A couple of years ago, a woman I knew died. She was in her late 30s, a stay-at-home mother of three small children who lived a nice house in an affluent area of Toronto, and kept herself busy with charity work. Her partner, who worked in finance, was devastated but – unlike everyone else – not entirely surprised.
It turned out he was the only one who knew her secret – and even then only part of it. For several years, his wife had been putting the children to bed, waiting for her husband to turn in, and then drinking vast quantities of wine. White wine was her poison, often consumed from two-litre bottles she took great care to conceal. She drank like this every night for years while her family slept upstairs, unaware of her oblivion. She was so secretive about it that none of her friends had any idea – those who knew her thought she barely drank. But the coroner's report, when it came, told another story: Alcohol-related liver failure caused by cirrhosis.
It's Christmas party season and if you drink alcohol, you're probably drinking more often than normal – which, if you're anything like me, is probably a little bit more than you should. But after years of habitually splitting a bottle of wine with my husband over dinner (like the French do, right?), I have, in recent months, started taking at least a couple, sometimes a few, nights off the sauce per week – usually when I'm home and not required to be sociable.
My new state of semi-sobriety, if you can even call it that, wasn't taken because alcohol was ruining my life or relationships. It wasn't because I was stashing empties in a neighbour's recycling bin or needing a shot of vodka to get through the morning daycare run. I'm drinking less because, after years of rolling my eyes at public-health campaigns and dreary proponents of "dry January" and "sober October," I had a very honest chat with my new GP that forced me to face facts.
And here is a seriously unpalatable one: I'm a smallish woman in my 30s, and drinking 2 1/2 glasses of wine a day is enough to cause me serious, long-term health problems. What's perfectly fine for my husband is simply not fine for me.
This lack of equality is, in a nutshell, the problem with women and drink.
All over the Western world, women are drinking more than we ever have before. In Britain, where I live, rates of alcohol-related liver disease in middle-aged women have spiked in recent years. In the United States, women are drinking more than at any time in the country's history. The latest Statscan figures show a startling 30-per-cent rise in the number of Canadian women engaging in risky drinking (consuming five or more drinks in a sitting, once or more a month) from a decade ago.
According to Elizabeth Epstein, director of the Center for Alcohol Studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey, it's not that women have started drinking more than men – it's that we've simply caught up. "There has been convergence in drinking rates between the genders in the last 20 years or so," she told me in an interview this week. "While men have held steady, women have been steadily increasing."
The problem is, alcohol, even when it's taken in relatively modest daily doses, is much worse for women than for men. This is not a sexist double standard but a physiological reality. In addition to being generally smaller than men, women have on average 10 per cent more body fat and less fluid, which makes it more difficult for our bodies to dilute and process alcohol. When we do drink, it travels around our bodies in a more concentrated form and causes more harm. The effects, even with fairly moderate drinking, include increased rates of breast cancer, liver damage, weight gain, broken sleep and generally feeling like crap. And you can get the latter three just by having children.
Not surprisingly, more women are getting arrested for drunk driving (up 21 per cent over the past decade, according to U.S. statistics), as well as for anti-social behaviour. But for the most part, says Epstein, female drinkers – even the seriously addicted ones – are pretty quiet about it, particularly the educated, middle-class, gainfully employed "good girl" types she sees coming through her office door looking for treatment.
"You'd never know it to look at them. These women come in here and they're highly attractive, high-functioning people with children and jobs and partners, and they say, 'I've been drinking two bottles of wine a night for years.' And we're the first people they've ever told. Not their friends, not their partners. And these are just the ones who seek help."
A couple of generations ago, "respectable women" didn't go to bars or do shots or crack a bottle of Sancerre alone at the end of a long and stressful day. Now, almost all my girlfriends have a nicely stocked wine rack and a bottle of premium vodka in the freezer (at my house it's gin). The morning after book club is never a pretty sight.
Drinking has become more socially acceptable for women, which is, on the face of it, a good thing. Drinking can be a great release, and as women we should obviously be encouraged to get off our faces just like the boys when the mood occasionally strikes. But heavy drinking is also worse for us. And when we have a problem with it, we're better at hiding it.
We are drinking the men under the table, but it's not a game we can win.