When people quit drinking, their obsession with alcohol and addictive behaviour doesn’t always lose momentum, but it can be harnessed in more productive ways. One sober mate of mine now makes documentaries about addiction. Another trained to be a drug and alcohol counsellor. Many people start blogs. I wrote a book, Woman of Substances: A Journey into Drugs, Alcohol and Treatment.
Apart from the autobiographical spelunking in this book, it’s filled with the expert opinion of 35 neuroscientists, clinicians and researchers. I wanted to ask them the questions us boozehounds have pondered long and hard over the years: Why am I governed by impulsivity? Why the constant restlessness? Why the urge to always press the big red button, even when it flies in the face of common sense? What I didn’t expect was that the answers would be quite so gendered. Here are some things I learned.
Sometimes we’re not “self-medicating”, we’re just taking care of business
Women self-medicate more than men. It’s a refrain that I hear over and over as I’m researching the book, and it means women are considered more likely to use drugs and alcohol for negative reinforcement, such as to alleviate anxiety, while men’s reasons tend towards positive reinforcement, such as getting wasted with the boys.
But is that accurate? Or do we just frame our drinking as self-medication because we’ve been conditioned to think we’re unwell? ‘Anxiety’ has been a buzzword from the mid-twentieth century onwards, as evidenced by magazine advertisements for pharmaceutical speed and sedatives. In a 1956 advert for Serpasil, which offers to ‘raise the emotional threshold against everyday stresses’, there’s a photograph of a woman hemmed in by a vacuum cleaner and a screaming kid. A 1967 advert for Serax depicts a woman imprisoned behind bars of broom handles. The text reads: ‘You can’t free her but you can help her feel less anxious.’ The foreground of a 1970 advert for Ritalin shows a woman weeping over a vacuum cleaner. ‘Helps relieve chronic fatigue and apathy quickly,’ it promises.
Of course women experience anxiety, but these advertisements were more accurately advising men how to keep their unfulfilled wives working efficiently. Now the baton has been seized by ‘wine o’clock’ meme-makers, who’ll depict a Victorian-era woman, or a mother on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Okay, they’re a bit of fun, but these memes buy into the idea that needing …