I miss getting black out wild drunk. I am one heck of a drunk. For a five foot two women, who is a slightly built person I could drink a lot of big men under the table, and then go home with their girlfriends, who, trust me, had a lot more fun with me than their impotent and sloppy menfolk. I liked playing electric guitar lashed, two sheets to the wind and an ancient and yellowed cut off Coricidin bottle as a slide. I was no Duane Allman, but given enough ethanol, it would not matter, all the real world would melt away, and I was free of my self and my own inhibitions. I would jump and bounce and yowl and sing and feel free to talk and be and exist, and then gracefully fall off my chair and pass out on the floor. Those days are over. They had to be. I never did drink sensibly. I was always a drunk or nothing kinda girl. By the time life had got hold of me, and I had a whole world of pain and fear to escape, not to mention a lot of self loathing, I was drinking a gallon of rum every two days, week in, week out. That kind of drinking is going to leave a mark.
I was having fun, until I wasn’t. Then I was having no fun at all. Cultivating a drink problem is more difficult than anyone might imagine. It takes dedicated drinking. The trick is not to sober up. Get drunk, and stay that way. Wake up, feel the buzz leaving the body in a wave of hangover, and cure that puppy with yet more booze. 7am vodka, a little orange juice. Keep it topped up.
Next thing I knew I was hiding mixed drinks in the back of the fridge, behind curtains, in cupboards, behind my bed. About six weeks or so into solid and dedicated drinking I was there. A fully fledged alcohol problem in full toxic bloom. I woke up feeling sick, hands trembling, the walls starting to shift in alarming ways, the floor crawling, bugs scurrying under my skin. The party was over. I had really done it now. The only thing to fix a case of the mild and incipient DTs is more booze. Straighten yourself out. Getting drunk was like playing a constant game of catch up. I struggled to stay buzzed, let alone out of the DTs. To drink hard and fast enough at that point, to outrun the tolerance, is an absolute beast of a problem, which takes dedicated drinking.
I would wake up. A double later I was feeling alive, the hands were somewhat steady. Another large slug and I was more or less normal, able to function. My ship was righted. I never got hangovers any more from drinking. Instead I only got sick from not. My world was turned upside down.
There is always a judgement call others make when they hear someone was or is an alcoholic. Generally people don’t want to hear about reasons or motivation, they just come straight out and make the snap decision that the person in the depths of an alcohol addiction is a bad person. Men get a lot more leeway on that. Quite often men’s drinking is dismissed as heroic. Being a man who can hold his alcohol is seen as a sign of masculinity and strength. A woman who drinks is not seen as heroic or strong, no mythos is wrought around her alcoholism like we create fables around the drinking of famous male alcoholics. Keith Moon, Oliver Reed, Hunter S Thompson, Jim Morrison, Ernest Hemmingway: their drinking is made into a cultural mythos, the new Gods of Dionysus, who skip through life half cut at best, and perform magical feats of artistic fervor and are more than tolerated, but instead admired by society as a whole.
Recently, on social media, a benign recovery account asked the innocuous question “How many days sober do you have?” I worked out I had had over 2300 sober days since my last drink. I was quite proud of the fact, and added it to an overwhelmingly male list of sobered up drinkers.
As the page refreshed I noticed a tweet, by a man, saying “I have never had more than a few sips of beer in my entire life. I am 37 years old.” I was filled with a dark and deep rage. He was not replying just to me, he was replying to a whole long list of people who were struggling every single day of their life without ethanol. He was replying to entire legions of warriors who had beaten the bottle, at least for the day. AA mantras are strong with this recovered crowd, and they are all schooled in ‘it is not your fault’ and ‘take it by the day’, and ‘guilt is a useless emotion when it comes to drinking.’ In conversation with each other, men excuse and console. I have yet to find a woman-only support group for recovered alcoholics, and in these overwhelmingly male spaces, women’s voices often get lost, but it is not like men who are involved in the whole recovery scene do not know how to talk to other drunks.
The social media account was called something with “Recovery” in the title, and all the people on the threads were listing their days free of booze, or poly-drug use issues. This individual decided to see all of this and then to add in a pissant and snarky way, that he, The Man, had arrived and he had never had more than a few sips of the mildest alcohol in his entire life, sounded something like crowing. It sounded a lot like looking down on people who had recovered from drink problems, or who were trying to get the support they needed to do so.
