The label “alcoholic” kept me away. The term “Gray area drinking” invited me in

For a very long time, what stopped me from confronting my alcohol use and deciding to lead an alcohol free life was my fear that I would be branded an alcoholic.

The only choice I saw was black or white. I am either an alcoholic or I am not.  I was stuck in a paradigm that did not speak to me and my particular relationship with alcohol.

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Am I an alcoholic if I can stop drinking and suffer no physical reaction? Am I an alcoholic if I have had no rock bottom but in reality, lead a highly functioning and successful life by my own standards? I would always come to the same conclusion, I was not an alcoholic. I was not black.

But I also knew this. I wasn’t quite white, either.

Thankfully for me, and I would guess millions of others, there is a new paradigm that provides all of us with the ability to make good, healthy decisions around alcohol without having to identify as an alcoholic. Enter gray area drinking.

Think of a spectrum. Gray area drinkers are not those people who drink socially once in awhile. Social drinkers are on one end of the spectrum. Gray area drinkers are not alcoholics or alcohol abusers. They are at the other end of this spectrum. Gray area drinkers are most of us. We are in the middle of the spectrum. The area is large and real and I, for one, am in it. See article by Dr. Joseph Nowinski, PhD  For many of us gray area drinkers, we know we need to listen to that inner voice that tells us it is time to put down the wine glass before we do become physically addicted and before we hit a rock bottom.

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So the more I am learning about this shift away from “Am I an alcoholic?”  or “Am I not an alcoholic?” the more I am filled with hope and confidence that joining the sober revolution is a positive and wise decision I am making for my health, my heart and the last one third of my life. something to be cheered, just like when I quit cigarettes. No shame. Cheers.

So, whether it is a matter of semantics, or a marketing boon, the paradigm created by the concept of gray area drinking is changing my life, for the better. Gray area drinking is creating a positive path to an alcohol free life for me, finally.

I am 56 and a Gray Area Drinker

I am 56 and a gray area drinker.

I discovered this by accident. A friend had recommended a podcast called Spiritualist. I looked it up and just as I was about to hit “subscribe” I saw a message that said if you like Spiritualist you will like Edit | Editing our drinking and our lives.

Since thinking about my drinking had become a major time suck, and a little voice inside me was becoming louder and louder telling me it was long past time I stopped drinking, I was intrigued. I checked it out. I listened. What I learned from Jolene Park and Aidan Donnelley Rowley was this:

There is a spectrum in the real “drinking world”, suggesting that an individual’s drinking can range anywhere from normal social drinking at one end of the spectrum, to almost alcoholic in the mid-range, to alcohol abuse then alcohol dependence at the other end of the spectrum. Moreover, these different areas are not separated by sharp lines; rather, they blend into one another. Of the three “problem” zones, the “almost alcoholic” zone is by far the largest.

Normal social drinking is the person who has a beer or two, or a glass of wine or two, not more than a few times a month, and almost always in a social context. This is the man or woman who meets friends for happy hour after work on Friday, who gets together with friends on a Sunday afternoon to watch football, or who is invited to a party. Millions of people are normal social drinkers, and many of them never go on to be more than normal social drinkers.

However, there is a large “gray area” that lies beyond normal social drinking but falls short of alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence. Many people move into this gray zone. Some go only a short distance; others venture much deeper over time, but still are not alcoholics. Also see Jolene’s Tedx Talk here. This gray area on the drinking spectrum is real and it is large, and holy shit, I am in it.

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How I know I am a Gray Area Drinker

In a nutshell, my drinking is a source of shame and guilt for me. It is incredibly easy for one glass of wine to turn into a bottle of wine. If I am out with friends and manage to keep my consumption to a respectable glass or two of wine, I go home and open a new bottle. I drink alone a lot. I wake up frequently with a hangover, a headache and queasiness that lasts all morning and into the early afternoon. I tell myself I need to stop, and I do. Sometimes I do not drink for a few days. Sometimes a few weeks. Once I went a full three years without a drop of alcohol. I am always able to stop drinking without a physical reaction. But I always return to drinking because I really, really, really want to be a regular social drinker. But drinking in moderation, for me, never lasts long. Each time I start drinking again the regret quickly returns. Each time I begin drinking again it is the same. I drink too much too often. I get drunk at parties, and let me tell you, there is nothing even slightly attractive about a 56 year old drunk.

Like so many other gray area drinkers, I am high functioning. I have a job I love and do well at. I am a terrific mother and partner to a good man. I have meaningful friendships and strong ties to my family. No friend I have ever talked with about my drinking believes I have a problem. In fact each expresses skepticism that I need to address the role of alcohol in my life. While I could definitely lose 15 pounds, I still work out at the gym and hike on a fairly frequent basis. I have passions and interests and honestly, I would call my self a content and happy woman. except.for.my.drinking. I have no rock bottom, and even during my most difficult trials in life, I have shown resilience and the ability to survive and thrive. Just a few weeks ago after a few glasses of wine, my daughter who is now 20 asked me “Are you buzzed, Mom? I can never tell with you.” So while I was relieved to hear this, and in the past it would have served as a free pass to keep drinking, it doesn’t feel that way to me this time.

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So Why Go Alcohol Free Now?

Very reluctantly I have come to a fork in the road. The shame and guilt I live with is crippling me emotionally. I am caught in a loop in my head. And I am very certain it is holding me back from living my best life, or at least a better life. I can’t lose weight and become healthier and more fit while drinking. I drink 2 glasses of wine while making dinner and all my efforts at kale drinks and quinoa during the day are shot to hell. I plow through Cheezit Grooves, ice cream and pizza. So my morning shame is not just about my drinking, it is about the excessive amounts of garbage I put in my mouth once I start drinking.

I have been very healthy my whole life, until now. In the last 2 years, I have had lung cancer, skin cancer, a gall bladder removal, cholesterol that is creeping up and pre-diabetic glucose numbers. My hair is thinning. I know. Pretty. Drinking is doing my health no favors. It may or may not have had a hand in one or more of my recent health issues, but for certain, alcohol is not helping any of them. And at 56, I am damn well certain that health issues only get worse, not better.

I am not willing for this to be the rest of my life. I have a third of my life left. I want to hike. I want to paint. I want to see my daughter have babies and live a wonderful, beautiful life. I have travel left in me, adventures to go on, and drinking will not help me make any of those dreams a realty. In fact, I am certain that alcohol, at least in the way I have been using it, will only impede my dreams. I can not live my best life if I continue to drink alcohol.

So I get to choose, and I choose alcohol free. Finally.