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Diary of A Quasi-Alcoholic

By Jenna Hollenstein 07/29/11

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?

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!

Perhaps my interpretation of the results was narrow and riddled with denial—I did get a 75% after all, a grade I would have killed for in AP Calculus...

In an attempt to assess my problem, I also took other questionnaires, but the results were decidedly mixed. By and large,  they grouped drinkers in to two two categories: People Who Had Obvious Drinking Problem (Have you ever been hospitalized because of your drinking?) or Everyone-I-Know-Does-That (Do you drink to deal with stress?).

Later, I consulted friends and family. Often with a drink in hand, I’d begin, “Maybe I should think about my drinking...” But four out of fivefriends I approached assured me that I didn’t have a problem. Maybe they were sincere. Maybe they weren’t fully aware of how much I drank. Or perhaps classifying my drinking as normal drinker allowed them to avoid facing their own alcohol issues. The few people who agreed that I might have a problem suggested I cut back on my consumption. But nobody thought I  needed to stop drinking  altogether.

But over time,as my drinking mounted,  I grew convinced that alcohol was doing me more harm than good was mounting. Finally, with the encouragement of my therapist and a referral to an outpatient addiction program in Boston, I decided to try life without booze. The four-week program served as a bridge between sobriety and the hazy period that came before. I still did not identify as an alcoholic. But my consistent moderate-to-heavy drinking caused me guilt and shame that I wanted to put behind me. The other people in my group ha suffered much harsher penalties than I had.  I was the only one who had not just left rehab, hospital, or jail.

A sweet, middle-aged man risked being kicked out of his halfway house if he didn’t stay sober. A woman my mom’s age had been so committed to drinking that she would only leave home to buy more booze; staying drunk had become a full-time job for her. A handsome and successful young banker cried that he couldn’t count how many times he’d cheated on his wife while high on cocaine. Everyone clearly belonged there—except me.

I felt some kinship with an articulate young man who admitted to “experimenting” with psychotropic drugs. Like me, he intellectualized the question of whether he had a problem. Didn’t these drugs in fact broaden his experience of life? Then I learned he had shot himself in the head while high.

During discussions, I noticed a lack of receptivity from other people in my group when I spoke about my comparatively moderate issues, even some disdain. I identified with so much of what was shared: insecurity, restlessness, depression, feeling unlovable. I desperately wanted to connect. But it was becoming clear the others didn’t think I belonged. Eventually they turned away from me mid-sentence or said outright, “you’re not an alcoholic” and “maybe you’ll understand in a few years.” I felt like the kid who didn’t meet the height requirement for the roller coaster.

There is an AA saying: “Alcoholism is an elevator that keeps going down, but you can get off at any floor.”  So why was I able to get off the elevator earlier than so many others in that room? Why had I waited even that long? And why was it so difficult for those who had kept going down to accept me?

Despite my outpatient experience, I haven’t had a drink for the past four years. I downed my last one on my 33rd birthday—but I have still never set foot in an AA meeting. Ultimately I decided that labeling myself an alcoholic had little to do with my decision to quit. And that the opinions of others were no substitute for my own experience, and my own choices.

Jenna Hollenstein is a medical writer, registered dietitian, and author of Understanding Dietary Supplements. She blogs about drinking and awareness at www.drinkingtodistraction.com and her work has been featured on www.mindful.org and www.drinkingdiaries.com.

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