Dear Dr. Andrea,
Like a lot of people, I wanted to do “Dry January.” When I look back at 2020 in all its awfulness, one conclusion is that I drank more than I liked. I don’t think anyone who knows me would say I have a significant problem. And I doubt I even drink as much as my roommate does, or some of my friends. But I do think sometimes I relied on a glass of wine or a beer more than I should have to unwind. It also contributed to weight gain.
So I was pretty determined to try not drinking for the month, and I started the year off well. It feels like a punchline, but after last week’s events when pro-Trump rioters stormed the Capitol, I drank. I interned on the Hill when I was in college and still know plenty of people who work there. It was very upsetting. Now I feel like I’m just giving up. It’s a joke for a lot of people, but I really want to face whether this could be a sign that I do have an issue after all.
If I set a goal about alcohol I can’t keep, isn’t that one of the classic signs of having a problem?
— Just Trying to Be Better
It’s so good that you asked — even if I (annoyingly enough) can’t give you a definitive answer.
But the fact that you’re asking is worth something.
Society likes to tell us that alcohol problems are black and white. That you either have a problem or you don’t; that you’re either truly addicted or you aren’t; that you’re hiding flasks and driving drunk and needing a drink first thing upon waking or you’re totally fine. In our culture, we like excess — and so we also like big, thick, dark lines to decide for us when we’ve finally crossed over into needing to worry about our behavior.
But human behavior is not black and white, including alcohol consumption. Yes, there are plenty of people who meet the classic definition of alcoholism, and it’s all too obvious by their frequency of drinking or the fact that they need a drink to get them through the average day (or night). But there are also all kinds of people with alcohol problems where it’s not quite as obvious, even to their loved ones. Maybe they don’t drink all that frequently, but when they do, they can never stop at just one — they’d rather not drink at all. Maybe they become someone that they don’t like when they’re drinking, or maybe (just as concerning) they only like themselves when they’re buzzed. Maybe their drinking hides anxiety or depression as they’re doing it, silently and insidiously making those conditions worse when they’re not. Maybe their drinking has added up to such a tolerance over the years that if they want to drink, they need more and more to the point where it’s getting in the way of being able to be satisfied in a social setting. Maybe they’re always the one who has trouble stopping once everyone else has long since heeded the last call. And so on.
And then, on the milder side, there are people for whom it’s not necessarily about the chemical or addictive properties of alcohol but rather a part of their overall health habits that isn’t serving them well — it’s exacerbating weight gain they don’t like, or keeping them from more active or creative or interactive pursuits.
Without a full history, of course, I can’t tell where you are in this. But what I’d find important is where alcohol stands on your coping list. Whenever we are one-trick ponies in terms of what we use to manage difficult emotions or persevere through challenging times, it’s a problem. You need a variety of things to help you through the hard stuff in life, and the more one takes over and becomes your automatic first through last strategy, the more important it is to expand.
That brings us to right now.
The past week in the United States has been alarming and distressing, and it caps off a period of sustained stress that is still not over. So it’s far from a smoking gun if you can’t automatically stick to plans made in calmer times. But let’s not forget, you made those plans for a reason. So why not, this month, get rid of the black and white? Instead, commit to observing yourself — your triggers, your reactions, your cravings, your actions. And make a goal to expand the number of ways you can help yourself through difficult times — especially when they seem so unrelenting.