THE HOUSEWIFE’S SECRET SICKNESS
Probably more than 1,000,000 American women are victims of alcoholism. Here are the shocking facts.
By DON MURRAY
In every American town, on almost every green, shaded street, live housewives who are desperately ill but who do not seek the treatments which are available. They remain prisoners in their homes, isolated by their own guilt and hidden by their families’ shame. These lonely, terrified women all suffer the same secret sickness: Alcoholism.
The woman alcoholic is rarely seen intoxicated by her neighbors, but she exists just the same. "There are just as many woman drunks in the suburbs as men, perhaps even more," says Mrs. Thomas Delaney, founder and director of CHR-ILL ("chronically Ill") Service, and its alcoholism information center in East Orange, New Jersey, which is operated under the auspices of the Essex County Medical Association.
Her experience is supported by Dr. Marvin Block of Buffalo, New York, chairman of the American Medical Association’s committee on alcoholism. Says Doctor Block: "In my own practice, alcoholism is as common among women as among men. And I have found that the same thing is true with other private physicians who treat alcoholic patients."
Statistics on alcoholism in the United States – 80,000,000 drinkers; 5,000,000 male alcoholics; 850,000 female alcoholics – do not yet reflect the facts as they are known by workers in the field, and for good reason. Such estimates are based on public records, and most women alcoholics remain hidden.
"The stigma of being a woman alcoholic is so great that women with a drinking problem hide it," according to Mrs. Marty Mann, who is founder and head of the National Council on Alcoholism. Most women alcoholics are secret drinkers who satisfy their compulsion with primitive cunning.
"The neighbors never knew," one recovered alcoholic woman told me, "that my bedroom floor was skid row." The Fairfield County (Connecticut) Council on Alcoholism has estimated that there are nine hidden alcoholics for each one who is known.
The woman drunk is protected by their husband, her parents, her children, her family physician. In a good neighborhood there is a conspiracy of discreet silence. The woman alcoholic is treated for "female troubles" by her family doctor and admitted to the private hospital for "a nervous disorder.’ Her name does not appear on the police blotter and, when the woman alcoholic dies, there is rarely an autopsy. The cause of death is listed delicately as "heart failure."
Despite this protective conspiracy, the woman alcoholic is beginning to reveal herself and to seek treatment. I have attended meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous – once a predominantly male organization – where there were as many women as men. The number of women coming for help to the sixty-one alcoholism information centers affiliated with the National Council on Alcoholism is increasing steadily.
The problem of the woman drunk is as old as the grape, and there is no evidence that the percentage of women drinkers who become alcoholics is increasing. What is startling is the fact that today most young women drink in college, in bars on the way home from work, in the suburbs after they are married. The woman who has never had the first drink cannot become an alcoholic. Since World War II the number of woman drinkers has multiplied dramatically and so, inevitably, has the number of women who cannot control their drinking.
Take a drive through a pleasant New Jersey suburb with Mrs. Delaney, as I did, and you’ll begin to see the dimensions of the problem of alcoholism in women.
"She has five children, and she’s been sober five months this time," Mrs. Delaney told me grimly. "She’s a lovely girl when she isn’t drunk. She was married in her teens, and she was an alcoholic as a teen-ager too. Meet her and you’d like to have her for a neighbor, yet she’s been in and out of half a dozen mental institutions and tried about every cure there is. Last time she hit bottom, and she may make it now. Some have to go all the way down before they can start up."
As we drove off, I thought of what a member of the Fairfield County Council told me. She said, "We have 12,000 alcoholics, but the alcoholics have 60,000 people in their immediate families. We think they are all involved in the problem of alcoholism."
"This isn’t the Bowery, is it?" Mrs. Delaney brought me back to New Jersey and pointed to an English manor house set high on a double lot. "The woman who owns that home is in the hospital now. She’s a physical wreck who looks at least twenty years older than her real age, fifty-eight. You’d never think she was a lush if you met her. She’s a lady – genteel, soft-spoken, gracious.
Mrs. Delaney nodded sadly. "It’s an old story. By the time her children grew up and left home, her husband was a success. He traveled a great deal, and she was left alone. She never drank in front of anyone, but she started to drink alone; and after he died, she rarely left the house, didn’t even get dressed for weeks. Time turned upside down, until night was day and day was night. She drank until she passed out and drank herself into oblivion again. We never would have found her if she hadn’t gone to doctor for another ailment."
"Why didn’t her children do something?" I asked.
"They didn’t know," Mrs. Delaney smiled. "Women alcoholics are the most convincing liars in the world. She wrote them about her busy life. When they wanted to visit, she’d tell them she was going to Europe, or something. Only once in a while did she make a heroic effort to dress up and face them."
We drove on until Mrs. Delaney parked in front of a group of expensive garden apartments. "Career women come to us too. They take care of their parents or seek a career in a man’s world, sacrificing everything for success, and then something happens. In one of those apartments over there is a young woman with a Ph.D., but she’s a drunk.
"She’s been in to see us, but she isn’t ready for help yet." Mrs. Delaney pulled away from the curb. "Her employees don’t know, although they may be wondering why she’s sick so many Monday mornings. She’s a falling down drunk, but her booze is delivered, and you never see her on the street. If you met her, you wouldn’t suspect it. She’s charming, graceful, intelligent – and very sick."
When we arrived at her office, Mrs. Delaney summed up our trip, "People think of the woman drunk as an old hag, a blowzy creature who would never live in a nice neighborhood. They won’t believe that people they know are alcoholics, and therefore they won’t help them get treatment. That’s the trouble. They won’t admit alcoholism is a disease and that the woman who has a serious drinking problem could be their next-door neighbor, their best friend, even a member of their own family."
Information from authorities on alcoholism across the country confirms Mrs. Delaney’s picture of the woman alcoholic. "The large majority of the women alcoholics I know are best described by the word ‘dainty’" writes Mary C. Clark, executive director of the Monterey Peninsula Council on Alcoholism in Carmel, California. "Their portrait is in pastel tones, the skin delicate, the voice gentle, the manner feminine." Sarah A. Boyd, director of the Berks County Committee on Alcoholism in Reading, Pennsylvania, has found that the average woman alcoholic is of superior intelligence, has a better-than-average income, is usually between thirty-six and fifty years old and has two or three children. Mrs. Boyd’s experience confirms the National Council on Alcoholism estimate that less than 3 percent of all confirmed alcoholics are derelicts.
Reports from alcoholism information centers in Houston, Honolulu, Cleveland, Detroit, Greensboro, North Carolina, and other cities – as well as conversations I have had with physicians, psychiatrists and recovered alcoholics – all indicate that the woman alcoholic may be shy or vivacious, young or old, too busy or too idle, married or single, but they all have one thing in common: There is a vacuum in their lonely lives that they desperately try to fill with a bottle.
The woman alcoholic has lost her way in life, and drinking has become a way of living. "Instead of facing reality, they try to change it with a drink," one psychiatrist told me. Mrs. Delaney adds, "They all need a crutch to get through life. They try alcohol, then they find they can’t get along without it."
For years alcohol seemed an efficient crutch. With a drink in her hand the too-busy mother finds the momentary stimulation to face another chore or a moment of calm in the confusion of children’s demands, errands and social obligations. The bored woman finds a warming hour of fulfillment, another hour of fuzzy contentment and, finally, a night of oblivion.
According to a studies at the Yale Center of Alcohol Studies in New Haven, Connecticut, and elsewhere, women alcoholics tend to start drinking later in life than men, and then progress faster through the final stages of alcoholism than males. Yet there are usually long years while they are clear-headed drinkers, while they have no hang-overs, while they still drink heavily by choice. But somewhere they cross over the line. They take a drink as a stimulant before a party and another as a sedative afterward. Insidiously the drink becomes all things at all times. Social affairs are planned as an excuse to drink, the five-o’clock cocktail becomes a reward – and a daylong goal. Getting the first drink – and the dozens which inevitably follow – becomes a way of life.
Alcoholism is a progressive disease, with permanent danger signals for the woman who will allow herself to see them. The National Council on Alcoholism, the members of Alcoholics Anonymous, physicians and psychiatrists and other experts recognize the same warning signs along the road which leads from the drink which is chosen to the one which can not be refused.
If a woman has become "a slow cooker," delaying dinner so there will be time for an extra Martini, if she insists on mixing the drinks so she can "earn" the dividend, if she needs a drink before going to a party and another after she comes home, if she drinks alone, if she plans social occasions which will give her an excuse to drink, if she "sweetens" her own drinks, if she "needs" a drink to face a crisis, she’d better watch out.
If she blacks out, lies to herself and others about the number and the strength of drinks she has had, drinks "the hair of the dog" in the morning and hides a reserve supply, then she is in trouble and should seek help immediately. Doctor Block adds some advice of his own: "Pay attention to valid criticism from those in your family who care about you. If they are worried about your drinking, don’t pass it off – consider it. They may have something to worry about."
Too often the woman speeds past all warning signs and becomes an alcoholic. Then liquor controls her life, then the next drink is more important than anything else – the care of a child, the love of a man, her health, her home, her reputation, her God. As her thirst begins to rule her life, a woman runs head on into a double standard. Among men, heavy drinking is often taken as a sign of virility, and the phrase, "Drunk as a lord," is a tribute. No one ever said approvingly, "She was drunk as a lady." The woman with an unquenchable thirst must lead a life of unrelenting deception.
One recovered alcoholic told me she used to slither down the side of her bed and crawl to the bathroom to make sure she wouldn’t fall and develop revealing bruises. A woman alcoholic will hide a jug in the diaper pail, fill the hot-water bottle with Scotch, stash a fifth in the vacuum cleaner, spike the vinegar bottle. A career woman with perfect eyesight wore spectacles with thick, uncorrected lenses to hide her bloodshot eyes. One woman fooled her husband by keeping gin in the water carafe by her bed; another buried half-pints in cereal boxes.
Many women keep changing doctors so one won’t catch on to the true nature of their disorders. Mrs. Elizabeth D. Whitney, executive director of the Boston Committee on Alcoholism, has known several women who drank perfume for its alcoholic content, so their breath wouldn’t smell of whiskey. Vanilla extract has been a staple of women alcoholics for generations, as have many patent medicines with high alcoholic content. Many of these tonics and elixirs are still popular in rural areas and among elderly women.
A woman with a drinking problem develops an extraordinary ability to rationalize. She needs a drink because she is tense, and she needs another to perk her up; she drinks because her husband is away on a business trip, and she drinks to celebrate his return home. Women alcoholics may not always fool others, but they almost always deceive themselves, and that self-deception is the most dangerous of all, for it keeps them from seeking and accepting treatment.
The ability of a woman with a drinking problem to delude herself is astonishing. "I only drink sherry," is a popular, self-righteous refrain that may hide the fact she drinks half a gallon or more a day. A Connecticut mother, who is now a member of A.A., knew she didn’t have a drinking problem because she never touched a drop until the children were in bed. Of course, she kept putting them to bed earlier and earlier in the afternoon and then drinking until she passed out. Another A.A. member told me she convinced herself she was not an alcoholic, because she always hung her clothes up neatly before she blacked out.
Richard Silver, executive director of the Seattle Committee on Alcoholism, has found that husbands often encourage such dangerous self-delusion by denying their wives’ alcoholism. False pride prevents many a man from admitting his wife could be an alcoholic. Worse still, he prevents his wife from facing her problem, the first step in any successful treatment of the alcoholic.
The woman alcoholic has particular difficulties because she is a woman. As a wife and a mother her erratic behavior has a devastating effect on her family. Mrs. Delaney has found that the woman alcoholic is usually a perfectionist who swings wildly from one emotional extreme to the other. She cleans the entire house at once, or doesn’t wash a single dish. She refuses to allow her husband near her, or smothers him with aggressive affection. She will have no guests in the house and then invites twenty to a formal dinner. Her son goes uncorrected for major offenses and then has his bike taken away for a month for trivial misbehavior. One daughter does not have a birthday party, but her sisters and friends are treated to birthday lunch in the private dining room of a fancy restaurant.
