Let's Have A Drink!
I've created this post to hold a lot of info so I can point people here rather than answer the same questions over and over. It is an incomplete recap of a recent decision that may not tie directly in with what we've come to expect as my creative output. But I am an integrated work in progress. As an artist and a human being. Decisions in one area of my life can impact other parts. That said, I don't see this as some big new topic I'm going to art about, I have other topics bubbling up that are broader and more insistent. This could well be a one and done.
Disclaimer: I've been forewarned that some people in my orbit are going to have a have a lot of questions about some of this info.That's why I provide links and quotes where appropriate. Please note: I'm not judging anyone's choices including my own. Also, this is SO not the final word on any of the topics mentioned, but with the sources cited it might be a great starting point for anyone that needs to hear it.
Feel free to make a comment or reach out to me in private.
Two months ago a cousin whom I respect and love announced on Facebook that she had not had a drink in over 60 days. She went on to say she had surprised even herself, as she had had one of those modern day 'mommy juice' love relationships with all things red wine. I was struck by her success and revelation about kicking alcohol. Up until that moment I hadn't thought a great deal about taking such a step.
Her announcement really struck a chord deep inside me and something in me clicked. Because this person and I share a lot of the same Irish DNA (known drinky lovers, right?) with full blown alcoholics on both sides of our parental lineage, and had what I think was a pretty similar relationship with recreational and social drinking. Her announcement struck a chord deep within me. I thought about it hard for about 12 hours and then I too decided to let booze go for a time. Maybe even a very long time including (are you sitting down?) forever.
I hadn't gone cuckoo during the covid lockdowns with my drinking. In fact I noted on more than one occasion how I couldn't believe that I wasn't going overboard. Nevertheless, I immediately cut out all consumption of alcohol from my personal intake of ingestibles.
Alcohol = ethanol. It is the psychoactive component in beer, wine, tequila and all such 'spirits' as well as the main chemical compound in rocket fuel, antiseptic and solvent, among very not-yummy others. The same alcohol that's in a hip Kentucky mule cocktail or firing another SpaceX rocket is a volatile chemical compound also known as C2H6O. When we also get blasted it has an almost immediate and long lasting effect on our brains. More on that later.
Yeah, But, What The What?
I'm guessing with an intro like that you know where I'm going with this. But I hope to use this ongoing experience to illuminate a movement afoot that seeks to remove the stigma of not drinking alcohol from casual culture. Wait, what? Uh huh. Alcohol is the one drug you have to justify not doing in the current American climate. Yeah, there is a quietly building community of women (and others, but I'm more inspired by the women right now) opening themselves up to the concept that drinking alcohol may not only be not good for us, but is likely flat out bad - despite the references you see stating otherwise.
Is It Good Or Bad For You?
It must be good because the venerable Mayo Clinic itself has put their seal of approval on some drinking.
Moderate alcohol consumption may provide some health benefits, such as:
- Reducing your risk of developing and dying of heart disease
- Possibly reducing your risk of ischemic stroke (when the arteries to your brain become narrowed or blocked, causing severely reduced blood flow)
- Possibly reducing your risk of diabetes
That's a big, important vote in the YAE column, right? But they follow it immediately with:
While moderate alcohol use may offer some health benefits, heavy drinking — including binge drinking — has no health benefits.
And of course has list upon list of health risks.
From the CDC: Over time, excessive alcohol use can lead to the development of chronic diseases and other serious problems including:
High blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, liver disease, and digestive problems.
Cancer of the breast, mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, and colon.
Weakening of the immune system, increasing the chances of getting sick.
Learning and memory problems, including dementia and poor school performance.
Mental health problems, including depression and anxiety.
So is it good or is it bad for your health? A little is 'good' but a binge is bad? What's a binge?
What Is Too Much?
Throughout the last three decades I have read various books, memoirs mostly, written by people in recovery from various addictions. I would be on the lookout to see whether or not their story matched up well with mine so I could suss out whether or not I was a problem drinker. This would happen after a period of maybe too much of the hooch.
As fascinating as they all were, Caroline Knapps "Drinking: A Love Story" was a standout among such stories, She's an excellent writer and recapped a real struggle with her own relationship to alcohol, But, you see, my own alcohol consumption was never as extreme as tCaroline's nor any of the other protagonists in any of these books. Thus, I concluded, I am neither a legit binge drinker nor alcoholic. So I partied on, the way one does, in the manner of the merry social drinker. A couple of big pours here, a festive girls weekend there, wine while cooking up dinner a few times a week, you get the drill. But I could also skip week. A month even. But never a holiday. No, alcohol was always an important aspect of those.
Alcohol As An Important Member Of Society
I have never not had alcohol be a part of my existence. I was in utero during most of 1957 when my mom and I attended many alcohol rich social events popular in the neighborhood those days. (The medical community didn't start issuing warnings about the dangers of such things until the mid 1970's) Our drink was the respectable gin and tonic. Before racing off to the hospital to deliver me, she and my grog lovin' bio-dad attended a New Year's party. I slipped forth about 4 hours later, I'm guessing with a little buzz.
The early 1960's were one of alcohol's heyday periods in the United States. Ever see the show Mad Men and wondered about all that drinking? Accurate. I saw every adult in my young life consume a lot of booze. After work. On the weekends. At family gatherings. It was ubiquitous. I grew up observing that Tom Collins, Harvey Wallbanger, Bloody Mary and all the rest of the gang were always welcome when the grown ups gathered. Matter of fact one fourth of July the Goetz's forgot to glug the vodka into the vat of bloodys but people started acting drunk anyway. The influence of booze on adult behavior was just a part of normal life. If I had met an adult who didn't imbibe I was unaware of it.
Growing Up With Booze
That's why in high school when all the kids starting sneaking their way onto the beach in the dark to gulp down beer after beer, no one thought that was in any way weird. It wasn't antisocial behavior by any means. Nope. Quite the opposite. And since I had had it modeled for me by all the adults in my life I knew that alcohol was an important aspect of any social event. I drank right along with everyone without question. It felt fun! Of course the hangovers sucked, but apparently you could grow out of them.
Miller Lite was my beer of choice. As a weight conscious teenage girl I was concerned with the caloric content of things. I drank copious amounts of Tab, too, but that's its own troubled story.
I just never questioned any aspect of this.
The Peace Corps.
On I went. I was a festive imbiber. A cheerful one. A singing and dancing one who could create a whole dinner party while tipsy. Tipsy. Such a carefree word.
There it is. The sticking point for so many. The term BINGE DRINKING. Mayo defines it as:
Binge drinking is defined as four or more drinks within two hours for women
Sounds like a lot, right? Sure does, but let's look at what a single drink actually is. For women, it's a 5oz serving of wine. That looks like this:
The typical home pour looks more like this though:
That's a 10-12oz serving. Drink two of these within 2 hours and you, my friend, are binge drinking.
The second photo shows how the wine gets poured at book club, picnics, dinner parties, art openings, your favorite bar and anywhere else the server isn't a stickler for the 5 ounce serving. It's called one drink. It's quite common to have two, or three. But we generous home pourers don't consider ourselves binge drinkers let alone "alcoholics". Somehow the math in the above two images eludes contact with actual awareness.
We're responsible gals, so we check in other ways from time to time.. We take online quizzes. Here's one, but there are literally thousands. Some notably provided by the purveyors of alcohol themselves! Your results will most likely give you no clear answer and will probably indicate your consumption is well within 'socially acceptable' limits. I know from personal experience. And yet the thought that you may have an occasional issue with over-serving yourself can continue to niggle in the back of your conscious.
Sometimes I would really overdo it and pay with the hangover from Hell for a full day.
And sometimes completely out of the blue, I would enter a depressive funk and not know why. These were some shitty times, believe me. Teetering on suicide hotline stuff.
But I could stop taking in any alcohol easily for weeks, sometimes even did - but usually didn't.
Alcohol is a depressant. That's pretty well common knowledge. But my experience is quite the opposite. My mood lifts when I drink! Except, turns out, that's not what they mean. Yes, you can perk right up with those alcoholic drinks, but the effect is only temporary.
In her book "Quit Like A Woman" former binge drinker Holly Whitaker, offers a section on the chemical mechanics alcohol has on our systems and how the addictive habit of alcohol consumption takes hold. Here are my notes:
Dopamine the happy chemical When we consume alcohol, our bodies release artificial high levels of Dopamine.
The neurochemical of wanting and motivation.
It's purpose Dopamine is typically released when we encounter something that:
- Keeps us alive (good food)
- Aids in procreation (good sex)
Glutamate helped our ancestors survive The more dopamine released the stronger we learn to associate the thing with goodness/survival.
At this point glutamate is released - which locks in the memory of the event - which ensures we are more likely to seek it out and repeat it.
Alcohol is an synthetic trickster
A glass of wine releases more dopamine than any natural triggers and causes our brain to release a ton of it which our body interprets as a signal that alcohol is Really good at keeping us alive.
We teach ourselves to consider it very necessary
We’ll remember those cold beers at the ballpark as a strong survival experience. And as we repeat those beers in more situations like that, the cycle totally locks in. Your body becomes neurochemically hard wired to associate beer with survival. If we repeat these experiences enough, our midbrain will be convinced that alcohol is to be prioritized above all other survival behaviors. This is why we drink alcohol even when we wish we wouldn't.
I think our emotional center also starts to build itself around these alcohol induced ‘realities’ too. We start hanging the framework of our personality on these artificial imbalances!
Alcohol's Depressing Truth
Like any dedicated addict (name your poison here, snow, smack, crystal, chunk, fenty, fluff, etc.) ethanol messes with your brain chemistry to the point you start to need the drug, yes ethanol is very much a drug, to feel normal. And your brain loses its natural ability to produce pleasure sensations without it. Soon you can't produce enough dopamine naturally, just like meth-heads!
Alcohol raises stress! In the presence of the alcohol-induced elevated rates of dopamine, our brains then try to balance that out by ramping up its levels of cortisol and adrenaline which increases our overall anxiousness and feelings of stress. We drink to alleviate the very thing, stress, ethanol in known elevate! This monkey business is what leads to post-party alcohol induced, deep, dark depression. Maybe not today, tomorrow, or the day after - but even weeks removed from the binge. And that's how alcohol is a depressant. It takes a bit of time and it's not obvious when you're drinking that's what's happening. There's a delay. The association isn't as easily made as those first blissful feelings.
So the days I've felt depressed? The weeks? All that lost time? I have my ethanol consuming conditioning to thank for that.
It Ain't Cheap
Alcohol is a drug just like the ones I listed above. Not to hear society say it, but it's how our brains process its active ingredient. In the US we have organizations called things like The Drug and Alcohol Office, when it should just read The Drug Office because ethanol IS a drug, It impacts our brains like other drugs. it's not magically different. Or less. The excess costs associated with binge drinking are astronomical!
The cost of excessive alcohol use in the United States reached $249 billion in 2010, or about $2.05 per drink. Most (77%) of these costs were due to binge drinking. Most of the costs resulted from losses in workplace productivity (72% of the total cost), health care expenses for treating problems caused by excessive drinking (11% of total), law enforcement and other criminal justice expenses (10%), and losses from motor vehicle crashes related to excessive alcohol use (5%).
Here's some additional costs of other risky behaviors.
Illegal drug abuse: $193 billion.
Prescription opioids: $78.5 billion
Tobacco: $300 billion
How'd We Get Here?
Now coupled with what society demonstrates, what we've learned from our families and our own intimate experience with alcohol we normalize this very abnormal set of behaviors. Yes, I do understand that alcohol has been a part of sacred and holy practice for millenia. I'm talking about how we've brought it deep into our own daily lives though.
And that's how it is I have been an ethanol sipping, social drinker, sometimes binge drinker, but never a full blown alcoholic for every single one of my 63 years. And American society (others, too, across the globe) has fully supported me in this. The only time our culture has a problem with alcohol is when the drinker goes way, way in and seeks alcohol at an 'abnormal' rate. These are your alcoholics. These are the problem people. Or so they say.
These are the people that must seek help and walk those 12 steps and admit they are powerless over the disease known as alcoholism. And we sure as heck don't want to be classified as one of them! They are considered diseased, powerless and broken people. They are stigmatized for being too weak to 'drink responsibly'.
There's a lot being written about the efficacy of the 12 Steps offered through Alcoholics Anonymous. There's starting to be pushback from modern day feminists who see the program as just another system designed by the white patriarchy to remove power from others. Peer reviewed studies show their success rate to be between just 5 - 10%. Yeah, sure, that's not nothing, but could it be better? A whole lot better? No doubt, yes.
Also, could it be geared to highlight what's right about the drinker and take into consideration the various levels at which people take alcohol? Can a habit be restructured to be considered less an incurable disease that must be exterminated to a set of behaviors that can be changed? Our society loves the white/black, yes/no, all or nothing approach to defining its challenges. But the simplistic approach doesn't always deal with the nuances of culture, society and individuals to useful effect.
Women Make Quitting A Priority
Within the last 5 years, women have stepped boldly into the realm of quitting alcohol and you can feel the paradigm shift because of this new feminine focus and energy. I sure do. Whereas I would pick up memoirs like Ms. Knapps's mentioned above throughout the past few decades and decide I wasn't 'that bad', I felt a shift two months ago and I know I'm in for the long haul. Finally! Oh and it doesn't feel like a lack of any kind, quite the opposite. It feels like an awakening! I feel like I'm on a path to reinvent who I thought I was, who I may actually be without ethanol calling a whole bunch of the shots.
I'm reading books that help me figure out how to break the habit of including alcohol in my day to day life and how to restructure my considerations about what it brings to the table. I'm accepting the responsibility I have for making a change in behaviors I was taught to embrace. I see past the temporary 'happiness' of a couple of big pours, and onward where my anxiety and stress aren't boosted by booze.
I wish I had this realization twenty or thirty years ago, but better late than never!
I'm reading these "quit-lit" (yep, it's a thing) books:
Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol by Ann Dowsett Johnston
Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp
Nothing Good Can Come from This: Essays by Kristi Coulter
This Naked Mind by Annie Grace
The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath by Leslie Jamison
My cousin swears by this book and the associated online community: We Are The Luckiest: The Surprising Magic of a Sober Life by Laura McKowen
I use this App for daily check-ins with others making a similar journey.
It's called "I Am Sober". I'm not in love with the name because it names my state of being in relation to consuming) or not consuming) alcohol. Like any small child who you wouldn't say isn't not drunk, or sober. You would just say they ARE. I want to use a word for this condition too. Is there one? I just AM these days. I'm neither drunk, tipsy or sober. Alcohol simply doesn't play a role in the nomenclature of my state of being any more.
I said it's a movement, right? Here's some more info:
At this writing I'm already 2 months into this journey. Is hasn't been difficult at all because of the new information I've just talked about.
My next goal is to reach 100 days alcohol free. They abbreviate it to AF on the app and many texts. It always cracks me up because "AF" means something else on platforms like Twitter and TikTok. They say "I'm happy AF!" Now I am in both ways.
The breakthrough for me was in my new understanding of the chemical mechanics ethanol has had on my brain and how it has formed a terrible kind of symbiosis for these many decades.
If all goes well I should be completely physically recovered from those years of bathing my brain periodically in ethanol in 5 - 7 years. Emotionally, well, who knows? I've begun that journey in earnest, but teasing apart the alcohol consumption habit-impacted aspects of my personality from those that have been formed differently, or hardwired into my DNA, etc., is going to be a challenge!
Will all of this show up in my art? Let's see!