Women and alcoholism

Barb Sweet
Send to a friend

Send this article to a friend.

Women and alcoholism

Reporter's note: Journalist and author Ann Dowsett Johnston has been in the national news lately promoting much-needed awareness about women and alcoholism. Johnston shared her experiences in a 2013 book "Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcoholism."
Though great focus was achieved decades ago by the groundbreaking work of former U.S. First Lady Betty Ford, the namesake of the Betty Ford Clinic and herself and admitted alcoholic, the topic typically hasn't attracted as much of society's attention.
The Telegram has decided to share a 1998 feature series from our pre-online days shedding light on the problem. — Barb Sweet

Wednesday, May 6, 1998

First in a two-part series on women and alcoholism. Names have been changed to preserve the women's anonymity.

After the party's over: Often victims of poor self-esteem, women alcoholics are less likely than men to seek treatment

Barb Sweet

The Evening Telegram

As five p.m. came each day, Glenda figured it was socially acceptable to break out the bottle.

To do otherwise would make her no better than her alcoholic, abusive mother.

"I would never drink during the daytime because I was determined years ago that I didn't want to be anything like my mother. I had seen my mother having a drink at 7:30 in the morning and I was never going to be like her."

Growing up, Glenda strived to do what was expected of her.

"I was the type of individual even as a teenager who everybody thought had it all together. I was very popular with the teachers and all that kind of stuff in school."

Home was violent and loud, a setting far different from the her husband's upbringing.

"I remember when I first met my husband, he used to say to me, 'Glenda, people in your family, do they always yell?' and I said 'Yeah, that's perfectly normal for us to yell at one another.' "

While there's no question alcoholism is a disease, often passed on through families, its causes are as far ranging as the devastation to the lives of those who fall in its path.

But experts and alcoholics agree on one thing about women who suffer the addiction: their recipe for disaster is greater than the male alcoholic's and their shame prevents too many from seeking help. For many of them, drinking is often the symptom of greater tragedies -- abuse at the hands of family or husbands, severe depression and, often, eating disorders. And more women than men become cross-addicted to prescription pills such as Valium.

But the single link is their sense of self worth -- they don't have any.

"I might well be able to sit down with my best friends at the time, who drank, matched me drink for drink, and they might not be alcoholics because inwardly they had good self-esteem," Christina recalls.

"When I drank, I loved it, because I felt like I was as good as everybody else," says Glenda.

Glenda would start her days in her home office with a full pot of strong coffee and empty ashtray.

She chain smoked her way to suppertime and a chance to drink. Later her husband would go to bed, and she would stay up drinking.

Mondays and Wednesdays, Glenda would stock up at the liquor store and Wednesdays, she would also get groceries and go to the drug store.

One night, her husband was out of town on business and Glenda suffered a panic attack. She thought she was having a heart attack or a nervous breakdown.

When her doctor finally came to the house the next day, she lied about her drinking. She was referred to a counsellor, handed a prescription and sent for assertiveness training.

"Ten months later I wasn't any better.

"If anything I was worse. I think maybe finally I was making the connection that drinking had something to do with it."

When her doctor announced plans to move to Iowa, Glenda decided to discuss her problem.

"I knew if I didn't tell him, it would probably be another year before I'd have enough courage to tell somebody new."

Talking to the family physician is a first step for addicted women who want help, but doctors don't always ask the right questions, especially of women.

That's something Dr. Monica Sampson of Botwood wonders about, as she has run across only a few cases in her practice.

But there's no reason that her practice is unique, she says, It's very likely women aren't telling. Doctors are very likely to inquire about men's drinking habits, but women are better at dodging the details.

"Maybe they're ashamed, lots of reasons ... it's not something that women necessarily volunteer," Sampson says.

"Most men you'll pick up pretty quickly," says Dr. Linda Inkpen of St. John's. "But a lot of women downplay that very quickly, so you have to do a lot of probing."

In her 20-odd years of practice, she's learned women will go to great lengths to hide their drinking.

"I've had women that I've known deep down. I've had nothing to put my finger on other than intuition that there's been an alcohol problem. And I can recall being right in one or two cases, and in other cases, I still think I was right.

"The fact is it's an under-diagnosed problem in my opinion. There's more denial. And even when the problem is diagnosed and the patient admits, there's less of a willingness to get treatment then there is for men," says Inkpen.

