When she decided to quit drinking, Holly Whitaker, like many people before her, turned to Alcoholics Anonymous for help. But she found the 12-step model ‘archaic and patriarchal’ and decided to create her own approach to recovery in her book, Quit Like A Woman, writes Suzanne Harrington
'In 2012, I was bulimic; addicted to pot, cigarettes, sugar, coffee, alcohol; nearly six figures in debt; a raging co-dependent; depressed and anxious. For me, alcohol was the first thing that had to go. It was the thing the thing that was costing me the most, and it fed a lot of the other behaviours," writes Holly Whitaker in a new book, Quit Like A Woman.
This is not, however, your standard how-I-did-it addiction manual; its subtitle is The Radical Choice To Not Drink In A Culture Obsessed With Alcohol. Holly Whitaker had had enough not just of her own addiction to booze, but how alcohol - and our recovery from it, when it becomes problematic - is framed, like most things, by the patriarchy.
We all know that the 12-step recovery model is the dominant one, the one we are referred to by doctors, therapists, judges, social workers; as 12-step literature suggests, it works if you work it. (On a personal level, it has worked for me for the past 14 years - it saved my life - but again like most things, it could do with an update).
12-step recovery did not work for Holly Whitaker, who describes it as "archaic and patriarchal". Created in the 1930s by privileged white men for privileged white men, this model comes from an era where it was thought that only men could be alcoholics; there is a chapter in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous entitled 'To Wives', written not by a woman, but by AA founder Bill Wilson writing in the voice of a woman: "We want to analyse mistakes we have made."
In other words, the non-alcoholic wife may also be responsible for the husband's drinking. Today, we'd call that victim blaming. Other 12-step literature urges us to "dress becomingly, talk low, criticise not one bit".
Whitaker's main beef with the 12 steps themselves is that they were originally directed at "upper-middle-class white men who were sick from believing they were God, sick from wielding too much power in the world". The path to recovery - "to be reminded you are not God, to refrain from questioning the rules, to humble yourself, admit your weakness, chronicle what's wrong with you, admit your faults to another, to shut up and listen" are "in essence instructions on how to be a woman". That "to a woman or any other oppressed group, being told to renounce power, voice, authority and desire is just more of the same sh*t. It's what made us sick in the first place."
Whitaker did not look sick on the outside - she was a successful tech entrepreneur ("a cut-throat workaholic") in San Francisco, who drank green juice, travelled adventurously, did a lot of yoga. On the inside, she was exhausted, miserable: "We are a culture of aching, maladjusted humans doing everything in our power to show the world we are not."
And what does the world offer women who are cracking up from trying to do it all, have it all, be it all? Booze. According to former UK drug czar, Professor David Nutt, alcohol is the most dangerous drug of all - the cause of more deaths, more illnesses, more violence - than heroin, than crack cocaine. While we are crystal clear about the toxicity and addictiveness of heroin and crack cocaine, our relationship with alcohol - the number one date rape drug, the number one brawl and assault drug - is entrenched. Embedded.
Every occasion and every emotion is lubricated by booze, from celebrating to coping to commiserating. From births to deaths, we drink on it. And while some of us become addicted to alcohol (according to David Sheff's 2014 book Clean, the figure is 15pc, exactly the same percentage as those who become addicted to cocaine), it is regarded as a private matter, and up to us to sort out for ourselves. Our responsibility.
Whitaker disputes the long-held dichotomy between 'normal' drinkers and alcoholics: "Alcohol is addictive to everyone. Yet we've created a separate disease called alcoholism, and forced it upon the minority of the population willing to admit they can't control their drinking."
That we focus on the 15pc, instead of "what's wrong with our alcohol-centric culture or the substance itself".
Whitaker questions our willingness to endlessly engage with a toxic substance: "I imagine our grandchildren will one day be shocked by the idea that there was once a point when we drank ethanol at almost every occasion and boasted of hangovers and drunken antics, the same way I'm always shocked to see pictures of my aunts and uncles smoking indoors."
She wonders if alcohol is not on the same course as cigarettes, while acknowledging the deep hold it has on us culturally - and particularly how it is marketed at women. Pink wine, pink gin, pink champagne. Mummy juice, wine o'clock, Prosecco made me do it. Wine is like duct tape - it fixes everything.
