How Sheffield mum’s online community to help women end ‘wine o’clock’ habit has gone global – and why Dry January is the perfect time to go sober
January is a busy month for Lucy Rocca.
The Sheffield mother-of-two runs the website Soberistas, a support network that she launched to help women reliant on alcohol after realising her own drinking had spiralled out of control - and the new year, it seems, is a time of reckoning for many following the festive season, when the acceptability of uncorking a bottle every day can mask deeper issues.
"We're inundated with enquiries and new members, so it's definitely something people are thinking about," says Lucy. "By the first or second day of January it really starts snowballing."
This upsurge is partly an effect of the Dry January public health campaign, which has continually grown in prominence, but Lucy thinks there is a greater awareness of the harmful impact of drinking more generally in society.
"It's becoming more acceptable as a health choice to become a non-drinker or to cut back. It's not something the people I speak to feel embarrassed about, a lot of the people on Soberistas are really proud of that decision, in the same way you'd be proud to stop smoking or lose weight. People are starting to realise now that there are health consequences at most levels of drinking. Instead of having to go to the doctor, or Alcoholics Anonymous, and confessing face to face to having a problem, it's really easy and accessible for people to get online and Google 'Am I drinking too much' or 'Can I get some help with alcohol', and then they find sites like Soberistas."
Launched in 2012, the online community now has more than 60,000 members, mostly women aged 45 to 60. The majority would not fit the classic definition of an alcoholic, but they tell the same tale – busy professionals with a dependency that might have begun as a quick stress reliever but has gradually descended into binge drinking.
"One to two bottles of wine a night is the standard amount - and it is usually wine, or prosecco," says Lucy. "Gin is obviously something more people drink. On Soberistas we don't often get people who are physically addicted to alcohol, it's definitely more a few glasses of wine after the kids have gone to bed - crutch drinking that becomes a really ingrained habit and then they find it difficult to stop."
Lucy, 44, lives in Fulwood and went to school in well-off Dore - she had a 'normal' upbringing, she has said, and there was nothing in her young childhood that would have sowed the seeds of an alcohol problem in later life.
But her teenage years spanned a different era - "We seemed to be much more hedonistic at that age; everybody I knew at school smoked and drank, and lots of people took drugs" - and her adult friends all shared a taste for unwinding with large quantities of wine. Later, divorce and the pressures of work and study meant Lucy began using alcohol as a tool to 'self-medicate'.
Much of her drinking was behind closed doors, but she behaved riskily in public too - things came to a head when she woke up in hospital in 2011 with no idea how she had got there.
"When I used to drink a lot, I'd often wake up in the morning and not be able to remember getting home," says Lucy. "I'd put myself in really dangerous situations, like getting into taxis in the middle of the night on my own very drunk, losing my phone, losing my friends, meeting and talking to people I didn't know at all."
Now Lucy does not touch a drop of alcohol. Many Soberistas members are past the point of being able to drink in moderation, she says.
"They've crossed a line in terms of choice. They can't imagine how they're going to get through the night without that glass of wine. It's about retraining your mind and putting in place new habits to make you realise you don't need it, which is why Dry January is really good. It gives people the chance to try life without alcohol, without it being a scary thing of 'I'm never going to drink again'."
Did she ever envisage her website striking such a chord?
"Logic told me that I couldn't be the only person struggling in the way that I was, but I don't think I quite realised the extent of it. Drinking is so normalised, and glamourised, that you don't often see the negative face of it. It's something people tend to keep hidden - it's not something you'd necessarily chat to someone about at work, or whatever. When we first launched we had 20,000 people join in the first year. It was clear there were a lot of people who did have a problem, but you'd never have known."
There are more zero-alcohol drinks available to buy these days, and social media is influencing younger generations to avoid alcohol to feel healthier, but Lucy is troubled by the proliferation of novelty gifts in shops that make light of drinking to excess - such as supermarket bags for life printed with slogans like 'Oops - mum's bought wine again'.
"If you have got a problem with alcohol, it gives you wrong signals that it's not that bad, lots of people are drinking to excess and you don't need to be worried. I would really like to see all those greetings cards and little bags that are on sale not produced any more. They're dangerous in terms of belittling a very serious problem."
Soberistas is not just a British concern. It has gone global, and in September Lucy will be travelling to the USA to help deliver the first proper overseas workshop in New York.
"That's going to be really exciting," she says. "About 20 per cent of our members are in America, but we've got a lot of British members flying over for that as well."
It all means Soberistas has tapped into a universal difficulty encountered by a 'certain type of person', she believes.
"That person is in America, Australia, Europe - all over the world. It's the middle-aged, middle class woman, usually married with kids, who's trying to juggle a busy life."