Of all the drinkers I know—male or female—Kate drinks by far the most. She drinks at home before going out to drink. She drinks on the phone because it’s sort of like not drinking alone. She drinks on Sundays because it’s still the weekend and on Mondays because it isn’t. There are days when in 24 hours, she will have as many as 24 drinks. At a party, she can throw back ten, fifteen cocktails and still stay upright in her stilettos, which is even more remarkable when you consider how slender she is in her little designer dresses.
That wasn’t always the case. Unlike most girls, Kate didn’t touch alcohol in high school and rarely drank in college, but three months into her first job as an analyst at one of New York’s investment banks, something in her shifted. She was working grueling hours at a grueling pace. The only people she’d see in a day were the taxi driver who drove her to work bleary-eyed in the morning, another who carried her home comatose late at night, and her co-workers, a mostly male group with whom she had little in common. “One day,” she says, “I consciously made the decision to try to get to know them better. So I started going out with them.”
Going out with them meant drinking, usually heavy drinking, which suited Kate’s mind-set at the time. “I felt like I deserved it,” she says. “I realized I can work crazy hours, I can work just like anyone else, so I can party just like anyone else.” Soon she had an agenda: If she could finish her work by 2 a.m., she would grab a guy from the office—“I had no girlfriends, it’s such a male- dominated industry”—and they’d hurry to a bar, order a few rounds of shots, and try to catch up with the people who were already drunk. “I drank almost every day,” she says. “But I thought it was normal because I was always going out, and when you’re out, everyone else is drinking.”
As she drank more, her career advanced. “It was like a one-of-the-guys kind of thing. In terms of success, people wanted to work with me. They’d be like, ‘Ugh, I have to work with X,’ you know, another girl. But with me, it’d be like, ‘Oh, this will be so fun.’ ” Rather than trying to hide how much she drank, she realized that her party-girl image would make her more relatable. “You have to be a bitch to survive—and then they’ll call you a bitch. I think maybe for me the drinking let me balance out the kind of stern, bitchy attitude at work with, like, Yeah, obviously, when I’m not working, I’m really fun. It made me look a little more human.”
One year, she got so obliterated at her office’s holiday party that her managing director had to take her home. Shortly thereafter, she went to see an addiction psychiatrist, who gave her a prescription for Revia, an opiate blocker. Then she went to detox. Then she went to A.A. Still she kept drinking. And still she made V.P.
For Kate, it’s become a game of cognitive dissonance. “You just adjust what you’re saying,” she tells me over a glass of white wine. “Sometimes I’m like, I’m an alcoholic. Sometimes I’m like, I just drink a lot. Workaholic. Alcoholic. Workaholic. Alcoholic. How do you know if you have a problem?” She takes a sip and shrugs.
Not all of my female friends drink like Kate, but most of them do drink—and not just in a glass-of-wine-with-dinner way. Drinking is our go-to activity. Meeting a friend implies going to a bar. Having a meal implies a round of cocktails beforehand. A party implies a serious hangover. Drinking feels like our prerogative—if we want to get blasted at the company Christmas party or nurse a bottle of scotch through the holidays, no one should, or can, stop us.
So while Kate might be an extreme case, she is emblematic of something researchers are noticing: That more women are drinking, yes—more than 48 percent acknowledge having had at least one drink in the past month (up from 42 percent in 1992). But beyond that, the women who drink are drinking more. The number of women who identify as moderate-to-heavy drinkers has risen in the last ten years, while the number of women who say they are light drinkers has declined. At the same time, men are reining in their drinking, meaning that the gender gap of alcohol consumption is narrowing all the time.
For years, research—and conventional wisdom—has told us that in the decades since World War II, everyone was drinking more. The observation that women were contributing disproportionately to this trend was made by Dr. Richard Grucza, an epidemiologist who spends his time in the near-oxymoronic pursuit of thinking about drinking. As a young, up-and-coming professor (he’s 42) at Washington University School of Medicine and a drinker—“I rather enjoy it, actually; I’m not a prohibitionist by any stretch of the imagination”—Grucza questioned how the major national drinking surveys had been conducted, relying as they did on people’s reported dependence on drinking at past stages of their lives rather than their current dependence.