INTERNATIONAL WOMENS’ DAY — IS THERE EQUALITY FOR WOMEN WHO DRINK?
8 March 2020 — DrinkCoach
A conversation with Gail Priddey
Every year on the 8th March women from all over the world join forces to celebrate women’s historical and modern day achievements while fighting for continued and improved gender equality and justice on a tradition known as International Women’s Day.
2020 marks the 45th International Women’s Day and this year’s theme is #EachforEqual.
Unfortunately there is no equality for women battling alcohol addiction. Women are plagued with stigma, male dominated services, their maternal abilities are questioned and they battle endless judgement and even abuse.
To celebrate International Women’s Day 2020 and to highlight some of the inequalities surrounding women and alcohol we interviewed the retired CEO of the HAGA alcohol service, and previous DrinkCoach consultant, Gail Priddey.
Hi Gail, thank you for giving up some of your time to be interviewed today.
Gail: Not at all, this is a topic I feel extremely passionate about. I spent the majority of my career trying to create safe spaces and sensitive services for women who were struggling with alcohol related problems.
How, why and when did you get into working in the alcohol field?
Gail: Growing up I saw and experienced the effects that alcohol misuse has on families from within my own family, so I guess I grew up with those frustrations and ideas about what could have helped — and what that help might look like.
I started my career as a nurse in a psychiatric hospital 43 years ago. At that time people needing an alcohol detox would generally be admitted to an acute psychiatric ward and I don’t remember any specialist detox services, either inpatient or community based. The hospital where I trained actually was one of a few that had an inpatient unit for ‘alcoholics’ after detox where aversion therapy was used. Not happy memories at all.
As a staff nurse, going on a ‘summer school on alcoholism’ at Kent Uni in Canterbury gave me an opportunity to meet other people who were also thinking about how alcohol services could and should develop.
As a woman did you feel there were personal challenges in working in the alcohol field?
Gail: At the beginning of my career in alcohol treatment services a lot of residential projects had been set up by men who had been in treatment and the philosophy was very male focused. The expectation was that users of the services would ‘get dry’ in the same way that the male project director/ male staff had done.
The challenges I faced as a young female worker in a male dominated environment often came down to safety and sexism. A lot of male service users carried a deep seated anger towards their wives, girlfriends, mothers and other females in their lives and that anger was easily displaced and projected on female staff. It was rarely challenged in a way that promoted women’s voices and views and there was a lack of any real safety processes.
It was also a challenge to be heard in an overwhelmingly male environment and I think I responded to that by talking (a bit too) loudly and passionately — a habit that I have found hard to break over the years!
Over your 40 years of experience did you see a massive difference in the number of men and women that accessed alcohol services?
Gail: The number of women who access treatment now is higher than it used to be but there has always been and still is a big difference in numbers.
20 years ago the demographic was mainly white English and Irish men, and to date when a service has up to 1/3 women it has been considered a huge success!
Why do you think that is?
Gail: There are loads of reasons why women don’t access traditional services. These include embarrassment, stigma still attached to women’s drinking, society’s attitudes and family issues, including concerns around losing their children, accessibility. Importantly, many alcohol treatment services do not effectively meet women’s needs.
We are not a one size fits all!
What are some of the biggest stigmas women face when accessing alcohol treatment?
Gail: 40 years ago the men who ran services saw women as ‘trouble’, not because they were doing anything wrong, but because they disrupted the male service users and more than once I was told they ‘wouldn’t stick to the programme, they had baggage (aka children) etc., etc.’ It was a really unfair environment.
When I first started very few women came into treatment and they kept their alcohol use secretive and by that time this became visible and problematic to themselves and those around them, they were usually extremely unwell.
Women who do seek help may tend to get diagnosed with anxiety and depression rather than alcohol dependency. We have always suffered from double standards, there are no romantised roles for female problem drinkers across literature and film as there still are for men and unfortunately the press often compound this in their salacious reporting.
I have heard social workers and police tell women “If you don’t sort out your drinking we will take your kids away”. Obviously childrens’ safety is paramount but this approach helps no one.
Women in these situations are usually suffering from low self-esteem and they turn to alcohol to escape the problems they face at home. In order to help it’s important to build up their confidence and make them realise they are worth more than they are told. Telling a woman you will take away her children will not help the situation in the long run.
26 years ago the first event at HAGA was a women’s day. We always maintained a safe space and specific services for women. It remains my passion to support women in having a voice and know they are valued. This is one of the main reasons we started DrinkCoach, to create an accessible, non judgemental safe service for women to seek help.
Why is important for women to seek help early?
Gail: Both men and women are advised not to drink more than 14 units a week and It’s important for anyone, male or female to get help early. The sooner you get help the easier it will be to cut down or stop. The impact alcohol can have on you physically and psychologically is significant.
Early intervention is however important for women in particular as alcohol has a bigger effect on our bodies compared to men, basically it takes less alcohol for us to get drunk. Also if a woman is out and drunk she tends to be a lot more vulnerable, so getting to it before it becomes a problem is important.
To seek help early you have to recognise you have a problem. How do we as alcohol workers support women to see they need to make a lifestyle change in a positive way? We need to make sure we are non — judgemental in our approaches to helping women, to work with their reality but to shift that focus from feeling ‘bad’ and out of control to one that offers some opportunity and building blocks for change.
DrinkCoach coaching service was developed to give women a way to talk about their problems without feeling judged in a safe environment and under their terms.
Tell us one of your biggest success stories working with women.
Gail: I’ve been thinking about this a lot but I don’t think of them as my successes but theirs.
There have been women we have worked with whose children were in care when they came to us. We have listened and tailored our work to their needs with outreach support, focused group and individual sessions, advocacy with social services, healthcare, housing and schools — and our family service worked with the children.
They have made some awe inspiring achievements. I remember well a woman who came to us from an extremely abusive domestic situation, scared and angry. Her drinking was threatening her life and her self-esteem was none existent. She worked incredibly hard, with some major set backs over several years, such resilience — quite amazing!
She wrote to me several years ago and is now a confident, very successful business woman. I have often bumped in to women whom we have helped over the years and it’s great to hear how far they have come and how they have kept their lives on the right track, and now recognise their own value after coming out the other side.
These are ordinary stories from extraordinary women — which is of course all women! Everyday heroines.
Do you have any advice for women wanting to change their drinking?
Gail: DO IT!
You need to stay strong, value yourself and truly believe you are worth it, because you are.