digital stories and photographs


Part Two: Crossing the line

Millions of women fight to keep their alcohol intake in check

Stories and photos by Amelia Kuhardt
Published Sept. 27, 2010, The Quincy Patriot Ledger

QUINCY, MA — Maggie Towne wore one shoe and held an empty purse as Braintree police led her into the station. After a night out drinking with a friend, she was busted and, she realized with sudden clarity, broken.

“That’s how my whole life was at that point, just scattered and picking it back up piece by piece,” Towne, 27, and single, recalls of the early hours of Oct. 10, 2009, after she crossed the center line on Forbes Road and hit an oncoming car head-on.

Melissa Perry can’t even draw on her recollection of her drunken-driving arrest on June 21, 2009. After spending $5 for a half-pint of Yukon Jack and downing 8 ounces of 100-proof whiskey in a half-hour, she recalls falling asleep in bed. Her next memory – in a blackout, she got up, left her house and crashed her car on Swift’s Beach Road in Wareham – was waking up in a CAT scan machine at Wareham’s Tobey Hospital.

“It cost me a loss of self-worth. We’re drinking away our problems, like I did that day,” said Perry, 39, a divorced mother of four. “That five dollars was going to solve my problems that night. It didn’t.”

Each story is unique for the growing number of women – like Towne and Perry, nationally and in Massachusetts – who get caught drinking and driving. But one common thread among them is that such arrests often reflect a larger, and likewise growing problem – of women abusing alcohol.

“I assume when a person gets arrested for drinking and driving, it’s not the first time,” said Sarah Allen Benton, a mental health counselor who practices in Norwell and Belmont. “Not everyone is an alcoholic who gets pulled over, but there is (often) some issue around alcohol that needs to be addressed.”

Stereotypically, it’s men who go to bars, drink heavily, then got caught. But more and more women, from all walks of life, are themselves struggling with alcohol-related issues.

“The public may have a perception … of what a woman impaired or a drunken driver looks like,” said Hingham police Sgt. Steven Dearth. “We find all (women) – upper class, lower class, poor, rich, all ages.”

In the United States, 17.6 million people – about 1 in every 12 adults – abuse alcohol or are alcohol dependent, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. And the percentage of those who are women is rising: about 5.9 million, or 5.1 percent of adult female Americans, needed treatment in 2008 for alcohol problems.

Conrad Schulz sees many such women, as director of the driver alcohol education program at High Point Treatment Center, which has offices in Plymouth, Brockton, New Bedford and Taunton. About 80 to 85 percent of those who attend his classes at the center have “some degree of a problem with alcohol, ranging from just beginning to have problems to third-stage, chronic alcoholic,” he said.

Problems with alcohol often start early. Even if the first sips didn’t go down easily the first time Towne drank beer – at age 15 – she went on to down seven bottles. By 12 years later, things had changed. When she drank, she’d often get violent and lash out, then wake up the next day feeling “overwhelming guilt.”

“A lot more shame came into my life, as my drinking progressed,” Towne said.

A mother at 16 and new wife at 17, Perry started drinking in her late teens. She said she stopped not long afterward, when her alcohol use “got out of control.” But she resumed drinking a few years later, and by her mid-30s, her alcohol use had “just built into a monster,” she said, that affected most of her waking life. That includes drinking and driving the night of her arrest, of which she remembers little.

“It’s a blackout moment,” she said, grateful no one was hurt in the crash two blocks from her house. “Everyone else has seen it, read about it, and I have no clue. It’s embarrassing.”

More women, like men, are getting caught drinking and driving again and again. As for Towne and Perry, they said that judges’ orders, as well as embarrassment, have had their effect and both said they haven’t drunk since their arrest. But that hardly means their struggle with alcohol – and conversely, how it affects others, including on the road – is anywhere near over.

Stigma, shame big obstacles for women
dealing with alcoholism

BOSTON, MA — Sarah Allen Benton knows what an alcoholic thinks and goes through, because she is one herself.

