When it comes to destigmatizing mental health treatment, we’ve come a long way as a society. People have become increasingly open about their experiences with mental health in an effort to normalize seeking help. Even with all of this progress, there seems to be one narrative that lags behind the rest – substance abuse. While anxiety has become normalized, addiction and substance abuse stay hidden in the shadows – mental health’s shameful cousin that no one wants to talk about. This however is a problem, and it’s a problem that is disproportionately impacting women.
The newest research and polling suggest that young women are the fastest growing demographic to meet the criteria for an alcohol use disorder, yet the least likely to seek help. Here’s the thing, though: I don’t want this article to be about statistics. We know that alcohol isn’t doing great things for our health. More statistics or facts about this only seeks to perpetuate the real reason why women aren’t asking for help: shame.
Why is shame so pervasive when it comes to our relationship with alcohol?
Alcohol represents a slightly different part of the substance abuse world. For one, it’s legal everywhere. For another, it’s highly normalized. In fact, most adults would agree it stands out more when someone isn’t drinking. Because of this, we miss the larger narrative of alcohol abuse in this country, especially as it pertains to women. Alcohol is marketed to us in troves. Marketing campaigns paint us a picture that tells us this is a substance that enhances our lives. It shows us pictures of women killing it at work, coping with motherhood independently, and surrounded by relationships; a woman with a shiny glass of wine at the center of everyone’s adoration.
For some, that may be true. But for others, it’s not. Alcohol is no longer the thing that helps – it’s the thing that hurts. However, if you struggle with alcohol abuse or addiction, the social narrative is that you are the problem, not the alcohol. Reminiscent of the opioid epidemic’s early days when the narrative that oxycontin was not the problem, but the people who became addicted to it were, we continue to collectively perpetuate the narrative that the person is the problem when it comes to alcohol.
How do we move through the shame?
Brené Brown’s research on shame has been transformative for many people. Her words here, I believe, give us a guide of where to start: “If you put shame in a petri dish, it needs three ingredients to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in the petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive.”
I believe that we can move through the shame with empathy, and also with talking about it. To accomplish this task, and to highlight the fact that you are not alone if you are questioning the role your drinking is playing in your life, I’ve spoken to several different women who have embarked on the journey themselves. Four women were willing to share their experiences of examining their relationships with alcohol. These are women whose stories aren’t portrayed in movies or the media, yet they make up the most common story that rarely gets told. They are women in their 20’s and 30s who work in a variety of different sectors. None of their lives came crashing down from drinking, but each of them had a breaking point where they realized it was time to examine their relationship with the substance. In learning about their stories, I pulled the themes that can hopefully help others begin to explore their relationship, but without the shame.
STEP 1: ASKING THE RIGHT QUESTIONS
A theme that emerged quickly in talking to these women was the emotional charge the term “alcoholic” has for many. When talking about this topic, several agreed that asking themselves “Am I an alcoholic?” elicited shame. This makes sense. This term has a lot of stigma surrounding it, and many people internalize that. All the women agreed that it was more helpful to begin by asking, “How is this impacting me and my life?”
As one woman put it, “Today, I don’t have strong feelings about the term either way – what matters to me is that I had a negative and destructive relationship with drinking, I cut it out entirely, and that my life is better now.”
Similarly, one noted that, “I typically do not use the term because there is no point to label. I am me, alcohol does not fit in my life and it brings me down.” Another noted that the labels “means nothing,” saying “In our world, I’m an alcoholic if I’m addicted to alcohol, which is weird that an experience becomes a characteristic. It’s a way to make people feel less than so alcohol companies can keep making money. Blame the addict, right? I’m either an addict to alcohol or it’s an experience I had. I don’t really care what it’s called anymore, though – life without alcohol is better. That’s all that matters.”
What emerged throughout all the answers was that removing the label made the topic more approachable. It gave each of the women an opportunity to recognize that their relationship with alcohol was not serving them, something that many people struggle to approach when clouded by shame that the label may elicit.
STEP 2: THINK ABOUT WHAT YOU WILL GAIN, NOT WHAT YOU COULD LOSE
Many of the women noted the areas of their life that have improved since they gave up alcohol. Being honest about the areas of their life that alcohol was impacting seemed to be an important starting point for these women. Throughout my conversations with them, I was struck by how often they talked about their lives improving and how much they have gained since beginning this journey, yet rarely (in most cases, never) did they talk about what they had lost.
All of the women noted the improvements in their mental health. Anxiety came up multiple times. One woman noted, “Once I became sober, I realized alcohol was a huge contributor to the severity of my anxiety. After I became sober, I was able to learn more about myself, my body and my needs. I still struggle with anxiety but now I am able to calm myself down and use different techniques to work through the anxiety instead of self medicating.”
A few of the women talked about how they used alcohol to cope with their emotions, but how it often made things worse over the long run. When they chose to explore their relationship with it, things got better. One woman said, “Getting sober quite literally gave me a clear head — it gave me the capacity to sort through my difficult emotions and cycles of destructive behavior and start identifying positive coping skills to replace the role of alcohol and drugs.”
Another woman noted the improvement in managing her emotions stating, “I feel as though my emotions are more regulated, I can actually stop, think, and respond to things, rather than knee-jerk or emotional reactions that may not meet the reality of the circumstances.”
