London - There was a time when Flora Lee marked the end of the day by putting her children to bed and retreating to the kitchen to pour herself a well-deserved drink.
She refers to it as “that first gin and tonic of the evening” - the longed for moment when she could put the daily grind behind her.
“It signalled the beginning of me-time,” says the 30-year-old mother of two.
However, the problem was that Flora was following up that gin and tonic with a glass of wine - and then several more.
At one stage, she admits she was polishing off a bottle of wine a night over dinner with her husband Nick, a fraud consultant.
“I had reached the stage where occasionally I couldn’t remember going to bed. I”d never drink to the point of falling over, but I could see I was drinking far too much,” she says.
Flora was drinking up to 60 units of alcohol every week, more than four times the recommended levels, but worryingly her story is far from unusual.
The latest government statistics show that behind the closed doors of Britain’s middle-class homes, drinking has reached an all-time high. What’s more, middle-class women are twice as likely to be heavy and regular drinkers as any other class or sector of society.
Almost one in five women drinks to excess - and the number drinking more than the recommended number of units has grown by a fifth over the past decade, according to new figures from the Office for National Statistics.
By contrast, men’s drinking habits have remained constant over the past ten years.
Like Flora, drinking for these women has become a routine way of “self-medicating” against the stresses and strains of everyday life.
“It reached the stage where I wasn’t getting hangovers, but I was feeling sluggish and tired in the mornings,” says Flora, a former PA who lives in South-West London with her 36-year-old husband and their children Holly, five, and Jack, two. She stopped drinking when she was pregnant, but once her babies were born she began again. Not surprisingly, alcohol soon became a refuge from the pressures of motherhood.
“I had post-natal depression after Jack and found that drinking made me feel less blue,” she says. “It became a form of escapism.”
Jane Hopkins, a 34-year-old businesswoman from Warwickshire, agrees.
“Wine is the punctuating moment to my day,” she says. “Once I have tidied up and sat down at my laptop in the evening, that is the time for the bottle of Chardonnay to come out. Wine signals a time to relax.”
According to Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, former president of the Royal College of Physicians, many high-earning women are turning to drink to alleviate stress.
“Alcohol is a sedative, but it’s also a drug of dependence. Often, these people don’t realise that,” he says.
Most would not even regard themselves as binge drinkers, despite the fact the NHS says that women who drink more than six units a day are just that. One unit is equal to half a standard 175ml glass of wine. Jane, who is single and runs Mums Club, an online networking business for women, is aware that she drinks a little too much, but refuses to believe it is a serious problem.
“I have never classed myself as a heavy drinker, but I can see I am reliant on alcohol,” she says. “I know I drink more than the recommended number of units for women in a week. I probably get through three or four bottles.”
It doesn’t help that she is surrounded by friends doing exactly the same thing.
“Alcohol has no social stigma. It isn’t as if we are all falling about drunk. I really rely on wine to relax me. I honestly do not know how I would cope without it. Just the action of pouring out a glass is calming,” she says.
Robin Touquet, Professor in Emergency Medicine at Imperial College, London, and one of Britain’s leading alcohol experts, describes the phenomenon as “gratification for being the domestic goddess”.
“Many women simply do not appreciate how dangerous it is to drink wine every day,” he says.
He points the finger at the way alcohol is being marketed at women.
“Drinks companies do everything they can to make drinking seem safe and sensible. Supermarkets sell wine at low prices to encourage sales. Women are made to feel that it’s natural to have their shopping basket filled with wine as well as food.”
Old government guidelines stated that men should consume no more than 21 units of alcohol a week, while for women the limit was 14. But the latest Department of Health advice says women should have no more than three units a day and that they have at least two alcohol-free days a week.
“If you find it hard to have a couple of alcohol-free days then you have to question whether or not you are developing a dependency on alcohol,” says Professor Touquet.
PR executive Natasha Chilon, 35, from West Dulwich, South-East London, admits she drinks most nights, but takes comfort from the fact that her reckless drinking is mirrored by her friends.
“If I couldn’t have a drink I do not know how I would unwind,” she says. “I know that I use wine to self-medicate, but an awful lot of women are the same.’
Natasha, who has clients in Los Angeles, often takes calls during the night and so rarely gets more than four or five hours of sleep. She feels constantly exhausted.
Recently separated from her husband and with the responsibility of caring for her disabled mother, she has no intention of giving up drinking - despite suffering hangovers.
