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Am I An Alcoholic

One woman's journey to understand her relationship with the bottle.


Illustrations by Steve Adams

The witching hour was fast approaching.

It was 5:15 on a weekday evening, and I was getting ready to leave work. I was tired and stressed from juggling projects and listening to a writer complain about how I had edited her story. Once home, I would need to whip up dinner and be attentive to my nine-year-old son.

The evening would tick by like many others. My husband wouldn’t be home till later. I’d have to make sure my son did his homework, and I might let loose with a “just do it” that would leave me feeling like a bad mother.

It was now 5:17, and I had a question: Is there any wine at home?

Yes, a bottle of $7.99 Zinfandel, but it was only a quarter full. Shoot. I’d need two glasses—OK, maybe three—to get the buzz that would help me forget about work and face dinner and my son’s homework. Fortunately, Trader Joe’s was on my way home. Two Buck Chuck, here I come.

As I scanned the labels of some reds at Trader Joe’s, I realized I was mad at myself for craving a drink and had to ask myself, Do I have a drinking problem?

Some nights later, my son asked me to play chess, which requires far more brain power than I can muster after a couple glasses of wine. He was so excited about learning this new game that he kept asking me to play. Maybe the wine had loosened my tongue, but I yelled, “Stop nagging!” I immediately felt guilty and concerned about the example I was setting.

I found I was also concerned about how little energy I had at night. By eight, I wanted to zone out in front of a Law and Order rerun or curl up in bed and read People. Could it be the alcohol, I wondered, draining me of the energy to enjoy an evening with my son or do something more constructive with my free time, like clean out the closet or get back to work on a novel I started years ago?

Around this time, I kept thinking about an evening when my husband and I had been headed out to dinner. Before we left, I snuck a glass of Pinot. The witching hour was already upon us, and I couldn’t wait for our 6:30 reservation to have my first drink. My husband wouldn’t have cared about my having some wine. Still, I opened the bottle quietly in the kitchen and slipped past him into the bathroom, where I sipped the glass quickly while putting on my makeup.

A half hour later, as my husband drove us to the restaurant, I was feeling the buzz and not worrying about the slight shyness I sometimes feel around him. After 16 years of marriage, we couldn’t just talk as we once had, but the buzz distracted me from my sadness about that and dulled any urgency to confront the gap between us. I sat quietly beside him feeling fine—but disengaged.

All in all, I had to admit, alcohol seemed to be hurting my marriage, my relationship with my son, and my motivation. I hadn’t racked up any DUIs, and I didn’t wake up with the shakes, or miss work. No one was nagging at me to cut down. Still, I had become a slave to this witching hour craving.

Did that mean that I was an alcoholic? Or, that I was sliding off in that direction? And, if I did have a drinking problem, what was I going to do about it?

So, I started doing a little private research. I immediately learned that it was hard to get definitive answers, even from authoritative sources, on what constitutes problem drinking. Incidentally, the experts these days prefer to use the term “alcohol dependence” over “alcoholism.” The “dependent” person is one who can’t stop drinking once she starts, suffers serious physical withdrawal if she can’t get her fix, and continues to drink despite recurrent “social, interpersonal, and legal problems.”

Then there is the “abuser,” who can take alcohol or leave it, but when she takes it, she overdoes it—like the college binge drinker, or like me the time I got sloshed at a colleague’s going-away party in my early twenties and wound up having an awkward one-night stand with another coworker.

Although that party was 20 years ago, I came across a statistic that was especially worrisome.  According to a definition cited by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, a woman who consumes more than one drink a day exceeds U.S. government guidelines for “moderate drinking” and is, therefore, deemed a “heavier drinker.” Based on national surveys, only 3.9 percent of women from age 35 to 44 belonged in this “heavier drinker” category in 2006.

It’s generally known that people on these surveys often underreport how much they drink, but I still couldn’t escape the fact that I probably belonged in the minority of “heavier drinkers.”

That got me thinking of Alcoholics Anonymous’s fourth step: making a “searching and fearless” personal inventory, which included looking for anything in my family history or current lifestyle that would predispose me to problem drinking.

