TORONTO - The handmade Mother's Day card Ann Dowsett Johnston received from her son delivered such a gut-wrenching blow that she carried it around for three years — haunted by its commentary on her addiction.
Following a bad root canal in the spring of 2005, Johnston was put on heavy antibiotics and told not to drink for three weeks. Towards the end of that period, her then 20-year-old son, Nicholas, gave her card entitled "Happy Mother." It depicted Johnston at her typewriter, where he noted that "the whites of her eyes are white" and "she is drinking Perrier, not wine."
"For my only child to comment so bluntly and so astutely on my alcohol dependency was a huge, cold glass of water over the head. It was a huge moment for me," Johnston recalled in an interview.
"I never looked at my drinking the same way. I knew then I had been outed."
In "Drink" (HarperCollins), the award-winning journalist candidly chronicles her alcohol dependency — as well her mother's drinking problems — while also offering an in-depth exploration of the relationship between women and the bottle.
As an Atkinson Fellow in Public Policy, Johnston wrote a multi-part series on women and alcohol published in the Toronto Star in 2011 which served as the genesis for the research in "Drink" on advertising and trends.
"My heart and soul, though, had always been for decades in writing about my mother's drinking. I had wondered for years why a person became addicted," recalled Johnston. "When I fell down the same bunny hole, I mostly wanted to write that as a book. I wanted to use my personal voice."
As a well-educated professional, Johnston described herself as "the new face of alcohol problems."
"I never missed work. I never crashed a car. I never was involved in some of the things that people presume are part of alcoholism," she said. "Mine was quiet and hidden and lonely and isolated — and that is the picture of female drinkers. We tend to drink alone because of grief or isolation, depression in my case, and loneliness."
Johnston said she "got into trouble" while serving as vice-principal of McGill University, which she described as a very lonely and stressful time. After initially spending her evenings holed up in her office, she wrote of bringing her BlackBerry and reading during evenings out solo.
Each night, the same waiter would bring her "three glasses of crisp Sauvignon Blanc" to accompany her salad and baguette. Soon, she starting picking up another bottle on the way home. And then there was the time she slept through two alarms and missed her boss's ride to the annual executive retreat, having imbibed the night prior.
Still, when Johnston eventually received the "wake-up call" from Nicholas, it would still take another three years to kick the habit. She entered rehab in 2008.
"That's addiction. That's when you know you have a problem," she said. "You start making your deals and say(ing): 'I will only drink on weekend nights. I will only drink white wine.....'
"That's when I began to give myself the monkey stickers to say: 'Well, I can do four nights of drinking and three nights of sobriety — and of course, I couldn't.
"When you say: 'I'm going to start controlling this,' addiction shows you that you actually have no control. I had no control in the end over my drinking. I was blacking out every night which is no way to go to sleep."
Johnston speaks with a host of educators and experts in "Drink," where she also examines the move by corporations to market and tout niche alcoholic products specifically towards female consumers. The book also explores the dangers of the binge drinking phenomenon seen among women with startling accounts of excessive consumption.
"We have a university culture where so much of this behaviour is associated with success, fun, etc. And while we've had such an open dialogue about mental health and depression and stigma around those things, we haven't had an open dialogue around this," said Johnston, co-chair of the National Roundtable on Girls, Women and Alcohol.
The author said she wants to start a recovery movement across Canada in hopes of removing the stigma around alcoholism. And while there isn't a need to be "punitive or pejorative or prohibitionist about alcohol," she believes an open conversation is needed to address several issues: the connection with breast cancer risk, marketing that's targeted at women and the reality that "some of us have genetic predispositions to be in trouble."
"Whether we argue about whether it's a disease or not or an affliction, the issue is that many of us suffer and we get into trouble, and it is a matter of rescuing your life. And it isn't for the faint of heart," said Johnston.
"It's a very difficult thing to turn your life around. I hid for two years. I stayed at home and was deadly serious about getting better before I stepped out into the world again."
Nov. 3 will be a key sobriety milestone for Johnston, which she plans to celebrate with fellow sober friends she calls her "serenity sisters."
"Five years is a big marker for me — touch wood — and it's very precious. It's the foundation of everything that I'm grateful for.
"Nothing would be possible without my sobriety, and many don't succeed. I'm humbled by it."