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Why Women Drink


“Jose Cuervo, you are a friend of mine.” Do those words bring back memories? Linda Ronstadt and jolly times?

Except, of course, that Jose Cuervo is so often a lousy friend….

Statistics show that women are drinking more than ever, are being stopped for drunk driving more often — and a notorious recent car crash has thrown a spotlight on hidden drinking.

When Mommy cocktail hours are necessary to get through the day, when professional women know they’re crossing a line — help is needed.

This hour, On Point: what’s going on with women and booze.

You can join the conversation. Tell us what you think — here on this page, on Twitter, and on Facebook.


Rachael Brownell, mother of three and a recovering alcoholic. She’s author of “Mommy Doesn’t Drink Here Anymore: Getting Through the First Year of Sobriety.” You can read an excerpt here.

Dr. Petros Levounis, director of the Addiction Institute of New York and Chief of Addiction Psychiatry at St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital in New York. He’s author of “Sober Siblings: How to Help Your Alcoholic Brother or Sister — and Not Lose Yourself.”

Sarah Allen Benton, a recovering alcoholic and author of “Understanding the High-Functioning Alcoholic.” She is a mental health counselor at Emmanuel College in Boston.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • Mickey Foster

    The possibility of Obamacare is causing me to drink.

  • G
  • http://none Laura

    I grew up with a severely alcoholic mother and I swore I would never become like her. I’m 37 now, and about 3 years ago I met my boyfriend who took me out frequently and we drank a lot together. I never really drank until then and never saw the problem coming. Now, three years later, I am an alcoholic and got arrested for drunk driving recently. Now, ironically, my relationship with that same boyfriend is ending as a result of my alcohol abuse. I am completely humiliated and cannot see how I let this get so out of control, after a lifetime of suffering through my own mother’s alcoholism.

  • Len
  • Carol Scalzo

    Unlike the guest author, I’m not a mother. I started my relationship with Chardonnay, after a stressful day @ work. After becoming unemployed, I continued with my daily cocktail, despite the lack of stress. I’d consider myself of a functional alcoholic because I strive to work out regularly, albeit a struggle at times.

    As of now, I don’t think about it all day long, but I must admit I look forward to it each day and I consider myself lucky when I the bottle runs out after the 2nd drink.

    Alcoholism runs in my family.

  • Mari

    There are many new pressures on ALL women, in 2009, than there were on our mothers and grandmothers back in the twentieth century.

    First of all, most women drive cars now, starting in their mid-teens. This was not so much the case when I was growing up. My mother had to share a single car with my father who drove it to work. Most neighbors had this same arrangement with stay-at-home moms being the norm.

    Opportunities for women to drink and drive are far greater than they were when I was a kid. Add the extra economic pressures and high expectations of perfection in all things and you’ve got a statistical jump in women who drink and drive.

    Any questions?

  • Larry

    I had to leave a 20 year marriage because my then wife was a closet drinker. She would hide vodka in her closet and begin drinking secretly about 6 pm every night…then break out the wine and sip during the evening in front of her family…acting like she was just having “one glass.”
    Problem was NO ONE would ever believe that this loving, woman was drinking in an alcoholic fashion. She was able to twist her alcoholism around and blame me for her, alcohol related, problems. I was unable to convince a court, or anyone else, as to her alcoholism and had to leave my tween children in her primary custody. I was powerless to help her or change her drinking pattern. Alcohol is not an illegal drug and anyone over 21 is allowed to consume this drug, and it is not possible to make someone stop who doesn’t want to.

  • christina

    I am a youngish, professional woman and a recovering alcoholic. I began drinking heavily during a period of great stress, when my fiance left me while I was finishing my dissertation. Living alone, without a partner or children, I was able to drink without fearing that those close to me would know. My life became unmanageable in a relatively short period of time. I remained in denial because I thought that alcoholism was soley a genetically inherited disease, and I do not have a history of alcoholism in my family. However, alcoholism is a progressive disease and has the potential to affect any of us. I have been in recovery for six months now, and AA has been crucial.

    –Christina, Salt Lake City

  • Tammy

    I think it’s really important not to overattribute current alcoholism among women to the pressures associated with their presence in the workforce. What’s key is the PRESSURE they feel in their life roles, whether they work away from or in the home (or both). In other words, it is women’s reponse to WHATEVER situation they are in that may manifest itself in alcoholism. After all, as Betty Friedan pointed out so well in The Feminine Mystique in the 60s, some women can feel just as trapped if they “stay at home” as those who work outside the home. Alcoholism has always been with us–men and women alike.

