Drinking and how it changed my life: Ann Dowsett-Johnston at TEDxHomeBushRdWomen


Translator: Theresa Ranft
Reviewer: David DeRuwe Thank you very much. You know, there’s a story
that they tell about a writer who heads up to the pearly gates
on a very, very busy day, and she is not quite sure if she’s going
to end up in heaven or hell, and she waits in line
for about three hours, a little bit longer, and she’s a good researcher,
and she gets very frustrated. Finally, she goes up to the front
of the line, and she says, “Do you think I could see God?” And God comes out and says,
“Can I help you?” And she says, “Not sure
if I’m going to heaven or hell, but I might as well start with hell. Do you think I could have a sneak peek?” And God says, “Of course.
First door on the right.” So she goes and takes
a little peek at hell, and she sees her worst nightmare. She sees a whole room full of writers
chained to their desks, clearly they’ve missed their deadlines. The clock’s going around
and around like this. There’s sweat pouring off their brow,
their hair is disheveled, they’re tap, tap, tapping away. And she says, “No, not for me,” and closes the door, goes back to the front
of the queue and says to God, “Do I have a minute to see heaven?” And God says, “Of course, you do. First door on the left.” So she opens the door, and, lo and behold,
she sees the same damn thing. Same damn thing. There’s all these poor writers
that missed their deadlines, and sweat’s pouring off their brow,
and they’re tap, tap, tapping away, and the clock’s going around like this. She closes the door,
and she goes up to God and says, “I don’t know, God. I don’t see much difference
between heaven and hell.” And God looks at her and says,
“My dear, there’s a huge difference. In heaven, the writers get published.” (Laughter) And that was my truth,
that was my heavenly truth this fall. My book got published. It got published. My first book. This is the way it looked
here in New Zealand and Australia, and this is the way that it looked
for the rest of the world. And it was just
a heavenly fall that I had. Maybe spring for you, but wherever you are in the world,
I had a heavenly couple of months. That was the good news. The bad news was that I outed myself
to the entire world as an alcoholic. In fact, worse than that, this was my very public face. I outed myself as the poster girl
for today’s modern alcoholic, and she is female, she is well-educated, she is professional,
she is high functioning, and she is high bottom – “high bottom” meaning
she hadn’t lost everything. That was me, that was me. And I went on the publicity circuit
all around the world, and I was asked about my story. People would always end
with the same question: why did you want to write this book? And I ultimately considered it just about the rudest question
you could ask me, because what they were
really saying was three things: number one, are you crazy, number two, don’t you realize
you’ll never get hired again, and number three, how much did you drink? (Laughter) And the truth is: number one, I’m not crazy. I’m not crazy. I believe
that our secrets keep us very sick. Number two, will I ever get hired again? Well, let’s just say, I applied for a job
I really cared about, about a month ago, and I didn’t even get a call. I think when you write
a book called “Drink,” probably they’re not so sure
they want you. So the stigma’s large,
and I’m pretty aware of what I’ve done in outing myself. Number three, how much did I drink? Well, I drank a lot more
than I should have, over a very short amount of time, and probably a lot less
than you’re imagining. (Laughter) But this was the book
that I wanted to write, and I have to tell you, they say we have private lives,
and we have professional lives, and we have secret lives. And my secret life was the fact that I had grown up
with a beautiful, beautiful mother, lovely, lovely mother. This is how she looked. I’m the one in the glasses
in this picture. I wore glasses from a very young age. She was beautiful, and she was lonely. My father traveled all around the world, and she raised three children by herself, and it was pre-email. The doctor gave her Valium,
and she drank on the Valium, and she was, indeed,
the poster girl for her era, the 1960s, mixing cocktails during the day
as a stay-at-home mom who really devolved
over about three decades into someone who looked very different
and who was very different. It was really tough in our house. It was the one thing I was sure
I was never going to do was to become an alcoholic. I was really sure.
That was not on my wishlist. I did not look like my mother,
I didn’t drink in the day, I didn’t miss work, I won awards at work. I really was sure I wasn’t an alcoholic, or I prayed that I wasn’t one. It wasn’t until I received
this very beautiful handmade card from my 22-year-old son that I realized maybe
there was no denying it. I received this card
from him seven years ago, and I opened it up,
and I thought, “How extraordinary. He’s an artist, it’s handmade,
it’s got a heart behind me. It says, ‘Happy Mother.’ ” And I thought, “This is perfect.” I hadn’t read the fine print. I had had a root canal, and I hadn’t been drinking
for three weeks, and he had seen me really sober, sober every evening. He’d watched me sleeping well, he’d watched my moods be very smooth. And he wrote on one side. I don’t know if you
can read it, but it says, “No bags under her eyes.” And it says, “Writing, not editing.” He knew that I wanted to write and that I was betraying myself
as an individual. But most importantly, he said, “Perrier, not wine.” And I received this card,
and I knew the gig was up. I knew there was no denying
that I was an alcoholic. Now, alcoholism is like this: you will deny it, and it will progress, and you will deny it
and play games with it, and it will progress – that’s what happened to me. I’d like to tell you
that I quit drinking then, but I didn’t. I drank for another two years, and I took a very, very big job,
and that’s all in my book. Finally, I got sober. Finally, I got sober.
