Jenny Valentish wrote a book called Woman of Substances - a must read for every woman who has ever picked up a drink or used a drug.

Jenny Valentish

Jenny Valentish is a world-class music writer and critic, an author, a music media and public relations expert, is generally one cool cat, and also extremely freaking intelligent. Earlier this year, she released a brand new book called Woman of Substances to explore the relationship between women and substances. Jenny has brilliantly used her own life and experiences of substance use to colourfully illustrate the countless hours of research she has conducted with professors and practitioners about the impact of drugs and alcohol on women. Her life and candour is so fascinating and compelling, it is easy to get caught up in Jenny's life story, and indeed much of the press about Woman of Substances has settled for her personal anecdotes and experiences. It has been foolish for journalists and reviewers to limit their assessment and critique of this book to Jenny's colourful life, because Woman of Substances is a must read for any woman who has ever picked up a drink or used a drug. The research and science illuminates the uniquely female  experience in relationship to substances, why and how addiction occurs, and is filled with strategies to combat the self sabotage many women undertake - knowingly and sometimes unknowingly. If you have ever used nicotine, crack, picked up a glass of wine, taken MDMA - whatever -  this book is for you. It is not to be read once, but should be used as a reference tool for every woman at every stage of life. 

Jenny and the editor of Music Love Julie Kerr had a three week long What's App conversation about Woman of Substances talking about how substances affect women in the music industry, sex hormones, relationships, babies in utero, anxiety and more. With podcast, book and science journal recommendations all linked below, this conversation with Jenny Valentish is a must read. 

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Almost all of the press went for the personal angle, which was disappointing because it made it seem as though I had written “misery lit” - you know, the books you get at airports with titles like Daddy Sold Me For a Pack of Smokes. The reality is I only used autobiographical vignettes that tied in with whatever point I was making with the research. My aim was to look at the universal predictors that can mean someone is likely to become dependent on substances. It’s a resource for women, not a collection of war stories.
— Jenny Valentish, author and journalist

12/10/17, 4:21:31 pm: Jules Kerr: Woman of Substances is a fascinating read. Were there any books you had read that viewed substance abuse through the gender paradigm?

12/10/17, 4:22:13 pm: Jules Kerr: As in, before you embarked upon your book?

12/10/17, 5:04:03 pm: Jenny Valentish: It tends to get called "substance use" in the research and treatment sector because of the associations with the word "abuse"... but I digress! There are a couple of US books I can think of: Happy Hours: Alcohol in a Woman's Life by Devon Jersild, and Drink by Ann Dowsett Johnston. I haven't seen one that covers drugs too, though. Drug policy and alcohol treatment is very different in the US, so American books don't translate very well over here.

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12/10/17, 5:07:19 pm: Jules Kerr: Ok. Thanks for help with terminology. Makes sense. Yes I was wondering if the absence of such literature here was one factor that led to the writing of this book. I listened to it on Audible by the way.

12/10/17, 5:08:43 pm: Jenny Valentish: It's odd for me, hearing someone else read it. It makes me think, "god, I didn't write that did I?" I listened in the car, laughing.

12/10/17, 5:09:49 pm: Jules Kerr: I also listened to Roxane Gay's Hunger. It helps me consume more books! Did you ever consider narrating it yourself?

12/10/17, 5:10:30 pm: Jenny Valentish: I wasn't asked and was pleased about that - reading aloud in a convincing manner is quite a skill. Someone like Rosie Waterland does it well - she's also a comedian

12/10/17, 5:14:33 pm: Jules Kerr: Yes I agree. As a listener, it's strange after listening to podcast conversations or radio interviews where the author talks in a more free flowing manner, and then you hear them read and it's an adjustment. I think Roxane did it really well. She has a great voice. Anyway! Your narrator is lovely to listen to, and I imagine you would be too :) So I like how you use yourself as the case study in WOS (can we do this acronym?!) but it seems to to me that the main objective is to illuminate the factors and root causes that lead to this sort of self sabotage..... which is actually incredibly useful for others. I didn't read it as your juicy memoir. I consumed  it as a very helpful tool.

12/10/17, 5:48:51 pm: Jenny Valentish: I'm glad. Almost all of the press went for the personal angle, which was disappointing because it made it seem as though I had written "misery lit" - you know, the books you get at airports with titles like Daddy Sold Me For a Pack of Smokes. The reality is I only used autobiographical vignettes that tied in with whatever point I was making with the research. My aim was to look at the universal predictors that can mean someone is likely to become dependent on substances. It's a resource for women, not a collection of war stories.

