THE BLOG
11/22/2013 04:57 pm ET | Updated Jan 25, 2014

Is Alcoholism in Women the Last Taboo?

Six women drink coffee around a kitchen table in any friendly neighborhood you can visualize. They chat about children and jobs as they pass around a sign-up sheet for meals. Emily, one of their friends, is undergoing chemo for invasive breast cancer. These women will take turns delivering dinner to Emily's family for the next few weeks.

Then their good friend Mary's name comes up, and the room goes quiet. Eyes look away. Someone exhales audibly. "Well," one woman finally breaks the silence, "I don't think it's something we should talk about." A pause, then another voice agrees. "It's really nobody's business." They all concur and go back to signing up meals for Emily.

Mary doesn't have cancer; she has alcoholism. And, like Emily, she is undergoing treatment. But hers is not chemotherapy; hers is a 30-day residential program for alcoholism/addiction. Her family, too, could use a sign-up sheet for meals and support during this difficult time.

But there are no CarePages for women alcoholics. Cards and casseroles and flowers fly out to women with health problems from diabetes to diverticulitis. Fundraisers are held. T-shirts get designed. But not for women suffering the disease of alcoholism.

The reason? Our society's perception of alcoholism remains stuck in the dated realm of right and wrong. This alcoholic mythology of good and evil ignores the fact that since 1956 the American Medical Association has defined alcoholism as an "illness." In 1991 the AMA doubled down by endorsing the findings of the esteemed International Classification of Diseases that listed alcoholism in both its Psychiatric and Medical sections.

The language we use about alcoholism is a dead giveaway. Who hasn't heard someone referred to as "a reformed alcoholic"? But who's ever heard anyone described as "A reformed bypass patient?" "A reformed gall bladder?" "A reformed leukemia patient?" No, these patients are not "reforming." They are, like alcoholics getting treatment, "recovering."

The 2013 bible of mental health professions published by the American Psychiatric Association is the DSM-5 -- the fifth update of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Note the word this Manual uses to define alcoholic recovery:

"Early remission from a substance use disorder is defined as at least three months but less than 12."

The next phase is "sustained remission" and means "at least 12 months." DSM-5 does not say early "reformation" which suggests moral redemption but "remission" which is the clinical word for abatement of the disease process. The shame is not in having alcoholism, but in not seeking treatment. The shame comes from the bad things alcoholics do when they choose to stay in their disease.

Given that we ignore the disease model of alcoholism, why, then, is it still more of a taboo for a woman to be an alcoholic? Is it that an inebriated man on a bar stool can be seen as a fun party guy while a woman staggering in the same bar is a tramp? Why can a male downing shots be perceived as macho while a woman chugging beer is a drunk?

Why can't women in Saudi Arabia drive cars? Why do women hit a glass ceiling in the business world? Why are women often paid less than men for the same job? Why could my grandmother be an honors graduate of the University of Michigan and not be allowed to vote until she was in her 30s?

As women? Yes, we've come a long way. My mother could vote, but not walk up the steps of the Union. I could vote, walk up the Union steps, but not be a cheerleader. My daughters could do all those things plus play for the Wolverines. And our granddaughter is now part of the once all-male School of Engineering.

Progress happens. And it's time for us to understand alcoholism is a disease, not a moral failing. It's time for us to recognize that women and men are different, but equal. It's time for us to stop calling women alcoholics drunks and men good-time Charlies.

Still, I am a believer. I see Mary's friends signing up to bring her casseroles and I see a fundraising 5K with families wearing sunshine-yellow T-shirts that read: "Join the Fight for Sobriety!"

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