Six years ago, Jenna Hollenstein stopped drinking. Though she could never quite identify herself as an alcoholic, she realized that alcohol detracted from her life in subtle but important ways. It became a means of avoiding her life, a way to numb herself to uncertainty, something to take the sting out of loneliness, sadness, and anxiety. The following is an excerpt from her new book, Drinking to Distraction, in which she starts to question her relationship with alcohol:
“To Be or Not To Be”
At some point, perhaps years before the night of my book party, alcohol and drinking began to occupy an increasing amount of my mental real estate. During the workday I eagerly anticipated cocktail hour. Or I perseverated over where to purchase a bottle of wine on my way home from work. Among my shopping criteria were selection, price range, and distance from my condo. But most importantly, how frequently or recently I had purchased from a certain place. I feared becoming recognized as a “regular” so I rotated my patronage accordingly.
Between work and home, there were several options for buying booze, but I favored the Best Cellars on Boylston Street and Bauer Wines & Spirits on Newbury. Best Cellars had the atmosphere of a coffee shop, with bright lights, eclectic music, and cheerful baristas eager to inform me about the viticulture and taste notes of their many options. There were always a few bottles open for sampling and the placed reeked of an innocent perkiness that never felt alcoholic in nature. Bauer was the more distinguished option, where the employees were informed and discreet. I could walk in, pet the store cat “Spooky,” make a thoughtful selection, be complimented on said selection as I paid, and depart feeling as if I had just had a cultural experience rather than bought liquor.
I preferred to think of my alcohol-purchasing behavior as culturally savvy and was sensitive to the subtleties of less highbrow locations. I never patronized the Clarendon Wine Co., for example, because I had seen grizzled men slipping from there, furtively cradling paper bags in the crooks of their arms. Equally sketchy, but a reluctant favorite, was the Marlborough Market, a convenience store located a half-block from my condo. Though the selection was smaller, the Marlborough Market promised the shortest walk home with my prize. Still, I wondered if the people working there ever noticed how frequently I bought wine or liquor. Their poker faces never revealed whether they found it strange for a young, professional woman to purchase two nips of Tanqueray gin and perhaps a quart of milk for good measure. If they raised their eyebrows or exchanged knowing looks when I turned to leave, I never knew.
Once I had returned home with a bottle of wine, my preoccupation shifted to how I would limit my consumption. That I was thinking about the second glass before I finished the first did not bode well for my ability to control myself. Anticipation dissolved into guilt as I poured a second, third, and sometimes a fourth glass, emptying the bottle in a few hours. Those evenings of drinking at home alone usually consisted of trashy television, mindless online shopping, dozing off on the couch, and a few other fuzzy recollections. Mornings promised the spiky, sharp edges of remorse and my half- hearted resolutions not to repeat this scenario.
I Googled “Am I an alcoholic” and found a wealth of information including several questionnaires. One of the first I completed was the CAGE, a classic and simple test that includes the following four questions:
- Have you ever felt you should CUT DOWN on your drinking?
- Have people ANNOYED you by criticizing your drinking?
- Have you ever felt bad or GUILTY about your drinking?
- Have you ever had an EYE-OPENER (a drink first thing in the morning to steady your nerves or get rid of a hangover)?
After rapidly scanning the questions, I answered them silently to myself:
Clearly, I thought, I’m not an alcoholic. Weighing my negative response to the fourth question more heavily than my positive answers to the first three was a certain type of denial, to be sure, but also enough to convince me for the time being that my drinking wasn’t that bad. The fact that I scored 75%—a grade I would have killed for in Advanced Placement Calculus—I chose to ignore.
There was more to this conclusion than mere denial. Basically everyone I knew would have answered the first three CAGE questions in the affirmative. Drinking was exceptionally normal, a regular experience for many of my friends and family members, most of whom were daily drinkers. At times we overdid it, but that didn’t make us alcoholics.
I also found more detailed questionnaires from The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Alcoholics Anonymous, AlcoholScreening.org, and The Michigan Alcohol Screening Test, among others. A questionnaire by the Office of Health Care Programs at Johns Hopkins University Hospital comprised 20 questions, most of which were a definite no for me:
- Is drinking making your home life unhappy?
- Does your drinking make you careless of your family’s welfare?
- Is drinking affecting your reputation?
- Do you turn to inferior companions and environments when drinking?
- Has your ambition decreased since drinking?
- Has your efficiency decreased since drinking?
- Do you lose time from work due to drinking?
- Have you had financial difficulties as a result of drinking?
- Is drinking jeopardizing your job or business?
- Do you want a drink the next morning?
- Has your physician ever treated you for drinking?
- Have you ever been to a hospital or institution on account of drinking?
These questions seemed to suggest a more obvious drinking problem to which I just couldn’t relate. One of the questions I answered in the affirmative was clearly problematic:
- Have you ever had a loss of memory as a result of drinking?
But the remainder of the questions I answered positively seemed to exist in a gray area somewhere between normal social drinker and problem drinker; I found myself wondering who would not have answered yes to these questions, at least occasionally:
- Do you drink because you are shy with other people?
- Do you drink to escape from worries or trouble?
- Do you crave a drink at a definite time daily?
- Do you drink to build up your self-confidence?
- Does drinking cause you to have difficulty in sleeping?
- Have you ever felt remorse after drinking?
- Do you drink alone?
Answering yes to as few as three of these questions was said to be a “definite sign that your drinking patterns are harmful and considered alcohol dependent or alcoholic,” warranting evaluation by a healthcare professional. I wondered whether the people who wrote these questionnaires were out of touch with reality or whether I was poking holes in anything that might suggest I had a drinking problem. Perhaps a little from column A and a little from column B? While I understood that each questionnaire was subjective, and that it was up to the individual to determine whether alcohol had become problematic, at the time it seemed I had only two options: Identify as an alcoholic and stop drinking, or not identify as an alcoholic and continue to drink unmodified. That I had additional options had not yet occurred to me.
Jenna Hollenstein is a writer and nutrition therapist living in New York City. She explores the overlapping themes of addiction, mindfulness, and psychology in her writing and in her nutrition counseling business, Eat to Love. Drinking to Distraction is her second book and her first memoir. Jenna’s work has appeared in Shambhala Sun magazine and online at DrinkingDiaries.com, TheFix.com, and Mindful.org.