Since the late sixties and seventies the women’s movement has been striving for ‘equality’ with men. When it comes to alcohol consumption, some women can ‘drink like a man’ but it definitely affects them on a different scale. Women who drink excessively stand a greater chance of having health related issues and these physical problems will manifest themselves much quicker in females than in males.
One of the problems facing women and alcoholism is there just isn’t much research available pertaining exclusively to women and drinking. Until recently, most studies have centered on male drinking habits and health maladies excluding for the most part, half the population. Of the more than 15 million alcoholic and problem drinkers in the U.S., women make up almost one third of them.
In my experience, a key factor in the psychology of women’s drinking is associated with the issue of shame. For most women, acting less than ‘normal’ or in a ‘socially acceptable’ way is quite shameful. And it becomes quite difficult for a woman to bring forward this seeming ‘flaw’ in her character i.e. her excessive drinking.
Women alcoholics are more inclined to be secretive drinkers trying to hide their addiction from everyone. There is a stigma attached to women as problem drinkers much more so than in men. Factors such as geography, race, marital status, occupation and genetics all play a role in a women’s susceptibility to alcohol abuse.
As an example, single women living alone are more likely to abuse alcohol than a woman with children who is widowed. Of course there are always exceptions to the rule. Age also has a role in women abusing alcohol. Younger women appear to drink more heavily than older women and yet middle aged women have a higher rate of alcohol addiction overall.
Women get intoxicated faster than men for purely physiological reasons ranging from drinking just prior to and during their menstrual cycle, having less total body mass than men, and the fact that women metabolize alcohol differently from men. These factors add up to women feeling the effects of excessive drinking more quickly than men. Most women surveyed agreed that early in their drinking they hit the impairment level much quicker drinking smaller amounts of alcohol than men. Of course, women abusing alcohol develop the same tolerances to it as men do, but on a lesser scale.
Continuous abuse of alcohol will take a heavier toll on a woman than on a man. Women alcoholics have a mortality rate that is nearly 50 to 100 percent higher than their male counterparts. There is a higher incidence of alcoholic women taking their own lives, involvement in accidents that are related to alcohol and they suffer more from liver and heart problems, such as cirrhosis and circulatory illnesses, respectively.
Beyond my perspectives on the science of women and alcohol issues above, I have some professional observations from my experiences with admitted female alcoholics over the years.
Many women hide their drinking at the crucial stage from social to problematic drinking. In other words, when they are at the point when they could clearly benefit from a treatment program, the addiction grabs them faster than it does men. They retreat into solitary drinking quicker than men do. My theory here is based on the stigma mentioned earlier for women and alcoholism by society.
After the age of forty women decline more quickly from problem drinking to full blown alcoholism. The slope seems to be more slippery for women than men at this point. Women seek treatment more quickly than men do overall, and their drinking careers are shorter than men’s are.
Women have a harder time recognizing their problem since the majority of them drank with their husbands who likely had an unrecognized drinking problem. Women tend to have more slips during recovery before their behavior stabilized. Their alcohol problem wasn’t evident to their physicians until they were hospitalized for health issues.
Many if not most women who drink excessively are perhaps dealing with disturbing emotional issues. Unfortunately, many women who have had traumatic experiences in their lives, whether sexual, physical or emotional abuse; carry these scars within them. This trauma makes recovery from alcohol difficult as increasing sobriety allows feelings and memories to return and the shame, pain and betrayal all too frequently drive women back to alcohol to numb their pain.
There appears to be a need to move back and forth between abstention and continued drinking; the need to slowly move toward recognition of their drinking problem. It’s clear that although alcoholism is a universal problem between the genders, women in particular seem to pay a higher price for their alcoholism.
To set up an appointment with Michael Pearlman, M.D., Call 1 (866) 285-3400 toll-free or (617) 620-2230,