By Ann Dowsett Johnston

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Witnessing the effects of her mother’s drink problem couldn’t stop journalist Ann Dowsett Johnston from sliding into alcoholism herself. Now sober for five years, she explains how easily casual drinking can escalate – with devastating consequences for women

Only once did my father lose his temper in front of all of us. This is the memory: he has lined us up in the kitchen – my mother, my sister, my brother and me – making sure we are watching as he smashes all the bottles he has found in the house, breaking them one by one over the kitchen taps. Bottle after bottle in his powerful hands, crashing on that slim bit of curved aluminium, until he punctures it and it begins to spout like a whale. We all stand, dumbfounded, tears of fury and despair rolling down my poor father’s face, tears of contrition pouring down my poor mother’s cheeks, all of us trapped in the hell of a family cursed by addiction.

Nothing changed, not for decades. She missed coming to the hospital when my son was born. There were so many sad birthdays, depressing Christmases. Then it ended. Some time in her 70s, my mother followed the discipline of a weight-loss regime and changed her drinking habits in the process.

Most tragically, just as my mother changed, my gifted father, my precious sober parent, slipped into alcoholism. In retirement he became a secret drinker but we all knew that his trips to the garage to ‘fetch something from the boot’ meant taking a long swig of scotch. Eventually he switched to vodka, as most problem drinkers do, taking a bottle with him as he walked their dog. It ended up killing him. A river runs through our family. It curdles our reason, muddles our thinking, seduces us by numbing all pain.

Over the years, my mother saw me develop into a heavy drinker and she was concerned. One night, near the end of my bingeing days, I passed out in the bathroom. I was sitting, fully clothed, on the toilet. She banged on the door.

‘Did you know you were asleep in there?’ she asked incredulously the next morning. ‘I never want you to go through the same hell I went through. I am heartsick when I think of what my drinking did to all of you.’

It happened like that, just out of the blue; the apology I had waited for, for so many heartbroken years. All I could do was hold her tiny frame close for a long, long time. She smelled good: of Guerlain’s L’Heure Bleue, just like she always used to in the early days when I was little. She was silent and so was I. In truth this was the one blessing her drinking gave me: it terrified me into quitting faster than I might have otherwise.

Binge drinking in adolescence is thought to interrupt normal brain-cell growth, particularly in the frontal regions critical to logical thinking and reasoning. Adolescent females who regularly consume four drinks in a session risk compromising spatial working memory.

Racing in from a long day at the office, an evening of cooking and homework ahead, the first instinct is to go to the fridge or the cupboard and pop a cork, soothing the transition from day to night with a glass of white or red. Chopping, dicing, sipping: it’s a common modern ritual. For years it was me at the chopping board, a glass of chilled white at my side. And for years this habit was harmless – or it seemed that way. My house wine was Santa Margherita, a pale straw-blond Italian pinot grigio. There was always a bottle in my fridge, and I’d often pour a second glass before dinner, with seeming impunity.

And the truth was that when I was drinking I got a lot done. In my alpha-dog years – holding down a senior job at a magazine, raising an artistic, athletic young man, giving speeches – life was more than full. Alcohol smoothed the switch from one role to another. It seemed to make life purr.

I could juggle a lot. Until, of course, I couldn’t. For me, all the juggling of professional life with motherhood took its toll. Certain disappointments at work were bruising. Menopause hit: anxiety and depression reared their ugly heads. Somewhere along the line, my occasional evenings of drinking too much morphed into drinking on an almost nightly basis.

Women become dependent on alcohol faster than men because of their chemistry. Other consequences, including cognitive defects and liver disease, occur earlier in women, and with significantly shorter exposure to alcohol. Women who consume four or more alcoholic beverages a day quadruple their risk of dying from heart disease. Heavy drinkers of both genders run the risk of a fatal stroke, but the odds are five times higher for women.

When my son Nicholas left for university, when the marathon was over and the house was empty, I was lonely: it was then that my evening glass of wine turned into two or three, which eventually became three or four.

Like countless women, I lived with the tyrannical myth of perfection. My mother too was in its grip in the 1960s, when men came home from work and expected a stiff drink. She wrote perfect thank-you notes. She cooked perfect meals. As a new bride, she ironed sheets and pillowcases. As a mother she starched our smocked dresses. My sister and I wore white gloves when we travelled and velvet hairbands. And then my mother was the one who had the stiff drink.

Binge drinking is increasing among young adults, in particular among young women aged 18 to 34 – those in prime child-bearing years. Binge drinking increases the risk of breast cancer, heart disease and sexually transmitted diseases. Deaths from liver disease have risen by 20 per cent in the past decade.

