I have been slowly and surely working my way through this list of 21 Books From The Last Five Years That Every Woman Should Read. The latest book I picked up was Drink (2013) by Ann Dowsett Johnston. Drink is part memoir and part hard look at drinking, alcoholism, and women. Johnston describes her own battle with alcoholism: how it developed; how it affected her life and family; and how she was able to eventually stop drinking. At the same time, she describes recently-occurring trends regarding women and alcohol, the costs of alcohol, and the stories of other women alcoholics–many of whom fell much father before they began their recovery.
I found this book something of a game changer in my perspective of alcohol. In my job, I see many of the costs of alcohol, including health problems and car crashes, so I didn’t start out with a particularly high opinion of alcohol. Yet I was still surprised by some of what I read. My history with drinking is nothing exceptional, although it might help to see where I’m coming from. Almost all the drinking in my life occurred in college and law school, and that was primarily binge drinking. More recently, I’ve pretty much given up alcohol altogether. I detest feeling sick, so voluntarily making myself feel hungover was simply not worth it. At this point, even one beer will make me feel tipsy and kind of gross, so I don’t go out of my way to have any.
Anyway, Dowsett does a very good job at showing how alcohol has pervaded almost every part of our society. One of her main points is that women have increased their drinking along with their increased equality. Alcohol companies see the potential of this previously untapped market and are making the most of it. Drinking is billed as both empowering and a convenient way to de-stress. There’s “mommy juice” and the relaxing glass of wine after a hard day’s work. Binge drinking is the accepted norm at college campuses, and there are conflicting studies on whether drinking, and how much, while pregnant will harm the fetus. If everyone drank alcohol responsibly, alcohol companies would lose fifty percent of their profits. They can be seen as the new tobacco companies when it comes to advertising focused towards teens and young people. Alcohol companies use the free market as best they can to increase drinking while many of the costs are simply accepted or covered over.
The costs are prohibitive. Dowsett throws a number of statistics around in the book, many of them based in Canada, but they tell a chilling story. Forty percent of car accident deaths are alcohol related. Alcohol is the second leading cause of preventable deaths after smoking. (I’m almost positive I’m remembering these correctly, but I had to return the book before I wrote this review and can’t double check.) Then there’s the violence and neglect that often goes along with families and alcohol abuse, as well as rape on college campuses. What makes this problem more complicated is that people can drink responsibly, have a glass of wine or a beer once in awhile and be perfectly healthy. I don’t think we have the answer to this question, but how much does our alcohol-soaked culture contribute to people’s relationship with alcohol turning toxic?
Dowsett’s description of binge drinking on college campuses had me rethinking my college years. Everyone drank in college, and the only way to drink was to get drunk. It never occurred to me that it was causing harm, and it never occurred to me that there was any other way to drink. I was going to say I didn’t have any particularly negative experiences with alcohol in college, but I did have a friend who ended up in the emergency room with alcohol poisoning, and another friend who was so drunk she passed out in the bathroom. Is binge drinking the only way to get through college?
Another topic Dowsett touches upon that had never really occurred to me was how hard it was for alcoholic mothers to get help. The stigma surrounding alcoholic mothers is so strong that most women in that position whom Dowsett talked to were terrified. They were scared of being judged and, most of all, of losing their children. Also, most AA groups and rehab centers simply do not have child care, which makes it impossible for some mothers to participate. But the costs of drinking while pregnant and giving your child the permanent effects of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is tragic.
I found this book eye-opening and very relevant to our culture today. I appreciated that Johnston put her own story out there. She described the allure of her alcoholism so well that she made me want to drink myself. However, I sometimes found her story a little disjointed and vague. She’s already taking a big risk by talking about her alcoholism, so I understand why she would not want to bare too much of her soul, but I sometimes felt like I wasn’t getting her full story. In addition, I had a hard time keeping track of some of the statistics. Many were used and they weren’t always consistent. And I think the issues of too much alcohol in society in general and alcoholism specifically were sometimes muddled together. However, I admire that Johnston was able to shine a spotlight on the subject of women and alcohol and use her own personal story to make it more meaningful.
Find all of my reviews on my blog.