Oh Patsy

Oh PatsyLast week one of our National Treasures, Joanna Lumley, gave advice to young women.  “Don’t look like trash.  Don’t get drunk.  Don’t be sick down your front.  Don’t break your heels and stagger about in the wrong clothes at midnight.  This is bad”.  Even the Daily Mail, not normally known for its feminist stance, was outraged. See article.

Joanna Lumley has achieved fame in many ways – as a model in the 1960s, as Purdy in the New Avengers in the 1970s (I adored her so much I had the haircut),as a spokesman for the Gurkhas, but most notably, and probably most lucratively, as Patsy in Ab Fab.

So, how do women feel about taking this sort of advice from a woman who has made her fortune from portraying drunkenness for laughs?  And does Joanna understand that many factors may come into play when a young  woman goes out and gets drunk? Does she understand that by using the word “trash” she is joining ranks of (usually male) judges whose response to a woman being attacked when out for the night is that she asked for it?  I had believed that thinking people had long ago ditched the idea that how you dress and what you drink means you are somehow complicit when someone attacks you.

The message I think she was trying to get across is that women may become vulnerable when they are intoxicated, and that’s a message I would agree with.  She says “this is bad”, but her words put the emphasis on the woman’s behaviour, whereas the thing that is really bad is the taking advantage of the woman.  What a shame she missed the opportunity to make that point.   Joanna, people listen to you.  Please think about that next time.

On resilience….

booksContinuing thoughts of how resilient many women with alcohol problems are, I turned last night again to one of my favourite books, The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, by Roddy Doyle.  It’s hard to believe it’s written by a man, because the heroine Paula Spencer is drawn from a perspective which feels totally and utterly female.  It’s the story of a woman in an abusive relationship who is an alcoholic, and her struggle to find her dignity.  It’s written with warmth and compassion, and humour – an essential component not only for Paula Spencer, but also for many of the women I meet in my research.  Many of them have lives like Paula Spencer.

If you haven’t read it, give it a go.  The idea of a novel about a battered woman with a drink problem may not appeal, but you won’t regret it.  You may even find it uplifting.   And if you have read it, let me know what you thought.


It’s academic……..

ProfI spent Thursday at the Institute of Psychiatry at an academic conference celebrating and commemorating the life of a man called Griffith Edwards, who died recently aged 83.  To anyone outside the field of addiction research, this won’t be a name which rings any bells, but he was as important to academics in drug and alcohol research as Crick and Watson were to the world of genetics.  People had flown in from all over the world to give presentations on different addictive drugs, legal and illegal, to discuss clinical findings and to make policy recommendations.  My research speciality is Women and Alcohol, and conferences like this are incredibly helpful in that I can catch up with what is going on across the whole field.

I was fortunate enough to be taught by Griff, and it’s fair to say he had a brain the size of a large planet.  However, despite all of his academic achievements, the things that stood out most for me were his respect for the patients themselves, and his belief that friendship was as important as scholarship.  I heard today that he once said that “respect, fellowship and a roof over one’s head could lead to miraculous results” in treating addiction.

I wondered how these basic qualities apply to women who drink too much.  Respect for these women is notable by its absence, in fact society has quite the opposite of respect for women with alcohol problems.  Fellowship also is missing for these women – because of the stigma and shame attached to drinking problems in women, many hide their drinking, and become more and more isolated from the friendship they desperately need if they are to get their lives back.

I remember Griff talking about the resilience of his patients, and how much he admired their bravery.  He gave us a case study of a woman who kept quitting and relapsing.  Her family and friends gave up on her, but she didn’t give up on herself.  Every time she went back to drinking, she tried to quit again.  Griff didn’t see her as a hopeless case, he saw her as a strong woman who battled time after time against her addiction.

I wish there were more like him.

The least popular person at the party

At a dinner recently, someone asked me what I did.  It’s a difficult question for me, because I’m never quite sure how people will react.  When I tell people I research alcohol problems at the Institute of Psychiatry people firstly assume I’m a psychiatrist (I’m not), and secondly think I will observe their drinking and how it affects them (I don’t).  Some people withdraw from me completely, others ask questions, and others tell me their views.  This gentleman fell into the latter category.

“Well alcoholism’s a disease, isn’t it”.  Well, er, no, actually.  That may be part of the story, but it’s not the whole story. Many people deal with their alcohol problems on their own, without ever going anywhere near a doctor, hospital or treatment centre.
“Well these people have weak personalities, don’t they”.  Well, er, no, actually.  Some of the strongest, most resilient people I know have problems with alcohol.

“Well it’s just a matter of drinking sensibly”.  Well, er, no, actually.  Not for some people, who are born with a mixture of genes which makes them more vulnerable to all sorts of addiction problems, not just alcohol.

Alcohol brings out happiness and sadness. It energises people them, and makes them sleepy.  It can bring out one person’s anger, and another one’s tears.  And just as alcohol’s effects on people are so varied, so are the reasons why some people drink too much and others don’t.  Particularly interesting for me is why women drink, and what society says about women who drink.  It’s not that I think that men aren’t interesting, indeed I do, and I even married one.  But women’s drinking is less understood, more stigmatized, and often hidden. That’s why I want to try and bring some of the facts out in the open.

So this blog is in response to that gentleman, but it’s also for those who want to understand a little about why they, or their friends and family, like to drink, and why for some people it goes wrong. I don’t know how much justice I can do to such a enormous topic in this blog, but I’ll give it my best shot.  Please check in from time to time, and if there’s anything you want to ask, or a topic you would like me to write about, tell me.  Even if I don’t immediately know the answers, I’ll find out.  After all, that’s my job.

Welcome to my Blog


My name is Sally Marlow and I’m an Addiction Researcher at King’s College London.  I started this blog to communicate the science, psychology and culture underlying addiction problems, and to put right some of the misinformation out there about addiction and people with addiction problems.  All views expressed here are my own.

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