Sometimes you stumble onto something that makes your head spin, even if you haven’t had a single drink. In this case, I was wandering through a bookstore when I came upon a title I couldn’t ignore—Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol.
If you know anything about me, you know I love wine. It’s been a long love affair, ever since my days of partying in college and continuing into my young professional years, when my colleagues and I would all go out for a few drinks after a long work week. Wine helped me through two marriages and one divorce, more than two decades of parenting, and the pain that accompanies the loss of both parents. I’ve traveled with wine, read with wine, gone to book clubs with wine, cooked with wine, and hobnobbed with snobs about wine. I’ve laughed and cried and danced, and even occasionally written, with wine.
In many ways, wine is like a good pet. It remains loyal to you, never doubts your opinion, never argues. As long as you give it lots of attention, it’s happy. But wine, I came to realize, can also be like a bad boyfriend. Most of the time it’s nice to you, but sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s very harsh on you—it can even be dangerous. And it knows it can be this way to you because it knows you’ll always come back.
It’s no wonder I was drawn to this book title
Author Ann Dowsett Johnston writes with expertise. Her mother was an alcoholic, and Johnston figured out she, too, is one. She’s also an award-winning journalist who knows how to do research and articulate facts. Lots of what she says in Drink is not new information. Lots of what she says is common sense. But when you put it all together, as she does, the book is pretty powerful.
She likens alcohol to the bad boyfriend, too. “At first, alcohol is that elegant figure standing in the corner by the bar, the handsome one in the beautiful black tuxedo. Or maybe he’s in black leather and jeans. It doesn’t matter. You can’t miss him. He’s always at the party.” She says he wastes no time sidling up to you, and you grow to count on him. He knows where you live. And over time he shows up daily whether you want him to or not.
Like a bad boyfriend, alcohol is hard to hide from. It’s everywhere, at almost every celebration of life or death. Every party. Every pity party. In most states, it’s in nearly every grocery store and restaurant, too—sometimes 24/7.
The feminization of drinking
This pervasive availability is relatively new. It’s only been in the past few decades that we can find alcohol so readily. And with the increasing availability has come an increase in abuse and addiction, especially by women. What Johnston calls the feminization of our drinking culture can be blamed in part on our advancements in the work force (where higher status occupations have a higher incidence of drinking disorders) and on the resultant expanded buying power of women.
But Johnston also suggests a connection between our increases in alcohol consumption and the roller coasters we’ve ridden as we’ve tried to establish new societal roles. Ever since the second wave of feminism in the latter half of the 20th century, we women have been trying to carve out a stronger sense of equality not just in the workplace but all around. We’ve tried to negotiate the desire/pressure to work with the desire/pressure to stay home with the kids. We’ve tried to prove that we are just as smart/strong/worthy of respect as men. But all along we tend to come up a little bit (or a lot) short in our endeavors. We live in a culture, she says, that “wears people down,” and it’s possible that this undergirding of continuous failure is also contributing to our desire to numb ourselves.
On top of that, alcohol manufacturers have figured out that we women are a very important market. The male market was becoming saturated, but there was plenty of opportunity for sales to women, including younger women. Alas! New labels and brands and products were born: Skinnygirl vodka, Cupcake Vineyards, the alcopop (e.g., the cooler, chick beer, or starter drink) and even Mike’s Hard Lemonade—were all geared toward us. And guess what? We fell for these marketing gimmicks and still do. (Who can resist a bottle of wine with an image of a dog or a red stiletto on the label?)
Johnston doesn’t mention this, but I’ve been noticing lately that nearly every TV show has a woman pouring herself a glass of wine at the end of a long day (or even during the day). From Tammy Taylor on Friday Night Lights to Carrie Mathison on Homeland, they’re all drinking wine.
Johnston writes that, in fact, alcohol is now what tobacco was a few decades back, or maybe worse. (Remember how all the cool characters smoked in movies back in the 1960’s?) Advertising is largely unregulated for alcohol now, as it was a few decades ago for tobacco. But it’s visible in more places than ever with social media, including on YouTube. And all these commercials seem to tell the story that a good time is guaranteed as long as there’s alcohol in the picture, or conversely, that you can’t have a good time without it. “The alcohol business, like the tobacco business beforehand, has taken aim at the female market and scored.”
What’s wrong with drinking?
