Losing everything to drink


Handbags, coats, money, makeup, jewellery, and more importantly, virginity, sanity and jobs are regularly lost by drunk young women. Dr Edmund O'Flaherty is a GP who meets women who have lost their dignity as well. Having worked in the Well Woman Centre and the Rotunda, he has considerable experience of young women's drinking problems and of young women alcoholics.

"`How much do you drink?' I'd ask a young girl," he says, "`Oh, I only drink two nights a week'."

"How much do you drink?" "Five or six pints maybe on each night'." At that level, he says, they become quite uninhibited, and he is sure that "there are some women that go out on the town and they don't know what's going to happen them that night".

"At a certain level of alcohol toxicity the short-term memory part of the brain is out of action. And they get a few hours, often, where they can't remember what happened. They worry enormously about that. They come to me for the morning after pill, saying `I don't know if I had sex last night. I don't know what happened me'," he explains.

He refers to one case where a student, who he says drank "a fair bit", got pregnant six times in the three years she spent in college. She had five abortions and a baby.

Young women regularly look for the morning after pill after the weekend because of excessive drinking, according to Shirley McQuade, medical director of the Well Woman Centre. She puts it down to women going out with the office crowd on a Friday night and drinking so much they can't remember what they've done. There are a number of warning signs, Dr O'Flaherty says, for alcohol dependency. He lists blackouts, missing work, being constantly short of money, broken relationships, rows. "When they have to drink every day - that's the point when it gets a grip on them."

According to Rolande Anderson, counsellor and director of the alcohol project at the Irish College of General Practitioners, there has been a large increase in women in their early 20s presenting themselves at treatment centres for alcohol. He also notes it is more common for female problem drinkers to be secret drinkers.

Dr O'Flaherty believes that because women start drinking young, by the time they leave college they have established a habit. Dr O'Flaherty does not agree with alcohol-sponsored events on college campuses, and likens them to giving away any other drug that's addictive: "They get a taste for it and they hold onto it for life then." Binge drinking also forms an identifiable pattern. According to Dr Diane Patterson, a consultant psychiatrist working in Shaftesbury Square Hospital in Belfast, "younger drinkers tend to drink to get drunk, and they are likely to binge drink - to . . . drink on fewer occasions, but to drink heavily."

Binge drinking is a major worry, Rolande Anderson explains, because of the health related harms, but also the psychological consequences. He stresses that, psychologically, people who are drinking to excess are becoming depressed. He says that women alcoholics get all the alcohol-related problems much more severely, much earlier, in a deadlier form, including cirrhosis, liver damage, a certain amount of brain damage, and there are also concerns about alcohol and breast cancer.

He cites drunkenness and more immediate safety issues, such as falling off pavements, banging the head, and having sex in public, as worrying and frequent behaviour. Skin problems, memory loss, loss of control, emotional damage, shame, hurt, embarrassment, are all warning signs exhibited by a young woman with an alcohol problem.

Because women are smaller than men and have proportionately more fat and less water in their bodies, over-drinking can be especially harmful. Alcohol is absorbed in the stomach, and goes into the system almost instantly. "Alcohol is a very powerful, very impressive drug. It can cause them an enormous amount of damage," says Dr O'Flaherty. In his experience it affects the liver primarily, but the brain more long term: "Their IQ drops. Their brain collapses. It's just very toxic." Young women will look haggard, blood vessels can be visible in the face, and their eyes can be bloodshot.

As a result of heavier drinking by young women, Dr Patterson says that an increased death rate can be expected. A proportion will become alcoholics or alcohol-dependent and will incur much more serious problems. Dr O'Flaherty says it's reckoned that 2 per cent of women will become alcoholics at the present rate, as against five or six per cent of men. The total numbers that have become alcoholics by their early 20s is not that high, but he is certainly seeing far more than he did 10 years ago. Celtic people have the genes for it, he notes. The Alcohol Research Project is examining the validity of this statement, trying to determine if people have a genetic predisposition towards alcohol dependency. A great deal can be learnt about genes and environmental factors by interviewing siblings with an alcohol dependency problem. The question why, after all, is on the tip of everyone's tongue.

Those interested in participating in the Alcohol Research Project can call 1800 200041.