Alcohol Related Brain Damage and Gray Area Drinking - Is the Status Quo Not that Bad?
I read an article the other day titled Drinking any amount of alcohol causes damage to the brain, study finds. It starts with a news clip where a doctor is explaining that everybody reacts differently to alcohol. Which is a statement implying that some people get addicted and others don’t, and is often used as a sort of "disclaimer" at the beginning of news stories about alcohol so that "normal drinkers" don't feel defensive. We always draw the line between people we traditionally call alcoholics, moderate to light drinkers, and now others who fit into a sort of gray area between a serious problem drinker and problem drinker but not that bad.
Up until very recently, since the publication of this study saying that any amount of alcohol damages your brain, we have thought of long-term heavy alcohol abuse as the concern. Those of us who are or were high functioning heavy drinkers have likely taken comfort in knowing that whatever we may have done as far as damaging our precious brains, is reversible and not that bad. But what now? What if any amount of alcohol is damaging to your brain?
When I gave up drinking 201 days ago, most people would say I wasn’t that bad. Of course, I would agree. But it wasn’t good either. I was probably considered a gray area drinker (with a few red flags?). I drank 2 or 3 glasses of wine a day … but was wonderfully consistent with my drinking. I never missed a day. Never really hit rock bottom. But was never really on top of things either.
I was in that gray area nobody likes talking about, but I took comfort knowing I was not that bad. I didn’t have the classic hallmarks of an alcoholic. I didn’t drink in the morning. I didn’t neglect my children. I had dinner on the table every night. Bills paid, commitments honored. I didn’t drink and drive. I was a good little gray area drinker. Sure I slurred my words now and then. And maybe fell down a few times. There was that one little, awkward concussion. With stitches. Life in the gray area wasn’t all bad. But it sure wasn’t good.
What exactly is the gray in gray area drinking? It’s that place between obviously bad, and not that bad, that keeps us hanging on to a slow, spiraling addiction. But now that they are saying this ‘No safe amount’: All alcohol consumption ‘harmful to the brain’ any amount of alcohol would seem to be a bad idea. I don’t think it really matters how many headlines are thrown around proclaiming that any amount of alcohol is bad for you. People will still drink, holding onto hope that they aren’t – that bad.
I was thinking recently that someday at my funeral, I really don’t want my life summed up as “not that bad”. Who does? Gray area drinking is not that good. Sure, gray area drinkers don’t have THAT many blackouts. But we have plenty of gray mornings where we wake up foggy-headed and feeling blah. Not that bad. Only on “special” occasions where we accidentally do finish that whole bottle of wine or think shots are a good idea do we wake up horribly hungover. And some memorable weddings may lead to morning-after vomiting in the parking lot of a pricey hotel. On a Sunday when nice people are enjoying brunch. Not super classy … but not that bad.
These studies about the effects of alcohol on our physical and mental health seem to go back and forth routinely – no amount of alcohol is good for you and even small amounts contribute to cancer – moderate drinking is good for your heart health – any amount of alcohol will damage your brain. There is also endless debate about what it means to be an alcoholic or have alcohol use disorder and whether alcohol addiction is a problem with the person, or built into the drink itself. But you know if drinking is causing you more pain than pleasure. With alcohol let’s be honest – it’s personal.
Gray area drinking leads to a gray area life, and gray is not my color. At age 62 my hair is gray, and I can’t dye it fast enough. It’s not a beautiful silver some women are blessed with. It’s that god-awful gray that’s god-awful drab. Mousy. Boring. The absence of color. Gray area drinking robbed my life of color. And that absence of color made me want to drink more. Crazy right? The gray veil of drinking was a creepy, constant thirst for something I could not quench. And it was blocking my joy, my passion, my spirit. Like a dirty window, gray area drinking was preventing light from coming in. I was not fully alive. But I wasn’t that bad.
Gray area drinking can be a curse, because it makes you think you can and should continue the slow, continual madness. I always thought my gray area drinking was actually moderation. But that perceived moderation could turn south at any time without warning. Maybe your mom dies unexpectedly in her sleep. Maybe your dad dies a few years later in hospice. Maybe your son suffers a serious car accident with one of three surgeries in between Dad’s hospice. These are times where moderation won’t cut it … and your gray area tips dangerously to the dark side. Because alcohol doesn’t care if you slip from one glass to one bottle. Alcohol has a sneaky way of insisting you build tolerance, and when used for coping, your gray area looks more like a dark sky … just before a storm.
The upside of gray area drinking is this. Once you finally decide you’re sick and tired of drab, colorless life, you can rethink the drink. Quitting might even be easier if you have tried moderation now and then. But if you’re a devoted, daily gray drinker like I was, there will be difficult moments, especially the first few weeks. The hardest part may be realizing it’s REALLY okay to quit gray area drinking and to want something better. The good news is, retraining your gray matter is possible, and there are plenty of people here on BOOM to help you through.
Maybe you’ll decide you no longer want a gray, good-enough existence — living a mediocre life, slave to the false thrill of numbing your precious brain. Maybe you want to embrace a life of presence, authenticity, and brilliant color? I am staying alcohol-free today. Because I want ruby red slippers and chartreuse pants that glow in the dark. I want to wrap myself in a big, fluffy fuchsia coat. I want to see, feel and BE color in this dark, dreary world. Today I’m alcohol-free because I choose color … and I choose fabulous! Will you join me?
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