The Complicated Story of Women, Alcohol, and Sobriety

Book review: Quit Like a Woman, by Holly Whitaker (Amazon / Book Depository)

Women are drinking more than we ever have before. Between 2002 and 2012, the rates of alcohol addiction among women rose by 84 percent—as in, it nearly doubled. One in ten adult American women will die an alcohol-related death, and from 2007 to 2017, alcohol-related deaths among women rose 67 percent, as opposed to 29 percent among men. It is a time of radical progression in almost every area of our collective experience—and a time of unprecedented rates of addiction coupled with an almost gross ambivalence toward our personal and societal relationship with alcohol. Here is the time in history where The Future Is Female, the wine is pink, the yoga classes serve beer, and the death toll rises.

As the subtitle of this memoir/cultural feminism study turned self-help book says, we’re obsessed with alcohol. And there’s a strange, powerful, and very purposeful connection between women and alcohol, including how it’s not only been slyly, aggressively marketed to women, but had its dangers massively downplayed and plastered with “Mommy Needs Wine” onesies by our old friend, the patriarchy.

Drinking has become so ingrained in the female code, we don’t even recognize the nearly endless ways it’s pierced our every experience, or even stop to think about the cost of that infiltration.

Holly Whitaker, founder of the Tempest Sobriety School, abused alcohol for years. Of course, like any addiction, it doesn’t arise in a void and was being used as a salve for painful, long-lingering problems. Whitaker was also bulimic, and used casual (and maybe manipulative?) sex as a coping mechanism of sorts as well. There’s a lot going on, but that’s not unusual. Addictive behavior unfortunately has a big crew of shitty friends invited to the same party.

The answer was to heal all those things that made it so desperately uncomfortable to be in my skin, so that I wouldn’t want to do those things to myself. The answer was to learn to love and respect myself so much, I didn’t want or need to do the harmful things anymore.

After years of bulimia, drinking, smoking, and using sex to maneuver her career (I am uneasy here, let’s leave it at that) Whitaker finally had her fall-to-your-knees moment, as she describes it. She’d tried AA and hated it, as plenty do, despite it remaining pretty much the go-to for treating alcohol addiction. Which layers on an element of shame, as Whitaker points out, when it doesn’t work for you. Her look at AA’s history and its white male, ultra-religious founding was eye-opening.

Whitaker begins with a frank, highly candid look at her struggles and how her problems snowballed, as well as scientifically outlining how alcohol will always assist that process. You can begin using it to lessen anxiety, ease social interactions, unwind from stress, make sex more enjoyable — any number of these kind of things, but its improving effect on all of them is illusory and the damage very real.

Speaking of damage, by far the scariest information here is a stripped-down look at what alcohol actually is — that is, literally poison. The ethanol we consume is the same as what fuels cars, the same as in rocket fuel. We put that in our bodies. Casually. A lot of it.

If this had ended about a quarter of the way through, it would’ve been a stunning, shocking, call-to-arms that I think is overdue for discussion. But it keeps going, and becomes repetitive and sometimes problematic. It also becomes basically a self-help book around the midpoint, and I don’t like those. Unless something in them really speaks to you, personally, there’s a lot of words that don’t say much or have deeper meaning, and that’s what I felt here.

Whitaker’s aids in recovery include trips to Rome, taking baths with lavender essential oil, yoga, breathing, meditation, and lemon water first thing in the morning (part of the critical method of establishing rituals as stand-ins for drinking and, worth adding, for aiding in overcoming any addiction, compulsive or self-destructive behavior).

But she puts so much emphasis on her own tools that just repeats, and can be obnoxious or even out of reach, for those who can’t jet off to Rome when a head-clearing is in order. Or if yoga classes prove unaffordable (yes, there’s YouTube, but overcoming a serious addiction requires serious commitment and any activity that gets you out of the house, accountable to others, etc. is a boon).

