Alcohol Abuse Rising Among Women; DUIs, Too
JACKI LYDEN, host:
When Diane Schuler's car plowed into oncoming traffic on a New York state parkway in July, something shifted in the national consciousness about women and drinking. The suburban mother killed herself and seven other people, including her own 2-year-old daughter and three nieces. She was driving with a blood alcohol level of 0.19 percent - the equivalent of almost 10 drinks. Her husband, Daniel Schuler, insisted that she didn't have a problem with alcohol.
Ms. SARAH ALLEN BENTON (Mental Health Counselor, Emanuel College): If you are getting caught for a DUI, it does imply that that's not typically the first time that you have been behind the wheel drunk.
LYDEN: That's Sarah Allen Benton. She's a licensed mental health counselor at Emmanuel College in Boston and has written a book on alcoholism. She's a recovering alcoholic herself. She says alcoholics no longer fit a stereotype.
Ms. BENTON: We have this image of the alcoholic being an old man and suddenly, this image is starting to shift and to change. And it's found that there's about 2.3 million American females who are alcoholic.
LYDEN: As women abuse alcohol more, they're also getting into more trouble on the road. A National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study, released this summer, show that more women than ever are being arrested for driving under the influence - almost 30 percent more than in 1998. About 2,000 women a year are involved in fatal, drunk driving accidents. Benton says many women don't realize when they've had too much to drink.
Ms. BENTON: Low-risk drinking limits for women are seven drinks per week, no more than three drinks in a sitting. Another misconception is what amount of alcohol - a glass of wine, you know, people poor a huge glass of wine and call that one drink. It's really two drinks.
LYDEN: We're joined now by two women who have battled alcoholism and written about their addiction. "Mommy Doesn't Drink Here Anymore" is blogger Rachel Brownell's account of getting through her first year of sobriety - a true account. And "Blame" is novelist Michelle Huneven's riveting story of a young woman who accidentally, while drunk, causes the death of two other people - a mother and a daughter - in her own driveway. Rachel and Michelle, welcome to the show.
Ms. RACHEL BROWNELL (Writer, "Mommy Doesn't Drink Here Anymore"): Thanks, Jacki.
Ms. MICHELLE HUNEVEN (Novelist, "Blame"): Thanks, Jacki. Nice to be here.
LYDEN: Rachel, let's begin with you. In some ways, you lived the life that Michelle has written about. You certainly never killed anyone in a drunk driving accident - you weren't even arrested with a DUI - but you did live this kind of glamour-girl high life for a while. Could you talk about that?
Ms. BROWNELL: Yeah, in as much as someone from Bellingham, Washington, can live a glamour-girl high life, sure, you bet. You know, before I had - I'm like a lot of my friends, I didn't have my kids until my mid-30s. So, I had quite a few years to be a professional woman with not a lot of other responsibilities. So we, you know, we would definitely take advantage of that and go out to galleries, and dress up and drink and all that.
And once I had kids and, you know, moved away from all of my social supports, I really became quite isolated, but also had a pretty demanding job and a demanding schedule as a mother. So it was sort of a perfect storm of circumstance that really helped my alcoholism take off.
LYDEN: Yes. You say in the book that there's not a picture of you without a glass of wine in your hand, even as you're playing with your kids.
Ms. BROWNELL: I know. It's charming, and I'm quite proud of that. You know, when my daughters were old enough to speak and they started playing games with mommy's wine this and mommy's wine that, that was one of those very embarrassing moments that happened that made me sort of pause and wonder about that.
LYDEN: Michelle Huneven, you are yourself a recovering alcoholic. This book has gotten some, I think, deserved wonderful reviews. First, tell us about your protagonist and heroine, Patsy MacLemoore, who we follow over her evolution of 20 years.
