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The Drinking Woman
By Edith Lynn Hornik-Beer
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1977 Edith Lynn Hornik
All rights reserved.
A Woman an Alcoholic-Never!
Women need to have alcoholism defined in terms that include them. For all too many years, researchers have ignored the female alcoholic or simply assumed that the "few women" who are alcoholics suffer no differently than the men. Only lately have we begun to recognize the importance of looking at women separately from men. Even how a woman drinks is different from the way a man drinks. Women tend to mix prescribed medicine with alcohol more than do men. Women also tend to pursue a pattern of continual drinking, while men tend towards bouts of drinking.
As recently as 1972, Dr. Marc Shuckit, a psychiatrist specializing in the field of alcoholism, noted that between 1929 and 1970 there were only 29 studies on women alcoholics published in the English language.
One can only guess why women were omitted from the majority of studies. Perhaps few women could be found among the tested populations. This would be the case in the Veterans Administration hospitals, for example, which until very recently were populated by men only. But studies and dictionaries and populations in hospitals alone cannot be the entire reason for women alcoholics not being noted. We shall need to search deeper if we are to find the real reasons for this neglect.
Most basic, perhaps, is the fact that society hates to see a woman off her pedestal. It is easier for society to talk about mastectomy than about female alcoholism. The history of women has made it difficult for society to understand that a woman can be predisposed to alcoholism. Our understanding of women and alcohol remains a vestige of the days of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union and of Carrie Nation.
Carrie Nation and the WCTU
Carrie Nation, a very tall woman of unusual strength, smashed up saloons with her hatchet. She called it "hatchetations of joints." She was arrested about thirty times for her "hatchetations." She lectured, spoke at carnivals and sold souvenir hatchets, making enough money to pay her fines and to build a home for the wives of alcoholics in Kansas City. This energetic woman wrote a meandering autobiography in 1904, The Use and Need of the Life of Carrie A. Nation. Carrie Nation's first husband was an alcoholic and the marriage was, needless to say, unhappy. Her second husband was a lawyer and minister, and it was during this marriage that she began her embittered campaign against alcohol. She was also against corsets and such things as short skirts. She was given to mystic seizures and appears to have suffered from hereditary paranoia. Her mother was a psychotic who believed herself to be Queen Victoria.
The suffragettes and the Woman's Christian Temperance Union looked upon Carrie Nation as an unbalanced person, and she received small support from them. Nevertheless, Carrie Nation left a lasting, crippling image of a non-drinking woman who worked for prohibition.
The WCTU started in 1873 as a temperance group crusade. As the organization grew, it adopted a wide ranging platform which included home protection, the following of the golden rule, and labor and prison reform. These women faced squarely the social problems of their day. They pointed out political corruption, advocated kindergartens, and wanted to initiate badly needed social and family services. They asked for women's right to vote and prohibition of liquor traffic. Without labeling liquor abuse as a medical problem, the WCTU made the world aware of the problem of drinking.
Indeed, so strongly did the women advocate prohibition at the same time they were advocating their right to vote that the following message came across: "Give us the right to vote, and we the women will protect you from alcohol."
This was an attitude men could understand. It was in line with their image of women. These ladies were so overbearing that no one ever thought that any women, except those who hung around bars, or were "loose," could possibly have a drinking problem.
Ancient History, Alcohol and Women
Of course, this attitude, "ladies don't drink," is unrealistic. Women and alcohol are entwined throughout our recorded history. In some ancient cultures, women had an active part in the drinking ceremonies and in the drinking folklore. In Greece, Bacchus, the wine god, was the most popular. His female devotees, the Maenads, worshipped him in drunken frenzies. Clay tablets unearthed from the ruins of ancient Babylon reveal the Babylonians to have been familiar with beer in 5000 B.C. The brewers, all women, were priestesses who brewed the beer in their holy temples. The Egyptians considered the knowledge of how to brew beer as a gift imparted to them by their goddess of nature, Isis.
There is a revealing Persian legend about King Jamshid, who ruled Persia several thousand years before the birth of Christ. The king was fond of grapes, and after a particular fruitful harvest, he ordered the surplus grapes stored in jars. When he was ready to eat them, he found that the grapes had burst and fermented. Not knowing what this strange liquid was, he ordered it stored and labeled "poison." One of the ladies of the court who felt lonely and depressed decided to end it all with the King's "poison." After a few swallows of the "poison," she felt happier, and after a few more swallows, fell into a comfortable sleep. The next morning she told the king his "poison" was not a poison at all but an elixir. If she continued to seek solace in that cellar, this legendary lady from King Jamshid's court may just have become the first woman alcoholic.
As long as women have known about alcohol, they have experienced the pressures and problems of alcoholism. Aristotle talked about, "foolish, drunken or hare-brain women." The popular author of Tom Jones, Henry Fielding, mentioned in 1751, in one of his many pamphlets, women problem drinkers, "... an infant who is conceived in Gin? With the poisonous distillations of which it is nourished, both in the womb and at the breast." A few years later, Charles Dickens alluded to female drinking in his Pickwick Papers.
