'You have to behave like a man'
Helen competed with the City boys and succeeded - but at huge personal cost. EMMA COOK tells her story
Sunday 25 July 1999
Helen was heading for a fall and she knew it. Really it was only a matter of when and how fast. Sipping her sparkling mineral water, she muses, "Six months ago, I'd have said it's a tough world but anyone can do it. I'd have said that women must be men's men and those that don't drink and go out are wimps and weeds. That's what I would have said."
Her pale-blue eyes settle on her glass. "I probably wasn't very good to other women. Sisterly behaviour? What was that?" She laughs bleakly. Now she prefers Perrier to gin and doesn't really favour the company of men any more, not professionally anyway. "I can't respect them - I've worked too long with them in the City. Now they all seem like little kids."
Not so long ago Helen, 38, and a senior stockbroker, was consumed by the world this particular breed of male children inhabit. But in January it all went wrong. Horribly wrong. She would drink at lunchtime, come back to the office in a haze and then start on the gin and wine again in the evening with anyone who would join her. Over the years, she brushed aside friends' hints that she was drinking too much. In January, though, she couldn't ignore the warning signs any longer. "I felt I was out of control," she says. "I knew I had to stop even though I still thought of myself as a social drinker. I decided to talk to my GP about it and he said, 'No, really, you're an alcoholic'."
A documentary to be shown on Channel 4 traces her experiences from late last year, along with four or five other characters in City Stories, as part of a fly-on-the-wall glimpse of the world's most financially prosperous square mile. The programme follows upstart Essex traders, old-school green- belt brokers, City cleaners and anarchic protesters. There is a sense that some of the characters are drifting out of time while technology overtakes them; their identities are bound to the City yet they're clinging on to a culture that is eroding. Still, though, the most vulnerable character in the film also happens to be the only female City worker to make an appearance, which shouldn't be significant but somehow it is. "Someone else asked me about that," says Helen. "Why was the only woman character the one who couldn't survive it? I don't know - I think it can happen to anyone though."
Still, Helen believes she had further to fall because she was pretending to be someone else. She says drink helped her to adopt a certain pattern of behaviour that is the armour of City life; behaviour that is intrinsically male. Although she successfully recruited more women into her last office, her attitude towards them was ambivalent. "I thought they should behave like men. You got cut off from other women because of that." That behaviour didn't come naturally to her she now realises. "I felt desperate and empty. Now I look at the men and realise they behave in a way that isn't strong or healthy; having an over-inflated ego, being aggressive, manipulative, not thinking about other people. The alcoholic mindset fitted in very nicely with the City; it's about making people do what you want, being aggressive and intolerant."
After her visit to the GP, Helen promptly spent four weeks in the Priory which she says was a, "horrible but fascinating experience. It's all group therapy and people tell you things you really don't want to hear about yourself. I had to learn to do away with that arrogance; the I-can sort- myself-out attitude."
She says that her recovery has frightened a lot of the men at work. "I think they were astonished I could stop. It also makes them feel uncomfortable - if this is what their drinking buddy has done, where does that leave them?" She now talks in the unmistakable language of the addict-in-recovery; her conversation littered with references to her new-found confessional self-awareness.
She talks about her past as if it happened to a completely different person. Which in a way it did. Helen studied law at Oxford and followed her friends straight into the City. By 29 she was heading up the sales division of a City stockbrokers - the only woman on the floor and deeply aware of that fact. "There would always be accusations that you were sleeping with clients - that pissed me off. There are a number of areas where it's unfair; if you're ugly, they sneer at you. If you're attractive, they harass you. I was a woman boss; I felt unpopular. I minded that a lot of people didn't like me."
Instinctively Helen felt there was no choice about the sort of persona she had to project. "You have to be very self-confident, aggressive, impatient. You also have to accept you'll be exposed to a level of sexism."
When a new boss took over, Helen lost her job which was the first time her ego took a hefty blow. "I was devastated; my self-esteem depended on my work. It was totally consuming and I horribly neglected everything else in my life." Relationships also suffered. "I lived with someone and his life was a misery. All I talked about was work. I wasn't surprised when he left me for another woman."
She started with a new company and the drinking continued along with the facade of hard-nosed success. Every evening would be spent entertaining clients at bars and restaurants. "I was totally consumed by the whole thing. I couldn't relate to anyone who wasn't connected to the City." A sad snapshot of this existence is her descriptions of her weekends, which were horribly isolated. "I'd get in on Friday and speak to no one until Monday morning. I'd binned all my friends, I didn't go to the gym because that was too healthy. I had nothing to do. I'd get in to work on Monday morning and feel grim inside."
She sips her water, then lights another Silk Cut; her expensive-looking tan becoming a little paler in the early evening light. Her accent is cut-glass, strong and authoritative yet her manner often seems nervous, self-deprecating. Everything around her, the small patio, the garden furniture and the decor of her house, seem slightly worn and tarnished, outward signs that all her energies and interest have been devoted elsewhere. Now, though, she is redecorating her house, an indication, perhaps, that she's re-focusing her life.
Six months later - and still dry - Helen has hung onto the City job, the Lotus Elite, the six-figure salary and the three-storey mews house in Chelsea. Somehow, though, without the booze, the drive for power and success has diminished, along with the fascination with material success. She clocks into work but the milieu no longer consumes her. "The Priory put huge stress on having to relate to other people to keep you sane. What's important to me now is my friends. I'm grateful for the money but it's not the be-all and end-all." Once you've made that realisation, surely it must be hard to find the motivation to work somewhere like the City. "I'm considering other things," she admits. "In two years I may start my own business, or go to Cornwall and write a book."
Although her own behaviour has softened, she still feels that women coming into the City must play by the rules or get out. The personal effort of doing just that nearly broke her, but she can't see another way of succeeding. "It's a chauvinistic environment. You have to accept levels of harassment. I'm not in favour of girls who report guys for saying things like, 'Get your tits out'. You have to say something back like, 'You wouldn't know what to do with them if I did'. I'd like to say attitudes are changing but really they're not. You still have to play it on their terms."
'City Stories' on Channel 4 begins on 29 July at 11.05pm.
WORK HARD, DRINK HARDER
Down at City wine bar Corney and Barrow in Liverpool St last week, the drinking was heavy...
Jenny, 26, financial dealer
"I've shared two bottles already with my friend. We'll probably have a couple of Absolut and then go on to a restaurant."
Richard, 28, financial dealer
"It's a shame when women get drunk because they make such fools of themselves. They usually get too emotional."
Christine, 28, trainee management consultant
"We're binge drinkers definitely - we're onto our fourth vodka and cranberry and we've just ordered a bottle of wine. I'm here to celebrate someone's birthday and I only drink like this once or twice a week."
Sarah, drinking with Christine
"I drink to get drunk - in fact I drink to throw up - about twice a week on average."
"I'm onto my second bottle of wine and I'm here with two other friends. We'll probably stop at a bottle each. I don't think the men resent women drinking. If anything, they don't like you to drink sensibly - they want you to keep up".
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