CNN Food and Health

Women & alcohol: getting well can take more than 12 steps

women and alcoholism graphic

September 24, 1995
Web posted at: 8:10 a.m. EDT

From Medical Correspondent Rhonda Rowland

CENTER CITY, Minnesota (CNN) -- Alcoholism in women often goes undetected with sometimes fatal consequences.

Studies show women are more likely to develop and die from liver damage than men even though women consume less alcohol than men. Studies have yet to find a cause for the disease.

Worldwide, there has been little research and very little education on alcoholism in women. Knowing when and how to get help, could spare many women and their families a lot of pain.


Every day Brenda Johnson celebrates life. She's been alcohol-free for five years. She started drinking at 18. By the time she reached her 30s, she says, things got out of hand.

"I drank a lot of beer," she said. "I didn't drink every single day, but every time I drank, I would drink to a blackout and I had no control of my drinking at all."

Brenda knew she needed help. She found it at Hazelden in Center City, Minnesota, about an hour north of Minneapolis.

"All the times that I tried and tried and tried to quit, and I couldn't ... I couldn't," she said. "It was the disease, the cravings."

People come to Hazelden from all over the United States to learn to live without alcohol or other drugs. Its program is based on Alcoholics Anonymous twelve steps to recovery. In the 1950's Hazelden opened one of the first treatment programs just for women.


"Sometimes having men involved in women's treatment actually keeps them from disclosing some of those sensitive issues, and we're really finding that women bring with them a sense of shame that perhaps men don't, " said Tim Sheehan, executive director of Hazelden.

Shame and stigma are major barriers to women who want to quit drinking.

"People still think that, you know, it might be okay for a man, but it wouldn't happen to women," says Johnson. "Mothers, daughters and sisters do not drink. They're not supposed to have the disease of alcoholism."

Family, friends and even medical professional are often reluctant to confront the alcoholic. Instead the disease is ignored, hidden or met with anger and frustration rather than love and compassion.

Even when family members are supportive, the alcoholic may be reluctant to leave them for treatment.

"I had a tough time getting help for myself because I was afraid to leave my children who needed me," said Johnson.

Most women who do seek help go to outpatient programs. These programs, which do not require a stay in a rehabilitation center, help some women take care of their families while getting help for themselves.

"There are some benefits to taking that woman away from some of those responsibilities and to allow her the time to heal just for her. Not as a mom, not as wife, but just as a person," said Sheehan.


Copyright © 1995 Cable News Network, Inc.