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Diary of A Quasi-Alcoholic

What if you decide that drinking is a problem for you, but find it hard to identify as an “alcoholic,” or to be accepted as one? One woman found a very personal path through her minefield.

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No fellowship needed?

By Jenna Hollenstein

07/29/11

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I used to be known as the girl who was always up for a drink. Stopping by my desk at the end of the workday, friends could count on me to join them at Jury’s, the hotel bar downstairs from our office in Boston, for cocktails and conversation. Before a movie, after a play, in airports and train stations: the time and place were always right. I drank for the same reasons others do—to celebrate, commiserate, mark milestones and relax. Slowly, alcohol became a regular part of my life. When I realized that I was drinking almost every day,  I worried that my habit was turning in to a problem.  I thought I had just two options: identify myself as an alcoholic and stop drinking with the help of a group, or decide that I was not an alcoholic and continue. I ignored any other possibilities.

For a while I tried to address the problem on my own.  I would try to wait for an “acceptable” hour to drink. It’s always 5 o’clock somewhere, right? While drinking with other people, I’d monitor their pace and try to slow mine to match. When buying liquor for myself, I would rotate liquor stores, never frequenting any one establishment often enough to be considered a regular. Alcohol occupied an ever-increasing amount of my mind.

On a typical day, I’d have two drinks (one drink a day is considered “moderate” consumption for a woman). But more and more frequently  I reached for three, four or five drinks in a day.

Often, when I was out with friends, when the glasses were constantly refilled and additional rounds were ordered, I would lose count of my consumption. Stiffly lying in bed the next morning, nursing a hangover, I’d try to piece together events from the night before. Had I done anything embarrassing? Had I offended anyone? How exactly did I get home?

Although I felt ashamed of my lack of self-control—and guilty about making others uncomfortable—most of my friends laughed off my drinking. And, after a while, I was able to push those nagging feelings aside. Until I no longer could.

In time, my drinking became a solitary pursuit as well as a social one. I  began drinking at home to fill the empty hours in my life, trying to quell my growing feelings of  loneliness and uncertainty. After work, i’d buy a bottle of wine, with the intention of having only two glasses. I’d quickly drain the first one, while thinking ofaboutthe second. Inevitably the second would be a heavy pour. By night's end, with slightly less than half a bottle left, it seemed silly to leave such a small amount for another day.

Mentally I tallied the wasted money, excess calories, interrupted sleep, and the possibility of counteracting my antidepressants as reasons I should quit. Then there was the lost time I could have spent on more productive activities—working out, reading, or writing.

But was I an alcoholic? I didn’t quite fit the stereotype of someone whose life had become unmanageable. I thought I was managing quite well, in fact. Often I'd wake up feeling hazy and hung over. But I adjusted my caffeine intake to combat the effects of the alcohol I had downed the night before. Two big cups of coffee usually . To clear myself of a martini haze I resorted to an n+1 coffee formula, n being equivalent to the number of martinis I’d consumed. While I nursed more than my fair share of hangovers, I never missed a day of work as a medical writer. I never had a DUI or engaged in unsafe sex. I was never injured while drunk.I didn't feel shaky and I rarely threw up.  Still, I had nagging questions.

Though I still believed I was able to control my drinking, I was never quite able to do so. I I tried stopping at one drink per day, spurned hard liquor in favor of wine, drinking only on the weekends, and not drinking alone. I managed to abstain for several weeks at a time. But while my brief teetotaling experiments left me feeling more awake and aware, they never lasted for over a month.

Finally I stumbled upon the Cage questionnaire, a pamphlet that four questions to screen for alcoholism. The questions went something like this:

  • Have you ever felt that you should CUT DOWN on your drinking? YES!
  • Have people ANNOYED you by criticizing you drinking? YES!
  • Have you ever felt bad or GUILTY about your drinking? YES!!
  • Have you ever had an EYE-OPENER (a drink first thing in the morning to steady my nerves or get rid of a hangover)? NO!!! Therefore, I’m clearly not an alcoholic!

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