A complicated relationship with alcohol

A complicated relationship with alcohol
Photo credit: kaboompics.com

Them: Do you want a drink?

Me: I’ll have a 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: *looking 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’s almost four years since I gave up alcohol. There is no way to say that, which doesn’t need me to also say that I’m not an alcoholic so I don’t mention it often.

I’ve spent so long trying to write about why I quit drinking, I had to change it from ‘two years since I gave up alcohol’ to four years. The difficulty is that words like ‘quit drinking’ immediately lead people to think of alcoholism. My not drinking isn’t the same as the difficulties people dealing with their alcohol addiction face, but people often conflate the two when they hear I used to drink but don’t now, hence my not talking about it much.

This is Ireland, though, and the 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 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 much I drank on those occasions. This wasn’t because I was trying to hide something; it was because it hadn’t occurred to me to question the quantity before. If the frequency was low, what did it matter if I was a binge drinker?

Current Irish recommendations are that men drink no more than 17 standard drinks in one week, the number drops to 11 standard drinks for women. However, recent research shows that even moderate levels of alcohol consumption can affect your brain. Honestly, though, how many people even think about what a “standard” drink is? When someone says a standard drink is a small glass of wine, how small are they talking? FYI, it’s a 100ml glass.

We’ve likely all sworn off alcohol during a particularly bad hangover, so why did I follow through on it? The short answer is that the medication I take to control rheumatoid arthritis made my hangovers absolutely unbearable.

The longer answer is, 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 etc., 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.

That realisation was 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’s difficult to do much else until you’ve figured out the answer.

The answer, for me, was accepting that my drinking habits were a problem, though not an addiction. On some level I had known this for years. Maybe my relationship with alcohol had never been healthy. After all, I had cut out various drinks over a five-ish year period. 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 most was O’Connell’s 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 of nor supportive toward people who are alcoholics. The same applies for people 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 don’t have to look closer at how we view our relationship to alcohol. If we’re not alcoholics, then our relationship with alcohol is fine…right?

If only it were that easy.

This article first appeared in my now defunct Cornflakegirl’s Musings newsletter in June 2017.