Wild women: alcoholism and recovery.
An excerpt from Everything You Ever Taught Me (2021) by Person Irresponsible.
“In truth, my biggest reason for going to AA was fear. Fear that I’d end up homeless; with nothing to my name other than a sleeping bag and a few token possessions. I started to introduce myself with just my first name like they did, rapidly followed by a cough to avoid saying that bit, but it was more to spare hurting their feelings. Eventually, I conceded that I was indeed one of those. In return they welcomed me, and told me my path would narrow, that I’d learn to go in a good orderly direction. Some even promised me I’d live a life beyond my wildest dreams. As I embarked on my third mile, I realised I was now living my nightmare. I was truly homeless having given up my house. Worse, what few possessions I had weighed a bleeding ton.”
That’s me. I’m forty-something, female, funny and at that point in my life, I’m in my fourth year of sobriety. I didn’t know it then, but I was also blessed with an abundance of fortitude. By September 2020, I could confidently say that if recovery is a journey, then thru-hiking is a mere stroll in the park. And I would know because I’d just staggered, tottered and teetered 2,653 miles from Mexico to Canada. Alone, with nothing other than a head full of AA, a body full of fat and a soul full of ambition well beyond my natural capabilities. It is the second-best thing I have ever done. As the UK remained in lockdown throughout early 2021, I wrote a book about how the twelve-steps of recovery helped me cope with the inevitable hunger, anger, loneliness and tiredness that is endemic to such a trip. So I guess that’s the third-best thing I have ever done.
In 2016, when I stepped out of my car to walk down a dimly-lit, cobblestone lane toward a small Scottish chapel one Sunday evening, little would I know I was taking a large leap for womankind. I entered a room full of grey-haired men, laughing and chattering away. There was one other woman. She made me a cup of tea whilst the man beside me prattled on. I could barely decipher his dialect, let alone fathom how ‘a good girl like me had ended up in a place like this?’
I knew nothing of the journey I was about to embark on. I didn’t even want to stop drinking - I just wanted a break from the stuff. Time away from the god-awful hangovers, the self-loathing, the shame and the non-stop frenzied anxiety. I knew I drank too much, and I always had, but I was heartbroken and hurting. Alcohol eased those symptoms. It was also a best friend to appease my perennial loneliness; a sleep aid to while away the nights; the inducer of maniacal laughter and a salve to induce tears of pain.
Like a lot of women in their forties, I’d grown up in the UK’s 1990s “ladette culture”, giving us the freedom to drink ‘like one of the lads’. No more half-pint glasses: we could swig directly from the bottle like our male peers. Nights could end in a drunken shag with whomever had struck my beer-goggled fancy. I could shamelessly boast that I couldn't remember what had happened the night before, claiming it as proof that a ‘good night must have been had’. That was the front I put on, but inside I was overly impressed by my own behaviour.
Then I grew up, and got a ‘sensible career’. I remembered my ‘ladylike’ societal expectations, which the marketeers also tapped into. Wine o’clock and ‘Gin-ner Time’ were sold as a sophisticated norm. A met a fellow drinker, and married him. I was of that generation that was told repeatedly that women can compete with men at all levels; that sexism was on its death march. I embraced this and matched my husband drink for drink. I struck out in a tough career and smashed through a few glass ceilings.
Then one day he simply got up and walked out. An early first thought was “I’d better not drink on this, or I don’t think I’ll stop.” For two weeks, I staggered about punch-drunk, until one lonely night I succumbed to some wine. Exactly as I predicted, it was the beginning of my own personal ‘lockdown’. Like many of my female associates, I didn’t drink during the day. I didn’t drink every night, but when I did drink, I drank wine, believing myself to be a worldly connoisseur. One year later, I dragged my sorry self to an AA meeting just needing a break from the relentless charade of alcoholism and so my journey began.
In the UK’s “Lockdown One” (we’ve had several now), the number of women supposedly drinking at high-risk levels was reported to have doubled. Rates of alcohol abuse are more likely amongst parents than non-parents, and working women more so than non-working women. In fact, my peers (educated women aged between 40 - 60) are drinking now more so than ever previously recorded. Still, in the interests of equality, it’s worth noting that the UK has seen a 21% increase of terminal alcohol-related medical disorders in 2021 already. I’m afraid it’s not all about “the menz”.
