The Secret Lives of Alcoholic Moms

Posted under Alcoholism on September 26, 2011
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She’s hardworking and successful. She’s attentive to her family’s needs. She volunteers in the community and the PTA. Despite all of her accomplishments, this “perfect” woman may be hiding a painful secret: She’s an alcoholic.

Although most people hear “alcoholic” and picture a middle-aged man or even a “skid row bum,” the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reports that one-third of alcoholics in the U.S. are women. Here are a few concerning facts about women and alcohol:

  • Recent studies show women are closing the gender gap on alcohol abuse.
  • Drunk driving rates have been increasing rapidly among women even as they decline among men.
  • Women are at higher risk than men for alcohol-related health complications, such as liver, brain and heart damage. According to the NIAAA, women alcoholics have death rates that are 50 to 100 percent higher than men.
  • Women born after World War II are more likely to binge drink (i.e., have four or more drinks in two hours), at a rate almost equal to men.
  • Children of alcoholics are four times more likely to become alcoholics or addicts than other children, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. They are also more likely to struggle with depression, anxiety, delinquent behavior and school failure.

The Toughest Job in the World

Millions of women are leading secret double lives – doting mother and loving spouse to the outside world, hidden alcoholic on the inside. What drives moms to drink?

Being a mom is the toughest job in the world, and it has gotten even tougher in the past few decades, experts say. After World War II, more women entered the workforce but were still expected to be great mothers and wives. For many women, alcohol use has become a coping mechanism to help them deal with the pressures of modern life.

Some moms have left high-power, financially rewarding careers to care for their children full-time and feel a sense of loss or boredom in their new career as a stay-at-home mom. Alcohol has been the drug of choice because it is readily available and is among the most socially acceptable drugs of abuse.

If they’re not worrying about the health and well-being of their kids, many moms are critically evaluating their parenting or professional skills. Drawing comparisons to other parents, strained marital relationships, and needing to take the edge off the crying and screaming of toddlers or the constant negotiating with teens have all been cited as reasons moms turn to the bottle.

Where Are the Spouses and Loved Ones?

As nurturers and caretakers, many people believe it is “against nature” for moms to be alcoholics. Because of the stigma attached to alcoholism, particularly among moms, many women suffer in silence.

The case of Diane Schuler is a prime example. In July 2009, devoted mom and wife Diane Schuler made headlines when she drove drunk the wrong way down the Taconic Parkway, killing herself and seven others. Despite all evidence to suggest that his wife was indeed an alcoholic, Diane Schuler’s husband, Daniel, adamantly refused to accept his wife’s culpability. Instead, he demanded numerous autopsies, all of which confirmed that his wife was drunk and stoned, and went on to sue everyone he could possibly blame for the accident. 

Although this case presents an extreme example, Daniel Schuler is joined by millions of spouses who are in denial about their loved one’s alcoholism. Onlookers ask, “How could a husband be so blind?”

In many cases, good old-fashioned denial is to blame. A spouse may be embarrassed of their wife’s behavior or afraid of confronting their spouse and disturbing the peace. It may be too painful to admit that a loving wife and mother could be hurting themselves and others with their drinking.

Part of the answer is also that women are deeply ashamed of their behavior and go to extremes to keep their drinking a secret. Women tend to be more private about their alcohol consumption, are more likely to binge drink and are more skilled at hiding their behaviors. Some women report using perfume, soap, gum and mouthwash to mask their drinking, while others drink at night after the family goes to sleep. Stay-at-home moms who have a spouse that works and children that attend school may be able to hide their habit by drinking during the day.

Another reason loved ones turn a blind eye is that they don’t know what to look for. Many husbands report overlooking their wife’s drinking because she didn’t fit the typical image of an alcoholic who is falling down drunk or unable to function. They may mistakenly believe their wife can’t be an alcoholic if she’s just drinking wine, as many alcoholic moms do.

When Mom Needs Drug Rehab

Dubbed by the media as “cocktail moms” or “happy hour moms,” alcoholic moms are typically high-functioning. Even though they may manage to hold down a job and tend to their family’s needs, it is only a matter of time until the consequences come to the surface, sometimes in the form of a deadly car accident or other tragedy. Mothers have driven their children home from school drunk – some get away with it, while others face dire consequences.

Although these behaviors are not unusual, they are a sign of alcoholism. Here are a few red flags that a woman in your life may be struggling with alcoholism:

  • The ability to have many drinks without getting intoxicated
  • Hiding alcohol or sneaking drinks (finding empty alcohol containers hidden in the home or in the trash)
  • Binge drinking (consuming four or more drinks in a short period of time)
  • Comments such as “I need a drink” in order to cope
  • Preoccupation with drinking or attending events where alcohol will be available
  • Drinking before social gatherings
  • Job loss or complaints from employers or co-workers about work performance
  • Concern from friends, teachers or relatives about problem drinking behaviors
  • Driving under the influence or drinking in public
  • Inability to remember conversations or events because of alcohol
  • Uncharacteristic behaviors such as angry outbursts, impulsive decision-making or sexual promiscuity
  • Feeling guilty after drinking and trying to “make it up” to others
  • Changes in diet, sleep, dress, friends or self-care
  • Family history of drug abuse or addiction
  • Drinking frequently or in excessive amounts
  • Getting into accidents or fights as a result of drinking

Few alcoholic moms reach out for help on their own, despite having much to lose, including their marriages, their children and their lives. Ignoring these signs of alcoholism makes you part of the problem instead of the solution. Don’t let your family be the next tragedy. With treatment, your entire family can get healthy again.