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Alcohol keeps ‘cagey’ grip on moms

Before her hidden addiction came to light, Joan Bonsignore always seemed to hold it together. As a mother and wife, she headed school events and ran her husband’s medical practice.

But at the height of her alcohol and pill addiction, the Eastchester mother of four wrote goodbye letters to her children, and at one point, thought about killing herself by driving her car into a pole.

“You have a twisted mind. It is a disease of attitudes. It is 90 percent thinking, and 10 percent drinking or drugging,” says Bonsignore, now sober 20 years and the executive director of the Westchester chapter of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.

A suburban mom driving a minivan full of children on a Sunday morning isn’t the image that comes to mind when we think of drunken drivers. But experts say women are drinking more – and many of them in secret – overcome by what Bonsignore calls “a cunning, baffling and cagey disease.”

Diane Schuler’s fatal crash on the Taconic State Parkway has brought attention to women and substance abuse once again. Schuler had about 10 drinks in her system and had smoked marijuana as recently as 15 minutes before the July 26 accident that killed herself, four children and three men in an oncoming sport utility vehicle.

Schuler’s husband, Daniel, and other family members said the 36-year-old Long Island mother and cable executive was never known to drink. His lawyer insists that a medical problem – an abscessed tooth, diabetes, stroke or a pulmonary embolism – might have led the mom to self-medicate herself.

Alcoholism, however, is a medical problem. It is a disease in which genetic, mental health and lifestyle factors converge.

It is a public health problem that is growing among women and often going undiagnosed by health professionals, said Susan Foster lead researcher of “Women Under the Influence,” a 292-page book that analyzes substance abuse among girls and women.

“What’s wrong with us that we can’t pick this up?” said Foster. “Is the stigma of this disease so profound that we don’t intervene in an effective way?”

It takes less alcohol in a short period of time for females to become addicted compared to males, said Foster, who is vice president of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.

Women also drink for different reasons than men do. Women are more likely to say that heavy drinking followed a crisis, such as a miscarriage, divorce or unemployment.

When it comes to alcohol-related fatal car crashes, there was a 13 percent rise in the number of female drivers, compared to a 29 percent drop for male drivers from 1977 to 2000, according to Foster’s studies.

In Westchester County, the number of women arrested for drunken driving is up 2 percent this year.

Another federal study showed that women ages 30 to 44 who reported having at least four drinks per day more than doubled in a 10-year period that ended in 2002.

Too often, women drink in secret, which prevents them from getting professional help before it is too late.

“The classic case is the housewife sitting home and drinking alone,” said Dr. L. Mark Russakoff, director of psychiatry at Phelps Memorial Hospital Center, which runs an inpatient and two outpatient substance abuse treatment programs in Sleepy Hollow, Tarrytown and Ossining.

Dealing with children, aging parents, loneliness and financial stress are among the top triggers he hears from the women in his programs.

“These are very stressful times for everyone, but women have that extra burden of family and making ends meet,” Russakoff said.

Many women who get married and have children adjust to their new roles and adopt healthier habits.

Others do not.

“In the beginning, they are not driving with children in the car, but as alcoholism takes its toll, they start drinking in a wide variety of circumstances,” said William Knack, a Chappaqua psychologist who specializes in families and alcoholism. “By the time someone is driving intoxicated with children in the car, their disease has progressed.”

Bonsignore sought help at the substance abuse council she now directs. The ability to make her own choices has been the most liberating part of sobriety, she said.

“Physical illnesses are horrible, and I’ve had them, but there is nothing worse than alcoholism, because who you are is taken through the drugs you are using,” she said. “You lose yourself to the addiction. You lost who you were created to be.”

source: Journal News

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