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.

But those Mad Men years took their toll. My mother wasn’t the only one self-medicating with a combination of alcohol and a benzodiazepine called Valium. By the end of the sixties, two-thirds of the users of psychoactive drugs—Valium, Librium—were women. In fact, between 1969 and 1982, Valium became the most commonly prescribed drug in the United States. In 1978, it was estimated that a fifth of American women were taking “mother’s little helper,” as the Rolling Stones called it.

By that time, its addictive properties were well known—and if they weren’t, the 1979 bestselling memoir I’m Dancing as Fast as I Can, by Emmy Award–winning Manhattan producer Barbara Gordon, blew the lid off. My mother weaned herself from the drug, with the help of rehab, and emerged a somewhat reformed perfectionist.

It never occurred to me—not for years—that alcohol was the mother’s little helper of my generation. But it is.

Today, women arrive home from work to face more work. So too do men—but there’s a difference. My ex-husband, and the man with whom I shared Nicholas’s rearing, is not a perfectionist. Constant? Always. An excellent father? The best. But I never considered him accountable in the way I was for certain essentials. We had a division of labor that worked well: he coached the sports teams, taught our son to ski, oversaw math. When it was Nicholas’s turn to eat at Will’s, there were three options for dinner: Kraft Dinner, Lean Cuisine, or take-out chili. It never varied. Dinner at my house was more nutritious—but often late. Breakfast was pancakes, from scratch. True, this brought me joy. So did making the Halloween costumes. I was not willing to miss out on some of the essential pleasures of being a mother just because I worked. And I wasn't willing to miss out on some of the essential rewards of a great career just because I was a mother. As a result, my life was complex, truly jam-packed like a Christmas cake. If I could stuff in one more cherry, I did.

Truth be told, Will helped me do so: he did a lot of the ferrying of boys to and from events, up to the cottage for winter weekends. But I clung to the more traditional division of labor, and dined out on stories that bolstered my position. Like the time I came downstairs as a new mother, having allowed myself to sleep in. Will was reading the newspaper in the kitchen, arms wide, Nicholas at his feet. “How’s our boy?” I asked. “Just fine,” he said. “He’s right here.” With that, I saw my son, in yellow fuzzy sleepers, look up from the dog dish, a mouth full of kibble.

I had surgery when Nicholas was two months old. Will handled our newborn when I was in the hospital. When I got home, I asked a classic new-mother question: how did you manage the shopping, with the baby in the car seat, in the cart? “Oh, that’s not how you do it,” said Will. “You leave the cart at the end of one aisle, grab a few groceries, and then return to check on the baby.” “And what if someone decides to steal him while you’re shopping?” I asked. He didn’t have an answer.

These stories were anomalies, but the truth was, I always wanted to be the alpha dog when it came to our son. From the time he was born, I felt that Nicholas was an egg I carried on a spoon, one I was not to drop. I’m sure Will felt no differently, especially as the years wore on and Nicholas evolved.

For my own reasons, I spent a lot of time experimenting with my own customized formula of work-and-home-life balance. I experimented with part-time, flextime, and a journalism fellowship that sent me back to school when Nicholas was two. I tried it all. And when my marriage of twelve years collapsed, I quit my job of twelve years at the same time: I stayed home for the next eighteen months, using my savings to make ends meet. I figured that just as my son had lost, so too would he gain. Ending my marriage was extraordinarily painful, and that eighteen-month immersion in motherhood was necessary and healing.

Once that period was over, I was back to work full-time, with gusto. My son was seven, and I couldn't afford a nanny. I shared some after-school babysitting and took on a project that became one of the most successful in Canadian publishing, winning a National Magazine Award that first year. It was a fifty-page examination of higher education, featuring rankings of Canadian universities. The magazine “went to bed” on Halloween: I made the costume, but I wasn't out trick-or-treating with my tiny knight that evening. Will was.

