Sour Grapes: When a Social Activity Becomes a Debilitating Habit

Do women drink more than they used to? Or are they just more open about their alcohol consumption?

I’m at Tela Bar and Kitchen in Wyoming on a Wednesday night, surrounded by a group of 10 female friends I invited out to discuss why women drink. A few had been joking about this “study group” for weeks on Facebook. In their glasses? Wine, a few mixed drinks, a beer or two. Some admit they aren’t really big drinkers—one is generally enough for them. I promised not to use their names so they would be emboldened to speak freely.

When I ask the group, all in their 30s and 40s, why they think women are drinking more these days, one woman—who insists I use the pseudonym “Fat Amy”—laughs and denies the premise, wondering instead if women are simply more willing to report it. The taboo is gone.

Photograph by Aaron M. Conway

The woman next to her chimes in. “Gender roles are just so gray,” she says, pointing out that women are (justifiably) less willing to sit at home and take care of the kids while their husbands go out for happy hours. “I just think women quit giving a fuck about everything.” She summarizes a scene from the Amazon TV show The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, in which the 1950s-era lead character goes to bed in makeup, then sneaks out once her husband falls asleep to wash it off, apply cold cream, put in curlers—only to reverse the process before her husband wakes up so that she appears fresh, made-up, and gently curled for him in the morning, every morning. “Women did that!” she exclaims incredulously. Her summary is met with a round of How awful! head shakes. As we shudder, she spots a neighbor sipping wine at the bar and invites her over to tell us how it used to be.

The neighbor, age 66, slides into a seat next to me, explaining how, as a child of the 1960s, she never drank much until she discovered wine around age 40. Sure, she’d smoked pot and tried hallucinogens, but no booze. Now she’s a discerning wine drinker, inviting her neighbors over to try verticals (different vintages of the same wine).

Our group did come to consensus on a few things: Wine has become the professional ladies’ drink of choice and is free-flowing in both casual and professional settings. Also, many of us have few memories of our mothers drinking when we were kids, instead serving as the perpetual designated driver—though many of us now see those same moms happily throw a few back.

Another point of agreement: Being a stay-at-home mother of small children is intense, and sometimes a drink at the end of the day helps us unwind. One woman described when her kids were small, “between 5 and 6 p.m. I always cracked. I was drinking something—wine or beer,” though now that her kids are older and in school, she doesn’t imbibe as much during the week.

It was certainly no surprise to any of us that “Moms in Need of Wine” has become, as Kathryn Jezer-Morton wrote for Jezebel, “an essential genre of social media humor, born out of a desire to defend moms’ freedom to have a goddamned wine if they want one.” Spend any time on Instagram or Facebook following women of child-bearing age, and you’ll find photos of them toasting with a glass of wine (just one, ladies—she’s buzzed, not drunk) and grinning in full-on maternal joie de vivre. (Translation: “escape.”)

The internet has become overrun with wine-drunk mom memes such as The most expensive part of having kids is all the wine you have to drink and MOTHERHOOD: Powered by love. Fueled by coffee. Sustained by wine. Walk into any boutique or home goods store and find a heavy pour of wine kitsch: paintings of bottles, art made from corks, art you can fill with your own corks. At Anthropologie, there’s a chic T-shirt on sale boasting the maxim Rise & Wine. Women currently make up 57 percent of high frequency wine consumers (more than one drink a week) and a minority of beer and spirits purchases. According to the Wine Market Council, 26 percent of women have purchased wines created for and marketed specifically to women—including a brand dubbed Mommy’s Time-Out. The wine glass emoji, which appeared in 2012 in the U.S., peaked in usage in July 2017 and continues to runneth over.

It’s silly fun, these moms and their wine. But it’s also indicative of a major shift in American alcohol consumption: Women are, in fact, drinking more. A 2017 study in the American Medical Association’s JAMA Psychiatry journal found that high-risk drinking and alcohol abuse disorder became a public health crisis between 2001 and 2013 and that alcohol abuse disorder has increased 84 percent among women in that span. By 2016, 29 percent of men were binge drinking in a given month (down from 31 percent), while the number of women bingeing climbed to 20 percent (up from 15 percent). The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines binge drinking for women as four or more alcoholic drinks on the same occasion (at the same time or within hours of one another) on at least one day in the past month; heavy alcohol use is defined by SAMHSA as binge drinking on more than five days in the past month. And while, liter-to-liter, women consume half as much alcohol as American men, this correlates with female serving size recommendations, which are half that of men’s, based on average body size.