12/10/17, 5:56:04 pm: Jules Kerr: You put so much time and effort into gathering the research and speaking with experts which I really appreciate. One of the points you make is how you started a blog where you tried something new every day to help recreate neural pathways in your brain. In light of the music industry, and women who are musicians, artists, and those working behind the scenes who may struggle with making healthy decisions due to the nature and environment of rock and roll, and art, what advice (if any) could you offer if they too wanted to quit some of these habits? I understand that's a huge question!

12/10/17, 5:57:15 pm: Jenny Valentish: I think it's a great question - we tend to focus on what the problems are for creative people, rather than the solutions. I think most people would be more interested in thinking in terms of harm-minimisation, as in how to take precautions that they're drinking or using safely. That could mean being aware of what drug psychosis looks like (the likelihood of which increases if you're on tour with a lack of sleep and with adrenal fatigue), so that you can look out for the signs in yourself and bandmates. Just knowing that you're not going crazy/knowing it's time to pull back a bit is useful.

We also need to be aware of what the dangerous combinations of alcohol and drugs are - ie if you're taking more than one substance that depresses your central nervous system you could be in danger of overdose. It's tempting to play amateur alchemist on tour, to be able to get to sleep, and then to have the energy to play. Often people are self medicating performance anxiety too.

Seeing a drug and alcohol outpatient service isn't a bad idea - they're usually free and they're not going to force you to stop. 

Also there are SMART Recovery meetings all around the country. They are for people who want to be abstinent AND for people who want a controlled use strategy. They use CBT [Cognitive Behaviour Therapy] tools and only focus on the week past and the week ahead. No life stories!

12/10/17, 6:05:56 pm: Jules Kerr: That's interesting. I imagine too, more broadly being self aware of how you may be wired. You speak about impulsivity and what leads to using and drinking. And how perhaps those root causes also leads to an unhealthy relationship with food as well.

12/10/17, 6:07:17 pm: Jenny Valentish: There can be a triumvirate of issues that occur together if people are using substances problematically. The other two are eating disorders and self harm. Impulsivity can often be a separate issue.

12/10/17, 6:08:09 pm: Jules Kerr: Can you speak (What's App!) a little more about the issue of impulsivity and how it manifests itself in the music scene perhaps?

12/10/17, 6:09:26 pm: Jenny Valentish: If you have poor impulse control (which is down to both nature and nurture) you find that... well, let's use a car metaphor. When you use substances, you have a very sensitive accelerator and very sluggish brakes! There isn't particularly a link between creativity and substance use, but the music lifestyle enables it.

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12/10/17, 6:10:48 pm: Jules Kerr: So if that is combined with some sort of childhood trauma and left without any sort of treatment or even self awareness, is that a lethal combination?

12/10/17, 6:11:40 pm: Jenny Valentish: Early life stress is a huge risk factor. It's complicated but the brain is more sensitised to drug use. More info on that in my book!

12/10/17, 6:13:59 pm: Jules Kerr: Right. And so now that you've got this book out and you've researched - and it's obvious you're still researching and studying - can you see a train wreck up ahead for certain people you may come into contact with? If so, how does it make you feel? What is there to do to help?

12/10/17, 6:16:49 pm: Jenny Valentish: I'm not much of an interventionist! I think people - adults, anyway - need to make their own decisions. You can't hand someone an epiphany. The beauty of writing a book is you can hopefully positively influence people without making them feel defensive. You can sow the seeds... if they need to be sewn. So in THAT respect I guess I'm an interventionist. I'm now working on guided workbooks with a really cool illustrator, Brooke from Saint Jude. They'll help people monitor and understand their own behaviour, using evidence-based research.

12/10/17, 6:19:33 pm: Jules Kerr: Yes that's a good point. I heard Marc Maron interview Alice Cooper about how he has stopped drinking. Alice said many people come to him and say, 'Help my brother,' for instance, and his response is, 'Well if he calls me, that's the first step. I can't convince him.' It's hard. Upon reading your book I really had my eyes opened to some people around me and feel so compelled to help. By the way, those workbooks sound great. Have you personally had anyone reach out to you for help since you've opened up your own life and also all of this research?

12/10/17, 6:51:50 pm: Jenny Valentish: I've been meaning to listen to Marc's podcast. I get a lot of correspondence from people talking about where they're at, but I don't think anyone expects me to be their personal mentor. There are 12 step programs for that! Some more great podcasts to tool people up with substance use info: What's the Crack (by UK addiction researchers). And Say Why to Drugs by Dr Suzi Gage: it's about the psychopharmacology and social impact of recreational drugs - lots of mythbusting. For those who prefer abstinence there's Russell Brand's Recovery Radio.

