Interview with Ann Dowsett Johnston, author of “Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol”

by Caren on October 30, 2013

Ann Dowsett JohnstonFrom time to time, we post short interviews with interesting people about their thoughts and feelings on women and drinking. There is such a wide array of perspectives about this topic, and we are excited to gain insight into as many as possible and to share them with you.

Ann Dowsett Johnston is the author of the bestselling new book DRINK: THE INTIMATE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN WOMEN AND ALCOHOL. Winner of five gold National Magazine Awards, she is a seasoned journalist and former vice-principal of McGill University. She lives in Toronto, Canada.

Drinking Diaries: How old were you when you had your first drink and what was it?
Ann Dowsett Johnston: I was 16, in Paris, and it was a gin and tonic.

How did/does your family treat drinking?
My mother was a classic 60s alcoholic, a stay-at-home mum mixing Valium with cocktails. Her drinking cast a pall on the whole household, and it was devastating to watch her decline. In retirement, my father joined her, and died of the disease.

How do you approach alcohol in your every day life?
With my new book, Drink, I talk about it constantly—but I am in recovery and have been for the past five years. I welcome it when friends and family  drink around me—I want others to be comfortable and I am very clear on my own inability to drink.

If you have kids, how is the subject of drinking handled? Do you drink in front of them? With them?
My drinking escalated after my son left for university, and I fell into a deep depression. He called me on my drinking, and we had some very frank conversations about my need to quit. In return, I am frank with him about the risks he may have inherited.

Have you ever had a phase in your life when you drank more or less?
I drank the most when I moved to Montreal and fell into a deep depression. I was utterly alone in the city, without friends, busy at a big job as vice-principal of McGIll University. It was a perfect storm of misery and loneliness.

What’s your drink of choice? Why?
When I drank, I loved a chilled glass of white wine. Crisp, tart, simple. Now, I love a mocktail of pear and ginger. Unknown

Can you tell us about the best time you ever had drinking?
In love, in the moonlight, sipping Irish whiskey with my lover Jake, watching the night sky and the ocean in the Bahamas.

What about the worst time?
Near the very end of my drinking: a gala event, where I drank too much and ended the evening with an intervention. My son and my closest friend confronted me about going to treatment.

Has drinking ever affected—either negatively or positively—a relationship of yours?
It compromised my close relationship with my son, and threatened my relationship with my sister.

Has culture or religion influenced your drinking?
I loved the glamour of champagne at a gala or a celebration. Yes, I was heavily influenced by books—Hemingway, Fitzgerald—when I was younger.

Do you have a favorite book, song, or movie about drinking?
Movie? Two for the Road—Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney, drinking and eating in bed. I saw this when I was a young teenager and impressionable.
Book? Drinking: A Love Story by the late Caroline Knapp, for its honesty. I toted it around for years when I was wrestling with my drinking problems. And mine: it has my heart and soul in it.

What do you like most about drinking?
The curling of my toes—the general sense of well-being that it produced. The unhitching of my shoulders from my earlobes after a long day at work. The first sip, the second glass, fine wine with dinner and a great Scotch. I loved everything about it: the camaraderie, the romance, all of it—and then it was over. Five years ago, I was forced to give it up: I had become an alcoholic.

Why do, or don’t you, choose to drink?
Very simple: I cannot stop when I choose to. One is not enough for me. Therefore, I choose to see it like a peanut allergy: if I drink, I might die.

How has alcoholism affected your life?
It stole my chidhood, my mother and eventually my father. It stole me. And now, it has given me a great group of friends: in a room of sober alcoholics, I have found the greatest company.

If you could be any drink, what would it be? Why?
Pale blond champagne: “a slim stem of liquid swagger,” as I call it in my book. Effervescent, full of life.