By Amelia C.
Ann Dowsett Johnston’s Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol, as the title suggests, is an examination of the special issues that women face as alcoholics and as both participants in and targets of the industry that surrounds the consumption of alcohol. I read – and reviewed for this blog – The Toronto Star’s 2011 Atkinson series on Women and Alcohol which was written by Johnston and is the basis for much of this book. These are effective as stand-alone articles, and they also work here, but this book is most engaging as a memoir.
Most of us who got sober through the support of a peer-to-peer fellowship were told, early on: “Stick around until you hear your story.” We are told that the variety of experience of alcoholics is so vast, so inclusive, that we will eventually understand how we fit, how we belong here. The alcoholic memoir genre, however, is mostly comprised of stories of low-bottom alcoholics who lose their livelihoods, families and homes; who manage to recover against all odds and after chasing away all the people who have mattered to them.
While these tales resonate with many, and can certainly be gripping narratives, they only tell a certain kind of story about a certain kind of alcoholic. In her own voice, Johnston represents alcoholics who came to their addictions later in life, and who quit before things ever got too bad. If there aren’t enough stories about women out there, there also aren’t enough stories about this kind of experience of alcoholism, and I believe Johnston does a great service for both groups of people.
Johnston clearly recognizes that alcoholics in recovery come from all age groups and walks of life, and this book is so multi-faceted that it is occasionally frustrating to read. She is such a good writer, and her own story so compelling, that it sometimes feels jarring to be taken outside of her life to read industry professionals’ opinions on a myriad of alcohol-related issues; to take in facts and statistics. I wonder if this might have worked better as two separate books. This is my only real criticism, because the parts are all successful on their own. The book is obviously well-researched and far-reaching.
Johnston includes discussions of alcohol’s effect on breast cancer rates, informs us that the risk of suffering a stroke as the result of alcohol abuse is five times greater for women, and how the fact that a lower metabolism coupled with generally less body fat means that women are affected by alcohol much sooner than their male counterparts. (pp. 52-53) She also describes and seeks solutions for the unique problems faced by mothers in recovery. A major focus is on the rise of alcoholism in university-educated North American women, and something that felt especially close to my own experience was her description of the drinking culture encouraged on university campuses.
Johnston describes a culture of binge-drinking in universities that has grown significantly since her days as a student in the 1970s, and she uses the example of the Aberdeen street party, a traditional homecoming weekend event at Queen’s University in Kingston that was attended by between 5000 and 7000 students the last year it was held. The dangerous, mob-like environment created by these young and inexperienced drinkers culminated in an overturned car that was set on fire, at a party held in 2005. Although, as a result of the party, Homecoming was not to be officially celebrated in Kingston again until 2013, two students were killed in alcohol-related incidents in 2010. (p. 98)
I read a large portion of Drink on a bus heading towards Kingston and Queen’s University, late this September, and I wondered what kind of a scene I would be greeted by. It was not, as it turned out, homecoming week-end, so I did not get to witness the first celebration since 2005, but I certainly saw a lot of university students milling about, and I was reminded of my own first attempt at university, fresh out of high school and still in my teens.
I was already a binge-drinker when I arrived at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, but it was certainly there that I really “learned” to drink. The older students and RAs encouraged us to over-indulge with giant pails of Purple Jesus’ and weekly bus trips to a dance club that offered $2 drinks. Frosh week was a great big drinking game, even for those of us who were under age (as I was), and I don’t remember ever being offered any alternatives to drinking. From the sounds of things, this is a North America-wide issue, and little has changed since the mid-1990s.
Johnston wonders how to change this culture of drinking, and there are some optimistic suggestions, such as offering students late-night alternatives to drinking, and, especially, implementing programs such as BASICS (Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students), but I am mostly inclined to agree with Rob Turrisi, professor of biobehavioural health and prevention research at Pennsylvania State University, who is quoted as saying, “Seriously, to change the culture? You’d have to change the culture of North America.” (p. 101)
I grew up in a home where I wasn’t allowed to drink, but I got drunk most weekends during high school. It’s not like I couldn’t have gone to the movies or read a book. I wanted to drink, and I drank. I think public information and offering alternatives are both vitally important, but I don’t think they’re going to prevent binge-drinking.
Johnston’s own mother was an alcoholic whose behaviour was very damaging to the people in her life, and especially to her family. Johnston was aware of the damage alcohol could cause, but she was unable to recognize her own problem until much later, despite this, and she was unable to quit drinking for sometime after she first became determined to. She had all kinds of information.
It’s difficult to write a book that’s largely about a 12-step program without addressing spirituality, and Johnston does this in a chapter entitled “Wrestling with the God Thing.” She briefly addresses the gendered language in the Big Book, but ultimately appreciates the “as we understood” bit, and feels that this is inclusive enough for everyone. The people she interviews for this chapter seem to feel the same. In fact, she along with all of the women interviewed seem to believe in a creative force they feel comfortable calling “god.”
She also interviews Gabor Mate, though, whose explanation is much more satisfactory to me: “‘Spiritual’ is nothing more than liberation from the personal history… We’re all part of something bigger – which the Twelve Steps refer to as the higher power.” (p. 261)
While talking about god, Johnston interweaves anecdotes about connections with people who just happened to be there at the right time. Rather than as proof of an intervening god, I would like to interpret these instances as examples of universality and the goodness of human beings. Throughout my own recovery I have seen countless examples of incredible kindness, and these wonderful people and heartfelt actions are my own higher power.
Drink is a big book, and this review can’t possibly do it justice. I learned a lot about women and alcohol, but mostly, I loved reading about Ann Dowsett Johnston’s experiences growing up, about her relationships with her parents, partner, and son, and, of course, about her relationship with alcohol. I related to a lot. And I also appreciate that she is a public figure – a prominent Canadian journalist – who is speaking out about her own alcoholism and recovery. I think it’s a brave thing to do, and I believe it will be incredibly helpful.