12/10/17, 7:39:08 pm: Jules Kerr: Oh that's a great list. One topic I wanted to raise was how you don't like to tie up one's identity in their addictions. I think that is such an important point and not one that is offered in the popular discourse. AA for example, 'I'm Joe Blow and I'm an alcoholic' - you don't think that's a great way to view oneself. Have I got that right?

12/10/17, 8:02:30 pm: Jenny Valentish: That's definitely down to personal taste. I don't want any label or narrative for myself, but some people find the sense of ownership and identification useful

12/10/17, 8:04:49 pm: Jules Kerr: Earlier you said there isn't really a link between creativity and substance use but do you think that people who are artists have a sensitive disposition and feel things very deeply which may lead to being particularly vulnerable?

12/10/17, 10:45:28 pm: Jenny Valentish: People who are overthinkers can suffer from anxiety, which they might self-medicate. That might include songwriters, yes. Not all songwriters seem to be overthinkers, though! Musicians might equally be attracted to substances to enhance creativity. This neuroscientist can explain the lack of a direct link between creativity and addiction better than me. You'll see it's just not quite as straightforward as that: [Article: Is there a link between creativity and addiction?]

13/10/17, 9:23:58 am: Jules Kerr: Great link, thanks. Back to the music biz. In your interview with Richard Fidler, you spoke about shame and rage being fuel. And that a sense of shamelessness comes out because of a sense of shamefulness. I think this is a fascinating insight. Any further thoughts (providing I've got it right?!)

13/10/17, 5:23:19 pm: Jenny Valentish: I was saying that when our impulsivity results in unfortunate incidents, we tend to cover up our distress with bravado. Over time that bravado calcifies into a persona. So shame is inverted into acting shameless. I say "we". I'm talking about my younger self

15/10/17, 10:41:37 am: Jules Kerr: So I'm watching the Whitney Houston documentary Can I Be Me, and they talk about the divorce from Bobby Brown and how Whitney goes back to drugs at this point (2007). And the quote is 'Because when you're using, you don't care about men. Especially crack.' What have you discovered about this type of use that perhaps numbs oneself to the point of distancing themselves from relationships and from feeling the pain of heartbreak or rejection, or even wanting relationships?


15/10/17, 10:50:36 am: Jenny Valentish: Probably more of a distraction than a numbing: we release tons of dopamine in anticipation of/during taking stimulants, the same way we do when playing the pokies or a video game. Dopamine is about attention, goals, reward, so when we release it we're entirely focused on the task at hand. Everything else gets neglected

But a note on pain relief... emotional and physical pain both affect the anterior cingulate cortex in the brain. Some studies have thus shown that paracetamol can ease emotional pain and rejection as well as physical pain. So you can see why people do try and numb pain with alcohol and sedatives. 

Not so much stimulants like crack though - they're great at distracting.

15/10/17, 10:57:53 am: Jules Kerr: So interesting. Say someone realises they are drinking or using too much (to the point of self harm), and they stop successfully, is there every chance they may turn to other addictions - gambling, etc?

15/10/17, 10:59:33 am: Jenny Valentish: That happens ALL the time! It's called cross-addiction. You quit one thing but your brain still desires its effects. Loads of people turn to gambling, porn, sex, smoking, etc

15/10/17, 11:00:06 am: Jules Kerr: Hence why dealing with the root cause is so important, I guess?

15/10/17, 11:02:33 am: Jenny Valentish: There's the root cause but also the way your brain is now tuned. It's used to constant hits of dopamine. Prof Dan Lubman told me that if you can avoid overstimulating the reward system for three months, you can reset it. But that means even avoiding nicotine and caffeine. Ha!

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15/10/17, 11:04:07 am: Jules Kerr: Oh wow. Ok so on that point, then couldn't you just turn to "fitspo", no sugar, no caffeine, and pretend you're all vegan and healthy (and hot) and such?

15/10/17, 11:06:24 am: Jenny Valentish: Lots of people do. I've got a friend who's now a competing bodybuilder and others get into marathon running. They release crazy endorphins that feel good. I went down the volunteering route - helping other people/animals releases oxytocin and serotonin. That's just a bonus of course! It's mainly penance for years being selfish...

15/10/17, 11:12:16 am: Jules Kerr: Ha. Is it sustainable? What about relapsing?

15/10/17, 11:31:18 am: Jenny Valentish: Well there's relapsing (returning to the full extent of your problematic behaviour), lapsing (returning for a brief spell without too much issue) and then reintroducing moderate use - so it's not all about "falling off the wagon". There are lots of strategies of monitoring your behaviour, whether that's abstinence or controlled use. Some people are better suited to abstinence. The great thing about Australia, as opposed to, say, the [United] States, is you can go to an alcohol and drug service for help with any of the above.