  • Tom M

    My wife is a ‘cocktail mum’- one to two bottles of chardonnay a night. She knows she has a problem, we talk about it all the time, but she can’t stop it and isn’t prepared to seek help. I’m having a really hard time watching her do this, not only is she choosing to spend her time with a bottle rather than with me she is literally killing herself.

    I’m probably going to leave her if she doesn’t start to address this – I’ve told her that and am getting to the point where I’m going to have to follow through. I don’t want to but can’t stand seeing her drunk every night.

  • Nina

    Another thing women must think about is the fact that drinking raises your risk of breast cancer. I was 48 in 2005, drinking too much wine every day after work to “wind down”. Then I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I’ve been treated successfully, but I wonder if the heavy alcohol use contributed to my developing cancer, particularly at a time when my hormones were changing. Research is pretty strong that drinking raises the risk of developing breast cancer. There is a link between insulin resistance, the high carbohydrate content of alcohol, and hormone dependent breast cancer. Now I am advised to limit drinking to 2 drinks a week, which I try to do. An added benefit is that my weight is going down; alcohol has a lot of calories.

  • G

    Please discuss alternatives to 12 Step and AA programs that those close to HFA’s can suggest.

  • Diane

    Listening to the discussion right now, and it is both disturbing and fascinating.

    As a late-in-life first-time mom, I suffered severe post-partum depression, but as a teetotaler I was never tempted to drink to dull the depression. I’m not an alcoholic, I just don’t care for alcohol and it holds no appeal for me. But, knowing and experiencing first-hand the incredible pressures that today’s moms face, I can absolutely and fully understand why alcohol would tempt some moms.

  • Erik

    How about an alternative? There are many ways to relax and relieve yourself of stress…meditation, exercise, cooking, etc.

    However, for those who feel as if they need to self-medicate, they are trapped, and forced to turn to alcohol as it is really the only legal means of inebriation in most of the country. Alcohol is a very harmful and dangerous drug.

    I feel that it’s a shame that marijuana isn’t legalized. It is proven to have caused almost no deaths, and its getting a new bad rap from the woman who drove the wrong way. Her problem was that she was drinking and smoking. Weed could actually help a lot of people sort out their abuses and addictions on their own terms.

    All I’m saying is that it’s sad that there’s no legal alternative to alcohol as an intoxicating substance, so, if you want to get messed up legally, you have to drink. And if you can’t drink in your house, you have to drive somewhere to drink, and if you have to drive to drink, you have to drive home after drinking. not everyone can get a designated driver.

    I’ve never seen anyone high on marijuana throwing things out of anger or threatening violence on anyone.

    Leading a sober life is a good choice, too.

  • Katherine

    I am an adult child of a long family line that generation after generation are alcoholics. My mother was aware of this and aware of the predisposition towards being an alcoholic herself because of genetics as well as her own depression/anxiety. Because of this awareness, she entered AA in her mid-20′s as a preventative measure before she had even become an active drinker. What do you think about this sort of preemptive measure? What do you think about the genetic predisposition towards alcoholism?

  • Jane

    I am a woman who has drank alcoholically since my teens. Drink took away my painful shyness and made me do things I would have not done otherwise…until alcohol turned on me and made me a slave to it.
    I think low self-esteem and this (still) pervasive moray that women are supposed to be submissive is a huge factor in women and drinking.
    I wonder how “new” this issue is and if it just hasn’t been swept under the table for so long because as women we are expected to be responsible and be nurturing.
    I am grateful that I have found recovery and not only has the obsession been lifted but my thinking has changed, in a way that I never would have imagined.

  • Anne

    Alcoholism is certainly not a new phenomenon amongst women, and certainly not causally linked to working women juggling career and housework/children/etc.

    It was named “Housewife fatigue” in 1950′s suburbia.
    See for example:

    The only “novelty” is our ability to study these phenomena and interests in diagnostic categories.

    It’s good though to share narratives which help de-pathologize alcoholism through stories of normal people who face difficulties in living and seek more creative ways to face life than depending on drink.

  • http://www.facesandvoicesofrecovery.org Patty

    As a professional woman in long-term recovery, which means I have not used alcohol or other drugs in over 19 years, my life has changed tremendously due to my recovery. I began drinking alcoholicly at 13 years old and I began my recovery journey at 23. Now I’m raising teenage daughters and seem to have stopped the early onset in my family. It’s important to emphasize that there are an estimated 20 million men and women in long-term recovery in the United States who choose many paths such as faith-based, medication assistance and mutual support groups. The recovery community is part of the solution advocating for policies that support recovery by making treatment more accessible and promote all paths to recovery.

  • rachel

    I wanted to respond to the caller who was concerned about confronting a loved one about their drinking and was worried about them feeling ganged up on. From my personal experience I was angry and offended when i was confronted but early in my recovery i realized that it needed to happen. I guess i wouldn’t worry so much about hurting feelings because when we’re living in our addiction our feelings are pretty much going haywire. Once i started looking at things with a clear head i realized the intervention was because the people around me loved me and wanted to help.

