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Home » Drinking and How It Changed My Life: Ann Dowsett-Johnston (Transcript)

Drinking and How It Changed My Life: Ann Dowsett-Johnston (Transcript)

Ann-Dowsett-Johnston at TEDxHomeBushRdWomen

Full text of author Ann Dowsett-Johnston’s talk titled “Drinking and How It Changed My Life” at TEDxHomeBushRdWomen conference.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here:


Thank you very much.

You know, there’s a story that they tell about a writer who heads up to the pearly gates on a very, very busy day. And she is not quite sure if she’s going to end up in heaven or hell.

And she waits in line for about three hours, a little bit longer. And she’s a good researcher, and she gets very frustrated.

So finally, she goes up to the front of the line, and she says, “Do you think I could see God?”

And God comes out and says, “Can I help you?”

And she says, “Not sure if I’m going to heaven or hell, but I might as well start with hell. Do you think I could have a sneak peek?”

And God says, “Of course. First door on the right.”

So she goes and takes a little peek at hell, and she sees her worst nightmare. She sees a whole room full of writers chained to their desks, clearly they’ve missed their deadlines. The clock’s going around and around like this. There’s sweat pouring off their brow, their hair is disheveled, they’re tap, tap, tapping away.

And she says, “No, not for me,” and closes the door, goes back to the front of the queue and says to God, “Do I have a minute to see heaven?”

And God says, “Of course, you do. First door on the left.”

So she opens the door, and, lo and behold, she sees the same damn thing.

Same damn thing. There’s all these poor writers that missed their deadlines, and sweat’s pouring off their brow, and they’re tap, tap, tapping away, and the clock’s going around like this.

She closes the door, and she goes up to God and she says, “I don’t know, God. I don’t see much difference between heaven and hell.”

And God looks at her and says, “My dear, there’s a huge difference. In heaven, the writers get published.”

And that was my truth, that was my heavenly truth this fall. My book got published. It got published. My first book. This is the way it looked here in New Zealand and Australia, and this is the way that it looked for the rest of the world.

And it was just a heavenly fall that I had. Maybe spring for you. But wherever you are in the world, I had a heavenly couple of months. That was the good news.

The bad news was that I outed myself to the entire world as an alcoholic. In fact, worse than that, this was my very public face. I outed myself as the poster girl for today’s modern alcoholic. And she is female, she is well-educated, she is professional, she is high functioning, and she is high bottom — “high bottom” meaning she hadn’t lost everything.

That was me, that was me. And I went on the publicity circuit all around the world, and I was asked about my story.

And people would always end with the same question: why did you want to write this book?

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And I ultimately considered it just about the rudest question you could ask me, because what they were really saying was three things: number one, are you crazy, number two, don’t you realize you’ll never get hired again, and number three, how much did you drink?

And the truth is: number one, I’m not crazy. I’m not crazy. I believe that our secrets keep us very sick.

Number two, will I ever get hired again? Well, let’s just say, I applied for a job I really cared about, about a month ago, and I didn’t even get a call. I think when you write a book called “Drink,” probably they’re not so sure they want you.

So the stigma’s large, and I’m pretty aware of what I’ve done in outing myself.

Number three, how much did I drink? Well, I drank a lot more than I should have, over a very short amount of time, and probably a lot less than you’re imagining.

But this was the book that I wanted to write, and I have to tell you, they say we have private lives, and we have professional lives, and we have secret lives.

And my secret life was the fact that I had grown up with a beautiful, beautiful mother, lovely, lovely mother. This is how she looked. I’m the one in the glasses in this picture.

I wore glasses from a very young age. And she was beautiful, and she was lonely. My father traveled all around the world, and she raised three children by herself, and it was pre-email.

The doctor gave her Valium, and she drank on the Valium, and she was, indeed, the poster girl for her era, the 1960s, mixing cocktails during the day as a stay-at-home mom who really devolved over about three decades into someone who looked very different and who was very different.

And it was really tough in our house. And it was the one thing I was sure I was never going to do was to become an alcoholic. I was really sure. That was not on my wishlist.

I did not look like my mother, I didn’t drink in the day, I didn’t miss work, I won awards at work. I really was sure I wasn’t an alcoholic, or I prayed that I wasn’t one.

And it wasn’t until I received this very beautiful handmade card from my 22-year-old son that I realized maybe there was no denying it. I received this card from him seven years ago, and I opened it up, and I thought, “How extraordinary. He’s an artist, it’s handmade, it’s got a heart behind me. It says, ‘Happy Mother.’ “

And I thought, “This is perfect.” I hadn’t read the fine print. I had had a root canal, and I hadn’t been drinking for three weeks, and he had seen me really sober, sober every evening.

He’d watched me sleeping well, he’d watched my moods be very smooth. And he wrote on one side. I don’t know if you can read it, but it says, “No bags under her eyes.” And it says, “Writing, not editing.”

