A few years ago, I went to a restaurant with some friends, a couple visiting from out of town. I ordered a glass of wine, while my friends got club soda. They explained that they had stopped drinking.
I found this puzzling but fascinating, like having a pair of friends announce that they’d given up sitting on furniture or wearing shoes outdoors. I was in my early 30s, a young professional living in New York City; mimosa-blurred brunches and IPA-fueled happy hours were so infused into my daily routine that I didn’t really realize that not drinking alcohol was an option—unless, of course, you were an alcoholic.
My friends didn’t identify as alcoholics, though. They’d simply given up alcohol for a month in an effort to eat healthier, then realized that they felt leaps and bounds better without booze. “We’d been living every day with a low-level hangover without even knowing it,” my friend L. said.
I related to that statement more than I was willing to admit at the time. It would be several more years before I grappled with the fact that I was drinking too often (pretty much every day) and that any more than one drink, for me, was basically too much.
The issue was easy to ignore. I still had close relationships; I still had a job I loved. All that alcohol was costing me was a lot of money, headaches and upset stomachs, bouts of hangxiety during which I’d run replays of the embarrassing conversations I’d had the night before, and a vague gnawing sadness that swirled around me when I woke up at 3am after a night out.
But all that was normal, wasn’t it? Once, I told my therapist I was worried about my drinking, and she in turn told me that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defined heavy drinking for women as consuming eight or more drinks per week. “Then everyone I know has a drinking problem!” I replied in shock. She wiggled her eyebrows knowingly.
Eventually I got up the courage to try out Dry January and take a month off from alcohol. And, just like the couple I’d gone out to dinner with, that bout of abstinence wound up prompting me to radically reevaluate my relationship with alcohol and become an infrequent drinker, if not entirely abstinent.
All of which is to say that I know firsthand how overwhelming and confusing it can be to figure out if your relationship with alcohol has entered unhealthy territory. Here’s some advice from medical experts, addiction counselors, and sobriety advocates about what to do if you’re starting to reassess your drinking habits.
Genetics play an important role in determining who is predisposed to alcohol abuse, according to Mark Willenbring, an addiction psychiatrist who runs the treatment center Alltyr in St. Paul, Minnesota, and who previously served as director of treatment research at the National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. For those already genetically inclined, he says, there are four traits that predict the development of an alcohol use disorder:
- You like how you feel when you drink
- You can develop a high level of tolerance
- You’re less vulnerable to things like hangovers or passing out
- You feel stimulated rather than sleepy when you first start to drink
“The primary disorder is heavy drinking,” Willenbring explains. “Addiction develops as a secondary process resulting from the effects of the high levels of alcohol on the brain” over a long period of time.
“The first thing that goes is that the brain loses the capability to manage intake of alcohol on a reliable basis,” he explains. So the first symptom to look out for is whether you have trouble controlling how much you drink. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has a checklist of other symptoms that may indicate the start of a drinking problem.
Everyone should count the number of drinks they consume, says Willenbring. That starts with understanding the correct serving size. If you’re a wine drinker, for example, take a measuring cup filled with water and fill it up to the 5-ounce mark, then pour that into the glass you usually use, so you know what a serving looks like.
“Once you get that down, you start to keep track of your drinking,” Willenbring says. “And then the second thing to do would be to look at what your particular pattern of drinking is.” Drinking alone, he says, is riskier than drinking socially. “Dependent drinking is almost always solitary,” he says, “because you’re with the one you love.”
Shari Hampton, the founder of Served Up Sober, wanted to play golf for 25 years before she actually got on the green. “I could never do it, because I worked during the week and I was drunk on weekends,” she recalls. It was only after she got sober at age 51 that she played her first round.
Most people who are drinking excessively have similar experiences—and so Hampton suggests asking, “What is your drinking preventing you from doing?” It might be interfering with anything from enjoying weekend mornings with family to focusing on a creative project. “When you think about your drinking and all the things you want to do and put them in order of importance, you’ll see that you’re placing a lot more importance on drinking and getting very, very little in return,” Hampton says.
Joel Lewin, an addiction counselor and freelance journalist, often has his clients perform a cost-benefit analysis. They divide a piece of paper into four squares, comparing the costs and benefits of drinking and not drinking.
“It’s a really important question to ask, because people wouldn’t drink and [do drugs] if it didn’t do something for them,” Lewin says. But when they see the consequences of their habits laid out in front of them, it can be an eye-opener.
Next, he and the client will label the costs associated with drinking and not drinking as either short-term or long-term. “Quite quickly, you start to see this pattern developing,” he says. “A lot of the costs of drinking are long-term, and lots of the benefits are short-term.” The reverse is true for getting sober.
Chris Marshall, founder of alcohol-free watering hole Sans Bar in Austin, Texas and a former addiction counselor, says that finding supportive friends is of the utmost importance. “Questioning your relationship with alcohol can be challenging, but by voicing your goals and concerns with others, you invite them in to offer insight and encouragement,” he says. “A friend can be there for you if taking a break from alcohol becomes more challenging than you anticipated.”
“You have literally nothing to lose by taking a month off,” says Ruby Warrington, author of the book Sober Curious. She recommends that people who are questioning their relationship with alcohol commit to a stint of 30 or 100 days alcohol-free. Her book Sober Curious Reset helps guide people along the way with daily journaling exercises or thought experiments. “It’s really helpful to have structure,” she notes.
Curiosity means looking at your drinking without judgment, and with a genuine desire to understand the habit better. “That means, how do I feel before I have a drink? Why do I want to drink? How do I feel after the first drink?” Grace says. She sometimes encourages people to time how long they feel good after their first drink. The effect usually wears off between 18 and 22 minutes, she says, and then it’s time for another—and then another.
Self-compassion, she says, is essential because there’s so much shame associated with over-drinking. When shame overtakes us, however, we’re less able to take action. “We honestly are doing the best we can,” she says.
Alcohol has been sold to us, whether by friends or by Hollywood or by the alcohol industry itself, as a “tool to be a better mom, a better salesperson, a better colleague, to be more successful at work, to be better in the bedroom, to relax, to have more fun, to be funnier,” Grace says. Once we understand that drinking isn’t benefiting us, “we can make different choices. But judging yourself for it or beating yourself up for it is super counter-productive.”