  • Maria

    For those looking for an insightful self help group other than AA should try Smart Recovery. (smartrecovery.org) As a woman I find it much more empowering. Unlike AA, the group meetings are based on cognitive behavioral therapy. Smart relies on self management rather than a belief in a higher power to achieve success. I’ve been sober 6 months and I credit Smart Recovery

  • John

    As the husband of an alcoholic wife, I can see how alcohol destroys families. It’s true that you can’t force a person to do something they don’t want to do. We’ve tried everything with little success: counseling, treatment centers, medication, books, dvds, etc. My wife doesn’t want to quit, and that’s why nothing works. In her case, I don’t believe it’s because of some hidden depression or psychological issues. She has said point blank that she likes to drink because she likes the buzz.

    In all honesty, my wife had a drinking problem when we met, so I can’t deny that I didn’t see the warning signs. But now that we have been married for over ten years and have two kids, the alcohol is a bigger issue. So much attention in the media focuses on women who are married to abusive alcoholic men. However, as a husband of an alcoholic woman, I can attest that it’s a living hell. It’s difficult to break up any marriage when kids are involved. But as a guy working 60 hours a week, I cannot realistically raise two young kids on my own. That’s why I’ve stayed in this hell marriage. Waiting for the kids to turn 18 and move out before filing for divorce seems like the only realistic option.

  • zesner

    My wife and I both have alcoholism on both sides of our families. I am ashamed of both of us for having drank and exhibited alcoholic tendencies for way too long. We live in a very social environment where frequent drinking is the norm. I never wanted to drink like my parents. I am also sorry that our son, grown now, had to see us drink to excess. I have quite drinking and I am hoping my wife will follow my example. We discuss drinking and the damage it can do to your health and relationships. My wife is very health conscience and well educated. We have enjoyed our long-term marriage and I am scared that my wife may not be able to recognize and combat her drinking alcohol. I am hoping and praying that alcohol will not destroy our lives, as we know it.

  • http://www.rachaelbrownell.com Rachael Brownell

    Thanks, NPR listeners, for your intelligent and thoughtful comments… To those of you still dealing with spouses who are in their cups, blessings to you!

    Thank you for these great comments and for listening.

  • http://www.yogahope.org Suzanne Jones

    I am the founder of an organization in Boston that establishes yoga programs in residential substance abuse treatment facilities for women. Recently we have completed a round of comprehensive research and have discovered that an overwhelming number of women substance abusers suffer from early childhood and later in life trauma. The trauma leads to depression, anxiety and PTSD which leads women to use substances (women tend to engage in self destructive behaviors as a result of mental health issues/men tend to engage in outwardly destructive behaviors)

    We are in the process of designing a trauma informed yoga/mindfulness program for these facilities so that when women achieve sobriety, and there is an upwelling of these mental health issues, they are given tools to use that will help with coping with and eventually diminishing these issues. For more info go to http://www.yogahope.org

    Thank you for the very interesting topic!

    Sue Jones

  • Lisa

    I began drinking before I got to Mound Street in 1973(you remember that street, don’t you Jackie?). I’ve gone the gamut of it all. Up & down every house searching for love. After getting married, it became NYC lunch & dinner highs, Boston highs & lows. Adopted teen torments & changed-his-mind-about-gender-husband. After having the usual evening liquids, I listen to this show & read these comments & wonder: where is the audience that is stuck in a life that sucks them into depression & drinking. They are probably drinking & wonder what all this chatter is about. I’m not as lost as the Queen of Sheba, but… I am not alive in the general way. Drinking, I suppose, helps me enable a lifestyle that family would approve. Divorce is not approved.

  • M

    This was a great show except for the fact that few if any alternatives were mentioned to AA. SMART Recovery is one option, Moderation Management is another possible option for some, and there are more. Books by Staton Peele are also great to read.

  • Laura K

    When I heard the tragic story about the women in the minivan who killed 8 people including 3 children I shivered because that could easily have been me. My story is very similar to that of Rachael Brown’s. I am an ACO mother of two children who drank in secret and tried to hide it until it had progressed to the point where I could not hide it anymore. What started as a couple of drinks to get me through bath and bedtime became wine hidden in water bottles to get me through an afternoon at the park. Eventually I not only put my children in danger but friend’s children in high risk situations like driving them home drunk. I am so grateful that nothing ever happened. For a long time my husband was one of the only people who shared my terrible secret. It was killing him but he, too, felt shame and did not know how to ask for help. It was my girlfriends who called me out on my addiction and let me know that it was something that I could change and that they would stand behind me (if) I got help. Having attempted sobriety and failed over and over again I checked myself in to an inpatient rehab that left my husband home alone with 2 young kids, his work and medical bills. Friends and family helped out and made sure to let us know that this was an illness and they would not judge me. It was the hardest yet best thing I ever did for myself and my children. I have been sober for 9 months now and am so happy to be free of the bond alcohol had on me. I strongly suggest that if you feel you have a problem or know someone who has a problem to face it head on and get the help you need so that there isn’t another tragedy like to one this past summer.

