- By Esther J. Cepeda
Ever get the feeling that women are collectively crying out for help but no one is listening?
Scan the landscape of entertainment aimed at women and you’ll find a theme: alcohol dependency.
Some of it is portrayed as fun — there is a whole craft industry dedicated to “Wine O’Clock” and #WineWednesday home decor, and celebrities like Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb shamelessly glamorize early morning drinking on their “Today” show — but it’s increasingly desperate.
Take Paula Hawkins’ hit novel (and soon-to-be blockbuster movie) “The Girl on the Train.” I picked up the book based on reviews that said it was “the next ‘Gone Girl.’” It was not.
Alas, it turned out to be melodrama revolving around an alcoholic woman’s unraveling, her gin-fueled blackout providing the mystery’s convenient device. It wasn’t nearly as entertaining as promised, unless of course you are drawn to stories about women who tear their own and others’ lives apart via alcoholism.
In the land of reality, there are two separate memoirs on The New York Times hardcover best-seller list right now that will surely not eclipse the popularity of “Girl on the Train” but deserve some major play for their frank and bracing descriptions of what alcohol can do to smart, high-achieving women.
ABC News journalist Elizabeth Vargas’ book “Between Breaths: A Memoir of Panic and Addiction,” starts out painfully, with an introduction detailing her crushing, everyday anxiety — a state of low-grade terror that leads to her ever-present prayer: “Dear God, I need a drink.”
“Drinking started out to be something that felt lovely and luxurious. It was a romance of sorts,” Vargas writes. “It ended with me on the brink of dying from alcohol poisoning, of losing every single thing and every single person I treasured. It sent me to a hardscrabble rehab in Tennessee where I spent a grim Christmas alone, my two precious children 900 miles away, opening gifts without their mom. There is nothing remotely romantic about that.”
In “Forward,” soccer star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Abby Wambach details her abuse of food, alcohol and prescription drugs. Tellingly, she titles the first chapter “Fraud,” in which she explains that her book is not a story about soccer, but about the pain of living up to others’ expectations.
“Because no matter who you are or what you’ve done with your life, you recognize the feeling I’ve described, that private, flailing terror that makes you wonder if you’re lost for good,” Wambach writes. “You’ve found yourself in the midst of transition, working up the nerve to release one rung and swing to the next, hoping to find some magic in the middle. You have been treated unfairly and unequally. You have been labeled, placed into ill-fitting boxes and told by others what you are and how to be.
You have even labeled yourself, blunting your potential with your own words.”
This pain is at the forefront of every account of someone who has seen the dark side of the candy-flavored, empowerment-branded lie — that booze will make you happy — which alcohol companies use to entice girls and women.
“We can’t afford to act like it’s OK that ‘Girls can do anything!’ got translated somewhere along the line into ‘Women must do everything,’” wrote Kristi Coulter in her recent Quartz magazine commentary. “Giving up alcohol opened my eyes to the infuriating truth about why women drink.” She concludes, “We can’t afford to live lives we have to fool our own central nervous systems into tolerating. We can’t afford to be 24-hour women. I couldn’t afford to be a 24-hour woman. But it didn’t stop me from trying till it shattered me.”
Like never before, young women are under enormous pressure to excel academically and professionally, have successful intimate relationships, be good mothers or daughters and be socially conscious, politically engaged and “beautiful,” whatever that means. Is it any wonder that more and more harried, stressed-out women are turning to alcohol’s legal, relatively cheap and socially acceptable form of drug abuse to cope?
In truth, women don’t need alcohol to lead fulfilling lives; they need familial, professional and societal support. Grasping desperately for a drink when life gets stressful is not a “fun” way to “unwind,” it is a cry for help.
It’s a cry we should be responding to instead of celebrating drinking as innocent entertainment designed to be consumed without consequence.
Write to Esther Cepeda at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.
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