Interview with Ann Dowsett Johnston
This week Liv interviewed Ann Dowsett Johnston. Ann is the bestselling author of Drink, The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol, named one of the top 10 books of 2013 by the Washington Post. A public speaker, journalist, and well-respected advocate in public policy, she has won numerous awards, including five gold National Magazine Awards, a Southam Fellowship and the Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy. As well, she is co-founder and co-chair of the National Roundtable on Girls, Women and Alcohol, a pan-Canadian advocacy group launched in 2013. Ann is eight years sober.
Interview with Ann Dowsett Johnston
Liv: Let’s kick off with my favorite question: What have you had for breakfast today?
Ann: Steel-cut oats, blueberries, yogurt and of course, strong coffee.
Liv: Moving to your story, I read your book—Drink—and was blown away. Thank you. Not only have you beautifully encapsulated the beast of alcoholism, but you have woven it into your own heart-wrenching experience—for others to identify with, learn from, and give light to something that is killing many of us, unnecessarily. What prompted you to write the book?
Ann: I believe that long before we share with others we have a problem with alcohol, we nurse this truth and need to come to grips with what to do. We turn to books. I turned to Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story. I read it over and over, knowing I needed to quit. So, I was moved to write a book for other women who were drinking as I had, thinking it was glamorous, numbing tough feelings, romancing the glass. I tried to write a book that would speak to as many women as possible, knowing I was not alone. And now, I hear from readers, almost on a daily basis. It’s hugely rewarding.
Liv: In the book, you describe the progression of your alcohol use disorder: you left your career as an award-winning senior journalist with Canada's major newsweekly, to become vice-principal of McGill University—what you describe as a geographical move. Despite being a high-functioning professional, you began wrestling with a demon—alcohol—and it brought you to your knees in 2007. You described the moment you realized the jig was up, writing in your diary: “I am bullied by alcohol. I am hiding behind it.” What were you hiding and how did you feel bullied?
Ann: I was hiding my growing dependence on alcohol, my depression, my loneliness—and it (alcohol) was outfoxing me. I was scared. I knew I was in deep trouble.
Liv: In those moments of clarity, you sadly lost your cousin, and questioned What else do you have to lose to alcohol before you give up?. You said “I had already lost a big part of my childhood, now my cousin—and I was losing myself.” For those who haven’t read your book, how did alcohol cause you to lose a big part of your childhood? And what sense of yourself had you lost?
Ann: Sadly, my mother was a beautiful women who—like so many of her generation—used Valium and alcohol to numb. I lost my mother to this cross-addictied reality: she morphed into a different human being. And I had begun, as an adult, to lose myself to alcohol as well.
Liv: It was a further year before you were ‘able to secure any meaningful sobriety, to put alcohol solidly in my review mirror.’ What did you mean by that statement?
Ann: When I first decided to quit, I had no success whatsoever. Anyone can go to rehab and stay sober for 28 days, but I needed to learn how to live a meaningful sober life. This took real time, with some slips and stumbles along the way.
Liv: You left your professional life and went to rehab. What advice would you give to professional women grappling with their experience of alcoholism, in terms of getting help sooner rather than later?
Ann: Alcoholism is a progressive disease. Get help as soon as you need it. It will evolve, and get worse. Waste no time in addressing a problem if you have one.
The factors contributing to Alcoholism
Liv: You said that it took all your journalistic skills to put what was killing you—and masses of other women—into a profound and meaningful context. In 2010, you re-entered professional life, winning the prestigious Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy. You were charged with examining the closing gender gap in the world of risky drinking. In doing so, you dissected the psychological, social, and corporate factors that have contributed to this reality. How would you summarize those factors that have contributed to a reality of woman’s dysfunctional relationship with alcohol?
Ann: We live in a complex world. Women go toe-to-toe with men in postsecondary institutions, at work—and are catching up with men on risky drinking. I believe there are three factors worth examining. I say in my book that alcohol has become the modern women’s steroid, enabling her to do some heavy lifting in a tough world. You know the picture—you race in from the office, chop food on the cutting board, pour a glass of wine, knowing your shoulders will come down from your earlobes, knowing you have work emails to answer and homework to oversee and you’re tired. Two, women self-medicate with alcohol—stress, depression, anxiety, more. Three: marketing. In recent years, we have seen the “pinking” of the alcohol market, aimed at women consumers. You know the products: Skinny Girl products, Mommy Juice wine, berry flavored vodka, alcopops---these aren’t many drinks.
Liv: How are we, as a society, blinded to the effects of alcoholism?
Ann: We glamorize alcohol. This is how we relax, reward, celebrate in our culture. If someone has trouble, we call them the rare alcoholic. Truth is: risky and binge drinking is common—and has risen for women since 2002—much faster than for men.
Liv: I'm also interested in the physical aspects of recovery—like how our whole bodies change. How has your relationship with your body, and how you fuel it, changed in recovery?
Ann: For a while, I turned to sugar. I try to control that now. Of course, there is tons of sugar in alcohol—and so it is no surprise that this is an issue.
Liv: For fun, what is your favourite meal/dish?
My son’s cooking: he cooked a Mother’s Day meal for me this week, pasta full of fresh basil and tomatoes—and I felt the love.
Liv: Last, what are your top five recovery tools?
Ann: Therapy, a mutual support group, good sleep, good friends and exercise.