  • http://www.highfunctioningalcoholic.com Sarah Allen Benton

    I truly appreciate all of your comments and honesty. It is so important to continue this dialogue and to increase awareness about hidden classes of alcoholics. Please know that you are not alone and their is help and hope for everyone.

  • Emily

    I am concerned about the woman who knew she had a problem because she was drinking a glass of wine, sometimes two or three, a night. I need to point out that only in America is that considered excessive drinking.

    As Sarah said on the show, it’s really not about the amount you drink it’s about the way you drink and, permit me to add, *particularly* the effect that drinking has on your judgment.

    And I question this notion of “high functioning alcoholic”. If I can drink bourbon breakfast to bedtime and continue to perform successful brain surgery and to bounce my loving great-grandbabies on my knee then, really folks, there is no problem.

    On the other hand, if I feel the need to hide my nightly glass of “chardonnay” then, really folks, there is a problem. And it is not the chardonnay. K?

  • jewel

    Obviously it’s easy for some people to overdrink at any age. I’ve read that the highest rates of alcoholism lie in wait until women are in their sixties when life really throws some challenges into the mix (brew)! So be careful, you young mothers, let’s get through it!

  • Marty Vogt

    It is true that women are under terrible pressures these days. But I am not sure that the pressures are greater than in years past, before the police began protecting them from abusive husbands and boyfriends. And do we remember all the women who waited for husbands, brothers and boyfriends to return from service in World War II?

    Do women drink more today than in years past? I doubt it. If the evidence is that more women are arrested for drunk driving, then you need more evidence because women born after 1940 got drivers’ licenses at a very high rate. Women born before then were much less likely to get a driver’s license. So today we have a population of women that probably matches the same rate of driving as men and this is very different than before. It can explain a higher rate of arrest of women for drunk driving.

  • Ellie

    I caught part of the program on the radio yesterday. A gentleman from Tennesee called in wondering if being a working mother was the issue. It took me back to my childhood in Massachusetts and a small cluster of houses on the edge of town where three of our full-time moms quietly killed themselves behind closed doors with alcohol. At that point in time you could call the ‘package store’ and have it delivered. Alcohol is cheap, legal, and self-medicating unhappiness is always tempting.

  • Maureen

    Tammy & Ellie make excellent points; my only complaint with the show was that it seemed to skim over some of these important distinctions.

    Also to note at moments I reminded of the book, “The Mommy Myth,” which would be a great topic for On Point to tackle.

  • Christie Pearson

    To Emily, While it may not be considered excessive in other countries to drink 2-3 glasses of alcohol a day, that doens’t mean that there are not a whole of of alcholics in other countries. Just because it is the norm doesn’t make it healthy.

  • Chris

    I am somewhat torn by this show. While I appreciate the concern and attempt at raising awareness of alcoholism – that can occur in ANY gender – parts of this discussion also ring of that same paternalism that wants to protect us fragile women from ourselves and constantly showcase how different we are from men. I can and do have gatherings of my girlfriends where we have cocktails and talk about work/kids/husbands, etc..Those gatherings DO not automatically make us alcoholics! The amount and the way we use alcohol does. Those who would impose judgment upon gatherings like this should also say the same for the men who engage in social activities where alcohol is involved – namely just about any sports gathering that takes place around the country.

    That said, I am torn by the program because I know that there are women who have problems with using alcohol as they perceive it to be a necessary support for the pressures they encounter. I’m glad that the discussion is happening. I’m just not sold on the idea that the factors underlying women’s use of alcohol are all that different at their roots from those that men deal with as well (family/jobs/spouses).

  • jane

    The writer of that memoir should read the 11th tradition of the program – the 11th tradition. NPR should know by now that AA should not be mentioned on the air. It’s an anonymous program that deals with human souls, not self-centered writers of memoirs with two years of sobriety. Real sobriety takes place in the oral tradition, and like the great philosophers have stated – sometimes the writing of your thoughts loses cadence in your spiritual memory, and AA is a spiritual program not an NPR showcase.

  • Vanessa U

    I wanted to publish an aternative to 12 step groups. I am a 12 stepper but have found some really good points to this program and some awsome support!


    Check it out.

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