I did the heavy lifting of recovery, and it’s not for the faint of heart,
I have to tell you. But, five years ago, I gave up drinking, and it was a new beginning, a new life, an absolutely new life, and not totally easy because, as we all know,
we live in an alcogenic culture. We live in an alcogenic culture,
and here is the real truth, and this is global. The richer the country,
the more narrow the gap between women’s drinking
and men’s drinking, and this is the way it’s going. Men have always had
more to drink than women. But men are flatlining
or going down just a little bit. Women are going this way, and it’s confounding epidemiologists. All around the world,
this is what’s happening. Walk into any room,
any social event, as you know, and the first question
you’re going to be asked right now is “Red or white?” Know your wines – you’re sophisticated. Know your vodkas –
you’re cool, you’re hip. And know your coolers –
you’re young and female. We know all the downsides of trans fats
and all the downsides of tanning beds, but we like to think
of a glass of red wine sort of like vitamin D or dark chocolate – good for our health. And if we’re drinking
a little bit too much, well, we’re just sort of drinking
like the Italians or French, imbibing in the name of sophistication. That’s the way we like to look at things. We don’t like to hear, in fact,
that 15% of breast cancer cases are linked to alcohol. We don’t like to know those things. In fact, we have very,
very fuzzy values about alcohol. And women drinking more
than they ever have before – well, that was the major
question of my book. I knew I wasn’t alone.
I knew it wasn’t just me. I asked why, and I came up
with three reasons: number one is I think it’s become
the modern woman’s steroid, enabling her to do the lifting
in a still-evolving world. We’re in the middle
of a socioeconomic revolution, and we all know that, and so many of us
race home from a busy day, stand there at the chopping board,
getting ready for dinner, pour ourselves a glass of wine. It’s benign behavior.
It’s common behavior. Get ready for dinner, maybe an evening, a second shift of overseeing homework and maybe doing a little work yourself, and you pour yourself
another glass of wine. For years, this was me. For years, this was me, until I had a major depression, a very serious depression in my 50s. And that was reason number two:
self-medication. Self-medication was why I drank
in a really different way. Self-medication, in my case,
for depression and anxiety, but for other women,
it’s a decompression tool. It’s for stress. In fact, the most common indicator
that you’re going to have trouble, as a woman with alcohol, is childhood sexual abuse. That’s the most common reason. And the third reason people drink
is because they can, because they can, and it’s delightful. And we are being marketed to. We are being marketed to
in an incredible way. I’ve been watching – in fact, the first question I asked
when I took on this project was “Why? Why are liquor stores full?” In North America, anyway,
a wine’s called “Mommy Juice,” and “Girls’ Night Out” wine, and, yes, “Happy Bitch,” and “Cupcake” wine,
and “French Rabbit” wine. And why are there all these coolers, and why is there “Skinnygirl” vodka, mango-flavored vodka, berry coolers? These aren’t manly drinks. I ask myself what happened,
and I went to the experts, and I heard the most incredible story that, in the mid-1990s,
the liquor distillery men looked around – and they were mostly men – looked around the world and said, “Beer’s cleaning our clock. Beer’s fun, beer’s sport,
beer’s entertainment. All the Johnnie Walker
drinkers were dying out. What are we going to do?” They looked around the world and said, “Who’s underperforming,
who’s not drinking?” And they saw women, a whole gender! (Laughter) A whole gender, and thus was born the alcopop,
those prepackaged little drinks, vodka-infused, rum-infused, sweet, aimed at girls, aimed at young girls. It’s high school that’s the initiation
of drinking most commonly; university is the escalation. Sweet drinks to steer
young women away from beer. They’re called “chick beer,” they’re called “cocktails
with training wheels,” “starter drinks,” and they were enormously successful. So by the time that young women
get to university, they’ve given them up,
but they’re drinking vodka. So you go onto any campus – and I’ve been on a lot
of campuses recently – you go on any campus,
and you look at what’s happening, and young men and women
are playing drinking games. Forget the frat boy stereotype;
it’s equal opportunity, They’re playing drinking games, and he’s drinking beer
and she’s drinking vodka or tequila. She’s two-thirds his size. She’s two-thirds his size, and she probably didn’t eat
before that evening, because often young women
these days don’t eat before a date. And we all know
that she’s at a disadvantage, we all know she’s drinking