Sometimes she includes things that give me pause, like essential oils and their “specific healing benefits” which just, oh my god, where to begin. How about here. She also mentions kava kava, which is controversial and banned in Germany, France and elsewhere. These are just what worked for her, she’s only mentioning them as personal examples, but it makes me uneasy because there’s no discussion of whether these actually have any merit and what their side effects can be.

It’s also bothersome that some of the cited information seems off, which concerns me about bits that I don’t know off the top of my head. For example, she says that caffeine has a half-life you might still feel “up to ten hours after you consume it.” OK, but that’s the extreme upper end of its possible half-life, maybe even exaggerating it, and the average is 5 hours. I hate this kind of easily parroted information so casually relayed that’s either wrong or misleading. The reasoning is sound: limit caffeine early in the day so you’ll sleep easier, but exaggeration is unhelpful and makes me suspicious.

Nonetheless, I would still recommend this unconditionally to anyone struggling with addiction, alcohol or otherwise. Because you never really know what’s going to work for you and speak to your specific pain and struggle. She mentions Eckhart Tolle several times as being one of the tools in her toolbox — the arsenal of things that help her stay sober, navigate difficult times and conquer cravings.

I picked up The Power of Now at a pivotal moment too, and ultra-cheesy as it sounds, that book helped me climb out a deep, dark hole of traumas that were replaying over and over and for which I had no coping mechanism. I can only assume from its mega-popularity, mass-marketed and perhaps watered-down Buddhism as it is, that it’s had that effect on a lot of people. Which; good. Whatever your tools are, whatever weird or embarrassing or cliched thing helps you get beyond your pain and start repairing yourself without creating more damage in a different way, GOOD. That resonated with me and I was glad she mentioned how his writing specifically helped her, and it’s why I’d still say this could potentially be worthwhile for anyone starting towards addiction or trauma recovery, or sobriety, or just circling the idea that it’s time to break up with alcohol. Just with caveats about some of the information, and that you’ll need to have something in common to really benefit from it.

There were many points raised that are good to keep in mind, regardless of whether you’re dealing with addiction or recovery of any sort. Like that emotions don’t last for more than 90 seconds. How helpful is that? No matter how intense the feeling of heartbreak, loss, anger, isolation, or overwhelming craving for alcohol or doing something self-destructive is, if you can ride it out for 90 seconds, it’s over. That may be oversimplified, and I’m not sure at what point a 90-second emotion turns into a lasting state of mind, let’s say, but it’s one useful technique that makes seemingly unbearable moments bearable.

What prolongs them isn’t emotional wiring gone awry but the stories we lay on top of them that keep our brains dumping more of those chemicals into our system. A prolonged emotional experience is the result of the stories we keep alive in our heads.

So if you can find such helpful bits in her personal story and/or advice, this is well worth it. It didn’t focus as heavily on the historical background as I wanted so to understand more about women’s specific relationship to alcohol and why it’s become the way it is now, besides just 1) money and 2) patriarchy. Maybe it really is just that simple. And the medical and scientific aspects alone are fairly astounding and terrifying, and will certainly make you think twice about a glass of wine even if you’re not addicted.

I found myself thinking about it more positively after I read it than while actually reading. Her message is solid and you can absolutely take from it what you need to, including a wealth of other cited books to investigate. And any alternative to AA deserves attention.

I use my voice, even if it is shaky, even if it is sometimes too angry. I don’t let people convince me that I’m not kind because I am holding a ground that so many women before me were murdered or tortured or imprisoned for holding, or trying to hold.

Quit Like a Woman:
The Radical Choice Not to Drink in a Culture Obsessed with Alcohol

by Holly Whitaker
published December 31, 2019 by Dial Press

Amazon / Book Depository

30 thoughts on “The Complicated Story of Women, Alcohol, and Sobriety

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  1. What a fabulous review! As a lawyer, I work in an industry that has such a high addition rate that we are required to take classes on addiction for our licenses. And, after each of these classes I go out into the world and see all of the advertisement and pressure on us to drink. I also went to buy a new baby gift and I was shocked by how many times alcohol was touted as “mommy’s medicine.”