Lean in, lean back: I've done both, sequentially. I've sat at home, in tears, believing I would never enter the workforce again. And I have sat at the office, exhausted, knowing I was missing a precious evening at home. Both positions have their downsides and their sweet rewards. One thing is for certain: Straddling both roles can turn you into human Silly Putty. I remember when my son was born, receiving a card from the writer Marni Jackson—author of The Mother Zone—who wrote, perceptively: “Welcome to permanent ambivalence.”

 “How do you juggle it all?” As Tina Fey wrote in Bossypants, it’s the rudest question you can ask a woman—ruder than “When you and your twin sister are alone with Mr. Hefner, do you have to pretend to be lesbians?” … “You’re fucking it all up, aren't you? their eyes say.”

There were times when I did mess up. One winter, Nicholas came down with a bad case of whooping cough. (Turns out he and his pals had decided snow jackets were for sissies, playing every recess in their T-shirts.) I spent many nights awake, in his room. One morning I slept through the alarm. This happened to be the day the publisher of McClelland & Stewart was coming to the editor’s office to discuss a possible book contract—one I was to oversee. I missed the beginning of the meeting, but the publisher was gracious. He stood and shook my hand, and said, “Hats off to mothers.” You don’t forget a moment like that.

It was 21 years ago when I returned to work, full-time—the same year Hillary Clinton defended her personal choice with the following: “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was fulfill my profession.” At the time, her comment drew scorn from many, but I was cheering. It was a pivotal moment in the mommy wars: the tension was deep.

Of course, this was also the era of Martha Stewart, who had a decade-plus run as the queen of perfectionism until she was incarcerated. Homemade Christmas ornaments were all the rage, and Martha was dictating the rules. Here’s a slice of her December to-do list, published helpfully at the front of Martha Stewart Living: by December 8, all fruitcake baked; by December 10, all gingerbread houses assembled; clean chandeliers on December 11. And so on. Women were outdoing themselves at work and on the home front, contorting themselves like Gumby in the process. Each year, like so many others, I performed the Christmas triathlon, and ended up sick or tired or both. After a few Sisyphean seasons, most of us realized that the more we outdid ourselves, the more we were undone. I cried uncle.

As the late Laurie Colwin once wrote, “It is my opinion that Norman Rockwell and his ilk have done more to make already anxious people feel guilty than anyone else.” It was up to us, she said, to reinvent traditions to make way for what she called life’s one great luxury: time together.

I took her advice seriously and tried to make room for that luxury. Many of us did. As life continued to speed up, especially with the introduction of smartphones, the need to slow down fast became increasingly attractive. In the 1990s came the proliferation of wine bars. In 2000, Time Inc. launched Real Simple magazine. In 2004, Carl Honoré’s In Praise of Slow hit the bestseller list. (Nice thought, but somewhat beside the point when you had carpal tunnel syndrome from overworking your BlackBerry.)

Long before that, I was using wine to decompress, to ease into the second shift of the evening—and so too were my friends, both the stay-at-home mothers and my professional peers. As many women discovered, a drink is a punctuation mark of sorts, between day and night. “It’s a shift of gears,” says Janice Lindsay, author of All About Colour, and mother of two grown children who have both returned home. “A glass of water doesn't make me feel spoiled. A glass of wine says, ‘Now you can enter the pleasure part of your day.’ I put on some music, and it’s a treat, even if I’m chopping onions. What else can we do? A massage is almost a hundred dollars and it takes an hour I don’t have. Wine is right here, right now, and I can share it with whoever’s with me.”

Danielle Perron, the only female partner in a Toronto marketing company and the married mother of a five-year-old boy, pours her first of three glasses of white wine every night at six o’clock. She drinks that first one with dinner. She has the second after her son is in bed, and her third at ten o’clock. Each and every night, like clockwork. “I drink until I’m comfortably numb,” she says, “with the perfect sleepy buzz. I’m groggy almost every morning. I get my ass out of bed and I go for a run. Life is high stress, and I juggle a ton of balls every day. This is about peace, the right glass, a ritual.” Would she call herself an alcoholic? “No, my dad was a hard-core Leaving Las Vegas alcoholic—before he quit forty-three years ago. Never would I call myself an alcoholic. But am I dependent? Yes. For me, that glass of wine is a total joy.”

