Natalie's mother noticed how much her daughter was drinking at Christmas. So they had 'the talk'. Which is how Natalie found herself one of thousands ringing a national helpline. By Tom Anderson

When Natalie went home for Christmas, her parents were delighted to see her. Visits were becoming less frequent after the 26-year-old had moved to London two and a half years ago to pursue a career as a public relations executive. But the holiday did not go as planned.

Natalie had been drinking heavily at family meals and staying out until the early hours. Her worried parents finally decided to act. Natalie later called it "the talk".

She said "It was a wake-up call. My mum is a nurse and she spends a lot of her time treating people with alcohol-related liver damage. She told me they had both worried for a long time that I was in danger of becoming an alcoholic."

The following morning Natalie reached for the phone and dialled for help. She was not alone. After years of binge drinking, Britain's female twenty- and thirtysomethings are starting to pay the physical and psycological price.

The availability of cheap drink, high disposable income and greater financial independence all mean record numbers of worried women are getting in touch with helplines and talking to counsellors.

And Britain's growing army of drinkers is not simply giving up alcohol temporarily to give their battered livers a break. They are taking the pledge never to drink again. The calls last week flooded into Drinkwise, the government agency set up to deal with problem drinkers.

This year has seen record numbers of drinkers picking up the phone. The helpline, established in 1993, with offices around the country, had an unprecedented jump in calls over the past year with a 66 per cent rise in enquiries over Christmas.

According to a spokesman for the group, callers were especially concerned about drinking over Christmas, and were eager to turn their lives around.

The growing problem was echoed by other groups around the country. Phone lines at the Samaritans were also ringing off the hook. A spokesman said yesterday: "We get a big increase in calls over Christmas and of course alcohol is part of that. It's a hard time when people are having to face up to the prospect for the year ahead. The new year can seem a very bleak place, especially for alcoholics.

The Priory, the UK's leading provider of private mental health care and alcohol rehabilitation, says high-profile alcoholics in the media have led to a growing acceptance among women that alcohol problems can at last be discussed.

Karen Croft, spokeswoman for the group, said: "What we hope is that the climate is finally changing and that 2006 is going to be the year that people feel comfortable acknowledging that they have a mental health problem such as alcohol and they can finally feel confident in stating that they need that help."

Media coverage of the problems of the former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy has made it easier for women to talk, says Richard Kramer, director of policy at the alcohol charity Turning Point, an educational group dealing with addiction. He said: "The media coverage has been sympathetic to Mr Kennedy. His comments about seeking professional help for alcoholism helped to remove the stigma and shame associated with alcohol problems. It has helped draw attention to the extent of the problem in this country."

Mr Kennedy is not the only high-profile alcoholic in the news. Professor Nigel Williamson, George Best's former physician, is in no doubt that coverage of his client has been a major factor in a new openness towards alcoholism: "I'm not at all surprised at the big increase in women asking for help now. After George Best died I had many, many letters from people around the country with alcohol problems who felt able to suddenly talk about it. They had somebody to write to who was obviously concerned about the whole issue. It wasn't just men. Many of those were women as well. The situation, if anything, is more critical for women with alcohol problems because their biology is different."

As well a having a different biological makeup, social pressures are adding to the medical problems women face. Karen Croft of the Priory believes pressures on women have never been greater. She said: "Women are bombarded with messages that they have to succeed with every aspect of their lives. They feel they have to be beautiful, slim, eat healthily, have great careers, have wonderful relationships and raise perfect children. When you have the media bombarding women with these images it creates a climate in which women find it very difficult to admit to themselves 'I'm not perfect and I need help'."

Medical experts warn that more women will face problems. A spokesman for the Royal College of Physicians said: "Overwhelming evidence suggests that women suffer harm from alcohol at lower levels of consumption than men. Even allowing for differences in body weight, a woman will attain a higher blood alcohol concentration than a man from the same amount of alcohol. This may be because women have lower levels of alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH), an enzyme involved in the metabolism of alcohol."

And according to the spokesman, the medical profession faces an uphill battle: "Alcohol advertising is now targeted at women. Cultural attitudes favouring drinking and heavy drinking are in glossy magazines and on TV and receive frequent celebrity endorsement."

A European medical report warned last year that European alcohol consumption was likely to double in the next five years, with female Britons topping the league. A spokesman for the Institute of Alcohol Studies believes the problem is deeply rooted in a changing society. He said: "Women now have many more opportunities to drink than they did previously, and women's drinking has become far more socially acceptable."

Natalie has been off drink for three weeks now. She thinks about it every day, and she will avoid seeing her old friends for a while. She drinks a great deal of fruit juice. "At first I was afraid and daunted at the thought of life without a drink," she said. "But I'm beginning to realise I've set myself free."