Even actress Gwyneth Paltrow, on record stating how she could not endorse a non-organic eyeliner, posts cocktail recipes on her Goop site.
Our culture is quite literally steeped in booze, with astonishing levels of cognitive dissonance: parents on their third bottle of wine, freaking out because their teenagers smoke weed.
The solutions offered in Holly Whitaker's book are different from Russell Brand's book Recovery, in that they are not a modernised, funny and highly engaging rewrite of the 12 Steps (Step One: Are you a bit f**ked? Step Two: Could you not be f**ked? Step 3: Are you, on your own, going to unf*** yourself?).
There are overlaps with 12 step recovery, the key being abstinence. Nobody with an alcohol or drug addiction, no matter where they are at socially or culturally, no matter how hard they try, can drink or use moderately - we do not have an off button, no matter how hard we look for it. And only other addicts can offer true identification. Then, once we have stopped the acting out part of the addiction cycle, we can then look under the bonnet, and treat the causes. This is where Whitaker's book proves most useful.
Basically, the core message of Quit Like A Woman is not to break yourself down, but to build yourself up. You may already be a bit broken, if you are drinking addictively. She urges a wraparound approach, from the ground up, couched in self-love, self-forgiveness, self-compassion: creating new rituals and healthy coping mechanisms; learning to mother yourself; tackling residual trauma so often present in people with addictions; using all the tools, from nutrition and good sleep to yoga, meditation, and the wisdom of people like Pema Chodron and Eckhart Tolle.
How to allow difficult feelings and cravings to pass through you, rather than trying to suppress them and then hitting the 'f**kit' button when you run out of energy. How to navigate other people's reactions to your decision to walk away from alcohol: quitting booze can make others uncomfortable for all kinds of reasons. "There is no single version of the truth," she writes. "There are versions. Make your own."
If I were trying to stop drinking for reasons bigger than Dry January, I would start with 12-step recovery, for the immediate support and identification in meetings. Accept that doing it alone is difficult, if not impossible. Also, you will gain knowledge around how alcohol addiction works on your mind and body, from needing extra B vitamins to being prepared for sugar cravings. Once the brain fog had cleared, I would then read Quit Like A Woman, and Russell Brand's Recovery. "Throw the kitchen sink at it," writes Whitaker. "Do whatever it takes." Because with the value of hindsight I can say with some conviction that booze, with all its familiar chumminess and relentless marketing, is not your friend. It's your frenemy."
Quit Like A Woman is published by Bloomsbury
No emotion lasts longer than 90 seconds. It's just that we get stuck in them, so that they go on a repeat cycle. Here's how to ride them out:
⬤ Recognise you are experiencing a craving. You may have been feeling rock-solid resolute, until the desire to drink knocks into you like a wave.
⬤ Allow the craving sensation to happen, rather than trying to suppress it.
⬤ Set aside the story so that you don't confirm to yourself in an endless feedback loop that you are miserable, gagging for a drink, unable to do this etc.
⬤ Investigate what the craving physically feels like - tight chest, quickened breathing, sweatiness, clenched muscles, lurching stomach, waves of restless energy.
⬤ Name each physical sensation, or even better, write it down.
⬤ Surf these sensations until they peak, then dissipate. Remember - 90 seconds.
SHORT TO MEDIUM-TERM EFFECTS OF ALCOHOL
⬤ Disrupts sleep: not a sleep aid, as it disrupts rejuvenating slow-wave sleep, making you more tired and craving sugar.
⬤ Fuels anxiety: causes the body to produce cortisol and adrenaline, to counteract its depressive effect.
⬤ Impedes detoxification: the liver has over 500 detoxifying functions, which get pushed aside when it has to deal with alcohol.
⬤ Weight gain: alcohol is liquid sugar, with no nutritional value
⬤ Affects the brain: A "neurological sledgehammer", impacting all regions of the brain - memory, motor function, inhibition, personality, emotional volatility.
⬤ Affects blood sugar balance: which over time weakens the adrenal glands, causing increased booze / sugar cravings
⬤ Linked to cancers: breast cancer, as well as cancer of the mouth and throat, oesophagus, larynx, liver, colon and rectum.
⬤ Premature ageing: depletes collagen, minerals, vitamins, nutrients, antioxidants.
Health & Living