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The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol

by Ann Dowsett Johnston

Hardcover, 305 pages, HarperCollins, List Price: $27.99 |


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The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol
Ann Dowsett Johnston

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Book Summary

An award-winning journalist, combining in-depth research with her own personal story of recovery, investigates the psychological, social and industry factors that have caused rising rates of alcohol abuse and binge-drinking among women and girls.

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Drink

For me, it happened this way: I took a geographic cure to fix what I thought was wrong with my life, and the cure failed.

Much later, I would learn the truth: geographic cures always fail, especially when they're designed to correct problematic drinking.

Of course, that wasn't how I saw it at the time. In the winter of 2006, when I pulled up stakes and moved to Montreal, I was full of hope. Hope that my fabulous new career would blossom. Hope that my long-distance sweetheart and I would flourish in this new city. Sitting by candlelight at my farewell dinner, these were the dreams I shared with my closest friends.

The third hope I kept to myself: that with this move, my increasingly troubling drinking habits would miraculously disappear. That my nightly craving for a glass of wine — or three — would go poof.

I was full of new resolve. I had made a New Year's resolution never to drink alone. I had made that promise to my sweetheart, and I intended to keep my word.

It was an icy blue February afternoon when I first dragged my suitcase up the marble stairs of Sam Bronfman's faux castle on Montreal's Peel Street, a Disneyesque confection that had been headquarters to the world's largest distillery for many decades. Donated to McGill University in 2002, Seagram House had taken on new life as Martlet House, named for the small red bird on the university's crest, believed to be blessed — or was it cursed? — with constant flight.

A martlet never rests. I chose to see this as a happy omen. I was looking for signs that I had made the right decision in accepting the big job of vice principal of McGill, in charge of development, alumni, and university relations. I had left my beloved home in Toronto and a successful career in journalism. I took this Martlet business seriously.

As vice principal, I was ushered into Bronfman's large second-floor office, the very same place where the booze baron had hosted Joe Kennedy and Al Capone during Prohibition — or so the story goes. It was here that I would sit, at his massive hand-carved desk, ensconced at one end of an airless chamber, walled with recessed curved bookcases and ornate oak paneling. The history was impressive. Once upon a time, the office had been, too. But when I arrived, stained green carpet, broken overhead fixtures, and the lack of natural light made the room oppressive. Still, it had loads of potential. I was optimistic.

In honor of my arrival, a fellow vice principal had placed hot pink gerbera daisies in a jaunty citrine vase. There were welcoming bouquets from the principal and others, and a vast array of notes and cards — a happy distraction on my first day. My gut was speaking to me, but I chose not to listen.

Over time, I grew to dread that behemoth of a desk, and all it represented. But on the first day, its novelty was a distraction. My effervescent blond assistant, only two years out of university herself, perched opposite me, pulling out the secretary's table to write on. She introduced me to a fat binder and handed over a pile of documents for my signature. Most of all, she was interested in securing a date for my welcoming reception. Her top choice was St. Patrick's Day — or St. Patio Day, as she liked to call it, the booziest day on the Montreal calendar, and her personal favorite. (She was single and anxious to change that status.)

Five weeks later, she made it happen: the majority of my new staff — there were more than 180 in all — crowded into the ground-floor boardroom of Martlet House for coffee and croissants as the principal welcomed me to McGill. I was in charge of mobilizing this group to launch the largest campaign in the university's history, a $500 million fund-raising effort that would change the face of McGill, boost research, help students. The principal was a woman I deeply admired. My heart was full. My geographical cure was going to work.

For the first months, I spent many nights behind that big Bronfman desk. Sometime around six in the evening, as the last of my staff headed home to husbands and wives, children and friends, I would walk half a block to the small café on the corner, order a takeout salad, and chat to the owner in broken French, getting ready for another evening at work. Occasionally, I'd stay past midnight, and return on the weekend. I was used to long hours. I had no real friends in the city and my learning curve was steep. The previous vice principal, recruited from Stanford, had left before her tenure was up. Most credited her with professionalizing the fund-raising machine of McGill, and it was my job to continue the process.

I dug in hard. Senate documents, issues of governance, fat background packages on donors: these were the easy files. What was confounding was the management challenge, picking up where the Stanford woman had left off. At bedtime, I'd close the day with a few emails, place my BlackBerry on the pillow beside me, and struggle through a few pages of The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels, a farewell gift from a seasoned manager back home.

