Yeah, I know, I look pretty good in both of these photos. They're from weddings- professional photographers, hair, and makeup. Don't worry, there'll be some real shit shows in upcoming posts. Revealing oneself takes baby steps, alright?
I suppose alcohol is as good a topic to begin with as any. It starts with an "a", the country is obsessed with it (many folks probably felt they needed quite a bit of it on Election Day), and giving it up is the single biggest habit change I've made in getting healthy- and the habit change that made all the other habit changes SOOOO much easier to make. Also, starting with a post about alcohol means I can pull the Band Aid off when it comes to letting some skeletons out of the closet on this blog. (Did you catch that? Two for one clichés. You're welcome.)
So first a note about the structure that my posts may usually take: I'll concentrate on my own experiences and knowledge on a topic in the"Me" section. Then, I'll give some advice and tips for folks who might be helped by something I've learned in a "You" section. (If you are just reading to learn some chisme about my life and don't want any preachy shit, you probably should skip that section). Lastly, I'll put on my health educator hat in the "Health Ed" section and contemplate how I think this topic might be approached if you are a teacher, or have children in your family or friend group that you'd like to guide. I've learned a lot as a student of health in school when I was a kid (much of it miseducation, unfortunately, that's taught me what not to do), in my studies for my teaching and health education credentials, and in my classroom experiences as a teacher- from both my successes and my missteps.
Let's get on with the topic of alcohol.
So, here they are, some of my thoughts on drinking, which are probably fairly common:
It's wonderful, and it's awful.
I'm great at it, and it's not for me.
It was a major contributor to some of the most amazing times I've had in my life, and a major contributor to nearly every regretful thing I've ever done.
I love the taste, the history, the immediate effects on my brain, the rituals, the tools. The art it has inspired. The colors and shapes of the bottles and labels. And, I love nearly every type of it and every concoction that can be made with it.
I'm from blue collar Midwest culture, and so alcohol is very important. Particularly beer. It didn't much matter if the beer was particularly good, because- until my immediate family had better financial circumstances in my late teens- we couldn't afford and didn't know much about more expensive alcohol, other than maybe some wine coolers, Jack Daniels, or Smirnoff on special occasions.
As a kid, I was a voyeur of adult drinkers. A fetcher of beers from the fridge at home, and from the cooler at cookouts. I learned this lesson: Adults drink. Billboards said it, TV and movies said it, my life said it. During the week, finished work days meant beer. On the weekend, finished yard work meant beer. In the summer, outdoor events meant beer. In the winter, they meant a Thermos with liquor diluted with hot water or hot chocolate. Celebrations meant beer. Sad times meant beer. Card games meant beer. Bowling meant beer. Chuck E. Cheese birthday parties, even, meant beer. I spent quite a bit of time in bars (ones that served food, so were able to qualify as restaurants- "Bar and Grill"-and to allow children), playing with neighborhood kids. While our parents drank, we scurried under high-top booths, played with the knobs on cigarette machines, prank-called free 800 numbers from the pay phones. It was a blast. Even with bars and drinking so woven into the fabric of our culture, for the most part, my family didn't overdo it. They were drinkers, but not drunks. Drunkenness of others at an event was received with a chuckle, maybe sometimes a pinch of judgement or a splash of pity.
In my late teens and on, I was a weekly binge drinker. A host of epic drunken parties. A shooter of shots. A strong contender in drinking games. (All the types. I'm good at cards, brain tricks, table games, physical feats- you name it. And winning was VERY important.)
As an adult, after graduating college and moving to San Francisco, I began to learn about wine, craft beer, and liquors I'd never heard of before. I was a bartender. A cocktail party-goer. A bar fly. A brewery tour-er. A wine club member. And perhaps, most of all, a professional, who took Friday happy hour attendance quite seriously. In fact, I organized most of the happy hour events for the staff at the schools where I taught. And I'll admit that those in stressful and helping industries like teaching, social work, and nursing, tend to party fairly hard. Not the cocaine-heavy partying of our lawyer and corporate counterparts, but certainly alcohol-soaked dive bar nights followed by dancing and karaoke, in between more rounds of beers, cocktails, or shots.
And yet, now, I do not drink at all, and I can honestly say that I do not miss it. And that the temptations are very few, and very weak. I've learned (from the help of some of the great work of Gretchen Rubin) that with many things, I'm a much better abstainer than I am a moderator. In fact, the only thing that makes me crave a drink, is a drink. If I don't have one, I don't really want one. And I'm grateful for this, because I know that many people who don't want to drink have a very hard time being around alcohol. That's not the case for me, which means I don't have to give up beautiful glass bottles with shiny colorful labels. It means folks can make me layered concoctions of herbs and fruits and bubbles and pour them in fancy glasses, which I can sip next to drinkers, with the peace of mind that comes with knowing I'm hydrating and nourishing myself toward a glorious morning. It means that I can do one of my favorite things in the world, dance, if not with the help of the lowered inhibitions provided by alcohol, at least under the cloak of the low lights of a club, instead of only under the bright lights of a dance studio or gym. It means I can hang out without a struggle in some of the few places where I still feel a sense of community in our society: dive bars. There, I can hobnob with other misfits and over-sharers. (One of my greatest fears of quitting drinking was giving up the sense of comfort I feel when hanging out with folks in dive bars. I find a lot of people there- especially the drunk ones- whom I feel a kinship with because, like me, they are willing to show emotion more readily than is the norm in many other societal arenas. And I find that they are willing to be outwardly critical and even rejecting of many societal rules and expectations. More on this later).
