On Women And Alcohol: Is Our Relationship With Drinking Becoming A Problem?
Since starting my elimination diet a few weeks ago I’ve been thinking a lot about culture. Mostly, our culture around food and drink. I find that whenever I make a dietary change for the good of my overall health I get a lot of angry comments. I’ve found that when anybody makes a healthy change, suddenly a lot of people around them feel really threatened by it. Are you saying I’m not healthy? The way I’m eating is just fine! I workout all the time!
What I have thought was especially interesting is that part of an elimination diet includes giving up alcohol. When I told people this, a few of them were like welp, see you when you’re drinking again! as if by not drinking I wouldn’t be any fun to be around… or something. Even though it’s only been about three weeks drink-less, I notice how drinking is just everywhere. Want to meet up after work? Drinks. Let’s talk about a project! Drinks. Feel an emotion? Drinks. When I tell people that I’m not drinking they look at me with fish eyes, like I’m on fire. It’s only been a few weeks but it really has me thinking, what is our cultural relationship with alcohol?
This is something I’ve been wanting to write about on Donuts + Down Dog FOREVER. I have so many thoughts and ideas about how we interact with alcohol. I decided that, for this blog post, I needed to bring in the big guns and interview my friend Lisa. Lisa used to be one of my hardcore regular Pilates students, and I was immediately drawn to her fun spirit. She’s also the only person who can pull of wearing head to toe leopard spandex and look like a baller. She transitioned from being my student to my bud (hi Lisa!) and we got to talking about all things wellness. We both have a passion for wellness in different ways, and I was thrilled when Lisa started talking about her history with alcohol. I was so fascinated by her perspective (and gusto!) that I wanted to feature her here.
I did a quick poll on my Instagram to field questions from my readers. One thing that I thought was interesting was that, even though I mentioned what Lisa and I were talking about, a bunch of people wanted me to ask what her favorite alcoholic beverage was. Read more below!
LIZZIE: I feel like drinking is so engrained in our society. What are your thoughts on how women interact with alcohol?
LISA: Absolutely! Drinking is a part of so many social events: birthdays, work happy hours, sporting events, holidays, bridal showers. It seems inescapable sometimes! A bunch of my friends got married this year and it’s crazy to see how much alcohol is a part of the wedding planning and celebration process, from engagement parties to wedding dress shopping to the actual event. Not to mention the bachelor and bachelorette parties! Sometimes I’m like, ‘when I get married, no one is going to come to my bachelorette because I don’t drink! How boring!’
And in addition to celebrating with alcohol, we also cope with it, especially women. Did you have a bad day? Have a glass of wine. Is your boyfriend being a douche? Go out drinking with your girlfriends. Is it Monday? Drink. And I think, also especially women, we use alcohol to numb a lot of other emotions: pain, fear, anxiety. I think there’s a lot of us who can relate to the idea of having some liquid courage before a first date or event we don’t know very many people. Or gulping down or first drink (or two or three) when we’re uncomfortable. It’s easier to drink through the discomfort than it is to sit in it. And this definitely is not unique to women, but as a woman, this is something I’ve experienced and noticed among other women I know.
Another thing about alcohol is that the older I get—and I think again, this is something that a lot of other women can relate to—is that the way we drink changes. Maybe we’re growing out of barhopping, taking shots, or being out until 2am every weekend night, but that doesn’t mean the drinking is slowing down. Maybe we start drinking different alcohol: wine instead of keg beer or vodka shots or whatever. We think because we’re drinking at home with our girlfriends talking about kids or husbands, or during book club on a weeknight—we think that means that drinking a whole bottle of wine isn’t binge or problem drinking.
Something that I think is so critical to this conversation is how we talk about responsible drinking. When I was growing up, we weren’t taught about responsible drinking except to not drink and drive. The message was don’t drink until you’re 21 and don’t drink and drive. Beyond that, there were no lessons about how to drink responsibly. It’s sort of the same thing as abstinence only sex-ed. You know kids are doing it, so why not give them the information about how to partake safely? I think we need to figure out ways to have conversations that go beyond ‘don’t leave your drink unattended’ and ‘don’t drink and drive’. How do we talk about how to tell if you are misusing alcohol? What’s a good way to check in with your emotions before you start drinking? What’s a blackout? What does that do to your brain? How do different types of alcohol affect your body differently?
LIZZIE: A lot of my readers had questions about how alcohol impacts their bodies: training, metabolism, recovery, inflammation, etc.
