It’s midnight on October 31st, 2021 and I’m driving my 16 year old son home from a Halloween party. It might be the late hour or the fact that he’s dressed like Kermit the Frog but it appears that he’s feeling brave and maybe a little bit vulnerable because he asks me a question. “So….Mom, are you an alcoholic? I mean, how come you don’t drink anymore?

Transparency

Before I dive too deep into this pool, I want to start with complete transparency. This is the hardest blog I have ever written. I have been working on it in my head for years and on my computer in earnest for months. I am struggling to find the words that will describe my relationship with alcohol and all the things that led to my decision to quit drinking for good. I’ve abandoned this piece several times but I kept coming back to it because as much as I am wrestling with my own thoughts and emotions on the topic I feel compelled to write this blog. I think it’s important.

Our willingness to share our stories with one another is important. I know this is true because when I was fumbling blind down my own path to sobriety, I had a friend who was gracious enough to share his reasons for not drinking with me when I ambushed him with questions during what was supposed to be a business discussion. I know this is true because many times when I have shared my story with someone who has inquired I have connected with that person in a way I didn’t realize I could. One woman told me that she felt like my story gave her permission to say “no” when she didn’t want to drink, which was something she had never felt before; another sent me a message on Instagram to say I had inspired her to also evaluate her own relationship with alcohol and to stop drinking altogether; even my own parents told me that they were motivated to cut back on their alcohol consumption because of a Facebook post I wrote.

I’m telling you all of this because I think that what follows is insufficient. My relationship with alcohol is complicated because our society’s relationship with alcohol is complicated. Alcohol is the only drug whose use is not only permitted, but condoned and even encouraged. Its use is supported by our policy makers, advertisers have convinced us that our lives are better and much more sophisticated with a drink in our hands, and it has become the dominant way in which we socialize and connect with others. None of this changes the fact that alcohol is an addictive substance that slows our brain, our neural activity and the function of several other key vital organs. Some people will go as far to say that alcohol is poison, while others will find that statement outrageous. How do I take this complicated substance, evaluate all the history, nuance and complexity of it as well as my own thoughts and feelings and explain why I no longer drink in a few short paragraphs? It feels like an impossible task. Despite this, I am electing to share what I know and understand so far. It’s hard and it’s scary but frankly, most things of true importance are.

Socially Acceptable Red Flags

I quit drinking for the last time on August 26th, 2018. The decades leading up to my awakening on that hot, late summer morning bore the trademark characteristic red flags attributed to anyone who has struggled with alcohol use. I started drinking at a very young age and quickly learned that when I was drunk I received the attention I so desperately craved. By high school I considered myself the life of the party and bragged about my booze fuelled misadventures. On one occasion I remember a younger sibling of one of my friends remarking, “It seems like you are either always drunk or hungover”. We all had a good laugh about it and I distinctly recall feeling proud of this observation. My 20s were more of the same. I struggled with self-identity and self-esteem and alcohol was an effective tool to dilute my insecurity and anxiety, at least for short periods of time. It appeared, however, that I wasn’t fooling everyone as evidenced by one instance when upon meeting my then boyfriend’s best friend, I learned that she told everyone that I was like “Fun Bobby”, referring to Monica’s dull and depressing when sober boyfriend on Friends. My takeaway? Fun Bobby was awesome to be around when he was drunk so I stepped into the role with gusto. Someone even gave me a small red-headed doll who we named Fun Bobby. I carried her around in my purse and she often found herself on the table amidst empty shot glasses and the leftover remnants of pints of beer. Needless to say, my university days were punctuated with blackouts, hangovers and really bad decisions – it’s a wonder that I ever graduated.

When I became a mom things changed pretty dramatically. It was no longer possible for me to spend 4-6 nights a week at the bar with my friends (who, coincidentally, were still at the bar 4-6 nights of the week because they didn’t have kids) and life kind of slowed down. I quit drinking while I was pregnant and once it was safe to resume I slipped into a more socially acceptable kind of alcohol use. Cocktails with family and friends, wine with dinner and maybe a nightcap depending on what the next day entailed. There was still the odd wild night at a party or at the bar – nights where I made sure I took full advantage of my babysitter or co-parent. These escapades were followed by awful mornings marked with the drum of regret beating at my temples, a stomach burning with guilty bile and tearful declarations that I would never drink again.

It wasn’t until my mid-30s when I began to really wonder about my relationship with alcohol. A bottle of wine on the weekend had evolved into a bottle several nights a week. This progressed to a martini or two or three while cooking dinner plus a bottle of wine or maybe two (shared, of course) with my meal – a habit that started occurring more frequently than just on the weekend. In the winter it was night time drinks in the hot tub and in the summer, it was drinks around the fire. On good days I declared, “Let’s have a drink!” and on bad days the sounding refrain was, “I need a drink.” I was never alone and by comparison to the debauchery of my 20s, it was downright tame but as my tolerance seemed to decrease, my hangovers increased and I began to grow uncomfortable with not only how much I was drinking, but also with the troubling thought patterns that were becoming all too familiar. My seemingly “normal”, or at least socially acceptable, behaviour was quietly being underscored by a darker, more insidious theme that was becoming difficult to ignore.