I didn’t grow up in a family of dysfunctional alcoholics, although my parents generally liked their cocktail hour, one or two martinis or gin and tonics at 5:30 p.m.—witching hour on the dot. I inherited a fondness for icy gin martinis straight up from my father. He first served me one on my 21st birthday.

Of course, I had started drinking years before that. I first got drunk at a 16th birthday party friends threw for me. I went to Acalanes High in Lafayette in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and, like a lot of teens back then (and now), my friends and I sometimes liked to drink on the weekends. I wondered whether this teen introduction to alcohol could have primed me for abuse, as was suggested by a 2006 study showing teen drinkers at risk of becoming problem drinkers later in life.

I continued social drinking on the weekends into my twenties. I generally didn’t like to get drunk, although, in addition to that one-night stand, there was one early morning that I was lucky to make it home without crashing my car. When it came time to choose a life’s mate, I didn’t seek out a drinking buddy. My husband is pretty much a nondrinker, having a glass of wine only on a Saturday night or when we go out to dinner.

My nightly drinking started in my late thirties  after I returned to work, when my son was about four. I’d come home tired and needing a “lift” from alcohol to give me the energy to play with a bright, happy little boy. Pretty soon, two glasses weren’t enough. My tolerance was rising. 

In 2003, I took a stab at therapy, though the focus was mostly on other issues, including the death of my father. I mentioned I drank almost nightly to relax; she warned me that my need for alcohol and my increasing tolerance could be signs I had a problem. She suggested I check out AA.

Me at an AA meeting? I couldn’t imagine it. “Hi, my name is Martha, and I’m an—I don’t know what I am—but last night I had two big martinis, which made me relaxed enough to think I could put away an extra helping of pasta, and I woke up this morning feeling—fat.”

Of course, I didn’t want to join AA; I didn’t want to stop drinking. But deep down, I wondered if that meant that I, in fact, belonged in AA. Still, when the therapist mentioned AA again, I decided to stop therapy and no longer deal with the question of whether I had a problem.

I wondered if my drinking was hurting my health in other ways.
What about my liver? Or my brain?

Over the next few years, though, the question continued to nag me, notably in the way my drinking and accompanying over­eating undermined one of my good habits: Pretty much every day, I wake up before dawn so I can run or work out. Tom Hart, the fitness director and boot camp teacher at my gym, Walnut Creek Sports and Fitness, says drinking is a diet killer. “That’s a huge problem with a lot of our clients,” he says. “The ones who drink are usually the ones carrying those extra pounds around the middle.”

I wondered if my drinking was hurting my health in other ways. Was alcohol the reason I occasionally woke at 2 or 3 a.m.? What about my liver? Or my brain? Was alcohol causing me to sometimes blank on words in the middle of conversations?

I went to see my doctor, who warned, “Long-term excessive drinking has been associated with brain shrinkage.” That got my attention. She also confirmed that alcohol can interfere with sleep. She ordered blood tests to check my liver function. For my health, she suggested I cut back from my three glasses a night to two—or even one.

Sometime after my moment of reflection in the wine aisle at Trader Joe’s, I returned to therapy, but with a different therapist. I was there to revisit some of those big life issues that didn’t get resolved in my first go-round, but again, I discussed my drinking concerns. Echoing the standard criteria for dependence, he asked whether my drinking was causing big problems at work or home. When I answered “no,” he asked what I wanted to do about my drinking.

“I’m not sure yet,” I said.

To my surprise, he didn’t suggest AA, which was a huge relief. He seemed open to listening and to allowing me to figure out what problem I might have.

I could see the thought bubbles flashing above their heads: She's in denial!

Slowly and carefully, I started talking to people about my concerns, especially other women. I wanted to find out whether any of them, outwardly functional wives, moms, and professionals, also worried about whether they drank too much. On the sidelines at my son’s soccer practice, several moms broke into knowing smiles. One admitted shyly that she liked one glass of white wine a night. Another friend revealed that, like me, she had her nightly glass (or two or three) of wine or martinis for the same reasons that I did: to take the edge off a tough day at work and to revive her energy for an evening at home with husband and kids. Like me, she looked forward to “celebrating” on Friday and Saturday nights with cocktails. Then, a friend of a friend decided to give up drinking, after embarrassing herself at a party at her neighborhood swim club. “There’s so much drinking around here,” she said. “And no one talks about it.”