    I really appreciate your balanced approach to her book as well. I have a personal vendetta with essential oils but I am all for people finding what works for them and, you’re right, if there is something in this book that works for someone then it is absolutely work the read!

    While I am not sure when I will pick this one up I will definitely grab a copy of The Power of Now. I don’t know why I have never read that book and it looks perfect for my ever-anxious mind!

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    1. Thank you! I had no idea you could be required to take classes on addiction for practicing law but actually that sounds beneficial, and certainly eye opening. I loved the parts of this where she discussed the casual culture of women and drinking – like that mothers should require so much alcohol to get through raising kids, which is so messed up when you pause to think about. And it was helpful how she broke down the process behind how these practices to make something better in the moment, i.e., today stressed me out and a glass of wine will calm me down, turns into dependence without any actual resolution. Unfortunately there wasn’t quite enough of that overall.

      I hesitated even to admit how much The Power of Now helped me – I’m not sure it’s something I would confess to anyone beyond the relative anonymity of this blog (I don’t know why I’m like that about it!) but truly, it helped me out of a dark, dark place. I still remember the palpable sense of relief I got from it. It’s worth a look. Maybe it’s cheesy, or you’ve already learned the concepts elsewhere and it’s just one of those things that has to find you at the right moment when things are a particular shade of grim but it does work some kind of magic in those cases. Let me know what you think if you you pick it up! It might do wonders for your anxiety, I really ought to be consulting it again for that very reason.

      And I share your essential oil vendetta with a passion!! I mean, fine, it takes a lot of distractions and redirections and whatnot to overcome addictions and compulsive behavior and the like and whatever helps you, great, but she was listing what they purportedly do and that irritates me. Lots of people take that stuff way too seriously and then end up just breaking down again because their lavender or clary sage or whatever hasn’t fixed their life. I hate it!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great review! And it is so right, that the Mommy/Woman Wine culture is strong these days. You can’t escape it. I like how you didn’t discount that this book might be beneficial to someone, as we never know what will click and work with a person; I also agreed that recommending jetting off to Rome is not really something that is within reach of everyone. I disliked that about Eat, Pray, Love Actually. The author had a real problem with medication for her depression and then chose to heal herself with a year long sabbatical. That is pretty unreasonable, and I dislike when people shame medication – some people really need it and I find it irresponsible for someone with no medical knowledge to communicate that you can get on without it. Which for some I am sure is the case; with others, not so much. Everyone has something that will work for them.

    And yikes I didn’t mean to write so much!! Anyway, what a sign of a great review – one that sparks discussion! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Please, I appreciate a good long comment and always love hearing from you! 🙂

      I had issues with this book but I still wanted to share it because I think it will absolutely help a lot of people. But I’m glad you mentioned Eat, Pray, Love because it definitely had that kind of vibe in parts and I don’t like that, at all. She doesn’t discount or shame medication or therapy here (also a huge pet peeve of mine! why do we still stigmatize this, really) but they’re not the focal points either. And although I agreed that you need routine to replace the behaviors that need to go, I thought some of hers will sound kind of flimsy to people who haven’t been through this already and are standing at the bottom looking up at a mountain, basically. And it’s like “lemon water in the morning.” I agree with the basic principle, but it just comes across very weakly. I would’ve liked a greater emphasis on what medical help is available in this area as well, because these problems are really too much to handle alone, at least at the beginning. I’m not sure if that all makes sense…I really hope you’ll read it because I’d love to hear what you think!

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    1. Absolutely – no one size fits all and there was a lot of good here despite some drawbacks. Haha, I think anywhere in Europe is pretty much soaked in alcohol and very casual about the drinking culture too, but she made it work in Rome…guess that’s quite the accomplishment!

