Alumna reveals sobering epidemic

Award-winning journalist, Ann Dowsett Johnston, shared her book, Drink, with the Queen's community

Dowsett Johnston spoke at the final installment of the Queen’s Alumni Review’s Write Thinking Authors Series.
Dowsett Johnston spoke at the final installment of the Queen’s Alumni Review’s Write Thinking Authors Series.

Success and alcoholism are two words that seem as far-removed as night and day. Experience with both, however, is what led Ann Dowsett Johnston to write the 2013 book, Drink: The Intimate Relationship between Women and Alcohol.

Dowsett Johnston, ArtSci ’75, was already a widely-acclaimed Canadian journalist and public policy advocate in 2007 when she discreetly excused herself from vice-presidency at McGill University, to seek recovery from the same illness that had stolen years from her mother, and tragically, the life of her father.

Successfully recovered, Dowsett Johnston won the Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy in 2010, leading to a 14-part series in the Toronto Star on the widespread, blossoming romance between women and alcohol.

While her work as Atkinson Fellow made no mention of her personal struggle with alcohol, Dowsett Johnston has brought her own story to light in Drink, integrating her own memoir with extensive research on the growing trend of female alcohol abuse.

Prior to her visit to Queen’s on March 5, the Journal spoke with Dowsett Johnston on her new book, her lifelong exposure to alcoholism and how she beat the odds of addiction and came out on top — both as a professional and recovered alcoholic.

What motivated you to write Drink?

I discovered I was the poster girl for my generation, meaning I was professional, well-educated — what we call “high-bottom”, meaning I hadn’t stolen a car, gone to jail or lost things in the way one obviously thinks when one’s missed work and one has a drinking problem.

My mother was the poster girl for her era, which was the ’60s. She was a stay-at-home mum, mixed Valium and hard liquor, and was a very different portrait.

So I wanted to communicate in a meaningful, and I hope moving way, what was going on in our culture now, what was especially going on in terms of the marketing from the alcohol industry, and the environment that we’re in and how much that’s changed.

After your own experiences overcoming alcoholism, was it therapeutic for you to research the topic and write about it?

Making the decision to do it was very hard, but once I decided, I was extremely comfortable and it was cathartic in the extreme.

I’m a member of something called Faces and Voice of Recovery, which is quite a new group in Canada, trying to reduce the stigma around addiction, much as others have done for mental health. We are speaking out and exposing our faces and the faces of those in recovery, to say “this is what it looks like”. It’s not just that guy under the bridge drinking from a paper bag, but it can be professional, accomplished people who are really working on their recovery.

Why do you think more and more females are finding themselves in “intimate relationships with alcohol”?

I think there’s three reasons. Number one: we drink because we can. I think there’s a huge sense of entitlement. We drink because we’re coming home from busy jobs, we’re putting food on the table for families and it’s the easiest thing in the world to open a bottle of wine.

Number two is women are 40 per cent more likely to suffer from depression, and that’s just depression, without going into anxiety, going into PTSD, but women definitely self-medicate — so do men — but self-medicate with alcohol. It’s a legal drug; it’s very easy.

Number three is we have been heavily marketed. Some time into the 1990s, the spirits industry noticed that … a whole gender was underperforming and that gender was female. So we saw the birth of the Alco-pop, or Mike’s Hard Lemonade, Smirnoff Ice — what I call “cocktails with training wheels” — that are “chick-beers”, steering women to vodka or tequila.

What are the main reasons behind binge drinking for women, and how do these vary with age?

Binge drinking for women is obviously much riskier than binge drinking for men, because we are much more susceptible to addiction, for biological and hormonal reasons.

You see a real difference in the patterns of drinking. In your 20s, [there is] what is known as “the weekend warrior”, a motto which is binge drink on the weekend and maybe not so much during the week. We then see patterns in a woman’s 40s where she may not be binge drinking on the weekends, but she is drinking a fair amount on a daily basis.