"So many people are ashamed of admitting they're alcoholics and going to AA," says Marcia, of St. John's. "But they're not ashamed of getting drunk and making an ass of themselves."

Marcia and her husband partied hardy on the weekends. She didn't drink daily.

"When I drank, I drank good.

"I remember in the last few years of my drinking, that whenever we went out for lunch or as a group, I would never go anywhere that didn't serve liquor. And if everybody had one glass of wine, I had to have a couple."

It got so her kids hated going to the country.

And Christmas was a nightmare, a memory one daughter relayed in adolescence.

"She hated for Christmas to come because she knew what was going to happen. It was going to be wild.

"I really became really self-centred, absorbed in myself. Blaming other people for problems in my life -- it wasn't my fault."

Marcia's breaking point was one Saturday morning when she began to plan her suicide.

"I think my husband and I had a really, really vicious fight the night before. I just knew that I was at the end of my rope."

Instead, she called a relative in AA. Her husband, like many spouses of alcoholic women, did not support her -- he wanted to throw her out. But seven months later, he too would join the program.

But it would be too late for their battered marriage. Today, they are friends.

Christina's husband, like Glenda's, did not walk out. Both men drank little themselves.

Christina, though, came from a professional family that kept their liquor cabinet well stocked. In university and afterwards, she did likewise.

"I always hung out with a crowd that really were professional people. We all had jobs and we were all very highly motivated. But we all use to like to socialize and party, so many fancy dinner parties and lots of alcohol."

At 30, she knew she was an alcoholic after watching the film One For the Road, a father-son fishing trip seen through the eyes of a young Newfoundland boy.

As day wears on, dad and his buddies stop for beer and tall tales until finally the boy is alone by the pond, while drinking continues at the cabin.

So Christina gave up drinking for six months and then tried to control her liquor consumption for another eight years.

"If you try and control that addiction then you'd break out somewhere else. In my case it broke out in an eating disorder."

In her first session with her psychologist, he suggested she pick up AA's The Big Book, a bible in which alcoholics find themselves.

"I knew it was about me and I started to cry," Marcia agrees.

"It was about self will run riot and trying to run the show and keep things in place and pull the strings. Nothing stays where you put it and it didn't work."

"I cried all the way through my first meeting," Christina says. "But I cried more from the fact that I was prepared to ask someone to help me more than the fact that I was unhappy to be there, more of a relief, you know."

Glenda has found in Alcoholics Anonymous what she once thought only London Dock could give her.

"What AA has done for me personally is -- I'm going to be 49, I got there when I was 37 -- it's made me the person that I always wanted to be."

"And now I know I am a good wife. I could never understand what my husband saw in me."

Now she sponsors five other women in the program.

"When I was a kid, I wanted to be a social worker when I was in Grade 12 and I had a teacher at the time who talked me out of it.

"She said, 'Glenda, I think you're too emotional and if a young girl came to you pregnant, you wouldn't be able to help her. You'd probably just sit and cry with her.' This is what she told me."

Marcia nearly ran out of one of her first meetings because of all the greying and balding heads, an intimidating male majority. But an elderly gentleman stopped her. Eventually the meetings became a home of sorts, filled with people who cared and understood.

"For the first three months that I was in AA, I couldn't say the word alcoholic," Marcia recalls now. "That was about the worst thing in the world that you could be."

For the first two years, she needed AA six nights a week.

Christina still attends meetings at least a couple of times a week.

"I enjoy sitting with a bunch of people who, for the most part, most of us at some point in our lives, when we started to drink, use to love to party, sing and dance and have a good time ... So once you take the booze away and you get through a couple of years of pain, and figuring out why you drank, why your self-esteem was so low, out pops the person who loves to sing and dance again."

Next: Sarah's story

Organizations: Recovery Centre, U.S. army, Talbot House Health Sciences Alcoholics Anonymous Catholic school Child Protection Services

Geographic location: Pleasantville, Newfoundland, Corner Brook Deanery Avenue Toronto St. John's Edmonton Alberta

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5

Thanks for voting!

Top of page



Recent comments

  • Lon
    February 26, 2016 - 10:44

    Seemed like years ago if a woman was an alcoholic, the alcoholism stemmed from self esteem/abuse issues. Nowadays, an awful lot of twenty-something women routinely binge drink due to a misguided sense of entitlement.