THE WINE BUFF

Natalie is a PR executive who lives in south-west London. She stopped drinking after warnings from her parents. She was consuming a bottle of wine a night plus four or five double gins and beer and whisky chasers at weekends.

"I was drinking alarmingly. It was becoming like an obsession. I couldn't seem to function without it. I felt I couldn't go home after a day at work and not open a bottle of wine. I've always worked around wine and I'm a real connoisseur but it was getting to the stage where I was drinking every night. My friend told me that she was going to give up boozing, and I thought, 'I'll just never be able to do it'. Finally I thought, 'I don't really want to be alcohol dependent'. I want to have the same quality of life not drinking as I have drinking. I find it difficult to go out because I can't bear to see my friends drinking and I have to avoid pubs. It's something I think I'll reap the benefits from. My parents are very pleased."

THE PARTY GIRL

Claire, 29, is a freelance media consultant who lives alone in Fleet, Hampshire. She regularly visits London for parties and became worried about her drinking.

"The main reason is the health side of things. December is always such a busy month. I go to a lot of parties and it's all about having fun and chatting, with a glass of wine in your hand. I'd started to notice real problems with tiredness and my skin. I didn't have the energy to go to the gym. Of course drink helped my confidence. I'm the kind of girl who goes out for an evening and I'm never 100 per cent sure about the outfit I've chosen. A couple of glasses of wine later and it doesn't seem to matter so much. I'm glad I've stopped. Now at parties, instead of wine I have glasses of water. I feel like I want to go home and have a healthy meal in the evening. I'm sleeping much better at night. I got bored with feeling cloudy and dehydrated. Now I'm able to get out of bed in the morning and start the day."

THE LONG-TERM DRINKER

Sophie is a 32-year-old writer from Earls Court. She vowed on New Year's Day that she would cut back on drinking. She has resolved to enjoy life outside pubs, bars and restaurants, which invariably centre on alcohol.

"Drink became a steady part of my life from around the age of 17 and has never really gone away. I was drinking around one and a half bottles of wine each time I went out, which was five times a week. Recently, I had gained weight and began suffering stomach cramps caused by excess alcohol. I decided I couldn't continue like this for the rest of my life. While drinking with friends was great fun, there had to be more to life. The amount I was drinking was making me permanently tired and forgetful; I was forever retracing my steps. looking for my keys and mobile phone. I feel more awake and to my surprise I have discovered that life without booze is not boring. Now I have more energy I am hoping I will get fit."

THE ALCO-POPPER

Lucy, 19, lives in Milton Keynes and works in marketing. She would often visit bars in the town centre and drink vodka-based alcopops.

"I've noticed a change in my overall body shape in the past few years. Drinking shows on your body. I've put on pounds and I've gone up a dress size. I used to do a lot of dancing but I gave that up because I didn't feel fit enough. I want to feel better in myself. I was going out several times a week. And I was coming home from work and having a glass of wine. I don't like pubs, but I go to bars a lot. I liked lime- flavoured vodka, Malibu and doubles of spirits because the hangover wasn't as bad as with beer. Now I've given up, I get the odd craving every now and then but I've just said to myself, 'This is a complete detox'. I feel so much clearer in my head. I feel more alert at work and don't feel tired in the evenings. I've even joined the local David Lloyd gym. It's only been two weeks but I feel so much better."

LARGE MEASURES

220 LITRES OF alcohol per year is the average amount drunk by British women aged 18 to 25. They consume more than five bottles of wine a week, almost four times more than their Italian counterparts and three time more than their French ones.

291 LITRES OF alcohol. The average amount that British women will drink annually by 2009, according to a European survey by Datamonitor. This is the equivalent of three large glasses of wine a day and would mean a doubling of alcohol consumption in a decade.

80.7 LIFE EXPECTANCY of a woman born in 2004. The figure for men is 76. In 1990 the difference was 7.5 years. The growing culture of drinking among British women is regarded as the main reason for the reduced difference.

23% OF WOMEN aged between 16 and 24 drink more than 21 units of alcohol per week. The advised limit is 14 units, or two per day. This is roughly equal to 175ml of red wine per day.

40% OF ALCOHOLIC women in Britain have tried to commit suicide. The figure for non-alcoholic women is 8.8 per cent.

35% OF WOMEN after reporting being raped admit to they had been drinking before to the offence. Some 70 per cent of those women were not even sure if intercourse had happened. In these cases, the conviction rate is just 5.5 per cent.

51,108 DRINK-RELATED hospital admissions in 2004 and 2005, a rise of 28 per cent since 1997.

45% OF WOMEN later regret drunken sexual encounters; 44 per cent find it difficult to socialise without a drink, and 73 per cent have regretted making a telephone call or sending a text while under the influence.

250% RISE IN liver cirrhosis deaths among women in England and Wales since the 1950s. In most other European countries deaths have fallen by an average of 20 to 30 per cent since the 1970s.

Sion Morgan

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