SPECIAL REPORT - Harrogate’s ‘hidden’ drinking problem

tis  Sarah Turner.  (131125M1b)
tis Sarah Turner. (131125M1b)
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A hidden drinking epidemic is reaching ‘epic proportions’, a Harrogate campaigner has warned. Reporter RUBY KITCHEN investigates:

“Go to a posh dinner party and the first thing they ask is what you’re having to drink,” says Sarah Turner, a Harrogate author and recovering alcoholic. “You’re as stigmatised for not having a drink as you are for having one.

“It’s become the norm–- everyone does it. But we’re not going out and getting plastered and calling ambulances. We’re doing it on the sofa, and falling up the stairs.”

Alcohol abuse in the Harrogate district is no new problem. The town famously topped all tables in 2007 to be named the hazardous drinking capital of the country.

In 2011, it emerged as an under-age drinking hotspot, with 1.6 times more child admissions to hospital than the national average.

And last year, it was named the drink-drive capital of the country, with more prosecutions per head of population than anywhere else.

“Harrogate is awash with alcoholics,” said Sarah who, having banished her own drink demons, now runs a haven for recovering women in South Stainley.

“But it’s not old soaks, on park benches. It’s the yummy mummies, in their Lexus cars, and you can smell it on them at the school gates.”

The latest figures, for 2013, show that nearly a quarter of all adults in the district have a ‘high-risk’ level of drinking.

This is anything over the recommended three to four units a day for men and two to three for women.

But, says Sarah, the reality is far more disturbing. The figures are down to middle-aged, middle-class drinkers, for whom a bottle of wine at dinner has become the nightly norm.

“I’ve had clients saying they give their 14-year-olds wine for parties,” she said.

“Mums, having a bottle with dinner, think that’s normal. They drink at the end of the day. They have families, demands, jobs and once they get their kids to bed, it’s ‘wine time’.

“But a lot of people, like me, have a faulty on-off button. There is no off button.

“For them, a bottle a night is normal. That’s hazardous drinking. And they don’t want to get to the stage where I was at – with vodka on the cornflakes.”

Sarah, who has run The Sanctuary in South Stainley for 18 months, has seen 51 women in the past year who are concerned about their drinking. Her youngest client is 32. The oldest, 73.

The 57-year-old mum, who gave up drinking 12 years ago after a long battle with alcoholism, has now written a book with Lucy Rocca.

The Sober Revolution, launched at WH Smith and Waterstones this week, focuses on ‘secret drinkers’.

The trend, of excessive drinking at home, is now being highlighted in national newspapers and on ITV’s Tonight programme.

And in affluent Harrogate, says Sarah, it is worse than in many towns.

It’s harder for middle-class, middle-aged women, she says, to access the kind of support that would make them feel comfortable.

“Harrogate is in denial about its problem,” she said. “And because the denial is so strong, people suffer more.

“Yes, there is a lot wealth in Harrogate. But there’s a lot of ‘keeping up with the Joneses.

“When you’re a middle- aged, middle-class woman, the option of going to an open meeting with men is simply not appropriate.”

More needs to be done to recognise the issue of alcoholism among middle aged, middle-class drinkers, she said.

“Alcoholism is just a big habit – a very destructive habit,” she said. “You lose your self-respect. You feel an absolute bloody failure. It’s a very sad and lonely place.”

“When I couldn’t get down the stairs I was shaking so much, when I was hiding bottles in the knicker drawer, in the tumble dryer, I knew I was an alcoholic.”

Recovering alcoholic Sarah Turner bravely opens up about her own story and the terrible depths she reached before pulling herself out of this black hole.

“Both my parents were very heavy drinkers,” she said. “They weren’t abusive, they were just very jolly people. They drank at good times, at bad times.

“Sadly, my father was an alcoholic in the end. He died when I was 13. My mother was also a very heavy drinker.

“She had all the excuses: my twin brother died when I was two, then my father was ill, and she was on mother’s little helper – Valium.

“My first experience of alcohol, as a teenager, was like ‘wow – this is how I want to be’.

“I was shy, this gave me the confidence to be the life and soul. I stayed that way. Drinking, like all young people do, with no serious consequences.

“When I was about 29 or 30 I met my husband Michael. He was also a heavy drinker, so we partied on. We bought a beautiful house in the Dales, had Charles, our son, when I was 32.

“After I had him, I changed. It was the beginning. I started drinking more. But then the wheels really started falling off. I was blacking out, it was incredible.

“You’re doing anything to get through the day, just to get to wine o’clock.

“Then I made it to vodka, thinking nobody would notice. Michael put me in rehab for three weeks. It was the most scary thing I had ever been through.

“I had been ripped away from my family, I was with drug addicts, alcoholics, I had nothing in common with them. I did decide I needed to do something. And I did, I helped myself.”

Cognitive behaviour therapist Sarah, now 57, stopped drinking 12 years ago. She now runs The Sanctuary, in South Stainley, to help other women.

“When I couldn’t get down the stairs I was shaking so much, when I was hiding bottles in the knicker drawer, in the tumble dryer, I knew I was an alcoholic,” she said.

“I could not live without it. Until I got off it. Now I do, every day.”

The latest Government statistics show:

l Nearly a quarter of all adults in the Harrogate district have ‘higher-risk’ levels of drinking (24.4 per cent).

l This compares with a national average of 22.3 per cent, with the best districts in England rating at 15.7 per cent and the worst at 25.1 per cent.

l The figures also show that, despite these extraordinarily high levels of risky drinking, the number of hospital stays for alcohol related harm is below the national average, with 1,756 hospital stays per 100,000 people. The average is 1,895.

l 12 per cent of school pupils had drunk alcohol in the last week in 2011.

l 3,300 hospital admissions in North Yorkshire were wholly attributed to alcohol

l 13,900 were partly attributed to alcohol

l Government recommendations state that men should not drink more than three to four units a day and women not regularly more than two to three units a day.