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Time in a bottle

Reports indicate a growing number of women battling alcohol addiction

This promises to be a good year for Renee Palmer: Next month, she celebrates 10 years of sobriety. Looking back, Palmer hardly recognizes the woman she was in her 30s – a woman who would empty a 20-ounce bottle of Pepsi, leaving just enough to season a half-pint of vodka.

A woman who hid liquor bottles around her house so people wouldn’t know how much she was drinking.

A woman who got so drunk that she barely remembers how her truck crashed into a car one February morning.

A woman who lost custody of her then 8-year-old son, Ryan.

“Temporary custody is granted to the father,” the judge said. “The mother is ordered to seek treatment.”

Palmer, now 43, didn’t fight the judge’s order: “I knew what I was doing was wrong, but I didn’t know how to stop.”

But her worst day marked the beginning of her best years. It put Palmer on the road to recovery from alcohol abuse, a problem that is trapping a growing number of women.

Reports indicate that the number of women battling alcohol addiction may be on the rise. Some are busy moms, like Palmer once was, struggling to meet family obligations.

Some drink to fit in with friends or business associates. Some use alcohol to escape the complexities of life.

Some women just drink.

“There is a huge cause for concern,” said clinical psychologist Sharon Wilsnack of the University of North Dakota, one of the nation’s leading experts on women and alcohol.

“There has been a striking increase in the number of women who report getting drunk,” she said. “And intoxication puts women at risk for many, many bad outcomes, including car crashes, victimization and many long-term health problems.”

According to the latest statistics from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the number of women who reported abusing alcohol – having at least four drinks in a day – rose from 1.5 percent to 2.6 percent from 1992 to 2002.

For women ages 30 to 44, the number more than doubled, from 1.5 percent to 3.3 percent.

Wilsnack’s studies also show the prevalence of intoxication among women rising significantly, especially among women in their 20s.

The percentage of women reporting having been intoxicated jumped from 27.4 percent to 42.9 percent between 1981 and 2001. Among women in their 20s, the numbers shot from 47.6 percent to 62.7 percent.

Alcohol abuse poses greater threats to women than men, experts say.

“Women are more likely to experience alcohol-related organ damage – that is damage to the brain, heart and liver – and recent studies show drinking even at low levels is a risk factor for breast cancer,” said Dr. Deidra Roach, a spokeswoman for the NIAAA.

“In addition to the health risks, the risks of interpersonal violence increases for women,” Roach said. “They are at increased risk for victimization.

“If a woman is intoxicated and in a situation where there is a potential for sexual abuse, it places her at greater risks for violence, for exposure to STDs. It impairs judgment. The consequences of that are extremely serious.”

Generally, women and men drink for different reasons, said Beth Glover Reed, a University of Michigan psychologist who has studied alcohol abuse among women.

Reed contends that women are more likely to use drinking as a coping mechanism, whereas men are more likely to drink as a social outlet.

Tanis, a 46-year-old Livingston County, Mich., woman who prefers not to give her last name, started drinking when she was 36. She was a mother of three children – the youngest, now 19.

She believes she was trying to fight depression stemming from the death of her mother, who committed suicide when she was 9.

When Tanis felt bad, she drank. Beer on weekends became beer and wine every day.

“The compulsion was so strong, I’d go to the store to buy it, and I had to have a drink before I got home,” she said.

She drove her kids while drunk. “I was driving but feeling like I had complete control,” Tanis said. “I know now that’s insanity.”

She sought treatment after her husband threatened to leave her. She’s been sober since 2001 and attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings at least twice a week.

One of the worst parts of her yearlong addiction, she said, was thinking she was mentally ill.

“I knew I had a drinking problem, but I thought I was crazy,” Tanis said. “Come to find out, take away the drink and your life comes back together.”

There is no one size fits all when it comes to effective treatment for women abusing alcohol, experts say.

The programs that work best address a myriad of issues they may face, including help with child care, employment and the effects of physical, sexual and emotional abuse that often accompany women who drink excessively.

Most important, successful programs boost women’s self-esteem and help remove the shame they often feel more deeply because of lingering double standards – especially when that woman is also a mother.

“It’s still much more socially accepted for men to be out drinking and acting out,” Glover Reed said.

“It’s sort of a rite of passage, just something men do – they get drunk every once in a while. But there’s still a lot of disgust about drunk women.”

The support of other women gives Palmer strength.

She has grown from a woman who wouldn’t even talk in therapy to a group moderator for Women for Sobriety, a national self-help group started in 1976 for women who battle alcohol abuse and addiction.

Palmer said the stress of working full-time and being the primary caretaker for a young son led to her heavy drinking.

At night, after driving one to two hours to get home from work, pick her son up and put him to bed, she’d start drinking to unwind.

“By 10, I’d be blitzed,” she recalled. And then she started drinking earlier in the evenings, while giving her son a bath and making lunches for the next day.

Ryan, now 17, said he knew something was wrong with his mother when he was growing up, but he didn’t know enough about alcoholism to define it.

“I just knew one minute things were happy and good and the next minute, it was like there was no mom, just a body,” he said.

In February 2000, Palmer landed in jail after she wrecked her truck. The judge gave custody of Ryan to her ex-husband, and Palmer spent six months in daily one-on-one and group therapy. She also started going to AA meetings and Women for Sobriety meetings.

A life unraveled by alcohol began to come back together. She remarried that November to a man who encouraged her recovery.

A year after becoming sober she began moderating group meetings of Women for Sobriety, using herself as an example that a person can begin again.

Her advice to other women is to stop hiding and denying the problem.

“If you’re not honest, you’re not able to deal with what’s going on, and that leads to bad decisions,” she said. “You have to be honest so you can deal with how you’re feeling instead of pushing it away or burying it with drinking.”

In late fall of 2001, sobriety gave her two of her most treasured gifts: custody of Ryan in October and the birth of a second son, Robert, in November.

“My mom is the definition of a hero to me,” Ryan said. “She overcame her addiction, worked on our relationship and now she’s out there helping other women better themselves and realize they don’t need alcohol.”