DRINK: THE INTIMATE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN WOMEN AND ALCOHOL
by Ann Dowsett Johnston
London - Why do people drink? Or to be more specific, why do people drink so much? Answer: because it is nice.
The science is straightforward. Alcohol increases the body’s production of a neurotransmitter called dopamine, which gives us feelings of pleasure and warmth.
As Ann Dowsett Johnston puts it, describing the bliss of booze in more poetical fashion: ‘The sound of the cork sliding from the neck of a bottle, the tingle on the tongue ... Your toes curl a little, your heart is light. All things are possible.’
Indeed they are. Look around on an average evening. The world is full of drunkards, girls with ‘eyes smudged black with mascara’ and men ‘lying face down on the sidewalk’. (Our author is Canadian. She means pavements.)
The dopamine receptors in the brain need more and more alcohol to register stimulation, so people end up drinking more and more ‘to try to recapture the pleasure’.
Meantime, you get loud and coarse and dance on tables with your knickers on your head, the cerebral cortex becomes atrophied, the liver and pancreas explode, the kidneys shrivel like walnuts and everyone gets addicted - alcohol-related disease costs $220 billion annually in North America alone.
The bill (psychological and moral as well as financial) will be whopping in Britain, too, particularly as drink is 44 per cent more affordable in real terms than it was in 1980, which is why to my parents and grandparents, wine and sherry were luxuries drunk only at Christmas, and then sparingly.
Today, we start getting plastered at 15, stagger to college and university, which is, as Johnston correctly says, ‘an alcohol-soaked environment’, and because people are not maturing and having families until they are much older than in the past, ‘we wouldn’t dream of skipping a day ... We all drink the same way we did at university’, knocking it back all through one’s 20s, one’s 30s and beyond.
Not for nothing does Carlsberg, for example, sponsor university events. On every campus, all social events revolve around drinking and ‘it is considered uncool to abstain’.
True, though in my day at Oxford it was the dons who kept falling over. High Table was a river of drink. Wine-tasting committees were given precedence over Nobel prize-winning research. Mid-morning tutorials would conclude with a glass of sherry.
We thought we were being civilised. John Bayley and Iris Murdoch taught me to drink, but that’s a story for another time.
The marketing men have been quick to catch on, conveying the message that handling your booze is sophisticated.
Brightly coloured vodka or rum concoctions were invented to attract the young and susceptible.
Smirnoff Ice, for example, was launched in 1999 as ‘the number one beverage in the alcopops category’, with the consequence that by 2008, sales of vodka, which had been in decline, had risen by 61 per cent.The drinks industry has been ‘cynically promoting its product’, getting the notion across to young and old that ‘really good things happen when you have a drink’.
Johnston itemises the benefits: ‘You grab it. It feels good. It works. Liquor soothes. It calms anxiety. It numbs depression.’
But then it starts to create what it had once alleviated. ‘Overworked, overstressed, overwhelmed? Lonely? Heartsick? Booze is there when you need him most.’ Him? What mad feminism is this? Drink is a male, now, apparently? Yes. By analogy, anyway.
‘He wants it all: room and board, all your money, your assets, your family.’ Not only is alcohol masculine, he’s a Moonie. If Johnston gets a bit bonkers here, it will be because she has been gripped by the grog.
Living alone, her ‘life partner’ being elsewhere, in Toronto or Timbuktu, our author began her evenings with three glasses of crisp Sauvignon Blanc.
‘The first glass would melt some glacial layer of tension, a barrier between me and the world ... The tectonic plates of my psyche would shift.’ In other words, she relaxed.
However, after the wine she’d start on the vodka, with the result she’d sleep through the alarm clock the next morning — behaviour that imperilled her ‘big job as vice-principal of McGill, in charge of development, alumni and university relationships’. A fund-raiser, I think she means.
The addiction took hold. ‘I drink to numb. I drink to forget. I drink not to feel. I drink not to be me,’ Johnston asserts, drinking also to be able to write short sentences.
Loneliness, exhaustion and boredom settled on her, so at last she joined ‘a recovery group’, where she met ‘professors, musicians, dancers, investment experts’ - coincidentally just about everyone she knew.
I fully agree with Johnston that Alcoholics Anonymous should lose the anonymity aspect, as this only ingrains the idea of stigma and embarrassment, like when people used to refer coyly to ‘the C-word’ for cancer or avoided the issue of Aids.
The ‘sense of shame is outdated’, she says. Hearty cheers to that sentiment.
I also concur with her that ‘alcohol is where tobacco was 40 years ago’ and that when at last we fully accept the links between booze and breast, oesophageal and colorectal cancers, we can start applying to the drinks industry the lessons learned on tobacco control, concerning price, advertising and access.
In the long run, it will be to everyone’s benefit if prohibition comes back — says Roger Lewis, now teetotal but hitherto a proud drinker in the W. C. Fields class.
It is particularly abhorrent that women are encouraged to drink, as they have smaller livers than men and a lower level of the enzyme that breaks down and eliminates alcohol from thebloodstream.
They also get intoxicated quicker when oestrogen levels are high.
Both foetal deformity and sudden infant death syndrome may be linked to drink.
Children with learning difficulties often have mothers who drank during pregnancy. Domestic violence may be more likely to occur when everyone is boozed up.
And in the past decade alone, death from liver disease has risen by 20 per cent. Cirrhosis used to be the ailment of elderly men, but now doctors are frequently seeing end-stage liver complaints in women in their 20s. Sobering.