Shutting off the light, I'd review my day in terms of the "monkey rule," advice I'd received from a renowned university president. "There is only one way you can fail at your new job," he had warned. "Your key reports will come into your office with monkeys on their shoulders. When they leave, make sure their monkeys are on their shoulders, not yours." Great advice; tough to follow. I'd fall asleep, visions of monkeys dancing in my head.

By spring, the light of Montreal was transformed. Patio season had arrived, and my assistant's agenda was full. Each morning, she'd bring me a fresh installment of romance along with my coffee and documents. As she rushed out each evening, glowing with possibility, I would crank open the latches of the leaded glass windows behind the Bronfman desk and let the sounds waft up from the back alley. The popular Peel Pub, a rowdy favorite with undergrads and their out-of-town visitors, was only doors away. So too was Alexandre, a cozy local. In the morning, my assistant would frown at the open windows: "Why on earth would you want to look at a brick wall?" How could I explain that I found the nighttime sounds strangely comforting? The staccato chatter of busboys on their smoking breaks, hauling buckets of empties to gray bins, grabbing a quick smoke before they headed back to work; the occasional burst of laughter; furtive snatches of a melody, a bit of bass.

It reminded me of what a friend once said of sex on antidepressants: "I can manage an orgasm, but it seems to be happening to someone down the hall." Life, once removed.

My sweetheart Jake — a writer living thousands of miles away — had just proposed to me. One week before my move, we had escaped to a remote island in the Bahamas. There, on a deserted beach at sunset, he had asked me to marry him. I had said yes.

Over the years, Jake and I had had many honeymoons. For a decade, we had spent as much time together as possible, summering at Jake's octagonal wooden houseboat in the wilds of northern Ontario, wintering in each other's homes. In between, we traveled: Paris, London, Mexico. We each had one child: a daughter, Caitlin, for him; a son, Nicholas, for me. Born six months apart, they had been eleven when we met. We had raised them with dedication and delight, in tandem with our former partners, and each other.

For years, it had been a perfect arrangement. In summer, we moored by pink-streaked granite and woke to otters stealing from our minnow bucket; on our morning swims, there were occasional moose or bear sightings. At night, nursing glasses of Irish whiskey, we would sit under the stars on a handmade driftwood bench, our personal playlist wafting across the water. In winter, we read and stoked the fire and wore flannel fish pajamas while we cozied up to watch classic movies. "We have something better than everyone else," Jake would say, and I was certain he was right. In Jake's presence, I felt like Grace Kelly in Rear Window — the cosmopolitan girl, head over heels in love with the globe-trotting Jimmy Stewart. More often than not, it was bliss.

For the first two months in Montreal, I was buffered from the full-frontal blow of my decision to move, living two minutes from Martlet House in an executive apartment hotel. In many ways, it felt like an extended business trip. Jake — whose nickname was Jackrabbit — had shipped a package to the front desk for Valentine's Day: I am sure I was the only person in that hotel with a stuffed jackrabbit on her pillow.

Each night, Jake would tell me about his writing day, a world I understood intimately. "Feels like cracking concrete with my forehead," he'd say. "Tell me about your day, baby." Holding on to that rabbit, I'd try to entertain him with the complexities of my new world. I'd always end the same way: "Looks like someone forgot to book my return flight," I'd joke. Neither of us ever laughed. There was a peacefulness to our nightly calls. He had just had an unexpected hip replacement, and I had flown out to nurse him. He was anxious to heal, to come to Montreal, to take a crack at the city. I was keen to have him by my side: I was growing more lonely by the day.

By June, I'd stopped spending evenings in the stuffiness of my office. Night after night, I'd lug my work to the warm glow of Alexandre, settling in at the same cozy table with my BlackBerry and my reading. I could see other people, and it eased the deep sense of isolation. Night after night, the same waiter would bring me the first of three glasses of crisp Sauvignon Blanc, a warm chèvre salad, and a baguette. Every evening, he did his best to change my habits. "Escargots, madame?" "Non, François." "Steak tartare?" "Non, merci, François. Un autre verre."

With that first sip, my shoulders seemed to unhitch from my earlobes. With the second, I could exhale. I loved the way the wine worked on my innards. That first glass would melt some glacial layer of tension, a barrier between me and the world. Somehow with the second glass, the tectonic plates of my psyche would shift, and I'd be more at ease. Jake used to say it this way: "When you drink, that piano on your back seems to disappear."

