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A 5 p.m. drink can cause worry as well as ease it


IT'S 5 O'CLOCK, the witching hour for mothers. Do you know where your corkscrew is?

If a woman is at home, she is about to start dinner and the kids choose exactly that moment to press all her buttons. If she is walking in the door from work, she must make the transition to home life without taking a breath.

A drink can be the elevator down. It is a way to relieve the pressure, to quiet the anxieties, to take the edge off. A way to not mind so much.

A woman may have only one drink. And she may have it only at that one chaotic time of day. But she probably fears it, because she fears that it might mean she is an alcoholic, and all of us have been touched in some way by alcoholism.

"I think about it all the time, and I joke about it all the time," says a friend.

"I always call my girlfriend on the phone and tell her to open a beer," says another friend. "Then I won't be drinking alone."

We watch for signs - such as drinking alone - that alcohol has become a problem. We don't see any real problems, but we can't relax. We know alcoholics never see the problems, and so we keep worrying.

"If you have a problem with how much you are drinking, then you have a drinking problem," goes the old saw. We do. So, do we?

Probably not, says Dr. Betsy McCaul, associate professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University and director of the Comprehensive Women's Center, which treats women with addictive disorders.

"It is a habit. That drink has become a habit. Is that an addiction? Probably not,"

McCaul says. "Is it something to pay attention to? Yes. We need to pay attention to how that habit is changing."

Coming home from work, changing clothes, starting to prepare dinner. All may be signals for a woman to pour herself a drink. "There is nothing mysterious about this. Alcohol feels good, and there are all these cues that now is the time to do it," says McCaul.

The guilty attention a woman pays to her drinking is not necessarily a bad thing, either. It will help her notice if the pattern is changing. Is she drinking more than one? More often? Earlier?

"Self-monitoring is a great first step to understanding what the level of drinking is," says McCaul. "Am I really having one? Or is it three?"

It's just like a diet. The simple exercise of writing down everything you eat often helps you eat less. If it doesn't help you drink less, it might be time to see someone.

That doesn't mean Alcoholics Anonymous. A woman who does not have a severe problem will not identify with the horror stories shared in those meetings and will likely conclude that she does not have a problem.

But if she decides to talk to a therapist and she has other issues, too, she must be candid about her alcohol use, because women are more likely to be medicated for anxiety or depression. "And if she is drinking, that combination is a major problem," says McCaul.

Women are right to worry about that 5 o'clock glass of wine. They are more vulnerable than men to the physiological consequences of alcohol. If they are separated or divorced or widowed, they are at risk. They have the genetic risks of alcoholism that science once thought only the province of men, and are more vulnerable to depression and anxiety. The interplay between those disorders and their medications and alcohol is scary.

"We forget that alcohol is a drug," says McCaul. "We think of it as part of our daily diet. For people who drink small amounts, it has a nice effect.

"But it is not something that should control you. You can take control of it."

Pub Date: 12/27/98

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