LISA: I am not a medical professional so I don’t think I can answer this question except to talk about what I’ve noticed with my own body! I know a lot of people expect weight to magically fall off when they stop drinking because of the reduction in calories. (I feel like it sort of works this way for dudes!) For me, that was not exactly the case. I am absolutely in the best shape of my life now, definitely better than I was at even like 18 (I’ll be 34 at the end of this month). But I can’t credit that to just to my sobriety. I know I feel a lot better in my body (and my mind, too) and that has a lot to do with not drinking. But I also just treat myself better now—I drink more water, I eat better, I sleep better, I work out more often and harder, my skin is clearer. I’ve spent a lot of time working on myself—from the inside out—and it shows. And that’s why it’s hard to pinpoint and say, ‘Yes, this is all thanks to cutting alcohol out of my life.’ I did all these things in conjunction with one another, and most of these things were because of, or at least easier because of my decision to stop drinking, but it wasn’t like I stopped drinking alcohol and that was it. I quit drinking and my mindset shifted. It was one giant leap that set off a million other small steps on the path to a healthier life in general.
LIZZIE: What advice do you have for people that don’t necessarily want to stop drinking, but want to drink less?
LISA: I think it’s important for me to be authentic and transparent with your readers and let them know that I tried to drink less, but it was never a long term, sustainable plan for me. That is not to say that other people can’t do it, it just was not ever going to work for me! That being said, I’ve had clients who have had success setting a goal for the number of drinks they’ll have in a given night and are able to stick to that. I’ve also had clients who are able to stop behaviors such as drinking alone or drinking on weeknights. It’s all about what will work for you.
My advice to people who want to drink less is probably pretty similar to my advice to people who want to quit drinking completely. First off, know you’re not alone! Honestly, about two-thirds of the clients I’ve worked with have wanted to address their drinking habits in some way. (I had someone want to talk about this yesterday!) And lots of them are surprised when I tell them that this is absolutely something we can coach on, and that they’re certainly not the first of my clients to want to tackle this subject!
The second thing I will say is that you have to be ready for the change in your drinking. You have to want it. You can’t be cutting down your drinking for a partner, or a friend, or for your parents. Yes, there are times when maybe your boyfriend makes some comment about something you did when you were drinking that makes you feel shitty, but if you’re trying to reduce your alcohol intake to make your boyfriend happy, it’s going to be as effective as if you’re doing it to make yourself happy. And when I said that you have to want it, I mean it. Figure out why you’re looking to reduce your drinking. Attaching a reason—whatever that is for you: losing weight, being more productive on the weekends, not drunk dialing your ex—can help you stay resolute in your progress. Being really clear on why you’re making this change, which can feel (and be!) really drastic, is important! In moments where you’re tempted to drink, remember that why. Remind yourself, ‘Oh yeah, I have this super specific, personal goal in mind. I want to wake up tomorrow feeling great and proud and like I can go run three miles.’ Or whatever it is. It’s also helpful to focus on what you’re gaining rather than what you’re losing.
The next part of it is to find what works for you. I already mentioned that and I’m saying it again because it’s that important. We all have a friend who stopped drinking hard alcohol and swears they don’t get drunk off wine. Or someone who is able to have one glass of wine and isn’t tempted to have another. Maybe that’s just not you. You’ve got to accept that and figure out what works for you. For your body, your life, your mind. My coaching is all about personalized plans, because that’s what works. If you find that going to the bar is too tempting—don’t go to the bar. If you realize you need to stop hanging out with your party friends, stop hanging out with your party friends. Take time to assess your situation and what’s going on inside of you and what will help you with your drinking. I also think it’s key to find something else to channel your energy into, especially in the beginning. Since a lot of people are using alcohol as sort of a Band-Aid to not have to deal with emotions, I think it’s helpful to find a way to quiet all the chaos in your mind. That being said, it’s extremely important to actually deal with that emotion and shit you’ve been avoiding. This is a great time to start therapy, work with a coach, start meditating. Having more time means you’ve got more time to focus on you! Introspection is key.
Lastly, my advice is that a setback is not a failure, so don’t give up! If you want to reduce your drinking—or even stop completely—you might have setbacks. If you have a drink, that’s FINE. It’s not the end of the world. Cut yourself some slack. You’re human. The worst thing you can do is use that one slip up as an excuse to give up completely. Every day is a chance you get to make the choice about your drinking, for anyone, so if you set a goal to do a Sober October and you end up drinking in the first week, oh well. There’s the whole rest of the month to make up for it. In the words of Aaliyah, dust yourself off and try again!
LIZZIE: What tips do you have for dealing with friends + family who might not understand or be supportive of your lifestyle change?
