Judy Wilkinson, 47, counts herself lucky. Five years sober, she recalls a time when she would wake up and wonder where she’d get her next drink. Even living with an alcoholic father was not enough to keep her from the bottle.
“I hated it, but then, at the age of 22, I started drinking and liked the way it made me feel; it gave me confidence,” says the Pretoria-born recovering alcoholic.
The turning point came in 1998 when her dad and brother were shot in Angola - a week after each other.
“That just set me off. Instead of dealing with the tragedy, I sought comfort in drinking.”
“The whole idea was to drink myself to death. Eventually it became a physical addiction - I had to drink every morning just to stop the shakes.”
About five years ago, she had her last drink, but another tragedy accompanied her rock bottom - her boyfriend was diagnosed with a brain tumour and later died.
Wilkinson was in bad shape herself and on the verge of multiple organ failure. She was admitted to hospital. She has never touched a drink since.
Since then, she has become an active member of Alcoholics Anonymous. “I’ve been in the fellowship of AA for three years. That has been my saving grace. I go to three meetings a week.”
In previous years, alcohol abuse affected mainly male victims. Now women are playing catch-up. Like Wilkinson, many are finding solace at the bottom of a bottle, and it’s a trend counselling psychologist Claire Moore has become all too aware of.
It’s a global shift that seems to be affecting female baby boomers in the US, in particular. Similar parallels have been drawn in South Africa.
According to a World Health Organisation report, South African women top the list of heavy-drinking females in Africa. It revealed that 41.2% are binge-drinkers, drinking an average of 60ml of alcohol a week. When it comes to drunk driving, women don’t have the best track record either.
“Typically, the pattern has been that alcohol use peaks when we’re in our late adolescent years, early twenties, and then people get married and take on full-time jobs,” said Sharon Wilsnack, a professor emeritus in the department of psychiatry and behavioural science at the University of North Dakota.
“And that tends to protect against heavy alcohol use for most people, if you’re not alcohol-dependent.”
But this isn’t the case for women born between 1946 and 1964. It’s having the opposite effect.
Moore says the increase in female alcohol consumption worldwide is generally a result of increased gender equality, larger disposable income and drinking becoming more socially acceptable for women.
SA’s jaded history
Could apartheid and poverty have played a part?
“We have to look at physiological, psychological and social factors. Alcohol abuse usually occurs as a result of genetic vulnerability, combined with poor coping skills, and sometimes difficult life circumstances.”
For this reason, she says, although poverty is a factor, we cannot entirely blame culture or historical political factors.
A multi-pronged approach
Having worked in the UK as part of the government’s “war against drugs”, Moore became aware of the need for a multi-pronged approach to drug and alcohol abuse.
This should include social interventions to assist with employment, education, housing; medical interventions; and psychological interventions where a person can deal with personal issues and learn coping skills.