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
After the party's over: Often victims of poor self-esteem, women alcoholics are less likely than men to seek treatment
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
Thursday, May 7, 1998
The Evening Telegram
Sarah wears her sobriety like a fine string of pearls. If broken, it will scatter dreams of an education, a decent job and the most precious pearl of all, her four-year-old daughter.
"I realize that now, that it is only around the corner that she's gone. If I don't straighten out, she's gone," says the 26-year-old single mother.
Her words are strong and brave, although her last relapse was just a month ago.
Sarah began her sobriety one day last October when her family brought her to the Recovery Centre, the provincial detoxification centre in Pleasantville.
It was a place she didn't know existed. But her folks had made the calls and knew where to take her.
"I didn't know it at the time, but my family had picked up on my little sayings, yelling at 'em and stuff, 'I'm going to get better. If I'm going to quit this, I'm going to rehab. Who's going to look after my daughter?' "
She had temporary custody transferred to her sister.
And after a 16-day stay at detox, Sarah went on to Humberwood, the provincial alcohol and drug treatment centre in Corner Brook.
But chances are if Sarah had gone to the detox centre before it was moved to the former U.S. army base a year ago, she might not have stayed.
Its downtown location, the Talbot House, deterred women because of safety concerns, as the female beds were located on the third floor of the male-dominated facility.
At least that's what manager Kim Baldwin suspects with more women stepping through the doors of the new location, a one-level structure with a separate wing for women.
Down on Deanery Avenue, only one in nine admissions to detox were women. Now, at the new location, it's one in five.
But those numbers mean little when it's also certain the majority of addicted women don't seek help.
"We know that there's more women out there, but there is certainly a great deal of barriers to women seeking treatment." says Humberwood unit supervisor Lisa Goudie. "Their feelings of shame and guilt are greater than for men."
Many, like Sarah, don't know there is help in Newfoundland.
Otherwise, they worry about child care. Some even think the authorities will take away their children.
But for most, it's just admitting they have a problem -- shame that needn't be.
A quarter of Humberwood's patients are women, but that number could swell to as much as half if all who are referred show up.
The day Sarah walked through the doors of detox, she was still drunk, and high on hash, but somewhere in her fog, she uttered three crucial words: "I need help."
Already suffering from bulimia, an eating disorder marked by vomiting, she spent a good part of the first week at detox locked in the bathroom.
A tendency to inflict pain on herself got Sarah admitted to the Health Sciences psychiatric ward for an assessment and she now sees a psychiatrist for depression. She is also required to take anti-depressants.
But between detox and Humberwood, Sarah was guided to an understanding of what had happened to her.
"It feels comfortable to sit down and somebody else is teaching you and telling you exactly what you're going through.
"You don't feel so on the spot, your family coming to you and saying 'How can you do this?' "
For several years, Sarah was asked time and again by her adoptive family how she could drink so much.
Growing up, life wasn't picture perfect -- she felt unpopular at school. She was depressed and anorexic.
"All my Mom's side are obese and so a lot of attention was drawn towards me for being so tiny and with that, and because I was in sports, eating to me wasn't a natural thing. It interfered with everything and I held back," recalls Sarah.
Her world of athletics, Catholic school and middle class life in St. John's ended abruptly at age 16.
A first job at a fast food joint and cash in her pocket led to drinking, marijuana and pills.
"It was more or less at that time hanging out with crowds I guess. I don't think I have ever known how to socially drink or socially use (drugs). ... I have always done everything in larger amounts."
Soon Sarah would head off for Toronto in search of her biological family. But the long-awaited meeting with her natural mother brought more pain.
What she found was a family history of alcoholism and manic depression.
Still, her stay in Toronto stretched to 2 1/2 years and she discovered something else to make her high besides alcohol -- heroin and cocaine.
She severed ties to her adoptive family.
"I went as far as denying the fact that I had family. ... When anyone asked me where I was from, I wouldn't answer them. Most of the people I hung around with up there were really hard core."