LISA: My biggest tip is that your drinking habits are YOURS. They aren’t about your friends, or your boyfriend, or your mom. That sort of sucks to hear sometimes, but this is shit you’ve got to do on your own. Support is, of course, awesome and helpful and wonderful, but at the end of the day, whether you drink or don’t drink is a decision you’re making. The only person who needs to understand it is you.
That being said, yes, having people around you who understand and support any changes you make about your drinking can be key to making those changes last. In my experience, someone having a hard time being supportive is usually dealing with their own issues that have little to zero about me. If someone can’t support a positive change you’re making in your life, it might be time to re-evaluate their role in it!
If someone really close to you is having a hard time with the change (sometimes they might not understand because they don’t think you have a problem), articulate to them why you want to make this change. Outlining why it’s important to you might help them take it more seriously and show support—even if they don’t necessarily agree with your choice.
LIZZIE: On that note, how do you deal with nosey people who feel entitled to information about your choices?
LISA: I used to feel like I had to explain my sobriety to anyone and everyone who was curious, but I’ve gotten over that for the most part. I don’t owe anyone an explanation. My sobriety is my decision, my choice, my life.
If I do choose to talk about my drinking, I tend just say “I don’t drink” or “I haven’t had a drink in two and a half years.” I think there’s something in the delivery of my short response that makes it clear that’s all I’m offering up on the subject.
The thing is, I’ve talked and written about it enough that if someone is really nosey, they can find something out there in the world about my drinking! It was important to me to share my story in my words so that I could control the narrative. And I do still think it’s important for me, when I choose, to talk to people about my drinking, and my choice to stop drinking. I’d love for us to normalize sobriety and stop demonizing the label of alcoholic and perpetuating stereotypes around addiction. I’ve also had to learn to develop a thicker skin to deal with people who want to share their judgements about why I stopped drinking, or who want to slap a label on me and my behaviors. I agree with some and I really fucking disagree with others. But by actually giving a voice to someone who is sober and admits to unhealthy drinking I think that helps change the conversation, even just a bit.
And there’s a lot about the conversation I want to change. Even the way recent headlines about Ben Affleck and his alleged trip to rehab have been so aggravating to me. It just made me so sad that as a society we’re sensationalizing someone’s struggle with alcoholism and looking for clues of a “breakdown”. Like, let a dude live—putting his business in the pages of a magazine may sell more copies but it’s not going to help him. And all it’s doing for the public is contributing to this idea that alcoholism or problem drinking is something that is a big and bad, crazy problem that only develops when you’re on week-long binges and facing interventions. I just don’t think we are doing any favors when we talk about it that way. My drinking certainly didn’t include week-long binges or an intervention, but once I started drinking I wouldn’t stop, and I needed—wanted-- to get a handle on it. It was messy, and unhealthy and sad for me. And I think for a lot of people, that’s what problem drinking looks like—messy, sad, unhealthy. But we’re conditioned to think—‘oh, I don’t have a problem holding down a job’ or ‘my friends drink a lot, too, so I’m ok.’
LIZZIE: What’s a good line you can use to describe your drinking choices to people when you’re out?
LISA: Honestly, I’ve found that the best way to handle someone offering me a drink is to simply say “No, thanks. I’m good.” If I keep my refusal short and sweet, I usually don’t get too much push back or too many follow up questions. Trying to have serious, heartfelt conversations about drinking when I’m in an environment where other people are drinking is tricky because I’ve noticed my lack of drinking often makes others uncomfortable and sometimes defensive. I think sometimes they assume I’m judging their drinking or counting their drinks. And on some level, I am judging because humans do that, but mostly I’m just focusing on myself and how my sobriety is impacting my experience. Other people’s drinking is their shit.
And I also just try to avoid the topic when I’m out because I want to be very thoughtful about the way I talk about my drinking problems and choice not to drink. I don’t like to hide it or sugar coat it, but in that transparency and honesty there has to be room for discussion and understanding and I don’t find that at bar or party is often a conducive situation for that.
LIZZIE: What are some of your favorite alcohol free activities that AREN’T walking Green Lake? (we had been joking before the interview started that this was the quintessential let’s hang out! idea in Seattle)
LISA: This question actually gives me so much anxiety because I feel like we’re on a first date and you’re asking me what my hobbies are and I’m trying to act cool like I have some.
I do love walking Greenlake, I just like it to be acknowledged that I can do things that AREN’T walking the lake! Social interactions are definitely one of the things that changed the most when I quit drinking. For a long time, people just didn’t invite me to do stuff at night on the weekends…and a lot of people still don’t. If it weren’t for my boyfriend and our dog, my social calendar would be pretty clear! Part of that is getting older, part of that is getting sober. Sometimes you have to remind people (sometimes you have to remind yourself) that you can still go out and have fun and be fun without alcohol.
