"Women and Alcohol"
By Carol P. Waldhauser
One late afternoon, a well-dressed,
attractive female attorney stopped by my office. It was not long before Jenny,
without warning, leaned across my desk and whispered,
“I think my drinking has gone beyond chilling out. I think that I have
Jenny elaborated that her habit of relaxing with a glass
of wine – late at night, alone, after a long day of work – had
escalated to a bottle or more each night. “In the beginning, I would
pour one glass of wine,” she admitted. “Then suddenly that one
glass of wine turned into a hearty mug of wine, and soon the hearty much of
wine became a bottle of wine, each and every night.”
Today, many studies have publicized the positive attributes
of drinking alcohol in moderation. Conversely, other, perhaps less-publicized
studies suggest women may be taking their relationship with alcohol too lightly.
In fact, estimates predict that there soon may be as many female alcoholics
as there are male ones. Moreover, this data supports a causal relationship
between as few as two drinks (or even less) a day and health problems in women.
There is direct evidence that women are more vulnerable than men to alcohol-related
organ damage, trauma and legal and interpersonal difficulties.
Ironically, since the 1980s the number of adult women considered
heavy-drinkers –defined as two or more drinks a day – has declined.
However, drinking among certain groups of women has steadily increased. In
1993, the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse found that women who work
outside the home are 67 percent more likely to drink heavily than homemakers.
A more recent study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse
puts that number even higher, at 89 percent. Of course, more American women
are working than every before. In 1960, less than 20 percent of married women
with children under age six worked outside the home; in the year 2000, that
figure was approximately 65 percent.
An ongoing study by psychologist Sharon Wilsnack and sociologist
Richard Wilsnack at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health
Sciences surveys a nationally representative sample of l,l00 U.S. women, 696
of whom have participated since l981. Their data finds that women in male-dominated
occupations (measured by the U.S. Census Bureau as more than 50 percent male,
including law and engineering) drink more than women in traditionally female
professions such as teaching and nursing. “In a male-dominated environment,
drinking may be symbolic of gender equality,”
Similarly, another study of women reported in The Journal
of Law and Health included a section that specifically targeted women
lawyers; it found that “nearly 10 percent of the practicing Washington
lawyer sample reported levels of alcohol use that are likely to indicate
current alcohol-related problems.” Ominously, however, they continued:
As with male lawyers, however, this rate increases dramatically
to 71 percent who are reporting a lifetime likelihood of alcohol-related
problems. Over the career span, the data reveals that almost three-fourths
of female lawyers (practicing up to and including ten years) are reporting
a lifetime likelihood of alcohol-related problems.
Needless to say, this does not mean that women should give
up their licenses to practice law in order to guard against alcohol abuse and
dependence. What it does mean is that working women – especially women
attorneys – should monitor their levels and frequency of consumption
and fine-tune their radar for signs of growing dependence. “Drinking
every night to relax is a major sign of trouble, even if you are not drinking
that much,” Wilsnack says.
Alan Leshner, former director of the National Institute on
Drug Abuse, explained in an article that, over time, individuals begin to depend
on a substance to feel not just good but normal. Gradually, the occasional
use of a drugs (including alcohol) turns into weekly – then daily – use.
Eventually the person may come to the distressing realization that he or she
According to Leshner, “Every drug-user starts out as
an occasional user, and that initial use is a voluntary and controllable decision.” However,
as time passes and drug use continues, changes in brain chemistry can produce
compulsive and uncontrollable drug use. “While every type of drug abuse
has its own individual trigger for affecting or transforming the brain, many
of the results of the transformation are strikingly similar regardless of addictive
drug used,” Leshner notes. “The brain changes range from fundamental
and long-lasting changes in the bio-chemical make-up, to mood changes, to changes
in memory processes and motor skills.”
Of course, not all people who use drugs (including alcohol)
will experience such dramatic changes. Some people can use alcohol (drugs)
occasionally and remain occasional users; those at high risk (family history,
job, etc.) may start using casually but then progress quickly into dependence.
Men and women are created equal, but they do not respond
equally to the effects of alcohol. When women and men drink at the same rate,
women show a higher susceptibility to serious substance-related medical conditions
that include liver, brain and heart damage. This increased risk is attributed
to gender differences in metabolism but also could be the result of differences
in brain chemistry, hereditary genetic factors, or other factors currently
Women achieve higher concentrations of alcohol in the blood
and become more impaired than men after drinking equivalent amounts of alcohol.
Ongoing research indicates that women also are more susceptible to trauma resulting
from traffic accidents and interpersonal violence. In addition, women develop
alcohol-induced liver disease over a shorter period of time and after consuming
less alcohol than men. Finally, they are more likely to develop alcoholic hepatitis
and are more likely to die from cirrhosis of the liver. Animal research suggests
that this increased risk of liver damage is related to the physiological effects
of the hormone estrogen.
The more we know about how alcohol and drugs affect us all,
the better we will be able to treat these problems in all populations. Jenny
got out before her use damaged her health and her professional standing; she
is one of the lucky ones. For more information on alcohol abuse/dependence
or other issues that affect your quality of life and quality of work, contact
the MSBA Lawyer Assistance Program at (800) 492-1964 or (410) 685-7878, ext.
3041, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.