Connie is an alcoholic. She knows a lot of other women who drink too much, too.
They are doctors, college professors, teachers, ministers and ministers' wives, even suburban moms "who put the children on the bus in the morning, drink a bottle of wine and pass out, and then wake up and go get the kids."
Sober for almost two years, Connie this fall started organizing weekly meetings of a group called Women for Sobriety (WFS) in Minneapolis' western suburbs. So far, only a few women have attended. But she is convinced there are other women in the area who need help -- especially at Christmas, when the parties, emotions and memories connected to a favorite holiday can drive excessive drinking.
"What I learned in this program is that I control me," said Connie, who asked that her last name not be used, following the practice observed at meetings of WFS, Alcoholics Anonymous and similar groups. "No one else can make me happy, no one else can make me sad. ... WFS is all about taking responsibility for your own actions."
Five WFS groups meet in the Twin Cities area, including one in St. Paul that was started in 1978, just three years after Women for Sobriety was founded in Pennsylvania. The group was organized as an alternative to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), with which some women are uncomfortable because of its focus on powerlessness over alcohol or drugs.
While that's an important concept for men to understand, some women say what they need to recover is a focus on how to take care of themselves, how to seek support from others, and how to take control of their lives. That, they say, is what Women for Sobriety provides.
Jill Corsner, who moderates one of the WFS groups that meets in St. Paul, has been sober for 16 years and said AA played a key role in her recovery. But it's WFS that she's stayed with.
"AA saved my life, but WFS taught me how to live it," she said. "In AA, you raise your hand and say, 'I am Jill, and I'm an alcoholic.' But you don't give advice. Here, we ask for input. We talk about our problems.
"It was just so cool. I felt like I was at home."
"Typical woman drinker"
Connie says she was a "typical woman drinker." With two college degrees, she is married and built a successful career in a technical field, rising into management. She quit her job in the 1990s, when she was in her 40s.
At the same time she stopped working, some relationships that were important to her soured.
"All of a sudden I was not working, and I lost my sense of purpose," she said.
"I started isolating myself. I was very unhappy, full of resentment. I didn't like the person I was becoming."
She never drank during the day. But instead of having one glass of liquor when she and her husband shared a nightcap at the end of the day, she had four or five glasses of Scotch.
"Things just start to kind of accumulate, and the next thing you know, you're not drinking the way most people drink," Connie said.
At parties, she was ready for a second drink when friends weren't done with their first. The preoccupation with alcohol -- how can I get another drink and not have anyone notice? -- spoiled the fun, and she began staying at home.
"You feel alone," she said. "You become more depressed, more full of shame and guilt, and you think you can moderate. But I believe alcohol is a physical addiction. It's not a matter of willpower."
Connie stumbled across WFS after reading a 2007 Star Tribune story on New Year's resolutions that mentioned a book called "Sober for Good." She bought the book on New Year's Eve and read the entire volume on New Year's Day, then went to the WFS website for more information.
Self-conscious about her drinking but determined to set a date to quit, she chose Ash Wednesday so she could tell friends she was giving up alcohol for Lent. "It gave me an excuse," she said.
She has been sober ever since.
"I am not powerless"
WFS meetings have a structure, beginning with the reading of 13 statements that guide the group. The first acknowledges a life-threatening problem with alcohol or drugs; the others emphasize competence, moving on from the past and taking responsibility for what happens in life.
"It's all about ... knowing that I am not powerless," Connie said.
Approaching another anniversary of sobriety, she has gotten through all of the firsts without drinking -- birthdays, neighborhood parties, graduations, Christmases, Fourths of July. She learned to plan ahead, sometimes bringing her own beverages, and she discovered she often had more fun at gatherings without alcohol.
She has told a few close friends about her drinking problem.
"People I know are surprised," she said. "They say, 'You don't look like a woman alcoholic!'
"I say, 'What do you think we look like?'"
Connie logs onto the WFS website each day, chatting online with friends in places such as Australia and Ireland. She has met some of her cyber friends when she has traveled around the country and plans to meet European members when she takes a trip next year.
She said she is happy. Her husband still has an occasional drink. In recent months, she said, "I don't even notice."
"I just have today," she said. "I don't look beyond that. I've seen women with eight years of sobriety go off board [from Web discussion groups] for a day, and you know what's going on. But I can call somebody. You get to know people. It doesn't matter if someone is 25 or 60. There's an instant connection."
To find the WFS group that meets in the western suburbs or another group, call 651-224-0328 or send an e-mail from the "contact us" page on the WFS website at www.womenforsobriety.org.
Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380