A Drinking Story

Photo: The Guardian, 2015 VMAs

Photo: The Guardian, 2015 VMAs

Claire at Just a Little Less recently linked to a Telegraph article by Hannah Betts about giving up drinking. It made me think about a friend who recently told us she was cutting back on drinking. We were puzzled. What brought this on? I had noticed there was always an open bottle of wine (or two or three) at her dinner table, but surely she had a lot of guests coming and going? Nope, she and her partner drank wine while cooking, at dinner, and relaxing in the evenings. Every day. Her doctor was concerned enough to suggest she cut back.

I started to think about my social circles and what our drinking norms are.

My history of drinking may or may not be typical.

My parents would give us a tiny liqueur glass with a dash of wine at holiday dinners from the age of 8 or 10. We thought it was awful and couldn’t wait to get back to our Christmas syrup! I grew up in the 70s when the adults in our lives drank a LOT. Dances, parties and community functions were awash in drink. Everyone had a full loaded liquor cabinet at home with not only their favourites, but all their friends’ favourites, for when they stopped by. Most people my age can remember emptying glasses that our parents’ friends left lying around the house after a card game or a party. I used to babysit often, and was continually offered drinks by the parents, and the mister would drive me home at 2 a.m. when he returned drunk after their evening out. And this was everyone, all the time.

My parents drank very little. They had the requisite liquor cabinet and could play host, and they occasionally went out to a dance with neighbours, but I can only recall one instance when my dad had a hangover and we weren’t to disturb him!

The neighbourhood kids would sometimes share a bottle of beer or two, but it didn’t amount to much. I was 15 the first time I got drunk. I went to a concert with two friends, one of whom was older and procured a bottle of rum. I was disappointed in myself because the drinking interfered with my ability to really listen to and enjoy the show. Later the older friend couldn’t be found when it was time for our drive home, and after many worried hours, he was located at the police station where he’d been picked up for public intoxication. Over all, not a good experience.

It didn’t stop me from indulging in periodic drunken revelry in the years ahead. Every time I made a group trip away from home – school trips and festivals – there was always scheming to obtain booze and get drunk while away from adult supervision. We knew we’d get packed up and sent home if we were caught. I think the adults sometimes turned a blind eye if they felt it was harmless enough and didn’t involve sexual debauchery as well!

In my junior exacting way, I used a harm reduction model. I calculated the risks, minimized them as much as possible, and then got blotted like everyone else. Maybe 2, 3, 4 times a year.

By the time I was 18, I began to see friends developing problems with drinking and drugs. My boyfriend binge-drank at weekend parties to the point where I once resuscitated him. As we all reached legal age (19), clubbing was the thing to do. Luckily, I could go see bands and not drink my face off. But the girls would often go to Happy Hour and knock back 5 drinks in a go. Even my parents questioned why I avoided girls’ nights out. I just didn’t enjoy being with drunk people. I felt like I’d gotten my partying out of my system when I was a teenager, and it was time to grow up now. I pictured myself drinking a glass of white wine in a fern bar or at an art gallery, not in a bar with a pool table and a dart board. Maybe my snobbery saved me?

I took my first professional job in Saskatchewan. At that time, the young staff I worked with tended to be conservative in dress and demeanour. We worked at the library and cooked and knitted and did aerobics and followed our favourite TV shows and drank tea. It was my first experience of living in the Bible Belt. There were even Dry Towns, which meant ordinances had been passed to prohibit the sale of alcohol. My crowd were mostly very light social drinkers, but non-drinkers were more the norm.

After a few years of good food and reading and needlework (I was in my 20s!), I joined Weight Watchers and gave up drinking for the first time. At that point I hadn’t been drunk in years, but firmly decided I’d save my empty calories for candy and desserts, not alcohol!

