Diagnosed as an alcoholic 20 years ago, Yoko Kojima has managed to stay off the bottle, partially through the help of an alcoholics support group, and now works to help women suffering from the same addiction at an all-female alcohol treatment center in Kanagawa Prefecture.
The facility, called Indah, is located in Seya Ward, Yokohama. Opened in January, it is the first treatment center in the prefecture dedicated solely to helping female addicts.
Specialists say more facilities exclusively for women are necessary, as they provide environments where recovering addicts can feel comfortable speaking about their experiences and maintaining the will to stay sober. Despite the rising number of female alcoholics, the nation has few such facilities.
Although men often become alcoholics 20-30 years after they start drinking, women can become addicts within 10 years of their first drink. Women's livers are smaller than men's and therefore less able to break down large amounts of alcohol.
According to a 2008 survey of the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, 83.1 per cent of men and 60.9 per cent of women drink alcohol. For the 20- to 24-year-old age group, the male rate was 83.5 per cent, a decrease from the 2003 survey, while the female rate was 90.4 per cent, topping the men's rate and an increase of about 10 percentage points from 2003.
With the survey showing an increase in the number of women in their early 20s who drink, there is growing concern that more young women are drinking heavily. More care facilities exclusively for female alcoholics are needed.
Kojima, 52, said her father was also an alcoholic and became violent when drunk. Her family environment was rough, and she began using illegal drugs in her teens. She stopped using drugs when she took over the family business and her responsibilities increased, but soon turned to alcohol to relieve her stress. Her alcohol intake gradually increased, and at the age of 32 she was diagnosed as an alcoholic.
Alcoholics can take medicine to suppress their desire to drink, but, unlike most diseases, there is no complete cure for alcoholism. Even after an alcoholic stops drinking, it is a constant, lifelong effort not to go back to the bottle.
Surrounded by media messages that make drinking seem attractive, alcoholics often attend support group meetings to maintain their determination not to drink.
Some time after her diagnosis, Kojima began attending such meetings daily. Six years later, she joined the staff at a care facility for alcoholics in Yokohama. However, she said she felt uncomfortable in meetings where men were present.
"Women often start drinking because of a traumatic relationship with a father, husband or boyfriend," Kojima said. "It's hard for some women to talk openly about these experiences in front of men."
Furthermore, many female alcoholics have been physically abused by male addicts. "Some women were so scared of male alcoholics that they couldn't attend meetings even though they wanted to," Kojima said.
Kojima said she noticed other problems that would crop up in mixed male-female settings at the treatment center.
"Female alcoholics often have a sense of self-denial. They like to care for weak-willed men who have succumbed to drinking, while male alcoholics are attracted to women who like to help others," said Kojima. "These two types frequently fall in love, and sometimes start drinking again together."
Indah is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day. About 20 women registered through medical institutions are able to use it free of charge.
At the 90-minute daily meeting, participants discuss various themes, such as "changing yourself" or "recognizing your addiction." They are encouraged to speak openly about their problems, temptations to drink, and so on.
One of only about 10 such facilities throughout the nation, Indah is currently run by Kojima and another woman, who both work without pay.
They are hoping to raise money to relocate to a more spacious building by the end of this fiscal year, and they also want to obtain financial assistance from the Yokohama municipal government so they can provide support for those looking for work.
"Some female alcoholics experience depression or panic attacks after they stop drinking because they remember the verbal or physical abuse they had suppressed when they were drinking," said Sakae Fujita, a psychiatric social worker at the Kurihama Medical and Addiction Center in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture.
"They are incredibly delicate and require attentive, considerate care. I think facilities exclusively for female addicts will be very effective."