I am always fascinated by how alcoholics are portrayed in pop culture. How the actors slur their words and stumble across sets. Often they're cast as angry, rambling middle-aged men, crouched over a bar ordering round after round; sometimes we see instead the floozy party girl dancing on top of the bar. Everyone else in the scene knows what’s going on and winces at their inebriated friend.
Is that what an alcoholic looks like?
As someone who grew up surrounded by addiction, I don’t recognize these characters. These images don’t show the secrecy of alcoholism. The hidden bottles around the house. The cans covered up deep in the trash. The drinking of Listerine or even vanilla to subdue shakes. The evening binges or morning tipples. The weekend benders and the destructive aftermath. The unglamorous cycle of severe guilt and shame.
Alcoholism doesn’t choose by gender, personality type, socioeconomic status, or willpower. It’s a disease, and it’s genetic. I’ve seen this in my own life: I have an alcoholic grandfather, mother, and brother. I’ve wanted to write this piece for a long time for all the women who come from families with addiction problems. I want to offer you my experience and hope.
Growing up, I truly had no idea my mom was an alcoholic. I was in eighth grade when my mom told us she had a drinking problem. For her, rock bottom was a night of drinking with friends that landed her in the hospital. She told us she was an alcoholic and was going to get help.
The Mayo Clinic defines alcoholism as:
“a chronic and often progressive disease that includes problems controlling your drinking, being preoccupied with alcohol, continuing to use alcohol even when it causes problems, having to drink more to get the same effect (physical dependence), or having withdrawal symptoms when you rapidly decrease or stop drinking. If you have alcoholism, you can’t consistently predict how much you’ll drink, how long you’ll drink, or what consequences will occur from your drinking.”
Alcoholism affects 17.6 million adults in the U.S., which is roughly one out of every twelve adults, says the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. Women make up about one-third of those with alcohol problems. And what is interesting, according to a study in Gender and Alcohol: Individual and Social Perspectives, is that, while women are less likely than men to develop alcohol-related problems, they develop them faster when they do.
According to research, women’s drinking-related problems (e.g., loss of control over drinking, negative consequences of drinking) appear to progress more quickly than those of men. This faster progression means that women experience shorter intervals than men between onset of regular drunkenness and first encountering the negative consequences of drinking. Women also report more severe problems and experience more health-related consequences from substance use, and their substance-related problems interfere with their daily functioning more than men.
Another study found that gender differences in body structure and chemistry cause women to absorb more alcohol than men, and it takes longer for women’s bodies to remove alcohol from their systems. In general, women have less body water than men of similar body weight, so when drinking an equivalent amount of alcohol as a man of the same weight, a woman will absorb about 30 percent more alcohol into her bloodstream, resulting in a higher BAC. The immediate negative effects occur more quickly and last longer, making women more vulnerable to alcohol’s long-term health effects.
As would be expected, alcoholism affects not only the addict’s physical health but also the health of her relationships. The sad reality for women is that their alcoholism usually affects more personal domains than men. The NCADD reports multiple ways alcoholism affects women’s lives in particular, including: skipping child care responsibilities, drinking in dangerous situations (such as while transporting kids), and continuing to drink even with ongoing alcohol-related tensions within the family and workplace. And this makes sense, when you think about it. A woman’s responsibilities to family, children, and community are often larger than men’s, so the consequences of alcohol abuse are greater.
This was certainly true in my family. Over time, I learned my mom would binge drink after my five siblings and I went to bed. (And I learned that binge drinking for women is four or more drinks in less than two hours—an amount easily consumed by many of my college girlfriends on a typical night out.) So while I didn’t see my mom drunk in front of me, I saw the aftereffects. Mornings usually meant a moody, edgy, hungover mom and the unpredictable behavior that followed suit. My young mind internalized that as my fault, my problem to handle. What would set her off? How could I be a better daughter to make her happier? What was wrong with me?
I now understand I was scared of her. I was fearful of acting the wrong way and constantly on guard as to how I could appease her. How could I help her and please her so she wouldn’t blow up on me? Even as an adult living thousands of miles from her post-college, I realized these thoughts still applied to me. They stunted my relationship with her and my independent adult life. I was carrying these things into relationships with my friends, into my work, and into my spiritual life.
The final straw for me was when my 19-year-old brother entered rehab at the end of 2013. I felt totally helpless. My family was in chaos. So I decided to attend an Al-Anon meeting in my small town. Al-Anon is a twelve-step program and support group for people who are family or friends of alcoholics or addicts. While not a religious program, Al-Anon does address one’s “Higher Power,” which is open to individual interpretation. And for me, faith was a big part of my story and helped me move forward. Going to my first meeting was scary, but I was absolutely ready for it. I wanted answers and help.
The first few times I cried—no, bawled—whenever I shared. I kept saying, “I don’t know why I’m crying!” My mom was sober. I lived across the country from my addicts; they weren’t even in my everyday life. Now I know: I was acknowledging and surrendering years of pain and the weight of the past. I was taking a load off. Never in my life had I stopped and really looked at how these things had affected me. I thought it was normal! It was all I had ever known. For the first time, I talked to people who understood what I had and was experiencing.
What could I do to help my brother? The answer, I learned, is truly nothing. I had to take care of myself and recognize that his journey is his. These weekly meetings were the catalyst for discovering how alcohol addiction had affected me emotionally. I learned I was a classified codependent, meaning I felt responsible for everyone in my family, like a caretaker. Not in a healthy, loving, giving-of-self kind of way, but I found my self-worth in them needing me. I was dependent on their dependence on me. Turns out, I was just as sick as the alcoholics and addicts in my life.
Rather than a healthy distance to still be able to take care of my health physically, emotionally, and spiritually, I was concerned with theirs. That is where the change needed to happen (and is still happening). How had I been so consumed and hyper-focused on others my entire life? Much as it pained me to admit it, I feared being abandoned by them. I was 24 years old, and I had lost myself. It was like I was realizing how I really didn’t know myself—what I liked and what I was about.
Coming up on almost a year and a half in Al-Anon, I can tell you that a lot of change has taken place. And to be honest, change is hard. I was scared to seem selfish and worried that my lack of involvement with my family would seem like I didn’t care. I had to practice detachment. I have felt empowered by attending these meetings. When it comes to the alcoholism in my family, I didn’t cause it, I can’t cure it, and I can’t control it. I need to constantly remind myself to “Let Go and Let God,” as they teach us, when I feel myself becoming anxious and wanting to control a situation.
I am beginning to turn my eye for improvement toward myself instead of the addicts in my life. I am learning that I am solely responsible for me. I can choose boundaries. Rehab didn’t work for my brother. He’s still struggling and not sober. No one can make him want sobriety—only he can be ready to recover. I have had to let go of control in that situation.
Every day brings up new battles and how I choose to handle them. I’ve had to stop following my brother on social media because his status updates about partying upset me. He is my brother. I love him, and I miss him. But talking to him is hard because he pulls me into the chaos of his life. So, I am still learning how to manage this. I’m discovering more about who I am—how to identify the way I am feeling and not fearing expressing those feelings. I am becoming confident in knowing that, with the help of my God and my friends and my support group, I am capable.
As I heard in a recent meeting, we are all there because we have the privilege of loving someone with alcoholism. And it’s true. Alcoholics have a disease, yet they are no less because of it. But their fights with addiction are theirs to fight. Their journeys on the road to recovery are theirs. For me, the goal is to attain a healthy relationship with myself first. Only then can I choose healthy ways to handle my relationships with those who are in the throes of addiction or recovery.