“One morning in February 2003, I got up…and I didn’t drink. » Until then, every morning when she woke up, Angèle (1) took out a bottle hidden the day before to start her day. “I took a first sip, which I couldn’t stand. I had to regurgitate it to be able to drink the next ones. And then, possibly, a coffee. »
Nearly fourteen years earlier, upset, this forty-something, married and mother, had had “this funny reflex”: grab a bottle of Martini and take a sip from the neck. “A gesture quickly became a habit, then a crutch of life. Previously, alcohol was confined in my life to festive and friendly settings, to light and comforting moments shared with my husband to escape the busy days of an active woman and young mother. Then I started drinking alone. Something was wrong, I felt, since I felt the need for alcohol to live my daily life. Immediately, I associated this new form of consumption with the constraint of hiding. »
Feminine alcoholism surrounded by denial
In France, alcoholism is easily seen as a masculine trait. However, like Angèle, many women dangerously exceed the recommended doses, to the point of falling into dependence. Thus, 5.6% of French women over 15 years old declared in 2019 to consume alcohol every day or almost every day (compared to 14.6% of French people). What sets them apart? Largely, the art of hiding their deleterious relationship with this addictive product, the most widespread in France.
Christelle Peybernard, hospital addiction psychiatrist, explains this propensity to hide by the weight of societal injunctions: “The pressure and demands remain stronger towards the female gender. Drinking for a woman is less permissible. She is immediately seen as someone of the wrong gender or a bad mother. »
When the trap closes, shame falls on the vast majority of consumers. They then use specific stratagems to deceive for as long as they can. “They will, for example, wear makeup, choose alcohols like vodka, which has no odor and is low in calories, so that it does not show on their body,” explains Christelle Peybernard.
Laurence Van Accoleyen, 47, mother of two children and ex-addict, founder of the online method ABC Sobriété, remembers her family. “I hosted most of the parties at my house. This allowed me to drink quietly, without taking the risk of driving; to empty many glasses before the arrival of guests in order to display classic consumption at the table; and if necessary, to be able to refill myself in the kitchen, even if a bottle was already opened in the living room…”
Belying the prejudices that make them irresponsible, those who have a delicate or unhealthy relationship with alcohol often try to compensate, explains Laurence Van Accoleyen: “On the contrary, they appear to be hyperprofessional, efficient, present. » A pillar embodied by Laurence Cottet, who fell into dependency from the age of 36 to 48 following the death of her husband: for a long time, Vinci, her company, had no reproach to address to this senior executive. She managed to catch up on any delays in her files due to inebriation. These feminine abilities to create illusions are not without consequences. Particularly with regard to their later treatment, when the red line of alcoholic illness has already been crossed.
This shift, linked to individual factors, is not automatic and may only occur after several years of consumption among women who have found in drinking a way to relax or even anesthetize their emotions ( where men generally seek intoxication). “Their demand for care is, for the moment, less strong than that of their male counterparts,” notes Nicolas Bonnet, director of the Network of health establishments for the prevention of addictions, “but as soon as they become dependent, they request help faster. » Laurence Cottet did not know that what she was experiencing was an addictive pathology until the day when, fired after collapsing in front of 650 other executives from her firm, she met a doctor who mentioned the word “disease”.
A revelation that helped her free herself from shame and gain support towards sobriety. This denial is also particularly harmful to their health. For metabolic and constitutional reasons, “the impact of alcohol on women’s bodies is more intense, more rapid and severe than on men’s. Certainly, their consumption is on average less than that of consumers, but it does more damage” specifies Nicolas Bonnet. Each year there are 41,000 deaths attributable to alcohol, including 11,000 women. In addition, regular alcohol consumption, even moderate, is the cause of 17% of breast cancers, according to studies reported by the National Cancer Institute (2).
Breaking the loneliness of women to get them out of alcoholism
Over the last ten years, the care provided by medico-social structures has evolved to take these female specificities into account. Starting with the shame that confines consumers to their homes. Christelle Peybernard saw the Addiction Care, Support and Prevention Centers revise their reception of women: “We have modified our programs to encourage them to come more. Then we understood that they needed their own spaces. These women are most of the time worried about their children or future motherhood, they have suffered often intimate violence, have physical problems, old traumas… “
During the therapeutic workshops provided by Laurence Cottet in Grenoble (Isère), the now patient-expert draws the same observation: “Out of around ten participants, at least six were sexually assaulted or raped. Others have lost a baby, had to have an abortion… They don’t necessarily want to talk about these pains that are specific to them in front of men. » Nicolas Bonnet insists on the importance of reconciling oneself with one’s image. “After several years of consuming alcohol, the body, the face, the look, the teeth change… Reclaiming one’s image then constitutes an extremely important lever for regaining self-confidence and getting out of excessive consumption. » Long-term work, which does not exclude relapses, almost inevitable in the fight against addiction.
Fortunately, these recurrences in no way reduce the chances of overcoming alcoholic illness. Angèle, who came to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in desperation, found unexpected strength there twenty years ago: “I arrived unhappy, bloated, I would have liked to hide in a mouse hole. Around the table, light-eyed men and women, who seemed comfortable in their skin, said out loud, smiling: “I’m an alcoholic.” I thought, if it works for them, why not for me? These women gave me hope. »
Apart from support groups, television, radio or bookstores relay the testimonies that emerge – with No ! I stopped (Ed. InterÉditions), Laurence Cottet was one of the pioneers. Still too few in number, perhaps, for each woman in the grip of alcohol to find a model with whom to identify, but enough to dent their feeling of loneliness. These women publicly embody a happy sobriety, a life free from shame.
(1) The first name has been changed.
(2) Alcohol has been classified as a carcinogenic molecule by the WHO since 1988.
What are the different stages of alcoholism?
Alcoholic illness does not happen suddenly. THE first stagethere risky consumption, consists of drinking without suffering relational, medical or professional consequences. It is therefore recommended to stick to a maximum of 10 standard glasses (the quantity served in bars, not at home) per week; no more than 2 per day, not every day.
Then comes the harmful consumption : that which alters daily relationships. Specialists believe that in this case it is necessary to significantly reduce the drink or even do without it altogether.
Once at stage of “alcohol dependence”, drinking becomes a priority or even an obsession. The World Health Organization recommends the use of this term, rather than alcoholism, in order to emphasize the addictive aspect of the pathology.
Living with an alcoholic loved one: a support group to help you get through it
“There’s no point hiding your bottles anymore, I won’t look for them anymore. » These words said by her husband after an “Al-Anon” meeting he had attended played a decisive role for Angèle. She then realized that no one would come and rescue her from her addiction, and that this work belonged to her. Faced with alcoholic illness, relatives and friends generally no longer know what attitude to adopt and suffer from the situation.
“Designed on the same model as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings, that is to say open meetings, then a twelve-step program, the Al-Anon family groups were founded by the wives of both founders of AA in the United States in 1951 and transposed to France in 1962,” explains Angèle. Without judgment or advice, these meetings are based on a sharing of experience and hope. Alateen is aimed specifically at teenagers.