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Stop the Binge Drinking, Ladies: Alcohol Killed My Sister

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Two years ago this month, my sister Diane lost her long battle with the bottle. She was brilliant. She was beautiful. And she was an alcoholic. On Sunday, Jan. 30, 2011, I received the call from a police detective that no one wants to hear: "Ms. Swiss, I have some bad news. We found your sister Diane deceased in a hotel room. I'm sorry. There was nothing we could do."

A newly-released CDC study reveals that more than 14 million U.S. women binge drink, 1 in 8 adult women and 1 in 5 high school girls. Every one of these women increases her risk for breast cancer, heart disease, STDs, and unintended pregnancy. Each represents a dangerous statistic and has succumbed to what the CDC calls "a serious, under-recognized problem."

My sister started out as a binge drinker. Diane was a pre-med major in college, but she loved to party and drank heavily every weekend. This pattern continued through medical school, yet she maintained control during the week. Somewhere along the way, drinking became her addiction and her demise.

The last time I saw Diane, she had a large purple bruise on her left cheek. When I asked what had happened, she claimed she had fallen on some ice, but it was April, and the last snow had fallen months earlier. Female alcoholics often suffer domestic abuse, and my sister was no exception. It was brutally apparent that her on-again, off-again boyfriend Mark had hit her once again. He had just been released from jail for drunk driving. On that Tuesday, I looked into Diane's big brown eyes and begged her to go to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

What I now know is that Diane had already given up on herself. It was too late. I gave her a hug and watched as she headed for some greasy take-out chicken wings at the mall's food court. That was the last time I saw my sister alive.

Working to untangle what had happened in my sister's final days, I learned from the hotel receptionist that on the Friday before her death, Diane seemed to have a normal day, racing to the buffet to grab a yogurt and coffee before heading off to her temporary employment. Like many addicts, she had trouble holding on to a job.

As the detective examined Diane's belongings, he paused when he picked up her résumé and said: "It breaks my heart when I see her impressive credentials, all that she had going for her, and all that wasted potential." Diane was only 53, and a physician. In the daylight, she mostly managed to hold it together. Nightfall brought out her demons. When I looked at her debit card records, I saw that she purchased, every single night, two oversized bottles of wine -- three liters worth that she consumed by herself. Mark lived in her condo two hours away. Her contract job was about to end; she had cashed in her IRA and had mounds of overdue bills. My sister must have felt desperate and overwhelmed, and that held her even tighter to alcohol's deceptive and cruel grip.

Alcohol ate away at Diane's confidence and judgment just as it destroyed her liver and other internal organs. Between contract jobs, she and Mark lived in her condo, which was filthy and reeked of her cats' urine. Mark was unemployed and also an alcoholic. I now know that he beat her up regularly. Mark was all my sister thought she had, and she felt so badly about herself that she didn't believe she deserved better. So she sent him cash to buy cigarettes in prison and welcomed him back upon his release. After Diane passed, I found a note she had sent to Mark, apologizing for not sending more money even though she was between jobs at the time.

The abuse continued after Diane died. Mark wiped out her checking account by splurging on Internet porn and on dinners with his new girlfriend, whom we found living with him in my sister's place. Before alcoholism began to kill Diane, she had healthy relationships with men and lots of friends. She biked, she swam, she surfed. She seemed so content, sitting with her friends on the beach, giant cup of iced coffee in hand, listening to lively tunes. By the time she died, she had only one friend left.

Each year, 23,000 girls and women die from alcohol abuse in the U.S. I will always feel sadness and regret that I didn't do more to save my sister. By sharing her story, I want to honor the good and kind person that was taken away by the bottle. My fervent hope is that someone reading this will decide that today is the day to stop drinking.

Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.

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