One night, Julie Kroll, a thirty-nine year old mother, stumbles away from a minor car accident, leaving behind her eight-year old daughter… and an open container of alcohol. As darkness descends, she disappears.
Julie’s story is the centerpiece of a new documentary, Lipstick & Liquor, about suburban women battling alcohol addiction. The film will have its Los Angeles premiere today at 3pm during the REEL Recovery Film Festival at the Laemmle Monica4-Plex in Santa Monica.
We caught up with the film’s Emmy award-winning director, Lori Butterfield, to ask her some questions about this groundbreaking documentary.
Drinking Diaries: What drew you to the subject of women and drinking?
Lori Butterfield: My interest in raising awareness about women’s alcohol abuse and alcoholism began with the story of Diane Schuler. In the summer of 2009, Diane made headlines after killing eight people, including herself, while driving the wrong way on the Taconic Parkway in Westchester County, New York. Toxicology reports revealed she was both drunk and stoned, but her family vehemently denied that Diane had a problem. How could someone hide their alcoholism so well that their own family had no idea?
In November of that year, I was working on a production project with the Ad Council about Buzzed Driving and read a startling statistic –the number of DUI arrests for women had shot up more than 30 % in the last decade while the rate for men was going down. Binge drinking for women was also on the rise. Something was clearly happening in our society, but I hadn’t yet connected the dots.
I didn’t know Julie Kroll, who is our main subject in Lipstick & Liquor. I read about her death in the Washington Post in late December 2009. The article took up two nondescript columns in the Metro section and no photo was attached. Yet her story struck me on a deep, emotional level. As I read about this sad and senseless tragedy, I knew something profoundly larger was at play in our culture. There seems to be a double standard for women and an even higher standard for mothers who can’t control their drinking. The judgment and hostility towards women who drink create a terrible stigma that keeps many of them from seeking treatment and recovery. This is what compelled me to make this film.
Did making the film change your own attitude towards drinking?
Yes, the making of the film has definitely made me more aware of my drinking habits and those of others. Alcohol seems to get a pass in society as far as being more socially acceptable than say, prescription drugs or illegal drugs, but I think many women aren’t aware of what it means to overdrink and how harmful alcohol can be.
I am now very aware of what I call “cocktail creep,” which is something I see happening at social functions. The conversation and drinks start flowing and we lose track of how many drinks we’ve had. I always considered myself a moderate, social drinker but binge drinking is clearly on the rise, especially among women. I think it’s critical to get accurate information out about what moderate drinking actually means (1 drink a day for women and no more than 7 drinks per week.)
What did you learn over the course of making the movie that you didn’t already know? Was there something that surprised you or shattered your preconceived notions?
Before Lipstick & Liquor, I can truthfully admit, I was someone who had a tendency to silently judge women who couldn’t control their drinking, especially mothers. How could they endanger their children? Why can’t they stop drinking? Don’t they know better? I’m a mother and I drink responsibly, so it was hard for me to understand. But through the making of the film, after meeting women in recovery and talking to experts, I now have a much better understanding of alcoholism and what is at stake for those who struggle with the disease.
Julie’s friends and family say (in the documentary) that what Julie did was wrong and there was no excuse for it. But judgment and condemnation are not the answer. Women need understanding and support so they can get sober and find recovery. The stigma is what causes many mothers to feel shame, to hide the true extent of their drinking, and to refuse seeking treatment. One fact I learned through the making of the film: according to the NIAAA, women are 12 times more likely to resist seeking treatment than men.
How is women’s drinking different from men’s?
In the last 50 years, women’s roles have changes tremendously. As more women have moved into the workforce, they have more access to money, power, status, opportunity and financial freedom as never before in history. Lipstick & Liquor focuses on the emotional and psychological issues that seem to impact many women today, from the intense pressures of modern life (pressure cooker jobs, marriages, children, caring for aging parents) combined with a relentless perfectionism that we bring upon ourselves. The women in the film all said they suffered trying to be the perfect wife, the perfect mother, the perfect daughter, the perfect employee.
I think because alcohol is so socially acceptable and readily available, it’s an easy option for women who are feeling stress or going through a difficult time, to reach for a drink to cope or to relieve boredom. At first, alcohol works, but for some women, drinking leads to alcohol abuse or worse, and the impact can be devastating. Alcoholism is a progressive disease. There’s evidence that they become addicted faster than men and suffer alcohol-related diseases sooner than men. According to the CDC, alcoholism is the third leading cause of preventable death among women between the ages of 35 and 55.
How did their husbands/partners/children deal with their drinking?
