How getting sober helped me to understand and make peace with my femininity
Drink is a feminist issue
When I was a kid, my dad was my hero. He knew everything there was to know about plants and trees, and if he found broken animals he would bring them home in a box for us to (try and) nurse back to health. I loved that soft side of him, and I wanted to be just like him. He worked hard and he played hard too.
After a long day cutting down trees and remaking people’s gardens, my dad would go to the pub. I’d watch him get happier until he was red-faced and silly and not entirely making sense. It looked like fun, and I couldn’t wait to join him.
Cue me, aged fifteen, standing by the bar and ordering drinks. When we couldn’t get served we stole booze from parties or asked older kids to buy it for us from the shop.
From the very start, I wanted to be able to hold my liquor. It seemed important and respectable, and I didn’t give up. By the time I got to university, I’d nailed it. I could drink like the boys. Mostly.
I was proud of the fact that I matched men pint for pint. I felt like one of the lads. Drinking pints was just one of many ways in which I rejected femininity. I resented the incessant gendered double binds.
The pressure to look good while having no vanity. Smooth armpits and legs, but no extra time to get ready. Great in bed, but not too experienced. Getting smashed out of my mind helped me forget about the injustices, large and small.
Alcohol affects women differently
Unfortunately (or fortunately?) being able to drink like a man doesn’t mean that your body is able to process alcohol like a man. As Linda Richter discusses in her book, Neuroscience and Alcohol:
In the past decade, women have shown dramatically steeper increases in alcohol use, risky drinking, and alcohol use disorder relative to men. This is highly concerning since the evidence is indisputable that women who drink alcohol experience its adverse effects, including addiction, more rapidly and intensely compared to men who drink similar amounts.
As women catch up with men in terms of sinking the drink, our relative suffering increases. Not only can women become addicted, and incur damage to their organs more quickly, but our vulnerability to violence and abuse expands too.
In spite of how well you might play pool and come up with witty retorts after four or five pints, your female body is absorbing and metabolizing all that booze differently to the way male bodies process it. Even if the bodies are the same size.
Alcohol is held in the body as body water, not body fat, and as women tend to be smaller, with more body fat, this adds up to it being more concentrated, which leads to them being more impaired than men after drinking equivalent amounts of alcohol.
Many of those times I matched men pint for pint, I walked home in a blackout. And if I dared ask, this was rarely the case for them. People didn’t believe I had lost the whole previous night because I seemed to function normally or thereabouts. Shame and fear quickly taught me to keep my blackouts secret.
After a while, they didn’t seem so bad. Mostly, I woke up at home or in a close friend’s bed, and after some variety of debilitating hangover, life continued as normal. I swore I would drink more slowly next time.
Women’s drunk bodies are treated differently to men’s drunk bodies
I hate to be a Debbie Downer, but in the stories I hear, drunk men get into fights with strangers, and drunk women wake in beds with strangers. And this is the nice side of the imbalance.
“Research typically finds that between 25% and 50% of those who perpetrate domestic abuse have been drinking at the time of assault, although in some studies the figure is as high as 73%.” — Alcohol, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Assault Report, from the Institute of Alcohol Studies, 2014
Alcohol confuses the issue of consent enough that many women don’t understand that what has happened to them meets the legal definition of rape until long after their assault.
“Researchers consistently have found that approximately one-half of all sexual assaults are committed by men who have been drinking alcohol… Similarly, approximately one-half of all sexual assault victims report that they were drinking alcohol at the time of the assault, with estimates ranging from 30 to 79 percent.” — National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
It isn’t only women this can happen to. The abuse of alcohol makes the whole population more dangerous and more vulnerable at the same time. But women, like it or not, are more vulnerable.
We love drinking because it smooths the edges
It softens social awkwardness and allows strangers to bond quickly. It helps us to relax and stops our minds from worrying over our neverending to-do lists. It allows us to spend time with people that push our buttons without getting too wound up. Alcohol helps us to connect and have fun and unwind.
But it helps to hide from unpalatable truths too. For me, drinking was a way of hiding from the fact that I was female. Because I saw the way women were treated by society and it made me sick. But closing your eyes when a train is hurtling towards you doesn’t stop you from getting hit.
Until I quit drinking, I was unable to make peace with my gender and the discrimination I have faced because of it. The anger that I felt at the world’s treatment of women so consumed me that I had to drink to numb it.
It wasn’t until I finally stopped necking all those lager tops that I was able to really discover and accept the traditionally ‘feminine’ side of myself.
It was so relaxing to stop trying to be something I was not. To enjoy nesting and baking and soaking in the bath. I found a beautiful man who enjoyed these things too. (I’m not trying to put anyone in gender essentialist prison here).
In my early twenties, I scorned being ‘girly’ and stuck close to the boys. I wore baggy jeans and felt like one of the lads, but the men in the group still talked over me once they got excited. (It was the mid-noughties and nobody had heard of micro-aggressions in spite of the term being coined in the 1970s.)
By pretending to be one of them I missed out on being part of a group that truly saw and heard and valued me.
Finding your voice is your responsibility
After I got sober, I was able to understand and make peace with the reality of my existence. I am a woman. An ordinary, unexceptional, typical sort of woman. And that is okay. That is perfect.
It is hard being marginalized by the society and even by the family you live in. You aren’t imagining it. But hiding from the truth of your identity doesn’t help anything.
I write this so you don’t waste as much time as I did.
I spent a decade arguing about feminism with sexist men when I could have been talking to people who shared similar ideas. I could have used my passion in campaigns or art or education, but instead I left it bouncing around the walls of the pub, absorbed by beer mats.
Your voice matters, and it’s your responsibility to do whatever it takes to find it. For me, it began with therapy, which led to sobriety, which led to starting a blog. What does the first step look like for you?
Make a commitment to stop pretending. Discover the obstacles that stand in your way to becoming who you truly are. Ask this question: what prevents you from owning your power?
You don’t have to be special and different to earn your place in the world. You earn it just by showing up. Your community is waiting, but they can only recognize you when you’re being authentic.
If you’re struggling with drinking, know that you aren’t alone.
If you relate to this, and you’re ready for something different, try the alcohol experiment. Do whatever it takes to stay sober for 30 days: go to your doctor, try Smart or AA or Hip Sobriety or Soberistas. Listen to Recovery Elevator and SHAIR podcasts. Read This Naked Mind. Try Moderation Management.
Reach out. Something better is waiting for you.
Chelsey Flood is the author of YA novels Infinite Sky and Nightwanderers. She's a lecturer in creative writing and a stickler for the truth. She writes about freedom, nature and love.