On her last day of consciousness, Misty Luminais Babin held onto hope. “I choose life,” the 38-year-old told her sister, husband and doctor from inside the Ochsner Medical Center ICU.
But her sister, Aimee Luminais Calamusa, knew it was a choice made too late. A former ICU nurse herself, she was trained to recognize signs of the end. Even after draining 3 liters of fluid from Babin’s abdomen, her liver — mottled and scarred by years of heavy drinking — couldn’t keep up. The fluid had started building up in her lungs and she gasped for air. Without oxygen, her other organs began to fail.
“When I left that day, I knew that would be the last time I talked to her, ever,” said Calamusa. “It was really hard to walk out that door.”
Babin died two days later, on June 14 of this year, after a long struggle with alcohol use disorder. Her family said the fight intensified in the last four or five years after a rough breakup, but may have been more stealthy and prevalent than they ever realized.
“None of us knew,” said Calamusa, who wrote a moving and honest obituary in The Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate about her sister’s struggles. “She hid it very well. I think she probably has been an addict for a long time. She lost control very quickly.”
With an average of 1,591 alcohol-related deaths from 2011 to 2015, Louisiana is tied for 10th among U.S. states on a per-capita basis when it comes to people succumbing to the disease, according to a recent analysis of death certificates by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Across the country, alcohol-related deaths have risen by 51% over a period covering most of the past two decades, according to a study from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism published earlier this year.
The most alarming increase was among women. Deaths increased by 85% from 1999 to 2017.
And amid all-time high levels of anxiety and economic uncertainty, public-health experts fear that deaths like Babin’s will spike in the coming years. New data examining how drinking habits have changed during the pandemic showed drinking overall has increased by 14% compared with a year ago. In women, the increase was 17%, according to the peer-reviewed study published Sept. 29 in JAMA Network Open by researchers from the RAND Corporation.
Binge drinking in women, defined as four drinks over two hours, increased by 41% from 2019 to 2020.
“Drinking by women is sort of overlooked,” said Michael Pollard, author of the JAMA study. “And this points out that it is a real concern. We don’t really have good scientific evidence that the current alcohol use disorder treatment strategies we use are effective for women. This whole issue of women drinking is a bit of a black box.”
In pre-pandemic times, women often reported higher levels of stress and anxiety than men. During quarantine, women are taking on more child care and household duties and also exiting the workforce at a much higher rate than men. Social media posts suggest people are turning to alcoholic beverages more often in order to cope, a trend backed up by record alcohol sales even as other industries shut down.
“It is this joke response — ‘Well, I’ll drink my quarantini’ — but can potentially have serious implications,” Pollard said.
While most people who end up drinking more won’t develop the addiction that medical professionals diagnose as alcohol use disorder, increased drinking can lead to higher chances of chronic health problems.
Heavy drinkers, defined as women who consume more than eight drinks per week and men who consume more than 15, are not always dependent on alcohol. About 10% of heavy drinkers have alcohol use disorder, according to researchers. The difference is that people without the disorder can stop.
At the root of that affliction, experts say, is a problem with coping, often exacerbated by underlying trauma.
“Some people need more drinking to escape whatever is harming them,” said Scott Edwards, an associate professor of physiology and neuroscience at LSU Health New Orleans School of Medicine.
This has been an unusually deadly year in Jefferson Parish for victims of domestic and family violence.
Babin and her two sisters were mostly homeschooled and came from a deeply religious family. Babin was a good child and sister who never talked back, her sister said. But their parents’ efforts to protect them backfired, Calamusa said.
“We were shielded,” said Calamusa. “We were never taught how to navigate life.”
Babin became a mom at 16. She was never the type to go to bars all night, instead devoting herself to her daughter and developing a career as an IT director.
That changed in her early 30s. A breakup seemed to trigger a descent into openly abusing substances that she was never able to stop.
“It was her decision, but once she split up, I don’t want to say she went crazy, but she just lost control. Her morals, her lifestyle changed drastically,” Calamusa said.
Babin brushed aside family concerns by saying she deserved to relax because she had to grow up so quickly at a young age. But her drinking led to events that pushed her even more toward alcohol: She lost her job and became more isolated from family.
Family members took Babin to countless rehab centers and doctor’s appointments. One night, right around the time of the breakup, Calamusa dropped everything when her sister called to say something was really wrong. They held hands on the way to the hospital while Babin cried. When they arrived, doctors said her blood alcohol content was 0.32. Above 0.40 is potentially fatal.
“She just must have been disturbed enough by something she was trying to forget and self-medicated,” said Calamusa.
Babin later got married and had periods of abstinence from drinking, but the damage to her liver required a transplant. She was never able to hang on to sobriety long enough to get one.
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“A lot of people don’t realize when that transition happens,” said New Orleanian Jennifer Rassbach, who struggled with alcoholism for more than 20 years before achieving sobriety 21 months ago. “There’s this stereotype that alcoholics and addicts are under the bridge with no job. But I’ve seen highly functional alcoholics somewhat able to maintain a job and home life for years before someone else realizes there is a problem.”
Rassbach, who acts as peer support for others with substance use problems, said people started calling her immediately in March when the lockdown started, saying they had less than $20 in their checking account, that they couldn’t pay their rent, that they didn’t know how they would eat.
“Within the first week, I heard of at least 30 people that relapsed,” said Rassbach. “People like myself, when we get into that and are scared, we turn to what we know. I think we’re going to see a spike in deaths from it. Without people in my life, I would have gone back out, too.”
Treatment centers stopped accepting new patients when the stay-at-home order was put into effect in March. When they slowly opened back up during Phase 2 in June, they were swamped.
In a tidy two-story apartment in Hollygrove, 10 women, all former addicts, share a home and a mission to keep each other on the path to recovery.
“It was like a mad dash to get in,” said Rassbach. “It’s still like that. Most treatment centers have a two-week waiting list. This thing has grabbed hold of so many other people.”
Beyond the person lost to alcohol use disorder, there are family members and friends who suffer, too.
“I cannot explain what a heavy feeling it is to lose a sister,” Calamusa said. “I’ll be thinking of her and I can’t pick up the phone and call. She’s just not there.”
And in Louisiana, known for its drinking culture, there are plenty of reminders of the ways addiction can steal a life.
“There’s a shirt I see often in the French Quarter,” said Calamusa. “It says, ‘Shut up liver, you’re fine.’ Every time I read that shirt, my blood boils because of what has happened to us. The fact that it’s so open and available and easy, it may start off innocent, but overindulging is not OK. We’ve all done it — I’ve done it. But people who have that addictive personality or mental disorder they’re trying to cover up, they’re not going to stop.”
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