A total joy that is causing her grave doubts. The day I interview Perron, she is on her third day of a twenty-one-day cleanse, eliminating wheat, sugar, and wine. “I don’t like that I drink every day,” she says. “For the last year, I have been questioning it more. If I can do this for twenty-one days, I will give myself permission to continue. And if not? If after this, I’m still jonesing for a drink at six o’clock? Well …” Her voice trails off. She seems uncertain of the answer. “There are so many moments in life that are all about having a glass of wine. And if my drinking time is impeded—if I’m at a play, or working late—I feel aggressive. My glass of wine will be full, and gone in two minutes.”

Her friend Paige Cowan, with whom she is sharing the cleanse regimen, is clearer on the outcome. Cowan is a tall, expressive woman who owns Wild Bird, an eclectic little store in midtown Toronto that sells a wide variety of seed for birds and food for the spirit as well: books on Buddhism, meditation, healing. On a snowy winter day, I find myself drinking delicious coffee in her airy living room, nestled on citrus-colored armchairs, listening to her story of wrestling with alcohol, and the role it has played in her life. “In my twenties, it was just about having fun—it was so normalized to drink at the cottage. Partying was really a rite of passage. Then I had my two boys when I was twenty-seven and twenty-eight—that’s when I began to be conscious of my patterns with alcohol.”

Growing up, Cowan found herself without much parenting: her mother was a serious “self-medicator,” with pills. “This time last year, I became mindful about my relationship with alcohol,” she says. “Was I having a drink to deal with anxiety, self-medicating?” She decided to give up alcohol altogether—and not because she was an alcoholic. That’s when the pushback started. “Pretty much everyone I know is heavily into alcohol,” she says. “They disguise it as something sophisticated or chic. It’s uncomfortable when you don’t drink. People ask: ‘Have you stopped drinking altogether?’ Not everyone, but most. But I have noticed a big difference—and so has my husband. I have more vibrancy, my sense of humor is back. Alcohol adds a cloud, and the cloud lifts. It makes you wonder: ‘What was I doing to my body?’ ”

Perfectionism is a culprit that Cowan knows all too well. “At one point in my life I was trying to be the perfect woman: doing things in the community,” she says. “For a good ten years, I was unconsciously driving my life—and that’s when I self-medicated the most with wine. I was involved in so many community efforts—it was that feeling that I was never good enough. That whole perfectionist thing was driving everyone: you could bust your ass, and it wasn't good enough. A relentless standard of perfection. I found it shocking how hard women are on other women. At our little school in a pretty little neighborhood, there was an abusive standard of perfection. You would often hear women say, ‘I’m going home and having a glass of wine’—as a release.”

“This is the way we are,” says Cowan. “We encourage young women to live their lives a certain way—and it has nothing to do with what feels right. We tell them they’re not pretty enough: that’s what we bombard them with. Get on the treadmill, bust your ass at work. I think we’re living in a culture that’s so demanding: You never feel like you’re good enough. It wears people down. People are exhausted at the end of the day. They go home and have a drink as a way to cope with all of this—a lot of people have to self-medicate because it would be hard for them to look in the mirror otherwise. The whole concept of being conscious—that’s hard work. A lot of people just don’t want to sign up for it.”

Signing up to be conscious: this is what Lisa decided to do after many years of drinking too much. A prominent woman in her sixties with a packed Rolodex and a full calendar, Lisa is a mover and shaker. The former senior manager of several companies, she has spent much of her life in her adopted home of Canada, but has now settled back in the States near her grandchildren, in Chicago. Raised in Cleveland in an upper-class home, she says bluntly: “I had two raging alcoholic parents—a rich couple who lived a crazy life. They had a house in Florida and belonged to a club where there were many so-called functioning alcoholics—on the tennis court at seven a.m., drunk at lunch, asleep all afternoon, drinking again at five in the afternoon, in bed at nine. Repeat.

“My father drank himself into bankruptcy. He would scream and yell and leave the house in the middle of the night. Me? I didn't stand a chance. I have two brothers—one who has been in and out of Hazelden and the other who is in AA.

