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Probably more than 1,000,000 American women are
of alcoholism. Here are the shocking facts.
by DON MURRAY
every American town, on almost every green, shaded street,
live housewives who are desperately ill but who do not seek
the treatments which are available. They remain prisoners
in their homes, isolated by their own guilt and hidden by
their families’ shame. These lonely, terrified women
all suffer the same secret sickness: Alcoholism.
The woman alcoholic is rarely seen intoxicated by her neighbors,
but she exists just the same. “There are just as many
woman drunks in the suburbs as men, perhaps even more,”
says Mrs. Thomas Delaney, founder and director of CHR-ILL
(“chronically Ill”) Service, and its alcoholism
information center in East Orange, New Jersey, which is
operated under the auspices of the Essex County Medical
Her experience is supported by Dr. Marvin Block of Buffalo,
New York, chairman of the American Medical Association’s
committee on alcoholism. Says Doctor Block: ”In my
own practice, alcoholism is as common among women as among
men. And I have found that the same thing is true with other
private physicians who treat alcoholic patients."
Statistics on alcoholism in the United States – 80,000,000
drinkers; 5,000,000 male alcoholics; 850,000 female alcoholics
– do not yet reflect the facts as they are known by
workers in the field, and for good reason. Such estimates
are based on public records, and most women alcoholics remain
stigma of being a woman alcoholic is so great that women
with a drinking problem hide it,” according to Mrs.
Marty Mann, who is founder and head of the National Council
on Alcoholism. Most women alcoholics are secret drinkers
who satisfy their compulsion with primitive cunning.
neighbors never knew,” one recovered alcoholic woman
told me, “that my bedroom floor was skid row.”
The Fairfield County (Connecticut) Council on Alcoholism
has estimated that there are nine hidden alcoholics for
each one who is known.
The woman drunk is protected by their husband, her parents,
her children, her family physician. In a good neighborhood
there is a conspiracy of discreet silence. The woman alcoholic
is treated for “female troubles” by her family
doctor and admitted to the private hospital for “a
nervous disorder.’ Her name does not appear on the
police blotter and, when the woman alcoholic dies, there
is rarely an autopsy. The cause of death is listed delicately
as “heart failure.”
Despite this protective conspiracy, the woman alcoholic
is beginning to reveal herself and to seek treatment. I
have attended meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous – once
a predominantly male organization – where there were
as many women as men. The number of women coming for help
to the sixty-one alcoholism information centers affiliated
with the National Council on Alcoholism is increasing steadily.
The problem of the woman drunk is as old as the grape, and
there is no evidence that the percentage of women drinkers
who become alcoholics is increasing. What is startling is
the fact that today most young women drink in college, in
bars on the way home from work, in the suburbs after they
are married. The woman who has never had the first drink
cannot become an alcoholic. Since World War II the number
of woman drinkers has multiplied dramatically and so, inevitably,
has the number of women who cannot control their drinking.
Take a drive through a pleasant New Jersey suburb with Mrs.
Delaney, as I did, and you’ll begin to see the dimensions
of the problem of alcoholism in women.
has five children, and she’s been sober five months
this time,” Mrs. Delaney told me grimly. “She’s
a lovely girl when she isn’t drunk. She was married
in her teens, and she was an alcoholic as a teen-ager too.
Meet her and you’d like to have her for a neighbor,
yet she’s been in and out of half a dozen mental institutions
and tried about every cure there is. Last time she hit bottom,
and she may make it now. Some have to go all the way down
before they can start up.”
As we drove off, I thought of what a member of the Fairfield
County Council told me. She said, “We have 12,000
alcoholics, but the alcoholics have 60,000 people in their
immediate families. We think they are all involved in the
problem of alcoholism.”
isn’t the Bowery, is it?” Mrs. Delaney brought
me back to New Jersey and pointed to an English manor house
set high on a double lot. “The woman who owns that
home is in the hospital now. She’s a physical wreck
who looks at least twenty years older than her real age,
fifty-eight. You’d never think she was a lush if you
met her. She’s a lady – genteel, soft-spoken,
Mrs. Delaney nodded sadly. “It’s an old story.
