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The Secret Lives of Female Alcoholics

The numbers are troubling: An estimated 17.6 million adults in the USA are either alcoholics or have alcohol problems, according to the National Institutes of Health. By some estimates, one-third of alcoholics are women.

Yet if you were to ask a woman's friends and family if she has a drinking problem, they might very well say no.

When Paula Tokar, 26, told her friends she was getting sober and wouldn't be partying with them anymore, "they said, 'You seemed fine to us,' " says Tokar, now two years sober and living in Marshfield, Mass. That's because she'd worked hard to hide her alcohol abuse. "I was doing the things many women do, hiding drinks around the house, hiding vodka behind the frozen veggie burgers."

When a close friend admitted to Elizabeth Schwarzer she was an alcoholic, "I just couldn't believe it," the Boston mom, 34, says. "I would have sworn up and down that she wasn't much of a drinker." But looking back, there were "all kinds of signs, and I had pretty willfully ignored them."

Kate Sanborn of Abington, Mass., was convinced her drinking was her "little secret, my little world, that I didn't affect anybody." Now five years sober, she says women drinking brings up so many issues for people. "How can you possibly - your kids are always first - how can something else get in the way? But I'm sorry, when you're engulfed in alcoholism, you do things you would never do in any kind of clear mind."

Sanborn drank until she blacked out; later a neighbor said she'd heard Sanborn's infant son screaming all night. "He was right next to me in bed. I didn't even know it."

A tragedy and a confession

Female alcoholics face a double whammy: addiction and a culture that is more likely to ignore drinking in women than in men. That issue, and denial, got an airing this spring and summer with the stories of two moms that have played out across talk radio, tabloids and the Web.

The first was the case of New York mother Diane Schuler, who according to state police had a blood alcohol level double the legal limit and high levels of the active ingredient in marijuana when she crashed into an SUV as she drove the wrong way on a New York highway July 26. Schuler, her daughter, three nieces and three men in the SUV died in the accident. Schuler's son was injured.

Next came an admission from Los Angeles "mommy blogger" and writer Stefanie Wilder-Taylor that she was an alcoholic. The author of Sippy Cups Are Not for Chardonnay and Nap Time Is the New Happy Hour was part of a new wave of moms asserting their ability to have small kids and still be hip and cool and sip the occasional cosmopolitan.

Except, as Wilder-Taylor said in her posting on May 26, however much she enjoyed drinking, she was frightened it would "consume my life and I can't afford that. I need to be present for my husband in the evening; I need to be fully reliable for all three of my children at all times and, for me, if I'm 100% honest with myself, I can't do that if I drink."

Somewhere in between are the 72,287 fans of the Facebook page "OMG I so need a glass of wine or I'm going to sell my kids," created by a Sacramento mom.

The myth of the good mother

Their stories highlight the uncomfortable relationship society has between women and drinking, especially when they are mothers.

Schuler's family and friends insist they had no knowledge of a drinking or drug problem. The family has begun legal efforts to have her body exhumed for further testing.

Good mothers don't drink, and everyone says Schuler was a good mom, so she couldn't possibly have been an alcoholic. That's how the thinking goes, says Eleanor Schoenberger, 40. "Especially when it comes to mothers, there's such a strong inclination to believe 'she just wouldn't do anything like that,' " says Schoenberger, of Hanover, Mass. She writes a blog about being a mom in recovery and making jewelry at One Crafty Mother.

Schoenberger wonders if the national conversation would be the same if Schuler's husband, Daniel, had been behind the wheel when the accident happened. "The question would be, 'Where was the mother?' " she says. "A father who drinks is just as responsible for the welfare of his children, but the stigma isn't there."

Schwarzer, whose friend went into treatment and no longer drinks, says she won't be afraid of speaking up again. "Is politeness worth some kid's life? You convince yourself that it's just not that bad, but when a child's life is at stake, none of us should ever be that polite."

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