He knew that I wanted to write and that I was betraying myself as an individual. But most importantly, he said, “Perrier, not wine.”

And I received this card, and I knew the gig was up. I knew there was no denying that I was an alcoholic.

Now, alcoholism is like this: you will deny it, and it will progress, and you will deny it and play games with it, and it will progress — that’s what happened to me.

I’d like to tell you that I quit drinking then, but I didn’t. I drank for another two years, and I took a very, very big job, and that’s all in my book.

Finally, I got sober. Finally, I got sober. I did the heavy lifting of recovery, and it’s not for the faint of heart, I have to tell you. But, five years ago, I gave up drinking, and it was a new beginning, a new life, an absolutely new life, and not totally easy because, as we all know, we live in an alcogenic culture.

We live in an alcogenic culture, and here is the real truth, and this is global. The richer the country, the more narrow the gap between women’s drinking and men’s drinking, and this is the way it’s going.

Men have always had more to drink than women. But men are flatlining or going down just a little bit. Women are going this way, and it’s confounding epidemiologists. All around the world, this is what’s happening.

Walk into any room, any social event, as you know, and the first question you’re going to be asked right now is “Red or white?”

Know your wines — you’re sophisticated. Know your vodkas — you’re cool, you’re hip. And know you’re coolers – you’re young and female.

We know all the downsides of trans fats and all the downsides of tanning beds, but we like to think of a glass of red wine sort of like vitamin D or dark chocolate — good for our health.

And if we’re drinking a little bit too much, well, we’re just sort of drinking like the Italians or French, imbibing in the name of sophistication. That’s the way we like to look at things.

We don’t like to hear, in fact, that 15% of breast cancer cases are linked to alcohol. We don’t like to know those things. In fact, we have very, very fuzzy values about alcohol.

And women drinking more than they ever have before — well, that was the major question of my book. I knew I wasn’t alone. I knew it wasn’t just me.

I asked why, and I came up with three reasons: number one, is I think it’s become the modern woman’s steroid, enabling her to do the lifting in a still-evolving world. We’re in the middle of a socioeconomic revolution, and we all know that.

And so many of us race home from a busy day, stand there at the chopping board, getting ready for dinner, pour ourselves a glass of wine. It’s benign behavior. It’s common behavior. Get ready for dinner, maybe an evening, a second shift of overseeing homework and maybe doing a little work yourself, and you pour yourself another glass of wine.

For years, this was me. For years, this was me, until I had a major depression, a very serious depression in my 50s.

And that was reason number two: self-medication. Self-medication was why I drank in a really different way. Self-medication, in my case, for depression and anxiety, but for other women, it’s a decompression tool. It’s for stress.

In fact, the most common indicator that you’re going to have trouble, as a woman with alcohol, is childhood sexual abuse. That’s the most common reason.

And the third reason people drink is because they can, because they can, and it’s delightful. And we are being marketed to. We are being marketed to in an incredible way.

I’ve been watching — in fact, the first question I asked when I took on this project was “Why? Why are liquor stores full?” In North America, anyway, a wine’s called “Mommy Juice,” and “Girls’ Night Out” wine, and, yes, “Happy Bitch,” and “Cupcake” wine, and “French Rabbit” wine.

And why are there all these coolers, and why is there “Skinnygirl” vodka, mango-flavored vodka, berry coolers? These aren’t manly drinks.

I ask myself what happened, and I went to the experts, and I heard the most incredible story that, in the mid-1990s, the liquor distillery men looked around — and they were mostly men — looked around the world and said, “Beer’s cleaning our clock. Beer’s fun, beer’s sport, beer’s entertainment. All the Johnnie Walker drinkers were dying out. What are we going to do?”

They looked around the world and said, “Who’s underperforming, who’s not drinking?” And they saw women, a whole gender!

A whole gender, and thus was born the alcopop, those prepackaged little drinks, vodka-infused, rum-infused, sweet, aimed at girls, aimed at young girls.

It’s high school that’s the initiation of drinking most commonly; university is the escalation.

Sweet drinks to steer young women away from beer. They’re called “chick beer,” they’re called “cocktails with training wheels,” “starter drinks,” and they were enormously successful.

So by the time that young women get to university, they’ve given them up, but they’re drinking vodka.

So you go onto any campus — and I’ve been on a lot of campuses recently — you go on any campus, and you look at what’s happening, and young men and women are playing drinking games.

Forget the frat boy stereotype; it’s equal opportunity, They’re playing drinking games, and he’s drinking beer and she’s drinking vodka or tequila. She’s two-thirds his size. She’s two-thirds his size, and she probably didn’t eat before that evening, because often young women these days don’t eat before a date.

