Post-Kavanaugh, Women’s Self-Care Needs to Lose the Alcohol

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Post-Kavanaugh, Women’s Self-Care Needs to Lose the Alcohol

By Cameron Steele 10/23/18

Alcohol, when construed as the first or best line of self-care, actually renders us less effective in resisting an exploitive system that makes legal space for our bodies to be legislated, controlled, and raped.

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Woman with elbow on bar, face resting on hand, sits among alcohol bottles,
Alcohol anesthetizes our pain and our power, our minds and our bodies, and we will need all of ourselves to fight what will come in the next weeks, months and years.

“Should we get some wine?” I asked him, pushing a bit of sweet potato around on my plate. I felt my cheeks flush and a weird half smile launch across my lips, the way it always does when I feel embarrassed or awkward or sad or anything really. Whenever I’m feeling anything too much. My partner looked startled.

“What? Why?” he set his own fork and knife down, leaned back in his chair. “I mean, an IPA sounds really good right now. But I guess, just, what’s the motivation behind it?”

It had been 62 days since either of us had had anything to drink, thanks to a self-imposed sobriety challenge after I’d watched my already heavy alcohol consumption creep up and up and eventually become overwhelming in the years since Trump’s election, post-Access Hollywood tape, post-everything. Two months was a long time, I reasoned now. A quality effort. And in all likelihood, an accused sexual predator would sit on the Supreme Court when we woke up the next morning. If there was ever a good reason to nurse a nice bottle of beer to ease some of the anxiety, fear, anger and hopelessness I was feeling, both as a woman and a victim of past sexual abuse, now was it.

Wasn’t it?

“I mean, would this be about escaping things?” he continued, gently, pushing, asking the question I had begged him, at the start of our not-drinking, to raise when I inevitably said I wanted back off the wagon. Because the answer was, is, will always be: Of course.

Of course. I have made a lifestyle out of escaping things, of turning away from what’s hard and ugly and painful. Either that or confronting darkness only when I was a couple of drinks in or after I’d settled beneath the protective blanket of Klonopin or during the rush of false energy following a purge, all the food I’d consumed vomited up and flushed quietly away. In a very real way, I can trace my life as a ping-pong game of silences and rages, each assisted along by some substance or behavior I’ve begun to describe as “not me,” in that they’ve all been designed to take me out myself and, as a result, out of proper caring—for this world, its injustices, its humanness, its pain.

There’s a lot of rhetoric around the usefulness of women’s rage right now, but what keeps getting left out is how, so often, we (middle-class, white women) use anger to stand in for or erase action. How, so often, anger becomes the justification for harm. And for me—and the rising number of American women turning to alcohol to deal with stress, trauma, and its aftereffects—that often takes the shape of self-sabotage in a bottle to numb out, ease anxiety, filter boredom, help us slip into apathy dressed up as protection and self-care. Let me be clear, and I speak from experience: Drowning your sorrows is the opposite of self-care.

Wine will not heal your wounds, will not even tend to them, no matter what the patriarchal messaging around alcohol promises you. And I say patriarchal because it’s true: Our American culture of binge-drinking and heavy alcohol consumption is directly and implicitly tied to the capitalist, racist, structural misogyny upon which our country is founded—and through which marginalized groups are subjugated, oppressed, and continually, insistently Othered. We only have to look to history to see the ways in which alcohol was used to keep said groups under the heel of white men in power: White Europeans, for example, notorious for their “extreme drinking” on the frontier, encouraged both alcohol trade and excessive consumption among Native populations, later weaponizing the stereotype of the “drunk Indian” against them. Years later, slave masters on Southern plantations developed strategies to carefully control slaves’ access to alcohol during the week, only to encourage them to drink heavily on Saturday evenings and special holidays. Frederick Douglass later castigated the so-called controlled promotion of drunkenness as a means of keeping black men and women in “a state of perpetual stupidity” that reduced the risks of rebellion. More recently, increased experiences of racism have been explicitly, causally linked to riskier drinking among black women on college campuses. Meanwhile, growing wealth, educational, employment, housing and health disparities between minorities and white Americans have led to a much greater increase in alcohol consumption among those communities between 2002 and 2013, a study published in JAMA Psychiatry suggests (although it’s not much of a stretch to say that increase is significantly greater in our Post-Trump world of racist nationalism, its cruel policies, and resulting demoralization among the people affected the most).

