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July 1964

Women Alcoholics Have a Tougher Fight

How this fact offers an exceptional opportunity to women members of AA

Anniversary reprint From the May 1945 Grapevine

WOMEN alcoholics do have special problems. To begin with, the double standard works overtime for them. Even before they become alcoholic they're in a different position from men who drink. They are expected to handle it if they drink at all. "No one likes to see a woman drunk" is a phrase we've all heard ad nauseum. As a matter of fact, we don't like to see it ourselves, much less to see it in the mirror, but if we're alcoholic there isn't much choice.

There is one thing a woman usually can do about it though, and most of them do. She can do her drinking privately. She can "hole up" and present the world with a picture of besetting headaches, practically of chronic invalidism. She can learn more about hiding her liquor in a few months of alcoholism than most men alcoholics learn in years. In the process, she also learns a great deal about hiding her true thoughts--in other words, about dishonest thinking. And finally, a great many women alcoholics learn the last retreat from possible exposure: they discover that sedatives are easily hidden, can be taken almost unobserved, and leave no smell. And that they produce the same effect as quantities of liquor. . .with ten times the danger.

Added to her own efforts to hide the fact of her alcoholism are the well-meaning efforts of her family to hide her shame--their shame--from the world. Regardless of the fact that such efforts rarely deceive anyone, they are desperately pursued to the bitter, often fatal, end.

What, in that case, has killed these "hidden alcoholics," these "protected" women? Not alcoholism. Stigma.

We women who have found the answer to our alcoholic problem in AA have learned also that there should be no stigma attached to this alcoholic disease so many of us share. We have learned that it is nothing to be ashamed of, that it is an illness like any other, with a name and symptoms, and we have learned that we can get well.

Many of us found it almost impossibly difficult to take the First Step, to admit that we were what we had considered that shameful thing, an alcoholic. What would people say? Wouldn't it be still worse than our hidden, bitterly painful, pre-AA state? Could we possibly admit anything honestly anymore? We'd been away from reality so long--we'd twisted and turned so adroitly in our speech, our actions, and in our very thoughts--could we come back? And if we tried, would they let us? Would we be acceptable? Or would the double standard work here too?

In AA groups where there are already a few women members, some of these early doubts can be quickly resolved. Those who dared to take the plunge early and alone into this seeming man's world, found themselves not in icy waters, but in a warm fellowship. They in turn can take the newcomer's hand and lead her into a world where there is real equality--where all are alcoholics together, acceptable by their own admission of that fact. They can help her to feel no longer alone, a marked creature to be hidden and shunned, but a wanted and needed part of a vital, living society of her own kind.

The return to honesty is hard for all alcoholics, but for most women it is harder than for men. Everything in the pattern of a woman alcoholic has conspired to make her dishonest. It hasn't been entirely her fault; the world and its ways are much to blame. But we women can get there as well as the men--witness the number of us, good AA members (one in ten of our 1945 membership). We need perhaps a little more help, a little more tolerance, a little more time. We need extra education on the sedative problem, too often for us the Siamese twin of our alcoholism. We need the example and encouragement of other women, and we need to give that example and encouragement to those hidden women alcoholics who need us.

Those of us who are already well and happy members of AA have a great responsibility in the battle against stigma. If we can freely and proudly admit our AA membership when there is an opportunity to do so, if we will speak at meetings whenever we can, and work with other women, we can win that battle. Women in smaller cities and towns have the toughest fight on their hands, for the smaller the community, the more monstrously big grows the ugly head of stigma, fed on ignorance, misunderstanding and gossip. Only the light of knowledge will eliminate that monster, and the light of knowledge is best shed through the shining light of human example. One woman, free of her illness, happy and well and ready to tell how it was done, can perhaps set hundreds more free.

Women alcoholics are today, in ever-increasing numbers, seeking the answer to their alcoholic problem in AA. It hasn't been easy, for us to reach them, and it hasn't been easy for them to reach out to us--but it is getting easier all the time. We women are making it so.

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