Mom. Businesswoman. Alcoholic.
A mother climbs out of the depths of addiction
Tribune reporter / Colleen Mastony
She stood on the sidelines amid the blankets and camp chairs, a petite, brown-haired woman in a monogrammed polo shirt, cheering as her 7-year-old son sprinted down the soccer field.
At halftime, she stepped up with a water bottle and pep talk. And after the game ended in a 4-0 loss, she circulated among the pint-size players as the designated “team mom,” passing out apple slices, pretzels and peanut butter crackers.
“Good job, guys,” she said brightly as she tousled hair, patted shoulders and gave high-fives. “You did really well.”
The Saturday soccer game is familiar territory for many middle-class mothers. But for this 39-year-old executive, the autumn afternoon felt like a gift. Last year she missed a lot of games. When she did show up, she was usually drunk. An outgoing woman with a big smile and wry wit, she would stand by herself because, she says, “I was afraid the other parents would smell alcohol on my breath.”
Her story — of a nightly glass of wine that turned into a nightly bottle and eventually four bottles a day — reflects a growing national trend: Alcoholism, once largely considered a man’s disease, has become increasingly common among women.
At her most desperate, Heather — who asked the Tribune to withhold her last name because of the stigma associated with alcoholism — was drinking around the clock, waking in the middle of the night to pour herself a glass of white wine and regularly driving her son to school while drunk. A doctor told her that she was killing herself with alcohol. She had gone to that appointment drunk; a blood test confirmed that she was over the legal limit by 8:45 a.m. And for weeks afterward, she kept drinking.
Now, after an intervention by her employer and her pastor, she has remained sober for a year. But staying that way remains a daily, sometimes hourly, struggle.
“I know this disease is waiting for me. It wants to see me dead,” she says. “It’s like it’s outside doing push-ups, getting stronger and stronger and stronger. It’s just waiting for me to have a moment of weakness so it can take me back.”
Drinking on rise among women
Over the last several decades, women have been drinking more and getting drunk more often. Studies show that the rates of alcoholism have nearly doubled among women born after 1954 when compared to those born earlier. And, over the last decade, excessive drinking among women suggests that rates of alcohol dependence are continuing to increase. The number of binge drinking episodes among women, for example, rose 31 percent between 1993 and 2001, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Heavier drinking rates, in turn, seem to be resulting in higher rates of drunken-driving arrests; the number of women arrested for driving under the influence increased nearly 30 percent between 1998 and 2007.
And it’s not just women who are drinking more. Girls are drinking earlier than ever before, with nearly one-quarter of female high-school students reporting that they began drinking before they turned 13, a particularly disturbing trend because drinking at a young age increases a person’s risk of becoming a problem drinker later in life.
Across the country, addiction treatment centers report spikes in the number of women seeking care. Two years ago, the well-known Hazelden rehabilitation center in Minnesota doubled the number of beds available for women in an attempt to meet increasing demand for drug and alcohol treatment. In Chicago, programs including New Hope Recovery Center and Resurrection Health Care’s treatment facility have seen similar increases.
“Ten years ago, it used be 65 percent men. Today, we’re approaching 50/50,” says Dr. Daniel Angres, director of addiction services at Resurrection. As factors driving the trend, he and others point to increased pressure on women to juggle work and motherhood, along with a culture that often makes light of drinking with books such as “The Three-Martini Playdate” and the Facebook group “OMG I so need a glass of wine or I’m gonna sell my kids.”
Behind the statistics and theories, however, are the stories of everyday women. Some cases — such as Diane Schuler’s wrong-way, drunken-driving crash that killed her and seven others on a New York expressway in July — have drawn intense publicity.
But many more women struggle anonymously. Women such as a 45-year-old South Side mother of four who told the Tribune how she hid bottles beneath the towels in her linen closet. Or the 49-year-old executive of a nonprofit whose 10-year-old daughter once found her passed out on the bedroom floor during a family ski trip.
“There’s been liberalization of so many different things, many of which have been very good for women — sports, education, employment,” said Dr. Laura Jean Bierut, an alcoholism researcher at Washington University in St. Louis. “But one of the areas of liberalization that may not be good is that girls are drinking more like boys. And drinking more like boys has also resulted in what appears to be an increase in alcoholism in women.”
Drinking began at an early age
In many ways, Heather’s story reflects these larger trends. Growing up in Lake Forest, she started drinking when she was 10, sneaking a sip from her grandmother’s bourbon and Coke. In high school, she binged whenever she could. And in college, she spent so much time partying she failed out of school. She re-enrolled, eventually graduated and, in her 20s, reined in her drinking.
But on maternity leave with her infant son, she sometimes treated herself to a glass of wine in the afternoon. When she went back to work, she began to depend on several nightly cocktails to help her unwind — a pattern that her physician, Dr. Lisa Oldson Orelind of Northwestern Memorial Hospital, says is “a very common way people get into trouble.”
The dual pressure of motherhood and career created a constant knot in her stomach, Heather says. “I felt this need to be perfect — perfect at my job, a perfect wife and mother.”
