I think I have a problem with alcohol.
According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, a woman consuming more than ten drinks per week has “high risk” habits. This ten-drink measurement is based on a five-ounce glass of wine, which is roughly half of the average glass size, and the amount I roughly NEVER pour myself.
“What is this, amateur hour?” I’ve said to people who stop pouring at the halfway mark of a glass. I’ve laughed about my drinking. I’ve made it part of my persona. My Facebook friends have tagged me in pretty much every wine meme known to man. (Yes, I've seen the wine bottle Christmas tree and yes, it’s completely amazing).
After a family member experienced a mental health crisis, I started hearing words like “self-medicating”, “addiction”, even “alcoholic” to describe his behaviour. In attempting to understand him, I’m learning that I might also have a problem.
So let’s talk about the drinking.
My drink of choice is wine: two, sometimes three glasses a night. Every night. Not just on weekends, not just on special occasions, not just after a particularly bad or good day. Just always.
By my estimation, each of my drinks is eight-ounces. Multiply that by 14 drinks per week (assuming only two per night) and you get 112 ounces, which is more than double what most addiction experts consider to be the line between low and high-risk drinking.
This was a sobering discovery (pun intended), but what’s scaring me more than my consumption of wine is my relationship with it.
I love wine. I love the taste, as well as the science and story behind each bottle. I love to shop for wine (main purchase criteria: animal on the label, less than $15). I love to pour it and sip it and swirl it in my glass. Drinking wine makes me feel sophisticated, even though I’m usually sporting a messy bun and pajama pants.
The first glass is like a reward at the end of the day, a nightly ritual that affirms I made it through. It’s a way to unwind and help manage the making dinner/ bath time/homework/someone spilled the cat food/”I have to build a working paper mache volcano by tomorrow” type of chaos. The second glass is poured as I’m cleaning up the kitchen, watching the clock and asking, usually for the tenth or eleventh time, for the small people in my house to please for the love of God put on their pajamas. My third glass is either on the couch with my husband when the kids are down, or while reading in by myself in bed or in the tub. In short, there’s rarely a time between 5 and 10 p.m. every single night that I’m not drinking. And yet, there was no mindfulness to it. Sorry to go all Oprah “live your best life” on you guys but the truth is I wasn’t even stopping to consider what I was doing. I didn’t care about taste, drinking was purely functional: open mouth, insert wine, repeat. When my husband and I switched to boxed wine (!) we did so because boxes last longer and cost less. We congratulated ourselves on this practical and thrifty solution to our inventory problem. Quantity and convenience became our purchase criteria; two words that, I’m guessing, rarely come up in conversations about responsible drinking.
Like many people, alcohol is a key ingredient in my social life, especially if the function requires an abundance of small talk or meeting new people. Wine helps me be (or just feel?) social. Having said that, I also drink with people I’ve known my whole life. AND when I’m alone. AND on my paddle board.
When I became a mom, wine was right there with me, becoming a critical part of “me time.” But in making alcohol our reward for surviving another day, both my husband and I have completely normalized its consumption within our home. Until recently, we drank openly in front of our daughters because we didn’t think we had anything to hide. Wine was wine, not “mommy juice.” We actually thought we were modeling responsible behavior by never driving after drinking and never getting out of control. TV and movies would have us believe that alcoholics are people who drink in secret, who drink until they fall down or pass out; people who abuse their loved ones and get fired from jobs. I’ve never done any of that so everything must be fine.
When our nine-year old informed us on the walk home from school one day that “THERE’S ALCOHOL IN WINE AND ALCOHOL IS A DRUG AND YOU SHOULD NEVER TAKE DRUGS” we told her that drinking alcohol is okay as long as you’re responsible and only have a little bit. Kid logic translation: drugs are okay as long as they’re consumed in moderation. WTF? While most people wouldn’t react by running home and emptying out their liquor cabinets, they might at least take note of the fact that their kids are watching. I did neither.
The blog I started when we adopted our first daughter is called Wine and Smarties. On Twitter and Instagram I’m @wineandsmarties. I chose these names because I wanted something that spoke to my identity as both a woman and a mother. I thought it was cute and clever. And while there may not be a direct route between Instagram and Betty Ford, given that I regularly caution my college students about their social media presence (“are you sure @hotgurl69 is the message you want to send to future employers?”) “wine and smarties” is an example of how much of my identity was tied to the “mommy drinks because you cry” culture.
If you ask my daughters what mommy’s favourite thing is, they’ll say wine. If you ask them what happens when someone spills mommy’s wine, they’ll hold up their hands like claws and bare their teeth. What does my husband fill my stocking with every year? Bottles of my favourite wine.
When she was five and we were driving past the LCBO my oldest daughter yelled “Hey mommy, there’s your store!” When carrying a box of groceries in from the car last summer, my youngest grunted as she put it down and said: “at least it’s not as heavy as a case of wine.” Instead of being horrified or, again, taking note of what they were taking note of, I turned these into funny anecdotes. I told and retold them, even posted them on social media - a humble-brag about how cute and precocious my kids are.
The worst part for me, the part that hurts my heart the most and truly makes me question what the good God damn I’ve been thinking, is that all this was done while parenting two daughters whose birth families have actual mental health AND addiction issues. I’ve blogged about the special care adopted kids need, how frightened I am about what the future holds when they start processing the past. And I’ve done it all with a glass of wine in my hand. On the days when I feel the lowest, the most ashamed, I think about whether or not one of the biggest dangers to their health and future relationship with alcohol and addiction might have been coming from me.
Despite everything I’ve written, I do believe, emphatically, that we should be able to have it both ways: if she chooses, a woman should be able to parent unapologetically with a sippy cup in one hand and three fingers of scotch in the other. But if we’re going to normalize drinking, let’s also normalize the conversation about what to do when it becomes a problem. Let’s talk about the drinking in a way that doesn’t make us feel like the sloppy uncle who gets whispered about after falling down at family dinners. If you’re willing to share the horrors of your post-baby sex life, you can talk about this. Mommy’s drinking is not a dirty little secret. If you think you have a problem, please talk to someone. Get help.
If you’re worried you have a problem with alcohol, CAMH recommends you talk to someone you trust, like a doctor or nurse, or contact an addiction assessment centre or a self-help group like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). If you're in Ontario you can also try:
Ontario’s Drug and Alcohol Helpline at 1-800-565-8603. Open 24/7.
CAMH Information Centre at 1-800-463-6273.