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Thoughts on “Playing Hard” – a Polish Film on Women Alcoholics

Maria Dębska in "Playing Hard" (Polish title: "Zabawa, zabawa")

Author: Katarzyna Litak, M.D., FASAM

Traditionally, the stereotypical image of an alcoholic has often been associated with men, portraying them stumbling drunkenly in the streets or struggling with substance abuse. Historically, men have had higher rates of substance use disorders and problem drinking, including binge and heavy drinking. However, there has been a significant shift, and women are now increasingly closing the gap.

Director Kinga Dębska, while working on a documentary about a Polish actress battling alcoholism, became interested in exploring problematic drinking in women. This led her to write and direct the movie "Playing Hard" (Polish title: "Zabawa, Zabawa," 2018). Over the course of several years, Dębska collaborated with blogger and author Mika Dunin, who shared her personal experiences and addiction battle. Drawing inspiration from real-life stories of women in recovery, Dębska crafted the screenplay.

While there have been notable Polish films that touch on the theme of alcoholism, such as Marek Koterski's "We are all Christs" (2016) and Wojciech Smarzowski's "The Mighty Angel" (2014), these films predominantly center around male alcoholics. Women struggling with alcoholism have often been overlooked in cinematic narratives. "Playing Hard" seeks to bridge this divide by being the first Polish movie exclusively dedicated to exploring the issue of women's drinking.

Through films like "Playing Hard," the complex and often overlooked experiences of women battling alcoholism can be brought to light, challenging stereotypes and providing a platform for meaningful discussions and increased awareness of the issue. Women alcoholics have been vastly overlooked.

In "Playing Hard," director Kinga Dębska presents the stories of three female alcoholics in a nuanced and empathetic manner, avoiding unnecessary shock value or explicit focus on the physiological effects of alcoholism. The characters are portrayed as polished and attractive, highlighting the fact that alcoholism can affect anyone, regardless of external appearance.

Through her warm lens, Dębska explores the complexities of the disease and the defense mechanisms employed by the women to justify their ongoing drinking. The film also delves into the dynamics within their families that are influenced by alcoholism. The intertwined stories feature a successful surgeon (Teresa) who drinks while working, a lawyer who uses her husband's political influence to cover up her alcohol-related actions (Dorota), and an ambitious university student (Magda) who engages in excessive drinking as a way of coping with various aspects of her life.

Although these women may excel in their careers and, on the surface, appear to have control over their drinking, they do not see it as a problem and believe they can stop at any time. For them, alcohol serves as a coping mechanism for the stresses of their success, motherhood, and social obligations. Each woman navigates the disease differently, experiencing losses and hitting rock bottom in their own unique ways.

The film does not offer a happy ending for these characters, mirroring the often harsh reality for many people affected by addiction. Dębska avoids moralizing or preaching, instead shedding light on the real-life dangers of drinking and portraying the consequences it can have on individuals and their relationships.

By portraying these three women and their struggles with alcoholism, "Playing Hard" aims to foster understanding and awareness of the disease, emphasizing the need for compassion and support rather than judgment.

I agree with Adam Siennica's review:

Is this an art cinema? Sure, but clear, transparent, and well told. It is simply a well-constructed story of three women fighting against something that is present in everyday life of Poles. Built in such a way that you can feel a lot of emotions in each one. I always say that the heart in the film is the most important and must be in the right place.

In her film, "Playing Hard," Dębska aims to provide hope by portraying that recovery from alcoholism is possible for women. She addresses the unique challenges that women face in acknowledging their drinking problem, as social stigma and concerns about disruption to their lives, such as education or childcare, may deter them from seeking help.

Dębska highlights the relational aspects of women's experiences with addiction and the importance of self-reliance, empowerment, and maintaining boundaries in recovery. The film emphasizes the significance of self-care and self-respect in overcoming addiction and encourages women to trust their own judgment rather than blindly relying on others.

The portrayal of the characters' journey in "Playing Hard" underscores the importance of recognizing the truth about their addiction as a crucial step toward recovery. Dębska sheds light on the isolating nature of addiction for women, emphasizing that women and girls often experience a more rapid loss of their connections due to the disease's devastating impact. Addiction is more devastating for women, as women and girls tend to lose their connections faster.

Overall, "Playing Hard" addresses the specific challenges and needs of women in addiction and aims to foster a sense of hope and resilience, showing that women can regain control of their lives and recover from alcoholism.

Alcoholism and addiction have significant impacts on family dynamics and relationships. As the disease progresses, relationships within the family unit may undergo changes, and other family members may also struggle with addiction or be unaware of the problem. Understanding addiction, recognizing unhealthy boundaries, enabling behaviors, grappling with relational guilt, and developing true empathy are crucial aspects of the recovery journey for both individual struggling with addiction and their loved ones. Alcoholism and addiction is very much a family disease.

When it comes to alcoholism, women have distinct physiological differences from men that can affect their alcohol metabolism. Women tend to have a higher percentage of body fat, which absorbs alcohol more rapidly. Additionally, they possess lower levels of the enzyme responsible for breaking down alcohol, leading to a slower elimination of alcohol from the body compared to men. These factors contribute to a faster progression of alcoholism in women, commonly referred to as telescoping. As the disease advances, women may require higher levels of alcohol to achieve the same effects, resulting in increased damage to bodily organs. Women process alcohol in a different way than men and thus are more impacted physically.

Heavy and prolonged alcohol consumption in women carries a higher risk of developing alcohol-related health conditions such as hepatitis, cirrhosis, liver disease, and breast cancer. Women who engage in excessive drinking may also be more prone to engaging in risky sexual behavior due to impaired decision-making functions in the frontal lobe of the brain. Unfortunately, intoxicated girls and women may be seen as more vulnerable targets, increasing their susceptibility to crime, assault, accidents, and sexual violence.

These risks and consequences highlight the importance of understanding the specific challenges faced by women in relation to alcoholism and the need for comprehensive support and education to address these issues.

The statistics regarding alcohol consumption during pregnancy are indeed concerning. In Poland, a significant number of pregnancies are alcohol-exposed, with one in three women admitting to consuming alcohol during pregnancy. Similarly, in the United States, approximately ten percent of pregnant women reported alcohol consumption in the past 30 days, and three percent admitted to binge drinking during that period. It is worth noting that not all women who drink during pregnancy are alcoholics. However, it is crucial to emphasize that no amount of alcohol has been deemed safe during pregnancy, as per the Surgeon General Recommendations and CDC guidelines. Keep in mind that not all women drinkers are alcoholics

Dębska's movie, with English subtitles, was screened at St. Anthony Main Theatre in Minneapolis on November 4, 2019, and later at the Psych Cinema at the Medical University of Minnesota on January 5, 2020. These screenings were followed by engaging discussions, highlighting the importance of raising awareness and fostering dialogue around the subject of women and alcoholism.

Katarzyna J. Litak M.D., Fellow of the American Society of Addiction Medicine

Further reading in Polish:

Further reading in English:

Movie trailer (English subtitles):

All photographs: courtesy of the film distributor Kino Świat, Warsaw.


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