It was in this climate that I met my ex, a professional person who loved children and cats, with whom I planned my future life. He had grown up in a culture similar to my family’s, where drinking was seen everywhere, but wasn’t really a feature in the home. Unfortunately, he had a combination of personal problems and rebelliousness that led him first to drink, then to self-medicate. Because he functioned so well at work, I didn’t recognize the signs. He identified as a workaholic and had difficulty dealing with work and personal stresses. Later he was diagnosed with depression, anxiety and panic disorder, all of which usually co-exist with addictions, making it impossible to know which came first. Substance abuse is a very scary thing. Eventually it strips away likeable human qualities, and leaves nothing but a set of behaviours around drinking or using. This includes defensiveness, manipulation and lying – especially to oneself.

Longtime readers will know that my ex died, leaving his family heartbroken for him, and for all we did and didn’t do, or attempt to do.

Everyone probably knows an alcoholic. Usually it’s an old uncle, a family friend, a friend’s parent, a neighbour, maybe a co-worker. Until we are older, it’s usually not a brother or sister, a best friend, a spouse or a child. We draw a line between ourselves and “those people.” Until it is us and ours, and then we realize those people are not just among us: they are embedded, they are us.

When all this was happening, I got educated. You know the quote, “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels”? Well, in Al-Anon it was said, “We go through everything the alcoholic goes through…only stark, raving sober!”

After that I didn’t drink at all for seven years. It wore off. One day I was at a book club meeting where wine was being poured. There was no pressure to drink and most were having only one glass. I felt safe. I stopped feeling that drinking had to be all or nothing for me. I’d never experienced problem drinking myself, and I trusted it would stay that way. It did.

To this day I consider myself a very light, one-glass social drinker. Every once in a while I think fondly about a year when I shared a pizza and a bottle of wine every Friday night with little ill effect. But in practice, I don’t want to go there.

You’ll be interested to know that Rom doesn’t drink alcohol. The way he says it, he was a drinker from school-leaving up to age 23, going down the pub every weekend. He got run down and had a period of poor health that really knocked him for a loop. As part of his recovery, he decided not to drink any more, and hasn’t touched a drop since. It’s hard to know which teenage binge drinkers will become alcoholics and which won’t. He feels he would have.

Being a non-drinker is socially awkward. People make a big deal of it, try to talk you out of it, ridicule you and even put a drink in your hand. It’s like meeting your friends for dinner at a steakhouse and revealing you are vegan. You are a laughing-stock. You are being pious. You value principles more than friendship. Or you are just boring and uptight.

I have now come around to Rom’s Buddhist way of thinking: if I have more than one drink, I am drinking for the effect. To relax or forget or giggle or be tipsy. And you know what? I really do want to go through life – even weekends! – unmedicated. I can relax and laugh without help. Everyone in my life gets the real me. Eeek!

Do you have a drinking story?

PS Readers who are embarking on vacation this week can cheerfully postpone thinking about this 🙂

Good Resource 1

Good Resource 2

40 comments

  1. EcoCatLady

    First of all… Canada has a Bible belt? Who knew?

    I find your descriptions of social pressure to drink both interesting and very disappointing. I remember that sort of thing in college, but even then it was only the fraternity/sorority crowd that was really into it, and I certainly wasn’t into that crowd! In the folk music world most people didn’t drink very much… I guess alcohol just wasn’t the “drug of choice” for that crowd if you know what I mean! Anyhow, I can’t really recall much social pressure to drink outside of college.

    Not that I haven’t been good and plastered a few times, but only a few. Actually the worst drinking I ever witnessed was in Norway, but interestingly enough, while I saw people drink themselves into oblivion, I never EVER saw anyone drive after even having one drink there… ever. I think the fact that you lose your license for life if you get a DUI might have something to do with it, but I found the culture quite refreshing in that sense.

    My Ex also had a drinking and drug problem, and that’s a big part of why we broke up. I just couldn’t take it. My breaking point came the day he spent all the grocery money on beer… I confronted him about it and he said in all seriousness, “but beer is food…”

    Anyhow, CatMan and I enjoy a glass of wine or two when we do movie night, and I’ll occasionally make a margarita to go with Mexican food, but that’s about it. For some reason it always surprises me when I come across someone who’s drunk at a party or something… I guess I’m so far removed from it that I forget that people still do that sort of thing!

