Sonenshine: Is alcohol the steroid of modern women?

Why do educated, professional women abuse alcohol?

Why do educated, professional women abuse alcohol? (Credit: iStock)

'Four. I had four [drinks] last night. Maybe it was five. One was vodka. And I slept through both alarms."

So recalls Ann Dowsett Johnston, former vice principal of McGill University, in her new book "Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol." The book combines in-depth research with her personal story of alcoholism and recovery. And it raises hard questions about professional women today.

"Is alcohol the modern woman's steroid, enabling her to do the heavy lifting involved in a complex, demanding world?" Johnston asks. "Is it the escape valve women need, in the midst of a major social revolution still unfolding?" Johnston sees a culture "where risky drinking has been normalized" and women turn to alcohol to calm anxiety, and numb depression.


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Alcohol use by women overall has been growing over time. One in five high school girls binge drink, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An analysis of national surveys shows that 47 percent of white women were regular drinkers in 2002, up from 37 percent a decade earlier. Among black women, the rate rose from 21 percent to 30 percent; among Hispanic women, from 24 percent to 32 percent.

And more recent studies indicate that growing numbers of well-educated women in the United States struggle with alcoholism. A 2013 study by the CDC finds binge drinking affects 14 million U.S. women, who binge about three times a month and typically consume six drinks per episode. Drinking affects all women, but the CDC finds it is most common among those earning above $75,000 a year.

The new focus on binge drinking by highly educated women and the impact on families is drawing attention. Along with Johnston's book is Katie Hafner's memoir, "Mother Daughter Me," in which the author, herself not a drinker, describes life with an alcoholic mother, a well-educated woman who majored in physics at Radcliffe.

"My mother lost her temper," the former New York Times journalist writes. "She screamed at the cat. She screamed at us, went up to her bedroom, and didn't come out -- for a night, or two nights, or some number of days and nights that I no longer recall."

Why do educated, professional women abuse alcohol? Sometimes it stems from college environments with social and academic pressures and loose attitudes toward drinking. Studies indicate that professional women who drink excessively start in college.

Ignorance is also a factor. Many women are unaware of new research that shows how women's body fat, metabolism and hormone levels lead to faster intoxication than is the case with men. Pound for pound, women have less water in their bodies than men do, and alcohol dissolves in body water, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Marketing to female drinkers is big business. There are too many commercials for low-calorie wines so women can drink and stay "slim." We overplay the sexual and romantic sides of alcohol, with films that glamorize drinking. Ads push drinking and ignore the pressures that push women toward the bottle to relieve the stress of caring for children, building careers and tending to elderly parents living longer.

The authors of these new books are painfully honest -- almost brutal -- with their searing tales of alcohol-driven loss. But they have positive endings.

As we face December pressures and parties, when accidents from drinking and driving increase, let's step back and remember the pain that overdrinking can cause -- and the gifts to be found in overcoming it.

Tara D. Sonenshine, a former State Department undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs, is a distinguished fellow at George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs.

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