The female face of alcoholism

Published: Sunday 11th January 2015 by The News Editor

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Successful working mothers with high-pressure jobs run the risk of succumbing to alcoholism without knowing it.

That’s the fear of Ann Dowsett Johnston, who has written the half-memoir, half-instructional book .

Ann, now in her seventh year of sobriety, writes from a position of experience as a former functioning female drinker.

She says that self-awareness is key as many women are in denial about their alcohol consumption.

Ann, now a 61-year-old Toronto-based public speaker and journalist, says that women drinkers are catching up with men.

And, perhaps most forebodingly, she believes that we have not truly absorbed the link between breast cancer and booze.

According to research, around 15% of breast cancer cases are linked to alcohol. Also, one in six UK women develop some sort of health problem associated with drinking, while liver disease deaths have risen 20% in a decade.

Ann says: “That’s a really alarming reality where you’re seeing end-stage liver disease in women in their 20s, full-blown alcoholism for women in their teens.”

Female audiences g ive Ann knowing nods when she tells of her own troubled relationship with drink. This involved “rushing in after a busy day at work, tossing off your coat, unpacking groceries, chopping vegetables and pouring yourself a glass of wine as you prepare the family meal, possibly knowing you’re also heading for another round of homework and emails.

“Women nod because they know that’s a habit. And that habit can so easily turn into a glass at dinner, and then another glass after dinner. And then if you get into trouble, as I did, with major depression and menopause, it can turn into four – and when it’s four, you’re so over the drinking guidelines, you’re in trouble.”

She added that today’s “alcogenic”, ad-fuelled culture pressurises women into thinking that alcohol must be involved if they wish to celebrate, relax, reward or entertain.

It’s a topic she’s written and spoken about extensively, advising on alcohol-related policy issues and often drawing on her own story as a starting point.

She fears that society has “normalised” drinking so much that the lowest recommended guidelines (two to three units a day for women, with one standard size glass of wine equating to 2.3 units alone) seem laughable.

“When I talk about the drinking guidelines, a lot of people are just saying, ‘No, that’s not risky drinking, that’s normal’,” Ann notes.

She said: “Self-awareness is really important. I was pushing on the accelerator pedal in my career for far too long as a single mother.”

Her son Nicholas is now 30.

Ann says: “It was easier for me to have a drink than go to see my doctor and say I am dealing with a deep depression.”

When Ann eventually spoke to a doctor about her depression, she was advised against taking a new, high-pressure job as vice-principle of Canada’s McGill University.

She ignored that advice, instead telling herself that a move to a new town was just what she needed to start afresh. That backfired, and things got worse, which Ann can now see was probably inevitable.

But recognising those warning signals, and knowing your personal limits and how to take care of yourself is “key”, Ann said.

This is what she hopes her book will get across.

Copyright Press Association 2015

Published: Sunday 11th January 2015 by The News Editor

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