It might seem inappropriate to describe a book titled Woman of Substances – A journey into Addiction and Treatment as hugely entertaining, but there it is.
Gen X journalist, Jenny Valentish’s account of her drug and alcohol dependency — from her early teens, through her wild child rock journo years and on to her shaky release from addiction about two decades later – is a witty and gripping first-person narrative.
Describing her teenage years living in her native Britain with her brother, mum and globe-trotting excecutive dad, she writes of her father: “I imagined him to be an international playboy. When not in a suit he got about in tighty-tight shorts, tennis socks and shirts that were always falling open. He wore a large signet ring on his pinkie. No wedding ring, because it got in the way. Of the signet ring”.
So, no-holds barred then. And Valentish certainly does not spare herself in this book which could have simply been another well-written addiction memoir.
She moves beyond the personal — the drinks and the drugs, the band rooms and the conquests, the shaming and the nick names (‘Junkie Jen’, ‘Nicotina Staines’) — to use her own experiences to seek answers from health and addiction experts from around Australia (where she moved in 2006).
Vanlentish’s life story determines her train of inquiry. Statistics, information and medical opinion on women’s addiction are corralled into a loose narrative with breezy chapter headings such as: “Baby Misogynist: hitching identity to drink, drugs and men” and “Pretty Intense: Promsiscuity, borderline personality disrorder and other labels that only come in pink.”
“Apparently it’s a man’s world; we just drink in it,” is one of Valentish’s aphorisms.
Valentish tells Daily Review that she sought answers about her own addiction, and, after completing a course at Turning Point/Monash University into drug and alcohol use she realised she could apply her journalist’s skills to write an informative book for women with addictions – a curiously little covered topic outside of medical studies.
“The pathways for addiction for addiction for men and women are very different,” she says, citing how women are more likely to be victims of sexual and other assaults when addicted, and how alcohol in particular has differing effects on male and female physiology.
Her first taste of alcohol was at age 13 at home in Slough outside London. and from her description it sounds as if she was predisposed to become addicted.
“The idea of it was intoxicating. It was like jumping off a cliff. I loved the obnoxious taste,”‘ she says of her first gulp of the “malty dark spirits” she had unlocked from the drinks cabinet and poured into a tumbler. Pretty soon she was drinking every day after school.
But Valentish doesn’t believe people are ‘born’ addicts, but rather a combination of nature and environment determines its emergence. “I see addiction as a mental health issue. There are various things that can make you more vulnerable such as anxiety and impulsivity and mental health issues you’ve inherited.”
In the book she looks at how women’s childhood trauma and self-destructive behaviours — eating disorders, compulsive buying and high-risk sex among them – and reports back from experts on how these can be linked with addiction.
She writes that since 1981 women have begun to drink at higher rates than men. ‘After-work drinking’ has become more of a problem for women than binge drinking. She notes that it’s the Gen-Xers who grew up in an era when alcopops and wine coolers were first marketed and when the ‘ladette’ phenomenon was named and shamed in popular culture.
But at the core of Valentish’s own fall into addiction is her place in her family back in Slough.
She writes: “As I saw it, the women in our family were second class citizens: literally, if you count the time Dad flew business and left Mum in economy”. She links this inferior status to her attraction to alcohol. “Apparently it’s a man’s world; we just drink in it,” is one of her aphorisms.
“I associated alcohol with the winning team; it represented freedom.” she also writes. “Alcohol helped me, by lowering my inhibitions enough to raise my confidence…if you convince yourself that alcohol makes your brave or aggressive, you will also convince yourself that it will be the next swig…no, the next …no, the next, that will make you precisely confident enough” and “Formulating my narcotic persona became a single minded pursuit”.
This book may find itself stocked under the self-help section of a bookstore as it does contain practical advice courtesy of Valentish’s experiences and research into how to recover from addiction – a process on which she doesn’t gild the lily.
She describes the “honeymoon period” of sobriety before one enters a dark period which she says is like revisiting puberty. “I got spotty, I lost weight, I smelt really weird because of all toxins you lose.” And she also describes how sobriety requires vigilance, but is never guaranteed.
Although she’s been sober for about eight years, that period includes three weeks when she wasn’t. “And it’ll probably happen again,” she says.
Jenny Valentish Author Talks
Tuesday 27 June
6.15pm The Wheeler Centre
‘The Big Dry: Alcohol and Us;
Jenny Valentish, Jill Stark, Chris Raine
Host: Jacinta Parsons
Wednesday 28 June
6.30pm Readings Carlton
Jenny Valentish and Brigid Delany talk addiction and wellness
Lygon Street, Carlton
You can buy Woman of Substances here