What is alarming is that we’re seeing an extraordinary pattern in women for risky drinking and an increase in risky drinking right across North America. In places like the UK, where drinking is much more extreme, you’re seeing young women in their 20s presenting with end-stage liver disease, which is classically an old man’s disease.

How does female alcoholism differs from male alcoholism?

Men tend to drink in social settings. If a male is developing a drinking problem, he may go to the bar, he may start hanging out with friends that he wouldn’t have hung out with before, but he is out at the bar.

Women tend to drink in an isolated fashion. They tend to drink alone. I certainly did. They hide it. There’s a lot of shame involved with drinking and they isolate to quite a large degree. So it is an intimate relationship, it’s a one-on-one sort of thing.

We’re very comfortable with common images of consumption, and so the message we send to people when they graduate from university is: know your wines, you’re sophisticated; hold your liquor, you’re mature. The truth of the matter is, this is a beverage that has some implications in terms of health. Fifteen per cent of breast cancer cases are related to alcohol consumption.

Considering females’ lower tolerance for alcohol, how are the ramifications of alcoholism different for women than they are for men?

There are huge ramifications for alcoholism. For women, these are telescoped. In other words, it happens faster. So cognitive impairment comes faster, alcoholism comes earlier, liver disease comes faster, strokes come faster. We just aren’t built in such a resilient fashion when it comes to alcohol.

You note the greater likelihood of drinking on a daily basis for women with university degrees; why do you think this is?

[It] has to do with the fact that it’s affordable for that group, that it’s accessible for that group, that it’s seen as part of a sophisticated affluence. Often professional women going toe-to-toe with men in the workplace are following their habits, and I think it’s totally normalized. It’s important to note that men have always had more to drink than women have. The new story here is that women are catching up.

Why have you chosen to analyze the topic of alcohol use and abuse through a gendered lens?

I spent 30 years in the news business and my news instinct — I think correctly — said this was an unreported issue. When I started reporting on it in 2010, people were surprised. They said it was an under-the-radar issue at the Toronto Star, and it was true. People weren’t talking about it, so I feel some pleasure in the fact that I brought this subject to light with the Atkinson Fellowship.

While at Queen’s, did you drink in a manner which enabled you to foresee your later relationship with alcohol?

No. If there was anything that happened at Queen’s that foretold what might happen, it was the initiation of my experience with depression. I drank in my 50s to numb depression and my onset of depression was during my years at Queen’s.

These are the years of onset for many mental health issues, and I think it’s very common for people to self-medicate with alcohol in university years. The two are inextricably linked, even to the point that heavy consumption of alcohol can confuse diagnosis, can confuse prescriptions and render them ineffective. So if we’re talking about mental health — and Queen’s has been a leader in terms of talking about mental health — we have to include the conversation about alcohol at the same time.

Your biography notes that your career was at its prime when alcoholism led you to seek rehabilitation. How did it feel to be viewed by others as very successful while you struggled in private?

I was afraid I was going to fall down the same bunny hole as my mother and lose decades and, because of that, I took myself to a very expensive facility in the States, because I wanted a lot of privacy and I wanted a lot of anonymity.

Was that the right choice? I’m not sure. I don’t think I needed, frankly, to have gone as far, and to such an expensive place as I did, and I think that at the time, my fiercest wish was to recover quickly and to recover in privacy. So I took myself out of the workforce for three years to ensure that I was [recovered].

Was there one specific turning point when you accepted your alcoholism and developed a desire to overcome it?

My cousin was killed by a drunk driver in 2007 and I decided to quit drinking and found that I couldn’t. I was appalled. I realized immediately that I was in really terrible trouble and it was very lonely. It was very lonely because I isolated myself to get well.

What has the public response to your book been like, and how have you felt about this?
I know multiple people who are sober because of the book — women who’ve read the book and realize they have a problem and have either sought help through me or through others. It has been the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done — by far, my happiest experience, and it’s definitely the thing of which I’m most proud.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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