It has been five years since I first held my hand up, admitted I was an alcoholic, and joined the ever-growing ranks of middle-class women shunning the demon drink. Statistically, we are the fastest-growing demographic knocking back the units to oblivion, often behind closed doors. For the record, I haven’t turned into a humourless, morally superior teetotaller. I’m only too aware that the flip side of the shiny #sober, #grateful trend is a darker reality for some.
It’s a reality that Ant McPartlin has recently discovered to his cost, having been charged with drink driving only a short time after leaving rehab. You can’t buy your way of out of addiction in an expensive treatment centre. You don’t get to decide which bits suit you. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the public eye or not; this progressive disease will drive ordinary people to act in reckless ways. People die, lose their families, jobs, health, freedom and minds. The shame can be overwhelming.
But reactions around Ant in recent weeks have left me wondering if that shame is different for women. Before he even set foot in rehab, think pieces were telling us to look kindly on him. It’s a warmth I can’t recall being extended to female stars like Amy Winehouse in the mid-noughties. Not to diminish the male experience – this isn’t a comparison about whether it’s more difficult for women to get sober, or indeed who feels the most pain. It’s about the difference in the way society reacts to the sexes.
You could argue that there has never been a better time to get sober. You cannot be alive in 2018 and fail to have noticed that sobriety has had a rebranding. The internet is awash with ‘sober curious’ podcasts, hashtags and book launches and it’s clear that there’s a definite thirst (sorry) for a more moderate way of existing. But does this new movement make it any easier for women – not just those who want to cut down, but those with a genuine problem? Not necessarily, I would argue.
My personal observation is that the female experience, whether in the full flow of the disease or within the safe walls of recovery, can be quite specific. We have different biology and hormones, for one. According to Samantha Quinlan, director of International Conferences on Addiction and Associated Disorders, it’s no accident or coincidence that women can progress quite quickly into alcoholism during times of transition; a slide into addiction can flare up around adolescence, motherhood or the menopause. What is brought to the surface with hormonal fluctuations can be overwhelming, and with that comes a hearty temptation to push it all back down with a stiff drink.
Sophie Molins, artist, film-maker and trustee of Steps2Recovery, a charity for recovering addicts in the criminal justice system, says there is a specific shame and paranoia women feel around airing these ‘hysterical’ emotions. ‘The world is structured in a way where feminine language is belittled. It isn’t tidy. There is something about our culture where we all have to portray a professional brand and stay on top.’
But it’s the social shame that makes it even more difficult for women. The media stands in judgement and hotly focuses on women. Just google ‘falls out of a nightclub...’ and you can scroll through a roll call of scantily clad celebrity women who can’t hold their booze. Women are scapegoats; labelled out-of-control sluts and bad mothers.
Courtney Love may have overcome the worst of her addictions but, in the eye of the storm after her husband Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1997, the media’s relentless reporting of her erratic behaviour and drug-taking certainly – in spite of her obvious distress – exacerbated her spiral downwards before she sought help. Similarly, Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell and many others – alive and dead – have had their behaviour cruelly scrutinised. Putting an individual under the microscope in that way piles on the shame and pressure – whether there’s a real problem or not. The truth is, of course, that we do that to ourselves already. Even national darling Davina McCall is constantly contextualised within the realms of her disease, despite being long-term clean and sober, and possibly Britain’s healthiest 50-year-old.
Men are not branded by society as ‘nurturers’. It’s therefore seemingly more acceptable to be a ‘reformed hell-raiser’ and many men have come back stronger after their battles. If anything, they are afforded sympathy, not distrust and judgement. Look at Ewan McGregor, Bradley Cooper or Matthew Perry to see that men can regain their lives and public personas with atonement. Russell Brand has had enough of a PR rebirth to release his own version of AA’s 12-step handbook.
Even out of the public eye, the trauma that a woman who may have suffered rape, sexual abuse or the loss of a child feels can be overwhelmingly hard to get over in recovery. Molins says the shame they feel, particularly for mothers she helps, can make it impossible for them to turn their lives around. ‘We are finding that the trauma and heartbreak is too much,’ she says.
Addiction recovery is an ongoing process and a different way of living. Our disease is still outside doing press-ups, as I was once told by another woman in recovery. It wants you dead. It’s harder for women to separate their domestic and emotional ties to physically make time for this process. Your children are your priority, but so is your sobriety. There’s no wine o’clock to numb the exhaustion. Like many other aspects of parenthood, sobriety becomes another task to add to the list. I applaud women in the media who have spoken out about their addiction – writers like Hannah Betts and Bryony Gordon – women who instinctively know through their work that being vocal is destigmatising. In speaking their truth, they empower other women to feel less isolated. I never want my two children to feel that there’s a dirty secret in our family. I will talk to them about it at the appropriate time. It would have been far easier to write this piece anonymously. But if by authentically offering my experience I add to the growing momentum of women separating their shame from their illness and seeking help, it will have been worth it.
Follow Estelle on Instagram @mrsestellelee