the stronger drink, and we all know that alcohol
is the number one date rape drug, and it has been for years. So that’s the story,
that’s the story of what’s happening. And you ask yourself about this. You ask yourself about why this generation
is not slowing down in their 20s, and they’re not slowing down in their 30s. And think about this: that increase is the steepest
for young women between the ages of 24 and 36 – 24 and 36, those are the same women
who are giving birth to 60% of the babies. And the FASD numbers, rates,
are going like this as well. This is not a pretty picture. So, I’m not trying to rain on our parade, I’m not trying to rain on your parade, and I’m not trying to be a killjoy. I’m not saying, “If you can drink
fabulously well and manage it well, good for you.” But if you’re female,
know that safe drinking guidelines would say no more
than 10 drinks in a week. Know that, know that. And even if you are drinking safely … I’m going to ask
because this is very dark, when I’m looking out into the audience, I’m not going to ask you
to raise your hands, but if I were to ask you
to raise your hands and say, “Is there anyone in this audience that hasn’t been touched
by someone’s drinking?” A mother or a father’s,
a son or a daughter’s, a sister or brother’s, or maybe your own. I would bet that no one could lift a hand. I would bet, in our culture, no one could. So we ask ourselves the question,
“What should we do? What should we do on a global level,
on a large policy level?” That’s what I’m interested in. I’m going to tell you about a frog pond. I’m going to tell you
about a frog pond, a strange frog pond where there are a growing number of frogs that are developing really ugly warts, and a growing number
are growing infertile. And everyone says, “Better send in the surgeons.
Better send in the infertility experts.” And someone else very wise says, “Maybe there’s something in the water. Maybe, just maybe,
there’s something in the water.” And I’m here to say
there is something in the water. We are awash in alcohol marketing. We don’t even notice it anymore. We’re awash in alcohol marketing,
we’re awash in alcohol. So, if we are smart, we will push on the three levers
that we pushed on with tobacco. We will push on marketing;
we’ll reduce it. And certainly, marketing on Facebook that’s aimed at young people
who are underage, where marketers are tweeting
and interacting as a person, as a friend. We will definitely look at pricing. Let’s talk about Britain. In Britain, the price –
often alcohol is cheaper than milk or cheaper than orange juice, and you have young women in their 20s developing end-stage
liver disease in the UK. In the US, you’ve got
gas stations selling alcohol. So accessibility is the third thing
that you press on. That’s what you do
if you’re running a country. And that’s one thing. But if you’re –
as an individual, as I said – if you’re fine with your own drinking, then more power to you, enjoy yourself. But if you’re drinking like I drank,
if you’re drinking to numb, that’s another thing. My life in sobriety has been rocky. It’s a brand-new life now,
but it wasn’t always so. When I was 18 months sober, I got a call I dreaded, a call I never ever wanted to get. The man I was to marry and the man
I was in love with for 14 years picked up the phone and told me
it was over, in a morning, and I’ve never seen him again. And I was full of despair,
and I didn’t drink, and I couldn’t drink. And I picked up the phone
to my son about a week later, and I said, “I’ve lost
everything to sobriety, absolutely everything. My life is terrible.” And he said, “Really?” There’s my brave son. He said, “Go get a piece of paper, Mom. I’m going to dictate this to you.” He said, “Draw a line
down the middle, Mom. On the one side write ‘Losses.’
Write his name, Mom. You loved him very much. And yes, he was great to you. And then he wasn’t, Mom, not in the end. Okay, on the other side, Mom,
I want you to write ‘Gains.’ I want you to write your sister’s name – you got her back. I want you to write your brother’s name – you got him back. I want you to write your mom’s name – you got her back. I want you to write
every single friend, Mom. Are you writing?” I was writing. He said, “You got me back, Mom.” I said, “I didn’t lose you.” He said, “Oh, yes, you did, Mom. You lost me. Things were really,
really strained between us, don’t you remember? We didn’t even talk for four months.” I wrote down his name. Then he said something I won’t forget.
He said, “Mom, you’re a fabulous mom. I wanted to go to art school,
and you supported me. Write that down, Mom.” I wrote it down. He said, “You got your writing back, Mom. You got your voice back. You got everything back, Mom. Have a look at that list, Mom. So you lost a guy.
Have a look at the other side.” Thank you. (Applause)

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