I’ve never been attracted to the genre of drink memoirs. They aren’t about people who are much like me. They’re about people who flame spectacularly out of control and wake up in some strange hotel room with no memory of what happened the night before. I wish these people well, but I can’t relate to them.
Ann Dowsett Johnston’s Drink is different. Ms. Dowsett Johnston is a hugely talented Canadian journalist with a long and accomplished career. We’re more or less the same age. (I’m more, she’s less.) We don’t really know each other but I’ve always admired her from afar. I’m sure we could easily be friends.
Ms. Dowsett Johnston never wound up on the barroom floor. Her relationship with alcohol was more discreet. It was typical of the relationship many professional women have with alcohol. For many years, it was her friend – until it wasn’t.
Alcohol is the favoured drug of high-achieving women. It’s the way we handle stress, self-medicate and numb ourselves. A glass of wine after work, or two, or three, is as natural as the vitamin pills we pop before breakfast. It’s good for us! Until it’s not.
Drink is a skilled combination of memoir and reporting. There are no checklists and no lectures – just a lot of portraits of women who may sound uncomfortably like you. Ms. Dowsett Johnston wrote the book because “we need to have a dialogue about our favourite drug.” Her message is that if you’re the kind of woman who has a glass or three of wine at night, more nights than not, then you might want to have a dialogue with yourself.
This is something you probably don’t want to hear. After all, you’re high-functioning. You never miss a day of work. You’re never drunk in public. All you drink is wine, never hard stuff. (Ms. Dowsett Johnston preferred pinot grigio.) You’re managing your relationship with booze.
Or you could be kidding yourself.
There’s a pattern in professional women who drink too much, experts say: a relentless standard of perfection. The other pattern is depression, which is much more prevalent among women than among men. “Men drink to heighten positive feelings or socialize,” Pamela Stewart, a psychiatrist with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, says in Drink. “Women are more likely than men to drink to get rid of negative feelings.” In a reversal of the usual link between drug abuse and socioeconomic status, women with university degrees are far more likely to drink every day than those without. Women who work in male-dominated environments are also at higher risk.
We live in an “alcogenic culture” where risky drinking has been normalized, Ms. Dowsett Johnston writes. And today, it’s not just older women who drink a lot – younger women drink vastly more than we did at their age. A fifth of women in their 20s qualify as binge drinkers, which means they drink far too much at least several times a month. This is no longer viewed as underclass behaviour.
“I ask myself every day if I’m an alcoholic,” one woman, described as “a rising corporate star,” told her. “I’m 32, and I drink every night. All my friends drink every night. We haven’t had our kids yet, and we all drink the same way we did at university.”
Ann Dowsett Johnston drank moderately for decades. She was well into midlife before it became a problem. “For years, I rarely abused the privilege of drinking,” she writes. “And when my drinking caught up with me, I was as surprised and sorry as anybody could possibly be. I had promised myself I would never be outfoxed by drink.”
She was what’s known as a high-functioning, high-bottom drinker – which means she didn’t have to fall on the floor to know she was in trouble. But all the warning signs were there. Both her parents had serious problems with alcohol. She did all the things people do before they quit for good. She made solemn vows to cut back. She kept drinking diaries. She went on the wagon for weeks at a time. She tried the geographical cure by moving to another city. Meanwhile, life threw her a bunch of wrenching challenges, both professional and personal.
The turning point came when she realized she risked becoming estranged from her beloved son. That was a pain she could not endure. She went to rehab and it stuck. She had her last glass of pinot grigio five years ago.
There are a million theories about trauma, neuroscience, alcohol and addiction. Mark Kleiman, a drug expert for whom I have huge respect, believes the potential for drug abuse is built into the human brain. This makes sense to me. In other words, a lot of us will fall under the spell of one drug or another. The line between harmless pleasure and impairment is often blurry, but it’s pretty clear that serious impairment will wreck your life.
I don’t know that modern life is uniquely stressful for women – if you ask me, ancient life was pretty stressful too. But the wide availability and social approval of alcohol are bound to make dependency and addiction among women far more likely.
Yet alcoholism among women is still considered extremely shameful. Once, when Ms. Dowsett Johnston discussed with an editor the possibility of coming out, she was strongly advised not to – not if she ever wanted a job again. We should be extremely grateful that she did. She has found her way to the other side. It took time and it was hard, but abstinence has transformed her. She looks radiant. In her book, she says: “I know that I have recovered my true self. ” Or, as she put it at a book launch the other day, “I’m the most Ann I’ve ever been.”