Why some women oppose alcohol and the wine-to-relax culture
Allison Garber says from the outside that it looked like she had it all together. The communications company owner and mother of two may not have looked like a problem drinker. But she says she was willing to set the clock to 5 p.m. every day so she could open a bottle of wine and pour a glass. Then “not so patiently” waiting for her kids to go to bed so she can have a few more. Garber decided that she had a drinking problem in 2018 and sought help. She has now been sober for more than two years and grateful that she recovered from the pandemic. “I’m so glad I wasn’t stuck on that train looking at alcohol as a reward for a tough day,” she said. “”[The pandemic] just reinforced everything. It has reinforced the way we use alcohol as a form of self-medication, as a form of self-care. “And that message is reinforced almost everywhere. You had a long day, pour yourself a glass of wine.” CLOCK | Allison Garber says it was hard to realize she had a problem with alcohol: Drinking among women has increased steadily in recent years. In 2018, the Canadian Public Health Commissioner’s Report on Health Status identified alcohol use among women as one of the most pressing concerns of our time. The report highlighted that from 2011 to 2017, alcohol-related deaths among Canadian women increased by 26 percent, while alcohol-related deaths among men increased by just five percent. The pandemic has spiked alcohol sales, and some Canadians are reporting increased binge drinking. A survey by Statistics Canada published in January shows that many Canadians don’t pour themselves just a single glass. Almost one in five respondents to the survey stated that they had consumed five or more drinks – the equivalent of one bottle of wine – on the days they drank alcohol in the previous month. The agency says this is higher than it was before the COVID-19 hit. When women drink, the health effects can fluctuate. Drinking three to six alcoholic beverages a week increases the risk of breast cancer in women by 15 percent. Women who drink two glasses of wine a day have a 50 percent higher risk of breast cancer. “What we consider very modest amounts of alcohol is still very important from a health perspective,” said Dr. Jennifer Wyman, assistant director of substance use services at Women’s College Hospital. Currently, Canada’s low-risk, low-alcohol drinking guidelines recommend no more than 10 drinks per week for women and 15 for men. The agency responsible for these guidelines, the Canadian Center for Substance Use and Addiction, is currently considering whether they should be changed. The current guidelines need to be revised to take account of the risks, said Dr. Wyman. CLOCK | Dr. Jennifer Wyman talks about why she thinks the guidelines for low risk alcohol need to change: one drink a day or seven a week would probably be more reasonable, she said, adding that the guidelines should be a maximum, even if this is the case possible is not always to be treated that way. Dr. Wyman says that she believes that some people see the maximum of 10 drinks per week in the guideline and interpret that as what the average person drinks. “And if they drink that, they’re kind of in the middle of the spectrum and they’re fine, by contrast, that’s really the maximum number you should think about,” she said. “And that doesn’t mean you should try to get that every week. That should be the top.” Just as the upper limits on alcohol consumption are different for women and men, so are the reasons why they drink. The pressures put on women to take on various roles makes many count to the point where they can pour a glass of wine, says Dr. Wyman. “I think women tend to drink as a coping mechanism,” she said. In a report by the Canadian Health Commissioner, alcohol use was identified as one of the most pressing health problems among women. From 2011 to 2017, alcohol-related deaths among Canadian women increased by 26 percent. Since then, the pandemic has led to an increase in alcohol levels () Alcohol is often viewed as the fastest decompression device, says Ann Dowsett Johnston, who wrote the book Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol. “If you can’t get to a yoga class, if you can’t figure out how to fit that in, or a long bath, or a walk around the block – you’re making dinner, you’re at the chopping block, pouring a glass of wine. “Alcohol consumption is also strengthened socially. Girls’ nights out, champagne to celebrate, wine in a book club. This is how we celebrate, relax, and reward each other, said Dowsett Johnston. It has also become a social media phenomenon that mothers need wine to deal with. There are wine glasses with “mother’s juice” and “because children”. “I think the whole idea of drinking mom has turned into a meme, and I think there’s way too much humor. I think it’s a serious social problem.” Dowsett Johnston says the pandemic only added to the stresses many women are carrying. CLOCK | Ann Dowsett Johnston shares the challenges women face that can affect their alcohol use: Marketing “mom juice” to cope is something life coach Alexis McCalla opposes. “They assume they can’t handle their lives so they have to go out and drink,” said the mother from Whitby, Ontario. “And now you normalize it.” McCalla never drank anything close to the limit of 10 drinks a week, but said she had a glass of wine to relax more often than she normally would during the pandemic. Before that, opened wine bottles were left unfinished. But she says she made frequent trips to the liquor store to numb the fear she had over COVID-19. She says she kept a journal and asked herself difficult questions, and in the end she found she was drinking more because she was concerned that her family would get sick during the pandemic. When McCalla got to the bottom of her fears, she said she decided to stop drinking and have some alcohol-free time with some of her clients. She also works with some of them to address the fears at the heart of their alcohol use. McCalla has had a single glass of wine since then and found she wasn’t interested in starting over. When she realized she’d sleep better and train harder the next day if she didn’t open a bottle. “I could have read another book. I could have talked to friends or kept a journal and learned more about myself.” Life coach Alexis McCalla said that when she decided to give up alcohol, she found she could sleep better and exercise more effectively the next day. (Alexis McCalla) McCalla and the women she’s helped aren’t the only ones asking her questions about drinking. Dawn Nickel is based in Victoria, BC. She is the founder of SheRecovers, an addiction recovery program tailored for women. Nickel says the number of women who have come forward has skyrocketed over the past year. “Our Facebook group increased from 2,000 to 7,800 last year.” Nickel says that not every woman who turns to the program has an alcohol abuse disorder. For some, abstinence is the goal; for others, it might be a limitation. “We’re just talking about what are your goals? What is your intention? Do you want to slow down? Do you want to stop? You choose it and we will help you get there.” The pandemic may have resulted in more alcohol consumption, but with so many recovery programs online now, it is easier and more convenient than ever to find help, according to Nickel. So find a safe place to wonder why they need alcohol to deal with it. “There is so much support for them now,” said Nickel. “We are having these conversations for the first time in society about who we are influenced by and who says we need to have a bottle of wine every night to relax.” For Garber, the restoration involved a more traditional 12-step program. “I knew that if I continued down this path I would have some dire consequences. I could see it clearly. So I made the decision to reach out to a friend I knew was herself in Recovery is in progress. ” Now Garber supports other women who get in touch and need help. She joined a running club and trained for races. She runs by the water every Saturday and on the days when Halifax’s famous clouds part, she takes a moment to stop and photograph the sunrise, grateful for how far she has come. “I stop in the same place every time,” she said. “It’s just this opportunity to say thank you for everything that has helped me stay here.” Watch the full episodes of The National on CBC Gem, the CBC’s streaming service.