The Woman’s Steroid: Ann Dowsett Johnston on Women and Alcohol

Thursday, January 16th, 2014

Blog Editor’s Note: Ann Dowsett Johnston’s book, Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol, looks at the causes and the consequences of women’s increasing abuse of alcohol. Weaving her own recovery story with research and reporting, Ann takes a thoughtful look at a culture in which women’s equality is accompanied by increasing rates of risky drinking and binge drinking. Phoenix House first connected with Ann when she spoke at an event sponsored by New Futures, an organization we work closely with in New Hampshire. She later spoke with Phoenix House about women, addiction, and recovery.

Author Ann Dowsett JohnstonPhoenix House: Let’s get started with a quote from you: “Is alcohol the professional woman’s steroid, enabling her to do the heavy lifting involved in a complex, demanding world? Is it the escape valve women need, in the midst of a major social revolution that is still unfolding? For many such women the answer is a resounding yes.” Studies show that as women’s opportunities have grown, so too has their rate of risky drinking. What do you think accounts for this trend?

Ann Dowsett Johnston: Number one, a lot of women are acknowledging that they do indeed see alcohol, and wine especially, as their decompression tool for a lifestyle that has become intensely demanding and intensely challenging. I’ve heard of women who love the book wanting to pass it on to friends, and the friends say, “I don’t want anything to spoil my drinking.” Women are told they must be perfect, so I think that perfectionism plays a role.

Number two, women use alcohol to deal with pain, to deal with depression. We’re 40% more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety than men. We tend to isolate when we drink. We use alcohol to deal with anxiety, PTSD, or surviving sexual abuse, which seems to be at an epidemic level.

Third, we’re marketed to very heavily, and I think that this has not been properly discussed. We see alcohol with names like MommyJuice, Cupcake, French Rabbit, Skinnygirl, mango coolers. Certainly the coolers and alcopops are aimed at teenage girls—cocktails with training wheels. I think this is pernicious in the sense that there is a real marketing effort to steer young girls away from less potent alcohol and towards spirits. Walk into a university campus and you’ll find the young men are drinking beer and the young women are drinking tequila or vodka.

PH: In the case of marketing alcohol to women, do you think the alcohol companies are responding to a demand or creating a demand or is it a little bit of both?

ADJ: I think it’s a little of both. It has an eerie echo of the Virginia Slims tobacco era when the tobacco industry told women they could have their very own cigarettes and painted it as a moment of liberation, a moment to celebrate. I think a very similar thing is happening right now. I believe that we’re well-marketed-to and we’re not well-educated. I’m not a prohibitionist and I’m certainly not trying to be a kill-joy, but people need to know that if you’re having two healthy-sized drinks a day, you’re into risky behavior. We need to remember that alcohol is addictive, alcoholism is progressive, and it’s marked by denial. We should know alcohol is a carcinogen and raises the risk of breast cancer. We should know, and we don’t, that we’re much more vulnerable than the men. We have a predilection to become addicted faster with far less of the substance.

PH: It seems that there are some short-term solutions for how women can handle stress better but also some long-term solutions for how we as a society can help reduce the anxiety and stress in women’s lives. Any thoughts on this?

ADJ: We live in a culture that says we must have everything now, but I think there’s a time in life for everything. Just because you say no doesn’t mean no forever. No can just mean “not now.” I was as guilty as the next person of not knowing how to say “not now.” I took on motherhood, I took on a big professional career, I took on life with a lot of gusto. As you head into recovery one of the very first things you’ll be told is to recognize H.A.L.T.: Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. It seems to me that if women understood what self-care looked like, what their sleep looked like, how to fit in exercise, and how to ask themselves if they’re hungry, angry, lonely, or tired before they reach for a glass of wine—we might be able to find solutions.

PH: Whenever anyone questioned you about your drinking, your response was always, “I’m fine.” What advice would you give to the loved one of an alcoholic who keeps getting that response?

ADJ: I think it takes an inordinate amount of courage and persistence to break through the denial of addiction. I just want to give my support to those who are in that position and say you will be listened to and you will be heard, no matter how much pushback you’re getting. I was raised in a family that was so in denial about my mother’s alcoholism, so I promised myself I would not deny when my son challenged me. For that reason I was able to crack my denial and know in my heart I was in trouble. I would encourage loved ones to be outspoken and to state their case, because alcoholism will kill. These are challenging, awful discussions but they’re critical.

PH: Regular drinking is more common among wealthier, well-educated and white women. Why do you think that might be the case?

ADJ: One of the reasons we drink is because we can. We’re allowed to, we’re able to, and we do. It isn’t that people of other backgrounds do not drink, but it’s an expensive habit and it’s a habit that has become associated with affluence and a certain lifestyle. We definitely equate knowing your wines with sophistication. We definitely equate being able to hold your liquor with maturity.

PH: There have been a lot of heated debates about how we should talk about binge drinking and sexual assault and the link between the two. Should we tell women to drink less as a way to prevent rape?

ADJ: I don’t think that women should have to curtail their enjoyment of alcohol but I do think we should remain in charge of our own bodies. I am definitely a feminist, I definitely think women have the right to drink and they should enjoy the right to drink. But I don’t think we can ignore the assaults and deaths of a number of young women. I find it really disturbing that this has been politicized. As a woman who used to black out on a regular basis and get myself into trouble, I see no merit in blacking out. There’s nothing liberated about blacking out, and in essence that’s what we’re talking about. When I was on a campus recently, what disturbed me most was that young men and women have their address written in magic marker on their forearm because it’s presumed they’ll black out during frosh week, and they will have to be delivered unconscious to their beds. When we live in a culture where that’s expected and anticipated, there’s something really wrong with our culture.

PH: Since you’ve written the book, you’ve toured and given speeches and met women from across the world. Are there any moments and stories that stand out, where you felt that someone really heard the book’s message and was responding?

ADJ: It’s a really rare day when I don’t receive a letter from a reader. I’ve had any number of people say they gave up drinking or realized they have a problem because of the book. That’s produced a community of women for me of pen pals and fascinating individuals with whom I’ve connected. It’s incredibly exciting and rewarding for me, and I’m grateful. The most powerful thing that I do every day is write a gratitude list, not only for what I have that’s a blessing but for my challenges as well. It’s the second part that I find exceptionally useful, that I’m thankful for the things that are tough as well as the things that are obviously gifts. Sobriety has given me a really different perspective on what it means to be alive, and I think that the gift of having written the book is immeasurable.

PH: When we interview our clients about their recovery stories, we ask them, “What has been the best moment of your recovery so far?” How would you answer that question?

ADJ: The best moment of my recovery by far was the moment when my son, who was very critical of my drinking, responded to a note that I wrote him. I said, “I know you’re driving across the states in your pick-up truck.” He’s an artist, crossing from the East Coast to the West where he’s going to school. “Would you consider having your mother come along for two weeks?” That’s the kind of question that when I was drinking would have been an absolute no and even in early sobriety could have been a no. And he thought about it and answered yes. So we crossed America and got to know one another. It was an adventure. It was a gift and it was a treat, a total treat.

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