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Women and Alcoholism: The Crisis Grows

“When I got sober, I thought giving up was saying goodbye to all the fun and all the sparkle, and it turned out to be just the opposite. That’s when the sparkle started for me,” wrote Mary Karr, a novelist who published the memoir Lit in 2009.

Karr is one of many female voices in literature that have emerged to tell the story of sobriety—and the behind-the-scenes process that led to a life in recovery from addiction.

In a recent article for the Washington Post, reporters put a spotlight on the “narrowing gender gap” of alcohol-related dependencies. In an analysis of studies from across the globe, Australian researchers discovered that the “difference between male and female drinking [has] all but disappeared” in current times, while, in the past, a gap between male and female alcoholism statistics persisted.

While the research does not reveal an exact cause of this gradual change, it is believed that cultural shifts have played a significant role. In the Post report, the director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism George Koob states that women’s presence in the workplace may be a contributor (as compared to 100 years ago), as “drinking is a part of business and social gatherings.”

A study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University added that women were more likely to report heavy drinking after a crisis, using the substance to self-medicate.

A similar article for the Washington Post discussed the “normalization” of heavy drinking, particularly in light of alcoholic beverage ads being targeted toward women. Popular culture portrayals of women’s binge drinking have been treated in a lighthearted—often humorous—fashion.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAA) states that 13 percent of women have more than seven drinks per week. They go on to estimate that 5.3 million American women are active, “heavy” drinkers. Heavy drinking, for women, is defined as having more than three drinks on any day, or seven per week.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) concur. They estimate that 2.5% of women meet the criteria for alcohol dependence.

The CDC reminds us that women and men have genetic make-up differences that lead to differing rates of metabolizing and absorption. This puts women at a higher long-term risk for alcohol-related complications.

Women who drink in heavy amounts long-term are more susceptible to liver damage, heart disease, and breast cancer, according to the NIAA. The Institute also mentions the significant risk of drinking by pregnant mothers—a risk that has been documented in the presentation of fetal alcohol syndrome.

As the gender gap of alcoholism has nearly been eliminated, it is important for women to have access to gender-specific support when seeking recovery from substance dependence. Women and men often deal with different issues in early recovery, due to different processing by the brain, and unique issues regarding relationships and other factors.

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