I am not part of those statistics, but I am passionate about talking about women’s drinking. It’s not all lady to ladette (and back again) stories, but it so matters that we rewrite the stereotype of what a drunk is or isn’t. Initially, I found the much lauded “Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous” so inherently misogynistic that I couldn’t bring myself to read it properly. The few stories of women and people of colour included have an outdated tokenistic feel to them. “Women suffer too!” Golly Gosh! Most of the stories recite male drinking patterns - and it’s worth remembering that women need only drink two bottles of wine a week to be considered alcohol abusers. It’s not sexist to state openly that alcohol damages women’s bodies far faster than men’s - it’s a biological fact. We didn’t all drink around the clock - in fact, thankfully many of us started seeking help long before that eventuality.
There was a recent outcry when the World Health Organisation decreed women should abstain from drinking during their child-bearing years. Sexist bastards! “What about the menz?” came the predictable rallying cry - shouldn’t they too abstain? It was taken as an assault on one’s human rights, and once upon a time I too would have defended alcohol to the death. Mine, obviously. I’m not a prohibitionist by any stretch, but now that I’m sober I do find the hypocrisy between how smoking, drinking and drug-taking are depicted in society a little jarring. Here in the UK we still worship alcohol with only a small ‘Please drink responsibly’ caption at the bottom of the television advert. If I could have, I would have - but I didn’t know a damned thing about alcoholism.
I can now also readily confess my own self-serving definition of an alcoholic was impressively sexist: male, sitting on a park bench, drinking vodka out of a brown-paper bag. My alcoholic history of drinking smashes that illusion, albeit it was much more home-confined. I truly believed during my drinking years that I was ‘living the dream’ and people who barely drank were, quite frankly, a little ‘odd’. When I finally walked into the rooms of AA, I was not yet eligible to be part of the ‘grey hair brigade’ and felt hard done by. I laugh now, of course, because some of them would have come in decades earlier, and I’m rather grateful they keep the meetings running! But why should there be such an imbalance of genders in that meeting?
I’ve since moved from Scotland to England, and during lockdown only a handful of meetings remained open to in-person attendance. During that time, there was perhaps only one or two women out of fifteen possible participants, but now that things are opening up, the meetings are much closer again to typically forty/sixty proportions. That said, one major positive of the pandemic is the rise in popularity of on-line meetings. The vast majority of women I’ve sponsored have been separated parents with young children, sometimes they have very capable co-parents, but not always. Ninety meetings in ninety days is a logistical nightmare, and sometimes unaffordable: they have to pay for a babysitter for the hours they are out of the home. Yes, drunk-parenting is a negligent and criminal act, but so is leaving your child home unattended when sober.
“You drank everyday, so why can’t you go to a meeting every day?” is a common AA refrain from some members. Well, now because of the pandemic, women frequently can, and do. I for one would like to see the Zoom era survive longer term as part of recovery. Yes, it’s not the same, but it’s a window of opportunity for the logistically-impaired. I think it’s important to recognise that recovery is not a one-size fit all, often man-sized approach, set out in the 1930s. We’re nearly a century on, and women are suffering in ever increasing numbers. The pandemic has inadvertently shone a spotlight on problematic home drinking, and it’s illuminating a growing crisis.
When I ventured into the wilderness of America, my sponsor had me write down all my fears. Topping the list ahead of bears, rattlesnakes, avalanches, droughts, and mountain lions, sleeping in a tent, and rumoured axe-murderers, I scrawled “Not having regular meetings.” Little did we know the pandemic would force my entire clan onto Zoom where I could ‘see’ them when I popped in to gather fresh supplies. But for those long, lonely days deep in the American wilderness, I was armed with 1,000 podcasts by recovering alcoholics. I could only share my thoughts with the mountains and my diary I kept religiously each night. But the lessons I learnt in the rooms of AA, recorded for prosperity, became the principles in all my affairs, reminding me to take it one day at a time, one step at a time, and one bloody ginormous mountain at a time.
I think addicts are born with a great deal of fortitude, defined as ‘courage in pain or adversity’ and our drinking or using means we can get comfortable with infinite levels of suffering. “Going for a walk” is prescribed by many therapists, and a few charlatans and quacks as a fix for all sorts of head demons. No doubt some fresh air does have its benefits, but getting into a long-term recovery programme remains the best thing I have ever done.
Everything You Ever Taught Me is available on Amazon and Kindle worldwide.