I had always taken my work seriously — maybe too seriously. Somewhere between the first and second glass, I'd take a fresh look at a problem, or find an answer to some complex question. Suddenly, it all looked simple. By the third glass? Well, that one just took my clarity down a notch, and I'd know it was time to go home.

Did my evenings at Alexandre count as drinking alone? I tried to fudge it in my mind, thinking of it this way: I wasn't exactly alone. There were people at neighboring tables. Besides, I had no one to have dinner with. But in my heart, I knew the truth: I was breaking my promise — not only to Jake, but to myself. I was drinking because I was lonely. I was drinking because I was anxious. This wasn't Grace Kelly pouring a glass of Montrachet for Jimmy Stewart. This was something else, something I had never encountered, and it felt wrong.

I don't know what month I began picking up another bottle on my way home, in case I wanted a glass before bed. But I do know exactly when I began sleeping through two alarms.

One fateful June evening, after a particularly difficult interchange with a senior employee, I headed off to Alexandre. Here is my journal:

Four. I had four last night. Maybe it was five. One was vodka. And I slept through both alarms. My boss' car left for the country and the annual executive retreat, and I missed the ride. The car came to pick me up, with her in it, and found no-one waiting. I will have to resign. In 30 years of professional life, I have never made an error like this one. I made it by 11:00, but there is no mending what is broken. My boss asked me: "Did you take a sleeping pill last night?" "No," I said. "I was hoping you'd say you had."

Two weeks later, in one of our regular meetings, she asked me how I was doing. I surprised myself with the answer: "I don't know how to explain it, but I am losing my voice." And somehow, this was true. I was losing myself in Montreal. And missing journalism — my writing, my world — was only part of the story.

That summer, Jake bought me a beautiful gold engagement ring, hand-carved with delicate leaves — or were they bird feathers? Either way, it spoke to our love of nature, and of our time in the woods together. I stole two weeks at the houseboat. We swam each morning before breakfast, and indulged in our long morning meals, sitting on the driftwood bench, the table laden with fruit and eggs and coffee. It always ended the same way: "Come here, baby, sit on my lap and I'll rub your back." Jake and I would kiss before we parted for our morning chores. By mid-afternoon, he would be baiting my hook, mid-river, the two of us on one of our four-hour adventures in either the Boston Whaler or the classic wooden boat.

But this summer, the talk was less about writing and more about BlackBerry reception. I might be on vacation, but the monkeys weren't taking a holiday. Rumor had it that the principal's husband had tossed her BlackBerry in the lake one summer, so frustrated was he by her constant emailing. I thought the story was apocryphal: it was hard to imagine her unrufflable husband — screenwriter and yoga master — tossing anything. Still, Jake found the story amusing, especially when my own work habits tested his patience. His mother was concerned: "You look exhausted," she said to me. "Something about this job isn't good for you." I held her hand and told her it would be fine.

By fall, my loneliness was overwhelming. But like the unhappy couple who decides to have a baby to fix their marriage, I had started to work with a real estate agent to purchase a home. In the meantime, I moved into temporary digs on the executive floor of the new student residence. My peripatetic ways were raising alarm bells with the principal, and so they should have been. Most weekends, I was flying home to Toronto, BlackBerry in hand. During the week, I'd troop through a selection of condos and houses, rejecting them all. They looked like movie sets to me, backdrops for a life that had nothing to do with mine.

The frosh had arrived. Each night, gangs of fresh-faced kids would pour out of the residence, eager to down another heady gulp of Montreal nightlife. From where I sat, they seemed to have the city on a string. Me? I was up on the fifteenth floor, with a glass of white wine, checking out real estate listings, lost as lost could be. I had a big job, a life partner halfway across the country, and not a true friend in sight. My summer holiday with Jake was long over and I felt like my life was close to over as well.

All that fall, the residence rocked late into the night. Sometimes, all night. "Jumpin' Jack Flash" pulsing at 2 a.m. The gravelly voice of Leonard Cohen trailing down halls. Four years earlier, my own son had headed off to university himself, taking his guitar but leaving a CD on my pillow, with a note: "If you get lonely, play this music LOUD."

This residence felt as close to home as it was ever going to get in Montreal. I liked wandering the corridors, listening to the Korean student play the grand piano in the foyer, watching young girls in bunny slippers giggle over pizza. One evening, when I was coming home late, the elevators opened to reveal three semi-nude guys, all dyed various shades of red, with matching towels tied around their waists, their heads encased in Molson Canadian boxes, with eye slits.

