By Kristina Alda, For The Prague Post, October 4th, 2006 issue

Monika Plocová, 40, still remembers the day seven years ago when she finally realized that she had a drinking problem. She was lying on her living room couch in a fetal position, shaking uncontrollably and unable to get up. All she could think about was the bottle of gin she had stashed away in her drawer.

"My marriage was unhappy," she recalls. "My husband was very controlling. And so I drank. I thought it would help my anxiety and depression."

Plocová's story isn't unusual. The ranks of women who suffer from severe alcoholism in the Czech Republic have grown faster than those of men during the past 10 years. The number of women being treated for delirium tremens has more than doubled since the mid-1990s, according to statistics from Prague's Psychiatric Center. The number of men with the condition has risen a third.

Currently, there are close to 200 women in state facilities countrywide being treated for severe alcoholism.

Statistically, Czech men are still the bigger drinkers — there are 830 currently in treatment for severe alcoholism — but experts say women are catching up, a trend that seems to shed some light on the changes in women's lifestyles since the fall of communism in 1989.

"The gap has been shrinking since the early '90s," says Václav Dvořák, head doctor at the addiction treatment center for women at the Bohnice Psychiatric Hospital in Prague 8. "Women are under more stress than ever before, and some try to cope by turning to drink."

At the Bohnice psychiatric hospital, one of the country's largest, the number of women being treated for alcoholism has increased, workers say.

Jan Podlaha is the head doctor at Na Bulovce Hospital's drunk tank, where the intoxicated tend to end up when they start to cause trouble.

Women seldom find themselves at Na Bulovce, he says, because, unlike men, they don't often become violent when drinking. Their problems can remain hidden for years.

Plocová should know. It took her over 10 years to realize she needed help. Now she is a therapist at Bohnice, where she received treatment seven years ago, and she is the author of two books about her experience.

In a lot of ways, it's more difficult to treat alcoholic women, says Dvořák, because it's harder for women to make the conscious decision to stop drinking.

"Women tend to set a whole list of conditions they feel they need to meet before they can stop drinking," he says. "They may say, 'First I need to fix my relationship, and then I will stop.' "

Like many addiction treatment facilities, Bohnice has separate programs for men and women.

Boot camp for alcoholics

It's only 8:30 a.m., but the 32 women in pavilion No. 8 at Bohnice's addiction treatment center have already been up for two hours. Their days are strictly regimented, with almost no free time.

Half are dealing with alcoholism. Other women are battling drug addiction. The treatment for both groups is the same: When they aren't taking part in group therapy, they're making pottery, painting or riding horses.

Stays at Bohnice range from 11 weeks for a basic treatment program to three months for more serious cases. Czech health insurance covers treatments, the most basic of which costs 1,000 Kč ($44.74) a day.

Many of the younger patients (the youngest is 16) are dealing with drug addiction, whereas older patients tend to be alcoholics.

One recent morning, 11 patients gather in a circle. Some tell their stories.

A petite 30-year-old with dyed red hair talks for more than an hour about the monikaplocova_czs of her alcoholism. She started drinking in high school, and by the time she went to university and got a job at a bar, drinking became an essential part of her life. In her lowest moments, she spent the day lounging on the couch at home, drinking vodka. She says her drinking probably has something to do with her very strict upbringing and her parents' high expectations of her.

Another woman, slightly older, blames her drinking on her lack of confidence. "It's always this fear that drives me to it," she says. "Sometimes I blame the experts who are supposed to help me but can't."

Plocová goes around the room asking the women who the most important people in their lives are. Most answer "my children" or "my family."

One woman, in her 50s, shakes her head in disagreement.

"I've realized here that I'm the most important person in my life," she says. "If I can't like myself, then I can't properly care for others, either."

Society of tolerance

More than anything else, doctors say the rise in severely alcoholic women has to do with the social changes ushered in with the Velvet Revolution.

"The shift in the '90s brought so many new responsibilities, and some people found it difficult to cope," Dvořák says. "Under the communist regime, you could always find a way to blame personal failure on the system. That's no longer possible."

Many women who turn to alcohol are professionals: economists, lawyers, managers. The gap between their expectations and their actual situation has driven them to drinking, says Podlaha of Na Bulovce.

"Dealing with the discrepancy between your dreams and your reality can be very difficult," he says.

The 1990s didn't suddenly cause female alcoholics to materialize out of nowhere. The monikaplocova_czs of the problem were already in place, doctors say. "Czech society has always been very tolerant toward alcohol," says Dvořák.

Indeed, until recently, Czechs were the No. 1 beer drinkers in the world in terms of liters consumed per person. They have since slipped down to No. 2, behind Belgium, but a laissez faire attitude to drinking remains. "In this country, if you abstain, you will be the odd one out," Dvořák says. "Other people will just think you're weird."


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