Around 2012, there was a spate of media attention on women, mothers specifically, who’d developed a habit of self-medicating with prescription drugs (a nascent opioid epidemic housed in our mothers’s medicine cabinets). Attempting to juggle work, family, and their own high expectations for themselves, it was cast as upper-crust ennui treated by pill-popping mamas.

Some of today’s wine-mom memes read like a more socially acceptable alternative. (See the movie Bad Moms—and Bad Moms drinking games on Pinterest—for how alcohol as a coping mechanism can be a blast and, truly, a means of survival.) And yet, in most cases, it isn’t abuse. It’s a social activity. An occasional stress relief. A circle of friends laughing at a neighborhood restaurant. A book club that’s equal parts wine, book, and getting out of the house for the night. It’s always been the male backdrop for having fun as a responsible adult. Why shouldn’t women have that too? Perhaps the disappearing gender gap in our alcohol consumption is a long-overdue result of the long-overdue shrinking gender gap in the rest of our society.

And we should all drink to that.

Prohibition in essence brought women to the bars,” says Aaron White, Ph.D., senior scientific advisor to the director for the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Before Prohibition, it was mostly where men—white men—went to drink.”

The 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote, was signed into law in 1920, just months after prohibition became the law of the land. Although women led the temperance movement, it was hitched to the idea that preventing alcoholism was the best way to prevent spousal abuse and economic distress in families. Or as the hatchet-wielding, saloon-smashing Carrie Nation famously put it, “Men are nicotine-soaked, beer-besmirched, whiskey-greased, red-eyed devils.” Temperance was broadly about sobering (and shaping) men up.

Female drinking has been normalized and, for the most part, celebrated. But what do we do when drinking to unwind morphs into drinking to function?

Of course, women didn’t think and act as a block, and there were plenty of ladies moonshining in their bathtubs and sneaking out to speakeasies. In a subculture of rule-breaking drinkers, it became less of a concern to be a lady who drank. “You can look at advertisements, not as something that’s driving the drinking, but as something that reflects our cultural attitudes about women’s drinking,” says White. “After Prohibition, you look at alcohol ads and initially it’s women serving men, and then it’s women and men drinking together, but the woman is in a subordinate position”—perhaps a man enjoying a beer at the kitchen table while his wife cooked dinner. By the 1960s, women and men could be seen in ads drinking together on an equal level, “then see ads in the ’70s of women drinking alone,” White adds.

There were few studies on women’s alcohol consumption at the start of the 20th century, so it’s tough to scientifically cite how hard our great grandmothers were hitting the sauce. But that began to change with a landmark 1953 study of 15,000 college students across 27 campuses. The study found that 49 percent of females, compared to 80 percent of males, reported being drunk at any point. Since then, alcohol use by men has declined or remained stable, while women’s has increased; today, 66 percent of women drink in a given year, compared to 73 percent of men.

Interestingly, teen alcohol consumption has been cut in half over a 20-year period. As White notes, today’s youth socialize less in person, so this number also betrays how many are sitting at home on their smartphones when their parents’ generation would have been out partying. However, the decline in teen consumption has been less among girls. Citing the 2018 Monitoring the Future Study, White points out that for the first time the gender gap has reversed, with women drinking more than men among one group: 10th graders. Girls age 15–16 were almost 25 percent more likely to drink than boys their age. “It may be a statistical blip,” says White. It could also be the crest of a changing tide.

There was a stretch when drinking wine was justified for its health benefits, which are real, albeit largely cardiovascular and limited to small amounts. The negatives, according to White, are a bit more germane: The risk of breast cancer in a woman’s lifetime is about 12.4 percent, and current research indicates that one glass of wine a day increases odds by about 10 percent, with another 10 percent for each additional daily glass. While women are less likely to die from alcohol-related liver disease, liver disease moves faster in women than men once it occurs, and women are more susceptible to alcohol-induced cardiovascular disease and certain cancers. Atrophy of the brain happens quicker in women; same with alcohol use disorder.

There’s also evidence to suggest it’s unlikely that women are merely more inclined to “fess up” to drinking. Especially middle-aged white women. Rates of alcohol-related death between 1999 and 2016 have increased 22 percent for black women, 71 percent for Hispanic women, and 115 percent for white women; the overall rate for all women has nearly doubled over the 17-year span. And drawn from a National Emergency Department Sample, the biggest increase in the rate of chronic alcohol-related emergency room visits is highest not among teens or college coeds, but women ages 25–34. Overall, DUIs and alcohol related fatalities are declining for both men and women, yet the rate of decline is sharper for men. Meaning the gender gap here is closing as well.

