Sexual Trauma – The Highest Predictor of Alcoholism

Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol by Ann Dowsett Johnston.

This is a solid, well-researched account of alcohol’s harmful effects on those of us who are vulnerable to substance abuse.

I remember hearing Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk, expert childhood trauma clinician, researcher and teacher, explain that when anyone presented for treatment with a history of child sexual abuse, he asked what they used to dull the intolerable pain of child sexual abuse: street drugs, prescription drugs, cigarettes, food binges, etc.? Those who have lived through childhood trauma need something, he explained. The pain is too great to bear without some substance to numb it.

Johnston described her interview with David Goldman, chief of the laboratory of human genetics at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, in the United States. Goldman told her that genes play a strong role in alcoholism, but “The strongest single predictor for both alcoholism and depression is having been sexually abused or traumatized in childhood. … Sexual abuse is the strongest predictor” (p. 81.)

Those of us who have histories of child abuse, especially child sexual abuse, would do well to take in Drink’s information. The author’s sharing of her own struggle with alcohol is heartfelt and honest. Growing up with an alcoholic mother, Johnston swore never to be like her mother, but ended up drinking heavily, beginning in university. By the time she was a superwoman editor, mother and successful public figure, she depended on wine to smooth over fatigue, anxiety and any other uncomfortable feeling.

I was in the large audience at this year’s Kingston Writers’ Fest when Johnston talked about her life and her book. She has a lovable vulnerability, an unusual characteristic in a trauma survivor. (Most of us hide any sign of struggle or pain.) Her book describes how she became more and more authentic as she healed: more and more Ann.

There is a disturbing increase in drinking among women in general, she tells us. Realizing this, wine makers and distillers have developed marketing strategies and products targeted exclusively to women. Girls’ Night Out wines, Mommy Juice and Mommy’s Time Out, berry flavoured vodkas and fruit coolers are all aimed at the female consumer.

Johnston describes the disturbing prevalence of heavy drinking on university campuses. (Such is not the case in community colleges.) Drunkenness is considered part of a rite of passage, normal behaviour for those who have left home, usually for the first time. Many vulnerable women begin their problem drinking in university. She urges academic communities to tackle this problem.

Realizing she had a problem, Ann Dowsett Johnston promised her then-boyfriend she wouldn’t drink alone when she moved to Montreal to be Vice President of McGill University. Loneliness and the stress of the new job soon had her finding sleep by drinking too much. At last, she tells us, she crashed and headed for a residential treatment centre to deal with her alcoholism.

I highly recommend this book to survivors of childhood trauma and to anyone wishing to better understand the damaging effects of alcohol on vulnerable populations.

Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol, Ann Dowsett Johnston, HarperCollins Publishers Ltd., Toronto, Canada, 2013.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *