I didn’t know my friend had a drinking problem until she died

I have (had) an old friend who I met during our kids’ years at primary school. She wasn’t a close friend, but we hung with the same crowd – we were part of what she always called ‘the usual suspects’, i.e. the parents who were always involved with fetes and fundraising, reading and helping with swimming and sports days.

She was an energetic, bossy, hilarious, outspoken woman with a razor-sharp wit. She could organise a school fete while working as an engineer and adoring her two handsome, young sons – she was pretty much Wonder Woman.

She was one of those people that everyone gravitates toward, because she always had an interesting or shocking or hilarious story to tell…and everyone did what she said, because even though we loved her, we were secretly all just a little bit scared of her!

We hadn’t seen her a lot over the last few years, because our kids had gone off to different secondary schools, but we still caught up at birthday parties, Christmas celebrations and sometimes at the local shopping centre.

About 18 months ago, I heard she’d been unwell and lost some weight. I didn’t ask what was wrong, because that would be rude, and no diagnosis was ever offered – anyway, it didn’t sound as if it was anything much to worry about.

We saw her at a birthday party last year – just for a short time though. Her family needed to leave early for some reason.

Last weekend we were shocked to hear that she had died after a ‘long illness’. How had we not known she’d been so sick? What had happened to her? Why hadn’t anyone said anything?

The devastating truth was that our friend had had a drinking problem for several years. It’s just not the sort of thing people talk about, and she’d somehow been able to hide her alcohol dependence from all but her closest friends. Throughout all those years we’d often seen her with a glass of red in her hand, but we’d never (knowingly) seen her drunk. We’d had absolutely no idea what she and her family were privately dealing with (and why they’d had to leave that party so early).

Her death is an important reminder that people with alcohol dependence don’t have to be the stereotypical, overweight businessmen who have too many boozy lunches, or homeless people sleeping on a park bench clutching a bottle in a brown paper bag. It turns out they can also be high-functioning, highly-respected members of our community.

Perhaps they may be, like my friend, women in male-dominated professions who might have started drinking to keep up with, and be treated as equals by, their male colleagues. They might be people who are very sociable and see a glass (or a bottle) of wine as an expected part of socialising.

They may be parents who love their families but leave them behind because they just can’t control their dependence, at least not until the damage has already been done.

We already miss our clever, funny friend, but she’s left us with a sobering reminder. Drinking too much really does have consequences – even if it’s socially acceptable drinking. Even if nobody knows how much you’ve been drinking, and even if it doesn’t seem to be affecting your ability to do your job or be part of your community. Your body still feels the effects and long-term drinking will take its toll, even if that toll can’t be seen from the outside at first.

Back in 2009 the National Health and Medical Research Centre (NHMRC) released the Australian guidelines to reduce health risks from drinking alcohol. Guideline number one aims to reduce the risk of alcohol-related harm over the lifetime, and states that ‘Healthy men and women should drink no more than two standard drinks on any day’. Exactly how much is a standard drink? 100 ml of wine. That means we shouldn’t be drinking any more than 200 ml of wine a day if we don’t want to suffer long-term effects.

Some people might say that limit is unrealistically low, but the fact is, it only seems low because too many of us drink way too much, too often.  We need to find new ways to socialise and to deal with stress without relying on alcohol – our lives really do depend on it!

Get more information about standard drinks on the DrugInfo website.