I could definitely relate to the secretiveness that surrounds alcohol use and the stigma that attaches itself to female drinkers in particular. Nina Ferraris, the program director for John Muir Behavioral Health’s Center for Recovery, agrees that stigma prevents many women from seeking help for all sorts of alcohol problems.

“Women keep it hidden longer,” Ferraris says. “They don’t act out as much as men. They tend to do it quietly at home, or they’re slipping it into their coffee mugs. Then, they’re horrified when the DUI happens, especially when the kids are in the car.”

Finally realizing that I had to confront the possibility that my first therapist was right, I decided to check out an AA meeting. I chose one for women held at noon on Mondays at a Walnut Creek church. The room was filled with about 30 women of all ages and dress, many who greeted one another with hugs and smiles: the tattooed hipster, the pretty blond in a tracksuit who looked as if she’d hit the gym before picking up her kids at school, the suited professionals on their lunch breaks. There was also a young woman soothing a toddler whom she handed off to a babysitter provided for the meeting.

I introduced myself as a newcomer  but not as an alcoholic. I was welcomed warmly. During “sharing,” I heard private tales of self-destruction—broken marriages, drinking during pregnancy, losing jobs or custody of kids, arrests, and stints in psychiatric wards.

As the meeting broke up, a woman in her fifties approached me with a kind smile. This woman, whom I’ll call Cathy to protect her anonymity, pressed her card into my hand—she was a business executive. She said, “Martha, if you’re thinking about drinking tonight, call me.”

I didn’t call Cathy that evening. And I had a drink—but only one glass. Listening to those women’s stories of sorrow and redemption lessened my thirst.

I spent the next few weeks answering questionnaires put out by various organizations and mostly available online. I answered yes to only one of the 12 questions on the “Is AA for you?” test (“Have you ever decided to stop drinking for a week or so but only lasted a few days?”). Other test results were less encouraging, however.

So, I called Cathy one Monday afternoon, and she offered to see me that night. She brought along her “sponsee,” whom I’ll call Sara. We met at Buttercup Grill and Bar in Walnut Creek. Like Cathy, Sara had a stylish haircut, carefully applied makeup, and a big, sparkling ring on one of her fingers. We chose a circular booth in a corner, with me wedged between the two. “We’re surrounding you,” Sara joked.

At Cathy’s suggestion, we treated ourselves to big, rich desserts: apple pie à la mode for Cathy, an ice-cream sundae for Sara, and a slice of chocolate cake for me.

As we ate, Cathy explained that she had been sober for 20 years, Sara for seven. Cathy asked me a few questions about my drinking. When I said that I feared I was using alcohol to ease work stress or to avoid conflict with my husband, she and Sara nodded fervently. Sara described how she started drinking to curb anxiety. As her use escalated, alcohol dulled everything she felt, even things that had once been pleasurable.

Cathy warned me of the well-corroborated fact that alcohol intoxicates women more quickly and easily than men—because of body size and metabolism. Therefore, she said, women are more vulnerable to rapid slides into problem drinking.

Cathy acknowledged that I had heard pretty “extreme” stories at the AA meeting. “Martha, you probably don’t think you’re there yet,” she said before implying that I, too, was most likely headed toward these extremes if I didn’t stop drinking. At one point, she drew my gaze into hers and said, “Martha, I get the sense that you don’t believe this applies to you.”

“No, I don’t,” I said.

Well, I didn’t. Drinking in the morning, drinking all day, or not being able to stop once I started? Drinking so much I ended my nights retching into the toilet? The only scenario that sounded remotely possible  was imbibing more than I should during a night out with friends and getting stopped by the cops, or, worse, hurting myself or someone else in a car crash.

I could see the thought bubbles flashing above Cathy and Sara’s heads: She’s in denial! She’s in denial! Cathy’s bottom line: “Martha, if you think you have a problem with alcohol, you probably do.” She argued that “normal drinkers” don’t worry about whether or not they drink too much. She and Sara suggested a program of 90 AA meetings in 90 days and ticked off a list of “great” meetings in the area, some starting as early as 6 a.m. They volunteered to go with me.