By the time her children grew up and left home, her husband
was a success. He traveled a great deal, and she was left
alone. She never drank in front of anyone, but she started
to drink alone; and after he died, she rarely left the house,
didn’t even get dressed for weeks. Time turned upside
down, until night was day and day was night. She drank until
she passed out and drank herself into oblivion again. We
never would have found her if she hadn’t gone to doctor
for another ailment.”
didn’t her children do something?” I asked.
didn’t know,” Mrs. Delaney smiled. “Women
alcoholics are the most convincing liars in the world. She
wrote them about her busy life. When they wanted to visit,
she’d tell them she was going to Europe, or something.
Only once in a while did she make a heroic effort to dress
up and face them.”
We drove on until Mrs. Delaney parked in front of a group
of expensive garden apartments. “Career women come
to us too. They take care of their parents or seek a career
in a man’s world, sacrificing everything for success,
and then something happens. In one of those apartments over
there is a young woman with a Ph.D., but she’s a drunk.
been in to see us, but she isn’t ready for help yet.”
Mrs. Delaney pulled away from the curb. “Her employees
don’t know, although they may be wondering why she’s
sick so many Monday mornings. She’s a falling down
drunk, but her booze is delivered, and you never see her
on the street. If you met her, you wouldn’t suspect
it. She’s charming, graceful, intelligent –
and very sick.”
When we arrived at her office, Mrs. Delaney summed up our
trip, “People think of the woman drunk as an old hag,
a blowzy creature who would never live in a nice neighborhood.
They won’t believe that people they know are alcoholics,
and therefore they won’t help them get treatment.
That’s the trouble. They won’t admit alcoholism
is a disease and that the woman who has a serious drinking
problem could be their next-door neighbor, their best friend,
even a member of their own family.”
Information from authorities on alcoholism across the country
confirms Mrs. Delaney’s picture of the woman alcoholic.
“The large majority of the women alcoholics I know
are best described by the word ‘dainty’”
writes Mary C. Clark, executive director of the Monterey
Peninsula Council on Alcoholism in Carmel, California. “Their
portrait is in pastel tones, the skin delicate, the voice
gentle, the manner feminine.” Sarah A. Boyd, director
of the Berks County Committee on Alcoholism in Reading,
Pennsylvania, has found that the average woman alcoholic
is of superior intelligence, has a better-than-average income,
is usually between thirty-six and fifty years old and has
two or three children. Mrs. Boyd’s experience confirms
the National Council on Alcoholism estimate that less than
3 percent of all confirmed alcoholics are derelicts.
Reports from alcoholism information centers in Houston,
Honolulu, Cleveland, Detroit, Greensboro, North Carolina,
and other cities – as well as conversations I have
had with physicians, psychiatrists and recovered alcoholics
– all indicate that the woman alcoholic may be shy
or vivacious, young or old, too busy or too idle, married
or single, but they all have one thing in common: There
is a vacuum in their lonely lives that they desperately
try to fill with a bottle.
The woman alcoholic has lost her way in life, and drinking
has become a way of living. “Instead of facing reality,
they try to change it with a drink,” one psychiatrist
told me. Mrs. Delaney adds, “They all need a crutch
to get through life. They try alcohol, then they find they
can’t get along without it.”
For years alcohol seemed an efficient crutch. With a drink
in her hand the too-busy mother finds the momentary stimulation
to face another chore or a moment of calm in the confusion
of children’s demands, errands and social obligations.
The bored woman finds a warming hour of fulfillment, another
hour of fuzzy contentment and, finally, a night of oblivion.
According to a studies at the Yale Center of Alcohol Studies
in New Haven, Connecticut, and elsewhere, women alcoholics
tend to start drinking later in life than men, and then
progress faster through the final stages of alcoholism than
males. Yet there are usually long years while they are clear-headed
drinkers, while they have no hang-overs, while they still
drink heavily by choice. But somewhere they cross over the
line. They take a drink as a stimulant before a party and
another as a sedative afterward. Insidiously the drink becomes
all things at all times. Social affairs are planned as an
excuse to drink, the five-o’clock cocktail becomes
a reward – and a daylong goal. Getting the first drink
– and the dozens which inevitably follow – becomes
a way of life.
Alcoholism is a progressive disease, with permanent danger
signals for the woman who will allow herself to see them.