It sounded crass and judgmental, and very unhelpful. Men so often let other men get away with this appalling empathy free behavior, smearing their inability to see that sometimes they are not welcome everywhere, and that their lack of problems is not something to be given a gold star and a pat on the back to, but instead simply something to keep to themselves. It did not cross this particular man’s mind that he was out of place on that thread. It didn’t occur to him that everyone would not be gathering around to congratulate him on never having been drunk.
I told him he was being crass, and wondered if it ever occurred to him that he was not the target audience of that particular tweet or group of people. Another man came to his defense, another man with no posts within the recovery community, and declared that: “So it’s his fault that he wasn’t so irresponsible and ignorant he didn’t turn into a fall down slobbering pos?” He carried on asking me if I was always such a dick and warned me to settle down and shut up. He told an alcoholic woman on a recovery thread to shut up and let the man talk who had, by his own admission, never had more than a few sips of beer in his life. It is business as usual within the patriarchy.
No one came to my defense. I was intrigued. You see, the thing is, as an out and proud feminist and lesbian on twitter, it is clear I am female, and in order to attack me, he treated me like another man. My femaleness ceased to matter but instead was denied and weaponized against me. I don’t see men being told they are ‘ignorant and irresponsible’ for getting a drink problem. They are generally treated like victims, unwell people, with immense sympathy and kindness, as long as they don’t go too far and end up in jail due to some black out drunken crime spree. Let’s face it, from my very unscientific research, most alcoholic women end up getting into unsafe situations, being taken advantage of sexually or raped when blacked out, and losing their relationships with family and friends. Some might get a little catty, a slightly sharp tongue. There is always the specter of the dreadful drunk driving – something I never did. Mostly they do not wreck the absolute violent carnage of a man on a black out drunken binge, hitting, hurting and destroying everything in their path. There simply is not that animal in their cage, that monster is not in the basement for booze to set free. That monster seems to be present in so many men, and absent in most all women, yet I was held to a standard that men are simply not held up to.
Women who are addicted to alcohol are held to much higher standards than men are. Men get to be wild, we are meant to be responsible. Men get to dump their families and go off and misbehave, whilst a woman is held to account and shamed into being the sole carer of any children, and roundly berated for not being a good mother. Women are held to an unrealistic standard of perfection which requires us to always put ourselves last, or else some angry man defending other men who have never even drank, is going to come gunning for us at the very least.
It is a particularly hard road to be a female alcoholic. Other people’s expectations and judgements are harsh and unforgiving for the most part. The man on social media is just symptomatic of society’s outlook on addicted women as a whole. It is incredibly lonely, especially if you are a mother. Not everyone is a down and out not coping with life drunk like I was. I know far more women from my online AA group who got into trouble at ‘wine o’clock’, than who decided they wanted to play at being Chrissie Hynde with a telecaster to distract and soothe. In the end in the center of every alcoholic you will find a person in some kind of pain. It might be their teeth, it might be their aching bones, more often than not it is an inflamed soul or psyche that needs dulling and soothing and singing to rest with an ethanol lullaby.
When alcohol and misogyny mix it is a potent brew, a real witches brew. There is no aspect of society where men don’t get all the breaks and all the understanding, and women are not subjected to misogyny and held up against stereotypical ideals. Alcoholism is no exception to the patriarchal rule of men. From a personal point of view, I get reassured that I was “not bad at all” and that if “everyone was like you drunk, then it would be fine.” The fact that I was suffering from the delirium tremens, that I could not go out of the house without a plastic bottle of vodka mixed with enough orange juice to just color it so it was not so obvious that I was drinking (or so I thought) and to take the edge off the burn so I could get it down me fast enough to stop the shakes and the dry heaves, didn’t matter. What mattered was how I behaved, not how I suffered. What mattered was that I remained somewhat palatable to society, and hid it remarkably well, and remained ‘well behaved for a drunk’, not that I was physically and dangerously addicted to booze.
My drink problem was generally downplayed from everyone from friends and family to medical professionals, and once I was in huge undeniable trouble with it, I was berated and treated very harshly and told to ‘think of the children’. I was called irresponsible, and there was generally much tutting and disapproval involved. I was even told to simply ‘quit it’ by the one medic I actually managed to see, when I was clearly in the delirium tremens and doing so was going to be dangerous. In the end I went cold turkey, no support, no medical help.
Detoxing at home, cold turkey, from alcohol, with not even AA helping, and having to explain time and time again, that it was not so benign as having to cut down on my drinking a little bit was the most frustrating experience. Everyone at the end of a phone line hears a polite female voice, in face to face meetings they see a small female and presume that you might be in some discomfort psychologically having got used to an extra glass of wine, and I absolutely do not play that down. Having to beat that wine witch into submission is no mean feat, and doesn’t come without cravings and discomfort. I didn’t have a witch, I had the whole covern and all of them wanted a drink. Or else. If I didn’t get a handle on it, it was clearly going to kill me.
