Knowing your limits – Is Your Relationship with Alcohol Worth Examining?

When you step back and think about your relationship with alcohol from the first sip until now, do you see a progression of your use?  Do you see yourself generally drinking more than when you were younger?  Most people would answer yes to this question, yet most people don’t need to be too worried about progressing with their use to life-destroying levels.  Were you ever told you should slow down on your intake because alcoholism runs in your family then thought to yourself “I’m fine, they have nothing to worry about?”  But should you be worried?  Should you pay attention to your consumption so as to avoid the scary label of “alcoholic?”

For a lot of people, the COVID-19 pandemic has created feelings of isolation, more stress, and more boredom, which can lead to feeling the need to drink to cure these intensified feelings.  Even people who barely drink can find that loneliness can trigger bad feelings, and if healthy coping mechanisms aren’t in place, it is easy to turn to the bottle.  We live in a society obsessed with drinking alcohol so in times of increased stress what do we see everywhere on social media, TV, and among friends?  The message that drinking is the solution.  Which couldn’t be further from the truth.

 

The Alcohol-Use Spectrum

Whether you drink alcohol or not, your use will fall somewhere on the alcohol use spectrum.  

Generally speaking, this spectrum can be broken down into 5 stages, from safest to life-threatening.  Some may find themselves stuck between 2 levels their entire life.  Others might flip between levels every few months, some can stay in one level for years, and some can breeze through each level until they reach level 5.  Keep in mind, these are general guidelines, and many factors determine where you’re at and where you might be headed.  Alcohol amounts affect everybody differently based on age, medical conditions, weight, medications, and a plethora of other factors. 

The safest stage on the alcohol-use spectrum is level 0- abstinence.  People in this stage either never drank or they no longer drink.  No alcohol in your body is truly the safest.  Level 1 is the low-risk zone.  To be considered a low-risk drinker, you’d have to stay below CCSA’s (Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction) drink guidelines.  For men, 15 drinks weekly, with no more than 3 drinks per day most days.  For women, 10 drinks weekly, with no more than 2 drinks per day most days.  But as you’ll learn later in this article, quantities aren’t the only way to determine if your alcohol use is low risk.  Most of the population falls into this level of drinking and most people never “graduate” to higher levels on the alcohol-use spectrum.

Problematic drinking (level 3) is when one’s drinking begins to have social, physical, mental, and maybe even legal consequences.  This could be drinking to escape depression and anxiety, getting a DWI, losing a job, relationship issues.  Feeling like the only time you feel like yourself is when you’re drunk is a red flag.  Missing commitments because you’re hungover probably isn’t the kind of behaviours you’re proud of.  Feeling guilt and shame for these negative consequences are very real and can be overwhelming, yet denial can be stronger.  It’s so easy to think that everyone who drinks experiences negative consequences, so that’s normal, and so you don’t have a problem.  Just because something is common doesn’t mean that it’s normal or no big deal.

The final stage on the alcohol-use spectrum is what the DSM-V (American Psychiatric Association’s fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) calls Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD).  AUD is a medical diagnosis, but most people would use the non-medical term “alcoholism” to describe this level.  To be diagnosed with AUD a medical professional would determine if you show specific symptoms over a 12-month period.  These symptoms would be things like finding yourself in dangerous situations due to your drinking, experiencing withdrawal, cravings, increased tolerance, and many others.  Your answers would help determine if you were living with a mild, moderate, or severe case of AUD.

 

What is “A Drink?”

You must first know the amount of alcohol considered as 1 drink in order to measure your true consumption.  Had 2 pints of draft beer with your meal at the local pub?  You didn’t have 2 drinks- you actually had about 3 ½ drinks.

In Canada, for alcohol, “one drink” is any drink that has 13.6 grams of pure alcohol.  Some types of booze are more potent than others and the volume, of course, matters.  

 

BEER/COOLER/CIDER

1 Drink = 12 oz. (351 mL) of 5% alcohol beer

Common Sizes:

  • Tallboy = 16 oz. (473 mL) = 1.3 drinks
  • Pint = 20 oz. (568 mL) = 1.7 drinks
  • Pitcher = 60 oz. (1.7 L) = 5 drinks

WINE

1 Drink = 5 oz. (142 mL) of 12% alcohol wine

Common Sizes:

  • Large Glass = 9 oz. (270 mL) = 2 drinks
  • Half Carafe = 12.5 oz. (375 mL) = 2.5 drinks
  • Bottle = 25 oz. (750 mL) = 5 drinks

LIQUOR/SPIRITS

1 Drink = 1.5 oz. (43 mL) of 40% liquor

Common Sizes:

  • Martini or Margarita (standard) = 3 oz. (86 mL) = 2 drinks
  • Mickey/Pint (depending on where you live this size has different names) = 13 oz. (375 mL) = 8.5 drinks
  • Bottle (or a “Quart” if you’re in Nova Scotia) = 26 oz. (750 mL) = 17 drinks

 

How Much Do You Drink?