    • Among my immediate contacts, everyone seems to have just one drink when they go out, but several drink much more at home – multiple glasses of wine with dinner. I don’t run into drinking culture very much, but I do find that even family will badger non-drinkers to have “just one.”

  2. I think that this is a good thing for everyone to have some awareness of. I know that I know people who cross the boundary into unhealthy drinking without realizing it.

    • Yeah, me too. There is an image of problem drinkers as skid row drunks or people who are messed up/falling apart. I had a friend once who wouldn’t go to a restaurant unless it was licensed – always needed to have at least one drink to feel comfortable.

  3. Fiona

    Thank you for the free pass this week for Vacation (literally drink in hand, I’m embarrassed to say.) Australia has a huge drinking culture – linked to hospitality – and it is hard to unravel the mix. I just look at the sheer cost in dollars and feel appalled at tbe first world privilege and the donations that coukd go elsewhere. But when friends come over? There’s wine and beer on the table. Australia needs to grapple with our social mores and look at the social a d financial cost.

    • The drinking culture in Canada has completely changed in the last 40 years, and especially the last 15. While most would still have wine available for dinner guests, there would be no real assumption of any alcohol being served outside of dinner time. I can’t remember the last time I saw anyone order a drink with lunch. And I do think people are cost-conscious when a bottle of beer or glass of wine in a restaurant starts at $6.95!

      • Fiona

        Wow…that is so different to here. I’m just thinking back over the past few days and there were even a few bottles of wine opened at 3:40pm (10 minutes after the kids left) at school on Friday. What caused such a shift in Canada?

      • I have thought hard about this and decided it’s: the campaign against drinking and driving, the availability of alcohol only in provincial government-run liquor stores (not in supermarkets and corner stores), the extreme rising price and taxation level of alcohol, the lack of neighbourhood pubs and drinking-related gathering places, the legal obligation of bartenders to stop serving inebriated patrons, the rise of foodie culture (where one $10 glass of wine or a microbrew beer is more valued than having many cheap ones) and the rise of cafe culture, in which everyone goes out for coffee drinks. In my area, Tim Horton’s coffee/doughnut shop is the meeting place of choice and loads of people have 2 or more Tim’s coffees every day, or go get a round of take-out coffee for their friends or co-workers. When visiting someone’s home, we think nothing of asking them to make a new pot of coffee!

        Did teachers really open bottles of wine on the school premises after the students had left? Definitely cause for dismissal here! (Teachers would be too afraid that someone would “rat them out” to the administration!)

      • Fiona

        I’m really glad you’ve written about this, Dar. It’s so easy to be insular in a far-away place like Australia and think our culture is totally normal. But drinking to excess is not even remarked upon here. Yes, we did open 2 bottles of wine (given to us by a parent!) on Friday after school. The principal popped in and wished us well, apologising that he couldn’t stay due to an appointment.

      • The tipping point for us was that in the 1990s, municipalities, school boards, etc established policies that alcohol was not allowed on their premises, and that employees could not charge any drinks to their expense accounts, either for work lunches or for conferences and training. There had been a backlash against govt employees living it up at taxpayer expense.

      • As an “administrator” if there are no kids, and you would only have a couple, it wouldn’t be an issue. If students still on the grounds, then no. Plenty of schools do so. Parents often give bottles of wine as gifts.

        I don’t know if there is a Canadian equivalent but we have a term for the fun police and dour, Po-faced. Wowsers. No one likes a wowser.

        Donuts and coffee? All that fat and sugar! Can’t see that as better than a glass of beer, health-wise.

      • Mostly people have weaned themselves off doughnuts, but two Double Doubles (coffee with 2 milk and 2 sugar) is the usual. It’s funny that wine and coffee are similar in maybe having antioxidant benefits at low levels, but both having risks at higher levels. They say that non-drinkers of either shouldn’t start for the supposed benefits. It seems to me that the risks of two or more alcoholic drinks a day are higher, but until I give up caffeine and sugar, I won’t go all holier-than-thou!

      • There’s definitely an assumption that drinks will be served outside of dinner here. Apparently in Australia I’ve hit the age for problem drinking for women. Our kids have grown up and we can let loose. I do drink more than ever before. Never really drank as a teen or at uni. I was the old one out. Drank quite heavily on Friday and Saturday nights with teachers in my 20a. Then had kids and largely stopped, with a few binges a year.

        Now I drink more nights a week than I don’t. It is easy for the number of glasses to increase and the new norm become three rather than one glass.

        Nearly all my friends drink. As Fiona says it is linked to hospitality. If I didn’t offer a drink when friends came over, I’d be a poor host. Except my mother is a teetotaller. She offers tea. And she’s a generous hostess.

        I do like a drink though if I had to chose between giving up alcohol and giving up tea, I’d give up alcohol.

      • I agree, there is a much greater temptation to drink when we have grown kids and fewer responsibilities at home, combined with increased responsibilities at work and the need to unwind. It almost seems like “treating yourself.” Probably the key, if change is desired, is to develop substitute habits like BTG’s green tea ritual. But it must be hard if the culture/social circles razz a person for stepping out of (their) line. I think having a role model like your mom going against the grain is cool! As you know, I can’t imagine giving up caffeine.

  4. Fiona

    Just looking at Cat’s comment about drink driving… It’s been cleaned up in Australia a lot, but it’s still common for the text tree to activate, warning locals if there’s a ‘booze bus’ nearby (police detecting drink drivers.)

    ‘Friday Night Drinks’ (at home) is also a really common, socially acceptable form of drinking… that can tip over into closet alcoholism.

    I loved visiting France, where they have a much healthier approach to alcohol consumption.

    • I don’t know what the norm is in France but I imagine very relaxed “slow eating” evening meals…

      • Fiona

        French people I’ve met are shocked at the British / Aussie ‘binge drinking’ e.g. young people don’t go out for a night and drink to get drunk. There seems ti be an entire culture of moderation. You can buy alcohol directly off the supermarket shelves but people drink with meals and in smaller amounts.

  5. You are stronger than me, in being able to limit to one or two glasses. I am an alcoholic, but have been able to abstain now for eight years. I cannot drink at all or am too scared to. “I am not going to drink today” was a piece of advice given to me by someone who knows the struggle. I wrote a post after six years, which I have attached. This has been my most frequented post by far, as it speaks to so many who have or know someone with similar challenges. Thanks for sharing your story. Keith https://musingsofanoldfart.wordpress.com/2013/08/08/six-years-alcohol-free-but-still-want-to-drink/

    • Thanks very much for the link, Keith. I don’t consider myself strong; I just don’t have the desire to drink to excess and maybe that is more genetic than not (although I think it’s possible to cross that line through habituation despite not having the “gene.”) I wonder: if there was a test to establish one’s likelihood of becoming a problem drinker, if people would choose to take it? I like your advice about substitute habits. We are ritualistic creatures!

      • Good idea on the test. Aristotle said we are creatures of habit. Charles Duhigg wrote a book off finding triggers for bad habits and replacing them with good ones. A friend gave it to me to read and it reinforced the need to substitute. Best wishes on our collective journey. Keith

  6. Mel

    Brilliant post D. You shed some light on a very touchy subject and wrote a wonderful tribute to a good man. Thank you!

  7. Claire/Just a little less

    This post is brilliant Dar. I’m so glad you wrote it. The resources are useful especially the 7-day calculator from drink aware which I’m going to use to check my units. Thank you.

  8. NicolaB

    My parents gave us wine mixed with lemonade when we were young- their theory was that if alcohol wasn’t a big deal, we’d be less likely to go nuts when we were legally allowed to drink.

    When I was a teenager I like the sweet sort of drinks like Baileys (whiskey and cream), Malibu (neat!) and in my early teen years alcopops like Bacardi Breezers.

    I definitely used to drink because I thought it was cool, although I was quit cautious to begin with as the sensation of being not quite in control and a buyout of yourself was odd. Anyway, at uni there was a drinking culture and a ‘how much have you drunk/the more you drink the more hardcore you are’ thing going on.
    Having said that, I knew one person who was teetotal- and he was not excluded or thought to be weird for not drinking (which might have been the case when we were at school).
    We also used to play drinking games in the bar- when I revisited uni last autumn, ten years after I started my degree, I found they had banned drinking games due to concern for people being forced to drink. At the time I thought it might have been a bit of an overreaction, but on reflection I think ithe change might have been partly related to this: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-tyne-33252568

    Anyway, even whilst I was at uni I was never the heaviest drinker…and after uni my alcohol consumption really reduced- as I had a job that meant I had to drive to work (and my parents had drummed into me that I should never drink and drive) I didn’t drink on a ‘school night’…as I worked some weekends, my opportunities for drinking were quite limited!
    (I am also terrible if I have not had enough sleep, and I am a ‘lark’ rather than a night owl, so staying up late makes me feel awful anyway- this probably contributed to the fact that I never really liked clubbing…)

    Anyway- I hardly drink at all now. I have been to lots of weddings this year and have had maybe a glass of wine and sipped some bubbly for the toast, but that’s plenty. I actually really like the taste of wine, but decided in the last year or so that it’s not worth the pain! Even one glass now makes me feel groggy the next day.
    My younger brother has given up drinking entirely- partly because his job means he is often not allowed to drink, and partly because he too dislikes the after effects of even one drink.

    I’m sure I read somewhere that in the UK there are increasing numbers of young people who are teetotal for religious or health reasons, and that it is now ‘middle aged’ drinkers who are more likely to drink unhealthy amounts.

    Ok- perhaps it was more about religious changes than I remembered! http://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/feb/13/teetotallers-on-rise-in-uk-one-in-five-dont-drink

    • For me at home, drinking was more associated with special occasions like holidays and family reunions. Drinking routinely in the evenings, with either dinner or TV, just wasn’t done. I am a lark too, and a drink after work on a weeknight just makes me feel sleepy.

  9. jamielredmond

    As another Australian I can back up Fiona’s comments about our drinking culture.

    I’ve never really been into it. I would have a few with friends when we were teenagers and at uni, but I’ve never been drunk. I find that a drink or two just makes me feel tired. I have more fun without it. I do sometimes have a sip of my husband’s drink if he is having something interesting, but that is all.

    People seem to feel very uncomfortable that I don’t drink. I’ve had a lot of comments about it and pressure to have a drink, even with me in my 30s around friends in their 40s. People tend to get used to it after a while and know that I won’t be swayed/cave to pressure and they stop. And they eventually learn there are benefits to having a non-drinker around.

    It surprises me the number of arguments I see when we go out to dinner with couples, over which spouse gets to drink that night (leaving someone sober to drive home). We’ve gotten a number of comments that my husband is the lucky one, having a non-drinking wife.

    • Yep, I find alcohol makes me feel tired, too. I like the taste of various drinks, and then I think, in that case, maybe I would like new juice or pop varieties just as well! I was excited to try some new San Pellegrino pop flavours this summer – lemon mint, and blood orange 🙂

  10. I have, in the past, drank too much for perhaps a 6 month period. It wasn’t good. I would binge drink and then feel so sick after. I haven’t drank much since then and I could count on two hands how many glasses of wine I have had this whole year. I am not really interested in it any more.

    • I’ve never had the ability to voluntarily make myself feel sick more than one day in a row. Must be some sort of survival instinct! I’m glad you’re over it. I would be interested to know what you think of the differences in drinking culture between Canada and the UK.

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  12. I’m surprised how different it was when you grew up! My parents rarely had alcohol when I was a kid just because we didn’t have the money for it, plus there were/are several former/current alcoholics in the family so we never had alcohol at family gatherings. Both are probably part of why I rarely drink (about one drink every month or two). Plus I have to drink with a big meal to mitigate the effects so I don’t end up asleep at the table, haha 🙂

  13. Having just returned from Bali, the international capital of Australia tourists behaving badly, this is incredibly topical. My parents both drink, though my mother almost solely red wine. Dad drinks beer with others (my brothers, BF etc), but will otherwise have wine if it’s just mum or wine drinkers. He prefers wine with meals and beer prior. The BF prefers G&Ts and pretty much only drinks beers socially (so I feel bad that when we lived apart I always had and offered beer, now knowing his preferences!) I drink red wine, and sweet drinks, whether that be liqueurs or cocktails. At uni, I was largely known for not drinking – one, I didn’t like (cheap) beer and hadn’t acquired a taste for wine until I lived in France in 2006.

    I enjoy being in semi Muslim countries (Indonesia, though Bali isn’t) as they tend to have more diverse and detailed non alcoholic drinks, smoothies, juices, mocktails. A few nights on holiday I leaned this way instead of to alcohol. And I wouldn’t get a top up at ‘drinks o’clock’ when offered.

    I look very dimly on overdrinking, having more or less grown up around it. I had uni friends who I’d meet after my 9pm finish of a class in the bar. It’s like they drunk to hide stuff. As Lucinda says, my parents fit the danger category, and I have come to think (very recently), anything after drinks o’clock will be forgotten and/or repeated later, with my mother. But to talk about drinking less would be a very touchy subject. Having lived in France, I have taken a very French approach to drinking. I will drink when I’m inclined, when there’s something I’d like. I will have a second glass of wine should I be enjoying it enough, but not out of obligation or pacing with the person asking. I certainly feel living with the BF has increased my general acceptance of an evening drink. That being said, he bought 2L of duty free spirits and I couldn’t find anything interesting enough this morning.

    • While writing this, I was thinking of something you noted here, that if someone has a few drinks regularly, you are never quite sure what they remember of your conversations, and whether they need reminders to follow up on things. I think the line between “most days” drinking and “problem drinking” is a fine one, and identified more readily by everyone but the person themselves. “Drinks o’clock” is a new one to me! I like that you resist social pressure to drink (or don’t feel it as pressure) and have come up with something that works for you. Bravo!

  14. PamDDO

    A Canadian here. I experimented with alcohol three times in college, and did not enjoy the effects at all. I also had one glass of champagne twenty years ago as the consequence of losing a friendly bet, and that is the extent of my drinking throughout my lifetime. I could never see an upside and didn’t bother to acquire a taste for it. I have as many or more laughs than those drinking so don’t feel like I miss out on anything.
    I serve wine and beer when I have people over, and encourage visitors to take home the rest of the bottle otherwise it’s going down the drain.
    Since college, I have experienced no social pressure towards drinking, although my family and friends drink moderately. What surprises people much more is that I don’t drink coffee!

    • You are smart, Pam! I am happy for you that you don’t get social pressure, even though your family and friends do drink. I can switch from regular coffee to decaf, but have never been serious about giving it up. I like both the taste and the rituals. Probably the same reasons that people drink alcohol, minus the tipsiness. After no coffee for 2-3 days I can function OK but that first 48 hours is rough 🙂

  15. You sure do pick interesting topics to discuss. I too lived in the same culture you did. Alcohol was always available and as a young child on holidays were were given a glass of 7Up with a splash of wine in it. I always thought it was the German/Irish roots that believed it was okay to drink and not making it a forbidden thing would result in less alcohol abuse later in life.

    In high school I developed a drinking problem, not unheard of in my family but I had permission to call home and admit I’d been drinking and would stay over night where I was rather than drive home with no punishments to follow. Alcohol wasn’t seen as bad, but driving after having a few drinks was.

    My problems with drinking (I was self-medicating) continued until the night of my 21st birthday when it was suggested that I might be pregnant. I was and stopped cold turkey. I had one relapse at 24 for one night but nothing since that. I know myself enough to realize I am better off not touching it than risk falling back into the habit. I give full credit to becoming a mother for ending my years of drinking. Every time I craved a drink I pictured my boys needing me, say a trip to the ER and that was enough to sway me not to fall back into it.

    I did feel like an outcast having quit drinking at the exact age it was finally legal to do so and all my friends were happy to be at the bars, but even before I stopped I never liked the bar scene. If I was going to drink I preferred to do it at home or a friends home.

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