As of writing this post, it’s been a full 30 days of not drinking alcohol. And before that, it had been nearly 3 years since I’d gone 30 days without a drink of alcohol, which is how I knew that something was up with how I was using alcohol and that I needed to examine that. I have, in the parlance of the day, “an issue.”
But I wouldn’t want to be misunderstood about what I’m saying when I say that there’s an issue. Let me explain.
Here’s what happens when you start talking about issues with drinking, in our society: people imagine Meg Ryan’s character from When a Man Loves a Woman. We do this thing where our standard for, “You have a problem” is drinking Vodka straight from a bottle, slapping your child across the face, and crashing through glass in the shower when you pass out.
This means that a lot of people who actually have an issue with drinking think that they don’t have an issue with drinking. The culture creates this image of what “issues with drinking” look like, and it’s fairly extreme. Also, I live in actual California “wine country.” Wine is everywhere, and pretty much everyone is drinking, and drinking wine every night with dinner is considered Epicurean, not an “having an issue.”
And, of course, I do work in the personal growth field. Stories abound of life coaches who finally fess up to pretending to have had their lives in some kind of order, all the while selling books and courses and programs and coaching with “answers” for people, but it turns out that inside, they were a mess.
This “You have it together, or you don’t” stuff is again, just more of the binary stuff. As a culture, we like to neatly divide people into good or bad camps. I don’t think I’m in a camp. I think two things are true: one, that I’m a life coach who has her life and her insides in some good amount of order, and that how I was using alcohol became an issue.
But I digress. Here’s what I know about my own issue with alcohol (specifically, a love affair with wine).
Back in 2012, I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, and corresponding with that, in 2013, I was diagnosed with infertility. After years of being a never doing drugs, always exercising-and-meditating, doing-all-the-disease-prevention-things kind of person, I was diagnosed with an illness where literally, some parts of my body had gone haywire and were attacking healthy parts of my body. After extensive fertility testing and two rounds of fertility treatments, the doc delivered some very bad news that made the possibility of having a baby seem extremely bleak.
There were several tools that I turned to, to navigate that time and space. I turned to accessing the body, and meditating. I turned to conscious crying and catharsis through actively experiencing my grief. I turned to listening to my inner critic and questioning the limiting stories it proposed, as well as reframing them.
And, without even really thinking about it, I also turned to wine. My husband and I began eating out, more and more often, and in wine country, that meant having wine. We were both really into the ritual of it: hard day, looking forward to going out, choosing a new place, chatting with the servers that we came to know better and better the more we ate out, trying new wines as the servers offered a “pour” of various blends, seeing if we could actually taste the “notes of berry” that were in one wine versus the “strong tannins” that were in another. We’d day trip to wineries—again, meeting new people or going with friends, trying new wines, and so on.
This behavior seemed entirely normal and consistent with what everyone around us was doing. And, what I realize only in hindsight, is that on some (unconscious) level, I was drinking to blunt the feelings that I had about illness, and maybe a little bit to rebel—after all those years of trying to be uber-healthy, this hadn’t really gotten me anywhere, had it? So I might as well have a little fun.
Then, I unexpectedly became pregnant without medical intervention. I stopped drinking while pregnant. Then the Baby arrived, and we couldn’t really go out to dinner the way we used to. That’s when we started purchasing bottles of wine and keeping them in the house.
And that, right there, is when the scales tipped. Because there is this simple fact about alcohol: it is an addictive substance (just like caffeine, just like sugar, and of course, wine is many parts sugar).
Particularly when you link an addictive substance with how you cope with stress (hello, new baby!) or a reward (baby is finally asleep? Time to relax with some wine!), you are basically creating the conditions for a dependency issue with the substance.
If you take someone who doesn’t drink coffee, and you have them drink enough of it every day for a long enough period, they will develop a chemical craving for coffee. Same goes for sugar.
Same goes, it turns out, for wine. Drink it often enough, for long enough, and you will develop a chemical craving for it that can live right alongside all the other things that you do in your life that have nothing to do with alcohol.
That’s what I started to realize had happened, with me.
This is Your Brain on Chemicals
This is the part where I lay it out, really plain-and-simple: I am a strong, courageous, incredibly resilient person who regularly turns to a series of powerful tools to handle life’s challenges and to feel more joyful on a regular basis.
I have not been “pretending” to be this person. I am this person. I’m a rockstar coach and facilitator, a half-Ironman triathlete and writer. Overall, highly driven, perceptive, and clued-in about my own behavior patterns.
And equally as true, is this: in some parts due to the culture that normalizes nightly drinking and in some parts due to the simple fact that alcohol is addictive (like caffeine, like sugar), I started to develop a slow, subtle dependence on wine.
I failed to really notice this, for awhile. Because I thought that people who had “issues” with alcohol were people who were:
a.) falling down drunk,
b.) not paying their bills or functioning with work or their lives,
c.) routinely blacking out or hung over,
and because I was neither a, b, nor c, I thought that it wasn’t really possible that I could have an issue. After all, I’d never in my life had an issue with substance use. In college, I only ever drank at parties. To this day, I’ve never even smoked pot.
So every single day, I would wake up and had no desire for alcohol. Often, I’d grocery shop in the afternoon, before picking up my daughter from daycare, and I’d breeze past the wine section thinking Nah, no wine, tonight. Then, nearly every single night, once the baby (who was now a toddler) was asleep, myself or my husband would step out to grab a bottle of wine.
We’d split the bottle of wine, and for a lightweight like me, anything more than one glass of wine is officially “too much.” Yet I liked relaxing and watching something on Netflix or talking about our day while having a few glasses of wine with our dinner, so I drank a few glasses. I liked being silly and a bit tipsy. I liked the ritual. I liked that there was this thing to look forward to, even if my toddler was having a meltdown. I liked how the stress of the day would slide away and get fuzzy.