The National Council on Alcoholism, the members of Alcoholics
Anonymous, physicians and psychiatrists and other experts
recognize the same warning signs along the road which leads
from the drink which is chosen to the one which can not
If a woman has become “a slow cooker,” delaying
dinner so there will be time for an extra Martini, if she
insists on mixing the drinks so she can “earn”
the dividend, if she needs a drink before going to a party
and another after she comes home, if she drinks alone, if
she plans social occasions which will give her an excuse
to drink, if she “sweetens” her own drinks,
if she “needs” a drink to face a crisis, she’d
better watch out.
If she blacks out, lies to herself and others about the
number and the strength of drinks she has had, drinks “the
hair of the dog” in the morning and hides a reserve
supply, then she is in trouble and should seek help immediately.
Doctor Block adds some advice of his own: “Pay attention
to valid criticism from those in your family who care about
you. If they are worried about your drinking, don’t
pass it off – consider it. They may have something
to worry about.”
Too often the woman speeds past all warning signs and becomes
an alcoholic. Then liquor controls her life, then the next
drink is more important than anything else – the care
of a child, the love of a man, her health, her home, her
reputation, her God. As her thirst begins to rule her life,
a woman runs head on into a double standard. Among men,
heavy drinking is often taken as a sign of virility, and
the phrase, “Drunk as a lord,” is a tribute.
No one ever said approvingly, “She was drunk as a
lady.” The woman with an unquenchable thirst must
lead a life of unrelenting deception.
One recovered alcoholic told me she used to slither down
the side of her bed and crawl to the bathroom to make sure
she wouldn’t fall and develop revealing bruises. A
woman alcoholic will hide a jug in the diaper pail, fill
the hot-water bottle with Scotch, stash a fifth in the vacuum
cleaner, spike the vinegar bottle. A career woman with perfect
eyesight wore spectacles with thick, uncorrected lenses
to hide her bloodshot eyes. One woman fooled her husband
by keeping gin in the water carafe by her bed; another buried
half-pints in cereal boxes.
Many women keep changing doctors so one won’t catch
on to the true nature of their disorders. Mrs. Elizabeth
D. Whitney, executive director of the Boston Committee on
Alcoholism, has known several women who drank perfume for
its alcoholic content, so their breath wouldn’t smell
of whiskey. Vanilla extract has been a staple of women alcoholics
for generations, as have many patent medicines with high
alcoholic content. Many of these tonics and elixirs are
still popular in rural areas and among elderly women.
A woman with a drinking problem develops an extraordinary
ability to rationalize. She needs a drink because she is
tense, and she needs another to perk her up; she drinks
because her husband is away on a business trip, and she
drinks to celebrate his return home. Women alcoholics may
not always fool others, but they almost always deceive themselves,
and that self-deception is the most dangerous of all, for
it keeps them from seeking and accepting treatment.
The ability of a woman with a drinking problem to delude
herself is astonishing. “I only drink sherry,”
is a popular, self-righteous refrain that may hide the fact
she drinks half a gallon or more a day. A Connecticut mother,
who is now a member of A.A., knew she didn’t have
a drinking problem because she never touched a drop until
the children were in bed. Of course, she kept putting them
to bed earlier and earlier in the afternoon and then drinking
until she passed out. Another A.A. member told me she convinced
herself she was not an alcoholic, because she always hung
her clothes up neatly before she blacked out.
Richard Silver, executive director of the Seattle Committee
on Alcoholism, has found that husbands often encourage such
dangerous self-delusion by denying their wives’ alcoholism.
False pride prevents many a man from admitting his wife
could be an alcoholic. Worse still, he prevents his wife
from facing her problem, the first step in any successful
treatment of the alcoholic.
The woman alcoholic has particular difficulties because
she is a woman. As a wife and a mother her erratic behavior
has a devastating effect on her family. Mrs. Delaney has
found that the woman alcoholic is usually a perfectionist
who swings wildly from one emotional extreme to the other.
She cleans the entire house at once, or doesn’t wash
a single dish. She refuses to allow her husband near her,
or smothers him with aggressive affection. She will have
no guests in the house and then invites twenty to a formal
dinner. Her son goes uncorrected for major offenses and
then has his bike taken away for a month for trivial misbehavior.
One daughter does not have a birthday party, but her sisters
and friends are treated to birthday lunch in the private
dining room of a fancy restaurant.
