Monday, August 31, 2009

How many drinks is okay?

Recently, I got my first mammogram. Not because it was recommended by my doctor (I am still a bit young for routine mammogram), but because I have been plagued by talk of a study (or a group of studies), that suggests that women who indulge in more than one alcoholic drink a day are putting themselves at higher risk for breast cancer. (The full text of one of the studies is available here). Not surprisingly, the risk goes up for women who drink regularly, or who drink in excess of 15 oz per day (that's less then one pint, ladies). Unfortunately, that means I am one of the women with the greatest potential increase in risk. And the truth is, most of my female friends and even some family members also fall into this category. Not only does this raise issues about our health, but also about our dependency on alcohol. Although the term 'alcoholism' comes to mind, most of the women in my life would not consider themselves alcoholics, including me. Why? Because, we use any number of excuses to justify our drinking habits - it's 'just a couple glasses of wine' at night, and that's no big deal. And if we do 'binge' drink, we get home safe, we wake up in the morning and go to school or work, and for the most part, we didn't do anything too stupid while drinking the night before. Oh, and we can have 'just one drink' (we just choose to have more, usually...). Now, keep in mind that 'binge' drinking is defined by the Centers for Disease Control as 4 or more drinks during a single occasion (for women). Although this may sound like a lot, a 'drink' is 12 ounces of beer, or 5 ounces of wine. Most beers are served in 16 ounce pints, which means 3 typical beers in an evening means you're bingeing.  My point is, many of us don't realize that what we would consider 'moderate' drinking is actually 'heavy' drinking as defined by the medical community, and it could have real affects on our long term health.

I have searched for a definition of alcoholism to guide me in evaluating my own alcohol consumption for a long time, in part because my father is a recovering alcoholic. Yes, one of those people who can never have a drink ever again! The very thought of this frightens me (probably a bad sign), and yet I have found ways to set myself apart from my fathers behavior, never admitting to being an alcoholic in the traditional sense of the word (whatever that is). So, this new information about the risks to my health is adding a whole new layer of complication. Namely, if I can't stop drinking in the face of this new evidence, am I really in control of my drinking?

As I was pondering these questions for my own life and the lives of the female family and friends who are also habitual drinkers, another article caught my attention in the New York Times, "A Heroine of Cocktail Moms Sobers Up."  The article is about a woman who blogs about motherhood, and intersperses her commentary with funny and charming anecdotes about drinking, most of which I find quite hilarious and even pretty normal. But interestingly, when I instinctively hit the 'forward' button and began typing the names of all the moms in my life, I feared they would get the wrong idea from the article. Maybe it would seem like I was hinting at their need to sober up? After forwarding to my least sensitive friend and deciding not to forward to others, I did some internet research on this phenomenon of mom's and drinking, and found the internet flooded with posts and blogs devoted to the subject (I invite you to google "drinking and motherhood"). Granted, the internet is flooded with posts and blogs on just about every subject, but nevertheless I was a little shocked to find asking "How Honest Should I Be?", and espousing the wonders of 'drunk sex'.  I know that google is not hard research, but it seems that women in general and maybe moms especially are drinking more than ever, and are just as confused as I am about what their drinking means. Or, perhaps drinking and womanhood have always gone hand in hand, but women are only just now able to use the anonymity of internet blogging to discuss it.

Either way, I am beginning to wonder if there isn't a link between women's public struggle for equality, and their private struggle to cope with the pressures of being female. Does chronic low-level drinking contribute to or reinforce negative gender roles?  Are women simply coping with their unhappiness by staying a little bit tipsy, instead of fighting back?  For me, looking more closely at the links between stress at home and my own personal alcohol consumption is a way of answering this question.  It seems to me that, even if the Oxford study isn't completely accurate, my emotional health is just as important as my physical health, and drinking regularly really can't be good for either. At least for now, I can take comfort in my mammogram results (normal!). Although if anyone is free to celebrate, we could grab a beer...

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