The holiday season hasn't even officially started yet and we've already gotten some frightening news about alcohol. Women, it seems, have joined the ranks of people who "drink a bit too much." According to a study by Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, more U.S. women are drinking booze than ever before and becoming alcoholics.
Last summer, I was disembarking from a dive boat when I saw emergency personnel from the resort boarding a docked catamaran that had just come back from the notorious "Booze Cruise." There were many people who were sick on board and it wasn't from the calm waves of the Caribbean. A woman who couldn't stop retching was being taken to a local hospital. Her partner told the nurse there that, "She just drank way too much. She'll be fine." The nurse replied in her calm Jamaican-lilted voice that she thought it might be more serious than that; she believed the woman had alcohol poisoning. Out of the fifteen passengers on the catamaran who were drunk, eleven were women.
Women are becoming the new face of alcoholism for the 21st century and we need to find a way out of this "ad campaign."
Research conducted at the University of Washington states that women born after World War II have developed alcohol dependence that seems to be more accepted than it was in previous generations. The history of women and drinking is interesting.
Cultural changes certainly contributed to the increase in alcohol dependence for women born during this time period. More women went to college. Equality of the sexes included not only the right to an equal education, but the right to drink alcohol. Women sipping sherry while the men drank brandy was something your great-great aunt did "back then." In the same way men of past generations used alcohol as a social ice-breaker and a stress-reliever, the lure of a few drinks began to be seen in the lives of women.
From the 1970's on, more women entered the workforce and it became socially acceptable for women to drink hard liquor. Unhampered by gender stereotypes, professional women learned to partake of the three-martini lunch, where business deals were often negotiated. Keeping up with the boys meant keeping your job. Purchasing power meant personal power and your business position guaranteed that.
Drinking "with the boys" was not always a feasible thing to do. Women have a well-documented heightened vulnerability to the effects of alcohol when compared with men, achieving greater blood alcohol levels with smaller doses. In other words, it doesn't take much to get us drunk.
Women who work outside the home are especially prone to alcohol abuse. We can't be all things to all people at work and at home, but we certainly try. Stretched to the limit emotionally and physically, something has to give. To relax, many working women self-medicate with alcohol. The high gotten from these substances and the false sense of calm they bring is immediate. As one of my husband's friends told him last year:
My wife always like having a glass of wine after work. The wine bar in our house is constantly being replenished; she'll go through two bottles a night. Now she's on to vodka and I'm getting scared but she says she's got a lot of pressure at work and at home and she needs alcohol to relax. I think she needs help.
I'm no stranger to the pseudo-calming effects of alcohol. There was a time when I felt I "needed" a drink. My wake-up call came out of the blue many years ago during a staff meeting that was long and drawn out. I remember that at one point I glanced at the wall clock thinking, "I hope this meeting ends soon. I need to get to the liquor store." It was the words "I need" that were like the proverbial slap in the face to me. Need? Well, okay now. Maybe it's time to stop. And after a few days of serious thinking, I did.
But for many women, it may not be so easy. Women are increasingly using alcohol to counteract dissatisfaction and stress with their lives. Most of us work full-time, so we're juggling jobs, children, husband, aging parents and stress at home. Alcohol may be the perfect antidote to our stressful lifestyles -- or so we believe. But there's a heavy price to pay for alcoholism.
The female body is much more vulnerable to alcohol's harmful effects and we tend to develop alcohol-related diseases and other consequences of drinking sooner than men and after drinking smaller cumulative amounts of alcohol. Long-term female alcoholics run the risk of cirrhosis, which is literally a scarring of the liver, alcoholic cardiomopathy, an enlarged heart and alcoholic hepatitis.
Although many professional women try to keep their drinking a secret, some women recognize the problem and will seek help for drinking and alcohol-related problems from medical and mental health clinics rather than alcohol treatment settings. The problem is that denial is endemic to alcoholism. We all know the dangers and, it seems, we drink to forget about them.
In Las Vegas in the 1960's, there was a comedy routine between Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. Sinatra asked Martin why he drank.
"I drink to forget," Martin said.
"Forget what?" asked Sinatra.
"I forgot a long time ago."
That's comedy, but it can unfortunately, become real life.You forget why you drink but we continue to drink to forget any unpleasantness.
The happy social drinker seen in media ads is a myth unless we can learn to drink moderately and responsibly. We need to work on changing the image of alcohol and women -- they don't necessarily complement each other.
© 2012 copyright Kristen Houghton
Follow @kristenhoughton on Twitter to keep up with all of her fantastic writing!
Books by this columnist:
No Woman Diets Alone - There's Always a Man Behind Her Eating a Doughnut
And Then I'll Be Happy! Stop Sabotaging Your Happiness and Put Your Own Life First
The Shuttle Bus Man
Nourishing Thoughts: The Little Book of Sayings for a Healthy, Happy Life
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