I smiled, thanked them for their offer, and said I’d think about it—knowing full well this would be the last time I would meet with them.

There were several reasons I didn’t want to jump on Cathy and Sara’s wagon. For one, it felt like the two, as well-meaning as they might be, were trying to recruit me into an almost religious way of life that just didn’t suit me. I don’t want to knock AA. I know it works for many people, and AA’s website comes across as less judgmental.

Yet, as much as I disagreed with some of Cathy and Sara’s assumptions about me, I knew they were right in saying that the vast majority of serious drinkers do best by giving up drinking for good. Lee Ann Kaskutas, a senior scientist at the Alcohol Research Group in Emeryville, told me controlled drinking is a “very dangerous idea for people with alcohol dependence.” Even members of the self-help group Moderation Management, which offers techniques to “drink responsibly,” agree that it’s difficult for serious drinkers to just cut back.

In many ways, though, Cathy and Sara’s scared-straight rap clarified things for me. I realized that my problem wasn’t as serious as I had feared and that my puritan guilt was getting the better of me. When my blood tests came back, they showed that my liver was fine. Assured that I wasn’t headed for destruction, I checked in with experts who have argued that alcohol consumption isn’t the evil it’s often made out to be.

“If you were in Italy, you wouldn’t even be asking whether you have a problem,” David J. Hanson told me. Hanson is a professor emeritus of sociology at State University of New York at Potsdam who has studied alcohol and culture for more than 40 years. He and other experts say a woman in Italy can “moderately” consume up to three drinks a day.

Next, I called Arthur Klatsky, M.D., a senior consultant in cardiology at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Oakland. He coauthored several national studies that helped establish the benefits of moderate drinking on cardiovascular health.

“You like to drink,” he said after I told him about my nightly habit. He teased me about my low-rent taste in wine before informing me that a woman of my height—I’m six feet tall—could safely drink up to two drinks a night. He said, though, that three drinks were probably too much for me, especially with my sleep issues. “That’s something you need to watch,” he said.

So, I started my own version of controlled drinking. First, with the encouragement of my therapist, I began devoting some weeknights to working on the novel that had been gathering dust in the basement. Since I can’t drink and write, I had to get through the witching hour sans vin. I psyched myself up by replacing the buzz of a drink with the pride of sticking to my writing schedule, though I still had to bribe myself with a glass of wine after writing.

Then, as a New Year’s resolution, I tried an experiment: no alcohol on weeknights. I thought it might be brutal. As someone who has gone on diets, I know that changing a habit requires a major shift in mindset as well as strategies to distract from the inevitable cravings.

Another thing I realized: Alcohol was not the source of my problems. I was.

Once I made up my mind not to drink, I didn’t drink. It was almost that simple. Yes, there were fleeting witching hour thoughts of “one drink won’t hurt.” When those thoughts arose, I reached for sparkling water or hot tea. I also sank my mind, yogalike, into “the moment” and savored the sensation of being clearheaded and in control. I even began to envision life without alcohol—if, for instance, I decided to heed my boot camp instructor’s advice and stop drinking to lose and maintain weight.

I generally found I slept better at night and woke up feeling, yes, slimmer! My occasional brain fades continued, cropping up when I was sleep deprived or overwhelmed at work. I still got sleepy in the evenings, which suggested that the culprit might not be alcohol after all, but my getting up so damned early. When I let myself drink on the weekends, I was tempted to let loose and allow myself more than my self-imposed two-glass limit. Sometimes I succeeded at sticking to my limit; sometimes I didn’t.

My experiment taught me that I have self-control over alcohol—enough to satisfy me for the time being. When I drink now, I’m more mindful, meaning I drink more slowly to savor the taste, and I pay more attention to how much I drink, and why.

In researching alcohol abuse issues, taking a personal inventory, and going to therapy, I’ve concluded that alcohol doesn’t control my life. I love to exercise in the mornings, write, and spend the evenings with my family. Another thing I realized: Alcohol was not the source of my problems. I was. I’m a big weasel when it comes to confronting life’s challenges. I can find 1,001 ways to withdraw into my safe little shell, and alcohol is just one of them.

