Jenny Valentish doesn’t like labels. But if there’s one word she will ascribe to her history with childhood trauma and drug abuse, it’s “archetypal”.
“My story is fairly representative of women who have severe problems,” she says when we meet at her Sydney hotel in May. “It ticks boxes actually: sexual abuse, sexual assault, promiscuity, self-medication. It’s got everything, really.”
Valentish, 42, was born and raised in Slough, England – the same dreary industrial town immortalised in The Office, and a brutal poem by John Betjeman that calls on it to be bombed.
But her memories of childhood are clouded for another reason: when she was seven, a high school boy five years her senior began [raping her].
Too young to fully understand what was happening, she felt somehow complicit, and when she finally told her mother she underplayed the details. The boy – dismissed as merely a pest – returned throughout the summer. It would be 15 years until Valentish was able to sleep well again and decades until her parents found out exactly who they’d been inviting back to the house. To this day she has an “indescribable fear” of being touched on her hips.
“It was fairly pedestrian abuse when set against some of the stories I’ve heard,” she writes in her new book Woman of Substances, “but it set off a catastrophic chain reaction all the same.”
Valentish tells her story with brutal honesty and dark, wry wit – but the memoir is made more urgent by the research woven through it. It’s a startling and thorough investigation into the relationship between gender, trauma and addiction, and the women who fall through the gaps – with the writer offering herself up as the case study.
Valentish started drinking heavily when she was 13. She had blackout sex through her teens, swapped sex for drugs at 17, and spent most of her 20s abusing speed and harder drugs, and chasing dopamine in other ways – from kleptomania to eating disorders to compulsive sexual behaviour. She was working in the drug-fuelled music industry, as a publicist and a music journalist, and would often sneak out of the office in the morning to throw back drinks, speed or both at once, alone. Deprived of a normal childhood, she’d never learned to socialise while sober. “I needed at least three drinks in me before I could sit still,” she says.
As she tells her story, Valentish identifies a series of shortcomings of the medical and addiction treatment industries which have failed to understand and communicate how substance abuse affects women. “I had no idea that this was the case when I started writing,” she says. “I was just going to write about the female experience [of addiction] – there was going to be no call to arms.”
But the more she spoke to researchers, social workers, addicts and specialists, the clearer the paucity of data became. Although the drinking rate among men and women are actually about equal, and the pathways that lead women into drug abuse are heavily gendered, drug and alcohol research remains biased towards men.
“Nobody wants to use women in any kind of research. Not just about medications, but any kind,” she says. “You should be splitting up the data depending on where [women] are in their menstrual cycle, week one to four – and nobody wants to do that, because nobody’s got the money … Every argument ever comes down to funding, doesn’t it?”
For any woman who drinks or takes drugs, Woman of Substances makes for a frightening read. How many of us know that alcohol raises oestrogen levels, explaining why two beers can knock us out one week and slide right through the next? How many doctors tell women that each glass of wine they consume significantly increases their risk of breast cancer – along with polycystic ovaries, fibroadenomas, anxiety, sleep issues and memory loss?
“I couldn’t find this information anywhere either,” Valentish says. “That’s one of the reasons I wanted to write the book.”
There are other gaps too. While substance abuse is often linked to childhood trauma, women are more likely to be pathologised and treated for mental health disorders than to receive trauma-focused care. While women with severe eating disorders also often have substance issues, there are few clinics that will treat both at once. And while Alcoholics Anonymous – which was originally designed for men – focuses heavily on the idea of handing yourself over to a “higher power”, in Valentish’s experience what women need at that point is autonomy. “There’s a lot of catching up to do in the industry,” she says.
I think this paragraph is particularly interesting:
Some chapters ground her down so much she would end up writing through tears. Suddenly, all the coping mechanisms she used to fall back on came into play; the dopamine releases of smoking, Candy Crush, spending sprees and porn. “You can’t think about anything else if you’re watching porn,” she says. “So much porn was watched during the writing of this book. PornHub should give me some money.”
Women binging on porn to numb their emotions and block out the memories of abuse is not empowered, sexually liberated, or ‘sex positive’ in any meaningful way, and it raises questions about how many other women (and men) are consuming porn in this way.