How much you drink isn’t the point

This Christmas, I caught up with several old, close friends, who have moved away from my sleepy little city and come back only at holidays. Every time, somehow, the fact that I no longer drink came into the conversation.

I was content to leave it at that – it’s old news to me by now, after all – but they asked questions. On their husband’s behalf, or on their own. The friend who, out of the three, I would have pegged as the most likely to have drinking issues of her own, talked to me about it for over half an hour. She said all the things that I would have said a year ago, in fact, about how usually she can moderate, but this year has been stressful and so she’s found that she drinks most nights, and although it’s only usually one glass, she does worry, but how on earth do I cope with social occasions, and isn’t it impossible to socialise properly without feeling a little odd?

To all of them, I found myself saying more than I’d originally intended, but there was one thing I didn’t say.

I didn’t say how much I drank.

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They asked. And then they told me how much they or their partner drank. They were careful to explain that they didn’t really get drunk, or anything, and they never really had big hangovers, and they told me all of this with an anxious look in their eyes. What is the magic number, they were asking between the lines, that tips me over from a regular drinker to a problem one? Is it alright that he drinks three or four beers and then some wine? Is a fourth glass of wine acceptable on a Friday night, but not on a Tuesday, and why?

When I was still in active denial, by which I mean that I was spending a lot of my time and energy on seeking out information that made me feel okay about my drinking, I was a particular fan of memoirs and blogs and forums in which people talked about the amount they were drinking. Burroughs drank a litre of Dewars a day; a lady on Soberistas admitted to drinking three bottles of wine every day of the week, and set herself a goal of reducing that to one bottle per night. I still remember the details, because I added all of these anecdotes to my mental database, under Reasons Why I Am Not An Alcoholic. And if I came across someone who drank the same, or less, than me – like Mrs D – then I wrote them off as unqualified to know what they were talking about, and I carried on.

So I didn’t talk about quantities. I talked about feelings. I talked about the fact that I would drive home from work thinking about whether there was wine in the house and did I have time to swing by the bottle shop before school pick up time. I talked about how exhausting it was, trying to decide if I was allowed to drink on a Tuesday if I had had a glass of wine – but only one! – on a Monday, and the guilt when I inevitably decided that it was fine. I talked about the fact that I would make resolution after resolution about my life – I would exercise daily, or take up a craft, or learn a new subject – and end up breaking them because drinking was preferably, and then hating myself for being lazy and unmotivated, and how I had to stop drinking before I realised that I wasn’t lazy and awful, I was just drinking too much alcohol and it was making me that way.

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And as I talked, I could see the recognition of what I was saying. No matter how much my friend actually drank, I could see that the behaviour I was describing held some resonance.

When I started this blog, I did talk about how much I drank. I talked about it quite often. I had to, because I had to be able to remember it later. It is harder for me, now, to convince myself that I was exaggerating my issues, and that mostly I only drank a glass of wine a few times a week, when the whole ugly truth is in this blog, typed out in despair and self-hatred. It is my record, for me.

But it doesn’t matter as much as the feelings around it. The guilt. The shame. The sheer grinding exhausting thinking about it. Those are the things that matter. And no matter how much you drink, if you spend your time worrying about it and trying without success to change it, then your life will be better without it. In a million ways, some of which you can’t imagine yet, it will be better.

Happy New Year.

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