I have gotten more into fitness since I quit drinking, both because it was something to channel a lot of my energy and emotions into. Also, I was able to get up early on weekends and go workout because I wasn’t hungover, or I had less nights after work when I was drinking, so I had more gym time. You hear often that people in recovery swap one addiction for another, and I think a lot of people hit the gym hard when they give up drinking. I know for a while my friends were rolling their eyes at me because they thought all I wanted to do socially was go to work out classes, but it was hard to find the groove again. It was like, ‘oh shit—what do I like to do sober?’
And the answer is sort of—I like to do the same stuff everyone else does. There’s no secret sober society (at least if there is they haven’t invited me), and I haven’t felt compelled to reach out to other people in recovery via an organized group like AA or sober meetups. (Honestly because for a while I thought sober people were going to be all nerds.) Call me boring, but I walk my dog, I hang out with my 3-year-old nephew, I spend time with my friends, I bake, I watch Dateline every chance I get, I do Hot Pilates and silly dance classes, I listen to beauty and true crime podcasts 24/7, and I go to movies just for the popcorn.
I live my life mostly the same as I did before I quit drinking, I just don’t drink alcohol. I’m at the point now where for the most part I’m comfortable in a bar setting. I can stay out until 2am on a bachelorette party, I can go to a concert and dance. It took a long time for me to get there, but I’m there. Not always, but 95% of the time. I still get anxious when I anticipate hanging out with people—especially new people—in a situation where people will all be drinking, but I’ve got the skills to cope with that now. I think we get so caught up in these ideas that ‘OMG if I’m not drinking, I won’t have a life!’ You will. You can have a very similar life, you’ll probably just remember more of it.
LIZZIE: What have you noticed in you/others qualities of life when you’re drinking vs. not?
LISA: My best friend and I were just having this conversation and she made a long list of things that she has noticed in herself when she cuts out booze, and it’s pretty similar to what I notice in myself, and I’d bet a lot of the things on her list are applicable for others, too.
For me, I just feel better when I don’t drink. It’s taken a lot of work (yoga, energy work, tarot, therapy—lots of therapy!!) to work through the feelings I was trying to suppress when I was drinking, but now that I don’t drink to numb how I feel. I also don’t sit in that awful feeling of shame and regret after a bad night out. I don’t avoid my friends or family or my phone or wonder what I did or who I hurt. I haven’t felt that knot in my stomach that only develops after a blackout in over three and a half years—and that feeling in indescribable. It’s incredible. It’s freedom. I’m so proud of myself.
Through the work I’ve done on myself, which was without a doubt prompted by my sobriety, I’ve gotten strong. Physically, mentally, emotionally. I’ve gone through the toughest times in my life sober. Huge losses and pains and setbacks that other people thought would send me back to drinking. And I never even considered taking a drink during those dark times. The word I hear people describe me as the most (well, maybe second to hilarious) is strong. For a long time, I was so fucking sick of being strong because I just thought of all the struggles that strength meant I had to overcome, including being an alcoholic. I thought it was so unfair that I couldn’t just drink ‘normally’. But I can’t. I’ve accepted it. Now I’m proud of my strength. Often, when a situation is really hard or something feels to big too handle, I’ll remind myself: ‘you quit drinking, you can handle this.’
I feel like I have so much more time. There’s actually a movement that started in Australia called HelloSundayMorning that is working to change the world’s relationship with alcohol. They got their name from the idea that if you drink less, you have more time on Sunday mornings. And it’s so true. I used to spend my whole weekends in bed, hungover. Now I’m up early and I can’t sit still. I get so much done! It’s crazy.
Possibly the biggest and most important change I’ve noticed is in the circle of people I have around me. When I was drinking, I hung out with a certain group of people, went to bars, got drunk, had very few, if any, repercussions for my bad behavior. Friends knew I had an unhealthy relationship with alcohol and that I wasn’t happy with that, but they also had similar behaviors. It didn’t benefit them if I stopped drinking—they wanted to me to go out with them. Now, a lot of my friendships and relationships have shifted. I surround myself with a very intentionally curated group of people who support my work, my lifestyle, my sobriety—me as a whole, unconditionally. There aren’t strings attached to friendship. I’m so much happier in my relationships, probably because they are more authentic and deeper because I’m able to be more authentic and deep. You think you’re having a deep conversation when you’re drunk, but you’re not. You’re sloppy and whispering secrets that you won’t remember later. Or at least that’s how I was. It’s not a real bond.
LIZZIE: Do you have any tips or resources for people that want to drink less? Things that you found super helpful?