It was not unusual, before the age of anesthetics, for doctors to prescribe an opiate to a woman who was in pain during childbirth. It is said that two-thirds of the opiate users in the 19th century were women. Other doctors advocated alcohol to alleviate discomfort during pregnancy and delivery, as well as a relaxant in premenstrual tension, and for preventing infection after childbirth. Beer was thought to fortify a woman for breast feeding. Over the counter, women could buy Lydia Pinkham's tonic or Peruna, which had a high content of alcohol. So did grandma's special blueberry tonic.
A woman who was an alcoholic was not called "neurotic" as in our tranquilized society, but was called "hysterical," or almost any name but alcoholic. Women alcoholics themselves preferred these terms because they were confused by their need for liquor. They found it inconsistent with their role as mother, wife, or well-mannered spinster.
Even today a woman finds it difficult to accept the thought that she may be an alcoholic. We still wish to perceive a woman as the one who is good, who would show her discomfort only by being ill-tempered, difficult, or sickly. Never, never as an alcoholic.
Alcoholism and Women Today
According to the National Council on Alcoholism, there are approximately 10 million alcoholics in the USA. It is difficult to estimate how many of these are women. Some help agencies claim that women alcoholics outnumber men alcoholics. The social workers and visiting nurses who observe the lonely female senior citizen who has outlived her husband, as most women do, come into daily contact with more women than men who take up drinking in desperation. Alcoholics Anonymous, a prominent self-help group, notes that while one out of four of their present members are women, women account for one out of three of their "new" members. AA does not know whether this increase is indicative of an increase in female alcoholics or whether it means only that women today are less afraid to seek help.
Whether the alcoholic be a man or a woman, young or old, the family may well not want to recognize a drinking, problem in its midst. It is especially easy to shield a woman or a girl for "the sake of her own good name and reputation." The mother of a school-age daughter may simply ignore the warning signals the school or the law enforcement officials may point out to her, and say to them, "Thank heaven she's not on grass." She may tell her daughter to "watch your reputation among the boys." If a woman is a widow or divorced, her sons and daughters, especially if they are of the middle and upper class, may find it easiest "as long as Mom is leading her own life" to ignore the situation. If she is a married woman, policemen have been known to have arrangements with husbands to phone them when their wives were picked up.
Such protected women may be sent to private doctors who may tell them to cut down on their drinking. Or they may be sent to a private clinic for a vitamin cure. If wealthy enough, the woman alcoholic may be put under the care of a private nurse or simply left to her own devices. The family of one such alcoholic woman put her in an apartment in a completely different part of town, paid her rent and gave her grocery money which, of course, kept her in liquor. Lady that she was, she didn't even go out for her bottles. The best store in town delivered them.
The saddest part of such an attitude is the fact that the family of the alcoholic may never know that alcoholism is a disease, that it is an arrestable disease, and that as long as the alcoholic drinks actively it is affecting the whole family. It is unrealistic to act as if women never drank. Women need information about alcohol and alcoholism as much as men. The time has come to stop ostracizing the female alcoholic. We need to stop saying, "A Woman Alcoholic-Never," and instead say, "Yes, there are women alcoholics. Let's help her. Let's look the problem squarely in the face."
In 1994 the National Institute of Health published guidelines concerning the inclusion of women and minorities as subjects in clinical research. Consequently researchers consider carefully today the psychosocial and biological gender differences and how these facts need to influence treatment.
SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) in 2006 pointed out that approximately 40% of substance abuse treatment facilities now provide special programs for women. This may include therapy geared to women and overnight facilities for children while their mothers are in treatment.
According to Alcoholic Anonymous' estimates women in 1968 counted as 22% of AA membership. Presently women make up about 35% of AA membership. It is not known whether these numbers mean that women are more willing to reach out for help or that more women are drinking.
Alcohol abuse was three times as high in men as compared to women according to the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC) in 2004. College women may now drink as much as their fellow male students. CASA (the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University), a nonprofit drug abuse research group, reported a 16% rise between 1993 and 2005 in the number of full-time college students who acknowledge frequent binge drinking. But binge drinking was up 22% in women, nearly double the increase in men. At the same time, 37% of college women said they drank on 10 or more occasions in the last month.
Prescription drugs and over-the-counter pain reliever abuse in women continues to be high. (SAMHSA 2006)
Dr. George E. Valliant, psychiatrist and Professor at Harvard Medical School and Director of Research for the Department of Psychiatry, indicated that according to a study by Robins and Smith in 1980 our understanding of alcoholism in women is still extremely sketchy. He says, "For example, in the United Kingdom the male-to-female ratio of arrests for drunkenness is 14:1; for psychiatric hospitalizations for alcoholism it is 5:1; and yet for cirrhosis, the male-to-female ratio is 1:1. How are we to interpret such data?"CHAPTER 2
Alcohol and Alcoholism Defined
Alcohol is a drug, and to the best of our knowledge, the first man-made drug. The alcohol we drink, ethyl alcohol, is produced naturally by the process of fermentation. A microscopic plant called yeast floats freely in the air and reacts with the sugar in the juice. This reaction produces alcohol and releases carbon dioxide in the air. When about 14% of the juice is alcohol, it stops the process of the yeast. The liquid left is wine or beer.
