Part memoir, part journalistic exploration, Ann Dowsett Johnston’s new book, Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol, looks at the rise of alcoholism in girls and women. Just as women caught up to men’s rates of tobacco use a few decades ago, women’s rates of alcohol abuse have also increased at an alarming rate. And just like it did with tobacco, the epidemic is drastically impacting women’s health.
Johnston is frank about how alcoholism affected her own family. Her mother was an alcoholic, her father became an alcoholic later in life, and Johnston herself — even though she knew the signs and was terrified of going down the same path — became an alcoholic as well. Her story mirrors the story of thousands of other women in the United States, and because of alcohol culture and the alcohol industry itself, the prevalence of alcohol abuse among women shows no signs of stopping.
Alcohol has always had a role in popular culture, but once the alcohol industry realized that women were an untapped market, marketing towards women skyrocketed. Unlike beer, the alcoholic beverages marketed to women — from wine coolers to cocktails — tend to have a higher alcohol content. Add this to places where people are particularly vulnerable (college parties, for instance), and you have a recipe for disaster. Women are physiologically more vulnerable to the effects of alcohol, but Johnston considers other risk factors associated with drinking culture as well. Binge drinking is one behavior that by now most people are aware of, but doctors are starting to see the other behaviors at play that come before binge drinking, such as “drunkorexia” (intentionally refraining from eating in order to consume more alcohol) and pre-drinking (getting buzzed or drunk before heading out to the bars, which has the additional effect of people to keeping more alcohol stocked at home).
As a result, health risks are going up, especially the rates of breast and colon cancers (Johnston addresses that “one glass of red wine a day is okay” advice). Doctors are also beginning to see younger patients with diseases that they’d typically see in older men, such as liver disease. There are other issues that Johnston handles delicately, such as drinking while pregnant, and drinking and sexual assault; she talks extensively about drinking and trauma. When it comes to recovery, she also talks about how, for so many women, recovery cannot happen without fully addressing trauma.
I liked that this book had elements of memoir. Johnston talks not only about how alcoholism affected her childhood, but of how it affected her as an adult, including her relationship with her son and a long-term romantic relationship. It’s not a tell-all; Johnston sets clear boundaries as to how much she’ll share, but she gives readers enough information to get a clear picture. And her story isn’t the only human element to all the research; the stories of dozens of women are scattered throughout the book. Some of them were willing to use their real names, while most chose an alias because of the stigma associated with alcohol abuse:
In our society, would you rather be known as an alcoholic or a person who suffers from depression? I have posed this question to dozens of women in the past three years. The answer? Not one woman chose alcoholic…they felt the stigma was too overwhelming.
The book is filled with frank discussions and a lot of well-written research. Johnston tackles difficult (and often culturally loaded) topics in non-judgmental ways. It’s an eye-opening conversation starter.
Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol was published in October 2013 by HarperWave, an imprint of HarperCollins.