wellness

'In my forties, my drinking habit crept up on me. This is how I learnt to manage it.'

Drinking has been my avocation for years. Most of my life I’ve been able to keep it a sideline. 

I don’t remember my first drink (I’m 64) but I do remember the first time I got drunk. I was 15 and the beverage of choice was cheap fruit wine, swilled behind Larry’s Confectionary in my hometown. 

In high school, my friends and I drank on weekends and at around 17 started sneaking into bars. Booze didn’t play a huge role in my life; it was present, but I didn’t crave it.  

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There have been times in my life when my drinking morphed from entertainment to a calling. 

The first was my first two years in residence at university. This requires no explanation. 

The second was three years in my 20s, when I was a social worker in child welfare - a job I was so ill-suited to that I looked to alcohol to mitigate my anxiety. I was also lonely, but booze was a lousy stand-in for love and companionship. 

The third phase was when my older daughter hit 14 and began acting out: I had the crazy notion that I deserved a drink. I gained momentum from there. 

In my forties, I started giving myself permission to drink under conditions I never had before. 

It crept up on me… I had a glass of wine at lunches out. I had one resting on the vanity as I got ready to go out for the evening. I'd have a couple of glasses of wine with my husband at supper then tip back another good-sized glass while he walked the dog.  

I was head over heels for the wine that continued into the night at a dinner party, the bottle resting on the table, the conversation flowing as well. How about one more splash after the guests leave as I do the dishes? 

Without the structure of an office job and with fewer physical demands from kids as they got older, I found alcohol consumption as seductive as a high school boyfriend.

Then came my eldest’s turbulent adolescence - failing grades, rages, refusing to comply with limits we set. 

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Liquor became my liquid escape; it took the hard corners off constant anxiety, warming me in its embrace. I loved the feel of a chilled champagne flute in my hand, filled to the top. 

I also loved the glug-glug sound coming from the dewy bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, the clink of the glasses, the promise of a buzz.

In my social circle and family, booze is a social lubricant. It’s not like my behaviour was unacceptable even if I did occasionally get hammered. This is how adults have fun, right?  

Then came my fifties, and I was waking up far too often not with a piercing headache solved with taking Advil, but with that profound fatigue that clouds a day and worsens by the hour.  

I would feel lousy and just want to get through the day.  

My productivity plummeted. Sleep disruption is pretty common for women at this age and a couple of glasses of wine too many can seriously interrupt the shut-eye required to feel rested the next day. 

Time for change. I did more than a few “Thirties”, as they were called in a book I read on moderating your drinking, and although I did them at any time of the year, they’re now referred to as Dry January or Sober October. 

But the benefits were quickly undone when I was back to business as usual when the month was up. Then, with time, the 30 days felt out of reach. I’ve made a decade worth of New Year’s resolutions promising myself I’d cut back, but I never had a sturdy plan to work with. 

Couple that with how I rationalised my drinking habits and not much change was going to take place. I’d tell myself: I never drink and drive or miss important events with family and friends. 

On Mamamia's daily news podcast The Quicky, we speak to a recovering alcoholic. Post continues below. 


Much of my over-drinking happened in private away from judgement, other than my husband’s when he on occasion would find empty liquor bottles. (Although he said very little, as he told me later that he knew I would have to figure this out for myself.) 

I would watch Intervention Canada - "thank God I’m not that bad" - to feel better about myself as I quaffed wine in front of the television.

It only happened a handful of times, but I drank secretly during the day to relieve a hangover. This was a new low and signaled that it was time to get help from a professional. 

I noticed an advertisement on my Facebook feed for “a treatment centre that combines technology and the latest science to provide affordable outpatient treatment for alcohol use disorder. We think differently about treatment.” (Alcohol use disorder, or AUD, sounded so much better than "alcoholic" - a difficult term to nail down anyway.)  

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Alcoholics Anonymous and abstinence, once believed to be the only game in town, never seemed the right option for me. My treatment providers don’t believe you’re “powerless over alcohol”.

I didn’t want to quit booze, I just wanted to manage my consumption. Drinking is embedded in the marrow of my European middle-class culture and avoiding it completely felt insurmountable to me. What I desperately wanted was to give up the private gulps of hard liquor that put me into the drunk zone stoked by the polite drinks that came before.  

My first appointment was on Zoom with a family physician that focused his practice on addiction. 

I was impressed with his kindness and empathy, speaking with me like he had all the time in the world. 

The first step was to be prescribed an opiate blocking medication that is supposed to reduce cravings by inhibiting the euphoric buzz that drink provides. He checked in occasionally to adjust the dosage. 

I held out great hope for this medication to give me a boost in curtailing my consumption, but that never happened. 

After taking it for 21 months, I’ve yet to experience any decrease in desire once imbibing. I was happy to just believe in it, see it as a placebo, but no still no luck. I continue to take it because if I falter at least I took this one particular action. 

I felt an instant rapport with my counsellor Jeff, who specialised in treating AUD and profound optimism for getting this aspect of my life under control. 

We met for an hour about every two to three weeks for a year. Every time I talked to him I was heartened. I always clicked off our meetings, “I’ve got this.” 

The program also included a number of inventories and profiles completed before and after the year to track progress, daily journal keeping and monthly group meetings. 

We didn’t delve into childhood issues like other forms of psychotherapy, counselling was more of a here-and-now approach that provided lots of tools to help cut back.  

I really want to tell you that I’m always or usually pleased with my progress, but habits long practiced are tenacious. I am currently in the "pillar program," which includes journaling and meeting with Jeff every three months. 

These are the key lessons I’ve learned. Some may seem obvious, but I needed a guide to show me the way.  

  1. Focus on intention. There must be a plan for every single drinking session and a limit set that is realistic. What do I want the evening to look like? What do I want the morning to look like? It’s very easy to yield to circumstances if there is no plan.  

  2. Manage my environment. All of our hard alcohol is in a crawl space I can’t get at. I’ve come home with a half-bottle of wine knowing when that’s gone, that’s it.  

  3. Breathe deep and be present. What do I want? What is habit? Sip consciously. As funny as it sounds - drink mindfully. 

  4. Know my triggers. If I’m bored in evenings after coming home from a night out plan for that. Go read my book or at least go upstairs and touch it.    

  5. More alcohol-free days. If I’m home, like we all were/are during COVID lockdowns, I resist a drink most days. For me it’s easier not to start.  

  6. Change takes practice. It’s impossible to go from the couch to 10 kilometres. Training must be done in increments. I’m learning and practicing new skills.    

  7. Change is messy. It takes time to change. I will fail. Success is trial and error. I don’t need to engage in all or none thinking. If I beat myself down, I can’t get up to rally next time.   

Can you relate to Leslie's experience? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Feature Image: Getty.