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‘Drinking until I passed out’: Quit Lit targets women’s sobriety

A new genre of storytelling focuses on alcohol dependence and is helping some women curtail drinking or quit altogether

An illustration of a woman submerged inside a martini glass. You can see the distorted reflection of her face in the drink.
(Celia Jacobs for The Washington Post)

In “Quit Like a Woman,” author Holly Whitaker says, “At some point, it made sense to carry airline shots in my purse — just in case. Sometimes (especially when working on a deadline) I holed up in my apartment for days on end, drinking from morning until I passed out.”

Catherine Gray wrote in “The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober” that “Life was too sharp, too painful, too real and too loud when I was sober. Drinking softened the edges and blurred the clarity.”

A third writer, Annie Grace, said in “This Naked Mind” that “Giving up drinking felt like an incredible sacrifice, like the loss of a close friend.”

Welcome to the world of Quit Lit — a new genre of story telling aimed at helping women to drink less alcohol. I learned about these books from my patients — the ones who were starting to become concerned about the amount they drank — even before the pandemic. They are numerous enough to acquire the quippy category label Quit Lit, and have resonated with women who are recognizing that alcohol is not their friend.

The numbers on drinking tell an alarming story. From 2000 to 2016, an increasing number of women were drinking moderately and binge drinking, while rates among men remained flat. What’s more, from 2006 to 2014, there was a 70 percent increase in yearly alcohol-related emergency department visits for women, compared with an increase of 58 percent for men.

In 2020, college women were somewhat more likely than their male peers to report being drunk in the past month, according to Monitoring the Future, a survey conducted by the University of Michigan.

“Over the past 50 years, the gap between men and women’s alcohol use has been narrowing on every metric,” said George Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

Recent data is more promising — in 2019, 6 percent of women were classified as heavy drinkers, similar to 5.8 percent in 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Quit Lit gave my patients and me an easy way to talk about dependence and addiction. Several of these memoir-cum-motivational guides are bestsellers, including “This Naked Mind,” “The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober” and “Quit Like a Woman.” These confessionals about alcohol dependence share a common theme: explaining in vivid detail the author’s battle with the bottle, and the ways in which society has duped us into thinking that alcohol is a cool way to deal with life’s ups and downs, rather than a toxic substance with addictive properties, which increases anxiety and depressive symptoms over time.

The Quit Lit warnings are important. A hard-hitting article in the Lancet stated: “Our results show that the safest level of drinking is none.” Alcohol may not be beneficial for anyone, but it’s especially toxic for women. Women have less body water than men or similar weight, and so reach higher blood alcohol levels after drinking similar amounts. Koob says that over time, “it takes less alcohol for women to suffer from alcohol induced liver inflammation, cardiovascular disease, memory blackouts, hangovers, and certain cancers, than men.” And when it comes to breast cancer, there is no safe amount of consumption. “Epidemiologic studies have consistently found an increased risk of breast cancer with increasing alcohol intake,” according to the National Cancer Institute’s website.

Studies indicate that women tend to drink to reduce anxiety, depression and other mood states, while men tend to drink to increase positive feelings, said Sherry McKee, a professor of psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine, who has been studying gender differences in addiction for 25 years. “The pandemic clearly showed us the relationship between stress and drinking,” she said. “Women were experiencing greater distress, and that corresponded to increased drinking.”

Giving up drinking, especially when it is an addiction, is tough. The problem with many options for sobriety are that they are not enticing, Whitaker said. When she realized a decade ago that she needed to stop drinking, the only options she knew of were Alcoholics Anonymous and rehab — and neither appealed to her. She couldn’t afford to take time off work for rehab and the message of AA was not for her. Sobriety has to feel like a win, Whitaker said. “My sobriety came from wanting to be sober more than wanting the drug,” she said.

I listened to the audio version of “This Naked Mind” in December. In chapter after chapter, Grace dispels myths about alcohol — that you need it to be more confident, social, and fun; that it tastes great; that it helps us fit in — so we are no longer driven to drink by faulty assumptions. The book helped me to abstain during a few holiday gatherings. I found them to be just as fun without the buzz of a bourbon Manhattan. Plus, no headaches the next day or fuzzy recall of dinner discussions.

In early January, I read Allen Carr’s “Quit Drinking Without Willpower” in two quick sittings and resolved to have a Dry January. This would not qualify as Quit Lit because it is not a confessional but it’s the book Whitaker used to get sober. The message is simple: Once you understand your unhealthy relationship with alcohol, you’ll want to stop. It won’t require willpower because your mind will be made up.

After spending some time with Quit Lit, I understood the appeal. There’s probably a reason that only 7.7 percent of people with serious drinking problems seek help — it can be humiliating to label yourself as an alcoholic. When a witty, wise woman is telling you about her journey, it seems like one you want to be on.

If you’re concerned about the amount you drink, there are plenty of resources. Consult your doctor before making any drastic changes. If you’ve been drinking heavily for years, you may need to detox slowly and under supervision.

Educate yourself. The NIAAA’s Rethinking Drinking offers a wealth of information including how to tell when your drinking is problematic, how to taper off and whether to cut back or quit. It explains what alcohol use disorder is and when you should be concerned.

Learn about treatment options. There are now many paths to sobriety, including medication, therapy, outpatient programs, residential treatment and support groups. Your doctor can help you determine the best course.

Read Quit Lit. It is an easy way to gain a new perspective on what’s going on in your mind and body when you drink and to feel less alone on your journey.

Join a community. One of the benefits of Alcoholics Anonymous is that you become part of a tribe of people with similar struggles. If its message does not resonate, consider Women for Sobriety, or Smart Recovery.

Say out loud that you want to change your relationship with alcohol. Even mild drinkers tend to lie to themselves about their dependency. Tell yourself, then a trusted friend, then your doctor.

If you’ve had success quitting or cutting back, share your strategies in the comments section.

Lesley Alderman is a psychotherapist based in Brooklyn.

We welcome your comments on this column at OnYourMind@washpost.com.

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