If you’ve ever reflected on how much you drink and wondered if you drank too much, you might discuss it with your doctor.  One of the first questions they ask you might be “how much do you drink?” That’s usually the first question anyone would ask of themselves or others when attempting to determine if a problem is present.  But it certainly shouldn’t be the only question, as the more important question to ask is “why do you drink?” also, “what happens in your life when you drink?”

Maybe you only have one single glass of wine when you get home from work to unwind.  Just 5 drinks a week?  No problem, right?  For some people, sure.  They could do this most weeks and never progress to riskier drinking or big consequences.  But there is an ever-growing number of people who do this who actually do have a problem even though it’s “just one drink.”  Ask yourself “why” you feel that need to drink that one drink after work.  Does that drink quiet intrusive thoughts?  Is it the only time of the day you feel like yourself?  Do you use it as a medicine to treat anxiety?  Then ask yourself what happens in your life when you drink that one drink after work.  Does your spouse get distant and avoid you during your wine time?  Do your children act differently or even tell you they don’t like it?  Does your anxiety keep getting worse even though you feel like you’re calming it with drinking?  Maybe you avoid responsibilities once you feel that buzz and things are starting to feel unmanageable.  

After some reflection, it becomes clear- how much you drink isn’t all that needs to be answered.

 

Keep Your Use In Check

The good news is that with some monitoring, self-awareness, and the desire to better your life, you can reduce your risk of reaching problematic and disordered use.  Now that you know what is considered a drink, pay attention to your consumption amounts.  Listen to what that voice inside your head says when you take the last sip of booze.  Learn to feel your emotions to gather clues about your drinking.  

 

Here are some tips that can help you keep your use in check:

Limit your Time Spent with Drinkers

It can be challenging to make new friends as an adult, but if you find your friend circle is soaked in booze, finding people who don’t or rarely drink can help with your consumption.  They say you are who you spend time with so look around to who you’re choosing to spend your precious time with.  Are your friends only interested in patio drinking by day and clubbing by night?  Consider spending less time with them or seeing if they’d be up for finding alcohol-free activities.

Drink Slowly

Saying “don’t binge drink” is easier said than done, but it is certainly possible for most people.  Binge drinking can first show up in the “risky” level 2 of the alcohol-use spectrum and is defined as consuming five or more drinks in two hours for men and four or more drinks for women, with the intention of getting drunk.  To avoid this, switch out alcoholic drinks for non-alcoholic drinks or slow your pace.   

Put it in Writing

Journaling is such a powerful tool when sorting through thoughts, feelings, and behaviours.  Writing about your reasons why you drink, what happens when you drink, and reasons why you’d like to cut back are much more helpful than just thinking about them.  Journaling helps you push through denial, which sounds good, but can be difficult and scary in practice.  Take your time and be gentle with yourself.  Here’s a post I made on how journaling can help improve your life.

Avoid Temptation

When you start a healthy diet, one of the first rules would be to not buy junk food to keep in the house.  The same goes for booze if you’re limiting your consumption.  Avoid stocking up and pay attention if you feel the need to stock up as this is a warning sign of a bigger problem.  If you associate drinking with events or activities like vacations, Christmas parties, or simply taking a bubble bath, be creative and think of other ways you can enjoy those things that don’t involve booze.

Find Support

If you’re questioning your drinking or feel like it has gotten out of hand, reach out for help.  That can be your doctor, a therapist, a friend, family, online support groups, or local organizations.  You don’t have to be falling down drunk in an alley with a brown paper bag wrapped around a bottle to be a candidate for help.  You are worthy of support at any stage.

 

If you feel you need advice or support and someone tells you “you’re not an alcoholic because you [fill in the blank]”, you’re now equipped to know that risky and problematic drinking is more nuanced than whatever that person’s idea of a problem is.  No one on this planet knows your thoughts and feelings better than you do.  If you feel you need support for your drinking you are right.  You are capable of living a healthy and happy life and you are stronger and more resilient than you realize.  Alcoholism can run in your family all it wants, but you have the power to stop it in its tracks.  You have the power to get your life back.  You are worth it. 

by Lee-Anne Richardson