We just finished reading “Goodbye Hangovers, Hello Life,” which details the recovery journey of author Jean Kirkpatrick, who’s the founder of Women for Sobriety, one of the foremost women-focused sobriety organizations.
It’s a female-oriented recovery story, which interested me personally and seemed relevant for Drinker’s Helper, as a majority of our members are women (my husband and I agree that’s probably because women are both smart enough to realize they need help and humble enough to actually seek it). Ahem, men: get it together!
But this book (which is a bit old, published in 1986) posits some sadder possible explanations for women seeking help from sources like our app. It suggests that societal norms make it harder for women to seek outside help for drinking problems. For example, it suggests that some people think that women are supposed to be at home supporting the family and therefore shouldn’t seek treatment outside the home.
Overall, we didn’t relate to this book quite as much as some others like Rewired or This Naked Mind. This is partly due to the decades of societal change that separate our experience with drinking from the author’s and also partly down to the degree of addiction we experienced, but it gave us a fascinating and truly heartbreaking perspective into what the process of quitting was like for a woman who was severely addicted to alcohol in the eighties.
Here’s what did resonate with us:
She points out that Alcoholics Anonymous has propagated the dangerous idea that you need to hit bottom before seeking treatment, and disagrees with it. She hit bottom in her own story she tells in her book, and talks about how many alcoholics she’s worked with had to lose their jobs, their families, or both before they were convinced they had to change. But she doesn’t believe it’s necessary, and we agree. Our hope is that with Drinker’s Helper, we can help people long before they ever get to that point.
The author does a good job acknowledging the challenges of early sobriety. She makes the excellent point that people may struggle in the early stages of quitting because they feel physically but not emotionally better. The irritability and anxiety people often experience (symptoms of withdrawal) can make quitting drinking seem like the wrong choice. Also, people have often abused alcohol because they lack other ways to cope with life’s inevitable challenges, and choose to escape through drunkenness instead. Now, they encounter problems and don’t have an easy escape route. We agree it’s so important that people who are quitting drinking expect this period of difficulty, and are not caught off guard by it.
We think her “six key thoughts for a successful recovery” (we won’t print them; buy the book if you’re interested!) are beautiful and inspirational even if you’ve never had a drinking problem. They include such gems as realizing the past is in the past, and realizing that our thoughts shape our worlds.
She’s solidly against ruminating on the past, a common part of traditional Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. We agree that spending time beating yourself up for past mistakes is unlikely to help you change.
Here’s what resonated less with us:
She still uses the term “alcoholic,” and subscribes to the incurable disease model of alcoholism. We do not agree. Alcohol is an addictive drug, and its misuse is an addiction and a disorder, but typically we think of illness as caused by an outside invader, like a virus or bacteria. Alcohol abuse is a disorder caused by using a drug to cope with life’s problems. We think the key is that in saying alcoholism is not a disease, we aren’t saying it’s a moral failing (those were the two options she considered, before saying it was a disease). Those are not the only two options. The third, and the one we buy into, is that alcohol is a powerfully addictive drug.
It posits that women have unique struggles with alcohol for some specific reasons that didn’t resonate with us. Some of the reasons are: because their self-esteem is more threatened by their financial dependence on others, because their marriages are less likely to be intact, because they don’t have a sense of self outside their family, because they’re uncomfortable with their sexuality or even worse are victims of sexual abuse, because doctors are likely to prescribe them addictive medications to deal with their disorder, and because they may not have as strong a sense of self as their male counterparts due to not having a role outside the home. We simply don’t think these broad generalizations are true of women as a group (anymore; perhaps ever). From personal experience, we know it is perfectly possible to end up drinking too much without any specific past trauma, with fabulous careers and intact families, and without any pressure to be perfect at home and at work.
In one part of the book, she asks twenty questions and tells you if you answered yes on a single one, you’re not a social drinker; you’re an alcoholic. Well, plenty of non-addicted drinkers would say yes to at least some of the questions she asked. For example, she asked “Do you find that drinking makes you feel less insecure and less vulnerable?”, “Have you ever noticed any changes in your drinking habits?”, and ‘Have you found that it helps to have a drink or two before going to a party and that it makes you feel less nervous?” There’s a difference between answering yes to two or three and yes to all twenty, as well - drinking problems are more of a spectrum than people at that time realized. You might be very mildly addicted, using alcohol sometimes for its calming effects but not drinking very much and able to moderate. This is a possibility this author didn’t seem to consider.
The book also puts forward a highly specific path for recovery from alcohol abuse disorder that is grounded in the author’s personal experience. We believe everyone’s path is unique, and the particular pattern she describes is more likely to be familiar to those with more severe problems.
She talks about meditation as a key skill for recovery (no arguments there), but describes it as pushing all thoughts out of your head so you can listen to the silence. It’s a minor point, but that’s certainly not how we would characterize successful meditation, in which you learn to observe your thoughts passing by without judgment.
Finally, she suggests abstaining from sugar and caffeine in early sobriety, given both are addictive and the former can mess with your mood. Well, while she’s not factually wrong, the harms from sugar and caffeine are nothing compared to the harms of alcohol. We’d encourage the use of both as treats and rewards in early sobriety. Sticking to your goals without any indulgences at all can make sobriety 10x more difficult than it has to be.
That’s all for this review. In short, it gave us an illuminating perspective on what quitting drinking was like in the past, but we don’t buy into many of the assertions about the importance of this specific path to recovery.
If you are working to cut back or quit drinking, we’d love to help. Drinker’s Helper is designed to help people who have a mild or moderate drinking problem, through a virtual support group, over a hundred exercises for motivation and advice, and a drink and urge tracker with insights into what makes you want to drink. Try it today!