“I actually remember the first time I got drunk,” says Lisa. “It was at Brown University, at a football game. I was visiting a boyfriend and I went back to my little hotel room and passed out. I was so horrified and ashamed, I didn't answer the door when the guy visited that night.”

Lisa spent the 1970s in New York, working as a political lobbyist.

“I would call people completely drunk,” she remembers. “I was conscious I drank too much, and I didn't want to face it. I remember a birthday party for Bella Abzug on the top of the World Trade Center: I got blotto and ended up going home in a cab with a friend who called me on it—but I didn't want to hear it.”

Married, she and her husband, Henry, ended up moving to Toronto when their three children were small. “It just got worse,” says Lisa. “For the first time, I wasn't working, and I invited a group of women over for coffee. I remember going to the kitchen and filling my coffee cup with vodka. When they asked for my phone number, I couldn't even write. Needless to say, I never heard from them again. But that didn't stop me from drinking too much in front of my husband’s boss, and embarrassing the hell out of myself at a dinner party.”

Was she efficient when she drank? “Yes,” says Lisa. “I would pour a drink and stay up half the night to get stuff done, whether it was organizing Halloween costumes or pulling recipes for a dinner party we were having. All of those years, I would just run from one thing to the next, not really thinking. I was such a boozer—but I was an amazing organizer when I drank. Partly, it was to prove that I wasn't a drunk; part of it was compensating for my drinking, my lying about not drinking. I was up early, making breakfasts. I used to go to McDonald’s every day on the way to work, ordering a hamburger—all that grease seemed to help with the hangovers. On the way home, I would say: ‘I will only have one drink tonight’ … and I always failed.”

She’s the first to admit she had a couple of close calls with her children. “One Sunday, we had friends over for brunch, and drank champagne. After they left, I decided to make hamburgers, while I had another glass. I started cooking them under the broiler and there was a fire. Henry raced in and he knew I was drunk. I also drove drunk once with the kids in the car. I was just sloshed and went straight to my bed when we got home, passing out. My eldest woke me up because he had been sick—and I had no awareness whatsoever. I was so lucky that I never set fire to the house or killed anybody.”

One night, sitting alone with a scotch, Lisa was watching TV and Betty Ford came on. “She said there are two things you need to know: One, it’s the first drink that gets you drunk. Two, this is a progressive disease—it only gets worse. That was the moment for me: If you start drinking and can’t stop, you’re an alcoholic.” Several days later, dressed in her Max Mara suit and her pearls, Lisa headed to AA. “The minute people started talking, I realized: ‘This is my life.’ I haven’t had a drink since. I may not have hit a horrible bottom, but I could see it, and it was terrifying.”

Lisa isn't alone in pushing her drinking too far. Jennifer, who worked in sales, quit as well—but not before her drinking helped her get ahead in business. “Alcohol made me social—it was a lubricant, and allowed me to be more gregarious,” says the wealthy sixty-year-old, now retired. “I would end up, at the end of a conference or a show, in the bar with the guys to the wee hours, learning a lot from key businessmen. They were my mentors. We would go to a restaurant and after dinner, they would order shots of Kahlúa. I wanted to learn, so I drank what I could to keep up. Did it enable me to work harder? Yes, it enabled me to keep up the pace.”

And as we all know, keeping up the pace is everything.

As Jennifer makes clear, prosperity has presented options that didn't exist for other generations. Professional women join their male counterparts after work, going drink for drink. Going drink for drink can be problematic, to say the least. As high-profile Toronto addiction counselor Andrew Galloway says: “In a work situation, who has the guts to say, ‘We’ll have another round—but leave her out of it’?”

What Galloway sees is a new generation of successful women in their late thirties to mid-forties, heading to rehab. Usually they choose high-end facilities, charging in the tens of thousands. And the biggest news? Like me and like Jennifer, they have the resources to pay for it themselves.

Perfectionism is alive and well, on a whole new level.


This post is adapted from Ann Dowsett Johnston's Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol.

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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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