She wasn’t the only one self-medicating with a combination of alcohol and Valium. By the end of the 60s, two thirds of the users of psychoactive drugs such as Valium and Librium were women. It never occurred to me – not for years – that alcohol was the mother’s little helper of my generation.

Today women arrive home from work to face more work. So too do the men, but there’s a difference. My ex-husband – and Nicholas’s father – is not a perfectionist. Constant? Always. An excellent father? The best. But I never considered him accountable in the way I was for certain essentials. I was not willing to miss out on some of the pleasures of being a mother just because I worked. And I wasn’t willing to miss out on the rewards of a career just because I was a mother.

When one person drinks, or tries to stay sober, each member of the family is thrown off balance. When my mother returned from a stint in rehab, our whole family walked on eggshells. We were accustomed to a mother who slept much of the day, paced the halls at night, ice cubes tinkling. We were used to her 2am rants, her quixotic temper and cutting sarcasm. We were not used to this smaller, shaky person who looked painfully vulnerable, remorseful and soft.

With my whole being I wanted to help her. It was like having a house guest and I liked this new foreign being but I was not sure how long she would stay. Turned out, not for long. All through my 20s there were trips to the hospital, violent episodes, cuts, stitches, alcohol-fuelled fights, accidents that broke my heart. My brother John took the brunt of it. As the youngest he was home alone for several years once my sister Cate and I went to university.

We spent years trying to hide the truth from our friends. Once we began to marry, others were exposed to the unvarnished reality. ‘My mother has something seriously wrong with her,’ I said to my future husband, ‘probably an African throat disease.’ ‘You know that’s not true, don’t you?’ he said gently. ‘She’s an alcoholic.’ I still remember the shock of him saying out loud what we had
been forbidden to talk about throughout our childhood.

For so many years I lived with the so-called secrecy of my mother’s story. There was a time – a very long time – when I could not understand her dependence. Why didn’t she just stop? It was decades before I was fully able to comprehend. By then I was tortured by the same question, different pronoun. Why couldn’t I just stop?

Women have more body fat than men, so there is less fluid to dilute the alcohol, as body fat doesn’t contain much water. Women have a lower level of the key metabolising enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase, which helps break down alcohol, so a larger proportion of toxins enters the bloodstream. The effects of alcohol set in faster when oestrogen levels are high.

It was more than a year after my mother had challenged my drinking habit before I was able to secure any meaningful sobriety and three years after that before I regained what could be called a true sense of equilibrium.

New sobriety is a challenging experience: your first Christmas, your first New Year’s Eve, your first wedding or funeral. I have never felt more naked, raw and exposed to my feelings than at these times. I remember the depression of early sobriety, the constant tears. Learning to live sober is a solitary experience.

I remember a fancy celebratory dinner with my son Nicholas when the waiter uncorked a good bottle of red wine just a few inches from my face for the people at the next table. Nicholas touched his foot to mine in solidarity. Half an hour later, when the wine kept flowing, he offered to walk me round the block. I accepted. I will never forget the tenderness of my son, linking an arm through mine as we left the restaurant and headed out into the night air.

In the beginning you think it’s all about giving up alcohol. I remember counting the days with pride. But slowly you realise that abstinence is only the first requisite for growth. You have to get ready for the real work, the emotional, mental and spiritual push-ups essential to gaining some perspective and maturity.

Women are more likely than men to drink to get rid of negative feelings. Women are 70 per cent more likely to experience depression than men and twice as likely to experience anxiety.

Two years ago I was on the phone to my son, lamenting all I had lost when I gave up drinking. He was very quiet. Then he told me to get a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle. ‘On one side, write “Losses”. OK, put Jake’s [my former partner’s]name there – you lost the man you loved. Now on the other side write “Gains”. Write this, Mum. You got your son back.’ My heart was in my mouth. ‘Is this true?’

‘Mum, our relationship was really strained. I wasn’t even speaking to you. We didn’t speak for four months. You got your sister back. You got your relationship with your mother back. You got your friends back. Name them, Mum. Keep going.’ I scribble, the list growing. I run out of paper.

When you emerge from an addiction you actually get to choose the parts of yourself to keep and those you will have to lose if you are to stay sane and sober. At Alcoholics Anonymous they say it takes five years to get your marbles back. But it’s more than that: it takes several years to shape a new self.

Today I am a much calmer version of my former being, steady and humbled by all that I have witnessed and weathered. Things have evolved in ways I could never have imagined. I got my marbles back. Most days I know what to do with them.

This is an edited extract from Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol by Ann Dowsett Johnston, published by HarperWave, price £14.99. To order a copy for £13.49 with free p&p, contact the YOU Bookshop on 0844 472 4157,