Fabulous, free… and drinking too much
Confronted with menopause and an empty nest, Ann Dowsett Johnston turned to alcohol for comfort. But the odd glass soon turned into a serious problem
Much ink has been spilled about how dastardly menopause can be, and as she entered her 50s, Canadian academic Ann Dowsett Johnston felt she had readied herself sufficiently for its choppy waters.
What she hadn't banked on, however, was the double whammy of the menopause and Empty Nest Syndrome as her only son moved away to university.
"I'd been warned about menopause, but I think I was unprepared for the quiet," she reflects. "I was unprepared for the austerity of the loneliness after so many years with a bustling, loud, busy schedule. The other classic thing that coincides with menopause is the notion you are actually ageing. I really did feel like I had fallen off the edge of a cliff."
Of course, to the outside world, it all looked so very different.
The life and soul of any party that she walked into, Ann had a wide social circle, a long-distance relationship and a heaving schedule. Her career, too, was moving from strength to strength as she became vice principal of an esteemed Canadian university. Moving city for work was meant to be the start of a new adventure, but it didn't quite pan out that way.
"Many people were saying to me, 'you're fabulous, you're liberated and you're free', but I had an interior life, too. Moving to Montreal, a city in which I know no one, I became even lonelier and it was a flop."
Feeling as though she had fallen "down the rabbit hole", Ann began self-medicating with alcohol. To her mind, it was more socially acceptable and easier than the alternative: treating depression with medical help.
"Up to that point, alcohol didn't play a big role in my life at all," recalls Ann. "I might have had a glass of wine chopping some vegetables for dinner, but that's it. But I started going out with friends a lot more, and began drinking while I worked late at night. Pretty soon two glasses became three, and three soon turned to four."
All the while, Ann was thriving at work, and winning awards in her new role. Her drinking problem, effectively, was hidden in plain sight. Further aiding and abetting her 18 month downward spiral was the simple truth: she didn't look like anyone's idea of an alcoholic.
"I didn't think I had a problem because I didn't look like my mother, who was a stay-at-home mother who drank cocktails during the day. My thinking was, 'I haven't cracked up a car, and I don't drink during the day'. When I was drunk I was fun and a little bit stupid - unlike my mother who was an angry drunk. But the daily habit was sneaking up on me."
Pretty soon, the wheels of her carefully-calibrated life started to come off. Ann would drink at a party, then come home and drink alone. Soon, she was blacking out after a drinking session.
Her self-confessed low point came at a cousin's wake. He had been killed by a drunk driver in 2007, and Ann arrived to the wake drunk.
It was then that her son and her best friend staged an intervention.
"The thing was, when I tried to stop drinking, I couldn't and that's what really scared me," says Ann. "I knew that if I didn't do something about this problem, I'd lose them."
Ann entered into a rehab facility in the US not long after: "Rehab is a bit of a giggle," she confesses. "You're taking it seriously, and you feel good that you're doing something about the problem. It was a relief to be in there."
That said, Ann knows that women face a much tougher challenge when they are on the threshold of a rehab programme.
"I think recovery is a lot more difficult for women… there's a lot more shame around it," reflects Ann. "You can keep your masculinity if you drink, but not so much your femininity. We don't look at women who drink and black out the same way, especially if you're a mother."
Returning to the carousel of dinner parties, launches and special occasions after rehab became the real test of Ann's mettle.
"That's where you really do your push-ups," Ann smiles. "The first year of sobriety, especially Christmas and birthdays and New Year, is murder."
Using her own experiences, Ann has written a book entitled Drink: The Relationship Between Women & Alcohol. Part-memoir, part chilling exposé about the rise in risky drinking among women, the popularity of the book means that, ironically enough, Ann spends much of her working day discussing alcohol.
"It's just a treat to talk about it every single day," says Ann. "I wrote the book that I thought I needed to read at that time, and because of that I get so many letters from people.
"I was in an art gallery in London and a woman approached me about the book. I thought it was the last place it would happen."
This week, Ann is in Ireland to give the keynote speech at a conference entitled Girls, Women and Alcohol: The Changing Nature of Female Alcohol Consumption in Ireland. Hosted by Alcohol Action Ireland, the event will also hear from public health medicine consultant Dr Triona McCarthy, Cork University Hospital consultant gastroenterologist Dr Orla Crosbie, and Lucy Rocca, author and founder of Soberistas.com, among others.
Buoyed by her own experience, and experiences of her readers, Ann will be speaking about the insidious nature of problematic or binge drinking among professional, educated women.
Certainly in Ireland, we are no slouches in that department: according to statistics, 75pc of all alcohol consumed in Ireland was done so as part of a binge- drinking session. More than half (54pc) of 18 to 75-year-old drinkers were classified as harmful drinkers. Four in 10 women drinkers here report harmful drinking patterns.
The Slan 2007 Survey of Lifestyle, Attitudes and Nutrition in Ireland found a "notable" increase in alcohol consumption among women aged 45 to 64.
The trend is reflected at treatment centres, where more women are seeking help for all alcohol-related problems. Between 2004 and 2010, addiction specialists reported a higher presentation of middle-aged women with alcohol problems. In a way, the drinks companies walked into a perfect storm. Job done on luring in male drinkers, and with what Ann calls the "Johnnie Walker drinkers" dying out, the industry decided to target a completely different demographic: young women.
Out went the single malts and in came the alco-pops and pre-mixed cocktails. Pop culture played its part, too, in creating one massively seductive product. Alcohol became to the Noughties what cigarettes were in the 1950s and 1960s.
"There's a cocktail product in the US called Skinny Girls and the message that it gives out is that it's good for your health," notes Ann. "There's also berry-flavoured vodka and drinks with names like Happy Bitch and Girls' Night Out. They're basically cocktails with training wheels. It steers young women into a certain mindset."
Job done on luring in young female drinkers, the alcohol marketeers then took aim at older women with disposable income and time on their hands. And, like Ann, women self-medicating the effects of middle age.
But for most women, cultural conditioning has resulted in a situation whereby they feel they deserve a drink as part of their after-work wind down. It's become synonymous with relaxation, and reward.
"In a sense, they're really doing what men have done forever," says Ann. "The point is, there's nothing wrong with drinking, if you stick to the guidelines (of 10 units a week, or two a day). But the fact is, drinking isn't equal for men and women, both metabolically and hormonally. Plus, we're going to see a lot of related illness." Sure enough, drinking three to six standard alcoholic drinks, or half to a bottle of wine a day, is associated with a 41pc increase in breast cancer risk.
Despite presenting some damning evidence, Ann is not anti-alcohol. Instead, she suggests anyone with a problem with alcohol ("and, really, you know it in your heart of hearts") take steps to address the situation. For everyone else, meanwhile, staying safe, healthy and in control takes a little bit of focus and effort.
"I think we need to be really alert about what we're drinking, just as we're aware of the risks of trans fats and tanning beds," says Ann.
"Yet I began to realise that when people have a drinking problem, they hide it and they're ashamed of it. You worry about it for a long time before you speak about it. I don't think we're having an adult conversation about it. But not a day passes without my hearing from a woman who says something like, 'I took a hard look at my drinking, I'm six months sober, and now I want to talk about it'."
The 'Girls, Women and Alcohol' conference takes place at The Westin Dublin on Tuesday from 10.30am. Tickets are €30. To register, see alcoholinireland.ie for more details.