Alcohol, too, has become the primary coping mechanism for women in America, regardless of race or ethnicity: Overall, female alcohol use disorder in the United States has increased by 83.7 percent, according to that same study. High risk drinking among women, defined as more than seven drinks in a week or three drinks in a day, has increased by 58 percent. We only have to look at mommy or work wine culture to see the ways in which alcohol is used to keep women quiet, dulled, apathetic and convinced they need booze to survive motherhood or employment or both. So perhaps it is no surprise the contemporary rhetoric of white feminism is rife with messages that draw a supposedly intuitive connection from anger to self-care, which is inevitably linked to drinking. We get tired? We pop open a bottle. We get scared? We fill a glass. We get angry? We rage over shots or cocktails or champagne. None of this helps us. In fact, all of this renders us less effective in resisting an exploitive system that makes legal space for our bodies to be legislated, controlled, and raped.

“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” Audre Lorde famously said in her 1984 call to and critique of the internalized patriarchy of white Western women. Alcohol, when construed as the first or best line of self-care, I’d argue, is one of the master’s tools. We indulge in the drinks that American culture (and American feminism) says we deserve, and we get raped while the men who were drinking alongside us get off and then get nominated to the Supreme Court. It’s a double bind—one that bears calling attention to, however hard it is to look at. We should be able to say that it’s absolutely, undeniably immoral for a man to abuse a woman’s body while she is drunk (or sober or somewhere in between). That rape or abuse is never a woman’s fault because of what she was drinking (or wearing or saying or where she walking or what time of night it was, etc., etc., forever, etc.). And we should also be able to challenge the messages that encourage a woman to relax or to rage or to start a revolution only after she has a glass of wine in her hand. 

Alcohol is a depressant. It anesthetizes our pain and our power, our minds and our bodies, and we will need all of ourselves to fight what will come in the next weeks, months and years as those same bodies become the battleground upon which men’s petty force and overwhelming self-hatred wage war. Look, I’m barely nine weeks sober. I never hit the rock bottom people describe in AA or alcohol recovery programs. I don’t know if I plan on a lifetime of sobriety or if I’ll have a celebratory beer after I finish grading all of my students’ papers over fall break. What I do know? I spent years using alcohol to avoid the work I knew I should be doing. The healing I knew should be seeking. I know many women who don’t drink, who don’t turn to alcohol to deal with exhaustion and fear and heartbreak. I know many, many more who do. I’m not advocating for prohibition or teetotalism. But I am asking women—white women in particular—to take a hard look at what they mean when they say self-care, and what they’re hoping to accomplish by drinking their way through.

We certainly don’t need #BeersforBrett, the hashtag that surfaced among white, wealthy men celebrating Kavanaugh’s confirmation Saturday. But we definitely don’t need feminist cocktails, either, as I saw recently championed on a Facebook group for women scholars and rhetoricians. Jessa Crispin has warned white women against misconstruing the philosophy of self-care that Audre Lorde conceived of as way for activist women of color to ease some of the burden of dismantling racism and misogyny while living at the very intersection of such oppression. “Now it’s applied to, I don’t know, getting a blowout,” Crispin writes. “And pedicures. Even if your pedicurist is basically a slave.” Especially if you’ve got a glass of champagne to assist you along in ignoring that reality. So, no. We don’t need rage if we’re going to use it as an excuse to drink, to sink into dispassion.

We need real action. We need true healing. I didn’t need wine on Friday night, and the community of women I want to support through this troubling time didn’t need me buzzed or drunk or hollowly chill. We need the opposite of that. In our activism and in our downtime, we need a clear-eyed, hangover-free commitment to dismantling absolutely everything that violates us—whether through false comfort or force, apathy or abuse.

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Cameron Steele was raised in Virginia but now lives in Nebraska, where she is a writer, instructor, and doctoral student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her poems and nonfiction have appeared in Bluestem Magazine, Red Paint Hill Poetry Journal, Wherewithal, and Ivy Hall Review. Her poetry chapbook, Attribution, won the South Dakota State Poetry Society competition and was published in 2014. Find Cameron on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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