Ms. HUNEVEN: Well, Patsy is a tall, beautiful intellectual. She's a newly minted PhD. And she's a chronic alcoholic, and she's a blackout drinker. She's had plenty of DUIs - three or four by the time she wakes up in the Altadena Sheriff's Department, only to find out that she's been arrested for a double homicide, killing a mother and her daughter.
And then in prison, once in prison, she begins attending AA meetings. She kind of goes in extremely reluctantly. Her father was a severe alcoholic as well. And she felt that AA took him away from their family. But she finally goes in because she needs to do something.
LYDEN: Let me open out a little bit to you, Rachel, because when you got into AA, it was a real struggle. Could you talk about that?
Ms. BROWNELL: I grew up in an alcoholic home, and I had some exposure to 12-step groups. As a teenager, I started going to meetings with my mother. This is the late '70s, and my mom fancied herself a hippie for sure, and she was. And so, you know, it's 10 in the morning and there are people in our house, and they're all drinking.
And I was reluctant to go to get help because I felt like I wasn't that bad. I'll be honest. I probably thought it was below me intellectually. And you know, when I pulled up and it was this rundown, little building in the middle of an industrial area of my town, and I walk in and the carpet's stained and it smells, and I really felt like it was a comedown in the world. And you know - so I was reluctant to become a part of it.
LYDEN: Michelle, what about your family?
Ms. HUNEVEN: Yes. And I would agree with Rachel that my mother was a big influence. She was someone who used, you know, a nice, stiff glass of bourbon to relax. She would come home from work, I would hear her - the car door would slam; the front door would open. The cupboard door under the sink would open, and the bourbon bottle would be withdrawn. And as an adult, I thought that was my privilege as well.
LYDEN: You know, one of the things I noticed in both books is that Patsy, Michelle, is always surprised, once she sobers up, how little other people drink. And, Rachel, you wrote in your book and on your blog that there were times when you felt you could drink your weight in wine.
Ms. BROWNELL: Definitely. I think many things are surprising when you sober up. But I was pretty sure that people weren't drinking as much as me. But I had no idea how little they were drinking because I would prepare. You know, if I were going to a neighborhood party for a child, it was like at 4 in the afternoon and I knew it wasn't going to be a big alcohol thing. I would drink beforehand, and I would make sure and bring my own wine to the event.
And right, I was so checked out I had no idea that people, sort of normal people were not drinking every single day starting at 4, like I was.
LYDEN: What interests me is that we have both of you here, and one of you chose to write about what happened to you in a nonfiction way. And Michelle, you have a story to tell about alcoholism, which you have used in a work of fiction. Now, you're a novelist, but what do you think about the treatment of the subject in these two different ways? And why did you do it the way that you did?
Ms. HUNEVEN: I just never thought that my story was - my own journey with alcoholism was particularly interesting. At the same time, I was interested in writing about someone who made a long, 20-year journey with her alcoholism, largely because I was interested in examining kind of the moral questions involved.
LYDEN: What do you both think about the statistics that show that women are drinking more?
Ms. HUNEVEN: This is Michelle, and I'm not particularly surprised, or perhaps it's just they're drinking more publicly. Drinking is a remarkable, automatic release and a way of relaxing. And as women find themselves juggling family and job and housekeeping and all of that, it's not surprising to me that they would reach for the most accessible strong drug available.
Ms. BROWNELL: This is Rachel. I wonder - I'm kind of with Michelle. I think there are a lot of societal pressures on women that didn't use to be there. I think that, you know, I talk a lot with my women friends about how we are supposed to have soul-mate marriages, perfect children who speak two languages, a successful career. You know, I feel like the pressures and the things that we are supposed to be accomplishing are so insurmountable, it's really not a wonder to me that women turn to alcohol and pills and who knows what else to get them through.
LYDEN: Rachel Brownell is the author of "Mommy Doesn't Drink Here Anymore," and she's a mother of three who lives in Bellingham, Washington. Michelle Huneven is a novelist living in Altadena, California, and her latest novel is called "Blame."
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