“I’m not a binge drinker,’ she says. “I am just someone who has come to rely on alcohol and feels anxious if I can’t drink. I know I would feel much more healthy without it, but I don’t think I can stop.
“I do a full day’s work, then come home and care for my mother, and then I sit down at my laptop at 10pm or 11pm and out comes the wine.’
Last year, a study carried out at the London School of Economics found a link between educational attainment and alcohol consumption, after researchers tracked the lives of thousands of 39-year-old women.
The report’s authors offered several possible explanations, including the fact that female graduates tend to have children later and therefore often have more active social lives or work in male-dominated workplaces with a drinking culture.
They are also likely to have grown up in middle-class families where their parents drank regularly.
Heavy drinkers face a higher risk of health problems such as cancer, cirrhosis of the liver, lung and cardiovascular disease, as well as mental illness.
Experts say women need to wake up to the fact that the concept of “Wine O’Clock” - the nickname for the hour at which the first drink of the day is poured - isn’t turning out to be as much fun as they first thought.
It’s a lesson Flora Lee learned to her cost. “A middle-aged male friend died of a heart attack last year and that was my wake-up call. I could see I was drinking far too much. I have two gorgeous children and want to be around for them,” she says.
“I got so worried I recently bought a liver check test kit that measures potential damage to your liver through drinking. To my utter alarm, I was in the ‘amber to red’ scale, which meant I was drinking way too much and in danger of causing long-term damage to my liver.
“The leaflet advised I give up drinking for a month and see my doctor. He reassured me that I had not done any permanent damage, but that I must cut down.
“I haven’t given up drinking, but I have two or three alcohol-free days and for the rest of the time I restrict myself to one or two glasses. The weight has fallen off me, too - at least half a stone. I feel much more healthy.”
But many middle-class women don’t learn their lesson until it is almost too late.
Forty-year-old Georgina Hawkins lives in Herefordshire with her three children, William, 13, Susanna, 12, and Sarah, seven. Her drinking began as a single glass of chilled white wine at the end of the day to help her cope with the stress of having a new baby.
“Looking back, I think I had post-natal depression, but it was never diagnosed,” she says.
“I simply knew I felt much better after a glass of wine - all my other middle-class mommy friends were doing the same thing.”
But that single glass of wine began to creep up. “Within a year, I was drinking a bottle of white wine a night. But drinking wine is socially acceptable - it’s what the middle classes do when we get together. If I ever casually mentioned I thought I should cut down they’d all tell me not to be so silly.”
It got to the point when Georgina found herself drinking during the day and then opening a second bottle in the evening. “My then husband ran a landscape gardening business and he didn’t notice I was drinking too much, because he liked a glass of wine, too. It was a sociable thing we did together.”
Georgina didn’t drink during her first two pregnancies, but when she was pregnant with her youngest daughter, she was unable to stop.
“I always had a bottle of wine chilling in the fridge. It just took the edge off, as I was going through such a stressful time,” she says.
“My father was ill with cancer, my marriage was descending into a series of rows and I felt inadequate,” she says.
During one row, when they were both drinking, Georgina hit her husband. He rang the police and she was arrested.
By the 17th week of her third pregnancy she realised she had to stop drinking and checked herself into rehab. But after Sarah was born - without suffering any physical effects due to her mother’s alcohol intake - she began drinking heavily again.
By the time Sarah was six months old, Georgina’s life had begun to spiral out of control. “It was hell,” she says. “That social glass of wine had turned into a nightmare. I couldn’t stop.
“I had blackouts, I would wake in the morning covered in bruises, unable to remember what had happened or how I had got to bed.
The older children even rang my parents, saying: ‘Come and get us, Mummy is drunk.’ I started hiding drink - there were bottles of wine under the mattress.”
Her perfect middle-class life had fallen apart.
“I realised I had to stop. I’d separated from my husband and moved from our former home near Hampton Court to rural Herefordshire.
“It was so hard, but I stopped drinking, with help from Alcoholics Anonymous. It’s been really tough, but I have not had a glass of wine for several years.
“I know many middle-class women who are still drinking heavily, but they will not admit they have a problem.
“Wine and that lovely gin and tonic at the end of the day has become the panacea of the middle classes. But I know only too well how one glass turns into a bottle - and the damage it can do.” - Daily Mail