a three-ish minute read
A year alcohol-free? Why?
When I first went public with my decision to go alcohol-free (AF), this was the most common reaction I got. Back in the pre-pandemic days, when we could all still socialise. Remember them?
And I got asked this a lot. So much so, that I wish I thought about it more beforehand, and formulated a pre-prepared answer. Like with a breakup or job change: a succinct platitude that encapsulated the decision. Why [am I ending this relationship with alcohol]? And it is, indeed, a relationship.
When any relationship ends everyone wants to gawk a bit. I mean, think about how you felt when Brad and Jen broke up! It’s an understandable human reaction. Everyone wants to try and apply some kind of criteria (or at least parts of it) to their own experience/relationship. Everyone wants to be able to apply the ‘normal’ or ‘healthy’ label to whatevs. Everyone wants – needs – a sound bite answer to life’s great complications, sadnesses and set backs. Think of all the ones we have just for the experience of death: s/he’s passed, s/he’s in a better place, it was his/her time, etc.
Like if you could just say after a break up ‘He cheated on me’, then people are like, ‘Ah, well. Fair enough then.’ No one digs for more. A sentence encapsulates all that needs to be said. The same is true for stopping drinking. If I could roll out a truly horrific and unfunny story, such as I careened over a cliff drunk driving and barely survived! Well then. Fair enough. But to say that the relationship I had with drinking was taking more than it was giving? That’s a lot harder to explain. It can’t be distilled into a sound bite. And it sounds cryptic – like that annoying friend/cousin/colleague you have that posts dramatic one-liner Facebook status updates that beg for more info in the comments section. The subtext of ‘it was taking more than it was giving’ could be that I did, in fact, careen over a cliff, narrowly avoiding death! (I didn’t.)
So it’s not that easy to explain the why. Like so much of life, it’s much more complicated than that.
Most people who are like me and fall into the social drinker category will get asked the ‘why’ question, if at any stage, they have decided to take a break from alcohol. For whatever the reason, and whatever the length of time: to sleep better, fell down some stairs, pregnancy, puked in my boss’s car, antibiotics, got arrested, designated driver, migraines, woke up in a stranger’s bed with only one shoe. You get the idea – big reason, small reason. Still, the ‘why’ begs answering. It’s a societal question.
To clarify, by ‘like me’ – I’m referring to those drinkers who fit into the amorphous category of not sipping a steady stream of methylated spirits wrapped in a brown paper bag while lounging kerbside and offering the occasional rant to passers-by. So that’s pretty much everyone who isn’t in rehab right now. That’s a big category. We’re still seen as regular. Normal. Social drinkers. We definitely don’t fall into the ‘alcoholic’ category – the one associated with having a liver the size of a walnut and the totalled car in the driveway.
But there’s a huge grey area between the occasional social drinker and the ‘alcoholic’ point. Alcoholism, as I’ve learned, is no longer a black and white classification. There’s not a neat yes-or-no categorisation, like the bad eggs in Willy Wonka. It’s now considered a condition on a spectrum, imaginatively titled Alcohol Use Disorder.
This begs another: where, oh where, is that line – between safe social drinker and problem drinker? And yes, there is a quiz for this. But does anyone really know? Problem drinking begins way before any physical dependence happens. When is drinking just a harmless ritual that becomes a habit – and when is that habit problematic? Eeeek.
When I once raised the question of ‘how much is too much?’ with my doctor, I got a politician-standard response. Something to the effect of ‘only you can decide that,’ followed by ‘but if you’re worried about how much you are drinking, then it’s probably too much.’ A right answer, if such a thing exists to the question. But not one that brought any peace of mind. And certainly no solutions. Or support.
I’m sure there are many among us who have asked the same question. Either to our doctors, our friends, to ourselves. And perhaps even to those trying on sobriety. Which leads me to this next point…