- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 13, 2002

Sandy, a college-age woman, had liked to binge drink from age 15 to 18. She binged on weekends, she said, to blow off steam. One night, during her freshman year, she ran drunkenly onto a highway and was hit by a truck going 35 miles an hour. Miraculously, she was not badly hurt.

Her family was shocked into recognition of her alcohol problems. Her father had the money (and the will) to send her to an inpatient treatment facility. There she had been the only young person and hated it. She hadn't been able to relate to the older women's stories of hiding bottles and being afraid to appear in public.

In the second week of the program, a counselor told her: "These women have been drinking for years. You have problems, red flags for alcoholism in your future. When you listen to these stories, I want you to think, 'This hasn't happened to me. Yet.'"

Binge drinking in college used to be associated primarily with males, but a 1997 survey of 116 four-year colleges, conducted by researchers at Harvard University, found that 39 percent of women and 49 percent of men had binged in the two previous weeks. The percentages for women were higher for sorority members, especially if they lived in Greek houses.

Several studies reported this year indicate a further increase in the percentage of college women drinking. A downside of changing gender norms seems to be that the convention of moderation in drinking among women is disappearing.

Today, many girls and young women associate drinking (and smoking) with independence, glamour and the kind of power once reserved for men.

"Get in touch with your masculine side," says one recent advertisement for bourbon. In interviews, young people of both sexes reported admiring a woman who could drink like a man; heavy drinking, said one male respondent, was "a badge of honor."

Most studies of alcoholism rates among women cite the ratio of male-to-female alcoholism as anywhere from 6-1 to 2-1 (most recent surveys tend toward the latter). Girls are 15 times more likely to begin using alcohol and drugs by age 15 than their mothers were and four times more likely to begin drinking by 16. Thirty years ago, women typically began drinking later in life than men, which may have partly explained the higher number of male alcoholics.

Now that girls and boys take their first drink at roughly the same early age, some researchers predict an upsurge in the number of women who will become dependent on alcohol. A survey on alcohol published in January 1998 found that more than 40 percent of respondents who began drinking before age 15 became dependent on alcohol at some later point in their lives, compared with 24.5 percent of those who began drinking at 17 and 10 percent of those who began at 21 or 22.

Doctors, clinicians and researchers are surprised by the decreasing age at which abuse begins. They describe girls arriving for treatment with their backpacks loaded with needles and drug paraphernalia in one pouch and a worn stuffed animal in the other. At the same time, the older girls and young women who come for treatment often seem childlike, since alcohol and drugs can suspend emotional development.

The manager of the Chemical Dependency Unit at Hazelden Center for Youth and Families in Minnesota said one 21-year-old patient seemed 14.

"She told me, 'I'm just a little girl who likes to play.' And she was she had a bouncy, young walk; she wore sparkly makeup like young teens do; her hair and clothes were like a kid's; and she told me that she loves to blow bubbles. She'd been using alcohol since she was 11, and inside, she's still 11," the clinician said.

Even when a woman and a man weigh the same, the woman gets high on less alcohol, and she gets addicted more easily. She more quickly develops such physical complications as liver disease, high blood pressure and hepatitis. A woman's risk of liver cirrhosis begins at only two drinks a day; a man's risk begins at four to six drinks a day.

In sobriety, a woman's damaged organs take longer to repair themselves. If she has four or more drinks a day, some studies show that she is also up to 40 percent more likely to get breast cancer than women who don't drink.

Despite changes in ideas about gender roles, college women today are still vulnerable to the double standard.

"Women sometimes work really hard to be one of the boys," said Gabrielle Lucke, director of health resources at the Dartmouth College Health Service. "But the women know they are sexually vulnerable and, when something bad happens, they feel the shame of being a drunk woman."

It bears remembering that, on many college campuses around the country, a woman's Sunday morning walk home from a fraternity house is still referred to as "the walk of shame."

One stunning fact says it all: Female alcoholics are as much as twice as likely to die as male alcoholics in the same age group even as male alcoholics die at three times the rate of men in the general population. That is due partly to higher accident rates, victimization, and physiological vulnerability among women, although suicide is also a factor.

Generally, women attempt suicide more often than men, but men more often complete their suicides; among alcoholics, though, women actually have a higher rate of successful suicide. The youngest ones are particularly vulnerable: Teen-age girls who drink more than five times a month are almost six times more likely to attempt suicide than those who never drink.

While their male counterparts get in trouble with authority when they drink, girls with alcohol problems more often turn their aggression against themselves and are more likely to be victimized. As one alcohol counselor said: "Boys break things and girls get broken."

Similarly, young men with alcohol problems are more likely to end up in college counseling centers. Says Ms. Lucke, "I'm not going to hear about the woman who gets really drunk and beats up five people the man will do that and then get kicked into our system."

Kirsten, 22, living in Minneapolis and seven months sober, described herself as "the angel of the family, the total model child." Her family had been so convinced of her saintliness that no one had guessed she had drunk every single day of her college career.

No one suspected, even afterward, when she added drugs to her repertoire, started passing out at work and crashed her car. Or when she fell down a flight of steps, cracked her head and went into a two-month coma.

So many of the girls, female college students and young women tried desperately to make themselves into the ideal daughters they thought their parents wanted by studying, dieting and being good. They turned their anger on their bodies when their needs weren't met, pretending to be happy when they were wilting inside. Alcohol, for a while, eased the sense that there was something wrong that they couldn't fix.


Adapted from the book "Happy Hours: Alcohol in a Woman's Life" (HarperCollins) by Devon Jersild. Reproduced with permission.


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