Christian Living: At Greater Risk – Women and Alcohol

book cover of At Greater Risk

Shrill sirens from somewhere outside interrupt the tall blonde at the lectern. “Aren’t you glad that’s not for you?” she says. As the laughter subsides, she introduces Dora, special guest speaker for the evening. The first thing you notice about Dora is that she is short (her head barely clears the top of the lectern), and she has perfect hair. Not a strand out of place, her ash blond hair fits like a cap around her face.

“I’m Dora, and I’m an alcoholic,” she begins. Dora’s father was an alcoholic as well, and money was scarce. As the oldest of three children, she worked after school until midnight every day to help support the family. She made a vow not to drink until she was 21. Her teachers recognized that Dora’s IQ was at the genius level, but when they reported this to her father and mother, Dora said it made no difference.

On her 21st birthday, her friends threw her a champagne party. The next morning, she didn’t remember much about the party, but she said it was the beginning of her “adventure” with alcohol. “Alcohol was a magic place — glamour, fun, adventure — at first,” Dora said.

In spite of her drinking, which usually left her violently ill, Dora went on to become an accountant, and then an attorney. But her personal and business life suffered. The loneliness of alcoholism she describes as the “chilling vapor.” “Though as a child I felt I had a special relationship with God, now I didn’t feel I fit with God. I became an agnostic.”

As her life deteriorated, in desperation, Dora joined Alcoholics Anonymous. That was her turning point. Now, Dora (not her real name) has renewed her relationship with God, and, one day at a time, she has not taken a drink of alcohol for 16 years.

Dora was telling her story at a public meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous to let others know that it is possible to stop drinking. But there are a lot of Doras who are still drinking, and, according to new studies, they’re paying a heavier price than they realize. Though statistics indicate that fewer women than men drink, it is estimated that nearly one third of alcohol-abusing or alcohol-dependent individuals are women (Alcohol Alert, October 1990). The same studies show that these women may be at greater risk than men who abuse alcohol.

Women suffer more

According to psychologist Nancy Waite-O’Brien, clinical director of the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, California, women metabolize alcohol differently from men. “A man takes a drink and a certain amount of it is not absorbed into the bloodstream, so his blood alcohol doesn’t go as high,” Waite-O’Brien said.

“For women, the body is a little more efficient at processing alcohol, and so it absorbs higher amounts. One drink has more effect on a woman than it does on a man.” Also, Waite-O’Brien says that because women’s body weight is less than that of men’s on average, the same amount of alcohol becomes more significantly concentrated in a woman’s body than in a man’s. A woman’s liver, therefore, becomes diseased much more quickly than a man’s.

The danger of alcohol to fetuses has been known for many years. Pregnancy-related problems such as fetal alcohol syndrome and miscarriage are well-documented. However, studies are now showing that women who drink may be increasing the danger of having breast cancer, osteoporosis, stroke and depression.

Christians, too?

Just like Dora, Christian women — women who have a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ — are not necessarily immune from the dangers of alcoholism. Though some denominations teach abstinence, most acknowledge that the Bible does not forbid alcohol. Paul advised Timothy, “Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses” (1 Timothy 5:23). In many churches, wine was, and is, used as part of the observance of the Lord’s Supper, or Communion.

Though the Bible doesn’t teach total abstinence, drunkenness is condemned throughout the Bible. When the disciples asked Jesus for signs of the end time, he concluded his reply with this warning: “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap” (Luke 21:34).

Paul said that leaders in the church must be “not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money” (1 Timothy 3:3). His warning was the same to women who would set the right example: “Teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good” (Titus 2:3).

As Christians, we look to Christ to live through us. We expect self-control — temperance in all things — to be one of the results of the Holy Spirit within us (Galatians 5:22-23). Why, then, do some Christians become alcoholics?

For some, such as Dora, alcoholism may be caused by a genetic predisposition. Those who have fathers or mothers who are alcoholics, and who are suffering drinking problems, may need to totally abstain from drinking any alcoholic beverages. Also, some may have slowly increased the amount they drink over the years, not realizing, or acknowledging, that they now have a serious problem. No one likes to admit they have lost control of their drinking. Others are using alcohol to dull the pain of loneliness or grief or other hurts.

Some people are just more addiction-prone than others. If it’s not addiction to alcohol, it’s to cigarettes, gambling, sex, eating, or even shopping. They, too, may have to make a decision never to drink alcohol again. If you have ever been addicted to anything, you know this is not an easy decision. Some few can quit cold turkey; the great majority — most of us — need help from our friends.

Alcoholics Anonymous

If drinking is your problem, one place you can find the friends and support you need is in the thousands of AA clubs around the world. Nobody will understand you as well as others with the same problem. Although AA is not a religious organization, the program’s success is based on a belief in God. And God is your best friend.