The fact that I love every type of alcohol has maybe even helped me, in a strange way. Or at least, the fact that I'm not a picky person. Being a lover of many things means I don't miss one when I have another. It's like, if you are eating an amazing piece of pie, are you missing cake? Probably not. Folks ask me how I was able to give up eating meat in 2005ish. Does it gross me out now? Did I stop enjoying it? Am I just insanely willful and stoic? Nope. Giving up meat became easy once I'd broadened my palate and realized I love nearly ALL food. And this has been a key aspect for me in shedding unhealthy habits: not focusing on what I am losing or giving up, but thinking about what I have, and feeling happy that I can focus more time and attention on those things. A mentality of abundance rather than scarcity, some call it.
I don't want to pretend that arriving at this point in my relationship with alcohol was easy. The fears about giving it up were powerful, as was the feeling that drinking was part of my identity, and that to quit meant to create even further separation from my family, my friends, my upbringing. Now I was going to solidify myself as "crazy liberal college grad health nut Cheryl who moved and became an SF coastal elite", or whatever. If I couldn't throw back beers with my brethren and folks of all walks of life, what would be the great equalizer? The thing that brought all commonalities to the surface? Surely I'd be rejected- or at least distanced- from many people I loved. Surely drinking was a road to being more truly and fully myself, to easing my anxiety. How could something that dissolves inhibitions not be?
Yes, I was terrified of the times in my life when I didn't remember what had happened the night before, or I'd made out with someone who I didn't really want to make out with, or I woke up in my own urine. But what about all my friends- and all of pop culture- that proved those to be common and laughable experiences? Yes, my anti-anxiety medication didn't always go well with alcohol, but not in a way that was really unsafe. Yes, the long-term effects of alcohol on the liver and the heart and-most of all- the brain scared me, but no one else seemed to really talk about that, so maybe that was just a symptom of my tendancy to worry too much, to over-analyze, to be too hard on myself. Yes, quiz results in books and magazines indicated that I may abuse it too much, but they also indicated that I was not dependent on it. Yes, it was a depressant in the morning, and thus made my bouts of depression worse, but it sure had the opposite effect during the drinking part. Yes, I felt better when I took breaks from it for a few weeks or a month, but wasn't giving it up entirely something that would foster the "all or nothing" thinking that was sometimes a dangerous habit for me?
This battle went on for a few years. And I am not even entirely sure today why the choice of sobriety won out, or if it always will. (There's a reason that the advice to take everything one day at a time echos in nearly all therapeutic arenas. We have these existences that are gloriously segmented with nature's two live shows a day: sunrise and sunset- and with the wonder of sleep, of course. Taking things a day at a time must be a much better idea that thinking about forever). I can say this, which might not be entirely helpful to others: a big part of it was timing. There just came a time when I was ready to take the plunge to see if some of my fears were overblown, and to really do the cost/benefit analysis for myself of being a non-drinker. I spoke about my process with very few people. Two bad-ass writers and tea totalers, Holly Whitaker and Denise Grollmus, had both assured me via email and text not to rush things or listen to others, that my questioning and seeking growth was enough until it was time to move forward. And in July, after a half a year of deep reflection and a couple of hearty alcohol binges, it became time to move forward. And I'm happy to report that I've gained so much more than I've lost, and I truly feel better than ever. And- the most important thing- more myself than ever. Which eases my anxiety and allows me to connect with others much more than drinking did. I don't think I'd even realized how much anxiety drinking caused me, rather than allieviated. What a relief it is to not worry anymore about what things I might say or how I will get home or how I might feel the next day, or ten years from now. And as far as connecting with others, I am always desperate to do that. I always desire to connect with folks on deeper levels. And now I believe that forced drunken fake romance or giggling/crying /platonic cuddling and proclamations of undying friendship may feel like the stuff we've all been missing, and may even be great for a time, but they don't feel as good as building real connection, engagement, and intimacy with people.
Maybe the most concrete and quickest gain has been time. My Saturday mornings are so deliciously long now, without the physical hangover symptoms, and without the mental/emotional hangover (that, if you have issues with anxiety and depression like me, only need a couple of Friday drinks to show up). Also, I remember so much more. My life almost feels like it's getting longer, or at least that I'm living more of it. In fact, drinking has been an unexpected way to push back against the ruminations on mortality that have become more frequent as I get older.
There is no greater commodity than time, and so this gain alone would probably be enough to keep me off the sauce. But really, there is so much more that I've gained, that I worry folks will think I'm being disengenous if I list everything. Suffice to say that I truly feel better than I've ever felt in my adult life. To be sure, quitting drinking is certainly not an isolated variable; I've made a lot of recent healthy habit changes. But those were habit changes I'd been struggling for years to be consistent with. And- as I said at the beginning of this post- without alcohol having so much power over my weekly schedule and budget, and the way my body and mind feel, it suddenly became infinitely easier to make those habit changes.