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  3. It seems that alongside the growth in women’s alcohol consumption there has been a surge in quit lit. I have dabbled in a few of these books- The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober by Catherine Gray was good; also Blackout by Sarah Hepola. In a different (better) class is Drinking A Love Story by Caroline Knapp – this is more a literary memoir. I laughed about your views on essential oils – my son was teasing me the other day that I thought essential oils would heal everything, which is unfair! For him it’s the battle cry of the unscientific nutcase mother! Am about to read The Angry Chef, am looking forward to him debunking other unscientific claims. Did you see the latest Insta influencer thing is dry fasting? – you give up water and only get hydration from fruit etc for a while to “give your organs a rest” !! Madness!! Kidney stones here we come!

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    1. I loved Blackout!! That was such a fantastic book, one I’d like to reread, actually. I hadn’t paid much attention to other quit lit (ha!) and I just don’t like the “you’re a strong, confident woman” self helpy aspect of it, but I was really interested in the gender-specific and cultural background. So that was good to know here.

      If essential oils make you happy, wonderful. I just don’t like that near-magical powers get ascribed to them without any evidence they do these things. Let me know what you think of The Angry Chef, I love that one!

      Ugh, I hadn’t seen this latest insta influencer thing, what a mess. I don’t know where they come up with such bullshit. Isn’t drinking enough water like, the one thing all of these diet trend/instagram wellness purveyors can agree on? Madness indeed.

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  4. I am not a recovering alcoholic, but I don’t drink. I lost interest in my twenties asI just did not like the way it made me feel. And that’s not a choice I would impose on anyone else, but I confess I feel uncomfortable around people who are drinking. They don’t seem to be really themselves, and even if they’re more “fun” and relaxed, I’d rather get to know them in an unaltered state.
    I was excited to be invited to a book club recently but when I got there it seemed to be primarily about drinking wine and secondarily about the book. I felt really strange for refusing the alcohol, and I just wished they would have the book discussion first and party afterward.
    Anyway, that’s about me, not the book, but I am in favor of more information about what alcohol actually does to us, the social-economic pressure to drink, and how we can give ourselves more choices. Based on your review I’d feel okay skim reading this one for the useful stuff and skipping the self help.

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    1. I’ve had some similar experiences to yours. I barely drank for many years for the same reason, I just didn’t like how I felt and seemed like it often made me sick. I thought I just wasn’t that good at processing alcohol (she outlines the science here of how none of us are actually built to do it). It does make you see alcohol-soaked situations and people quite differently with clearer eyes, and sometimes it’s just kind of sad, and definitely uncomfortable. I don’t know about you but the most uncomfortable part for me was how bothered other people were that I wasn’t drinking, or not drinking enough according to them, etc. It’s clearly about them, but still. I do drink now but lightly after going through some years of using it to casually self-medicate so I’m really interested in all the ways we use it and how we’re encouraged to do it so casually, especially as women and the heavily social-economic aspect of it, as you mention. Your scenario of going to an event like a book club meeting and it’s perhaps more just an excuse for drinking is also what fascinates me – it’s just so ingrained to the point of overshadowing so much else.

      Thanks for sharing, I’m very interested in others’ experience and impressions around this, as it’s also something people can be uncomfortable discussing in person, maybe? Maybe just my impression. Anyway, I’d say read it until almost the midway point for some thought-provoking insights and very lightly skim the remainder. Would love to hear what you think of it!

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      1. Yes, what I really don’t like is saying I’m not drinking and then feeling it makes me a weirdo. They were very nice people, but still, it just introduced a weird chill in the room. It would have been fine with me to explain, but I think it’s an uncomfortable topic to discuss because of all the moralizing and judgment that has accrued to it. And truly I do not want to judge anyone who enjoys drinking, but I wish I could ask “Is this really an appropriate state to be in for discussing a book?” The habitual and unconscious nature of the whole business is what bugs me (but I guess that’s the whole point of indulging, so I should not be surprised.)

