For as much as we talk about addiction and alcoholism on this site, you might think we’re teetotalers, or anti-alcohol or something. Anyone who has attended one of our conferences knows that couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, the old humblebrag about Episcopalians–“where two or three are gathered together, you will always find a fifth”–applies more than we might wish. Life is hard, and who are we to begrudge someone taking the edge off with a cold beer or a “generous pour” of Cabernet at the end of the day? And yet, and yet, as our most widespread and accessible of means of self-medication, alcohol remains extremely useful to anyone interested in tracing the cultural contours of demand and mercy, despair and relief, etc. It’s too, um, potent an avenue not to risk being the occasional killjoy.
But are there any fresh angles to explore when it comes to our relationship with booze? Yes and no. No in the sense that the same existential factors inform our alcohol consumption that always have (pain, escape, compulsion, inhibition, boredom, grief, fun, etc), but yes in the sense of how those factors are currently manifesting themselves. Case in point: Ann Dowsett Johnson’s probing piece for The Atlantic on “Alcohol as Escape from Perfectionism.” Johnson first caught my eye the other day with a piece published on Salon entitled “Stop Calling It ‘Mommyjuice'” in which she shed light on a new caricature creeping into our landscape: the wine-guzzling homemaker (one lampooned to giddy effect on Cougar Town). Both are fantastic reads, as is, I bet, her new book Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol, from which the articles are adapted.
You may be familiar with the conventional line about alcoholism being double as prevalent in men as women. In the Atlantic piece Johnson suggests that the scales may be balancing somewhat, that alcohol abuse may be one particularly distressing by-product of the “Have-it-all-itis” (Thou Shalt Be Everything to Everyone) under which so many modern women are made to live:
In a recent poll done by Netmums in Britain, 81 percent of those who drank above the safe drinking guidelines said they did so “to wind down from a stressful day.” And 86 percent said they felt they should drink less. Jungian analyst Jan Bauer, author of Alcoholism andWomen: The Background and the Psychology, believes women are looking for what she calls “oblivion drinking.” “Alcohol offers a time out from doing it all—‘Take me out of my perfectionism.’ Superwoman is a cliché now, but it is extremely dangerous. I’ve seen such a perversion of feminism, where everything becomes work: raising children, reading all the books, not listening to their instincts. The main question is: What self are they trying to turn off? These women have climbed so high that when they fall, they crash—and alcohol’s a perfect way to crash.”
I ask Leslie Buckley, the psychiatrist who heads the women’s addiction program at Toronto’s University Health Network, if she sees a pattern in the professional women who come to see her. She doesn’t skip a beat: “Perfectionism.” Such an unforgiving word, such an unforgiving way of being—echoed by yet another doctor, who speaks of patients who look like they stepped out of Vogue: perfect-looking women with perfect children at the right schools, living in perfect houses, aiming for a perfect performance at work, with eating disorders and serious substance abuse issues.
The tyrannical myth of perfection: it seizes the psyche and doesn’t let go. My mother was in its grip, and she paid a serious price for it. This was in the 1960s, when men came home from work and expected dinner and a stiff drink—except my father was usually traveling. For years my mother held down the fort. She wrote perfect thank-you notes, she cooked perfect meals. As a new bride, she ironed bed sheets and pillowcases; as a new mother, she starched our smocked dresses. My sister and I wore white gloves when we traveled, velvet hairbands in our hair, and wrote perfect thank-you notes, too. And then my mother was the one with the stiff drink, and it all crashed—but not before I had it imprinted on me: Perfect was the way to be.
Perfect has been the way to be for several generations of women. I don’t remember my grandmothers suffering from this syndrome: women who raised families during the Depression, who baked and gardened and read well; who were fundamentally happy, and felt no pressure to look like stick figures.
But those Mad Men years took their toll. My mother wasn’t the only one self-medicating with a combination of alcohol and a benzodiazepine called Valium. By the end of the sixties, two-thirds of the users of psychoactive drugs—Valium, Librium—were women. In fact, between 1969 and 1982, Valium became the most commonly prescribed drug in the United States. In 1978, it was estimated that a fifth of American women were taking “mother’s little helper,” as the Rolling Stones called it… It never occurred to me—not for years—that alcohol was the mother’s little helper of my generation. But it is.