Unfortunately I had, as usual, gone somewhat beyond that into territory that was presumed to belong to men only. I was utterly miserable, chained to a bottle, and unable to even eat my supper at the table, because my hands would shake so badly food would fly everywhere and I had to eat with my fingers. I could not make it out to do the grocery shopping without taking swigs of vodka to steady myself. I had ceased to have fun. I woke up heaving and nauseous until I had a drink and keeping up with my body’s need for ethanol was a constant strain, both financially and physically.
When the DTs hit in full toxic bloom I was scared for my life, but with no medical insurance, I was turned away from help. The hallucinations kicked in hard after about 12 hours, and parades of silent hooded figures circled round my bed. Tigers hid in the wallpaper. I feared I was losing my mind and never going to get it back. The Fear bit down hard and I sat, with my head in a bucket of my own vomit, trying desperately to stop puking and failing, and hoping that the blood in my vomit was caused by strain rather than something more dangerous. My body shook like an old sick dog. I had a few minor seizures, and a few not so minor, a friend holding my body tight while I jerked uncontrollably. Suffice to say I needed medication and help. By day three I was convinced I was dying. Day 4 I felt a little more stable. On day 5 I felt a little better. And still nobody helped me. If I had been a man my drinking would not have been dismissed or downplayed. As a woman my alcoholism was minimalized to a dangerous degree. I needed alcohol physically, or at least Librium and hospital admission for detox. Some people around me actually refused to get me alcohol, despite the lack of medical intervention and the fact I was having seizures. There was no compassion. In fact their lack of compassion was dangerous.
Compared to how my alcoholic male friends were treated it was night and day. When they said they were drinking a gallon every two days, no break, for extended periods of time, no one doubted them. When they went into the DTs they were medicated. They were treated as human, whereas I was treated as so much less than human or worthy of assistance or belief.
Women who drink are either dismissed or else brought to heel by everyone around them. The only women I could ever count on were my feminist sisters and fellow addicts. You see there is nothing quite like the understanding you get from other women who get it, who understand that society is out to control and dismiss them, especially when they move into male territory. Drinking is still seen as a predominantly male issue, and women who have alcohol problems are not well represented or served. I have yet to find a female only AA group, when there is clearly a need for such a thing. Discussing how you ended up blacked out and in bed with a strange man or that you fear losing custody of your children is something that deserves to be discussed with other women, not listened in on and drooled over by a group of alcoholic men who are mostly self obsessed, whereas women rarely have that luxury.
It is all rum, misogyny and society’s lash if you are a woman who falls under the wheels of addiction to alcohol. Women are held to far higher standards than their male counterparts in all things, and if you manage to cultivate an alcohol problem, a physical and psychological addiction, then you can guarantee that while your male alcoholic counterparts are taken seriously, you will be dismissed. When things go too far mercy is a rare commodity indeed. The medical profession rarely take women seriously and in addiction services my experience has been much the same: men are heard, and women are ignored until the point where they are in real and extreme danger. However, there is one thing that can be relied on, one undeniable fact, that a woman who drinks is going to be even more vulnerable to the judgement of the patriarchy and its loyal handmaidens.
I wonder how many alcoholic women are driven to booze by the demands of society upon them? How many of us are pushed into drinking because the entire burden of child rearing is foisted upon us, with all of the loneliness and isolation that comes with that? How many of us are under so much pressure to do it all, to have it all, to be it all and that relaxing glass of wine in the evening becomes non negotiable and necessary? How many of us have to cope with the pain of abuse, or the weight of loss and reach for the rum to just take the edge off, not realizing until it is too late that you are worn quite smooth by the constant lapping of ethanol on the shores of your consciousness? The misogyny is hard to bear, and so are the constant demands of fighting it. If you are a woman who drinks too much, if it is causing issues in your life and friendships, don’t let it get too far without demanding help. Online AA groups are better than nothing and can at least help you fathom just how far the booze has worked its way under your skin. Who knows, perhaps I am missing a feminist female-only AA group out there that might get it, that might understand and commiserate and not judge.
From this end of things 2300 or so sober days behind me, I can finally feel again. Ok, so I don’t really want to feel all of it, but I can also see the sun shining, I am free to live without being chained to a bottle, and my mind works as well as can be expected. That clarity click, that moment where the last of the gratefully comforting fuzz melts away is not exactly the most comfortable place to exist, but I would not want to live any other way.