News & Politics

Moms Who Drink

Talking about the stigma attached to women alcoholics with Lori Butterfield, a local documentary filmmaker who made the 2012 film “Lipstick & Liquor: Secrets in the Suburbs.”

The story of Julie Kroll, published in Washingtonian’s April 2014 issue, inspired you to make Lipstick & Liquor.

I first read about her in the Washington Post the day after police found her. The story took up two nondescript columns in the Metro section, and no photo was attached. While the senselessness of her death struck me on a deeply emotional level, the circumstances surrounding the events that led to her 13-day disappearance left me confused. I just couldn’t understand why a mother would leave her eight-year-old daughter in a strange neighborhood like that and stumble into the darkness with no jacket, no purse, no cell phone, and no ID on a brutally cold winter night. No one in her right mind would do that. And I couldn’t understand why the police didn’t immediately launch a massive search to find Julie when she was clearly in trouble. As I began digging, I realized Julie’s story mirrored the struggle many women face in the grips of alcoholism.

How so?

Research shows women are drinking more these days, especially when it comes to binge drinking. This can be traced to a number of cultural forces at play in society. Add to that a terrible stigma that’s attached to women who can’t control their drinking, especially mothers. It’s this stigma that keeps many of them from seeking treatment. There is also a psychological component that’s unique to women: the pressure to do it all and be perfect. I didn’t know much about alcohol addiction before this project. But after making this film, I’ve come to see how the disease can completely devastate women’s lives.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned about women and alcohol abuse?

I was shocked at just how dramatic the health effects can be for women and how few women know what constitutes moderate drinking. Liver disease, brain damage, and breast cancer are just some of the medical issues that can result from excessive drinking. Women have what’s called a “telescoping,” or accelerated, course of alcohol dependence, which means they go from drinking moderately to problem drinking to needing treatment faster than men.

Why are some women more likely to hide alcohol abuse than men are?

Women face harsher judgment from family members, friends, colleagues, and society overall about drinking too much. We tend to back-slap men and forgive their drunk behavior as just being “one of the boys.” But when women behave badly because of alcohol, there’s a lot of shame involved. One of the experts I interviewed for the film had this to say: “Guilt is something you feel when you do something wrong, but shame is what you feel about who you are, and for many women, that shame is compounded every time they drink too much.” Women are concerned that if they admit they have a problem, they’ll be condemned, or worse. One of the women we profiled, Emily, told me there’s more sympathy if you’re labeled mentally ill than if you’re labeled an alcoholic.

Does contemporary culture encourage female alcohol abuse?

We have a culture that wholeheartedly embraces alcohol. Alcohol is glamorized and available in just about every social setting. With the rise of women both economically and politically, the taboos that once existed are no longer there. It used to be “un-ladylike” to drink too much, but now wine and alcohol companies are marketing directly to women with Skinny Girl cocktails, and wines such as Mommy’s Littler Helper among the growing list. There’s this idea that alcohol can help a woman unwind or cope with a stressful or painful situation. And drinking might actually “take the edge off” and put her in a good mood. But one drink turns to two and, if left unchecked, could end up three, four, or more in one night. Alcoholism is a progressive disease. I’m a moderate, social drinker who never really understood this.

So what constitutes low-risk drinking?

The National Institutes on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines moderate or low-risk drinking for women as no more than three drinks in a single day and no more than seven drinks a week.

Your film also features the stories of other women in recovery. What’s the best way to encourage someone with a problem to seek help?

Before Lipstick & Liquor, I can truthfully admit, I was someone who had a tendency to silently judge women who couldn’t control their drinking, especially mothers. How could they endanger their children? Why can’t they stop drinking? Don’t they know better? Now I know better. Communicating honestly and compassionately with our families, friends, sisters, mothers, colleagues, and others when we know there’s a problem is an important first step. There’s too much silence and ignorance surrounding all this.

Have you seen this firsthand?

Recently, a woman in New York phoned to say she’d given a DVD of the film to a friend who had been fired from her job and was in denial about a serious drinking problem. After seeing the film, her friend was finally able to admit she needed help and is now in recovery. When I hear stories like that, I think about Julie. Out of her tragedy, so much good will come.

To learn more about Lipstick & Liquor: Secrets in the Suburbs, visit the film’s website.