Today, women arrive home from work to face more work. So too do men—but there’s a difference. My ex-husband, and the man with whom I shared Nicholas’s rearing, is not a perfectionist. Constant? Always. An excellent father? The best. But I never considered him accountable in the way I was for certain essentials. We had a division of labor that worked well: he coached the sports teams, taught our son to ski, oversaw math. When it was Nicholas’s turn to eat at Will’s, there were three options for dinner: Kraft Dinner, Lean Cuisine, or take-out chili. It never varied. Dinner at my house was more nutritious—but often late. Breakfast was pancakes, from scratch. True, this brought me joy. So did making the Halloween costumes. I was not willing to miss out on some of the essential pleasures of being a mother just because I worked. And I wasn’t willing to miss out on some of the essential rewards of a great career just because I was a mother. As a result, my life was complex, truly jam-packed like a Christmas cake. If I could stuff in one more cherry, I did…
The truth was, I always wanted to be the alpha dog when it came to our son. From the time he was born, I felt that Nicholas was an egg I carried on a spoon, one I was not to drop. I’m sure Will felt no differently, especially as the years wore on and Nicholas evolved…
As an aside, Johnson is doing something pretty remarkable here. Regardless of how justified her feelings may be, it’s notoriously tough to write one of these essays without a little woe-is-me creeping in and obscuring the power of your argument, at least to readers with a Y chromosome. It probably goes without saying, but although the demand for perfection takes different (and more or less culturally convenient) forms for men and women, it is universal in its severity. I for one know plenty of parenting situations where the perfectionist shoes are on the other foot, for example. But ‘justified’ is the right word. As they say, the only thing more intoxicating than being right is feeling wronged, and all of us, male and female, have the propensity for holding onto our victimhood because we’re in love with the sense of superiority it gives us. Thankfully, Johnson is brave enough to admit that she liked being the “alpha dog”, the one in control, that her struggle with perfection had a self-inflicted aspect; as someone who sounds like they’re familiar with “the program”, she refuses to shift blame. Instead, she continues with a sweet little story of grace:
There were times when I did mess up. One winter, Nicholas came down with a bad case of whooping cough. (Turns out he and his pals had decided snow jackets were for sissies, playing every recess in their T-shirts.) I spent many nights awake, in his room. One morning I slept through the alarm. This happened to be the day the publisher of McClelland & Stewart was coming to the editor’s office to discuss a possible book contract—one I was to oversee. I missed the beginning of the meeting, but the publisher was gracious. He stood and shook my hand, and said, “Hats off to mothers.” You don’t forget a moment like that.
The essay concludes with a few interviews with professional women, talking about their relationship with alcohol, the most revealing of which is with Paige Cowan, a storeowner in Toronto:
Growing up, Cowan found herself without much parenting: her mother was a serious “self-medicator,” with pills. “This time last year, I became mindful about my relationship with alcohol,” she says. “Was I having a drink to deal with anxiety, self-medicating?” She decided to give up alcohol altogether—and not because she was an alcoholic. That’s when the pushback started. “Pretty much everyone I know is heavily into alcohol,” she says. “They disguise it as something sophisticated or chic. It’s uncomfortable when you don’t drink. People ask: ‘Have you stopped drinking altogether?’ Not everyone, but most. But I have noticed a big difference—and so has my husband. I have more vibrancy, my sense of humor is back. Alcohol adds a cloud, and the cloud lifts. It makes you wonder: ‘What was I doing to my body?’ ”
Perfectionism is a culprit that Cowan knows all too well. “At one point in my life I was trying to be the perfect woman: doing things in the community,” she says. “For a good ten years, I was unconsciously driving my life—and that’s when I self-medicated the most with wine. I was involved in so many community efforts—it was that feeling that I was never good enough. That whole perfectionist thing was driving everyone: you could bust your ass, and it wasn’t good enough. A relentless standard of perfection. I found it shocking how hard women are on other women. At our little school in a pretty little neighborhood, there was an abusive standard of perfection. You would often hear women say, ‘I’m going home and having a glass of wine’—as a release.”
“This is the way we are,” says Cowan. “We encourage young women to live their lives a certain way—and it has nothing to do with what feels right. We tell them they’re not pretty enough: that’s what we bombard them with. Get on the treadmill, bust your ass at work. I think we’re living in a culture that’s so demanding: You never feel like you’re good enough. It wears people down. People are exhausted at the end of the day. They go home and have a drink as a way to cope with all of this—a lot of people have to self-medicate because it would be hard for them to look in the mirror otherwise. The whole concept of being conscious—that’s hard work. A lot of people just don’t want to sign up for it.”
As depressing as some of this may be, it certainly resonates. If perfectionism itself doesn’t kill you, the coping mechanisms will. And even though young women are outperforming young men in this country–to an absurd degree–that doesn’t mean they are winning. They can’t win. Not when perfection is the only acceptable outcome. Sound familiar?
If there’s one thing I’ve noticed about social life in one’s 30s, it’s how, as The Referendum takes its toll, our circles of friendship bifurcate and narrow, and not just along professional and circumstantial lines but alcohol-related ones as well (i.e. there are those circles where alcohol is a means, those where it is an end, and those where it’s nonexistent). In one’s 20s, everyone at least acts like drinking is the only social glue and/or engine of fun. In one’s 30s however, people are a bit more comfortable with their preferences, less susceptible to peer pressure, and often tired in a whole new way. Yet I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to seeing the correlation Johnson describes, namely, that the social circles where alcohol has all but completely taken the place of connection and vulnerability tend to be the more higher-achieving and ‘beautiful’ ones. These are communities where there’s no longer much of a pretense about drinking being an aid to connecting with other people. Instead, other people come represent an opportunity to imbibe, and a cynical person might say that social life becomes nothing more than a revolving door of different venues in which to get loaded. There’s something rather frantic about it all, exhausting even.
Maybe Johnson is right and the higher one rises, professionally, financially, or socially, the heavier the perfectionism and pressure grows, and the more liquid courage/relief a person requires. But it could just as easily be that the higher up one climbs, the harder it becomes to ignore the hollowness at the heart of most of our striving, and the more you want to be distracted from it. Which probably sounds a lot more curmudgeonly than it is meant to. People drink for all sorts of reasons, after all, many of which are inscrutable, and as we’re so fond of pointing out, no amount of explanation or awareness about alcohol consumption is going to be enough to stem the tide of addiction when it rises. People living under the debilitating burden of perfectionism, which is all of us, don’t need more information, they need compassion and help. Inexhaustible grace for an
exhausted inebriated world–I don’t know about you, but I’ll drink to that.