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Social stigma prevents women alcoholics from seeking help
Terry Lewis is 74 years old but her face is unlined, and she looks years younger. It is difficult to believe that she has been an alcoholic for nearly 40 years. We are sitting in her spacious drawing room in Bandra, dominated by a wooden bookcase placed against one wall, with the obligatory TV set on one shelf. There is a sit-out, from where you can see a lawn and a couple of coconut trees.
Here is her story: Terry married an Englishman, when she was 20. “Michael was a regular drinker,” she says. “But I did not like the idea of drinking. But, as the saying goes, when you can’t beat them, you join them.”
Her late husband, who was 23 years older to her, was a senior manager in a multinational firm and moved in a social circle where everybody was drinking. “So I started to drink regularly,” she says. The childless couple lived in various parts of India and over several years Terry’s drinking deepened and she slipped into alcoholism. When they finally settled down in Bandra, Terry had got into the habit of imbibing from the morning.
“When Michael was in the kitchen, I would go around the corner to the cupboard where the booze was kept and have a swig,” she says. “Most of the time, it was straight from the bottle.”
Michael would plead with her to stop but to no avail. It was a friend who persuaded her to go to an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting and it was there she met Lynette, who was 30 years younger, and a recovering alcoholic. “She was like a fairy godmother to me,” says Terry. “She would phone me in the mornings, afternoons and evenings, enquiring about me. She would take me for the meetings. You get the strength from the meetings and you come back and you don’t drink. But it was Lynette who gave me the courage to finally beat the addiction.”
It has been fourteen years since she has stopped “but it is still one day a time. I don’t think an alcoholic is ever sure. Because alcohol is ‘cunning, powerful and baffling.’ The fear of slipping is always there.”
Terry’s is a rare story, which had a happy ending. In Mumbai, there are hundreds of cases of women alcoholics, but nobody knows about them because to be labelled as an alcoholic is such a taboo in Indian society. As Terry says, “If you say a woman is a heavy drinker, it is accepted. If you say she is a boozer, it is accepted. But the moment you say, she is an alcoholic, there is a stigma attached to her.”
Lynette knows a lot about the stigma. “In my work with AA, I came to know of so many upper middle class women who are alcoholics,” she says. “The reasons are simple: either the husband is having an affair or is so consumed by his career, he ends up neglecting his wife. Or the wife is just bored. And they all took to drinking and became addicted.”
She tells the case of three high-society women, whom she tried in vain to bring to the AA meetings. “There was a lot of denial about the alcoholism,” she says. “The families did not want the women to come for the meetings because of social fear. Instead, they wanted us to go to their houses to talk.” In the end, all three died of alcoholism.
Lynette also spoke of the widespread alcoholism among actresses in Bollywood; they are unable to seek treatment for the fear of a scandal. “In fact, one actress committed suicide, while she was drunk,” she says.
One evening, I go across to meet Vivek, a long-time member of AA, at his office in Dalal Street. (Incidentally, the AA in Mumbai has just entered its 50th year of service in the city). “Women alcoholics come from all sorts of backgrounds: from the very rich to the poor,” he says. “Most of the time, they do their drinking indoors.”
Agrees Dr Shilpa Adarkar, of the De-addiction Centre at KEM hospital. “Mostly, they are introduced to drinking at home by their husbands,” she says. “Sometimes, they drink indoors with a female companion. The problem is that a woman’s constitution is such they develop a dependency faster than men.” (see box)
The treatment at the centre includes a detoxification process that lasts between seven to ten days. After that, there is group therapy and patients are encouraged to go for weekly meetings, where they are taught coping strategy and how to handle inter-personal relationships.
“Alcoholism, like tobacco, is a gateway drug,” she says. “When you imbibe them, it ensures your entry into the world of drugs. Modernisation, and an increasingly hectic social life, has led to a rise in drinking, especially among young women.”
Asked what advice she would give young women, she says, “I would tell them drink is not a necessity, like water, air and food. When you take your first drink, just remember that. Nobody can predict who will end up as an alcoholic. So, the best way is to say no to the first drink.” (Some names have been changed)