Today, conversations about the opioid crisis, the high risk of breast cancer, and the dangers of smoking are as common as discussing the flu. Not to mention, we are finally starting very important conversations about depression, anxiety and overall mental health and well being. But at the same time, we’re doing all we can to avoid the elephant in the room: the epidemic of alcohol use and abuse, and how closely it relates to all of these topics with which we’ve become so comfortable.
This inconvenient truth has us all burying our heads in the sand. We talk about alcoholism and recovery as something that mostly happens to other people, even though for many of us alcoholism runs in the family in one form or another. For others, heavy drinking has just become so normal that we don’t consider it a ‘problem.’ The creativity with which we justify ourselves is truly astounding, and we’re feeding off of each other. For whatever reason – perhaps because it’s traditionally thought of as more of a male issue, or that the problem has become ‘too big to fail,’ or maybe it’s the rampant, often subtle advertising by the alcohol industry, which is increasingly targeting women – it’s simply much more culturally acceptable to drink heavily.
For a long time, we even felt we had a bit of science on our side. But the old worn-out studies that alcohol is somehow healthy just don’t really hold up anymore. The most recent and largest study to date (published in the The Lancet, a respected medical journal), just drew the seemingly provocative conclusion that no amount of alcohol is healthy; alcohol is, in fact, toxic and carcinogenic.
Any one of us who drinks or over drinks has felt the effects of alcohol. If we paid attention to how our body is reacting, we wouldn’t need any fancy medical study to tell us that alcohol is toxic. Our bodies are screaming at us in the form of headaches, fatigue, nausea, anxiety, sleepless nights, dehydration and more. Most women don’t understand the link to hormone dysregulation and alcohol, yet many of us are drinking more than ever during the perimenopausal years.
In the medical profession we are taught to double the amount of alcohol a patient says they drink in a week. Why? Because most people underestimate their intake. One glass of wine is actually two or even three because we are pouring 10-12 ounces into our glass instead of a 5 ounce serving. That Colorado craft beer we love is actually 6.5 percent instead of the standardized four percent. That margarita has at least two shots of tequila, easy. You get the point. Women are considered moderate drinkers if they have 1 serving per day, which means anything over that is considered heavy drinking.
Curiously, drinking is on the rise in even the healthiest of places like Colorado, where it has deftly become interwoven with fitness and our outdoor lifestyle. Two words: aprés ski. Between 2011 and 2015, Colorado ranked sixth in the country for alcohol overdose and according to the American Journal of Public Health, Summit and Pitkin counties (Breckenridge and Aspen) ranked 2nd and 3rd in the US for the highest rates of any type of adult drinking. Meanwhile, alcohol-related deaths claim more lives per year than opioids, yet we aren’t calling it a crisis. We really don’t even want to talk about it.
What concerns me the most (and motivates me to speak), is the statistics relating to women and alcohol are deeply alarming, and getting worse. From 2007-2017, the number of deaths attributable to alcohol increased by 35 percent, but the death rates among women rose 85 percent. Binge drinking amongst women (3 or more drinks per day, or one margarita at some places) has gone up 60 percent in the last several years. As Ann Dowsett-Johnston, author of Drink: The Intimate Relationship with Women and Alcohol says, “It has become the modern woman’s steroid. Something to help her do the heavy lifting in an over-stressed, unresolved culture.”
The alcohol industry and media feed on this premise, and they are winning, preying in particular on motherhood. How easy it is for us women to fall into the trap of thinking the difficulties of motherhood cause us to need our ‘mommy juice’ or ‘rosé all day’. I dare any one of you to walk into a gift store and not see one of these slogans; almost everything on sale to us revolves around women and alcohol. When will we stop finding the wine memes funny and see them for what they are?
Again, and not just in Colorado, the health and wellness world has jumped on the booze bandwagon, too. Gyms and pilates and yoga studios advertise their workouts followed by drinks because YOU DESERVE IT! Erin Shaw Street has laid out examples of this alcohol-related messaging in women’s lifestyle media, marketing and advertising on her blog and Instagram page, ‘Tell Better Stories’ (see link below).
To be clear, this article is not meant to shame anyone for their choice to consume alcohol. In fact, we should feel as comfortable as we can talking about it, the good and the bad. Just as we are beginning to have important conversations about other topics that affect our health, alcohol use should be one of those. And if one among us worries they have a problem, we as a community have to make clear there is ample space for them to reach out. With our flippant jokes and casual asides, I fear too many of us are suffering in silence.
There is hope. In a recent survey, most regular drinking women said they wanted to cut back or explore being sober (i.e., they’re ‘sober curious’). This means that many of us are recognizing that there are many shades of gray when it comes to drinking. It’s an individual journey. Rosamund Dean, the author of the book, Mindful Drinking: How Cutting Down Can Change Your Life, says her general rule is that she first contemplates whether she’ll think about the drink later with joy or regret. If it’s regret, she skips it.
Over-drinking is about how habits are engrained over time and our subconscious mind starts to dictate our behaviors. There are many mindful techniques which teach us how to reprogram our habits and thoughts. Our very own Colorado native, Annie Grace, explores the topic in her book, The Naked Mind: Control Alcohol, Find Freedom, Discover Happiness & Change Your Life. Most who have felt the freedoms of either cutting back their drinking or stopping all together will tell you that it’s a very worthwhile journey and one that leads to greater peace.
Let’s love and honor ourselves by speaking more freely about the alcohol epidemic and proactively support and encourage one another on our journey to cut back or leave it behind. Remember that behind every wine meme there are many struggling on a daily basis, whether it’s with drinking or trying not to drink. Rather than ask them why they aren’t drinking, maybe it’s time to question why we are?
OTHER INSPIRATIONAL READING:
I’m Just Happy to Be Here, by Janelle Hanchett (and her blog www.renegademothering.com)
The Sober Diaries, by Clare Pooley
Drinking: A Love Story, by Caroline Knapp
Sober Curious, by Ruby Warrington
Love Warrior, by Glennon Doyle
Christy Wynne is a board certified physician assistant and graduate of the world renowned Fellowship in Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona School of Medicine . She is currently studying functional medicine while on a ‘gap year’ in the south of France with her family. She resided in Wash Park for 9 years and plans to return to Denver in 2019. You can follow her health and wellness blog at www.thegirlandthefood.com or her travel adventures at www.gonewiththewynnes.com (Instagram:@christywynne; @gonewiththewynnes).