You don’t have a problem. You drink a bit, sometimes a lot, but you could go without it if you had to.
You love a nice red or you enjoy a beer with mates, and you’ll never not pop the bubbly for a special occasion. You certainly won’t listen to anyone who suggests there’s a problem with that.
I agree that’s not a problem. The problem is how strong it can be sometimes – that urge to have a drink. Sometimes it’s really hard to stop at one or two. It’s tempting to have one to take the edge off after a rough day. And, ‘I’ll just have one to help me off to sleep.’
The fact of it (that we don’t like to bring into full conscious awareness) is that we use alcohol. Whether we like it not, we use it the way we use other analgesic drugs. But instead of using it for the headache or the lower back pain, we use it to ease tension, lift our mood, numb the day away.
In other words, we use it at least sometimes, to regulate our stress levels.
I know. You think I’m all doom and gloom, a party pooper, a teetotaller. And you might almost be right that I can’t tell you anything about the dangers of alcohol that you don’t already know.
I get it. I’m not going to win any popularity contests for writing about this. But here’s the thing…
The risk is real
You might be right that your drinking (or your friend’s or partner’s drinking) is not a problem. But it is scary how easy it is for it to become a problem. And I’m not referring here to the increased risk of liver and brain damage and cancer – you can look that up elsewhere. I’m talking about your drinking slipping over time, and slipping a little more, until it becomes a struggle.
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- As a woman, can you say that you do not consume more than 3 drinks on any single day, and no more than 7 drinks per week? (An average bottle of wine is 8 standard drinks.)
- As a man, can you say that you do not consume more than 4 drinks on any single day, and no more than 14 drinks per week? (4 beers at the pub and a bottle of wine is more than 14 standard drinks.)
- If you stick within these limits the NIAAA (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in the US) suggests you are indeed at low risk of developing an alcohol use disorder.
Note: The strength of alcoholic beverages varies, the effect of alcohol on an individual varies depending on body weight, and even what is considered a standard drink varies in different countries. So yes, you’re right, these measures are not universally applicable, and you may wish to move to a country where you can either drink more or feel less at risk.
Do you ever look around the room and wonder about how high the rates of divorce are, or how prevalent cancer is – and wonder whether it will be you? Of course, we all wonder. But why don’t we wonder if we’ll lose control of our drinking?
The old friend who everyone knows drinks too much, the neighbour who always looks ill, the hassled dad who’s always getting the kids to school late, your coworker for whom stress and sleeplessness is a way of life – drink wasn’t a problem for them either, until it was.
And they’re no different from you and me. It’s not because they had an alcoholic parent, or because they have a history of depression, or because they’re weak or have an ‘addictive personality’. It’s just not that simple.
She held it together for so long. Through the shock of the diagnosis the disruption to her life and the discomfort. The drinking crept up on her, and it’s just so hard to cut back even though she’s been given the all clear now.
He doesn’t even know how it happened. He remembers work stress but that was always there. He remembers a bad period of insomnia. A glass or two of wine helped him get to sleep but it wasn’t quality sleep. He didn’t really notice but the days got worse and the need greater.
Have you any idea how common the slippage is?
Why we’re at risk
I reckon there are two key risk factors. And this is why drinking can be your problem. They are the social factor and the stress factor.
First, let’s be frank, drinking is an undeniable foundation of social life for most of us. It’s everywhere, all the time. It’s not just acceptable or normal to drink, it’s almost compulsory in most social circles.
Second, stress is unavoidable. You will encounter stress to varying degrees throughout your life.
The combination of these two facts puts us at risk.
Because, with drink as a part of your life, it is too easy to use it when that inevitable stressful time occurs. So while you have a handle on your drinking now – it’s a pleasant, enjoyable facet of life, with a bonus medicinal effect on a tough day – you can’t know sure that it won’t become a struggle when you next encounter significant stress.
Don’t stop drinking
I’m not quite so foolish as to suggest that you quit drinking. I know that would be un-Australian of me and understandably unwanted advice. I’ll leave that to the very Australian, former test rugby-playing, quintessential Aussie Bloke, Peter Fitzsimons. He is pretty convincing – he explains that he lost 34kg and notes that a bottle of wine has the same number of calories as a Big Mac, and you wouldn’t wash down a big meal with a Big Mac, would you?
He understands now, having quit, about being in a better mood, sleeping better and thinking more clearly. But he also understands that while it might be ‘a better night with booze, it’s a better life without’. And he adds that he doesn’t miss it.
He didn’t want to rely on willpower. He felt he knew that if he had just one, why not two, and so on. If all that resonates for you, maybe you want to think about giving it away altogether.
Otherwise fine, don’t stop drinking. But do be aware of the risks. Be aware of how you use it, and in particular, how you use it in the context of stress.
Top 3 tips for enjoying (and not using) alcohol
- Measure up
Simple but effective. Count your drinks, measure your alcohol, keep track of your consumption. You’ll be surprised how this reduces your intake almost without trying.
- Rule your world
Make life easier for yourself by choosing the rules of drinking you wish to abide by. Never more than two a day? A minimum of two alcohol-free days a week? Not on a school night? Don’t open a bottle on your own? You make the rules and stick to them.
- Have your party line ready
Have an explanation up your sleeve. When you’re not joining in with the amount that others are drinking, people will be ready to think you are being antisocial, strange or judgemental. Pick your line and use it liberally. ‘I’m on a health kick’, ‘I need to be on the ball tomorrow’, or just, ‘I’m cutting back and feel good for it.’
So, just to be clear, I’m not telling you that you mustn’t drink, I wouldn’t dare. I am suggesting you be wary of your drinking and when and how you use it.
How do you feel about your drinking, or the drinking habits of those close to you? How do you keep it in check? Can you enjoy it, rather than use it?