Making things better until it doesn’t

According to Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, excessive alcohol use among women is a serious public health problem; one that is largely ignored. Her recent report contains some disturbing statistics: between 2001 and 2017, alcohol-related deaths among women increased by 21 percent but by just five percent among men.

The Canadian Institute for Health Information reported in May that more girls are hospitalized for alcohol-related ailments than boys.

Clearly, we need to pay attention to what’s happening for women with alcohol.

My own delicate dance with drink

I come from a long line of people who couldn’t, as they say, “hold their liquor.” For some, their lives were ruined by the evil drink. For others, it was the lives of family members that were ruined. Others, and I count myself among them, were highly functional, despite a dependency on and over-use of alcohol.

My drinking built up slowly over many years. I was seldom a dramatic drinker, but by my mid30s I had developed a significant dependency and was starting not to like how I behaved when I was drinking. Fortunately for me, when I started law school at the age of 35, I realized I had to choose between law and booze, and I picked law. Also fortunately for me, I am a determined person: I stopped drinking on my first day of law school and did not have another drink for 17 years. I missed alcohol every single day of those 17 years.

In the 12 years since my long abstinence, I have returned to and left drinking a few times. Right now, I believe I have the upper hand. I have strict rules: I never drink wine, because I think that is a bottle I might never be able to crawl back out of; I never drink alone, and I don’t (usually) drink more than a couple of times a week. Most importantly to my sense of control, I never drink if I have said to myself: ‘I really need a drink.”

Am I an alcoholic? Who knows; the label is not that important to me. Do I regret the amount I drank when I was younger? A lot. Do I worry that my drinking had a negative impact on my kids? For sure. Do I worry that I might drink too much again? Definitely. Do I have trouble being around alcohol or people who are drinking? Much to the relief of my friends, no; in fact, I have a well-supplied liquor cabinet and enjoy checking out the increasing numbers of craft distilleries and wineries Ontario has to offer.

Young women and alcohol

Ann Dowsett Johnston sounded the alarm about women and alcohol in her powerful 2015 book, Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol.

Her interviews with women about their relationships with alcohol are insightful and powerful, but it is her research into how serious women’s overdrinking is that I found the most compelling.

Young women, according to Johnston, are drinking more, more often and younger than ever before and, in many cases, more than are young men. She talks about “drunkorexia:” a phenomenon among young women who don’t eat in order to save their calories for booze. These same young women often drink their alcohol straight, in another attempt to minimize the calories. There is an increasing habit of “pre-drinking” among young women — drinking before social encounters, partly to avoid the inflated cost of booze in bars and partly to protect against potential tampering with their alcohol – which means they are starting their evenings already intoxicated.

Johnson’s research identified that young women like to be seen to be keeping up with young men in their drinking. However, there are differences in the way men’s and women’s bodies absorb and metabolize alcohol that mean women become intoxicated much more quickly. Furthermore, while young men tend to drink beer, young women tend to drink cooler-type beverages, which have a much higher alcohol content per unit of drink. Matching drink for drink means women imbibe more alcohol by the end of the night.

The alcohol and advertising industries are well aware of the increased share of the market taken up by women and have wasted no time exploiting that. Wines and coolers, especially, are marketed specifically to women with catchy titles like “Girls Night Out” that evoke happy images for the purchaser. Coolers – some so sweet that drinking them is like eating candy –are seen and marketed as a “transitional” drink for young women.

Booze and violence against women

Alcohol is and always has been the #1 date rape drug. A woman can guard her drinks to prevent someone from adding roofies or other drugs to it, but it is the alcoholic drink itself that is the biggest threat to her safety.

Women have the right to be safe from violence whether or not they have been drinking. As a bevy of high-profile cases has made clear over the past few years, it is also the case that we are more vulnerable to possible sexual violence if we are extremely intoxicated. It doesn’t make the sexual assault our fault, but it may increase the risk that we will be sexually assaulted.

While the law is clear that an intoxicated person cannot consent to sexual contact, the law is less clear about what level of intoxication is required to void consent. And, whatever the law says, societal attitudes still frown on women who are raped when they are drunk, thus making it less likely women in this situation will seek support or consider reporting what has happened to them. They may not remember the details; they may feel shame or think it is their fault or they may fear the reaction of those they turn to.

Not an equality we should strive for

In her memoir, Drinking: A Love Story, Caroline Knapp writes: “Alcohol makes everything better until it makes everything worse.” Unfortunately for more and more women, especially young women, alcohol starts to make everything worse very quickly; sometimes with consequences that cannot be undone.

I am certainly not suggesting that women should not drink. However, as the CBC article concludes: “The road to gender equality should not be littered with empty wine bottles.” We are worth more than that.

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