Women and Their Relationship with Alcohol: A Reading List

My alcohol story seems like a non-story: I grew up in a home of teetotalers. We did not imbibe alcohol, nor did we discuss it. My mom’s parents are Southern Baptists, so her upbringing was the same. Alcohol made my dad sick, so he avoided it. I was a nerd in high school, which meant: no parties. My conservative Christian college punished drinking on-campus with suspension. For years, I viewed any alcohol consumption with intense discomfort: a mix of fear, suspicion and a self-righteousness that almost destroyed several friendships. I never had more than two drinks at a time, and I’ve never been drunk. After I graduated, I stopped drinking altogether—maybe half a hard lemonade once, but that was it. It’s been well over a year since I had my last drink, and the bar in town knows my penchant for Shirley Temples.

So, I don’t drink. Why? I see in myself the potential for alcoholism. I have an obsessive personality. I deal with depression and anxiety every day, and I know alcohol would become a crutch for me. My anxiety medication doesn’t jibe well with alcohol, and I don’t want to risk my health. Alcoholism is genetic, and it runs in my family.

I’ll admit, I have days so frustrating that I wish I could get wasted. Luckily, I like sobriety most of the time. I like being in control, often to my detriment, so drunkenness isn’t appealing. I don’t like the taste of alcohol, either. For every, “Oh, you’ll love this! You can hardly taste it!” there’s a spit-take and a glare. I can always taste it.

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This quote, from this interview:

We joked that no one would want to read a memoir of a woman who didn’t drink to excess, who was in control of her emotions and her life, who awoke every morning ‘refreshed’…How boring a book that would be!, we said. No one would buy/read a book like that!

True. While I made a list of stories to include this week, I realized the majority focused on alcoholism, not just alcohol. Stories of moderation don’t make it to press, it seems.

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You’ll read work by memoirists, poets and scholars. As Michelle Dean writes, addiction stories may include moments of sentiment and cliche, but they’re no less true. In fact, cliche is tantamount to survival. Seven stories, each with their own twist (no pun intended).

1. “Drunk Confessions.” (Michelle Dean, The New Republic, September 2015)

Artistic geniuses are expected to be subsumed by substances, but women who imbibe are treated differently by their literary contemporaries and by history. Michelle Dean examines the line between cliche and sentimentality in writing about addiction.

Favorite line: “Good writers can take your curiosity and mold it into an empathetic movement.”

2. “My Drinking Years: Everyone Has Blackouts, Don’t They?” (Sarah, Hepola, The Guardian, June 2015)

No–not everyone has blackouts, said Sarah Hepola’s therapist. Before I read Hepola’s memoir (aptly named Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget), I equated blacking out with passing out. Turns out, they’re totally different. Blackouts shut down the part of your brain that stores long-term memories, so when you try to recollect what happened the night before, you can’t. It doesn’t exist. Blackouts characterized Hepola’s alcohol abuse.

Favorite line: “But when the lights were off and I lay very quietly in my bed, I knew: there was something fundamentally wrong about losing the narrative of my own life.”

2a. “Blackout: an Interview with Sarah Hepola.” (Chloe Caldwell, Hobart, August 2015)

Hepola discusses writing about her loved ones in her book, binge eating, and her role as an editor of creative non-fiction.

Favorite line: Chloe’s question/Sarah’s answer about the author’s paradoxical need/distaste for attention.

3. “Intoxicating Women: Travels in Gin & Gender.” (Siobhan Phillips, The Toast, August 2015)

A thoroughly researched, engaging account of the proflieration of gin in England and the United States and its impact on women’s independence. Siobhan Phillips, the author, is also a poet, and her command of language is striking, especially in the essay’s conclusion.

Favorite line: The entire Foucault section. You’ll know it when you read it.

4. “The Ism and the Alcohol.” (Lauren Quinn, Vela)

Lauren Quinn analyzes the evolution of telling the addiction story–from ’90s narratives with their supposed happy endings to contemporary creative non-fiction centering around recovery. She weaves in pieces of her own addiction story, which began in her adolescence–she got sober at just 17 years old.

Favorite line: “We need to tell stories that are unsexy, unmarketable, messy. We need to tell stories that don’t end.”

5. “The Big Stigma of Being Depressed and Sober.” (Katie MacBride, The Bold Italic, June 2014)

Addiction stories are not simple, from alcoholism to sobriety to peace. Instead, the problems alcohol minimized for so long–depression, binge eating, etc.–feel more present in sobriety. (Pairs nicely with #4.)

Favorite line: “When I got sober, the little voice in my brain telling me I was worthless didn’t go away. He just stopped slurring his words so I could understand him better.”

6. “All My Wasted New Years.” (Helaina Hovitz, Salon, December 2012)

Helaina Hovitz loved to party with her glamorous frenemies and she boasted a near-perfect GPA and collegiate success. Not even her blackouts, which occasionally turned violent, and her stint in the hospital convinced her that she had to stop: “The day I hit bottom, nothing dramatic happened. No lives were ruined. No one got hurt. I was just tired. I couldn’t fight anymore. I needed to figure out how to go through life without picking up a drink.”

Favorite line: “I began creating a life that I actually loved instead of obsessively trying to create one I could present to the world for their approval.”