A complicated relationship with alcohol

Wednesday Letter #41

I wrote this article for my now defunct blog a few years ago, but I’ve decided to reshare it here with an edit to accurately reflect when I stopped drinking.

Them: Do you want a drink?

Me: I’ll have soda water and lime, please.

Them: Are you sure you don’t want some vodka in that?

Me: No thanks, I’m not drinking. 

Them: Have you been landed with the driving?

Me: Nope.

Them: Oh right, you’re on antibiotics is it? 

Me: No, I’m just not drinking.

Them: *looks shocked* You’re not pregnant, are you?!

Me: No, I’m just not drinking.

Them: Are you sure you won’t have that vodka then?

Me: No, thanks. 

Them: Ah right! Eh...I haven’t put my foot in it, have I? You’re not an alcoholic or anything?

Me: You kind of have, but no I’m not. I’m just not drinking. Look I’ll get my own soda water and lime, thanks.

Them: *looking confused* Um, yeah, whatever you think is best. 

It has been almost seven years since I gave up alcohol. There is no way to say that, which doesn’t need me to also say that I am not an alcoholic so I don’t mention it often

The difficulty with words like ‘quit drinking’ is that they immediately lead people to think of alcoholism. My not drinking is not the same as the difficulties people dealing with alcohol addiction face, but people often conflate the two when they hear that I used to drink but don’t anymore. Hence my not talking about it much. 

This is Ireland, though, and not talking about it leads to awkward conversations like the one above. I wish I had exaggerated it to make a point, but I’ve actually had that conversation; more than once. 

You know when you see your doctor for a check-up and they ask how often you drink? I would truthfully say five or six times a year. That’s not much. What I didn’t mention was how often I drank on those occasions. This wasn’t because I was trying to hide something, it was simply because it had never occurred to me to question the quantity before. 

If the frequency was low, what did it matter that I was clearly a binge drinker?

Current Irish recommendations are that men drink no more than 17 standard drinks in one week. That number drops to 11 standard drinks for women. However, research shows that even moderate levels of alcohol consumption can affect your brain. 

We’ve all likely sworn off alcohol when dealing with a particularly bad hangover, so why did I follow through on it? 

The short answer is that the medication I take to keep my chronic illnesses under control made my hangovers absolutely unbearable. 

The longer answer? Well, the longer answer is complicated. I was tired of spending the morning after piecing together the night before. 

I could figure out the course of a night based on receipts and asking friends, but that’s not the same as actually remembering it. Knowing what you did and remembering what you did are often different things, which is a problem. 

This realisation was like a punch in the gut. Did it matter that I only drank a handful of times a year if I got blackout drunk each time? 

Sitting with that, really unpacking and processing it wasn’t easy. But ignoring it was harder. Once you start questioning your relationship with alcohol it is difficult to do much else until you have figured out the answer. 

The answer for me was accepting that my drinking habits were a problem, though not an addiction. Maybe my relationship with alcohol had never been healthy. After all, I had cut out various drinks over the years.

Wine was obviously an issue for me. No wait, rum was the problem. Hang on...well, you get the idea. 

I read Wasted: A Sober Journey Through Drunken Ireland by Brian O’Connell a few years ago and the thing that struck me the most was his exploration of the similarities and differences between someone being an alcoholic and someone having a problem with alcohol that wouldn’t be classified as an addiction. 

As a society, we’ve placed alcoholism in a box marked ‘other’ and pushed it as far away from us as possible. We are neither understanding nor supportive of people living with alcohol addiction. 

The same applies for people dealing with other forms of addiction, but when it comes to alcohol I have a theory as to why we act this way. Continuing to ‘other’ alcoholism means we do not have to look closer at our own relationships with alcohol. If we are not alcoholics, then we are fine...right?!

If only it were that easy.

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