Logically, it’s not all that shocking that an increase in female alcohol consumption would also result in increased health and safety risks. And even if it starts out as harmless fun, there are factors that can increase a woman’s likelihood of developing an addiction, such as family history, stress levels, or a job or social life where high levels of alcohol use are the norm. The problem is, for as much as the trend can be framed as a cultural shift toward gender equality, those who do need help or treatment face the same stigma women have been fighting for generations.

As I enter the main building of First Step Home, I’m greeted by a woman in sporty casual wear with hair and makeup done—and noise. Lots of noise. There’s a shuffle of women calling names, rushing into various rooms, carting kids on hips and in strollers. Wellness brochures line a shelf by the door. It’s time for group.

Eventually, I’m taken through a back door and into another building on the facility’s sprawling campus to meet Jeane Cole, the facility’s Maternal Addiction Coordinator. That’s where I also meet Jordan, 28, and her infant son. First Step Home is a rarity in the world of drug treatment centers—here, women can keep their kids with them up to age 12. For a lot of mothers, the thought of being away from their children is an immediate and overwhelming barrier to treatment. Many know their families would struggle to survive without them (the average stay at First Step Home is about 10 months), which is why, regardless of abuse or disease, many who need it never enter rehabilitation.

First Step Home

Photograph by Aaron M. Conway

Getting pregnant is actually what got Jordan sober. She moved into the Terry Schoenling Home, First Step Home’s building for pregnant mothers, and was able to set up a space for her baby and put his clothes in a dresser. “He’s my first,” she shrugs, smiles. “Even though you’re in rehab, it kind of felt like I was bringing my baby home.”

Jordan started binge drinking in high school. She’d planned to attend nursing school but got a DUI, which barred her from medical work. “So I just partied and said to hell with school,” she admits.

This reminds me of a trend Aaron White from NIH mentioned: “If you look at all of the drinking among all the people in the U.S., the biggest increase has been among [college-age] women—that age group, but not in college.” Of course, the majority of college-age women in the U.S. are not students.

From there, things spiraled out of control for Jordan. She got into a car accident on I-275 while drunk and was charged with leaving the scene of an accident. She was expecting an ankle monitor but instead landed four months in Clermont County Jail. When she got out, she started using heroin. She went to the Center for Addiction Treatment (known as the CAT House) twice, but it didn’t stick. “I wasn’t ready,” she says.

She stopped drinking when she found out she was pregnant, but continued using fentanyl and Xanax. After three months, she got off heroin by using methadone, then got locked up again for two thefts and receiving stolen property, suffering horrible withdrawal, but was released after being processed because Montgomery County doesn’t house pregnant women on methadone. She called First Step Home as soon as she got out and was living there in less than a week. Her baby was born healthy, suffering no methadone withdrawal.

Cole explains that many of the nonprofit’s clients, totaling 392 in 2017, started with alcohol, then moved to cocaine or heroin. Jordan, for example, attends Alcoholics Anonymous classes “because the root of my problem, the root of my evil, is alcohol,” she says. “Without fentanyl or Xanax, take that all away, I’m a drunk at bottom.”

She’s allowed to take her baby with her to group until he’s three months old (childcare is available as he ages) and is welcome to change him and feed him during her meetings. Her baby is in her arms throughout our entire interview. She laughs and calls him a “mama’s boy” with obvious pride.

“Not only am I here working on me, I’m working on my son,” says Jordan, who came to First Step Home with nothing for the baby. “It’s so helpful being here. If you need diapers, they’ve got it. If you need clothes, they’ve got it. If you need to go to WIC, they take you. It’s kind of like you’re here but the father’s here with you, and the father is First Step.”

Most women at First Step Home have limited financial resources and have worn out their welcome with family. Jordan has had a tempestuous relationship with her upper-middle class family through all of this, but that has changed now that she’s in recovery. “I have the unlock code to my grandmother’s security system,” she says. “That security system is on her house because of me.” After treatment, Jordan hopes to go to school. She wants to work in addiction counseling services.

It will be an in-demand job. When the 47-year-old CAT House was founded, the most prevalent addiction was alcohol and the clients were mostly men. “In the olden days,” says Sandra Kuehn, CAT’s president and CEO, “you didn’t see as many women in treatment. A lot of times, it wasn’t because it wasn’t needed. Families tended to shelter women, hide it as much as possible.” It was harder to get women to leave their families. “They had a tendency to believe they were needed at home even though they weren’t functioning when they were there.” Now, alcohol is only 20 percent of the primary diagnosis center-wide; clients are coming to CAT for opiates rather than alcohol. Though regardless of the primary drug they are in treatment for, “almost 100 percent of them are drinking,” says Kuehn.