Since alcohol can be produced naturally in any sugar-containing mixture such as fruit, honey or grains, historians feel that alcohol was discovered accidentally in prehistoric times.
In the Middle Ages, an alchemist named Gerber searched for a means to turn dirt into gold. He heated wine or beer in a still to 173° F. The alcohol boiled off as a vapor, but the water and most of the other ingredients in the liquid remained in the still. Then he cooled the vapor, obtaining almost pure alcohol.
Although Gerber wrote about his discovery only as a scientific experiment, some 500 years later Arnauld de Villeneuve, a 13th-century professor of medicine at the University of Montpellier in France, rediscovered alcohol. He called it aqua vitae, the "water of life." He said, "This name is remarkably suitable since it is really a water of immortality. It prolongs life, clears away ill humors, revives the heart and maintains youth."
As was discussed earlier, alcohol was used to help women when in pain. It was also used by men and children. Brandy was given for treating faintness, wine for blood-building, and alcoholic beverages in general for sleeplessness, over-excitement, to stimulate a poor appetite.
Whiskey was the only known antidote for snake bites. And many a man today still claims it is as effective as any serum.
Sometimes alcohol is effective. Wine is still recommended today to elderly people to cheer them and to block out vague aches and pains. Some nursing homes serve wine with their meals. Wine is mentioned in the Old Testament and is still used by men and women in both Jewish and Christian ceremonies.
However, too often men, women, and children are the heirs of myths about alcohol which may, even if we are not alcoholics, be damaging to our health.
Common Myths about Alcohol
Alcohol is good for chills. Not so: Alcohol makes a person feel warm only temporarily because the blood vessels at the surface of the skin are dilated, but as the blood is brought to the skin surface, the body loses heat. Body temperature is actually lowered.
Feeling blue? A drink will cheer you up. Not so: Alcohol intensifies what a person is feeling.
Alcohol is a stimulant. Not so: Alcohol acts as an anesthetic. The first drink or two dulls the consciousness and removes the inhibitions. It is the release of inhibitions that is often mistaken for stimulation. Therefore, many people say a "little drink" frees them from feeling shy among people.
Coffee and a cold shower will sober anyone up who has had too much to drink. Not so: Coffee and a cold shower will keep a person awake. Only the liver can metabolize the alcohol and nothing can hurry up the process.
Mixing different types of drinks makes a person drunk. Not so: Intoxication is caused by the ethyl alcohol present in all alcoholic beverages. What may contribute to making a person feel sick is the mixtures of additives in each type of alcohol. Some may have caramel coloring added; others may have a high sugar content, and others, flavor additives.
Beer or wine does not make a person as intoxicated as distilled spirits such as scotch or brandy. Not so: It depends on how much you drink of each. Twelve ounces of beer may have as much alcohol as one and one- half ounces of whiskey, scotch or brandy.
How Alcohol Affects the Body
Alcohol is a fast-acting drug because it is absorbed by the membranes of the digestive tract and passes immediately into the blood stream. The less food we have eaten, the quicker the alcohol can pass into the blood stream. This is why a drink after dinner is less potent than one before dinner, or why social drinkers like to nibble at pretzels and other snacks while they have cocktails.
A drink gulped down rather than slowly sipped will make the consumer act drunker because it is absorbed faster, and the effects will last longer. The same amount drunk slowly will not make the consumer feel as drunk even though in the end, the drinker will have the same amount of alcohol in the body as the one who drank fast. The slow drinker gives his body a chance to handle the alcohol.
Once the alcohol is in our blood stream, it is circulated throughout the body. This is how alcohol reaches the brain. Alcohol acts directly on the brain and changes its ability to work. Alcohol puts part of the brain to sleep, which naturally affects the ability of the drinker to think and make decisions. If more alcohol is consumed, the drinker can't walk a straight line or drive a car. Her speech may become slurred and the drinker may also have trouble focusing the eyes.
Excerpted from The Drinking Woman by Edith Lynn Hornik-Beer. Copyright © 1977 Edith Lynn Hornik. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsForeword by FRANK A. SEIXAS, M.D., Medical Director of National Council on Alcoholism,
Introduction by Thomas P. Beresford, M.D.,
A Few Words from the Author,
1. A Woman an Alcoholic-Never!,
2. Alcohol and Alcoholism Defined,
3. You're Just Like Your Parents-Maybe?,
5. Stress and Family Living,
6. The Alcoholic Woman in the Unhealthy Marriage,
7. Female Sexuality and Alcoholism,
9. The Cultural Stress Factor: I,
10. The Cultural Stress Factor: II,
11. Life With an Alcoholic,
12. Alcoholics Anonymous,
13. Seeking Help,
14. Getting Ready to Face the World Again,