Alcohol as Escape From Perfectionism

Perfect has been the way to be for several generations of women. I don’t remember my grandmothers suffering from this syndrome: women who raised families during the Depression, who baked and gardened and read well; who were fundamentally happy, and felt no pressure to look like stick figures. But those Mad Men years took their toll.
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The author and her son. (Courtesy Ann Dowsett Johnston)

Racing in from a long day at the office, an evening of cooking and homework ahead, my first instinct is to go to the fridge or the cupboard and pop a cork. It soothes the transition from day to night. Chopping, dicing, sipping wine: It’s a common modern ritual.

For years it was me at the cutting board, a glass of chilled white at my side. And for years this habit was harmless—or it seemed that way. My house wine was Santa Margherita, a pale straw-blond Italian pinot grigio. There was always a bottle in my fridge, and I’d often pour a second glass before dinner, with seeming impunity.

In the years when this was my routine, I rarely thought to put the kettle on instead. These days, my go-to drink is Celestial Seasonings Bengal Spice tea: a rich mix of cardamom, cloves, chicory, cinnamon, pepper, and ginger. But back then, as I burst through the front door, laden with groceries, wound up from the day, my first instinct was to shed some stress as quickly as I shed my coat. Once, after an unusually difficult day, my fiance Jake pointed out that the fridge was open before my coat was off. It pained me to hear this, but I know it was true.

Within a few minutes, I would be standing at the cutting board, phone cradled on my shoulder while I sipped and chopped and chatted, often to my friend Judith or my sister, Cate. Nicholas, my son, would be upstairs, doing homework, and dinner would be in process. Sip, chop, sip, chat, exhale, relax. Breathe. With two parents who had their own serious troubles with alcohol, alarm bells should have been ringing.

But my habit seemed relatively harmless. Common, even. A glass or two seemed innocent enough.

And truth was, believe it or not, I got a lot done when I was drinking. In my alpha dog years—when I was holding down a senior job at a magazine, raising an artistic, athletic young man, giving speeches on the circuit—life was more than full. Alcohol smoothed the switch from one role to the other. It seemed to make life purr. I could juggle a lot. Until, of course, I couldn't.

That’s the thing about a drinking problem: It’s progressive. But for a long, long time, alcohol can step in as your able partner, providing welcome support—before you want to boot it out.

On a recent November evening, I took a stroll through the elegant streets of London’s Chelsea district around that witching hour—an hour when many had yet to pull the shades for the evening. Heading up from the Thames River, north on Tite Street, I passed more than one window with a woman standing at her kitchen counter, a half-drunk glass at her side while she worked on the evening meal. I passed a dad unloading children from a shiny BMW, children lugging heavy knapsacks, calling out to younger siblings waving in an upper window.

It was a cozy scene, and I found myself thinking wistfully of those rituals of younger years, when my son was under my roof—not far away in California, doing a master’s degree in fine art. Time was he would saunter into the kitchen, hungry and tall, and dance me around the room while dinner cooked—a boisterous little tango that left me flushed and laughing. More often he would serenade me with his guitar.

Those years were loud and rambunctious and incredibly busy, crammed with duties and chores. Once dinner was over, he’d do homework and I’d make lunches and then noodle with a little more work before bed. He was a rower and morning came early: I’d rise in the dark and ferry him down to the waterfront, standing with the other parents as the boys headed out on the water.

Those years were full of stress and laughter, in equal doses. Often, Nicholas and I would find ourselves up at night, talking in the kitchen: I would make popcorn and we would stand side by side, filling in the blanks for each other. We were a pack of two: our conversations were deep and rewarding, and we read each other easily. And when those precious years were over, when he went off to university, the house became very quiet. Too quiet: like a stage set after the actors exited. That’s when I wrote a column in the magazine, called “Mother Interrupted.” And that’s when I began to think that a third drink might make sense. And once it was three, I was in trouble.

Flying over to Britain, to do research for my writing, I splurged with my airline points and booked myself a first-class ticket. Flight attendant to me, after dinner: “Would you care for some port with your cheese, madam?” “No, thank you, I have to work.” She frowns. “Lots of people drink port while they work.” And indeed, she pours some for the neighboring woman, who is laboring over a spreadsheet with a glass of wine. All I can think is: “That used to be me.” Six years ago, that would have been me, and my exit from the plane would have been a little fuzzy.

In a recent poll done by Netmums in Britain, 81 percent of those who drank above the safe drinking guidelines said they did so “to wind down from a stressful day.” And 86 percent said they felt they should drink less. Jungian analyst Jan Bauer, author of Alcoholism and Women: The Background and the Psychology, believes women are looking for what she calls “oblivion drinking.” “Alcohol offers a time out from doing it all—‘Take me out of my perfectionism.’ Superwoman is a cliché now, but it is extremely dangerous. I've seen such a perversion of feminism, where everything becomes work: raising children, reading all the books, not listening to their instincts. The main question is: What self are they trying to turn off? These women have climbed so high that when they fall, they crash—and alcohol’s a perfect way to crash.”

I ask Leslie Buckley, the psychiatrist who heads the women’s addiction program at Toronto’s University Health Network, if she sees a pattern in the professional women who come to see her. She doesn't skip a beat: “Perfectionism.”

Such an unforgiving word, such an unforgiving way of being—echoed by yet another doctor, who speaks of patients who look like they stepped out of Vogue: perfect-looking women with perfect children at the right schools, living in perfect houses, aiming for a perfect performance at work, with eating disorders and serious substance abuse issues.

The tyrannical myth of perfection: it seizes the psyche and doesn't let go. My mother was in its grip, and she paid a serious price for it. This was in the 1960s, when men came home from work and expected dinner and a stiff drink—except my father was usually traveling. For years my mother held down the fort. She wrote perfect thank-you notes, she cooked perfect meals. As a new bride, she ironed bed sheets and pillowcases; as a new mother, she starched our smocked dresses. My sister and I wore white gloves when we traveled, velvet hairbands in our hair, and wrote perfect thank-you notes, too. And then my mother was the one with the stiff drink, and it all crashed—but not before I had it imprinted on me: Perfect was the way to be.

The author as a child with her mother. (Courtesy Ann Dowsett Johnston)

Perfect has been the way to be for several generations of women. I don’t remember my grandmothers suffering from this syndrome: women who raised families during the Depression, who baked and gardened and read well; who were fundamentally happy, and felt no pressure to look like stick figures.

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Ann Dowsett Johnston is a writer, former vice principal of McGill University, and editor at large for Maclean's magazine in Canada.

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