They also all touched on how their relationships had improved. Talking about her romantic partnership, one woman said, “part of my fear of facing my own disordered drinking was a worry that my partner and I wouldn’t have much in common once I got sober. The opposite was true — once I got sober, our relationship blossomed in a way it never could have while I was drinking.” This sentiment was echoed by every woman I talked to.
They also talked about the improvement in their friendships, even though this was difficult at times. Stories of lost friendships that centered around partying were always followed up with statements that their current ones are “higher quality.” One woman summed it up by saying, “I have been able to maintain much stronger and deeper relationships with everyone around me.” Another noted, “My friendships have also become stronger without alcohol being part of the picture — I am a more reliable friend and my friendships exist because of shared values and ideas rather than a shared love of partying.”
Additionally, the women told me about other ways their lives have changed. I heard stories of career changes that they previously feared making, going back to graduate school, buying homes, moving to places that are more aligned with where they want to be. A theme of taking risks because they believed in themselves began to emerge. Most importantly, every single woman, without being prompted, made note of feeling happier, healthier, and more content than they believed was possible for them beforehand.
STEP 3: FIND SUPPORT
Not surprisingly, since Queen Brené aptly points out how shame thrives in secrecy, finding community and support was a major part of each woman’s journey. They talked about attending different meetings or groups, but they also talked about listening to podcasts, reading books, and generally seeking out stories about others going through the same thing (see our list of resources below). This seemed to enhance the sense that they were not alone. “I read a ton of sober memoirs. I needed to know there had been other people that had successfully gotten and stayed sober before me. That was big for me,” stated one woman. Others mentioned how podcasts were a huge help.
However, the importance of finding a community cannot be underscored. Each woman said this was arguably the most important part of their journey: “I needed to surround myself with people who were going through a similar journey,” said one. “Having other sober people to call or text when I was feeling triggered or alone has been the most important tool for me,” said another woman.
One woman noted how scary finding a community felt. I wanted to include her words because I think they really point out how shame can be a barrier to showing up in these spaces.
“I was scared that if I explored some communities that focused on sobriety or meeting with people who are sober curious, that I would have to admit something about myself that I wasn’t ready to, yet. When I did take the leap, I found something very different than what I saw in movies or what I thought was going to happen. It truly was, across every single space I have explored, lots of people who want to help and listen. That’s it. I was also shocked at the amount of young people in these spaces. Also, no one cares if you call yourself an alcoholic or not. More people need to know that.”
STEP 4: CURIOSITY AND COMPASSION….AND LOT’S OF SELF-CARE
In addition to support, the themes that emerged on what helped was curiosity, compassion, and lot’s of self-care. One woman said, “I heard somewhere that…you should nurture yourself as if you would a baby – eat when you want, sleep as much as you want, and really listen to your body’s needs. Giving myself permission to self-care in that way was also very helpful after years of ignoring my body and numbing out my real needs and emotions.”
Another honed in on the power of curiosity and compassion, saying, “Take it slow. Find different resources that fit your interest to help do research, like books, podcasts or different communities. It is ok to start slow and try it out for a month or so then work your way up if you like it (which you will). No journey is the same and yours will be unique and beautiful.”
Again, citing compassion and honoring your needs, one woman said, “Saying ‘no’ and having a lot of grace and compassion for myself and what I needed, moment by moment [helped.] What I mean is, saying no to an event or a party because that was the right thing for me to do at the time. Or, saying yes to going to something, getting there and realizing that I wanted to leave and honoring that leaving is okay and was the right choice for me in that moment. Learning to make and accept those decisions was important for me and also helped a lot.”
The themes of curiosity with oneself, self-compassion, and lots of self-care seemed to be a recipe that allowed these women to move through shame and towards a life that was more fulfilling for them.
WHAT WOULD YOU TELL YOUNGER SELF?
Because I’m a therapist and I can’t seem to not ask questions like this, the last question I asked each woman was “What would you tell your younger self before this journey?” Their answers were too beautiful not to share. And if there is one part of this article that I believe can help alleviate the shame we feel around this topic and provide hope for those embarking on this journey, this part is it.
“This chapter will end,” said one woman, providing hope that if things feel difficult now, this does not have to be your forever.
Another woman said, “You are an amazing, confident, smart, courageous young woman. Drinking alcohol is not helping bring that out in you, alcohol is actually bringing you down and hiding all those amazing qualities. You will have a much more fulfilling life without it.”
Addressing shame head on, one woman noted “I’d let that beautiful young woman know that this is not her fault even though it’s her responsibility to work on. Sweetheart, your life is about to become so much more full than you ever thought you deserved, and I promise you, you do deserve it!”
And lastly, this one: “Hold on, babe!!!! There’s a future coming where you don’t regularly feel this pain, where you don’t think you need to drink to fit in or to loosen up, and where you don’t put yourself in unsafe situations to feel validated. You probably think that sobriety sounds lame now, but your life is going to be so much bigger than you could have ever imagined.”
- Quit Like a Woman by Holly Whitaker
- We are the Luckiest by Laura McKowen
- Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol by Ann Dowsett Jhonston
- The Recovering by Leslie Jamison
- This Naked Mind by Annie Grace