LISA: I’m always a fan of accountability. Having someone (even just one person) who you share your desire to drink less with can be helpful. And that doesn’t have to be someone in your personal life if you don’t feel comfortable. Working with a coach, or a therapist if you feel that would be helpful, can be a great way to stay on track. Creating clear limits (i.e. “I won’t drink at home alone” or “I’m limiting myself to 3 glass of wine a week”) and then tracking them can also help. Again, if goes back to what works for you. But for most people, knowing you’ve shared your goal with someone who is rooting for you can be helpful.
Also, I found it was really helpful to stay busy—with non-drinking activities, the gym, and to make dates to check in with myself. Journaling, taking solo dates, learning a hobby—those things can sound so corny but keeping your calendar full, even if it’s just with shit you’re doing for and with yourself, gives you a reason to skip alcohol-related events or bar nights. Or even just an easy excuse when you’re out with friends and don’t want to drink but don’t want to have everyone all up in your business. ‘Sorry! Not drinking tonight—I’m doing a big hike tomorrow and I’m getting up early. Wine totally messes up my sleep.’
LIZZIE: So, everybody wants me to ask you: what’s your favorite drink to order out? Before our interview you made a comment about how holding soda water doesn’t do shit for you and I loved that so much!
LISA: This question makes me laugh because if you boil it down—it’s a little absurd in the way that it shows how much our society is dependent on alcohol! We stress about what drinks to order when we go out if they don’t have alcohol in them!
It is totally situational, and a lot of times I do order a soda water (just because sparkling water is my jam!). I just have to laugh at the advice that is given to people trying to get sober or cut down on their drinking: ‘Order a soda water and a lime and no one will ever know you aren’t holding a drink!’ Um, I’ve had enough Hendricks and tonics to know this soda water is for sure not a gin and tonic. I find it so silly because for me at least, I wasn’t worried about been perceived as not having an alcoholic drink in my hand as much as I was anxious about all the shit I was feeling inside of myself. And let me tell you, soda water certainly wasn’t helping that!
So, if I’m out to dinner with friends or at book club or something where my friends are all drinking wine, I’ll usually opt for sparkling water, unless there is some other mocktail choice—like last week one of the girls brought me a blood orange sparkling drink so it was like I was also drinking the rosé. But even then, I’ll usually opt for sparkling water because if I’m not drinking alcohol I’m not trying to drink my calories.t
And if I’m going out and I know it’s going to be a late night—like a few weekends ago I was in Austin for my friend’s bachelorette—I’m chugging Sugar Free Redbulls so I can keep up. And I can, for the most part! People are always amazed, but I’ll be caffeinating so I can stay up dancing with everyone.
Honestly. It’s not rocket science. It’s like that Diet Coke commercial. If you want to have a Diet Coke, order a Diet Coke!
LIZZIE: Any last words?
LISA: I started drinking when I was a freshman in high school and started blacking out from drinking pretty quickly afterward. I knew by my college years I had an unhealthy relationship with drinking and tried several times to take breaks from drinking. I was not successful in using temporary periods of abstinence as a way to develop healthier drinking habits, and I know I used alcohol as a way to cope with periods of depression I experienced throughout my teens and twenties. When I was thirty, I decided to try going one year without drinking, not really thinking I’d make it the full year, but also knowing I had to set a big goal for myself so I wouldn’t cheat myself with a smaller goal that seemed less consequential and therefore was more easily broken. I surpassed my goal of one year 100% sober but decided after a bit to have a few glasses of wine. On my then-boyfriend’s birthday I wanted to celebrate, so I drank champagne and gin and tonics. Although I told myself I’d limit myself to just three drinks, I didn’t. The next day I knew I wanted to go back to not drinking. It just wasn’t easy for me to control how much I drank, and I felt better and more stable and healthy without the alcohol. That was January 25, 2016 and I’ve been sober ever since. I say I’ve been sober for three and half years, but there was a little window of time in there where I had a few drinks. Technically I’ve been sober for about two years and eight and a half months. I have no doubt I’ll get to a continuous three and a half years rather than cumulative. I’m not sure this sobriety will be forever since there are no guarantees in life, but I’d like to think for now that it is.LIZZ
Lisa Shawcroft, MPA is a personal and holistic development coach. So what does that mean? It means that on a regular basis, Lisa works with a range of clients to help them live healthier, happier, and more fulfilled—in whatever way, shape or form that is for that specific client. Lisa believes that shit that happens in life is merely fertilizer to help us grow—so get growing! Lisa graduated from the Coaches Training Institute, one of the most well-respected coaching schools in the world and is the owner of Shawcroft Coaching. Book your session with her online at www.shawcroftcoaching.com/book-online