I was never totally wild but I binge drank through university and my 20s, as is normal in our culture for young people and lots of older ones too. Then I moved onto a more mature way of drinking – less bingeing but still drinking most nights, a few glasses of wine or beer or gin and tonic. It was a way to mark the end of the day. Someone with an addict in their family told me what they tell you about alcoholics at Al-Anon - that a good day needs to be celebrated with a drink, and a bad day needs to be commiserated via a drink.
Each little statement like this made me feel uncomfortable because I could identify with it. I have begun to recognise myself in patterns I now see as problematic. The way I would often struggle to get through an evening without a (albeit small) drink. To feel like some things weren’t enjoyable or “worth” doing without a drink. The extent to which I love it - apparently addicts have particularly functional dopamine receptors in their brains (like a pin ball machine, these receptors light up when they get stimulated) and though I was never on the extreme end of the addiction spectrum, I feel a strong response to the pleasurable stuff.
It’s not hard to notice all the ways our culture, and the market, endorses reaching for a drink. A cold glass on a hot day. A cosy red on a cold night. A sparkling to celebrate. A g&t in the bath. A beer with a curry. Football, the races, birthdays, weddings, Christmas, hot days, cold days, lunches, dinners, brunches, pubs, restaurants, winter, spring, summer. There are so many ways to embrace this romance and they are all woven deeply into the tapestry of our culture and our own bodies too.
After my daughter was born I pretty much micro-dosed myself with evening wine to decompress from the massive pressure I felt and to numb out from mild postnatal depression. Micro-dosing is still dosing though. Recently two things have happened – my body has reduced its tolerance, already low, to alcohol so that even after one small glass of wine I feel tired and mildly anxious the next day. In this light the pleasure is almost always outweighed by the pain, so it seems crazy to keep going in the way I always did just because I have an old fondness for the stuff.
And secondly I have just stopped wanting to keep doing this. Not completely by any means, but in the way I always have done - just giving in, because alcohol is nice. The numbing out instead of feeling wide awake and aware. A depressant inhibits the activity of the central nervous system, impairing and slowing down our reactions and processes – all of which feels great sometimes, but also not generally what I want. I think adults should be allowed to decide to drink what they want, when they want, except a lot of us are lying to ourselves about how we use alcohol and the question “how much do you actually want to drink?” gets complicated with addictive substances. Wanting to drink a certain amount right now is different to saying that you will feel the same tomorrow morning or overall in your life.
Brene Brown (sober for 23 years) said “I see drinking culture as a great cover for pain”. She also said “I’ve watched “civilised drinking” ravage the lives of so many families and friends that I’ve developed no interest in it at all.”
The idea that as long as you’re not drinking a bottle of vodka at breakfast then there’s no problem at all is in itself problematic. The pissed mum jokes (mug of wine at teatime, gin at bath-time) have become unsettling to me, part of our society’s dirty secret - that we pretend to love alcohol because it’s delicious and we’re essentially fun and young at heart, oh go on then but really we need it more than we feel comfortable with - often as a cover, a coping mechanism, a crutch to cope with difficult times (I have used it for all these things).
I have also used it as a distraction from things I don’t want to think about and as a way to numb my way out of pain, boredom, frustration. Sometimes crutches are ok, and sometimes they start to feel like they are holding you back.
When you love alcohol and misuse it, however mildly, it’s a massive downer when someone criticises your poison. A bit like the friend you go to meet in the evening who says “I’m not drinking tonight” when you’d been looking forward to sharing a certain experience with them, which triggers us because we a. really want a drink and b. don’t want anyone to ruin our fun or make us feel judged or like we have a problem, however minor that problem is in comparison to more extreme problems (let’s be honest, a lot of us use the “I’m not as bad as that person!” argument to justify not really looking in the mirror). And because half the time we’ve forgotten how to have a nice time without it.
Like anything that “triggers” us it can be revealing to ask ourselves why we feel that way. I write this from no position of authority, moral or otherwise, especially because by many people’s standards I drank too much for too long, particularly in terms of my job in the “wellness industry” and my other job as “mother” (would you be embarrassed if something happened to your child and you’d had too many drinks to drive them to hospital?)
Clarity - this is what I want and am interested in, and have some experience of the other times I’ve cut out or cut down. What kind of realisations occur when I don’t drink much? What priorities come to the surface?
Like all love affairs I have felt a bit sad about letting go of the good times and a bit concerned that the new less-boozy me is going to be bored or boring. The answer for me is in moderation - actual, regular, lived moderation, and for me that includes cutting down a lot and also getting pissed now and again! I am a big fan of pleasure as an act of self-care, and obviously alcohol can be pleasurable and also slips easily into pain. If I’m going out for some lovely food or meeting a friend, I don’t need alcohol but often I will choose that because I enjoy it and I believe in enjoyment, as long as we’re not creating regular or long-term problems for ourselves or anyone else.
We all need to work out this stuff for ourselves, what our own rules and limits are (for example, I cannot have wine in the house otherwise mate, I’m definitely going to drink it). When we renegotiate something we don’t exactly know what our recalibrated lives will look like, what our relationships look like. But for the first time in a long time, minimising drinking doesn’t feel boring as hell. I’m interested to see what happens when I really wake up.