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Women, drinking, and wine-as-reward culture

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“It’s a way to be bad while being good.”

Sacha Scoblic, 38, author of “Unwasted: My Lush Sobriety,” summarizes the double-edged allure of drinking. It’s a legal mode of escapism, and the camaraderie over talking about drinking is as intoxicating as the buzz itself — especially among mothers.

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“I need a drink!” is shorthand for “I’ve worked hard, and I’ve earned it.” And what mom wouldn’t cop to being busy?

The whine-wine culture is celebrated in books like “Sippy Cups Are Not for Chardonnay” and websites like Moms Who Need Wine, a Boston-based group with more than a half-million members (“If you’re not sure you could survive motherhood without a stockpile of your favorite Red, then you’ve come to the right place!”) There’s a wine label called MommyJuice (“Because you deserve it”), not to be confused with Mommy’s Time Out (“Need a break? Take a Mommy’s Time Out!”)

There are not websites for Moms Who Need Heroin. Booze is legal, available, celebrated — and, for some, deeply damaging. The Center for Substance Abuse Prevention reports that 2.7 million American women abuse alcohol. According to the forthcoming book, “Her Best-Kept Secret: Why Women Drink — And How They Can Retain Control,” by Gabrielle Glaser, the number of middle-age women who entered alcohol treatment programs nearly tripled between 1992 and 2007, giving new meaning to a “time out” for mommy.

Meanwhile, the USDA defines moderate drinking among women as up to one drink per day — hardly enough to fill a sippy cup. Why the disconnect?

“There are no absolutes in drinking, unlike in some other areas of medicine,” says Dr. Kevin Hill, an addiction psychiatrist at McLean Hospital. “You’re either pregnant or you’re not. But there are different degrees of drinking.”

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At its most basic, the definition of addiction is simple: “Repeated use despite harm.” But harm is a relative term that exists along a spectrum.

On May 22, the American Psychiatric Association will release its newest diagnostic manual, the DSM-5, and will acknowledge this ambiguity. It will collapse the diagnostic distinction between alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence into one term, “alcohol use disorder,” a scaled definition that encompasses a spectrum of severity.

Symptoms can range from failure to fulfill personal obligations to physical dependence that causes shaking and nausea. While critics fret that the broader distinction will stigmatize milder drinkers, the modification can be seen as reflective of our confusing times: Not everyone who grapples with alcohol use is a stereotypical in-the-gutter alcoholic. Many are outwardly functional and successful. Many are women.

“We’re in a period where drinking is considered glamorous,” says Danielle Barry, an Arlington-based clinical psychologist with a background in addiction research and treatment. “It’s a connoisseur activity: good food, good alcohol. But this social acceptability can create more danger. These days, a martini in a bar can be the equivalent of four standard drinks. People don’t realize that.”

(A “standard drink” is 12 ounces of beer with 5 percent alcohol, 5 ounces of wine with 12 percent alcohol, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor.)

Alcohol’s prevalence also functions as justification: It’s about kinship, not abuse.

“Nowadays we have people over at the end of the week, the kids have pizza, and parents have wine,” says Jen, a Metrowest mother who’s currently dealing with a friend’s alcoholism concerns. Nobody’s looking to see if someone has one too many glasses. Nobody’s doing body shots off their granite countertops. But the domestic setting can create its own problems.

“When you’re at home, it’s easier to lose track of how much you’re drinking,” says Barry. There are also fewer warning signs or consequences, like a DUI.

Which is why it’s easy for high-functioning drinkers to cling to outward appearances to deny deeper issues. Lee, a 30-something mother who quit drinking a few years ago, got into an Ivy League graduate school while regularly getting blackout drunk. Scoblic was an editor at a respected magazine when she decided to stop drinking. Stefanie Wilder-Taylor, who wrote “Sippy Cups,” outed herself as an alcoholic in 2009 — after drinking made her famous.

Even alcohol self-tests provide more reassurance than alarm. Online evaluations tend to underscore catastrophes: firings, divorce, arrests that can follow drinking. That’s the conundrum: As bartenders sling birdbath-size martinis and mom sites promote alcohol as a treat, alcohol abuse is perceived as a rock-bottom implosion — not the quiet recklessness more common among middle-class women.

“A lot of my friends are trying to juggle everything — work and kids,” says Jen. “Or you’re a stay-at-home-mom and you don’t have enough outlets. You’re feeling overwhelmed and stressed, and this is how you take your deep breath. It’s socially acceptable, inexpensive, and it takes the edge off without making you incapable of functioning.”

“Unfortunately, the majority of people who have issues don’t get the treatment they need,” says Hill. “Alcohol dependence is a chronic medical illness just like blood pressure or diabetes. You wouldn’t think twice to treat these,” says Hill. Barry calls alcohol abuse a “source of shame.”

That’s alcohol’s ultimate paradox: Use is glorified; abuse is stigmatized. Among women especially, uncorking a bottle is a symbol of triumph — the reward after a busy day. But a key tenet of Alcoholics Anonymous, the major support for problem drinkers, is admitting powerlessness over alcohol. And while medical illnesses have support groups and walk-a-thons, AA relies upon namelessness in the purest sense.

Scoblic points out that actual faces of addiction are relegated to TV shows like Intervention and TMZ. “The problem with these shows is they find the most hardcore toothless acne-ridden crack head. That’s real — but it’s not most people. At any AA meeting, you can see a room of yuppies,” she says.

Hill treats diverse patients, most often not the stereotypical desperate alcoholic who can’t hold a job. “We see people who you would not ‘expect’ to have problems, who are very high-functioning,” he says.

Clinicians are optimistic that the new DSM will broaden awareness about dangerous alcohol use and capture people on the fringes of addiction. So are recovering alcoholics, who are relieved to get sober during a time of heightened interest in and openness about addiction. “There is more awareness around substance abuse today,” says Lee. “There’s rehab. We’re more aware and in tune with alcoholism and willing to discuss it.”

Kara Baskin can be reached at kcbaskin@gmail.com.

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