Wednesday 21 February 2018

Books: Hard study of belles and booze is no happy hour

Cutting down on drinking may be an alternative to not drinking at all in January.
Cutting down on drinking may be an alternative to not drinking at all in January.

Rosita Sweetman

Drink,The Intimate Relationship between Women and Alcohol Ann Dowsett Johnston (Fourth Estate, €12.66)

Here's the thing, since the dawn of time we humans have sniffed, snorted, swallowed and smoked every kind of substance from magic mushrooms to reindeer piss to double malt whiskies in the quest to get high, and escape reality.

Simultaneously, druids, priests, chieftains, kings and latterly governments have sought to control their population's desire to get off their faces at every possible opportunity, making sure we're sober enough to work, and of course pay lots of taxes (usually raised off the back of the bad stuff), while mopping up the fall-out from those who indulge to excess.

Up to the Sixties, most of the heavy drinking was done by the men, with consumption actually beginning to flatten out, but two things happened to save the drink industry's ass. One, the birth of the Women's Liberation Movement (Yay! the ladies can drink as much as the boys!), and two, the slow decline of the tobacco industry, as health campaigners gradually forced a retreat, with next thing you know those clever tobacco peddling geezers moving sideways. Or, why don't we feminise drink, make it girly and sell it to all those liberated young women. Hey presto, alcopops were born. And 'Mommy Juice' and 'Skinny Bitch' and 'Girls Night Out'.

To be honest, we girlies lapped it up, so that now women boozers are a massive public health disaster with those at the front line – doctors, social workers, detox clinics et al – tearing their hair out as cirrhosis of the liver, once a disease of old men, is now showing up in 20-year-old females.

Ann Dowsett Johnston sets down all the horror stories in great detail in Drink, The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol, with her own story plus numerous interviews with (recovering) female alcoholics, including her own (very brave) mum.

There's a bit of a problem here since Dowsett Johnston doesn't seem to have been a "true" alcoholic. Three glasses of Chardonnay of an evening? Come to Ireland and try three bottles, love. Still, she's used an unhappy time as a hanger on which to drape her story and mostly it works.

Undoubtedly girls and women are drinking more, educated girls and women are drinking more still, with us career ladies staggering in from a hard day at the office to face a hard evening's cooking/homework/housework and easing the transition with a glass, or three, of chilled white.

It's also true that we ladies are less able to metabolise drink (smaller bodies with more body fat and less of the alcohol zapping enzyme 'alcohol dehydrogenase', not to mention fluctuating monthly hormones), and of course, drunk, we are more vulnerable to abuse, rape, etc.

Still, in the midst of the catastrophic stories, one fact remains stubbornly immutable: the biggest single predictor of alcoholism is sexual abuse and trauma in childhood. "Traumatised children shut down emotionally ... they stop developing emotionally ... they lose the connection to the self."

And, alcohol, or drugs, seems to mend that broken connection.

Sadly of course alcohol doesn't mend anything, one "trades suffering for oblivion", a bitter truth that often takes a lifetime to swallow. Or, as fellow writer Caroline Knapp (Drink, A Love Story) put it, "alcohol makes everything better, until it makes everything worse".

Dowsett Johnston says we live in an "alcogenic" culture, and does love to pile on the horror, but one wonders how much will this actually help when, as one worker in the field puts it, the biggest problem with alcohol is our collective denial that it's a drug? Or, (thank you Wikipedia) "a chemical substance used in the treatment, cure, prevention, or diagnosis of disease, or used to otherwise enhance physical or mental well-being".

Yes indeedy, the drinks cabinet is just as much of a drugs stash as the medicine cabinet (or the biscuit tin under your son's bed).

However, fiddling with prices at the off-licence, restricting access, and toning down the oh-so-alluring advertising ("Drink and great things will happen"), seems ineffective.

Of course it's disastrous that we all drink so much, appalling that so much alcohol is laced with pesticides, fungicides and chemicals, and absolutely catastrophic for individuals (and their families) who become full-blown alcoholics, but the hideous troika that actually keeps us vulnerable to booze's ravages – childhood trauma, societal denial that booze is a very powerful drug, and government's reliance on the revenue that flows in from our consumption, perhaps needs more detailed unpacking.

We could start by looking after our children better, accepting that the booze we pour down our gullets is a Class A drug, and questioning the morality of government's reliance on drug money for its day-to-day business.

Bottoms up.

Irish Independent

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