How to Break Free From the CAGE of Gray Area Drinking

I don’t know when I realized alcohol was a problem for me, but in my journal, I mentioned drinking too much 30 years ago, and in the last 10 years, there are more frequent references. I did not drink in high school and was not a heavy drinker in college. In medical school and residency, and during my early medical career, I binged on weekends. It was all about partying after very stressful work days and weeks. It became a pattern, and I don’t know exactly when the daily drinking began, but it was just a drink or two for a long time until I realized that I was tipping over into three, or sometimes four drinks. Many of my friends drank just like me, though I also saw those who could ‘nurse’ a drink all night, or stop after one or two (and I could not).

How do you know when you have a problem with alcohol that really requires that you stop? How do you KNOW that it’s gone too far if you are nowhere near rock bottom?

My liver tests were always normal, and I was (mostly) honest with my physicians about how much I drank (one did suggest that I try to stop at two drinks). My medical training was in the late 60s and early 70s, and there wasn’t much about alcohol and substance abuse back then. I didn’t understand the concept of ‘high functioning alcoholic’ or ‘gray area’ drinking. I knew enough about AA to know that I could not deal with the 12-step concept, and I had no idea that there is so much help online. But, I used to waste a lot of time (in retirement) on Twitter, and one of the good things to come out of that was a reference to Boozemusings and Boom Rethink the Drink in a tweet from a person I admired. That led me here, and that has made all the difference. 

We used to talk clearly about alcoholics, rock-bottom drunks, high-functioning alcoholics, and alcoholism as a progressive disease. Those labels were not labels that applied to me but they were easy to grasp the meaning of. Now we talk about alcohol-use disorder and gray area drinking, and the “when to stop” has become a bit less clear. How do you figure out if you’re … that bad?

I wasn’t that bad…really. I mean, I was worried that I was drinking too much, but after reading so many articles on Boozemusings and comments in Boom , I thought, what am I doing here? I just need to cut back on my drinking a little. Seems most people in Boom are wine drinkers, but my drink of choice was bourbon. But I did enjoy a glass of wine with dinner, but I never drank a whole bottle, much less opened a second one. Except when I did. And I measured my bourbon in a shot glass so I could keep up with my drinks. And I usually only had two…until it became three (or was it sometimes four?). Oh, and my jigger was the  ‘standard’ 1.5 ounces…until I found one that was 2 ounces. And you don’t want a ‘short’ pour, so be sure to top off the shot with another ‘splash’. And about the wine, one bottle was always plenty if you’re primed with two bourbons before you get into the wine.

So, I wasn’t THAT bad, except I was. You can only deny it for so long. And even though I almost never had hangovers (at least not the kind that gave me headaches or nausea or ruined the next day), I was sleeping poorly, waking up after 2 or 3 hours, knowing this is not ‘social’ drinking, wondering if my liver was able to handle the punishment. And like so many others, vowing that tomorrow would be different, that I would not drink that day. But by 5 PM I was convinced that I was not THAT bad. 

What does it mean to be a gray area drinker?

Realistically, gray area drinking can be seen as any level of drinking that affects your personal or work life, your health or the health of others around you in a negative way. And if you’re worried about your drinking, that concern might be a clue that some things need to shift.

Forbes Health

This partial list from an article by WebMed Are You a High-Functioning Alcoholic? could likely describe most people who drink routinely. This is what most of us would think of as being in the “Gray Area with drinking :

For example you…

  • Joke about alcoholism
  • Need alcohol to relax or feel confident
  • Drink when you’re alone
  • Get drunk when you don’t intend to
  • Forget what you did while drinking
  • Cause loved ones to worry about or make excuses for your drinking

If you add back in the things that I removed…

  • Not keeping up with major responsibilities at home, work, or school
  • Lose friendships or have relationship problems due to drinking, but you don’t quit alcohol
  • Have legal problems related to drinking, such as a DUI arrest
  • Drink in the morning
  • Deny drinking, hide alcohol, or get angry when confronted about drinking

Most of us would agree that you are stepping into the realm of alcoholism. Maybe High Function Alcoholism, but there is definitely nothing gray about a problem with alcohol here. Trying to wrap around whether or not you have a problem with alcohol can be daunting in a culture where most people do drink and most occasions include alcohol.

One of the crude alcohol screening tests I learned, is the CAGE test:

Have you ever tried to (C) Cut down (Yes)

Have you ever been (A) Annoyed by someone questioning your alcohol use (Yes, occasionally my wife would pointedly ask how much I’ve had to drink)

Have you ever felt (G) Guilty about your alcohol use (Yes)

Have you ever taken an (E) Eye opener to get started or get through the day (No).