"Well, hello, miss! I take it you're new in town?"

All three were weaving slightly.

"Not as new as you," I said. "I'm one of the vice principals."

One head case straightened up.

"Oh, sorry, ma'am!"

He wiped his hand on his towel, and gave my hand a good pumping.

"Nice to meet you!"

American, I thought. From the South.

"Nice to meet you, too," I said as they drifted off into the night. The elevator doors closed. I thought: "I'm the oldest coed in this place."

As midterms got closer, the music got a little softer, but the drinking never seemed to slow down. Girls sobbing in the front lobby, their eyes smudged black with mascara. Guys lying facedown on the sidewalk, passed out, their pals swigging beer beside them, texting. Once in a while, the elevators would smell of vomit.

My life was lonely beyond measure. There was the occasional visit from an out-of-town friend or a McGill parent in town for graduation, or someone checking on a troubled son or daughter. Once in a while, I would have a meal with Professor Dan Levitin, musician and producer turned neuroscientist, author of This Is Your Brain on Music. Dan lived alone with his dog Shadow. I liked hearing about his new pal Sting, his old pal Joni Mitchell, Rosanne Cash, Tom Waits. He was a moderate drinker, a lover of puns, and had great taste in restaurants. He was also single. After a while I felt awkward seeing him. With regret, I let our friendship wane.

One night before Christmas, François came up to me, looking concerned. "Madame, I think you are very, very lonely. I think you are the most lonely woman in the world."

"No, François, I am not."

François looked unconvinced.

"I am just very busy." I picked up the pile of papers on the banquette.

"Oui, madame."

The geographic cure was not working. I knew it, and others were beginning to suspect it as well. That New Year's, Jake and I wrote out our resolutions for each other, as we always did, signing one another's promises. This year he looked up from his own list and interjected as I wrote mine: "No more than two drinks on any one occasion," he said. "And no drinking alone." "Don't you think three is more realistic if it's an evening out?" I bargained. "Three over three hours," said Jake. He didn't look convinced. And so I wrote: "Given the genetic predisposition to alcoholism in our family, I do resolve to do the following: to limit my drinking to two drinks in social situations, three over three hours; no drinking alone, ever; nine drinks total a week. If I have broken any of these rules within six months, I promise to get help." Jake and I signed each other's sheets, and dated them: January 1, 2007.

Jake wasn't the only one worried about my drinking. My son had noticed a big change, and was vocal about it. My sister was quiet, but I could read her silence. Our mother had had a serious drinking problem. Me? I was beyond worried. I decided to take action: I called an addiction doctor, and booked his earliest appointment. Sadly, it was March.

Most of all, I wanted to go home. This was not an option, or I didn't see it as one. At Martlet House, we had closed a very successful year: a record year of fund-raising. I was proud of my association with McGill and with this achievement. In two weeks I was taking possession of a beautiful light-filled condo in an historic building. In nine months, the major fund-raising campaign was going public. I was in the middle of helping to recruit a cochair for the campaign. I was on deadline and I took it seriously.

So, I did the only thing I could think to do: I started a drinking diary. My sister suggested rewarding good behavior with stickers. I ducked into a toy store and bought the first ones that jumped out at me: monkeys. Perfect. I would get this damn monkey off my back.

Of course, as I learned much later, this is how the ending always starts.

You know you're drinking too much, so you decide to keep a tally. And if you're like most, you keep this tally hidden. In your wallet, or your underwear drawer. Last night you drank four. Or was it five? Tonight, for sure, you will do better.

This is how it begins. You set some rules.

Maybe you switch from red to white (less staining on the teeth).

Or maybe it's no wine; only beer.

No brown liquids, only clear. (Vodka doesn't smell, does it?)

Only on weekends.

Never on Sundays.

Never, ever alone.

The problem is: The rules continue to change. Your drinking doesn't.

You take up running or swimming. (In my case, it was power-walking. People who power-walk can't be alcoholics, can they?)

You start to wake at four in the morning. (Doesn't everyone wake at four in the morning?)

You promise to do better tonight, to drink less.

Only you don't. In fact, the only commitment you seem able to keep is the diary. It tells a story, and the story is starting to look scary.

Worse still? This is only the beginning of the end.