My next stop is to Beckett Springs in West Chester, a sprawling complex that opened in 2013 and added another wing in January, bringing the facility’s inpatient offering to 96 beds. It’s quiet, tranquil. The waiting room feels like a hybrid doctor’s office and spa. Decorative stones cover one wall. HGTV is on the television.

Beckett Springs treatment center specializes in addressing substance abuse and related disorders.

Photograph by Aaron M. Conway

The majority of Beckett Springs clients pay via private insurance, including younger clients still on their parents’ plan; the older population typically pays through Medicare. Here, treatment includes partial hospitalization or intensive outpatient care, with stays that tend to range from three to five weeks. There are classrooms for treating younger kids with mental health and behavior issues, and space for older youth with behavior and substance abuse issues. Patient rooms feature doors cut at a slope, armoires cut at an angle, and brushed metal snap-down coat hooks—aspects that at first blush simply look like modern design elements, but are in fact attempts to limit suicide by hanging. The vast majority of patients have voluntarily checked themselves in, but those careful design features suggest how difficult getting sober can be.

There’s a range of ages and addiction treated here, with roughly equal numbers of alcohol use disorder and opiate use disorder. Neicole Knott, director of clinical services, acknowledges the perceived hierarchy when it comes to addiction, because “alcohol is a legal substance,” she says. “They’re going to Kroger to get alcohol. They’re not going to a back alley to get an illegal substance,” Knott adds, before pointing out the flaw in that formula: “The addictive behavior is the same.”

For stay-at-home moms admitted to Beckett Springs and struggling with alcohol use, there’s an unfortunate common experience. “Often we have a mom who has a full-time job taking care of her kids, right? They own those skills in their household,” says Knott. Once they come for in-patient treatment, “their spouse is like, I don’t know what to put in their lunches. I don’t know when their practice schedule is. I need you to come home.” Many go home early, for the same reason so many who need help can’t or won’t seek it to begin with.

And it’s not just limited to young mothers. Countless women are tasked with family caretaking as they age. Knott notes that many older women now find themselves supporting their adult children or looking after their grandchildren. Particularly with the local opioid crisis, many have custody of their young grandkids and are usually living on fixed incomes while their own health deteriorates with age. In 2016, roughly 5.4 million women were defined as having alcohol use disorder; only 6.9 percent of women who needed treatment received it for their alcohol use and dependency. The strain too often falls to them.

“There are all of these stressors around taking care of everybody else, and that leaves limited time for taking care of yourself,” says Knott. “There’s more stress out there that’s making [alcohol] a more acceptable way to de-stress.”

As I pull out of Beckett, I’m struck by the point at which all these stories overlap: the overwhelmed mother and grandmother, the young woman whose future wasn’t panning out, the women in those dumb internet memes sucking wine out of a box with a straw. It’s not that a narrowing gender gap means women’s lives became more like men’s. It means women simply combine the stress of traditional gender roles—looking after the kids, the house, keeping the family together—with working a full-time job, increasingly as the breadwinner. Who wouldn’t need a drink? It makes the measure of someone like Jordan, getting and staying sober with babe in arms, even more impressive.

In the expanding Venn diagram of women who drink, the vast majority do so socially, for fun, in a low-risk way. Think of all the barbecues and book clubs and work parties and even kids’ birthday parties where alcohol is now present. Female drinking has been normalized and, for the most part, celebrated. (Better that than slaving over the stove while your husband relaxes with a beer, or slugging from a wine bottle in the laundry room when the kids are running you ragged.)

But what do you do when drinking to unwind morphs into drinking to function? For the sliver that struggles with addiction, the sheer ubiquity and mundanity of alcohol in our lives seems an indicator of just how hard it must be to avoid.

That night with my ladies “study group,” I ask if anyone knows a female friend who struggles with alcohol. The answer: Not many who openly admit it. One or two have friends who just don’t like alcohol and therefore don’t drink. I wonder if that makes it hard to socialize and make friends, when so many social events seem to revolve around it. One woman suggests the non-drinkers must have separate, sober circles of friends. I hope so. I hope it’s not isolating.

Our circle did agree that going to an AA meeting in town would probably feel stigmatizing. “Everyone knows everyone else’s cars,” one says. If you needed help, you’d keep it a secret and do your AA a few towns over.

And that’s the rub. It’s OK, even encouraged, for women to relax and have fun with a drink in hand for whatever reason they choose. And that’s usually a good thing. But when it’s not a good thing, it becomes incredibly hard for a woman—so often tasked with holding the world together for those she loves—to ask for help.

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