An increasing number of women are having one too many glasses of wine after a busy day at the office, says author and recovering alcoholic Ann Dowsett Johnston.

Johnston wrote the book, Drink: The Intimate Relationship between Women and Alcohol, after she found herself "medicating workaholism with alcoholism." She discovered the intimate relationship was cultivated by the dangerous mix of the alcohol industry and tough expectations for women.

"Skinny-girl cocktails, girls-night-out wine, mommy-juice wine — the alcohol industry is very clever and has marketed it to us well," said Johnston.

"We are totally an over-programmed culture. We tell women they have to be perfect at home and perfect at work and perfectly thin, and it's a decompression tool."

Johnston giving a keynote speech at Tuesday's Bottom Line conference in Vancouver, hosted by the Canadian Mental Health Association.

Women should not have more than 10 drinks a week, according to guidelines from the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse.

A story of denial and progression

"Alcoholism is marked by denial and it's marked by progression," said Johnston.

"Mine progressed quickly and I denied it until I couldn't."

Ann Dowsett Johnston

Author and public speaker Ann Dowsett Johnston says she spent 18 months medicating [her] depression with alcohol, becoming what she calls, the “poster girl for the modern alcoholic.” (Charlie Cho/CBC)

At that point, she was vice president at McGill University, having already made a name for herself as a successful journalist at Macleans, creating the now well-known university rankings.

Then, in her 50s, she fell into a deep depression.  

Johnston, who is also a mother, says she spent 18 months medicating [her] depression with alcohol, becoming what she calls, the "poster girl for the modern alcoholic."

"[I was] professional, high-functioning and high-bottom. I didn't crack up a car. I didn't lose my home and my family."

Johnston says she was lucky because she immediately recognized the signs of alcoholism from her childhood, where she observed her mother's habit of mixing valium and alcohol.

So she checked herself into rehab and hasn't had a drink since, she said.

In the eight years since she came out of rehab, Johnston has jumpstarted a movement to support people, including women, who are recovering alcoholics like herself.

"This is what it looks like. It's not the worst thing to get sober. Life is lovely — talk about it," she said.

"I'm proud to say I'm a woman in long-term recovery."

'We worship alcohol'

While writing her book, Johnston discovered she was not alone in her experience with alcohol.

It was quite the opposite, in fact.

"The richer the country, the narrower the gap between men and women on risky drinking. We're closing the gender gap," she said.

University has become a place where drinking habits escalate and people aren't slowing down in their 20s and 30s, said Johnston.

And while women's role in society has changed drastically in the past half century, it hasn't made their lives any easier, she said.

"I think it's a lot easier if you're racing home from a busy job and looking at an evening of overseeing homework, making a meal, more emails from work, to quickly pour a glass of wine or two, than to find time to go out to a yoga class."

It's a common trope in TV and movies, said Johnston.  

"We glamourize alcohol in our culture. We worship alcohol."


To listen to the interview on The Early Edition, click the link labelled: The intimate relationship between women and alcohol.