As journalist Gabrielle Glaser observed the growing infusion of wine into all manner of events — from book groups loaded with pinot grigio to Facebook groups like “Moms Who Need Wine” — she decided to investigate.
In her new book, Her Best-Kept Secret: Why Women Drink — and How They Can Regain Control, Glaser notes that women today are drinking more than their mothers did — and 11% now report binge drinking regularly. But she was also surprised to learn that women who seek help for drinking in voluntary groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) may face some unexpected dangers. TIME spoke with her about the trend and what she learned.
Why did you decide to write this book?
I moved from Oregon to New York in 2008, when the economy was tanking. I was overdrinking during the move. I was having lunch with a friend and all around us, people were drinking. We started talking about drinking [and women].
Were women actually drinking more? Was what I was seeing borne out by statistics, and was it real or was it something that was just more obvious in popular culture [with all of the articles and blogs about moms and drinking]? And I found out that yes, it was real.
How much were you drinking at the time?
I was drinking about two-thirds of a bottle of wine [in an evening]. I was uncomfortable, I had quit my job and was under all of this stress and drinking earlier than ever, literally at 5 and I couldn’t wait. I have three daughters, one was 15 and she wasn’t talking to me because we were moving, the others were 13 and 6.
What did you do about it?
When I got worried, I stopped for three weeks. I thought, “This is ridiculous. This isn’t helping me.” And it wasn’t hard for me — maybe the first day was. After that, I thought “Oh, this is fine.” [Now I drink moderately.]
You went to some AA meetings for your research, though …
I went to a meeting on the Upper West Side of all women, an open women’s meeting. It was around Dec. 30th. They were all like supermodels and beautiful. I felt like I was at the children’s table because I’m 5’4”. One woman stood up. She was there for her year chip [the anniversary of her first year sober]. She said, “There’s nothing more I’d rather be doing than be in New Orleans with my drinking buddies, with a bottle of rum in my hand and this sucks.”
Another woman, who had been sober 26 years, was pissed off that her family had been drinking wine at Christmas. I thought, as someone who has suffered from depression in the past, “How does this work for anybody?”
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What is different about drinking for women?
Alcohol has different effects on men and women, and the triggers for men and women are very different. For women, I found that it’s about stress and depression and anxiety. [And what’s different now] is [their] chock-full schedules. Everyone [in the family] comes in and the minute you get in the house, [you think] “Give me my wine.”
Men drink more socially and they feel different when drinking. Men feel more powerful and more aggressive when they drink, and women calm down and feel sexier and warmer. They open up: it’s literally the opposite of being bottled up.
What about their roles as mothers?
When kids are little, it’s really hard to drink because you’ve got to be on top of them. You might need to drive. I have not heard very many stories of women who really lose it when their kids are superlittle. It’s when they’re older and talking back.
The research shows that role loss [like unemployment or kids leaving home] is a trigger. I think one big thing is quitting your job to be home with kids. It’s a major identity blow, and people need to think about that and maybe readjust their li[ves] so you can get some identity back.
What is a safe level of daily drinking for women?
The American guidelines are very strict: only one glass a day for women. In France and Italy, it’s double that, and in the Basque countryside [experts say that] seven times that [is O.K.] and people there [are very long-lived]. The centenarians in Icaria drink between three to four glasses a day. But they have high levels of vitamin D, which is another really important thing. You need high levels of vitamin D [if you drink regularly] because alcohol can interfere with its metabolism and [the same is true] for folic acid.
Nobody talks about that. But it’s important to look at the reasons behind why we have the drinking recommendations that we do. [One] is because we are a very auto-driven society. Here’s what many [American] doctors have said to me, but no one wants to be quoted: “Two is fine, but three is too many.”
What should women who need help do?
Ask your doctor, “Are you familiar with new methods of treatment?” I know some who’ve gone with the Combine study [a controlled trial that showed that the drug naltrexone with behavioral treatment works best] in their hands. Naltrexone is not perfect, it’s not magic, but it’s shown more effective in reducing alcohol euphoria in women. Topiramate is another medication. Be prepared to do some looking. Find an ally.
You’re not as supportive of 12-step programs, because you learned that they can be havens for sexual predators, as you recently wrote in ProPublica about a family suing AA after a woman was murdered by a man she met there.
[She went to a rehab] that charged $42,000 a month. She was sharing room with mattresses on the floor [there] and [all the female patients were sent] in a van every day to AA and NA meetings at a sober house of only men.
She meets this guy there who has been ordered into AA repeatedly — four times that we can see — with a history of domestic violence. He had six temporary restraining orders against him, a really violent and manipulative guy with no hope for any financial security in the future because of his record.
And here’s a woman with a 401(k) and a house and a car. He gravitates to her and they fall in love. He moves in and they start drinking together. He beats her and she calls the cops. The cops drop the charges. She takes him back. He asks her to marry him and they get engaged, get into a fight three weeks later and he beats her to death.
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There is such a history of this that AA actually has a term for people who seek out vulnerable newcomers for sex: “the 13th step.” But who is to blame — the rehab programs and courts that order people into a voluntary, amateur groups that cannot police people’s pasts, or groups like AA itself?
I must say that AA’s sanctimony in the whole manner is preposterous. They could do something. People need to understand that this is not just a nice group with your best interests at heart. But doctors and probation officers and judges [also] need to be aware that it can be exceedingly dangerous for the most vulnerable people among them.
If it works, it’s absolutely fantastic. [But] one thing strikes me. I have chronic sinus disease. Over the years, treatment for it has changed. The only solution of my day was surgery, and today it’s the last resort. If it works for you, that’s great, but people respond differently to different therapies.