When I told my husband that I sometimes drank to avoid talking to him—about the bad things and the good—he said my drinking never caused problems for him. After that conversation and others that touched on the deeper issues, we started to enjoy and appreciate each other again.

As for my fears that I was setting a bad example for my son, I checked in with Ellen Peterson, a Diablo Valley College psychology instructor who heads the Acalanes Drug and Alcohol Task Force. She assured me that “adults who drink moderately teach their kids adult-style enjoyment of the good life.

…If they overimbibe one night, they can use that as a teaching moment.”

I took her advice to heart and used my personal journey as a teaching moment for my son, telling him that I had been worried that I was drinking too much. He said he never noticed me acting differently and didn’t even remember me yelling at him. “I just think wine smells gross,” he said. As he enters his preteen years, I hope this will be the first of many conversations we’ll have about alcohol and drugs.

As for me, I’ll continue to challenge myself about my use of alcohol but not as intensely. I reserve the right to begin saying no during the witching hour—if I decide that I don’t like drinking regularly or I find that my need for alcohol increases.

For now, I’ll continue to enjoy my two—OK, sometimes three—glasses of Two Buck Chuck most nights. You could call that excessive, if you adhere to the American definition of moderation. I prefer the Italian.

Do you drink too much?

  • Talk to your doctor or a therapist who has expertise in treating people with alcohol problems.
  • Go to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism website at www.niaaa.nih.gov, which posts extensive information for treatment professionals and the general public.
  • For a referral to a local treatment center, call 1 (800) 662-4357.
  • For Contra Costa County meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, go to www.contracostaaa.org. For meetings in the Tri-Valley, go to www.valleyservicecenter.org. For meetings west of the Caldecott Tunnel, go to www.eastbayaa.org.
  • For a list of other self-help programs that promote abstinence or controlled drinking, visit the Alcohol Problems and Solutions website at www2.potsdam.edu/hansondj/. One program listed is Women for Sobriety, which has an East Bay chapter. For details, visit www.womenforsobriety.org.
  • Moderation Management, www.moderation.org, offers techniques and a national support network for those who want to learn to drink responsibly or not at all.

Alcohol Rx?

Is it true that moderate drinking, especially of red wine, is good for your health? To find out, Diablo talked to Arthur Klatsky, M.D., a senior consultant in cardiology at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Oakland who has authored national studies on the effect of alcohol on heart disease and breast cancer risk.

First, Klatsky says it’s important to list the ways that heavy drinking is not good for you. Chronic, long-term drinking is associated with liver disease, pancreatitis, neurological conditions, high blood pressure, some cancers, and certain heart conditions and strokes, he says. Plus, excessive drinking leads to traffic fatalities and other deadly accidents and fuels domestic violence, suicides, and homicides.

Like many experts, Klatsky doesn’t hew to the U.S. government definition for “heavier” drinking, which is more than one drink a day for a woman, two for a man. For Klatsky, both men and women stay within “moderate” levels if they consume fewer than three drinks a day. And, there’s good news for moderate drinkers. The overwhelming evidence from hundreds of studies shows that moderate drinking lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease and the types of strokes caused by blood clotting, Klatsky says.

These benefits don’t appear to come just from red wine but also from white wine, beer, and spirits. Klatsky adds that the low prevalence of heart disease and strokes among wine drinkers could also stem from a tendency to eat healthier food and exercise.

Klatsky adds that moderate drinking may also help protect people from developing type 2 diabetes and gallstones. Some studies say that drinking helps people lose weight, possibly because alcohol raises the body’s metabolism. But Klatsky points out that a glass of wine contains 75 to 80 calories. If you cut back on even one glass a night, you could potentially lose one pound in a month.

Still, moderate drinking may carry certain health risks. This past fall, Klatsky and other Kaiser doctors released a headline-grabbing study warning that even light to moderate drinking can raise a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer by 10 percent. However, he says the risk of breast cancer in most older women is balanced by the benefits of moderate drinking.

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