If you've ever accompanied a girlfriend to happy hour or a monthly book club meeting, it's hardly a secret, perhaps, that she can make a glass of chardonnay disappear before you can say "cocktail." But did you ever consider she might be standing at the edge of a liquor cliff? And if you didn't, "Her Best Kept Secret: Why Women Drink and How They Can Regain Control" is bound to make you reconsider.
Gabrielle Glaser certainly has.
"I noticed a big change in the way women seemed to be drinking from the early 1990s to the early 2000s," Glaser said in response to an email last week about her book.
"I noticed young women drinking excessively -- pretty much everybody did -- but I also noticed a big uptick in how older women were drinking, too."
Glaser wanted to know why increasing numbers of us -- white middle- and upper-class women, in particular -- are turning to alcohol to cope with the issues of life.
And so in just 187 pages she answers her own question, all the while exploring women's "wacky" history with alcohol.
The short answer, Glaser said, is women are anxious, depressed, and feel anxious that they're anxious and depressed.
"Drinking brings pretty swift relief to those feelings, at least temporarily," she said. "Epidemiologists link female college attendance and working in male-dominated fields such as banking and technology to more drinking, but I also think it's stress. They have jobs, kids, aging parents, worries about aging, financial anxieties, a zillion activities they feel their kids have to be involved in. Wine is presented as a respectable release valve."
When she started looking for statistics to demonstrate the changing drinking patterns, Glaser said the glass was half empty because women weren't included in alcohol studies until the 1970s, and then it was only a few.
"They didn't start getting included on a large scale until the 1990s," she said.
Although many of the women she interviewed for the book didn't qualify as alcohol-dependent, Glaser said what was striking was how increasing numbers were being arrested for drunken driving or showing up in hospitals dangerously intoxicated while rates for men were falling or staying flat.
"The number of middle-age women checking into rehab nearly tripled between 1992 and 2007," Glaser said. "What's more, while more young women binge drink, the older women who drink four drinks or more in a span of two hours do so with greater frequency. Those figures were startling."
Glaser took four other questions from us:
Q: What should women do if they believe their girlfriend is drinking too much?
A: I think it's really important that we have open conversations about this topic. Nobody bats an eye if a girlfriend says she needs support in trying to lose 10 pounds. Friends help to go on walks or share diet tips or step in as running partners. But suggesting someone may need to step back from their drinking is tantamount to telling someone they have a terrible, scary problem.
It's really important to know that there are new medical treatments that offer women a lot of hope and have high success rates.
Q: The Centers for Disease Control recently reported that overdose deaths are rising fastest among middle-age women and that prescription drug use is to blame. Does this surprise you and, if so, why?
A: It doesn't surprise me at all. Alcohol is easy to obtain and doesn't require a prescription. It's not illegal to walk into a liquor store, but if you really develop a problem, it is difficult to mask. You smell of alcohol, and your cognitive abilities are compromised in an obvious way. From what I understand, painkillers can induce a euphoria that also gives people energy. People tell me that they feel lucid and capable -- in addition to pain-free. ... So many women prefer them to alcohol if they can get the prescription.
Q: Do you think there's a connection between this and alcohol abuse among women?
A: Yes, I think there is, and that's emblematic of a larger social problem. Our mothers had the support of their mothers and larger extended families when they were raising us, for the most part. In today's society, we've moved far away from our communities and sometimes don't even have one.
Women have to do a lot -- supporting their families, cooking, cleaning, driving, matching the socks. The kids are so busy they often don't have time to help, but the house still needs to get clean. People get me all these funny sayings they see about wine. One is a picture of a woman vacuuming in a very messy house with the caption, "Cleaning is a breeze after this bottle of wine!"
Q: What do you hope women will glean from the book?
A: The main thing I hope they can get is that if they are worried about having a "problem," having a "problem" today has a lot more answers than it did 20 or even 30 years ago.
Just as Prozac destigmatized depression, there are new methods of approaching alcohol use disorder that offer a lot of hope for women. You don't have to "hit bottom," as we've been led to believe. If you're in trouble, there is an array of new therapeutic options.