Score zero for a no and one for a yes. I would grade myself a 2 or 2 1/2 (2 is considered significant). But it took me at least 10 years to make it past a few alcohol-free days. And I reasoned that I almost never had significant hangovers, never missed work or an obligation, never had a DUI (just lucky on that one), never embarrassed myself (that I know of), and didn’t pass out or blackout, I figured I was just overreacting to what some people call heavy drinking?

Three years ago I had bilateral partial knee replacements. I stopped drinking 4 days before the operation (performed awake, under a spinal block, with some kind of ‘conscious sedation’). As the spinal and sedation wore off, I had the worse pain I have ever experienced, and I was trembling, with chattering teeth, and the oral narcotic was not touching my pain. The nurse was taking a medical history and asked about alcohol, and I was honest about having 3 or 4 drinks nightly, and that my last drink was 4 days ago. I could see, feel and hear her concern that I was going into delirium tremens (DTs). It took a while to convince her that I was lucid, not hallucinating, and not about to have a seizure. Only then did I get some IV narcotic that made it all go away. Normal drinkers don’t have to worry about shit like this. 

I was THAT bad. And it is pointless to compare our drinking with that of someone else. I was lying to myself about how much I was drinking. If you think you are drinking too much, you probably are. And most of us will need some support to discover we can live without alcohol. A good place to start is here, on Boom, Rethink the Drink. I was unsuccessful until I came here and discovered like-minded people who provide nonjudgmental and unconditional support. If you think you might be drinking too much, you’re in a good place (and you probably are THAT bad). Boom can make the difference. 

I think there is so much denial regarding how much we drink that we fail to consider what we are risking. Comparing yourself to your drinking friends mostly just affirms that you are ‘normal’. We fail to see the person in the room who had a drink and switched to water. We fail to compare ourselves to people who don’t drink (they must be abnormal). I fell into that trap for years. But I eventually began to question how much I was drinking and at that point, I just knew it was too much. But then it took years before I could break the cycle of nightly drinking, guilt, and anxiety, rationalizing I was not that bad, and the seduction of the bourbon bitch. It took discovering Boom and a group of people going through the same thing to get me onto the path of being AF long-term. If you wonder if you are drinking too much, you probably are. If you think your drinking is normal because you drink like your friends, you’re making the wrong comparison. Hang around Boom and and then decide. 

I’m surprised I don’t crave a drink very often now after a 55-year drinking career. So, why do I not crave a drink now? A big reason is that I have some sober momentum as I write this on my 150th consecutive alcohol-free day, and another is that I’m focused on long-term sobriety now. And I’m more focused on what I am gaining than on what I am missing. I still have triggers, but they are short-lived. I’m close to six months now, and I want to make a year AF. A slip is not the end of the world, it’s just another lesson to be learned, but I don’t really want to start over. The reward is not a big number but is freedom from worry about alcohol-related health issues, like falling or cognitive impairment, and no worry about DUI. I sleep better and I’m saving money. And I’ve met some lovely people on Boom.

Cheers (AF, of course) ❤️.

Come join us for support to get sober, stay sober, or start getting your drinking under control. We’re talking about what you’re thinking about.

Sober October, Dry January, Feb Fast, and Dry July are all initiatives designed to raise money to help those afflicted with cancer. When the first of these initiatives was organized back in 2014, Dry July, the connection between routine alcohol use and 7 types of cancer was not yet commonly discussed. It was known but often the stories of this discovery were buried under the “feel good” articles about the health benefits of red wine.

One-month sober challenges have become a great focus for people who want to step out of the cage of gray-area drinking and try life alcohol-free.

In our BOOM Rethink the Drink Community we host a month-long alcohol-free inspiration challenge 12 times a year! Come check us out if you’ve had enough of feeling stuck in a cage of gray.

Have you heard the term Gray/Grey area drinking? If you haven’t heard that term this post explains it really well : 

Tips on the First Month Alcohol-Free from a former Grey Area Drinker

and so does this post from a different perspective :

A Test of Your Alcohol Awareness – What is Normal Drinking?

Many of us considered ourselves grey/gray area drinkers. Here is

The Unexpurgated Truth About What Sobriety Can and Can’t Do

If you are wondering where you are on the spectrum these posts might help 

How I Escaped the Trap of Gray Area Drinking

Gray Area Drinking- The Truth About How Alcohol Damages Your Brain

How I Launched my Escape from the Alcohol Prison – Thoughts from a former Gray Area Drinker

Walking Away from the Wine o’ Clock Routine

Letting go of Denial – Stop Drinking and Stay Sober on Your Terms

Denial vs Peace of Mind

Do you Want to Drink or Do you Need to Drink? – Dropping the Denial

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