How many times have you heard how good wine is for you? Unfortunately, what’s less commonly known is that the degree of health benefit differs between men and women. Johnston writes that wine isn’t as good for women, in part because the genders metabolize alcohol differently. With more fat, and less alcohol dehydrogenase—a key enzyme, we women can’t break down alcohol nearly as well as men can. Our chemistry also tends to make us develop alcohol dependency more quickly, and at younger ages, than men.
A few other sobering facts:
- Most adults in the Western world drink. And alcohol usage follows the 80ish-20ish rule. In the business world, it’s been said that 20% of the workers do 80% of the work. In the world of drink, 20% of drinkers consume 75% or more of the alcohol sold in our country.
- Excessive drinking is the 3rd leading preventable cause of death in the USA, following smoking and bad diet/exercise. Of the 80,000 alcohol-related deaths annually, 23,000 are women. Alcoholism is a more serious risk for early mortality than tobacco, and it’s deadlier for women than men.
- Alcohol dependence can set in as early as teenage years. One British liver specialist said he’s seen alcohol-related end-stage liver disease in teenaged girls.
- Binge drinking is hugely on the rise and is blamed for half of those annual deaths. 14 million women and girls binge drink at least three times per month, typically consuming 6 drinks per occasion. (The definition of binging is 4 drinks for women or 5 for men per occasion.) Women most likely to binge drink are between the ages of 18 and 34 and usually come from higher income households. 20% of high school girls binge. Binge drinking increases the likelihood of unwanted pregnancies, fetal alcohol syndrome, STDs, breast cancer, heart disease, and more unpleasant problems. Not to mention that, because of hormonal and metabolic differences, women normally can’t keep up with men—especially if women are drinking spirits and men are drinking beer. Vulnerability, therefore, can increase when women drink hard alcohol.
- Women with a university degree are twice as likely to drink daily as those without that degree.
- Alcohol consumption creates more harm to others than secondhand smoke, starting with family problems and winding up with drunk drivers.
- In North America, only 10% of those with alcohol dependence issues wind up getting treatment.
A new women’s health issue initiative?
Before I read Drink, I didn’t think of alcohol as a major issue for women equivalent to other societal health issues. But it is, in terms of both environment and policy. As more women drink in excess, more of them are experiencing a variety of medical problems and also being subjected to acts of violence. We are only beginning to understand how alcohol affects the woman’s brain differently. We don’t know much about the coexistence of depression and drinking in women, even though women are 70% more likely to suffer from depression than men. We haven’t begun to understand how drinking specifically affects women in high-risk populations, like native women or women living in poverty or women exposed to alcohol in developing countries. Or how to get adolescent girls to delay alcohol use. Unfortunately, our local, state, and federal governments are in the pockets of big alcohol and thus not setting aside funds for research (and unlikely to do so under the current administration, I might add). And it’s doubtful the manufacturers will invest resources toward finding answers to these questions. In fact, Johnston says the developed world shows no sign of embracing the need to explore these matters.
On the personal side
Drink isn’t just a book of facts. It’s also a memoir, showing how an educated woman fell prey to the disease of addiction. Johnston takes us on her journey, from a childhood where she first learned how tough it was to deal with not being quite good enough through various permutations of her adult life and ultimately to her realization, in part because of a 26-question survey she took, that she was well into the second stage of alcoholism. (This survey can be found in the book Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp, as well as more discussion on the 3 stages of alcoholism.) Johnston writes about how alcoholism is good at disguise. About how she (unsuccessfully) set up all sorts of rules to keep herself from drinking—even setting up a sticker chart as you would for a child. And about how she got to a point where she couldn’t control her drinking at all. Quoting food writer Marian Kane, she makes a ridiculously obvious point. “We don’t become addicts because we want to destroy ourselves.”
She also takes us on her journey through recovery. “New sobriety is a fingernail-on-the-blackboard experience,” she writes, adding that it’s “not for the faint of heart.” Eventually, she found that abstinence was more freeing than restrictive and that being in recovery meant that she was reconnecting with—even reshaping—her authentic self.
Throughout the book, I came to look at wine, and people with alcohol addiction problems, differently. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not against wine. Or people who make it or drink it. But I do have a different level of awareness now about the industry as well as how it’s impacting women in particular. If you like to drink, or if you have a mother/daughter/sister/friend who does, or if you just care about the wellbeing of our society, please read Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol, along with your favorite cup of herbal tea.
(PS For another perspective on women and drinking, check this out: Giving up alcohol opened my eyes to the infuriating truth about why women drink.)