (You’re welcome!) As for the mirror in the bedroom, I smile at it now, if I remember. There are still some bulges and I’m far from perfect, but it’s not self-loathing anymore. I’m not quite there yet, but I am ‘self-love curious’. I am… dare I say it, happy, healthy and sober.