On my last milestone birthday, my best friend announced triumphantly that she had created a cake that captured my personality so perfectly that anyone seeing it would instantly know I was the one being celebrated. With a flourish, she handed me a glass of champagne and presented the cake. It was decorated like a bottle of gin.
“It’s wonderful,” I said, trying to sound grateful. Yet something sharp and rusty poked through my tone. “But I’m more than that, right?”
She laughed and refilled my glass, because, of course, I’d emptied it in seconds. “I guess,” she replied. “You have to admit, though, sweetie…drinking is your thing.”
That was the day I realized something I had never admitted to myself. I went back through my photos and calendar from the previous year. Prosecco on the deck, craft beer festivals, yoga and wine class, Scotch tasting courses, happy hour with work pals, sangria with family, Prohibition cocktail parties—event after event with glasses held aloft. But, I reasoned, I wasn’t alone in that swirl, all my other friends drank daily, too. We just really, really loved drinking, and much of the time, it loved us back.
Yet I couldn’t shake the image of that cake. It started a ripple of questions that I found exceedingly hard to answer without a glass in my hand. Was it possible that drinking wasn’t something I did, but who I had become? And is that really who I wanted to be?
I knew the answer. I just didn’t like it.
Although there are standard consumption guidelines, everyone has a unique set of factors when it comes to drinking
I discovered, through informal research over coffee with friends, that all the women in my social circle asked themselves a variation of “the drinking question.” A hellacious hangover, a particularly overfilled recycling bin, or a forgotten string of text messages to an ex usually triggers a deeper contemplation. Am I drinking too much ?
That might kick off a Google search about what constitutes a healthy amount. The World Health Organization notes that, for a woman, moderate drinking is defined as one to two drinks consumed three days per week. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism puts the maximum for women at seven drinks per week.
But gauging your drinking by numbers like those is misleading, Marc Kern, Ph.D., founder of SMART Recovery, a non-profit proving assistance to those with addictive behaviors, tells SELF. Those guidelines were developed based on potential health risks, not possible addiction issues, he says.
“Plenty of women drink more than those amounts and don’t have a problem,” he says. “Those numbers can’t be your true starting point if you’re looking at your own consumption. You need to begin with the why instead of the how much .”
In the psychology field, alcohol use was once seen from a more black-and-white perspective, he adds. You were either an alcoholic or you weren’t. But the major manual for mental health professionals—the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of Mental Disorders, produced by the American Psychiatric Association—included a significant shift when it came out with the newest version in 2013.
Previously, the DSM had only two categories of disorder: alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence. But now, there’s a condition called “alcohol use” disorder with mild, moderate, and severe sub-classifications. Basically, Kern notes, it means that alcohol use has been put on a spectrum, with many shades of gray.
Where you fall within this span often depends on why you drink and what happens when you do.
“Do you always tend to have more than you planned?” Kern says. “Are you drinking because it’s the only way you relax, or can fall asleep, or deal with stress?”
One of the biggest questions, he suggests, is: What would happen if you quit drinking for a while? For some people, that may just give the liver a welcome break, but for others, some unwelcome feelings might rush in.
“Our society emphasizes that it’s okay to self-medicate, with drinking widely endorsed as a coping strategy,” he says. “But for some people, alcohol becomes their only tool for dealing with difficult emotions. And that’s something to take a good look at.”
When considering why you drink, you might want to look at other factors like your happy hour squad.
Polling my friends on their drinking habits was enlightening, not just because it put my own drinking into perspective, but also theirs. I remembered a conversation I had with my partner, who’s never been much of a drinker. She expressed some concern (um…what red flag?) about the fact that I drank three or four alcoholic beverages daily, and my reply was: “Everybody does.”
But the real answer turned out to be, “Everybody I know does.”
That’s fairly common, Heidi Wallace, clinical director of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation’s Springbrook campus in Oregon, tells SELF. We tend to associate with people who drink about as much as we do, she says. For example, if you’re the never-miss-a-happy-hour type, it’s likely that you’ll attract others who wouldn’t dream of skipping one, either.
This can be tough if you’re thinking of cutting back, Wallace says, because you might be met with a range of reactions, including outright hostility. Some women who consider lowering their alcohol intake might waver because it means they’ll miss a slew of social events.
“The fear of losing friendships is big,” Wallace says. “It can feel overwhelming, like you have to change so much more than how much you drink, because you actually do.”
For instance, you may have to shift how you spend your time. Your friends are off to wine pairing dinners and bar crawls and you’re…doing what? Wistfully watching their scroll of happy-fun-time pics on social media? Suddenly, abstinence doesn’t feel so healthy anymore.
“Some people might find that need to cultivate a different group of core friends,” says Wallace. “If you’re trying to be healthy, you want to be surrounded by other healthy people. That’s the only way to sustain your efforts to take care of yourself.”
Complete abstinence or alcoholism are not the only choices—moderation is achievable, but it takes work.
