The human condition: The glass of white wine after work is fast becoming a bottle or three for the young and single. Lucy O'Brien on a worrying trend
"At the end of a working day all I want is a glass of cold white wine," says Marianne, aged 29, a television researcher on a current affairs programme.

"There's a friendly move down to the wine bar with my colleagues and after a couple of glasses, the day's problems recede. But it's hard to stop there and I spend about pounds 40 in an evening. I need to drink more than I did in my teens and as I've got older the hangovers get harder. After a binge there's a smell of stale alcohol, an internal soreness and sometimes I can't remember how the night before ended. How did I get home? Was I staggering round after the pubs are shut looking for a taxi?"

The latest figures from the National Audit Office indicate that women are drinking too much. It can seem unfair, even moralistic, to bang on about the dangers of women drinking when men's drinking problems still outnumber women's two to one. But while men's drinking has stabilised over recent years, women's has increased. If the present trend continues, the number of women drinking too much - about three million - will match the number of men over-drinking (about six million) by the year 2000. Another reason for concern is that women's bodies are more sensitive to the toxic effects of alcohol than men's. "It's not a male conspiracy," says Alcohol Concern. "Women's bodies have less water and more fat. Alcohol is more concentrated in the female bloodstream and the liver has to work harder to break it down."

But ''ladette'' culture tends to scoff at health warnings and women aged 18-24 are among those who drink the most. "I started drinking at university," says Marianne. "I changed instantly from a shy teenager to someone easy- going and chatty. I'd match the boys pint for pint and we'd crash around in great drunken groups. It was all part of the fun of being a student."

After young women, the women who drink the most are single professionals. "The governing factor in alcohol consumption is disposable income," says Alcohol Concern. "The women who drink the most are those who can afford to."

Money isn't the only factor. In Getting Sober... And Loving It (Vermillion pounds 6.99), a journalist recalls how her news editor on a national paper instructed her how to "drink like a gentleman". "And that was my aim," she says, "to drink with the boys and present a successful drinking image."

"Women in the workplace are following the patterns set by men," says Lindy Gibbon from Advice and Counselling on Alcohol and Drugs (ACAD). "In a male-dominated society, women feel they have to adopt male mores if they want to get on, to be seen to be 'as good as', if not 'better than', men."

"Women are expected to be perfect, thin, powerful but not too powerful," says Corinne Sweet, addictions expert and author of the self-help book Off The Hook (Piatkus pounds 10.99). "Instead they may feel plump, forgetful, powerless or envious. Alcohol smoothes out jagged feelings and gives the illusion of feeling nurtured. No wonder some clients call the bottle their best friend."

The workplace is a highly pressured environment and alcohol is society's drug of choice for dealing with stress. "Perhaps if women had got to the workplace first they'd have designed it differently," says Sue Priest of the Women's Alcohol Centre, London. "There are natural ways to unwind such as having a nap, a walk or aromatherapy."

The Women's Alcohol Centre, part of the Alcohol Recovery Project, is one of the few centres providing a women-only service. Research shows that women with drink problems are more likely to approach agencies that are geared to women but, due to shrinking budgets, there are now even fewer recovery services for women. Meanwhile, help with child- care has been cut back and the few remaining women-only residential centres are now facing a precarious future. "The Government pays lip-service to halting the increase in women's drinking but no extra money is being ploughed back," says Christine Reddington of the Alcohol Recovery Project, London's biggest alcohol service. Four years ago women's drinking was targeted by Stephen Dorrell, the Secretary of State for Health, as a key area in the Government's campaign to improve the health of the nation. This month's report from the National Audit Commission shows that not only has that target not been met but that women's drinking has increased.

In the light of this, Mr Dorrell's policy to raise the limits of safe drinking last Christmas makes little sense. Dubbed by critics "a boozer's charter", the new guidelines replaced the weekly limit of 14 units for women (and 21 for men) to a daily limit of two to three units for women, and three to four for men.

"Despite the Government's stated intention to stop alcohol abuse, it's giving the message that it's OK to drink more," says the NHS alcohol specialist Dr Chris Johnstone. "Alcohol kills over 10 times as many people as all illegal drugs put together. Women are being targeted as consumers because they represent an expanding market. The drinks industry is big business." In taxes alone, it raises pounds 7.5bn a year. According to Corinne Sweet, developing self- esteem is the best tool for resisting societal pressures. "When a person feels respected and cherished, there is a natural boundary, a feeling of, 'no, I don't want to drink to excess and feel ill'," she says.

Marianne is practising self-care and is cutting down. Knowing she can't stop at one glass, she drinks water between wine and several nights a week she doesn't drink at all. "Instead of waking up wishing I hadn't opened that third bottle, I feel clear-headed and pleased with myself," she says. "Cutting down has definitely been easier than I thought it would."

8 For information or advice: Alcohol Concern: 0171-928 7377; Women's Alcohol Centre 0171-226 4581; Drinkline 0345 320202

'i'd be in the office at midnight, working and drinking, trying to be superwoman'

Faith, 39, recovering alcoholic

"I started drinking in earnest in the Eighties, the greedy Thatcher years. I was managing bands and running an independent record company with my then partner. The more successful we got, the more alcohol was consumed. We networked with large recording companies in bars and restaurants, and drinking was all part of the expense-account lifestyle. No one thought twice about coming into meetings wrecked - we were all in the same boat.

"Alcohol was woven into every part of my life. Buying the best wines was a sign of success. At weekends we socialised with friends and I drank to de-stress at the end of the day. In the early Nineties I split up with my business partner and the father of my son [now in his teens]. Working as a solo woman in a male- dominated world increased the pressures and the need to drink. I was expected to do far more than a man. Sometimes I'd be in the office at midnight, working and drinking, trying to be superwoman.

"I always had to be on my guard. Boundaries get blurred in bistros and there were often sexual undercurrents, a 'you be nice to me and I'll be nice to you' message from guys who held the purse strings. I resented it, but I didn't dare be confrontational and risk losing the deal. Drinking numbed my feelings of discomfort. I gradually pulled away from the music business, but I was still using alcohol to suppress my real feelings. I was a single parent and suffering the aftermath of an abusive relationship with my son's father. I was full of rage and grief but also guilt for leaving my violent ex. I wanted to be a dutiful mother, daughter and wife, a perfect woman with no inner turmoil.

"Drinking amplifies emotional problems. Three years ago I had a nervous breakdown and became agoraphobic. My son went to live with his father. I was diagnosed as clinically depressed and my drinking got worse. In my head I knew I had an alcohol problem but there is a world of difference between intellectual knowledge and a gut feeling.

"About a year ago all the feelings of claustrophobia, guilt, failure and fear surfaced. I was mentally all over the place. I had two detox admissions and two relapses. I had to wait two weeks before my third detox admission but I had to keep drinking because my GP wouldn't let me stop without clinical supervision. Two weeks of hell; in bed, the blinds shuttered, incapable of looking after myself. My life was reduced to the journey between my flat and the off-licence. I was at the end of the road. I knew then with every fibre of my being that my drinking had to stop.

"Since that last detox, I've attended the Women's Alcohol Centre every day. It's my lifeline. Being in a women-only group has given me support and safety. I can be open without the fear that a man will make advances. I have acupuncture which relaxes me. For the first time in my life I'm learning to be still.

"The pressures which fed my need to drink are painful and deep-rooted. I hear my mother's voice saying, 'you're such a selfish child, Faith'. Like many women, I was trained from an early age to care for others. For the first time I'm learning to look after myself."