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When Problems Sink in a Bottle of Booze

HAPPY HOURS: ALCOHOL IN A WOMAN'S LIFE; By Devon Jersild; HarperCollins; $25, 380 pages

April 09, 2001|SHARI ROAN

We've heard bits and pieces about this subject before. The headlines about binge drinking among college women. The tales of women who drink during pregnancy and give birth to children with fetal alcohol syndrome. The pictures of homeless women ruined by alcohol. But these are just fragments of a much bigger story about women and alcohol--the subject of this unique book by Devon Jersild. Jersild shatters the stereotypes of women and alcohol problems and shows us that the drunk college girls and "bag ladies" are only the most visible part of the problem. Everyday women--the mom, business executive, teacher, lawyer, high school prom queen--make up the majority of women alcoholics.

Jersild, a writer and teacher of creative writing and women's studies, was motivated to write this book out of despair over her sister's battle with alcoholism. What she discovered was that, like her sister, women who develop drinking problems often have other emotional or life problems. Female alcoholics are much more likely than their male counterparts to suffer from depression, anxiety and eating disorders. They are much more likely to have been victims of sexual or physical abuse. Coming to terms with the alcoholism often involves untangling and examining the many factors that led to the drinking or have been impacted by it.

"Most often, alcohol has been woven into the fabric of their lives, so that stories about women and alcohol are also dramas about women's relationships, their needs, their work, their feelings about their bodies, sexual abuse and other trauma, human loss and spiritual development," Jersild writes. She notes that alcohol problems in women tend to devastate every aspect of their lives, such as relationships, jobs and health. While men also often lose everything to alcoholism, women, she says, "fall harder and faster" than men.

This is not just a book about alcoholics. Jersild examines social norms as well. For example, women who drink heavily often are considered "loose"; men typically don't suffer the same image problem. And even women not dependent on alcohol can fall victim to it. Because women sometimes drink to ease stress, dull pain or subdue doubts, alcohol use for these individuals "has to do with looking for solutions outside yourself."

"Happy Hours," which is beautifully written and personalized with the stories of women, offers well-researched information on alcoholism, treatment, recovery, advertising and trends (including the disturbing increase in the number of teenage girls drinking heavily). The book notes, for example, that most treatment and recovery models are built on what works for men. For women, the often coexisting problems of depression, past victimization, other addictions and relationship difficulties call for a much different approach. Moreover, our society typically punishes the pregnant alcoholic or alcoholic mother (for example, by taking her children away) instead of looking for ways to facilitate her treatment and recovery while keeping families together.

Female alcoholics are twice as likely to die as male alcoholics of the same age and yet are much less likely to be diagnosed with the disease. Breaking the silence and uncovering the truths surrounding women's use of alcohol is a first step at correcting that injustice. "Happy Hours" moves us in the right direction.

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