By Amelia C.
In November, Ann Dowsett Johnston wrote a series of articles for The Toronto Star on alcohol abuse, with a specific focus on the experiences of women. The articles covered a wide range of alcohol-related issues and spoke to and with women of varying ages and backgrounds.
Throughout the series Johnston looked at how the effects of alcohol differ between genders, as well as problems unique to (pregnancy, motherhood) and more common to (sexual abuse, anorexia) women. This ambitious series touched on virtually every issue related to alcoholism, and these were made more immediate and personal by Johnston’s inclusion of a number of first-hand accounts by women whose lives had been dramatically affected by their own alcohol consumption. Johnston also included information on policy related to alcohol consumption and treatment, dangerous marketing strategies, as well as recovery programs including Alcoholics Anonymous.
The series began with a profile of Bieta Klimek, a 46-year old mother of two. Klimek described drinking because she felt isolated and unhappy in her marriage, and as a way of dealing with grief, anxiety and depression. She talked about the progression of her own alcoholism, and worried when she saw its potential in other women. In using Klimek’s story to introduce the series, Johnston was able to address a number of issues that reoccurred throughout the following week, and to make an immediate personal connection to her readers. The profiles that followed offered a variety of perspectives of women who came to alcohol in different ways, and all of whom eventually managed to beat their addictions.
Perhaps the most affecting, and certainly the bravest, profile featured Christie, who openly discussed how drinking during her pregnancy was responsible for her son’s fetal alcohol syndrome disorder (FASD). After achieving sobriety twelve years later, she began using her story to help other women struggling with alcoholism, through her involvement with a support group for mothers of children with FASD, and to educate pregnant women on the importance of a sober pregnancy.
Many of the women Johnston spoke to revealed their identities, even allowing themselves to be photographed. One exception was 17-year old “Laura,” whose story was used to draw attention to the dangers of drinking at an early age. Many young women and girls who developed problems with alcohol also struggled with anorexia, and these body issues and substance abuse issues often resulted from sexual abuse and certainly from issues of low self-esteem. Johnston further described the normalization of binge-drinking in higher education, and how such incidents have recently led to three tragically premature deaths across Canada.
It’s not just university-aged women, however, who are affected by a general portrayal of alcohol consumption as both safe and normal. Johnston examined the negative effects of marketing campaigns targeting women in a piece entitled “’Pinking’ the wine and spirits market.” She described how giving alcoholic beverage such names as “Mommy’s Time Out” and “Girl’s Night Out” made the beverages appear innocuous and fun, and a very natural – even necessary – part of being a mother, or of having a good time with girlfriends. Stefanie Wilder-Taylor had first-hand experience with what this kind of promotion can lead to. At one time she authored a popular online column (“Make Mine a Double: Tales of Twins and Tequila”) encouraging mothers to embrace the cocktail hour as a means of surviving motherhood, but she began publicly taking the opposite stance after obtaining three months of sobriety. She started an online support group for parents in similar situations, called “The Booze-Free Brigade.”
The most widely-known support group discussed during this series was, of course, Alcoholics Anonymous, and in the piece devoted to AA, Johnston wondered how valuable the anonymity aspect remained. While acknowledging the reason for anonymity in the press or media (primarily to avoid the organization being seen as unhelpful should a relapse occur, thus keeping additional people from seeking support) she also argued that the benefits of disclosure could outweigh the potential negative impact.
Johnston quoted Susan Cheever, who said, “The stigma around alcoholism is bad – but it’s misunderstanding that kills. We need all kinds of people to change at once. Anonymity is getting in the way of public education.”
Cheever felt that if people from all walks of life came forward publicly about their alcoholism, it would make it easier for alcoholics who still suffer, and she compared this to how respected members of society coming out as gay had made things easier for the gay community at large. I find that a difficult point to argue, despite the potential downside, and acknowledging that it would remain each individual’s right to break his or her own anonymity, including, of course, on such a public level.
In concluding the series, Johnston interviewed Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer, Robert Strang, who confusingly insisted that alcohol was not an addiction problem before going on to describe how excessive drinking caused a myriad of problems, from drunk driving to a strained healthcare system. While certainly there are incidents involving occasional drinkers who have made poor decisions while intoxicated, I don’t believe that most people who get involved in such situations drink like typical social drinkers. Drinking is not an issue for most people, and as well-intentioned as Strang’s assertion may be, I don’t think it’s correct, and it gives the false impression that alcohol consumption is in itself a terrible societal ill. It reminds me of abstinence campaigns targeting teenagers, wherein the lack of education about alternatives can lead to greater problems than honest communication.
Thank goodness there are a number of resources available to people who struggle with alcoholism, the most accessible and familiar being Alcoholics Anonymous. Discussions about barriers to support make me grateful for the existence of agnostic groups within AA. Johnston’s article does a great service to women struggling with alcohol abuse. I described only a few of the issues she dealt with throughout the series, and there were so many additional issues discussed and several other personal and courageous stories. I would recommend it to anybody who struggles with such issues herself or who cares about somebody else who is suffering as a result of alcohol.
The following are links to Ann Dowsett Johnston’s articles on Women and Alcohol as part of the Toronto Star 2011 Atkinson Series: