Complications of Alcoholism

Samhita wrote something a while ago that struck me. She wrote:

Many of my female friends drink in excess, not because they wanted to be “one of the guys” but because they had lives that were difficult as women, either for internalized sense of failure, experiencing abuse, depression around money, depression around social stature or failed relationships. I am not just talking about drinking for fun, of course women engage in that as well, but I am talking about drinking as a way to numb the pain, difficulty and reality of this often cold cold world.

This stuck out in part because at the time I was already talking about this. Vanessa had just posted about quitting smoking, I commented about my mother’s untimely death from lung cancer. I thought it might have come off as a scare-story, which women hear too much. So I emailed Vanessa. In the ensuing exchange, we talked about how smoking is more common among folks in oppressed groups: women smoke proportionately more than men, black folks more than white folks and gay men more than het men, for example. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. I think that’s a response to stress – the constant pervasive stress of being on the losing side of an oppressive social structure.


Samhita’s post reminded me of something else people do in response to stress. It reminded me that when middle school let out for a half-day and I got home, my mother lay on the couch, most of the way into the biggest jug of cheap wine that the liquor store sold, and unable to walk. It reminded me of visiting my mother in in-patient rehab. Driving by the place decades later I mentioned it to my spouse, who took a long look at me and said, “you’re so not-fucked up, sometimes I forget.” I remember the wreck of the little Mazda wagon. I remember the blood on her knuckles from the night she literally crawled home. I remember her swinging at me and stumbling and falling the night I soaked her cigarettes under the faucet. I remember her standing while diarrhea leaked down her leg, sick and drunk and too confused or unsteady to make it to the bathroom.
Many addicts follow the Stephen Tyler pattern (he of Aerosmith): getting drunk or high regularly in their early teens. This was not my mother.
She was a scholar and athlete in high school, though she was so poor that she lost her teeth to malnutrition as a teenager and wore dentures my entire life. She grew up in a house with no father around, a mentally ill mother and too many children, whole family in two rooms with no running water in rural New England in the depression. She bore, physically as well as mentally, the scars of her childhood. She was a serious case of prewar rural poverty, using babysitting earnings to put food on the table. (I’m not talking about someone who was merely as poor as the community – there was a nasty local nickname for the entire family implying that they had lice.) She scored in the 1200s on the SAT, but college was out of reach for women in her social position. Instead, she self-taught, devouring stacks of library books.
My mother only started drinking heavily to self-medicate. She and my father moved into a tumbling down house that they could barely afford in a school district that would get their kids somewhere better in the world. After long weeks, on weekends she would help my father sheetrock the workshop space that had been the first floor. She hurt her back. Doctors didn’t listen, thinking it was a muscle pull. The pain only got worse, but my father wouldn’t and didn’t take up any of the slack – physically or emotionally. There are enough issues there for a dozen posts, and I maintain a relationship with my father, so there’s only so much I’ll say. What she said to me, as I grew up, was that no matter how much it hurt, there were things that had to be done and she had to do them because my father wouldn’t or couldn’t; and that he withdrew emotionally when she needed him most.
And so she drank. And, for several years, she self-medicated for pain, second-shift, bad marriage, and the other ills of a broken and wrong gender system by drinking herself into a stupor.
(My father’s drinking and his anger were themselves medication for patriarchy. I love him, though I don’t love the man he was then. Manhood, as it existed for him, was crippling. He was beset by anxieties. He didn’t know how to live on his own; he went from his mother’s house to his wife’s. He was desperately dependent on her, yet he couldn’t rely on her for emotional support, and he made her the target of his rage. It was … an unpleasant environment to be a child in.)
Nothing lasts forever; things either get better or worse. Things got better. Rehab didn’t work, but when my father also quit drinking, they were able to do it together. They became a couple again. They became parents again. Eventually, I was able to get past blind anger and self-destruction and chart a course for myself. And today, I don’t remember my mother primarily for those years of heavy drinking. I remember her as a strong-willed mother, pushing education and financial self-sufficiency. I remember her as my feminist role model; a woman who told me the truth about the ways the world was unfair. I remember her as someone who could talk frankly with me about sexuality, even when it embarrassed me and probably her. I remember an amazing person who should have had a much easier path in life, and I feel sad that things were never, for her, as good as she deserved.
The way I grew up, though, has left me with a particular view of substance abuse. When I posted this in response to Jessica’s post about the new propaganda about hook-up culture, Zuzu (who knows me very well) emailed me privately to note that I do not particularly have a healthy view of alcohol use. This is entirely true. (I decided when I was 13 that I do not drink alcohol. That remains the case.) I know people who drink socially and in moderation. But what I’m really familiar with is people who drink to make things go away: the pressure, the fear, the voices, the demons, the constant weight of living with something that ever-present something.
These people are self-medicating for oppression. And, for many, it’s hard to say precisely what oppression. The circumstances of my mother’s life, for a time, exceeded the strength of her coping mechanisms. Because she was a woman? Because she was raised in poverty? Because she was abused? Yes. Yes to all of those things. I am thinking here of Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza’s term, popularized in the feminist blogosphere by Sudy at My Ecdysis: Kyriarchy. The organization of power layers into a pyramid of sorts, not two levels of oppressors and oppressed but a morass of relative rather than absolute privilege; the impact on one life of race, class, sex and gender identity and sexual orientation and ability and size and … they don’t separate into neat components for easy tracking. They fold into each other, producing confusing patterns often only barely comprehensible to the people living them, and often not any better understood from outside.
Is it any wonder that some of the best and brightest and most amazing women, the ones that refuse to fit other people’s narratives, that break the rules and break the mold, and ones who see the world for what it is or see a better world and try like hell to get there – is it any wonder that some of them give in to the strain and look for a way to make it all stop? Or that it’s hard not to keep doing that until they drink to deal with the fallout of their drinking?
Hothead Paisan was created when Diane DiMassa was getting clean and sober. I don’t think my mother ever read HHP, but she would have loved it. She would have understood. And it was my mother’s feminism that helped her understand what had happened in her life and to pick herself up and move forward. She read all of Maya Angelou, all of Toni Morrison at tremendous gulps. The women whose voices spoke to her were those whose lives were defined not by one struggle but several – interlocking and overlapping power dynamics of class and/or race and/or sex and/or sexual orientation, interacting like wave patterns to produce rough, broken seas and the occasional rogue wave that can capsize a life. And the women who helped her understand that were the ones that helped her stay on her feet.

Join the Conversation

  • Rachel_Setzer

    Damn. Powerful piece.

  • Helen

    Thank you for that truly powerful piece. Your wise, strong words on this difficult subject moved me to tears.

  • happyhappygirl

    Lately my personal life has been snowballing more & more stresses as far too many things are just going wrong, and I’d been contemplating turning to alcohol just to unwind, knowing it’s likely an unwise choice. I’m not looking to go down the road of alcoholism (who does?), just thinking it’d be nice to live in a happier moment for an hour or two.
    This post makes me think I should continue to shun alcohol, but my usual outlets aren’t as effective right now. The friend I normally share and cope with currently has much worse problems, so I need another outlet there as well. The last thing she needs right now is more worries.
    I think I’ll do a Tarot reading for inspiration, but in the meantime, are there any suggestions for temporary mind-numbing?
    Seriously, I’d like to thank you for the piece. I’m doing what I can to be thankful for what’s going right, and I actually feel like I’m kind of hijacking your post.

  • Thomas

    High praise from you. You’ve written some pretty powerful stuff yourself.

  • Jessica

    Thomas, thank you for writing this. I really don’t know what else to say but thank you, truly.

  • Thomas

    HHG, you’re not hijacking at all. I wish there was an easy answer. If there were always an adequate coping mechanism, there would be a lot less substance abuse. But there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer. “Take up bowling” is as dumb as “just say no.” However, you already have one powerful tool: you know you are vulnerable and you’re looking for a way to escape. That alone makes it a lot easier for you to keep a weather-eye on your own behavior patterns and try to find other, healthier ways to relieve the stress.

  • artdyke

    Temporary mind numbing… for me, sex, especially new sex, and (even more so) video games turn my brain off for for a while. Even through the worst experiences of my life, a good game or a good threesome never failed to make me happy for a while. :)
    Not sure how well that would work for me if I was sleeping with men, though…

  • Ms. Ruby Vixen

    Thank you. I’m not really sure what else to say, and what else is there to say, really? Lately I’ve been thinking about the way that my parents substance abuse problems have affected me and in turn how my own issues with “escape” have/are complicated my own life….reading this definitely touched me, thank you.

  • happyhappygirl

    Actually, bowling sounds really good. I completely and utterly suck at it, so I never feel the pressure to be good, and since my anniversary is Saturday, we already have babysitting and funds set aside. Thanks for the suggestion :)
    Someday I hope to write about the issues plaguing me at the moment, but now is not the time. Perhaps in a few months.

  • demimonde

    Thank you a million times for a wonderful post about a subject that is too often swept under the rug.
    I would also say that alcoholism intersects with feminism when we talk about domestic violence. Yes, women definitely self medicate the injuries of oppression with alcohol, but they also suffer when the men in their lives do the same.
    I especially admire the part of your post when you talk about your father’s alcoholism as a response to the pressures of disordered masculinity. Alcoholism is just another example of how the patriarchy hurts everyone.

  • happyhappygirl

    LOL! I have such an antagonistic relationship with video games. I don’t mind Rock Band, which can be a communal experience (and singing in quick play mode is truly fun), but so often my husband bores me to tears playing some game or other. Occasionally I put the video game system in the same category as “the other woman” would be for other couples. He’s felt the same way about my books. I do think I’ll use my Rock Band karaoke machine for a while, as there are many songs I do enjoy singing (yay downloads!)

  • lyndorr

    Well, the first thing that comes to my mind is baths. Not just any bath but a bath that caters to the senses as much as possible with dim light and candles, calming music, nice scents with candles or bath bombs or something and maybe even some calming tea. Some kinds of tea seem to instantly calm my mind. In general, I want to take advantage of my senses more. I find pleasing smells, sights, tastes and sounds can really calm me down and make me be more in the present.

  • demimonde

    You have the Tarot, at least. Maybe meditation could be something to try. Mind-numbing and good for the soul! :)

  • mindprovender

    I must agree, and thank everyone for thanking you so fully before I came along to do it myself.
    My parents are both alcoholics. I understand some the difficulty of it.

  • mindprovender

    Masturbation works a treat as well; I found it an excellent substitute for self-mutilation when I was a teenager.

  • Sabriel

    Best. Substitute. Ever.

  • Sabriel

    Alcoholism is also disproportionately represented among survivors of sexual assault, because it’s one common way of coping with PTSD, anxiety, and depression.
    I think that people often turn to alcohol when experiencing oppressions they’re not allowed to talk about. For example, a closeted homosexual or a woman who has been silenced about childhood molestation. The tendency to turn to alcohol may be especially strong in situations where other outlets and coping resources have been removed due to the social norms.
    For this reason, it is especially important to open up a dialogue about how alcoholism is related to systematic oppression.
    Thank you for this post.

  • Ivory

    My suggestions would be:
    Benadryl is a non-habit forming sleep aid – sometimes a good solid 12 hours of sleep can make all the difference.
    I like sitting in my car with a carefully selected set of songs (some place where the kids can’t get at me – out of sight from the house) to help me relax.
    Meditation can be good (but sometimes not if your problem is thinking about things too much).
    Run walk or jog somewhere.
    Call a friend and talk about something other than your problem.
    Spend a couple hours volunteering.
    Read a book with an uplifting message.
    Blog.

  • Ivory

    My suggestions would be:
    Benadryl is a non-habit forming sleep aid – sometimes a good solid 12 hours of sleep can make all the difference.
    I like sitting in my car with a carefully selected set of songs (some place where the kids can’t get at me – out of sight from the house) to help me relax.
    Meditation can be good (but sometimes not if your problem is thinking about things too much).
    Run walk or jog somewhere.
    Call a friend and talk about something other than your problem.
    Spend a couple hours volunteering.
    Read a book with an uplifting message.
    Blog.

  • FGJ

    Thank you so much for sharing. My father is an alcoholic, and at an early age I too promised myself I would never drink.
    After finishing high school and moving hundreds of miles away to study science, I began to see things from other perspectives as well. The one thing I’ve learned that I feel obligated to share is that science has demonstrated time and time again that stress actually increases the strength of people’s cravings, but that alcohol doesn’t necessarily help relieve stress. Some people find themselves in a situation where stress makes them want alcohol more, and when it doesn’t work the stress gets worse and they want to drink even more! It’s definitely self medication, but what a lot of people don’t realize is that, sometimes, it’s self medication that makes the symptoms worse rather than better.

  • Goran

    women smoke proportionately more than men
    No, they don’t.

  • happyhappygirl

    I’ve been reflecting on my situation. Right now I have a friend in crisis in pretty much every aspect of her life. She’s the friend I turn to when I’m in crisis, and now I’m the friend who is listening. It’s harder than I ever thought it could be. However, not being there and not listening and making it all about me and my feelings of inadequacy in the face of her struggles would just make me not the person I want to be.
    My own current stress won’t be resolved or really dealt with until at least April, and I just need to put it on the back burner, acknowledge it exists, and remind myself to worry about it later. In the meantime, life goes on.
    After sleeping and showering, life seems less heavy. I’m afraid I adjusted to Benadryl a long time ago, as I’ve taken it most of my life (and take it at least daily as part of my allergy regime), but it’s a good, inexpensive drug that’s safe during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
    Today my friend and I are going to bake an apple pie from scratch. I’m looking forward to it.
    I’d like to thank everyone for their suggestions. I actually have suggestions to add:
    Take a shower and imagine the water washing away the heavy stuff. I often feel lighter after one, and seem to more easily discover a new perspective under the spray.
    Bake for someone else, especially something that needs vigorous beating or kneading.

  • Thomas

    Interesting. It turns out that women, and white women, smoke at slightly lower rates than their male counterparts. I’ll bet this washes out in younger age groups and higher incomes and educations, and I got it wrong because my perceptions are biased by generation and socioeconomic status.

  • wax_ghost

    Personally, sometimes I take a walk, or a bike ride, or just wander around taking pictures, or just sit on the back porch with some tea when things get to be too much. Basically, I would suggest anything that you really enjoy that can allow you to forget your problems for a little while but isn’t potentially harmful like drinking. I sincerely hope that you have the ability to do something like that. Good luck.

  • FrumiousB

    I self-medicate by reading, both print and electronically. Seriously, my reading habits would be diagnosed as alcoholism if I were drinking instead of reading. I read for many of the same reasons alcoholics drink. I’m glad there’s no hangover involved, and I’m glad I read rather than drink, get high, or cut myself.

  • homebird

    Thomas, Thank you for such an honest, thoughtful and compassionate post. Funny isn’t it how one beings intensely personal and subjective experience can connect to anothers. I’ve been having wonderful synchronistic moments like this since I recently recognized that a lot of my self-damaging responses to stressors in my life stem from a lack of self-love – a big problem I believe for a lot of women that leads to self-destructive behavior. This post is another of the ways this wonderful universe has been showing me that I should stand close to that love light bulb of a moment, allow myself thoughts and feelings of self-doubt and self-recrimination and instead of letting them lead to punishing myself or hiding from myself let them lead to embracing myself for being human. I still haven’t figured out what the next step is but this is/has been the first step on a new path that FEELS, which is so much better than numb. Thank you again for putting up this sign post that I’m heading in the right direction.

  • homebird

    I think it would be better to seek release than numbness. With numbing the problem/feeling still exists and is often more intense once the numb time is past.
    The many suggestions to get physical are right on target, moving your body forward often helps the mind do the same. I have three other suggestions.
    1) Let yourself have a really good body racking sob. If you don’t have time alone in the house retreat to what I call the last bastion of the modern woman – the bathroom – and run the water so you won’t freak out the other people in the house.
    2) If you have access to a large field go stand in the middle of it and scream until you can’t anymore.
    3) This one’s a little weird – bite the edge of your mattress. It can take it, you won’t damage your teeth and there is something so releasing about clamping down as hard as you can – you can also scream while you do this as the mattress will muffle the sound a little.
    And if you see my thanks to Thomas – LOVE YOURSELF, remember that life is a continuum, problems come and go, the only thing with you your whole life is you and be your BFF.

  • meeneecat

    I appreciate the post here. Two of my favorite topics to discuss, addiction (including drug policy and harm reduction) and mental health.
    I think it’s important to realize how closely linked addiction and mental health are…that incidences of mental illness are MUCH higher among addicts than they are among the general population, and also that it’s often a product of self-medication (among other issues). Speaking only anecdotally, virtually every addict I have ever known suffered from some sort of mental illness (I’ve met a lot of addicts) Thus, I want to say one thing about the folks here offering suggestions, (i.e. take a bath, read a book, etc.) Basically, it’s great that this may work for you and others….However, my point is, a person who is suffering, and may be self-medicating with drugs or alcohol due to, PTSD, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, etc. cannot just “read a book” or “take a bath” and have things improve. I say this as someone who has for many years been struggling with PTSD and bipolar and takes heavy medication to control the mania, depression, suicidal ideation, nightmares, self-injury, delusions, etc. I’m also saying this as someone who has gone through long periods where self-medication with drugs and alcohol was the only option that “took the edge off” (nothing else worked and I had no insurance to see a doctor, or there was no availability of treatment). A simple cheering up, or “fun” activity that works for a person without MI is not going to have the same effect on someone that has a serious mental illness/is suffering from addiction.
    So, it really annoys me when the people around me say things like “why don’t you, go exercise/read a book/take a bath/cook something, it will make you feel better” or “why can’t you just be happy/calm/stop using x,y,z drug”…I’ll tell ya, all those things are virtually impossible when you can’t even get out of bed, are constantly thinking of ways to die, and don’t even know what day it is…the people around me just didn’t seem to understand this, yet they always wanted to give me advice on how to deal with my “issues”…I kept telling them, “if those things worked don’t you think I would have already done them by now?”, “do you really think I enjoy all the delusions, mania, depression, nightmares, suicidiality, etc. etc.?” I don’t mean this as a “woe is me” post or to sound harsh to those who did give such advice…But I’m just speaking to the stigma that I see many people with mental illness and addiction problems (which often go hand in hand) having to deal with…and also the fact that I witness a lot of people giving advice to addicts/mentally ill – things like “why can’t you just…” and to me, this just seems to add to the myth that those who suffer from addiction or mental illness, somehow got that way because of something they did or didn’t do in life, or out of some character flaw (hence all the “self-help” advice that others like to give us thinking we will magically be cured/cheer up if we just follow their advice, not realizing how hurtful and frustrating it can be to listen to all this.)
    There’s always a myriad of factors that drive both mental illness and addiction. So, I like how the OP talked about how oppression contributes to addiction. I’d also add in the fact that folks who are addicted are also among those that are often pushed to the utmost fringes of society, where virtually every other person looks down on them and accuses addicts of being “dirty” “scum” “criminals” who just can’t “control themselves because they have no willpower/or discipline”…and this is a form of oppression itself. So oppression can lead to addiction and being addicted can lead to a whole new set of oppressions, and of course the two feed on each other making things increasingly worse. Often addicts are invisible to larger society, because others don’t want to be around them, doctors refuse to treat them, government refuses to fund programs that would help, and society wants to throw them in prison…and again, much of this is because of the myths and stigma that surrounds addiction; most people would rather just ignore the junkies and the drunks and hope that their illness kills them someday. I often hear things like “throw them in jail, that’ll teach em” or “if the drugs kill ‘em, that’s fine with me, society will be better off without ‘em.” Some of the cruelest things I have heard directed at those dealing with addiction.
    I don’t really have a conclusion to this rant, I just hope it makes some sense, and helps add to the discussion. Again, I thank the OP for writing about this topic.

  • Rae

    Thank you so much for writing this.
    The casually prominent role that alcohol plays in my social circles and the industry in which I work is starting to scare me. I grew up in a family with alcoholics, and much of my life has programmed me to keep a close, paranoid eye on my own and others’ drinking; that’s not the case with most of my peers.
    I can deal with alcohol on an individual basis; knowing how to respond to its overwhelming prevalence socially is another story.

  • lyndorr

    Interestingly Sweden is one of the few places where women smoke more than men and even then it’s not a lot more and the men are using snus (smokeless tobacco). However, as far as class, there is a difference. I’ve wondered if raising minimum wage could do anything for smokers. I must say it’s strange to see smokers in university because in high school all the students I saw smoke were ones that I didn’t think were going to university.