I mentioned the heavy prevalence of alcohol in my life environments not to excuse my abuse of it, but because I think it's worth noting that my level and frequency of drinking was by no means uncommon in my circles. And I think this is true in many circles. (I do think it is also important to mention that there are a TON of folks who don't drink at all, and a TON who drink very small amounts and very infrequently. Not drinking seems so radical and rare, but I noticed that it really isn't if you look deeper. Still, alcohol continues to be the most commonly used recreational drug, and the one that drives the most folks each year to seek help for drug dependence).
So, why is abusing alcohol so common, and so casually depicted in every facet of popular culture? Why do people sit around the table with family of all ages and pound drinks, but ripping bong hits or snorting coke together at dinner is taboo? Is it because snorting cocaine is more unsightly than drinking liquor? Maybe, because, though it can be more dangerous in ways, it's not more expediently deadly. Is it because alcohol is legal? Why is it legal? Within ten minutes, one block, and very little money, I can legally purchase enough alcohol to kill myself quite easily and rapidly. Yet in most states it is illegal to buy marijuana, which won't kill you no matter how much you use. I don't currently use or promote any of these substances, and none are without their risks (I'll discuss them more in future blog posts), but I think it's important to examine the power of money in our laws, and the power of laws in dictating what's deemed acceptable in our cultures, and what's deemed taboo.
When things are common, are "the norm", we don't tend to question them. And while I will never proclaim that what works for me should be adopted by everyone else, or that everyone should quit or even cut back on their drinking, the one thing I will say applies to everyone is this: Question things. Examine your life and your priorities. Often. And remember that your everyday actions and thoughts ARE your life and your priorities.
Another thing that you gotta question is labels. You may fit a classic definition of alcoholic or addict. But you may not. And it should be mentioned that both of these terms have meanings that are still debated by scientists, still influx. There are a myriad of relationships to have with alcohol, and not all are linear or fit into tight boxes or labels. Your own processes and needs that you require for cutting back or quitting alcohol will undoubtedly differ from other people's, just as your relationship with it and your experiences have differed. People are brought together through both the shared and different parts of their experiences, though, so reach out even if you feel that you are unique. Maybe that means AA meetings for you, or maybe that just means chatting with others who are examining and changing their relationships with with bad habits. Maybe it just means, for now, reading stuff like this, and reflecting on it. And what you require now in order to help you break unhealthy habits may change in the future. Checking in with yourself often and staying connected to others will be key throughout.
Maybe you've already examined your life and decided that alcohol isn't contributing to it and to your priorities in a net positive way. Maybe you are just tired of worrying about the mental risks, or the social ones, or the emotional ones, or the physical ones, short or long term. Or your doctor told you you need to cut down or stop. Or your P.O. told you that. Or you are starting on a medication that doesn't mix well with alcohol. Or you converted to a religion that doesn't mix well with alcohol. Or your budget doesn't mix well with alcohol. Or you are pregnant. Whatever your motivation in changing your relationship with alcohol, you are by no means alone, and you have a variety of resources and options. Below are a few of my recommendations.
There's an incredible amount of issues to discuss regarding education to prevent alcohol and other drug abuse, and this post has been long enough, so I'll just mention a couple of things I've learned in my research and experience.
1. D.A.R.E. failed. And anti-drug curricula like it (that's full of lies and scare tactics) are still being used across the US and are still failing. Teach facts.
2. There's evidence that children of non-drinkers have a higher risk of alcohol abuse than children of moderate drinkers (Weil and Rosen, p.76). Not as high a risk of children of alcoholics, but still- those parents who do not drink would be wise to provide opportunities for their children to observe adult friends or family members who are good examples of moderate drinking.
3. Teach critical thinking, and critical consumption of media (beer commercials are a great place to start discussions on this).
I also recommend checking out the most truthful and comprehensive sources I've found: Dr. Andrew Weil and Winifred Rosen's book From Chocolate to Morphine: Everything You Need to Know About Mind-Altering Drugs and the Drug Policy Alliance website. I've learned so much from the DPA's publications for parents and educators, and from my meetings with the founder of their Safety First project, Dr. Marsha Rosenbaum. Their new video collaboration (below) with writer and narrator Shawn Carter (Jay Z) and illustrator Molly Crabapple is a must-watch. It's a great critical thinking discussion-starter with teens. It's also evidence of why laws should not be the sole influencer of decisions on drug use, and of how drug laws disproportionately affect people of color.
I'll return to this topic in future posts about other drugs, but suffice to say, telling the truth is best.
Being honest is hard but usually worth it. Which is what I'll remind myself many times when I'm at this point in blogging... about to click "post".
Photo on left by photographer Cindy Hegger. Photo on right by photographer Anna Zajac.
is a health-seeker and health educator living in the US in San Francisco, California. She is also a former (and maybe future) high school English teacher, and she loves words. Maybe health seeker looks better with a hyphen, or maybe it doesn't. You should just get over it. Even if she cannot.