The Silent Adversary

Iris C F Gomes

Alcoholism has been made synonymous with Goa, thanks to Bollywood’s numerous projections of the drunken Goan Catholic. There is truth in the matter, according to Sneha Naik, a social worker who works at Hospicio in Margao. She credits the numerous bars scattered at every nook and corner and low liquor prices with accentuating the problem. Though the situation is bad in Goa, the fact remains that this menace exhibits its ugly presence in every society.

In Goa, alcoholism in males is not considered unusual, but the stigma attached to the same affliction in women is far greater. This is the primary reason for women not seeking help. ‘There is not much research done on women’s alcoholism,’ reveals Dr. Aldina Gomes, associate professor of psychology at Carmel College of Arts, Science and Commerce for Women, ‘Treatment utilisation is not a concept seen in women. There is a lot of denial about women’s alcohol consumption. Social support automatically decreases when a woman gets drunk.’

Women resort to closet drinking and will go to extreme lengths to conceal their destructive behaviour. In public they will attempt to present an image of normalcy. In time, however, tell-tale signs would become apparent in the form of irrational behaviour and change in personality. But women tend to become more reclusive in their alcoholism. Men on the other hand will socialize and consume alcohol without much concern for public opinion. This again is related to the idea that ‘good girls do not drink’. But this trend has changed in recent years with younger women, especially teens falling victim to alcoholism. Dr. Aldina Gomes says, ‘Binge drinking among youngsters can turn into alcoholism.’

Stressors like loss of one’s spouse, failed relationships and abuse can act as triggers to edge an individual with an addictive personality towards succumbing to the wiles of alcoholism. Alcoholic women display high risk behaviour like promiscuity. Many who come from a lower economic background take to prostitution to keep up their supply of alcohol.

Dr Aldina Gomes speaks of a case where a woman began drinking wine to help her sleep, at the suggestion of a friend. Soon the drinking was out of control and it was only her children’s school teacher’s intervention that averted further complications. If the mother is an alcoholic the negative impact on the children is far greater. It fosters insecurity, lack of confidence and guilt. In many cases the eldest child takes on the parent’s role.

Sneha Naik says that there are fewer women than men seeking help to combat their alcoholism. There are women who have taken to alcohol because their husbands drink as well and others who suffer from loneliness and neglect. They are usually between 30 to 70 years of age, and are often brought to the hospital (Hospicio) by well-wishers, in a desperate state. They are mentally unstable, vomit blood, have nerve damage, debilitating general weakness and liver cirrhosis. Patients become suicidal as they suffer from withdrawal symptoms and have to be restrained. ‘Consumption of alcohol cannot be stopped abruptly with these patients. It has to be gradual,’ states Sneha.

Alcoholic women are more likely than men to suffer from liver disease and brain damage. Other problems faced by women, connected with alcoholism, are increased risk of osteoporosis, premature menopause, infertility, miscarriages, high blood pressure and heart disease.

However, medical treatment is most often not the solution. Relapse rates are greater in women, especially if they are from the lower economic strata and from rural areas. Here they have access to cheap alcohol and are unaware of the effects of excessive alcohol consumption.

This is where psychological counselling and support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) step in as a saving grace. Attending A.A. meetings breathes motivation to remain sober in every one of its members. Here too, the men outnumber the women. But they are brave souls who have decided to take the proverbial bull by the horns and face their demons. Sharing of stories and bonding as a result of mutual suffering seem to see them through periods of temptation.

Alcoholism has been declared a disease by the World Health Organisation and this perhaps makes it easier for those who are held down by this ‘cunning, baffling and powerful’ adversary, to free themselves of the fetters that bind and torment them. The burden of stigma has been lessened to some extent, allowing alcoholics to seek the help they direly need.

Eileen* (name changed) tells us the story of her battle with the bottle. She was a 35 year old mother of 5 children when her life began spiralling out of control. She had never had alcohol before her marriage. After she married she began having a drink with her husband. Soon she started looking forward to the drink and began getting drunk. While her husband would give her only one drink she would later drink in secret, taking the bottle straight to the mouth. She realised her life was going awry. She says, ‘The million dollar question was “why am I drinking?”. I told myself I wouldn’t drink but I couldn’t stop!’

Fights ensued when her husband tried to reason with her to stop drinking. He was a wonderful husband and did all he could to aid her. Finally, it was her children’s reaction that stirred her to do something about her alcoholism. The look in their eyes said, ‘This is not the mother we knew. What has happened to her?’

Eileen first went to a priest, Fr. Joe, to have him pray over her. He took her to Alcoholics Anonymous and her life turned around. Here she learnt that what she had was a disease and every day would be a struggle against it. Then her husband apologised to her when he found out it was a disease and joined A.A. even though he was not an alcoholic.

After eight and a half years, she fell off the wagon owing to a gamut of problems that assailed her. Going back to the bottle caused a suffering that was unimaginable. It was difficult to go back to A.A. ‘Thank God, I managed to come back,’ she says. Before she joined A.A., she would assuage her guilt by saying she could not be an alcoholic because she never fell by the roadside or created a scene. Now she says, ‘This disease can afflict anybody. It isn’t the disease of just the poor.’

As strange as it may seem to some, she thanks God for her alcoholism because it brought her closer to Him. It has also enabled her to assist others in getting out of alcoholism and come to the understanding that this life is so beautiful.

Tragedies have come in the form of the loss of her husband seven years ago and her son one-and-a-half years ago. Nonetheless, being in the programme has allowed her to accept whatever happened and maintain her sobriety for over 20 years now.

It is essential the awareness of this disease called alcoholism spread far and wide in Goa. More so, to help those women who still shy away from looking for assistance because of society’s prejudice against them. They need all the support they can obtain to live each day out in sobriety.