Like many a drinking diary, mine started off well. For a few days, the monkey stickers began to accumulate: I had kept to my limits. Of course, I kept the diary hidden. (What vice principal pastes monkey stickers into a journal?) But it wasn't long before those stickers petered out. Alcohol is a formidable enemy: once you name it, it digs in hard.

I said this to the addiction doctor in March. He nodded. "How do you feel about alcohol now?" he asked. "I love it." He frowned. "And I hate it." "Be careful," he warned. "Alcohol is a trickster. And using alcohol to cope is maladaptive behavior."

One spring evening, I had dinner with the eloquent dean of medicine, Rich Levin. He was newish to McGill, having moved with his wife from New York, and he had had a difficult day.

Rich was a martini drinker, and he ordered one, then another.

"Why did you come to Montreal, Rich?"

"I came here for the waters."

I fell for it. "The waters?"

"Turns out I was misinformed."

I looked puzzled.


"Another drink, Rich?"

"Never, my dear. You know what Dorothy Parker says."

The next time I saw him, Rich pulled a gently used cocktail napkin from his pocket and handed it to me. There were Parker's words, emblazoned beside a martini glass: "I love a martini — but two at the most. Three I'm under the table, four, I'm under the host."

That night, I pasted the napkin into my diary. Beside it I wrote: "I am bullied by alcohol. I am hiding behind it." I knew the jig was up.

Days later, on Father's Day morning, I learn that my cousin Doug — childhood confidant and best friend — had been killed by a drunk driver, on his way home from his mother's eightieth-birthday celebration. His young daughter, the youngest of four, was in the front seat. She survived but was severely injured.

It was a sunny Sunday morning, and I remember thinking: "What else do you have to lose to alcohol before you give up?" I had already lost a big part of my childhood, now my cousin — and I was losing myself.

I pulled out a bulletin board and tacked a piece of paper with four handwritten words at the top: "The Wall of Why." As in, why I needed to give up drinking. Or: why I needed to avoid dying. The diary was no longer working. In fact, it had never worked. For the first time, I was terrified this habit might kill me.

I spent an hour filling the board with images and words I loved. In that condo, I had very few photographs — one of Nicholas with his arm around me, after winning bronze at a rowing regatta; one of Jake casting a line off the houseboat deck; one of my dog Bo. There were so many faces missing. I took out my fountain pen and wrote the names of others on pieces of white paper, pinning them carefully to the board. Then, I added several pieces of prose — Annie Dillard, Simone Weil — and some poetry: "Love after Love," by Derek Walcott.

Then I got down on my knees and said the only prayer I believed in, words from T. S. Eliot's "East Coker":

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith.
But the faith, and the love, and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

Within weeks, Jake and I would find our way to a recovery meeting in a church basement. He held my hand while tears rivered down my cheeks. For an hour I listened to a roomful of seemingly happy people share their stories, their faith, their gratitude. As they started to stack the chairs, a tall black stranger in a funky hat came up to comfort me. "Darlin'," he drawled, "believe me, whatever you did wrong, I did way, way worse."

Every season has its own soundtrack: that summer, it was Keith Jarrett's introspective Köln Concert wafting over pink-streaked granite, keeping us company as we drank cranberry juice and soda with our meals. Jake's precious mother had just died a difficult death. When Jarrett felt too haunting, Jake would toss in a little Frank or Van to keep the tone romantic. "I'm making love to you with my playlist," he'd call out from his computer, and I'd be enveloped, newly sober, in a fresh cocoon of sound.

But for the rest of the world, the summer of 2007 belonged to the defiant Amy Winehouse: "They tried to make me go to rehab. I said No, no, no!" An earworm if ever there was one. The point wasn't lost on me as I headed back to McGill, having tallied my first seventeen days of sobriety in the north woods of Ontario. Checking my BlackBerry as I cabbed in from the airport, I found myself humming along. "No, no, no!"

Little did I understand that it would be more than a year before I was able to secure any meaningful sobriety, to put alcohol somewhat solidly in my rearview mirror. It would be three years after that before I regained what could be called a true sense of equilibrium. And it would take all my journalistic skills to put what was killing me — and as it turns out, a growing number of women — into some profound and meaningful context.

In the meantime, I was about to lose many things I cared about: my livelihood, my heart, my gusto. And before things got better, they were going to get as tough as tough could be.

From Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol by Ann Dowsett Johnston. Copyright 2013 by Ann Dowsett Johnston. Excerpted by permission of HarperWave, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.