‘The shame of ad­dic­tion is worse for women’

While men are af­forded sym­pa­thy, women bat­tling ad­dic­tion face judge­ment and vil­i­fi­ca­tion, says Es­telle Lee

Grazia (UK) - - The Take -

it has been five years since I first held my hand up, ad­mit­ted I was an al­co­holic, and joined the ever-grow­ing ranks of mid­dle­class women shun­ning the de­mon drink. Sta­tis­ti­cally, we are the fastest-grow­ing de­mo­graphic knock­ing back the units to obliv­ion, of­ten be­hind closed doors. For the record, I haven’t turned into a hu­mour­less, morally su­pe­rior tee­to­taller. I’m only too aware that the flip side of the shiny #sober, #grate­ful trend is a darker re­al­ity for some.

It’s a re­al­ity that Ant Mc­partlin has re­cently dis­cov­ered to his cost, hav­ing been charged with drink driv­ing only a short time af­ter leav­ing re­hab. You can’t buy your way of out of ad­dic­tion in an ex­pen­sive treat­ment cen­tre. You don’t get to de­cide which bits suit you. It doesn’t mat­ter if you’re in the pub­lic eye or not; this pro­gres­sive dis­ease will drive or­di­nary peo­ple to act in reck­less ways. Peo­ple die, lose their fam­i­lies, jobs, health, free­dom and minds. The shame can be over­whelm­ing.

But re­ac­tions around Ant in re­cent weeks have left me won­der­ing if that shame is dif­fer­ent for women. Be­fore he even set foot in re­hab, think pieces were telling us to look kindly on him. It’s a warmth I can’t re­call be­ing ex­tended to fe­male stars like Amy Wine­house in the mid-noughties. Not to di­min­ish the male ex­pe­ri­ence – this isn’t a com­par­i­son about whether it’s more dif­fi­cult for women to get sober, or in­deed who feels the most pain. It’s about the dif­fer­ence in the way so­ci­ety re­acts to the sexes.

You could ar­gue that there has never been a bet­ter time to get sober. You can­not be alive in 2018 and fail to have no­ticed that so­bri­ety has had a re­brand­ing. The in­ter­net is awash with ‘sober cu­ri­ous’ podcasts, hash­tags and book launches and it’s clear that there’s a def­i­nite thirst (sorry) for a more moder­ate way of ex­ist­ing. But does this new move­ment make it any eas­ier for women – not just those who want to cut down, but those with a gen­uine prob­lem? Not nec­es­sar­ily, I would ar­gue.

My per­sonal ob­ser­va­tion is that the fe­male ex­pe­ri­ence, whether in the full flow of the dis­ease or within the safe walls of re­cov­ery, can be quite spe­cific. We have dif­fer­ent bi­ol­ogy and hor­mones, for one. Ac­cord­ing to Sa­man­tha Quin­lan, di­rec­tor of In­ter­na­tional Con­fer­ences on Ad­dic­tion and As­so­ci­ated Dis­or­ders, it’s no ac­ci­dent or co­in­ci­dence that women can progress quite quickly into al­co­holism dur­ing times of tran­si­tion; a slide into ad­dic­tion can flare up around ado­les­cence, motherhood or the menopause. What is brought to the sur­face with hor­monal fluc­tu­a­tions can be over­whelm­ing, and with that comes a hearty temp­ta­tion to push it all back down with a stiff drink.

So­phie Molins, artist, film-maker and trustee of Step­s2re­cov­ery, a char­ity for re­cov­er­ing ad­dicts in the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem, says there is a spe­cific shame and para­noia women feel around air­ing these ‘hys­ter­i­cal’ emo­tions. ‘ The world is struc­tured in a way where fem­i­nine lan­guage is be­lit­tled. It isn’t tidy. There is some­thing about our cul­ture where we all have to por­tray a pro­fes­sional brand and stay on top.’

But it’s the so­cial shame that makes it even more dif­fi­cult for women. The me­dia stands in judge­ment and hotly fo­cuses on women. Just google ‘falls out of a night­club…’ and you can scroll through a roll call of scant­ily clad celebrity women who can’t hold their booze. Women are scape­goats; la­belled out-of-con­trol sluts and bad moth­ers.

Court­ney Love may have over­come the worst of her ad­dic­tions but, in the eye of the storm af­ter her hus­band Kurt Cobain’s sui­cide in 1997, the me­dia’s re­lent­less re­port­ing of her er­ratic be­hav­iour and drug-tak­ing cer­tainly – in spite of her ob­vi­ous dis­tress – ex­ac­er­bated her spi­ral down­wards be­fore she sought help. Sim­i­larly, Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell and many oth­ers – alive and dead – have had their be­hav­iour cru­elly scru­ti­nised. Putting an in­di­vid­ual un­der the mi­cro­scope in that way


piles on the shame and pres­sure – whether there’s a real prob­lem or not. The truth is, of course, that we do that to our­selves al­ready. Even na­tional dar­ling Dav­ina Mc­call is con­stantly con­tex­tu­alised within the realms of her dis­ease, de­spite be­ing long-term clean and sober, and pos­si­bly Bri­tain’s health­i­est 50-year-old. Men are not branded by so­ci­ety as ‘nur­tur­ers’. It’s there­fore seem­ingly more ac­cept­able to be a ‘re­formed hell-raiser’ and many men have come back stronger af­ter their bat­tles. If any­thing, they are af­forded sym­pa­thy, not dis­trust and judge­ment. Look at Ewan Mcgre­gor, Bradley Cooper or Matthew Perry to see that men can re­gain their lives and pub­lic per­sonas with atone­ment. Rus­sell Brand has had enough of a PR re­birth to re­lease his own ver­sion of AA’S 12-step hand­book. Even out of the pub­lic eye, the trauma that a woman who may have suf­fered rape, sex­ual abuse or the loss of a child feels can be over­whelm­ingly hard to get over in re­cov­ery. Molins says the shame they feel, par­tic­u­larly for moth­ers she helps, can make it im­pos­si­ble for them to turn their lives around. ‘ We are find­ing that the trauma and heart­break is too much,’ she says. Ad­dic­tion re­cov­ery is an on­go­ing process and a dif­fer­ent way of liv­ing. Our dis­ease is still out­side do­ing press-ups, as I was once told by an­other woman in re­cov­ery. It wants you dead. It’s harder for women to sep­a­rate their do­mes­tic and emo­tional ties to phys­i­cally make time for this process. Your chil­dren are your pri­or­ity, but so is your so­bri­ety. There’s no wine o’clock to numb the ex­haus­tion. Like many other as­pects of parenthood, so­bri­ety be­comes an­other task to add to the list. I ap­plaud women in the me­dia who have spo­ken out about their ad­dic­tion – writ­ers like Han­nah Betts and Bry­ony Gor­don – women who in­stinc­tively know through their work that be­ing vo­cal is des­tig­ma­tis­ing. In speak­ing their truth, they em­power other women to feel less iso­lated. I never want my two chil­dren to feel that there’s a dirty se­cret in our fam­ily. I will talk to them about it at the ap­pro­pri­ate time. It would have been far eas­ier to write this piece anony­mously. But if by au­then­ti­cally of­fer­ing my ex­pe­ri­ence I add to the grow­ing mo­men­tum of women sep­a­rat­ing their shame from their ill­ness and seek­ing help, it will have been worth it.

Clock­wise from top: Rus­sell Brand, Dav­ina Mc­call, Bradley Cooper, Naomi Campbell, Court­ney Love, Amy Wine­house, Kate Moss and Ant Mc­partlin

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