“It was starting to be an every-time-I-drank guilt, and … I realized that something was wrong,” said Benton, now a mental health counselor, who began drinking at 14 but got more anxious and remorseful by her 20s.

The first and sometimes most difficult step for alcohol abusers is acknowledging the problem. And that can be harder, said Maggie Towne – a Braintree resident and recovering alcoholic – if you’re a woman.

“There’s such a stigma. … I don’t think that alcoholism is necessarily associated with women because women are expected to maintain a certain level of ladylike behavior,” Towne said. “Drinking heavily does not fall into that category.”

That perception can compound the shame. For years, Benton said she tried to mask her alcohol abuse, even as she successfully pursued her master’s degree in counseling psychology from Northeastern University. And even when she got sober, at age 27, she recalls being wary about what others thought. Still, now she looks at overcoming her demons with pride.

“When I got sober, I was paranoid that anyone would find out that I was in recovery,” said Benton, author of the 2009 book “Understanding the High-Functioning Alcoholic.” “I have since felt a sense of pride that I’ve taken responsibility … I feel like, if I can have the courage and maybe have people associate alcoholism with a different image, that they too may have the courage to come forward and get help.”

Understanding alcoholism

People of all genders, in all income brackets and in most all age groups struggle with alcohol issues. And their families and friends struggle with them, trying to make sense of what’s happening and how to deal with it.

The “A” word, as licensed mental health counselor Sarah Allen Benton calls alcoholism, carries with it plenty of baggage – and misconceptions.

“(People) often envision an old homeless man or a person whose life is falling apart, and actually it’s a higher percentage out in society, succeeding and doing well,” said Benton, who works with alcohol abusers at Confidential Care in Norwell and Belmont’s McLean Hospital.

Below are common questions, and useful answers, on the subject:

What constitutes “heavy drinking”?

For men, that’s generally defined as two or more alcoholic drinks daily, on average. For women, it’s half that, more than a drink a day.

What is alcohol abuse?

Alcohol abuse is a pattern of behavior that harms a person’s health, relationships, and/or ability to work. Someone with such problems often continues drinking, despite ongoing relationship problems that are exacerbated by their alcohol intake.

What is alcoholism?

Alcoholism – also known as alcohol addiction or dependency – is seen as more severe, according to the American Psychiatric Association. It’s marked by an inability to limit one’s drinking; continued use despite repeated physical, psychological and relationship problems; and withdrawal symptoms when a chronic drinker tries to stop.

Alcoholics Anonymous has a slightly different, three-pronged definition that includes:

* Craving: After having one drink, an alcoholic has an insatiable desire for more.

* Obsession: An alcoholic can’t help thinking about alcohol, even when he or she is not drinking.

* Loss of values: Alcoholics might behave differently – losing control, acting out of character, or losing their sense of self – when they drink. They often put alcohol above all else, including family and friends

Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Psychiatric Association, Alcoholics Anonymous.

What happens the first time a drunk driver
is caught?

QUINCY, MA — What happens when a person is caught drinking and driving for the first time?

The cases of Maggie Towne and Melissa Perry are common: After being charged for first-offense drunken driving, a judge continued their cases “without a finding” – meaning that if they did not violate the terms of their probation, they would not have a “guilty” drunken driving charge on their records. But if they are ever arrested again for driving drunk, that will automatically be considered a second offense.

Each woman lost her license for 45 days, less than the mandated one-year suspension had they been found guilty. Beyond that, Towne lost her license for an additional 180 days because she refused a Breathalyzer test when she was arrested.

First-time drunk driving offenders must also attend a driver alcohol-education program, with 40 hours of classes – from group sessions to self-help meetings – over 16 weeks. Between 1999 and 2008, the number of women sent to such classes rose 26.3 percent – from 1,941 in 1999 to 2,451 in 2008 – according to Michael Botticelli, director of the Bureau of Substance Abuse Services for the state Department of Public Health. Over the same decade, the number of men in the program fell 14.6 percent, from 8,483 in 1999 to 7,246 in 2008.

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