Woman at dusk How I escaped the Trap of Gray area drinking

How I Escaped the Trap of Gray Area Drinking

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Freedom from drinking! I never thought I’d get here. I drank my last glass of wine 450 days ago, after sliding gradually into a bottle-a-day habit (sometimes a little more) over a period of at least 20 years, from around the time I started perimenopause until I was 69 years old. I’ve read some interesting articles on what is often called gray area drinking. That space between the extremes of “rock bottom” and high-functioning alcoholism. I can’t say exactly what got me there. Too many things happened in my life during those years for me to successfully unravel them and locate a reason. And truthfully, I don’t know if it even matters. 

It took me a long time to admit to myself that I had a problem with drinking. Alcoholism had always been a black and white issue for me. I didn’t understand how common this gray area was. I was one of those people who functioned well at home and at work. A college English teacher with a strong work ethic and a good reputation, I loved my job. I loved my students and colleagues. I loved designing courses and helping my students bring them to life with their own creativity and ingenuity. I loved my role as their coach and guide, and I even loved reading their papers. Most of the time my work was rewarding and satisfying, and most of my colleagues drank at least as much as I did.

By the time I became a daily drinker, my youngest child was in high school and my older ones were youngish adults. I was happily married and satisfied with my life. I wrote poetry and had quite a bit of it published, gave readings, put together a chapbook, traveled when I had the chance. I wasn’t a huge party person, but I enjoyed low-key socializing, biweekly happy hours with my work friends, and the occasional Big Loud Boozefest, even though I was often sick for 2 or 3 days afterwards.

When my kids were little I rarely drank, and almost never drank at home, but I was always prone to binging. Even back then I didn’t have a working off-switch, but because I hadn’t yet started drinking every day, or even every week, it didn’t signal anything to me except that I needed a way to blow off steam every now and then. Gray area drinking as a dangerous place on the alcohol abuse spectrum was not on my radar.

I was a gray area drinker and I drank between two extremes. I wasn’t an end stage, lose everything kind of drinker, not by a long shot.

Jolene Park: Gray Area Drinking | TED Talk – TED Talks

My family tree is full of people with addiction issues, but it’s got even more folks in it who didn’t drink at all, or could drink moderately, occasionally, socially. What we also had/have are mental health issues and trauma: bipolar diagnoses, clinical depression, panic attacks and anxiety, OCD, and PTSD. Not everyone drank, smoked pot, took speed, dropped acid, or used heroin to numb the pain they couldn’t name, but plenty did. Others chain-smoked cigarettes, took too many naps, suffered from chronic insomnia, dropped out of school, screamed at and shamed their kids, ran away from relationships, ran away from jobs, kept ridiculously tidy houses (or disturbingly filthy ones), pulled out their hair, bit their nails, and attempted suicide.

I saw myself as kind of normal, really, even though by the time I was in my late 20’s I had also experienced 9 or 10 things on those lists. Not that I would have admitted it, mind you. I was the oldest kid in my family, the “hero,” Little Goody Two-Shoes, full of anger, ambition, pride, and denial that there could be anything wrong with me. Because dammit, I didn’t really drink. I didn’t use drugs (well…not often). I didn’t mistreat my kids. I finished college under challenging circumstances, paid for it myself, and had a good job. In my mind, I was a freaking paragon of virtue.

But at age 29, after getting dumped by my alcohol-and-drug-addicted second husband (which turned out to be one of the best gifts anyone ever gave me) I initiated a series of life changes that led me to a home in another state, a master’s program, a new and better job, regular therapy, and marriage to the cute guy in a Fair Isle sweater who sat across the table from me in Intro to Grad Studies.

I felt my shoulders start to drop for the first time in my life. My spine relaxed. My migraines started to back off. Mr. Fair Isle made me feel loved for who I really was, and I knew for the first time since childhood that it was finally okay to lower my guard and relax. I had nothing left to prove. 

For a number of years I was happy, busy, and starting to feel like I had an authentic self. So what happened? I still don’t know, but the closer I got to menopause, the harder it was to sleep. My natural introversion started to turn into social anxiety. I began suffering from mysterious chronic body pain. And after a long day of working, cooking, cleaning, and driving my son around to various after-school lessons and activities, NOTHING helped to quiet the busy brain and body pain as efficiently as a nice cold glass (or two, or three) of pinot gris.

It happened pretty slowly, but by the time I started to suspect that I’d developed a serious drinking problem, I didn’t have the strength or courage to face it head-on. So I started fiddling around with trying to moderate my drinking 3 or 4 times a year. For 10 years. I failed every time.

I believed that once I retired many of the problems that made me drink would vanish, but they didn’t. I was stuck with myself, and the older I got, the harder my aging body had to work to process that nightly bottle of wine. Eventually, I was waking up very sick almost every morning. My days had shrunk to fewer and fewer useful hours. I tried never to talk to my kids or grandkids on the phone after 6 pm if I could help it. Most nights I woke up at 2 or 3 am with a parched mouth, acid reflux, and a heart-pounding in my ears and trying to beat its way out of my chest.

This gray area drinking spectrum is real and it’s large. And a lot of high achieving, high functioning people who silently live here every day.

Jolene Park: Gray Area Drinking | TED Talk – TED Talks

One day last summer, after a particularly horrible hangover, I announced to my husband that I was done. I wasn’t going to drink alcohol ever again, and I was going to try to stop without a 12-step program. I had never said that aloud, or tried to do it. But that day felt different. I finally knew that if I didn’t stop drinking I was going to die, and I didn’t want to die.

I found my way to the BOOM Rethink the Drink community, via a Google search around my third alcohol-free day. With the help of everyone here, I haven’t had a drink since. Yes, it was hard at first, but it got easier. I still get cravings, though I’m better at noticing what triggers them, and thanks to meditation and what I’ve learned about neuroplasticity, I’m able to let the feelings pass without clinging to them, or acting on them.

With alcohol out of my life, I’m much calmer and happier. I feel free, creative, and focused. My life had started to close in on itself, and now it’s opening like a late-blooming flower. I have enough mental energy and equanimity to cope with this bizarre and awful year. My life is far from perfect, but it’s 100 times better than it was 15 months ago.

I’m proud and grateful to be here. I had to stop drinking because it was hurting me. Maybe killing me. And now I’m part of this generous, compassionate, inspirational community, honoring our precious lives, one day at a time.


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Related Reading :

Walking Away from the Wine o’ Clock Routine

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

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