Mother's Little Helper
Binge drinking is on the rise—especially in women. A mom in recovery and local experts weigh in on the signs and dangers of alcohol addiction, and how to know when to seek help.
By Dwain Hebda
Amber Holland Duch sits forward earnestly in her chair, hands rhythmically folding and unfolding on the table in front of her, eyes piercing the listener. The mother of two is here by will as much as want.
“Did I ever think that when I took that first drink of alcohol when I was a teenager that I was going to become addicted, that it was going to affect me differently, that I was going to end up a 40-yearold woman and be where I’m at?” she posits hypothetically.
She lets the question hang there a second then shakes herself out from under its shadow.
“I got the quote somewhere, ‘Sobriety is never owned, it’s rented and rent’s due everyday,’” she continued. “So you have to work. It’s a constant everyday struggle.”
Duch’s hands are still, but the muscles of her neck flex and her eyes take on a faraway, smoldering hue. She doesn’t necessarily like talking about her demons, on the record no less, but finds the process freeing. “I hate addiction,” she said, softly.
It’s hardly news that America has a drinking problem, but studies are showing that our thirst for excess is getting deeper, fueled by the availability and the social acceptance of consuming more and more copious amounts of alcohol.
The most alarming thing about America’s favorite vice is that while the percentage of the population who drink has remained constant, consumption is going up—thanks to a spike in binge drinking. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) statistics reveal more than 38 million American adults reported binge drinking—four or more drinks per hour for women and five for men—an average of four times per month, consuming an average of eight drinks per binge.
Women are squarely in the middle of this trend; binge drinking rates among women rose 17.5 percent between 2005 and 2012, compared to just 4.9 percent growth for men. Experts point to several factors leading more women to match their male counterparts, shot for shot.
“We’re seeing a whole culturation of ‘mommy deserves to tie one on,’” said Ken Clark, founder of Chenal Family Therapy. “I think the old mindset is men need to go out and blow off steam and I think there is definitely a female version of that, which is ‘Back off, mommy’s doing mommy time right now.’”
Women aren’t just claiming the space formerly reserved for men; they’re taking in everything that space has to offer, including its pitfalls, Clark said. As women gain ground in the professional world, they’re turning to the same things to take off the edge that men have.
“In the last 40 years, women have really fought for equal footing,” Clark said. “A lot of the women that I’m seeing are not just women who are drinking after tennis lessons. They are doctors and lawyers, and they have some hard days and going home and pouring two or three is legit. They’re managing their stress with that.”
Duch started like a lot people, getting tipsy in high school and attending frat parties in college as a rite of passage. And while consumption became more regular in her adult years, the fact that she could stop for prolonged periods of time showed she was in control.
At least that’s what she liked to tell herself, even in the later stages of her addiction where she’d plant alcohol all over the house—hiding mini bottles in her shoes was a favorite tactic—or manipulating the levels in open wine bottles to mask how much she’d downed that day.
“I could do like a 21-day vegan cleanse where there’s no alcohol, no caffeine and I would survive it and it was great,” she said. “But I still thought about [alcohol] almost every day. “You don’t ever think that’s going to eventually become where you physically need it. And that’s pretty scary.”
The yeast of Duch’s addiction had other things helping it rise, including a history of alcohol abuse in her family and her job as a personal trainer, which made her the last person most would suspect of putting anything damaging into her body. Little did anyone know that the confident front she portrayed was merely a construct of her disease.
“Going to different events and stuff, people didn’t see it because they saw Amber, and she’s so fit and she does these things and I’m still helping people being a health and fitness coach,” she said. “But it was almost like a double life. And there are so many other women, so many other mothers out there doing the same thing.”
“It’s an everyday conversation; it’s like, ‘Oh, go get a bottle of wine for the school function and this and that.’ It’s hard with alcohol just being everywhere and being legal and being OK because that’s what moms do. That’s how it started off with me. Then it just manifested.”
Duch doesn’t blame society for her drinking—part of getting sober is to accept accountability for one’s actions—but Kate Hardage, Methodist Children’s Home outpatient administrator doesn’t mince words about marketing at least contributing to the problem.
“If you’ve noticed, within the last five years, the ads are becoming more about feminism,” she said. “Alcohol and smoking ads were always with a man, and now I feel like they’re being more posed towards women saying, ‘Hey, just go grab that glass of wine at the end of the day.’”
“I went to a baby shower this past weekend at a restaurant and they asked if I wanted a glass of wine. The waiter said, ‘Do you want the three-ounce or the nine-ounce? It’s only a dollar difference.’ In my mind I was like, ‘Oh I’ll take the nine-ounce.’ And I know that’s just an upsell, but it’s cheaper; you got it in a glass like a mini carafe. That’s another thing society does to kind of reiterate binge drinking indirectly, to say, ‘Oh you’re getting that great deal.’”
For Duch, a series of deaths among family and close friends over the summer three years ago sent her drinking into overdrive. With the support of her husband, she finally decided to get help and in the five months since, she’s discovered the profound difference between quitting drinking and getting sober.
“They say ‘One day at a time,’ and ‘Just for today,’ but it’s true,” she said. “[Rehab] worked well for about 90 days, but I became too complacent and I slipped. I went to a close friend’s wedding and I thought I could have just a couple of glasses of champagne. The next day I didn’t drink, but it quickly led back to binge drinking, drinking daily.”
Even a trip to the emergency room last November with alcohol-induced acute pancreatitis doesn’t keep the “devil” from lurking in her mind.
“I go to the emergency room because I’m vomiting and I can barely walk. Obviously, I stopped drinking alcohol,” she said. “Then what we do is, we forget. We forget the bad things. We forget I had pancreatitis and this is what caused it, because that’s what the addiction does. It tells you you don’t have an addiction.”
Both Clark and Hadage say the binge drinker is the new, and in some ways more concerning, of addicts they treat. “We’re concerned about people who can’t function without drinking, which is your classic alcoholic,” Clark said. “But the ones we’re more worried about are the ones that sit down, tell themselves they’re going to have two drinks and five drinks later they’re not sure how they got there.
“That’s the more alarming one, and we see that a lot with moms. A lot of the shame we see walk in our door as therapists is, ‘I went to this BBQ and I told myself I was going to have two drinks and that’s the last thing I remember.’”
“Women who binge drink more often are less likely to receive help or reach out for help, because there is not a whole lot of programs out there for a woman to work and be a mother and what are they going to do with their kids to seek this treatment?” Hardage added.
“I also think women have a stigma of, ‘You’re a mom; you should have all of your shit together with your kids and your job and this and that.’ That’s stress; they don’t want society necessarily to know that they’re crumbling.”
These days Duch is a lot wiser about the facts of her life, what she can and cannot do. Sharing her experiences online resulted in overwhelmingly positive responses from others, and while she likes her sober self, she doesn’t kid herself as to how easily she could get lost again. Faith, routine and a sponsor help, but ultimately, it’s up to her.
“Having a plan, having somebody to call, having support— eventually handling those cravings and the triggers becomes a little bit easier,” she said. “It doesn’t ever go away. I think about it, maybe not thinking about it every day or even from week to week.”
“I’m very fortunate; I’m grateful. I’ve learned so much in a short amount of time. It’s taught me a lot.”