Crushing Shame

“If you aren’t right with yourself, it will crush you.” – Mark Allen

I made note of this quote after listening to The Rich Roll Podcast with guest, Mark Allen in February of 2017. The crushing force they were referring to is the Kona Ironman but as someone who can’t help but appreciate the similarities between sport and life, it spoke to me. At that point in my life the weight I was carrying felt akin to a 140 mile gruelling race through lava fields and shark infested waters. When I look back in my journals from 2017 and 2018, the composition is relentlessly repetitive. All I wrote about in those days was alcohol. I wrote about my guilt, shame and embarrassment after each night of drinking, about how much I wanted to stop drinking but felt like I was unable to, about how much I hated who I had become. I want to be really clear here – I was a good parent, an attentive wife, a business owner, a marathon runner and by all other measurable means, a successful, contributing member of society. I was not what most people picture when they hear the word “alcoholic”. In fact, as I became more and more unsettled with my state of mind I asked my husband if he was concerned about my drinking and he said, somewhat curiously, “Not at all. Why?”. In those final months before I quit drinking for good, the hangover, although awful, was the least of my problems.

The anxiety that had once been “corrected” with the addition with alcohol was out of control. I worried about everything, replayed conversations over and over in my head and endlessly fought imaginary battles. Whatever small reprieve I received from the warm flush of a buzz was infinitesimal in comparison to the mental anguish that inevitably followed. I was emotional and short tempered. Small things would set me off into fits of crying or yelling, which would then feed my guilt and self-doubt. Caught in the spiral of negative self talk, I found it almost impossible to be present and I began to notice that I was looking at the clock and waiting for it to be a conventionally appropriate time to have a drink. I starting planning my day around alcohol, drafting meals and activities around what and when I wanted to drink. Worse yet, I was upset when these plans were disrupted or if I didn’t have someone who would drink with me. What all of this added up to was someone who outwardly appeared to be in control but internally, was an absolute mess. I journaled about how I needed help but I was afraid to ask for it. The shame that had amassed was crushing me.

Searching For Answers

Sometime in early 2018, I sat down at my computer and typed the words, “Am I an alcoholic?” into the the search bar. When I finally mustered up the courage to hit “enter” I found a myriad of websites from various organizations outlining the characteristics of alcoholism and something I wasn’t familiar with called alcohol use disorder. If you’ll excuse a bit of a digression into some semantics it’s probably useful to parse out what these terms actually mean. It is often the case that we use the word “alcoholic” to describe someone who has a problem with alcohol but the truth is, this is not a medical term. The diagnostic term used by professionals (as outlined in the DSM-V – the book they use to diagnose mental health conditions) is “alcohol use disorder” and it breaks the severity of a person’s drinking into categories of mild, moderate and severe. There are 11 criteria listed for alcohol use disorder and a person may be classified as having this condition if they meet any 2 of the 11 items on the list in the same 12 month period. The more items a person identifies as having, the more severe the disorder is considered to be.

When I evaluated my own thoughts and behaviour next to the alcohol use disorder list, it was pretty obvious that I fit the criteria at least on a mild to moderate scale. I found this comforting, mostly because I am uncomfortable with the label “alcoholic”. Some might argue that my discomfort comes from a place of being unable to admit that I am, indeed, an alcoholic. If a person isn’t an alcoholic, wouldn’t they know? Surely it would be clear, wouldn’t it? Furthermore, it could be argued that googling the phrase “Am I an alcoholic?” is something that only an alcoholic would do. Someone who doesn’t have a problem with drinking wouldn’t be secretly seeking answers to their problem with drinking on the internet, right? I’m not prepared to offer an argument in contradiction to any of this except to say that I wonder about the value of reducing something so complicated to something so simplistic as a singular question.

Is It That Simple?

The problem with the label of “alcoholic” is that it allows us to grant ourselves amnesty if our behaviour doesn’t fit into the stereotype of what we believe an alcoholic looks like. When faced with the question “Are you an alcoholic?” – either from someone you love or perhaps from your own conscious – it’s easy to say “No” if you have a good job, you’re an attentive and supportive parent, you don’t drink alone (except for the odd glass or two or three of wine, but that’s just how we unwind, right?) and you never drink before 5:00pm (unless you’re on vacation or at brunch or hanging out with our friends on a random weekday afternoon, because it is, after all, five o’clock somewhere). If, for the most part you’re jovial, perhaps even down right fun to be around when you drink (at least for others who are also drinking), and you only get carried away sometimes but mostly you’re in complete control, no one is particularly concerned when you are nursing a hangover for a second or third time in a week. I have a problem with the label of alcoholic because the stereotypical behaviours we have learned to associate with being an alcoholic fail to capture the unobservable psychological effects, the delicate thoughts and conscience driven whispers bubbling under the surface of the facade of socially acceptable behaviour.