A family history of alcoholism — Heather’s grandfather, father and brother are all recovering alcoholics — no doubt made her more vulnerable. Over next few years, her drinking accelerated, fueling the collapse of her marriage. Her then-husband didn’t realize how much she was drinking, but now wonders, “if it was willful ignorance on my part, that I didn’t want to see what was happening.”
After the couple divorced in 2006, Heather began finishing a quart of vodka a day. At work, colleagues covered for her unexplained absences, lost paperwork and missed deadlines. At home, she planted her then 5-year-old son in front of the television so that she could pass out on the couch. Afraid that she would die, she taught her son how to use her BlackBerry so he could call for help.
By 2007, she was struggling to quit. After a family intervention, she managed to stay sober for three weeks. But always, the bottle drew her back.
When tests last year showed she had developed alcoholic hepatitis, an inflammation of the liver, Dr. Daniel Ganger, the director of hepatology at Northwestern Memorial, warned that she was killing herself with alcohol. “Maybe within in year she would have been very ill or possibly dead,” he says now. Still, for weeks afterward, Heather kept drinking. She couldn’t stop, even to save her life.
“I would say to myself, ‘You’re not going to drink from 9 a.m. until lunchtime,'” she recalled. “But I could never make it. I’d say, ‘OK, just give it an hour.’ But there were days when I couldn’t give it an hour.”
Then, last October, the Rev. David Abrahamson, the pastor at St. Luke Lutheran Church in Lakeview who had known Heather for more than a decade, confronted her in his cluttered church office. At the pastor’s side that afternoon was Heather’s boss. They explained that her job was safe, but under one condition. “You’re going into a rehab program,” Abrahamson said.
Heather had arrived at the church drunk, exhausted and expecting to be fired. She had damaged her liver and been told that she was drinking herself to death. Her parents and ex-husband had begun to discuss challenging her fitness as a parent. That afternoon, she said: “OK, I’ll go.”
For the next several days, she drank heavily. But the following Wednesday, she walked into Harborview Recovery Center at St. Joseph Hospital, a 15-bed facility that overlooks the lakefront.
Sharing lessons about alcoholism
On Thursday, Heather marked one year of sobriety. The last 12 months have been far from easy. Her mind returns again and again to the times she drove drunk with her son in the car. “Just to think that I put my son in that position,” she says. “I pray to God that he will not remember any of that. That it is just erased from his memory.”
Every Thursday, she returns to St. Joseph Hospital to speak to patients. It helps to see the faces of people still in the throes of addiction, a reminder of the place she doesn’t want to return. It helps, too, to share the lessons she’s learned: you’re not alone, you need help to beat the addiction, there is hope.
On a recent afternoon, she breezed onto the hospital ward. Dressed in a dark suit and a string of silver beads, she waved hello to the nurses, checked in with her counselor, and headed for a small break room. As a group of patients gathered, Heather saw that half of the 10 people around the table were women — grandmothers, wives and mothers — a reflection of the growing number of women suffering from the disease.
Michelle, a petite 48-year-old wearing wire-rimmed glasses, had been drinking two bottles of wine a night. Marge, a 63-year-old grandmother, had turned to the bottle after her son died in an accident two years before.
They all took their places around the table.
When everyone was settled, the woman in the dark suit began to speak.
“Hi,” she said, “my name is Heather, and I’m an alcoholic.”
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Telltale symptoms of alcohol abuse
This questionnaire by the National Institutes of Health is designed to identify symptoms of alcohol abuse and dependence. Answering yes to even one question may indicate someone is abusing alcohol, according to NIH, and three or more positive answers can suggest alcohol dependence or alcoholism, depending upon the severity of symptoms. In the past year, have you:
*Had times when you ended up drinking more than you intended?
*More than once wanted to cut down or stop drinking, but couldn’t?
*More than once gotten into situations while or after drinking that increased your chances of getting hurt — such as driving or having unsafe sex?
*Had to drink much more than you once did to get the effect you want or found that your usual number of drinks had much less effect than before?
*Continued to drink even though it was making you feel depressed or anxious or adding to another health problem, or after having had a memory blackout?
*Spent a lot of time drinking or getting over the aftereffects of drinking?
*Continued to drink even though it was causing trouble with your family or friends?
*Found that drinking — or being sick from drinking — often interfered with taking care of your home or family, or caused job troubles or school problems?
*Given up or cut back on activities that were important or interesting to you in order to drink?
*More than once gotten arrested or had other legal problems because of your drinking?
*Found that when the effects of alcohol were wearing off, you had withdrawal symptoms, such as trouble sleeping, shakiness, restlessness, nausea, sweating, a racing heart or a seizure?
Source: National Institutes of Health. Questions are based on symptoms for alcohol use disorders in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition.
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*Alcoholics Anonymous, Chicago Service Office. For information or lists of local meetings call 312-346-1475, visit chicagoaa.org or aa.org
*Al-Anon and Alateen offers help for friends and families of problem drinkers. For information or lists of local meetings, call 312-409-4058 or go to niafg.org
*U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, maintains a database of treatment facilities at dasis3.samhsa.gov along with information about how to find help.
*The National Institutes of Health posts tools and resources at rethinkingdrinking.niaaa.nih.gov and www.niaaa.nih.gov