‘I’m the poster child of the new alcoholic woman’
A professional woman who feels entitled to drink or needs to drink: that was Ann Dowsett Johnston, author of a book about women and alcohol
Is drinking the modern woman’s steroid, enabling her to wear her many hats in life?
Ann Dowsett Johnston: examines the reasons behind women’s excessive drinking and the health risks that pertain specifically to women
Ann Dowsett Johnston knows how alcohol can bruise a life. She grew up with an alcoholic mother, and her father later succumbed to the same addiction, which ultimately killed him.
Yet her own awareness of the destructive power of alcohol did not stop her from falling into the same trap as her own parents did, albeit many years later.
“I was determined that this was one thing that I would never do,” she recalls. “And then, when I became addicted to alcohol, I was struck by the fact that I was a modern version of [my mother]. In other words, I didn’t drink during the day, like my mum. I had a great career, I was well-educated, and yet I became addicted as well. It was something that really troubled me.”
As she sought treatment for her own problems, Dowsett Johnston – who describes herself as “in recovery” and hasn’t had a drink for more than five years – began reading more about women and alcohol, and discovered that women across the developed world were drinking more than ever before. “I thought: what’s happening here? It’s something larger than just me.”
So she began to research the link between women and drinking with the help of a fellowship, first publishing a series of articles and now a book, Drink: The Intimate Relationship between Women and Alcohol.
The book’s publication this month also marks its author’s public coming-out as a recovering alcoholic, having written candidly about it for the first time after some 30 years as a prominent journalist in Canada.
“I guess I’m the poster child of the new alcoholic,” she says. “A highly educated, professional, busy woman who feels entitled to drink or needs to drink after a tense day as she goes into her second shift of looking after children or coming home from the office.”
Pressure on women
But why were women like herself drinking more than ever? “Was it because we were entitled? Was it about empowerment? Or was this the modern woman’s steroid, enabling her to wear her many hats in life?”
These hats, she suggests, may be part of the problem in the aftermath of a sexual revolution that still hasn’t shaken down. As well as remaining inequities, including the gender pay gap and the glass ceiling, she cites the continuing pressure on women to perform in the domestic as well as professional sphere. “Women are told that they have to be perfect mothers and perfect employees and their houses have to look great and they need great friendships, and there’s a lot of pressure,” she says.
With this pressure comes a need for new coping mechanisms. For Dowsett Johnston, making the transition between the roles of professional and mother was often made easier with alcohol. After coming home, where a meal needed to be cooked and homework completed, she would have “a fast glass of wine. It would unhitch my shoulders from my earlobes.”
But her book – part memoir of her own downward spiral and eventual recovery through treatment, and part journalistic investigation into why women are drinking more and how it is affecting them – looks beyond women’s changing societal roles to other potential explanations for the escalation in women’s drinking, including an alcohol industry that specifically targets them.