The road of the woman alcoholic is not an easy one. A.A.
experience has shown that a mother who is a drunk loses
the respect of her children earlier than a drinking father
does and is less likely to win it back. Husbands are more
apt to divorce an alcoholic mate than a woman is. A woman
usually has economic reasons to stick with her husband.
He is a feeble reed, but he may be her only support.
When a woman “blacks out,” an experience shared
by all alcoholics and a universal danger signal, she suffers
a special horror at the thought of what might have happened
while she was unconscious. It is biologically and psychologically
impossible for a woman to be casual about blackouts. There
are promiscuous women drunks, of course, but the infidelities
of a woman alcoholic are more often imaginary than real.
Much of the scorn heaped on the woman alcoholic implies
that she has been sexually uninhibited. Mrs. Mann of the
National Council on Alcoholism has a blunt answer to that
supposition. “Who wants a drunken woman?” she
asks. “When men are interested in her, she’s
only interested in the next drink. When she passes out,
she’s vulnerable, of course, but it isn’t likely
that anyone will take advantage of her. She’s hardly
an attractive woman by then, and her virtue is usually quite
According to such authorities as John T. Crane, executive
director of the Flint (Michigan) Committee on Alcoholism,
the woman alcoholic is likely to be a plateau drinker who
keeps herself on an even keel, although she is consistently
sodden and awash like a bashed-in dory floating just under
the surface of the water. Many experts feel the compulsive
woman drinker usually has more serious emotional ills, in
addition to her alcoholism, than the male – and of
course, no treatment can be given until she is sober. Her
nervous system sometimes triggers heavy drinking in the
premenstrual periods, or during the menopause. Mrs. Delaney,
who also runs a rest home for alcoholics, finds that women
drinkers are likely to suffer extreme physical damage in
a short time. She believes that the physical ravages of
heavy drinking cut deeper in the female than in the male.
Most alcoholics suffer extreme malnutrition from drinking
without eating. Cirrhosis of the liver, the fifth highest
killer of men and an increasing disease of women, is not
caused by the amount of liquor drunk but by the lack of
proper food. Women alcoholics often confuse their loss of
appetite with the will to diet, and drink but do not eat
– a certain road to physical ruin.
Modern drugs offer a special hazard to the woman. Doctors
often casually prescribe barbiturates, bromides and tranquilizers
to calm their nerves, ease their female difficulties, cure
their insomnia. Mrs. Delaney believes the woman alcoholic
is particularly addictive, and Alcoholics Anonymous has
issued a special pamphlet on the subject of drugs and the
alcoholic. For whatever the psychological facts may be,
the person who depends on alcohol to face life is likely
to let drugs take control of him too. In some especially
tragic cases a woman who has won the struggle to stop drinking
is set off on a binge by cough syrup liberally laced with
alcohol, or she substitutes capsules and pills for the bottle
until she finally becomes a drug addict.
With or without the problem of drugs, the woman alcoholic
faces a long, lonely struggle, but she can face the future
with hope today. Education has already removed the stigma
which once kept the victims of tuberculosis and cancer from
receiving treatment. Education is changing the public attitude
on mental illness. The same process of illuminating truth
is removing the dark shadow which falls over the woman alcoholic.
Today the facts about alcoholism can be obtained from the
National Council on Alcoholism, 2 East 103rd Street, New
York City, or its sixty-eight affiliates which operate sixty-one
alcoholism information centers in twenty-seven states and
the District of Columbia. There also are tax-supported agencies
working with alcoholics in thirty-nine states. The techniques
of the Alcoholics Anonymous recovery program have been proved
by the lives of more than 250,000 members, and groups can
be reached through a great many local telephone books or
by writing Box 459, Grand Central Station, New York City.
One of the best books of many on alcoholism is Marty Mann’s
New Primer on Alcoholism, published by Rinehart and Winston.
When the Boston Committee on Alcoholism was formed sixteen
years ago, it was the first of its kind. Now Mrs. Whitney,
it’s founder, can say, “This is what we tell
women who come to us today: The stigma of being a woman
alcoholic is being removed, and treatment is available for
every woman who wants it.”
Once the housewives’ secret sickness is brought into
the open, it then can be healed successfully.
Saturday Evening Post, January 27, 1962)