When I realized that my gin-soaked ways weren’t charming anymore (or perhaps never had been), I wasn’t ready to hang up my cocktail shaker quite yet. So, I decided to embark on an odyssey of moderation. I would limit myself to two drinks per day, I told myself. Or I would only drink when I was out, and not keep any in the house. Or I would be dry during the week but drink as much as I wanted on the weekends.
Putting together specific plans like these can be helpful for creating a framework around drinking, Rebecca Block, Ph.D., a New York-based clinical psychologist who specializes in moderation management, tells SELF.
“There are some strategies that can be useful, like looking at your drinking patterns and determining the point when enjoyment ends and problematic behavior begins,” she says. For instance, does it take two drinks before your drinking gets fuzzy? Do you ever suffer from blackouts or “brown-outs” when you kinda remember what happened, but you’re vague on the details?
Block encourages people to look at issues like these, and then set goals. Planning nights for drinking, and how much to drink on those nights, can help create a greater sense of control.
Moderation isn’t universally loved, though. Wallace says she’s not a fan of the moderation movement, because the research on success rates isn’t promising yet. Also, she believes the emphasis is put too much on the minutia of drinking—how many ounces are in a pour, which events will I drink at, how many of those events are there this week—instead of the complexity of factors that might go into the decision to drink.
For example, genetics can play a major part in the divide between delight and addiction.
“You could have two women, same age, same weight, and give them the exact same amount of alcohol every day for a year,” says Wallace. “One might develop a problematic relationship to alcohol, and the other might not. Why? Because of genetics and emotional factors. It’s much more complex than just the amount that you’re drinking.”
How I answered the “why” question for myself and decided to plan my own damn cake.
For many of my friends, drinking is still a lovely leisure activity that they do quite often. Recently, I scrolled through Instagram at around 11 a.m. and saw at least three people had posted photos of “morning wine” on a beautiful summer day.
To be honest, I was jealous. Maybe I always will be. Because I gave moderation a shot and it simply didn’t work for me. I tried a “dry month” a few times. Then, I limited the number of drinks I had per event—promising myself that I would have a two-drinks-maximum. I set other rules, such as no alcohol in the house, fewer boozy events on the weekends, no choosing restaurants based on the size of a bartender’s wine pour. On and on it went, with each attempt resulting in broken vows to myself. So, not only did I have the same number of hangovers and regretful days, but I also added disappointment to the mix.
My one success of doing a “dry year” didn’t feel like a victory, because I white-knuckled my way through it, with a laser focus on that end date. I fantasized about what I’d drink once the year was over, planned out my liquor store run months in advance. This is what some people call a “dry drunk,” when someone has the mindset of a lush, even when sober.
So, about seven months ago, I quit drinking. For good.
I don’t consider myself an alcoholic—having read the criteria of the DSM for alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence, I became convinced I was in a “shade of gray” zone of alcohol use disorder, instead.
But I come from a long and not-so-proud history of alcoholics, so I feel that by stopping now, I’m eliminating my risk of following that family tradition. I’m 49 years old, the age that my grandmother was when she died as a result of her drinking. She fell into a coma after a particularly hard bender, and never re-emerged.
For me, that damn cake may have been a tipping point, but it was truly asking the one hard question that made the most difference: Why do I drink ?
That question can prompt a simple declaration or a complicated, thorny, worth-it journey. For me, I realized that I drank to numb out, even in times of joy and celebration. I liked the feeling of becoming a passenger, letting the buzz take the wheel, ceding control in a kind of happy obliteration. But I finally realized that’s not relaxation; it’s erasure.
As I curtailed and ultimately quit drinking, my somewhat large and wide-ranging friendship circle became a much smaller, intimate dot. I still see a couple of my former drinking pals for coffee or yoga. But, sadly, many others have dropped away. I thought we had so much in common, but that wasn’t the case. Without the bar hopping, we found ourselves in painful, awkward silences and I could feel them twitching to get on with their “real plans” for the evening. I don’t fault them, I know that twitch well. Although we still follow each other on social media, our lives have diverged. Maybe that would have happened anyway, with or without sobriety. But, deep down, I doubt it.
Now I spend my time with people who drink and who don’t, but what they have in common is that they happily go rock climbing or hammock swinging with me, without expressing disappointment that we didn’t bring wine.
I’ve had plenty of moments of yearning to be back in that old, familiar habit. But I’ve also noticed a subtle shift in my brain when that numbness isn’t available. It stays awake instead. I feel more curious, but also more humbled. In many ways, I’m finally starting to understand how my mind actually works, and I see my judgments and thoughts up close in a way I never imagined possible.
Plus, I love the feeling of waking up and not having to scroll through last night’s text messages with a sense of dread. Remembering everything, all the time? Incredible.
To be fair, that cake was actually delicious, and so were many parts of that lush life. I don’t regret any of it—I just want a different answer now.
You might also like: The 5 Worst Foods to Eat Right Before Bed