I don't have a drinking problem—do I?

So I was what you'd call a social drinker. Someone who enjoyed kicking back. Someone who liked to hold her own with the guys. A wee bit of a party girl.

I enjoyed a glass of wine (or two) while I was cooking dinner each night. I had a pint (or two...or three) when I went out with my friends each weekend. I wasn't above tossing back a shot (or two...or three) of scotch at the end of the night. But I went days without drinking. Well, a couple of days, anyway. OK, at least 24 hours.

 But I definitely wasn't a "problem drinker." Certainly not anything as serious as an "alcoholic."

Was I?

My relationship with alcohol was once a passing acquaintanceship—one that I thoroughly enjoyed when it was around, but didn't miss when it was gone.

That changed.

A few weeks ago—after I'd ordered a completely unnecessary second glass of wine while out for dinner—I realized I had a problem. I noticed that I was often the only one drinking. I had started to fantasize about carrying a flask, just so I wouldn't have to worry about buying drinks. I dreamed about having a drink as soon as I walked in the door after a long day.

It wasn't the quantity of my consumption that concerned me—I've never drunk enough to get rip-roaringly sloshed, and even by the most stringent standards, my weekly intake has been moderate at most. No: although I wasn't drinking a lot, I realized that booze had gradually become a necessity; that slight tipsiness I got from one (or two) drinks was something I was starting to need in order to feel like I was truly having the best possible time I could.

And that scared the shit out of me.

I realized that I was becoming addicted—using that very strong word on purpose—to the ecstatic illusions alcohol engendered. I had started using booze to manufacture feelings of happiness, of belonging, of confidence, of bravery—those feelings that so often get subsumed by doubt, inertia, fear, and fatigue. Ironically, of course, I do feel happy and confident, quite regularly—but there's a seductive magic about being able to call up those feelings, however artificial and chemically dependent, on demand.

Alcoholism, like weight gain, is a slow-but-slippery slope. Often you don't realize that there's anything to be concerned about until your pants don't fit—or, in my case, you find yourself the only tipsy one at the dinner table.

At this point, I don't believe I'm an alcoholic—but the potential to become one is certainly there, so I've made some changes. I don't want to get to the point where I have to give up drinking entirely, but I have imposed two personal rules:
  • No buying booze as part of weekly grocery shopping. Drinking at home is for a special occasion, not everyday. Ginger ale in a wine glass is a reasonable substitute.
  • No more than one drink in any one place. OK, sometimes I'll have a pint and a half. That's still considerably less than the three pints I've been accustomed to.
This hasn't been easy. I walked in the door yesterday after work and just about made a beeline for the beer—and then realized that it wasn't a drink I needed. I was tired and hungry; what I needed was dinner. And by the time I'd fed myself, the urge to have a drink was gone.

So what have I noticed, two weeks into observing my new rules?
  • My overall mood is much better. Although acute alcohol consumption elevates serotonin levels in the short term (which is partly why many people with clinical depression are also alcoholics), it affects the functioning of a variety of feel-good neurotransmitters over the long term. When I'm drinking less, I'm actually happier more often.
  • I'm better able to assess what I actually need. With alcohol no longer my go-to solution for feeling bad, I can better determine whether I'm sleep deprived, hungry, under-exercised, or simply in need of a hug.
 Nothing miraculous at this point—but I feel like I've managed to dodge a nasty bullet. I'll keep you posted.


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