15/10/17, 11:33:48 am: Jules Kerr: Ok. So I want to quickly return to the fitspo point - I can see if someone is genuinely interested in health and exercise and that's great, but what about when people turn to that in quite an unhealthy way? Thinly veiled eating disorders etc.

15/10/17, 11:37:59 am: Jenny Valentish: Yeah, ortharexia is an example - obsession with healthy eating. OCD can be connected with that kind of eating disorder, and it can also be a driving force behind substance use. I think everyone needs to be vigilant for certain behaviours, and aware that one behaviour can replace another.

3/11/17, 5:30:50 pm: Jules Kerr: I'd like to talk about nicotine and anxiety because I don't think many people realise nicotine can have this effect in the long term. Were you surprised to learn this?

3/11/17, 8:55:09 pm: Jenny Valentish: Yes, people might have noticed the short-term anxiogenic effect of their smoking - that anxiety raises after the initial sense of relief, but research from Columbia University found that people who smoked heavily as teenagers were seven times more likely to suffer generalised anxiety disorder in early adulthood.

3/11/17, 9:34:13 pm: Jules Kerr: That's fascinating. What other issues can arise with the use of nicotine?

3/11/17, 9:48:36 pm: Jenny Valentish: Smoking keeps us not only craving nicotine but dopamine release. Dopamine is released most satisfyingly through stimulant use.

3/11/17, 10:06:44 pm: Jules Kerr: Another topic you go into is when substances and sex hormones combine. What was the most interesting thing you've learned in your research about female hormones and substance use?

4/11/17, 2:20:07 am: Jenny Valentish: Well, most basically, alcohol raises estrogen levels. A lot. That plays havoc with our natural hormone balance and increases the risk of breast cancer, fibroids, endometriosis and polycystic ovary syndrome. In the case of other drugs, we're more vulnerable to the effects of drugs at certain points in our cycle, and also more attracted to them at certain points.

4/11/17, 2:09:13 pm: Jules Kerr: Seems to me that whatever stage a woman or girl is at she is susceptible to this in ways that many don't even think about. From the womb until becoming empty nesters or hitting menopause, substance use seems to affect us all in some way.

4/11/17, 6:38:33 pm: Jenny Valentish: Yep. It doesn't always have to be a problem, of course. It just pays to be mindful and to be tooled up with all this kind of information.

4/11/17, 8:52:47 pm: Jules Kerr: And that's exactly what your book does. I read it as an audio book but am definitely going to purchase the actual book because it is so meaty and chockablock with useful information and tools for every woman. Truly! I honestly could ask you so many more questions about Woman of Substances. It has been one of the most impacting books I've read and I hope many more people find it just as educational and illuminating as I have. Is there anything else you want to add? Something I haven't asked you to sign off with? We are texting so maybe an emoji lol 🤔

4/11/17, 9:36:50 pm: Jenny Valentish: That's wonderful, thanks - I appreciate the intelligent questions! 👍

Woman of Substances is out now. Follow Jenny Valentish on Facebook, Twitter and her website as she keeps the dialogue going. 


THE FALLEN STARLET, an excerpt from Media Tropes of Female Drug Users

"In the early 20th century, practically all young female talent in Hollywood were encouraged to winsomely wither, by being medicated by studios for weight loss. After being cast as forever-young Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Judy Garland’s constant diet of amphetamines and barbiturates led to her overdose at the age of 47. Marilyn Monroe, who overdosed on barbiturates, was a candle in the wind. Modern-day Ophelia Whitney Houston slipped quietly under the water of her bath, her heart giving out through cocaine use. Countless movie characters, from Anna in Dogs in Space, to Lynne in 1967’s Point Blank, Nadine in Drugstore Cowboy, Rosie in Another Day in Paradise and Michelle in Jesus’ Son have also quietly succumbed to overdose, inducing much pathos in the male lover left behind.

The drug-afflicted celebrities who don’t disappear delicately need to be frogmarched to the bitter end. Amy Winehouse, Peaches Geldof and – very nearly – Britney Spears were hounded aggressively to their downfalls. In Amy’s case, the punishment verged on assault. Headlines in the lead-up to her death in 2011 included ‘Amy on Crack’, ‘Amy and New Hubby Copycat Cuts Shock’, ‘Amy Winehouse gets Dodgy Boob Job’, ‘My Bizarre Night in the Disturbing World of Amy Winehouse’, ‘Tearful Amy Winehouse Spends the Night in Jail After Her Arrest Over Pub Assault’ and ‘Amy Winehouse Stumbles Out of Restaurant Exposing Her Pot Belly’. These prompted satirical news site The Onion to come up with their own headline that blends in seamlessly: ‘Things Amy Winehouse Mumbled Before She Stole Our Coffee Maker’."

Amy Winehouse