Because the topic is so broad and so complex, I chose to focus more on the women rather than partners or children. However, Julie’s husband, Jerry, is featured prominently in Lipstick & Liquor and his love and devotion are so clearly evident throughout the 13-day desperate search by her family and friends to find her. Despite the fact that he did everything he could to get Julie the help she needed for recovery, in the end, her alcoholism was too powerful to overcome and the disease killed her. Jerry is a real hero in my mind.
How did the women function in their every day lives? For how long did they function? Did anyone around them notice or tell them they had a problem?
With all the women we profiled, it was amazing to see how much effort they put into covering up their drinking and denying there was a problem. That’s why Lipstick & Liquor is about “secrets in the suburbs.” Women often become “kitchen drinkers”–they hide the true extent of their drinking in the isolation of their homes. That’s one of the hallmarks of this disease. It plays tricks with your mind and magnifies our abilities to rationalize our behavior.
Mary is one of the women we profiled in the film who talks about sitting in a Taco Bell parking lot having a vodka screwdriver before she went home, just knowing that she didn’t want to go home without some sort of alcohol in her.
Dr. Anita Gadhia-Smith is a psychotherapist and author featured in the film and she has a great quote. She says many women feel shame when they drink. “There is a difference between shame and guilt. Guilt is about something that you did. Shame is about who you are and I think for women, there is a setup to feel shame when you are an alcoholic.”
What’s the best piece of wisdom you received from these women’s stories?
Through the making of Lipstick & Liquor I’ve learned that a woman’s greatest gift may be the very thing that will save her from a life of alcoholism, pain and suffering. By nature, we are drawn to communicate and connect with each other and it’s the power of this sisterhood that I hope to share with others. Women need to understand they are not alone, there is hope, there is treatment and that ongoing support, compassion and understanding through friendships with other women is what can provide the best hope for sustained recovery and sobriety.
Here’s what I learned from the women who were profiled: Most alcoholics know that they are alcoholic long before they share that information with anyone else or anyone else finds out and they have a deep sense of self loathing and self hatred that stays with them all the time. And, the only thing that relieves that sense of self-loathing is more alcohol.
Alcoholics are under the impression that they should never be uncomfortable. And that’s just not the case. In order to experience the joy and the beauty of life, they also have to experience the pain and the suffering. But going through all of it will bring women to the full experience of humanity and that’s really what living sober is all about.
What do you think is the secret of women who get and stay sober? Did these women share their secrets with you?
Hayley, one of the women we profiled, talks about staying sober in the most poetic and powerful way. “It’s joy that you can’t even put into words. The fact that I show up for people, I’m a great friend, I’m a really good mom, I know how to communicate, I know how to set boundaries, I know how to take care of myself, that all comes from loving myself and that all comes from being sober.”
“To any woman out there who is struggling with this disease, just give it a shot, like call someone right now and reach out and just let them know because the shame in continuing what you’re doing but the real joy and real win in this is when you can finally let it down, get that crap off your body and just start to live… I was living in a prison and I know that women out there can relate to that because you are literally living in your own prison and you are so scared to step out of that box… They talk about a comfort zone, it’s very comfortable staying in your disease because it’s what you know. But, once you change that and shift it and come out of it, you’re a butterfly, you know, it’s fantastic.”
Whose story inspired or affected you the most?
The women featured in Lipstick who are sober now are absolutely remarkable. Emily, Hayley, Jodie and Mary were so open and honest about their struggles with alcoholism and their recoveries and I deeply admire them for their courage. They are amazing role models. Emily writes a blog (Emilyism.com) that serves as an online community for sober women and Hayley has launched a successful clothing and accessory line called “Sober is Sexy.” Jodie has more than 25 years of sobriety and has helped scores of other women over the years stay sober. Mary is part of a group of women working to organize a major rally for recovery in Washington next year.
Of course, Julie’s story affected me the most because she was the one who didn’t get the chance to experience sustained recovery and to live a long and happy life. I think often about her beautiful daughter, her husband, Jerry and her family and friends. It’s a terrible tragedy that shouldn’t happen to anyone.
It’s my hope that Lipstick & Liquor will help to shed the stigma surrounding women who drink and change the conversation with families, friends, and the medial community. We need to understand that alcohol dependence is a disease that if left untreated, can kill you. My hope is that this documentary will inspire this new conversation and help women find support and treatment.
Lori Butterfield spent more than a decade creating documentaries and television programs at National Geographic Television & Film and at Discovery Networks (including Discovery, Animal Planet, Travel Channel, Military Channel and Discovery Science). She won an Emmy for her work at National Geographic. Currently, She works at Home Front Communications in downtown DC, producing video content for a range of non-broadcast clients on multi-platforms.