And then the more often we were doing this, the more I didn’t particularly like drinking, but felt compelled to because if I didn’t drink, I felt super tense and agitated and stressed. Something switched and not drinking ended up causing feelings of stress. I’d use some of my tools for handling stress—meditation or creative outlets or exercise or questioning my limiting internal narratives—but the thing I really wanted to do was have that bottle of wine.
During 2016, a few things arose that necessitated hiring attorneys and writing some very big checks. In the midst of days when I might receive unpredictable emails that would throw my day off, there was always that evening ritual, with wine.
Once again, I wasn’t thinking consciously about this. I wasn’t thinking, “Ah! Yes! Wine to cope with stress!”
Wine is everywhere; it is attractively arranged at displays in my local Safeway. It was just something I did, something that evolved over time, and something it seemed everyone did. So we had wine with dinner, to wind down the night. What’s the issue?
Little by little, however, I did start thinking more consciously about this. “When did drinking wine become my favorite stress-reduction strategy?” I asked myself.
I started noticing that I was a little bummed whenever we reached the bottom of the bottle. I started noticing that I was waking up more frequently in the middle of the night (so in other words, alcohol was disrupting my sleep). I started noticing that it embarrassed me a bit to check my checking account and see just how many $10 charges there were for our local corner store. I started noticing that sometimes, I wanted to start our little wine ritual earlier and earlier in the evening, and didn’t want to wait until after our daughter was asleep. I started noticing that I was distinctly uncomfortable when our two-year-old knew what a glass of wine was, pointing to it and saying, “Wine!”
Basically, I started noticing that wine was this thing that I spent more time thinking about than I wanted to. Even if I wasn’t falling-down drunk, unraveling my life, or blacking out or hung over, it had occurred to me that something seemed amiss.
So, I decided to set some rules: Just the weekends. Just one glass a night. No more wine in the house; just at restaurants. Okay, back to just on the weekends. Okay, if I drink during the week, just one glass a night. Okay, if I have more than one glass a night, just while I get through this extra stressful time with the lawyers and the writing of big checks.
See how that went? I was blowing past basically every rule that I was setting for myself. And again, I was doing that only in the evenings while living a strong, courageous, resilient and powerful life during the day, day-to-day.
Life was compartmentalized between those two places, except for one tiny-big thing:
Now, even when I wanted to stop, I felt compelled to drink, every evening. I reeeeeeallllllyyyyy wanted to. Then I’d rationalize (“What’s the big deal with a few glasses of wine?”). Even when I told myself I wouldn’t drink, I’d end up having wine or somehow it always just “seemed to happen.”
I was paying attention. And it seemed to me that something was amiss if I was telling myself I wanted to live one way, right up until a certain hour of the day, when all of those values and ideas seemed to go out the window.
Somehow, I ran across the Hip Sobriety website. I began reading. Holly, founder of Hip Sobriety, recommends a book called This Naked Mind by Annie Grace. And then there was this blog post by Aidan Rowley, which I could very much relate to, on “Drinking Words.”
In particular, I read This Naked Mind with fascination. While I had never drank the same volume as the author, the patterns were exactly the same. Reading about Rowley’s experience, was also interesting—because of the similarities. Turns out that my story with drinking? Not so very unique. Why? Because chemical dependency ain’t so very unique. Once again:
Give someone enough sugar, every day, day after day, and they will crave sugar—particularly if you tie that sugar in any way to rewards or dealing with stress.
Give someone enough coffee, every day, day after day, and they will crave caffeine—particularly if you tie that caffeine in any way to ritual (hello, waking up in the morning).
Give someone enough alcohol, every day, day after day, and they will crave alcohol—particularly if, as was my case, it is tied to rewards, dealing with stress, AND a comforting nightly routine, all mixed into one.
It’s not about a moral failing of character. It’s only a tiny bit about willpower. It’s basic brain chemistry and conditioning. We like to think we’re above all that, but for the most part, humans just aren’t.
30 Days Later
So, it’s been 30 days without alcohol. I wanted some space and time to examine my relationship with it. It was only through not drinking wine that I could see clearly how I was using wine.
And, if I am honest? While the cognitive and logical part of my brain says, “No way!” to a glass of wine, the cravings part of my brain is like, “Man, a glass of wine would be aces to go with this blog post.”
So for me, I think that untangling from a pattern that I now see very, very clearly, is just a day-to-day thing. I don’t write any of this to pretend as if I am any kind of authoritative voice on the subject of chemical dependency (the website and book I’ve linked, above, are far better resources on that subject). I don’t desire to get into any debates about AA versus cognitive conditioning or whether or not anyone is an alcoholic.
I write about this because it was reading about the experiences of others that helped me to get some clarity on how I was using alcohol and wine, and how to bring myself back to my own integrity with it (which, for the time being, means not drinking anything, period).
I notice a few new things, 30 days later: I’m sleeping better and waking up with more energy. I like that I don’t have any low-grade shame when looking at my bank account, now that there aren’t those charges for wine on the bank statement. I like that I don’t have a nagging fear of, “Uh, am I normalizing drinking in front of my daughter?” by having wine in front of her, because I’m not drinking.
I like noticing that the internal debate about wine—how much, when, under what circumstances, etc., has just lifted. I’m not drinking. There we go. No debate. Nothing to think through. Nothing to question.
Most of all, I like noticing that the same tools I used to buffer stress and amplify my joy, have taken center stage, again. More heart-to-heart talks, creativity, writing, reading, and down time. I’m signed up for another half-Ironman and I’m getting back into my training groove. These things get to have a bigger space in my life than drinking wine, which means that really, I—the realest and most courageous version of myself—have taken center stage in my life, again.