And we all know that she’s at a disadvantage, we all know she’s drinking the stronger drink, and we all know that alcohol is the number one date rape drug, and it has been for years.

So that’s the story, that’s the story of what’s happening.

And you ask yourself about this. You ask yourself about why this generation is not slowing down in their 20s, and they’re not slowing down in their 30s.

And think about this: that increase is the steepest for young women between the ages of 24 and 36 — 24 and 36, those are the same women who are giving birth to 60% of the babies.

And the FASD numbers, rates, are going like this as well. This is not a pretty picture.

So, I’m not trying to rain on our parade, I’m not trying to rain on your parade, and I’m not trying to be a killjoy. I’m not saying, “If you can drink fabulously well and manage it well, good for you.”

But if you’re female, know that safe drinking guidelines would say no more than 10 drinks in a week. Know that, know that.

And even if you are drinking safely … I’m going to ask because this is very dark, when I’m looking out into the audience, I’m not going to ask you to raise your hands.

But if I were to ask you to raise your hands and say, “Is there anyone in this audience that hasn’t been touched by someone’s drinking?”

A mother or a father’s, a son or a daughter’s, a sister or brother’s, or maybe your own. I would bet that no one could lift a hand. I would bet, in our culture, no one could.

So we ask ourselves the question, “What should we do? What should we do on a global level, on a large policy level?” That’s what I’m interested in.

I’m going to tell you about a frog pond. I’m going to tell you about a frog pond, a strange frog pond where there are a growing number of frogs that are developing really ugly warts, and a growing number are growing infertile.

And everyone says, “Better send in the surgeons. Better send in the infertility experts.”

And someone else very wise says, “Maybe there’s something in the water. Maybe, just maybe, there’s something in the water.”

And I’m here to say there is something in the water. We are awash in alcohol marketing. We don’t even notice it anymore. We’re awash in alcohol marketing, we’re awash in alcohol.

So, if we are smart, we will push on the three levers that we pushed on with tobacco. We will push on marketing; we’ll reduce it. And certainly, marketing on Facebook that’s aimed at young people who are underage, where marketers are tweeting and interacting as a person, as a friend.

We will definitely look at pricing. Let’s talk about Britain. In Britain, the price – often alcohol is cheaper than milk or cheaper than orange juice, and you have young women in their 20s developing end-stage liver disease in the UK.

In the US, you’ve got gas stations selling alcohol. So accessibility is the third thing that you press on. That’s what you do if you’re running a country. And that’s one thing.

But if you’re — as an individual, as I said — if you’re fine with your own drinking, then more power to you, enjoy yourself. But if you’re drinking like I drank, if you’re drinking to numb, that’s another thing.

My life in sobriety has been rocky. It’s a brand-new life now, but it wasn’t always so.

When I was 18 months sober, I got a call I dreaded, a call I never ever wanted to get. The man I was to marry and the man I was in love with for 14 years picked up the phone and told me it was over, in a morning, and I’ve never seen him again.

And I was full of despair, and I didn’t drink, and I couldn’t drink.

And I picked up the phone to my son about a week later, and I said, “I’ve lost everything to sobriety, absolutely everything. My life is terrible.”

And he said, “Really?” There’s my brave son. He said, “Go get a piece of paper, Mom. I’m going to dictate this to you.”

He said, “Draw a line down the middle, Mom. On the one side write ‘Losses.’ Write his name, Mom. You loved him very much. And yes, he was great to you. And then he wasn’t, Mom, not in the end.

Okay, on the other side, Mom, I want you to write ‘Gains.’ I want you to write your sister’s name — you got her back. I want you to write your brother’s name — you got him back. I want you to write your mom’s name — you got her back. I want you to write every single friend, Mom. Are you writing?”

I was writing.

He said, “You got me back, Mom.”

I said, “I didn’t lose you.”

He said, “Oh, yes, you did, Mom.

You lost me. Things were really, really strained between us, don’t you remember? We didn’t even talk for four months.”

I wrote down his name. Then he said something I won’t forget. He said, “Mom, you’re a fabulous mom. I wanted to go to art school, and you supported me. Write that down, Mom.”

I wrote it down.

He said, “You got your writing back, Mom. You got your voice back. You got everything back, Mom. Have a look at that list, Mom. So you lost a guy. Have a look at the other side.”

Thank you.

Download This Post as PDF here: Drinking and How It Changed My Life_ Ann Dowsett-Johnston (Transcript)

Resources for Further Reading: 

Claudia Christian: How I Overcame Alcoholism at TEDxLondonBusinessSchool (Transcript)

Gray Area Drinking: Jolene Park at TEDxCrestmoorParkWomen (Transcript)

Girl Up: The Secrets to an Extraordinary Life: Courtney Ferrell (Transcript)

Sometimes You Need to Change Yourself to Be Yourself: Mindy Gibbins-Klein (Transcript)


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