Over the last four years I’ve read a lot of books, blogs and social media posts (I know, I know,

big surprise) about people and their struggles with alcohol. No work on this topic rocked my world so much as Quit Like a Woman by Holly Whitaker. I read this book 3 years after I quit drinking and I sure as hell wish someone would have put it in my hands a decade ago. This book took all the things I could not find words for – my feelings, my questions, my discomfort – and summed them up in such a way that I could have sworn Whitaker was reading my thoughts. Case in point, her answer to the proposed question:

“We’re trained to ask one question of our drinking – Am I an alcoholic? – and to keep drinking if that answer is no. We’re conditioned to believe it’s normal to imbibe, abnormal to abstain, and because of this, we are not conditioned to ask the most reasonable questions of all: Is alcohol getting in the way of my happiness, my life, my self-esteem? Is it getting in the way of my dreams, or maybe just not working for me? Does it cost more than it gives, does it shrink more than it expands, does it cut pieces out of me that I can’t reclaim? Does it make me hate myself, even just a little bit?”

Does it make me hate myself even just a little bit???? The moment I read this quote I revised my belief that all of this couldn’t be summed up in one question. It turns out, I had just been asking the wrong question.

Tony Robbins is credited with saying that “Change happens when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change.” With or without the label of alcoholic, in the summer of 2018 I knew that I had come to this delicate tipping point. I was not living the life that I wanted for myself, I was not who I wanted to be and I was in danger of slipping past “mild to moderate” and into the realm “severe” with my use of alcohol. The pain of staying the same was simply too much and I knew I needed to change. On that hot August morning, I sat on my deck with a cup of coffee in one hand and my resolve in the other. I looked at my husband with tears in my eyes and said, “I want to quit drinking and I need help.”

The Answer

I have not had a drink since that day 4 years ago. It hasn’t always been easy. In fact, in the beginning, it was super fucking hard. I attended a few meetings run by SMART Recovery, which I found helpful in the those first sober months. I didn’t tell very many people about my decision so it was good to have some folks to be accountable to and who understood how I was feeling. I found a therapist who specializes in recovery and worked my way through some very uncomfortable sessions. As time went on, I found ways to be honest about how I was feeling and things got a little bit easier. I discovered the incredible power of vulnerability (I will fight to the death with anyone who tries to argue that vulnerability is weakness). I cried, a LOT. I drank an ocean’s worth of sparking water and Kombucha. I affirmed that I have incredible people in my life, all of whom supported me 100% when I began to share my thoughts and feelings with them. When one year without alcohol had passed, I shared a small part of my experience on social media. Everything I learned in that first year still stands today and with each year that goes by, I understand even more.

I have learned to be comfortable with uncomfortable feelings. I have learned to slow down and really reflect upon and appreciate my accomplishments. I have learned that everyone feels awkward in social situations and you can have fun and really get to know people when you aren’t drinking. I have learned to grow, to question, to accept, to love and to listen.

– Instagram/Facebook Post on August 26, 2019 – 1 year sober

The question my son asked me last Halloween still echoes in my mind in the quiet moments. I don’t have a definitive answer. Am I an alcoholic? Maybe. Maybe not. But maybe it doesn’t matter. Right now, for me, I don’t require an answer to know what I need in order to be the person I want to be. Alcohol does not serve me, it does not enhance any part of my life, it dulls the parts of me that make me who I am and it feeds the nasty voice inside my head that tells me I am not good enough. What I need is to be sober. It’s just that simple. And for me, for now, that is sufficient.

From time to time someone will ask me why I don’t drink. I welcome this question. When a person’s curiosity is piqued I will gladly share with them the answer that I shared with my son on our moonlit, Halloween drive home:

“There came a time a few years ago when I became very uncomfortable with how much I was drinking and why I was drinking. I didn’t like the way it made me feel, both physically and emotionally. I realized that alcohol made me unhappy and it was interfering with me becoming the person I wanted to be. And so, as hard as it was, I decided that it was time to quit.”

Resources

I don’t have all the answers. In fact, I don’t really have any of the answers. Luckily there are many resources available to people who, like me, are searching for them. Here are some of the resources that I have found helpful over the years.

SMART Recovery Alberta https://smartrecoveryalberta.org

Firefly Counselling https://www.fireflycounselling.ca/edmonton-addiction-and-substance-abuse-therapy

Allen Carr’s Easyway and his book Stop Drinking Now

Quit Like a Woman by Holly Whitaker

Social media. The Best Facebook Groups and Instagram Accounts for The Sober and Sober Curious

The most beneficial of all the things I did to get sober still remains – asking for the support of those who love me. If you’re struggling with alcohol use or you have questions, I cannot stress enough how important it is to find someone you trust and share how you are feeling with them. Vulnerability is hard. It takes courage to ask for help but I promise you, it is worth it.

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