When I was still saturating my body with booze, I could either keep up with or drink my friends under the table—no matter their gender. I was a high functioning, “happy” drunk who hid the amount of alcohol I had consumed very well. I realize now that numbness didn’t equate to happiness, but I wasn’t clumsy, angry, or overly emotional when I drank. This helped me hide the severity of my drinking problem for a long time and impressed the cisgender men I hung out with. Matching drinks without tears or vomit made me a great drinking buddy.
To be clear, I wasn’t looking for admiration; I was hiding from many feelings and labels. One of them was the female gender I was assigned at birth. Studies have found that cisgender women typically drink less than cisgender men, but recently those statistics have changed. Women are now drinking as much as men.
Within the last few years, the ratio between the amounts of alcohol men to women drink has gone from 3 to 1 for risky drinking patterns to nearly 1 to 1. A collection of studies showed the this narrowing gender gap and confirmed that women are matching men’s drinking patterns socially and while engaging in dangerous habits like binge drinking and daily alcohol abuse. A 2019 study showed that women are drinking more than their male peers when they are teenagers and in their early 20s.
Why? Studies reveal that women drink more to cope than men do. With the notion that women can have it all, there is a lot that must be coped with because women aren’t getting the same support as men while trying to achieve goals. We can talk gender equality all we want, but men still hold most of the privilege. The pandemic painfully pointed out just how much women—especially women in relationships with men—do to support their partners and kids. Parenting, school work, and house management usually falls on mothers but without in-person school or access to childcare, mothers were doing this while also trying to work. Women are stressed the fuck out and are turning to alcohol to feel better.
This is an illusion, of course. Alcohol actually increases anxiety, which cycles into the “need” for more booze, which mixes with shame, depression and more anxiety. I know this cycle too well. But drinking at these new, increased levels is having a devastating impact on physical health too.
Dr. Jessica Mellinger, a liver specialist at the University of Michigan, reports that the numbers of alcoholic liver disease cases are up 30% over the last year at her hospital. Dr. Mellinger says, “We’re seeing kids in their late 20s and early 30s with a disease that we previously thought was kind of exclusive to middle age.” One study found that from 2006-2014 alcohol-related visits to the emergency room increased 70% for women compared with 58% for men.
While I don’t identify as female, the health of my liver is scientifically measured based on its “female” size. And the health of my liver and other organs is impacted by my body weight and water content in my body. Dr. Mellinger says, “How a body reacts to alcohol is about body composition, fat to water weight ratios, where and how many of the enzymes that metabolize alcohol we have in our stomach and in our GI tracts and in our liver, and that’s different for women and men.” Your body is the gender you are, but if your assigned gender at birth is female you’re at a higher risk for liver disease than an assigned male at birth drinker if you are drinking the same amount; you’re also likely to develop the disease sooner.
I have been sober for almost four years and thankfully I didn’t do severe and irreversible damage to my liver. I’m still processing the guilt of my drinking days and trying to find healthier, if not always the healthiest, ways to cope. I, like many folks — particularly women and mothers — didn’t like asking for help. It can be hard to see there is a problem when alcohol is often the suggested solution.
Stressed? Have a drink!
Have kids? You need a drink!
Overwhelmed with life? Let’s get a drink or three!
Sad? A beer will cheer you up.
Nervous? Pour some liquid courage and do this thing.
I wish I had the ability to drink responsibly. I wish I was able to have a drink and still feel things. Drinking just made all of my “problems” worse, but it was socially acceptable to self-medicate, so I did. The stigma around addiction with the layers of judgment when you’re a parent who is also an addict makes it feel impossible to admit that you need help. But I promise you that it’s worth it. I had to finally acknowledge the toxic relationship I had with alcohol before I could do anything about. It took several attempts before I took my last drink. It wasn’t that it got easier each to quit; it got harder to ignore how hard it was not to drink. That was what I needed to feel in order to finally commit to sobriety.
When’s the last time you examined your relationship with alcohol? Have you checked in with your doctor or therapist about your mental and physical health? Talk to a friend, loved one, doctor, or mental health professional if you’re worried about your drinking. You can also reach out to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration for confidential help. They offer a hotline (1-800-662-HELP) and map to help you find services in your area. Ask for gender-specific services to get the best care for your needs.
I won’t promise you that your journey will be easy, but it will be better if you can have honest conversations around your drinking and then make the changes necessary to live a more authentic life.