God wants a relationship with you, a friendship. Although many people feel that the church is likely to condemn them for their sins (and a few churches unfortunately do that), a good church is a place where you can find support and help. There, you will find people who are trying to living changed lives. Though they once deserved to die, they have been forgiven of their sins, and they have a new life.

Not perfect, just forgiven

Have you seen the slogan, “Christians aren’t perfect; they’re just forgiven”? There’s a lot of truth to that saying. Except for God’s grace, Christians are not different from anyone else. We have the same tendencies toward sin, the same human weaknesses. And if we aren’t careful, we can sometimes be guilty of ugly self-righteousness.

glass of winePaul warns those who are “sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler” that they will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 5:11; 6:9-10). A good test for ourselves is to ask: Are some of those sins less sinful than others?

If we’re honest, we all have to admit that we’ve been, and still are at times, sinners. That’s what makes us good friends for those who are coming out of sin. We can tell our friends who have a drinking problem that we are fighting the same battles they are, though with different sins, and with the help of God, we are winning. They can be winners too.

Paul wrote: “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18). If you have a drinking problem, God hasn’t abandoned you. He wants you as one of his children. He wants you to be part of his family, and he welcomes you to his fellowship. He wants to wipe the slate clean and fill up that empty place within you with his Holy Spirit. What have you got to lose?

Sheila Graham

When Women Drink Too Much


Nancy Waite-O’Brien


Psychologist Nancy Waite-O’Brien, clinical director of the Betty Ford Center, speaks nationally on women’s issues, primarily alcohol and drug abuse and the issues related to treatment for women.

Question: Studies show that only about 20 percent of Americans who seek treatment for alcoholism are women. Are women more hesitant about seeking treatment?

Nancy Waite-O’Brien: Yes, primarily because we as a culture have very different views of drinking women than we do of drinking men. The language associated with a woman who drinks is generally that of someone who is promiscuous or sexually available or has failed in some way as a mother. That tends to be the cultural view of women who are intoxicated.

Our culture tends to accommodate drinking men. The drinking pattern of men is often in groups. It’s convivial, as they comment on what great tolerance they have. But that’s not true for women. Although we as a culture have become more accepting of a woman having a drink, we are not accepting of a woman who drinks.

Therefore, there’s a great deal of shame associated with being a woman alcoholic. A great sense of failure. And that sense of failure is failing as a woman rather than as failing at some task. A woman interprets it as, I’m a failure as a person.

Q. Are there other reasons women hesitate to seek treatment?

A. Yes. More than half of alcoholic women report that sometime in their childhood they were sexually abused. Alcohol has become a way for them to manage the pain associated with that experience. An alcoholic woman is also likely to have been the victim of sexual assault because she may have gotten drunk in places that weren’t safe or with someone who wasn’t safe because she’s not making good judgments for herself. There’s a great deal of shame associated with that, too.

Q. What advice would you give to young girls about drinking alcoholic beverages?

A. I do a presentation on women and drinking, and one of the pieces of research I describe has to do with a study done on a college campus. The researchers gave the students these scenarios: Two kids meet at a school dance. In one of the stories, the boy and girl are drinking soft drinks. And in the other one, they are drinking alcohol.

When alcohol was involved, the study showed a big difference between how the women and the men responded. The men looked at it as more of a romantic encounter, whereas the women found it off-putting. Men, particularly young men, perceive a girl who drinks as also a girl who is sexually available. That means a woman who drinks may be misunderstood.

Whatever she does when she drinks is likely to be misinterpreted by her partner as a signal she’s available or interested. The studies on date rape indicate that it most often occurs when alcohol is involved. Young women considering drinking need to take into account that it may put them at risk.

Q. How do you motivate an alcoholic woman to seek treatment? What are some of the dos and don’ts?

A. The dos are to describe the events. Tell the woman specifically what’s been happening, from an observer’s point of view. For example, “I got up on Saturday morning, and I found you lying in the living room.” That’s a description of an event. And then tell them how you feel about it. “That made me feel scared and upset.”

Then, express your concern to the person: “I care about you and I don’t want to see this go on.” The three parts of intervening with an alcoholic are to be specific and not to blame — talk about your feelings and how the event affected you, your own private thoughts. And then, third, express care. The don’ts are 1) don’t blame and 2) don’t get angry.

Alcoholism has a set of symptoms associated with it. The primary one is that the person has lost control of his or her drinking. Women do not do well in being confronted, in particular, with aggressive confrontation. The disease of alcoholism is humiliating enough. Nobody gets up in the morning and decides: “I’m going to drink a fifth of scotch and crawl around the house for the rest of the day. That sounds like a good choice.”

The things that happen to an alcoholic, both men and women, are humiliating and degrading — emotionally and spiritually and physically. This disease attacks the person’s spirit and sense of self as a decent human being, an acceptable human being. Recovery is to heal that part of the person and not attack it, to heal and encourage and support so they can stop living the lie and start living a life that makes sense. So they can appear in public. So their insides match their outsides.

Author: Sheila Graham


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