My doctor told me my ‘moderate’ drinking was a problem, and she was right
I thought a glass — or three — of wine at the end of the night was normal. I was wrong.
In January of this year, my mom died. I was drinking two or three glasses of wine a night.
“Every night?” My doctor asked me in April, when I visited her about the steady panic attack I’d been having for days.
“I mean… yes?”
It would be convenient to say that I started drinking regularly when my mom got sick last summer, in June of 2014. But that wasn’t true.
Really, I’d started drinking regularly when I realized it was a way to wind down from my serving job in college. It wasn’t about getting drunk. It was about, as I called it, “turning off my brain.” I had to stop running to-do lists through my head. I would have a glass of wine as I made dinner, another as I ate and sometimes another as my eyes glazed over as I watched TV with my husband.
I continued that pattern when I started my first real job at a digital marketing company and later when I became an editor. Sure, I could go without one — but why?
When my mom got sick, having a drink didn’t seem so negotiable. It seemed like a given. Of course I was going to have a drink when I got home. Of course I needed to turn off my brain. I didn’t get drunk. I didn’t act strange. I fell asleep at 9 o’clock. I really loved my coffee in the morning.
“That puts you in the high-risk category,” my doctor told me. Two or three glasses a night was fourteen to twenty-one a week. According to the CDC, “heavy drinking” for women is 8 or more drinks per week. “Do you think you’re using it as a coping mechanism?”
I had never thought of it like that before.
At first, I felt indignant: Please, I know so many people who are drinking much more than I am. I’m in my early twenties. This is what young people do.
“I forgot that you’re supposed to lie to your doctor,” I laughed with my friends.
“They always assume you’re drinking twice as much,” they assured me.
But still, I knew she was right. I looked at my life after work and couldn’t see myself in it. Me, cooking dinner. Me, pouring a glass of wine. Me, unable to do anything but watch TV and fall asleep. A robot. So unlike the person I had once thought I was: quick, creative, adventurous.
So, I quit drinking for a month. If nothing else, I told myself, I’ll lose some weight. I was convinced the steady 20 pounds I had gained in the last few years had been because I was drinking.
Not drinking was irritating. I was mad when I would sit at a restaurant and know just how much better everything would taste if I were sipping a margarita. I was mad when I was at Trader Joe's and there was a new wine on discount and I wouldn’t get to taste it.
In a few days, I stopped being mad and I got very, very bored. Suddenly, without drinking, I realized how much I hated watching TV. How had I spent the last few years doing something I so truly hated? I was manic for something to fill my time. I started planning vacations back-to-back. I plowed through several books a week. I started painting. I revamped my website. I went to yoga. I started making vlogs. I even started writing fiction again, something I’d sworn off since college.
Without drinking, I realized just how far away from myself I felt. I thought of the way I had handled my mother's final months, rushing to the grocery store to pick up her favorite drinks — ginger ale, root beer, kombucha, even trying to sneak her a six-pack of wine coolers — trying to get her whatever she needed. I thought of the way I sat at the end of her bed, deadening myself to my feelings. I had given the last of myself away, and all that was left was a big empty space I had to fill and fill again. With alcohol. Or with what I really wanted.
And then, before I knew it, the month was over. I hadn’t lost any weight. “What was the point of that?!” I told my husband. But I also didn’t miss drinking anymore.
I had always admired the tough-talking women I’d seen on TV, their take-no-bullshit approaches and the way they would get home and reflect on their day with a glass of wine. It had seemed so sophisticated, powerful, adult. Of course they should have a drink at the end of the day — they deserved it. I worked hard, didn’t I deserve it too? But for me, it had just become a way to ignore myself. It made me less of a person.
When I stopped drinking for a month, my life quickly became so full of other things that drinking seemed like a waste. Now, I sometimes have a glass of wine or a beer. I like to go to happy hour with friends. But I can catch myself when I’m reaching for a glass of wine to escape. I can use any excess energy in my brain to make things and do things — things that make me feel more like myself — instead of turning it off.
I don’t think I was an alcoholic. I don’t know if I ever would have been. I think I was something in between, like too many of us are, where we are not terrorizing our lives but neither are we really living them.
Drinking left no room in my life for the things that actually make me feel alive. It left no space in my heart to grieve. I’m grateful for being able to change that.