Is your social drinking keeping you from being happy?

Real talk about rosé-ing all day, and real advice from a counsellor on how to curb it.

Real talk about rosé-ing all day, and real advice from a counsellor on how to curb it

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This article was originally published May 9, 2018.

We need to talk about our drinking.

Don't get nervous, no one's cutting you off. But just as we must face the harsh light of the 3am pizza place and the true nature of the dude we met at the bar, so must we consider some other truths about our "rosé all day" culture. It may prove to be a false utopia once examined without the beer goggles.

Rosé all day, although a common enough practice, actually constitutes some pretty serious binge drinking according to Canada's Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines, and a new international study suggests even those allowances are still way too high. The study says one drink per day is the recommended maximum to avoid increased risk of early death due to stroke, heart failure and other physical health problems caused by excessive drinking. So much for that casual slogan. Cute tote bag though.

As national pastimes go, drinking has its faults. Alcohol is a depressant – an anesthetic and psychoactive drug that slows down our central nervous system. Although it can relax us, relieve pain and even create feelings of euphoria (it's not the oldest recreational drug on earth and most widely used drug in Canada for nothing), alcohol actually costs us much more than the $22 billion dollars we spend on it in a year. In 2016, it was the cause of more hospital admissions than heart attacks. Short-term heavy drinking has been proven to cause negative mood states, like depression, while long-term problematic alcohol use can cause brain damage, dementia and increased risk of suicide. On the daily, social drinking robs us of sleep, money, healthy food choices and time better spent exercising. Not to mention the mindfulness to do, achieve, be and even feel other things.

When is it a problem?

Though eight out of ten Canadians drink and almost one in five Canadians are problem drinkers, if you have a problem, chances are unlikely that you'll want to admit it. Evan Newton, an addictions counsellor at Bellwood Health Services inpatient addiction hospital in Toronto, says, "Denial is a problem for people with addiction. They often really love the substance. It does so much for them that it's very hard for them to be honest with how much it's hurting them." In addition to a lack of self-awareness, other signs of problem drinking include troubles in your romantic and personal relationships, the inability to afford your drinking, and being regularly or semi-regularly hungover going into work.

If any of those sound uncomfortably familiar (and since you were curious enough to click down this particular rabbit hole) Newton suggests a few questions you can ask yourself:

"Is this impacting my work?"

"Does all or most of my socializing involve alcohol or drugs? For a lot of people, all of their relationships revolve around getting drunk."

"How much money am I actually spending on it versus what I would like to be spending? Look at your bank records and do an honest tally. Really look hard at the receipts instead of just minimizing it or coming up with a ballpark."

And then, the most awkward one: "Am I 'that guy'? Do I make a fool of myself when I get drunk? Do I lose control where my other friends don't?"

Since most people who are 'that guy' are usually drunk when they're ruining their friends' good time or causing people to worry about them, they often "obliviously carry on in their addiction," says Newton. The burden is on everyone save them. His suggestion? Turning to someone close to you to ask for their truthful and less-biased opinion on your drinking habits and behaviour.

He does make a distinction between addiction and abuse: addiction being where you have classical withdrawal symptoms; abuse causing problems, but not meeting the criteria for addiction. Here you may want to run a quick check on the DSM 5 criteria for substance use disorder.

In the same way that Alcoholics Anonymous members must present themselves in meetings by stating that they are an alcoholic, Newton explains that part of the work of recovering from addiction or problem drinking is accepting that it's part of who you are and your identity. You can't get out of the Matrix if you don't know you're in it. Especially if you're tipsy.

Why we do it

There are both social and psychological factors at play here.

"We live in a culture which is largely based on excessive consumption," Newton explains. "Nothing is ever good enough - your body, your career, your mind, your family - and so it breeds this chronic sense of dissatisfaction with yourself and with what you have and with the present moment. And one way to resolve that dissatisfaction and the dysphoria - the negative emotions that come with it - is through addiction." Instead of examining the root of our culture's malaise or leaning into our individual feelings of anxiety or depression, we self-medicate with the most socially acceptable and celebrated drug around. We need turn only as far as our other beloved addiction, the mindless scrolling of our smartphone feeds, to assure ourselves that it's actually hilarious and normal to be a "drunk betch". Happy for an hour, sad for life.

"We're addicted to our phones, we're addicted to our jobs, we're addicted to video games, whatever it is." But what comes first, the psychological state of dysphoria or the drinking?

According to Newton, it can go both ways. "Drinking and any kind of addiction always starts out as a solution. Whether it's a fix for loneliness or anxiety, for not feeling at ease in your body or at home with yourself, for not knowing who you are, or for feelings of depression or trauma - it always starts out as a cure for mental health. A very crude one." We learn to regulate our emotions and our ability to respond to the ups and downs of life with alcohol. "It has this amazing effect on the human brain. But what happens is you run the risk of not learning other ways to deal with your emotions. It becomes your cure-all, so you don't develop the habits of exercising, of eating properly, of seeing a therapist." In this scenario, you ultimately end up with two problems, your original suffering and your problem with drinking. "It becomes a loop," Newton says." And now you have to treat both of them. It's not like you can cure your depression and your drinking will go away, you have a second problem now."

People who are otherwise mentally and emotionally healthy also develop problem drinking habits. "But sometimes it's because of the drinking in their family or the drinking in their social setting," Newton says. "It's a habit or a custom they pick up and it becomes a problem."

Even when we are cognisant of our drinking patterns as a replacement for other healthy behaviours, or of the impact of hangovers, or lack of sleep, or not eating right, or the stress of over-spending, or the conflict with our partners - breaking the cycle is supremely difficult. But there are immediate steps we can take and help is available.

Breaking the loop

There are many resources for problem drinking across Canada. Some hospitals or addiction programs favour the harm reduction approach where the harmful risks of substance abuse are mitigated by an attempt to control and limit consumption. For example, you can set goals to limit weekly drinking then develop an action plan to stick to those limits, like taking nights off from going out or slowing down the amount of drinks per hour. If moderate drinking fails, abstinence is the next step.

As for useful everyday strategies in high-risk social situations, Newton suggests replacing your drink with something else, like cranberry juice or soda water. He also suggests socializing that doesn't revolve around drinking, whether it's playing squash or joining a recreational hockey league or a parent group or replacing after-work drinks with tennis. "One thing we hear a lot at Bellwood is people say, 'I didn't know I could have fun sober.' We try to show them that you can un-couple those things, fun and intoxication." And if one person in a social group is making an effort to drink less, he says it's not always met with shame and peer pressure, especially when there is an increasing de-stigmatization of both mental health and substance abuse issues in our culture. If one person takes the lead in not drinking, it may be met with interest and respect or even a shared desire to change.

As for the dysphoria, he points to a simple question: "What do you find meaningful?"

"We don't find our jobs meaningful enough or we don't find our way of living meaningful. We don't have a deep enough sense of connection to each other, to the land we live in… so, it's not just a matter of stopping drinking, it's replacing it with things that you find meaningful."

In a time of unprecedented accessibility, with ample shortcuts to temporary happiness, identifying what's actually meaningful isn't easy. To that, Newton says mindfulness meditation can help. "It's about accepting and going toward that suffering, going toward that chronic feeling of discomfort and uncertainty. Mindfulness meditation is the opposite of instant gratification, it's the opposite of mindless consumption. You're teaching yourself to sit with yourself, to sit with your boredom, to sit with your cravings, and the more you do it, what's magical is that the problem actually seems to diminish as opposed to get bigger." Cheers to that.


Jamey Ordolis is the senior producer of CBC Life and a regular contributor to CBC Radio.