My friends are worried about my drinking – but how do I know if I have a problem?

'I know I drink a lot but I am not a blackout drunk and I think I'm fine'
'I know I drink a lot but I am not a blackout drunk and I think I'm fine' - R.Fresson/A Human Agency

Dear A&E,

I went to a party last weekend and had a blast, full of laughter and silliness, and lots of wine. However, this week several of my friends have asked me if I am okay because I didn’t seem okay on Saturday night – one even asked if I thought I should give the drinking a bit of a break. My mother has thought I drink too much for a while but she’s… my mother! I know I drink a lot but I am not a blackout drunk and I think I’m fine. How do I know if I have a problem?  

– Rattled

Dear Rattled,

Before we begin, please allow us to give you a hero’s welcome, Rattled. It is hugely brave to take a beat and examine oneself and one’s actions, and then ask for help and advice. We suspect this might not be the first time you have suspected there is an issue malingering here – in spite of your easy dismissal of your mother’s qualms. Something has dawned on you, Rattled, consciously or not, that has set you on a new path. Who knows where it might lead: to an alcohol-free or alcohol-lite existence? Or neither? Either way, we think you might be a little sober-curious and it is worth consideration. Because your happiness is worth consideration.

We don’t want to rattle you further but, simply put, asking someone if they sense a problem is often a sign…that there is a problem. Go to any alcohol-related website and it will throw up a series of questions, variously phrased, but the gist remains: is alcohol causing friction in your relationships? Do you drink more than planned? Has your tolerance gone up? Most people are alarmed by this line of questioning because it seems so relatively benign.  As you say in your letter, “I am not a blackout drunk”. Is that a deal you have done with yourself?

We are constantly making little bargains with ourselves, aren’t we? About food, about money, about sex? If I save here, I can spend here. If I am “good” this week, I can be “bad” at the weekend. A friend of Emilie’s used to have a calendar, which he covered with sticker dots: green dot days when he could drink and red dot days when he couldn’t. One of the first things Emilie learned when she started attending group therapy for her drinking 18 years ago was that people who don’t have a problem with alcohol generally don’t give alcohol a second thought. They certainly don’t have green dot or red dot days. All these little rules; these big-little deals we make with ourselves… they are our attempt to put a leash on the demons within.

It has been easy to dismiss your mother. After all, she is both your mother and of a different generation. When we were teenagers, it was the era of the wild child; remember those schoolgirls who used to bunk off and haunt London nightspots in the Eighties?

Then came the ladettes and Loaded magazine, the backdrop to a decade of hard drinking, spilling out of clubs at dawn and straight into work, sleeping under desks and back in the pub at 5pm. But it’s not so easy to dismiss your friends, is it? After all, they probably partied with you, some harder than you. However, some of them will have peeled off (for myriad reasons, from parenthood to metabolism) and perhaps you now stand out, Rattled. They saw you on Saturday, still partying like it’s 1999, and thought: “hang on.”

We all know that asking people if you’re okay “because you didn’t seem okay” is code for something. Code for, “Are you having a nervous breakdown?” Code for, “You were a bit of a dick?” Code for, “Is something wrong, because you seemed wrong…off…unhappy, somehow.” Code for, “we believe you have a problem.”

Your friends were brave enough to tell you, so perhaps it might be a good idea to ask the most trusted one what they thought was going awry on Saturday night. If you are brave enough to hear it. Which we think you are. Perhaps their perspective might trigger your own insight into what has left you rattled.

We are delighted to reassure you that you are not alone: there are so many brilliant books, brilliant podcasts, insightful Instagram accounts dedicated to sobriety, as well free self-help and support groups out there... Perhaps you would allow us to prescribe you Catherine Gray’s The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober, Ellie Gibson’s Sort Your Sh*t Out podcast, as well as suggesting a look at our own Bryony Gordon and Millie Gooch’s Instagram for support, encouragement, questioning and community. And, remember, you are just at the beginning of whatever this is; you do not have to give up drinking forever; you can just pause, reflect, settle and, if you want have a break, have a break. One day at a time. Your days of having a blast are not over, dear Rattled. Who knows where this new adventure will take you? But it is probably worth exploring, because it doesn’t feel okay right now, does it? As a wise person once said, “It will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.”

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