‘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
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.
According to Dowsett Johnston, the spirits industry was in a slump in the 1990s. “They looked at who was underperforming around the world, and it was women,” she says. “So they aimed at women and it paid off.”
Along came alcopops, fruit-flavoured spirits drinks and cleverly named concoctions. Combine more stressful lives with aggressive marketing, and you have a recipe for disaster.
In Dowsett Johnston’s case, alcohol was also a way of dealing with depression and anxiety. And given the higher incidence of depression in women, she feels women are more vulnerable to self-medicate with alcohol. “The women who have trouble with alcohol tend to isolate, tend to drink alone,” she says.
Though much of this was familiar ground for Dowsett Johnston, researching the book brought surprises.
“The scope of the health ramifications – that was surprising to me,” she says. “Deaths from alcohol are roughly 20 years earlier than those from smoking. I wouldn’t have guessed that. So our education on our favourite drug is really slim.”
The book, she says, is an attempt to start a conversation about the health consequences of the rise in drinking among women. She points out it affects not just those who end up dependent, but those who “just on occasion drink too much”.
She wants to talk about binge drinkingand about the health risks that pertain specifically to women. “We’re not talking about the breast cancer connection. We’re not talking about the 50 diseases that are highly connected to drinking, and we’re certainly not talking about female vulnerability [to alcohol] being very different from male vulnerability,” she says.
“We don’t metabolise alcohol the same way as men . . . We don’t have the same enzymes in our stomach. It is a different substance for a female body.”
So what is the message she wants readers to take from a book that makes drinking look anything but fun? “The takeaway is to be self-aware, to be aware of your own vulnerabilities and your own actions. Have a healthy respect for what you’re putting down your throat . . . This is a delicious entity but it deserves our respect. It is a drug.”
Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol is published by Fourth Estate
From the book: Biology and booze
l Excessive drinking is the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States. Of the 23,000 [female deaths each year] more than half are related to binge drinking.
l Binge drinking increases the risk of breast cancer, heart disease and sexually transmitted diseases.
l Women who consume four or more alcoholic beverages a day quadruple their risk of dying from heart disease.
l Heavy drinkers of both genders run the risk of a fatal haemorrhagic stroke, but the odds are five times higher for women.
l Women have a lower level of a key metabolising enzyme, alcohol dehydrogenase, which helps the body break down and eliminate alcohol. As a result, a larger proportion of what women drink enters the bloodstream.
l Cognitive defects and liver disease occur earlier in women, with significantly shorter exposure to alcohol.
l Alcohol-dependent women are 4.6 times as likely to cut their lives short. On average, [they] die 20 years earlier than those who are not dependent on alcohol.