And the company she kept included the first of her physically abusive boyfriends.
"I accepted that, because like I said, I didn't know who I belonged to and it felt like whatever love was thrown my way -- I mean even when I look back at it now -- at the time it was acceptable.
"It was great to have somebody who wanted to be with me."
Finally, Sarah returned home to Newfoundland, giving up the street drugs for hard drinking, if only because she didn't know any local drug dealers.
Her relationship with her adoptive family was strained.
"By no means were they problem drinkers, and I was always," she says. "I thought I was put aside on a different scale because I was adopted, but now I know it was the difference of my behavior."
Finally, life seemed to get better.
She got pregnant and her daughter was born in 1993. For 11 months, Sarah was clean, the first time in 10 years.
"I was quite happy, I don't recall having a hard time at that point. I was just happy to be pregnant. I thought this was my own family now."
With a move to Edmonton, the new mother would try, but fail, to control her behavior.
"I picked up on the street drugs again and drank less because I built up a great tolerance for street drugs. But alcohol still made me drunk and sloppy, so it was just switched over, the using, because I couldn't drink with a child."
But life in Alberta didn't take either, and she left her baby's father and came back home with her child.
Again, she tried to change her ways.
"I tried to create a better social life for myself and I hung around with people from university. All that came to a quick halt when I realized that I'm only a single parent on social services and not as intelligent as these people, so I went back to my using again."
This time, Sarah found the cocaine dealers. She moved into a dump and got another boyfriend who showed affection with his fist.
"My family refused to come near me and it was great because they wouldn't come down to that area because it was so dirty and I could drink and I could use whatever I wanted to and I didn't have to worry about it."
And then, that one day last October, Sarah sat on a friend's front step, half drunk and disoriented.
"My last drink, I didn't come home. It was the first night since I had my daughter that I didn't come home. I was suffering from six or seven months of continuous blackouts. No one knew what I was doing, how I was getting by.
"I didn't know where I was going, but I told (my family) I needed help and that I wanted to go to a rehab."
Within minutes they were on the way to the Recovery Centre.
But the story doesn't end there.
Sarah's young peers have a social world fixated on bars and dance clubs and weekend parties.
"I just find it hard to fight all the emotions, daily living and daily cravings, wanting to go and 'Jesus, how come I can't go and just have one?' "
But there is power in the friendships and support Sarah has found at Alcoholics Anonymous, and she is working through the 12-step program. She went to Narcotics Anonymous for a while, but prefers AA, where people have more clean time.
"I know it's working," she says of AA. "I'm at a point now where I say, 'I need a meeting.' "
Sarah found support and understanding from Child Protection Services, which helped her get part-time day care for her daughter.
The provincial authority assesses each case to see if help can be provided through its prevention services budget, says assistant director Marilyn McCormack.
"Our philosophy is to keep the children in the home wherever possible as long as they're safe ... Taking the children out is the last resort in any case."
Sarah is also regaining the respect of her adoptive family, for whom her morning smile has gratefully replaced the sleepless nights she once caused.
Finally, she has a boyfriend with a stable job and a good family.
And Sarah also hopes to return to the computer education she began with stints at Memorial University and a local college.
Or maybe she'd like to work in addictions.
"I've been in the position that I see other people in right now. But I don't ever talk down about them. I know exactly where they are."
But Sarah wants most to break a cycle, and for that she is proud and determined for her daughter's sake.
"I just don't want her to grow up and see the abuse, to start the self-abuse.
"If I didn't have her, I know I'd still be using. I did get unhealthy enough that I felt it physically and mentally. That's what brought me there initially. To keep me there, it's only her. Now I can see the difference."
Help is out there
Addiction experts know there are many women with drinking and prescription drug problems who aren't being reached.
Worries about what other people will think become a high hurdle for women, but no one need feel ashamed about asking for help.
Talk to your family doctor or any health professional.
Humberwood treatment centre and regional addiction services listings: