Archive for the ‘Alcohol’ Category

wineFull disclosure: I don’t drink anymore. More than 6 years ago, on my 33rd birthday, I drank my last glass of wine. It wasn’t particularly memorable except for the fact that it marked what I sometimes think of as the beginning of my new life. More on that later.

For many years before that last drink, and ever since, I have spent a lot of time thinking about alcohol and drinking. Before I quit, that thinking came from a place of guilt and shame, and the mounting worry that I had a drinking problem. Since I quit, my thinking about alcohol has been more objective; it has come from a place of curiosity rather than obsession. And it is from that place that I would like to share some potentially unpopular, but very honest, thoughts about drinking.

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La France sans alcool

When anticipating my recent business trip to France, I worried that I wouldn’t be able to speak the language. Though I studied French for some 12 years, I feared that learning Italian during the last year would erase my French memory and that when I opened my mouth to communicate, Italian words would come out. What I did not anticipate, surprisingly, was being surrounded by the temptation of incredible French wines, spirits, and ales. Somehow I had forgotten to worry about this.

In the nearly 5 years since I quit drinking I have found that some of the most difficult moments are the 15 to 20 minutes at the beginning of a meal with friends or colleagues while they select their pre-meal cocktails and discuss what wine to have with dinner. Ordering a seltzer with lime or some fruit juice-sparking water combination, or creating the physical barrier of hand flat atop wine glass to signal my abstention, often elicits at least a friendly raised eyebrow if not a verbalized “you’re not drinking?” to which I must decide if I will respond “Nope” or “I don’t drink anymore” or “it’s a condition of my parole.”

In France, however, where I have not been since I quit drinking, the presence of wine and other alcohols seems much more continuous. Beginning with the assumption by flight attendants that a glass of wine will be consumed with whatever the airline has decided to place on a 8×10 inch plastic tray for dinner. Extending to lengthy lunches that are much more likely than those in the US to include wine. To the sumptuous dinners – especially in Lyon, the gastronomic capital of France and therefore the world – where the meal begins with an aperitif, continues with carefully selected wines, and often finishes with a digestif.

I am sure that France has it’s share of abstainers from alcohol, from alcoholics to a significant Muslim population, but the responses I received to my usual wine-decline seemed a touch more surprised. What’s a nice girl like you doing not enjoying some of our best national product?

Of course, this could just have been my projection on a people I longed to emulate from an early age, a sort of shame in response to not being able to enjoy alcohol in moderate quantities as the life- and meal-enhancing element it was meant to be.

Surrounded by people seemingly enjoying wine and other alcohols so “normally,” I wondered to myself, as I sometimes do, will I ever be able to have just one glass of wine? When I recall my earlier attempts at moderating my alcohol intake, how they all failed and yet it seemed I just hadn’t found the right moderation management technique yet, I see this delusion for what it is.

Though I take my sobriety one day at a time, I realize I probably will never be able to enjoy moderate alcohol consumption in my lifetime. That the enjoyment is in fact so brief before it crosses the line into guilt, shame, and loss of control, removes some (but not all) of its appeal. And so during those moments when others are anticipating their first sips and I’m sitting there holding my breath, I remind myself to inhale and exhale, to watch my desire to drink rise, abide, and dissolve. And to take special pleasure in enjoying my morning coffee with a sense of clarity, not remorse.

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One of my favorite relationship books is The Hard Questions: 100 Questions to Ask Before You Say “I Do” by Susan Piver. This slim volume poses deceptively simple questions for discussion by couples about to get hitched. By focusing on several key areas – home, work, sex, family – it raises questions from the ordinary to the profound to challenge and inspire couples to gain a deeper understanding of one another.

The beauty I saw in this book was that it didn’t skim over the “small” stuff. Anyone who has ever been in a relationship (ie, everyone) knows that it’s often the little things – the subtle details – that spur continual frustration, ongoing tension, and huge arguments. While big questions of whether to have kids and what spiritual beliefs to impart to said kids are fairly standard pre-vow fodder, who does the food shopping and who will balance the checkbook might never attain that level of conversational importance.

Similarly, I believe there are subtle – hard – questions when it comes to drinking. Most people are familiar with the “big” questions you should ask yourself if you think alcohol is a problem – Do you black out? Do you need a drink in the morning? Have you injured yourself or others while drinking?

But equally important are the subtler questions related to quality of life and living in awareness. (Note: you can substitute many different behaviors – shopping, working, eating, etc. – for drinking in the list below.) What follows are some thoughts I’ve collected on the hard questions related to drinking; feel free to add to this list:

  1. Are there things you do not or cannot do unless you’re drinking? Dance? Laugh? Speak the truth? Open up to others? Take risks? Joke? Joke hurtfully? Cry? Argue? Hit? Smoke? Do drugs? Have sex with your partner? Have sex with someone other than your partner?
  2. What prompts you to drink? Stress? Sadness? Anxiety? Uncertainty? Celebration? Can you imagine what it would feel like to not drink in response to that prompt?
  3. When was the last time you had fun without drinking? Who were you with and why did you have fun? Are the people you’re with and the reasons you have fun different when you are drinking and when you aren’t drinking?
  4. When was the last time you relaxed without drinking? What are other ways in which you relax? How do these different ways of relaxing affect you while doing them and afterwards?
  5. Has drinking kept you from doing anything? Getting a good night’s sleep? Getting a better job? Ending a crappy relationship? Writing a book?
  6. Have you ever considered not drinking for a period of time? 1 week? 1 month? 1 year? How does it feel to consider life without alcohol for a period of time?

Beyond the big question of whether or not you’re an alcoholic, I think it’s important to ask the (perhaps) hard(er) question of whether alcohol (or something else) interferes with your basic level of awareness, if you in fact use it to avoid certain things in your life. The answers will be different for everyone and only you can find the correct balance for yourself. But asking is a good place to start.

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