Excerpt: Her Best-Kept Secret

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My name is Gabrielle, and I’m not an alcoholic.

I’m a journalist who has written about the overlapping universes of women, health, and culture for two decades. A few years ago, I started noticing signs that women were drinking more—a lot more. When my oldest daughter entered kindergarten in the mid-1990s, wine wasn’t a part of obligatory school functions in the New York suburbs where I lived with my family. In 2001, I had a third child, and even without looking hard I could see that something had significantly shifted. Several women—editors, advertising executives, marketing consultants—delivered unusual presents. I got wine—lots of it—in binary wine carriers that reminded me of double strollers. “You’ll be needing this!” was the general message. Two people told me: “One for you, one to share.”

In 2002, my husband and I got jobs at a newspaper in Oregon, where I have roots stretching back 150 years. Almost as soon as we were settled in Portland, I noticed women even in that relaxed city bending their elbows with the same enthusiasm as stressed-out New Yorkers. I realized that it wasn’t just the pressure of meeting deadlines. Women drank if they worked; women drank if they didn’t work. They even drank at the parent meetings for the laid-back environmental middle school. There was no need for flasks there—half the time, gatherings were in wine bars.

On a sunny July Sunday in 2009, a thirty-six-year-old Long Island mother named Diane Schuler killed her daughter, her three nieces, herself, and three men in an oncoming car when she careened the wrong way up a New York highway.

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At first, sympathy swirled around Schuler, who reminded women of themselves. She had juggled a marriage, two kids, and a job—in her case, as an executive at Cablevision. The Taconic Parkway, the road where she crashed, is notorious for accidents, and initial reports focused on the possibility that a medical condition had disoriented her. But when the toxicology report from her mangled body revealed that she had a blood alcohol level at twice the legal limit, as well as trace THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, compassion turned to contempt. “How Could She?” demanded the New York Post. Her widower insisted, even years later, that his wife couldn’t have had a secret drinking problem—despite the fact that ten shots of vodka were in her bloodstream at death. “She was a great mother,” he has said.

Great mothers, of course, can’t have hidden drinking problems.

Women who drink face more scrutiny than men. But the most vitriol is reserved for mothers who drink too much.

American women afflicted with some form of embarrassing excess or painful deficiency have a lot of modern help. If you have an “overactive bladder,” there are a handful of drugs about which you may “ask your doctor,” and if you’re depressed, you might take anything from Abilify to Zoloft. There are whole industries of fat-busters: appetite suppressants, fat-absorption inhibitors, experimental doses of human growth hormone. You can buy special prepackaged diets; memberships in Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, and gyms. You can announce that you are “off carbs,” without so much as raising an eyebrow. You can get liposuction; you can get lap band surgery or a gastric bypass. Since two out of three Americans are overweight, the subject is open game. When Oprah wheeled a wagon carrying sixty-seven pounds of fat onto her set in 1988, she launched a national conversation.

But rare is the woman who can openly declare that she’s having trouble cutting back on booze. In this book, I distinguish between proven fact and conjecture, what is national habit, what is solid science, and what is rooted in our attitude toward alcohol. I also take a hard look at our country’s traditional remedy for drinking problems, Alcoholics Anonymous, and how an increasing number of women are questioning its effectiveness and safety. Why are women drinking more than in previous eras, and what does it mean? Alcohol is a socially acceptable, legal way to muscle through the post-feminist, bread-winning, or stay-at-home life women lead. It’s a drug women can respectably use in public and in private, even if it carries with it the risk of taking them under. It pops up in the headlines when a suburban mom kills seven others, including the kids she loves, but that’s a gory headline. The real story is a silent, utterly bourgeois, and hiding-in-plain sight problem: How a lot of American women are hanging right over a cliff.

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