The road of the woman alcoholic is not an easy one. A.A. experience has shown that a mother who is a drunk loses the respect of her children earlier than a drinking father does and is less likely to win it back. Husbands are more apt to divorce an alcoholic mate than a woman is. A woman usually has economic reasons to stick with her husband. He is a feeble reed, but he may be her only support.
When a woman "blacks out," an experience shared by all alcoholics and a universal danger signal, she suffers a special horror at the thought of what might have happened while she was unconscious. It is biologically and psychologically impossible for a woman to be casual about blackouts. There are promiscuous women drunks, of course, but the infidelities of a woman alcoholic are more often imaginary than real. Much of the scorn heaped on the woman alcoholic implies that she has been sexually uninhibited. Mrs. Mann of the National Council on Alcoholism has a blunt answer to that supposition. "Who wants a drunken woman?" she asks. "When men are interested in her, she’s only interested in the next drink. When she passes out, she’s vulnerable, of course, but it isn’t likely that anyone will take advantage of her. She’s hardly an attractive woman by then, and her virtue is usually quite safe."
According to such authorities as John T. Crane, executive director of the Flint (Michigan) Committee on Alcoholism, the woman alcoholic is likely to be a plateau drinker who keeps herself on an even keel, although she is consistently sodden and awash like a bashed-in dory floating just under the surface of the water. Many experts feel the compulsive woman drinker usually has more serious emotional ills, in addition to her alcoholism, than the male – and of course, no treatment can be given until she is sober. Her nervous system sometimes triggers heavy drinking in the premenstrual periods, or during the menopause. Mrs. Delaney, who also runs a rest home for alcoholics, finds that women drinkers are likely to suffer extreme physical damage in a short time. She believes that the physical ravages of heavy drinking cut deeper in the female than in the male.
Most alcoholics suffer extreme malnutrition from drinking without eating. Cirrhosis of the liver, the fifth highest killer of men and an increasing disease of women, is not caused by the amount of liquor drunk but by the lack of proper food. Women alcoholics often confuse their loss of appetite with the will to diet, and drink but do not eat – a certain road to physical ruin.
Modern drugs offer a special hazard to the woman. Doctors often casually prescribe barbiturates, bromides and tranquilizers to calm their nerves, ease their female difficulties, cure their insomnia. Mrs. Delaney believes the woman alcoholic is particularly addictive, and Alcoholics Anonymous has issued a special pamphlet on the subject of drugs and the alcoholic. For whatever the psychological facts may be, the person who depends on alcohol to face life is likely to let drugs take control of him too. In some especially tragic cases a woman who has won the struggle to stop drinking is set off on a binge by cough syrup liberally laced with alcohol, or she substitutes capsules and pills for the bottle until she finally becomes a drug addict.
With or without the problem of drugs, the woman alcoholic faces a long, lonely struggle, but she can face the future with hope today. Education has already removed the stigma which once kept the victims of tuberculosis and cancer from receiving treatment. Education is changing the public attitude on mental illness. The same process of illuminating truth is removing the dark shadow which falls over the woman alcoholic.
Today the facts about alcoholism can be obtained from the National Council on Alcoholism, 2 East 103rd Street, New York City, or its sixty-eight affiliates which operate sixty-one alcoholism information centers in twenty-seven states and the District of Columbia. There also are tax-supported agencies working with alcoholics in thirty-nine states. The techniques of the Alcoholics Anonymous recovery program have been proved by the lives of more than 250,000 members, and groups can be reached through a great many local telephone books or by writing Box 459, Grand Central Station, New York City. One of the best books of many on alcoholism is Marty Mann’s New Primer on Alcoholism, published by Rinehart and Winston.
When the Boston Committee on Alcoholism was formed sixteen years ago, it was the first of its kind. Now Mrs. Whitney, it’s founder, can say, "This is what we tell women who come to us today: The stigma of being a woman alcoholic is being removed, and treatment is available for every woman who wants it."
Once the housewives’ secret sickness is brought into the open, it then can be healed successfully.
Source: Saturday Evening Post©, January 27, 1962
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