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      2. I know what you mean, there’s this judgmental element to it and I’m really not sure why., and it’s near impossible not to feel like the odd one out. And also why should you ever have to explain? When I didn’t drink basically at all I always felt like I had to have a million explanations on top of explanations because people wouldn’t let it go. It’s the worst, I never would pester anyone about that. It’s such a strange culture, really. I hope you find a better book group that’s more interested in actually discussing books soon!

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  5. Huh, this is a really interesting review and topic!! I don’t drink because it really messes with my mental health/medications, so I’d like to know more about women and alcohol/sober movements. I’d also be fascinated to read how and why we have moved in 100 years from Prohibition to the ‘mommy needs wine’ merch. I’ll have to see whether there are any books about that!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You have to let me know if you find something good on that topic!! That’s what I really want to read. I mean, I’m interested in anyone’s experiences around drinking culture and how their attitudes change, etc. so this wasn’t a total bust but I just want to understand more of why we’re in the position we are now in this strange culture around it. Keep me updated if you find something good and relevant!

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    1. I get so annoyed once I realize a fact has been even stretched a bit because then I feel like I have to double check, google, and read all the sources before I can believe anything else. And I hadn’t seen that FT article and wish I still had a subscription, but alas I can’t read it! That sounds really interesting and absolutely a positive, promising shift. I’ll see if I can find the article referenced elsewhere. Thanks for sharing!

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  6. This is really fascinating. I’m not a big drinker myself, not for any specific reason, I just don’t like the taste of it, I’d rather consume calories in the form of a chocolate bar, I like waking up early, it’s healthier to not drink, etc. I once asked my family dr. what the most effective way of warding off cancer was (because it runs on both sides of my family) and he simply told me to stay away from alcohol. When I relate this advice to friends and family, they are all flabbergasted. The whole myth about red wine being a ‘healthy’ drink is such BS but people seem to really believe in it, maybe because alcohol is such a widely accepted vice in our society?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That was a big part of why I didn’t drink for years, although I was a bit too fanatic about weight but still, infinitely would rather eat the sugar calories than drink it! And so interesting you mentioned that about the cancer/alcohol link and “benefits” of red wine. The medical bits were absolutely chilling here, and I can’t stress that part enough. There’s just basically no safe level. If you actually look at what the allowable consumption (or whatever it’s called) is, it’s minuscule. You can’t even order that small of a glass of wine some places. She describes what it does in the body and what these effects mean and it’s all bad news. And the detriments from red wine can be far greater than the benefits, which are easily obtained elsewhere without alcohol’s drawbacks. It’s all just justification or misinterpretation of scientific and medical data.

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  7. There are lots of places to seek out others’ stories: In group meetings, through therapy, or in online communities. Sometimes, though, you just want to curl up with a good book. That’s why recovery memoirs are an excellent way to understand someone else’s experience and how it can apply to your own.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Finding any facts that are off or exaggerated always drives me nuts. I do think there was plenty to redeem this one, and just the awareness she creates around truly how dangerous even the smallest quantities of alcohol are really struck me. But I wanted something different from it, I think. I might try Leslie Jamison’s, I know you liked that one!

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  8. Oh this sounds very interesting, if occasionally tone deaf. Rome and yoga classes, really?! Though I already am not a huge drinker, so maybe I shouldn’t pick this up if it will scare me off my occasional glass of wine or gin and tonic. Those alcohol facts sound terrifying!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. She emphasizes that it’s just what worked for her, she’s not telling anyone how to do this beyond the basic outline of things/behaviors that need to be in place, but yeah, it got a little eye-rolly for me. Forget Rome, some people can’t even get away for a weekend, you know? I’m not a huge drinker anymore either but have had 2 or 3 drinks since reading this and I can tell you, each was made immensely less enjoyable knowing what I know now. Ugh. But seriously, for an occasional drink I don’t think we should lose our minds over it. I don’t want to forget it, I’m circling the idea of cutting it out completely sooner rather than later, just not quite there yet.

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