A few weeks ago I went to a women’s meetup group here in Singapore, something I try to do at least once a month. There were about twenty of us that evening, and as I took my usual survey of the room, I noticed that I looked to be the only one without a glass of wine, bottle of beer, or fruity cocktail in front of me. There is nothing unusual about this, and I’m thankful that my days of fixating on the difference between “me- teetotaler” and “them- party animals” have come to a close. “She’s a health nut- it’s her job,” one woman said to another, in effect apologizing for me, as I poured my Pellegrino into a tumbler and propped up a sliver of lime on its edge. “Quite a good turnout tonight,” another woman commented, “but I’m sure everyone only comes for the drinks!”
I quit drinking booze four years and two months ago- finally, and after many attempts- and I have not touched the stuff since. My reasons for quitting were blandly simple- I’d become a sad lush, and alcohol no longer served me. Drinking all the guys under the table ceased being cute once my college bartending days came to a close, and my extended “happy hour” after the daily corporate grind had drained my energy, dignity, drive and wallet. Don’t let me fool you. Bidding the booze farewell was no easy feat. I had to ask for help (lots of it), sever relationships, change the majority of my habits, and rearrange the constructs of my life.
Friends sometimes ask me if I feel awkward at the usual shindigs and soirees where the order of the evening is social lubrication to the point of oblivion. Actually, I find it fascinating. I’m mesmerized by how absolutely dependent people are on intoxication in order to communicate with each other, no matter what the conversation or circumstances. It astounds me that alcohol has become the glue in business and politics, and it makes me wonder if it’s one of the contributing factors for all of the poor decision-making going on around the globe. I’m amused when a fellow adult tries to shove a drink in my hand and pleads, “c’mon, just have one.” Seriously, are we in high school again? In some ways, being the only sober one in the room is like getting front row seats to the best movie in town- but you have to wear those paper 3-D glasses that make you really dizzy and the guy sitting next to you is gnawing on fried chicken like its his last meal on earth.
As an allied health professional and abstainer, there’s only one version of the truth I can offer you: Alcohol will blunt your discipline and control, and if you have lofty goals for fitness and life, booze has little business being in that plan. Let’s face it- you are not going to get to the gym regularly if you’re hungover, and even if you do happen to crawl your way there, your workout is going to suck. Alcohol makes people moody and dismissive. It becomes so much easier to say, “I don’t feel like it right now, I’ll do it tomorrow” when you have a few drinks in your belly. Here’s my theory: millions of women today KNOW that they drink far too much, but because it’s become so socially acceptable in our culture, they’re easily able to overlook the very real damage it causes and instead chalk it up to “normal.”
I am not alone in this idea. Alcohol researcher Sharon Wilsnack believes that we are now witnessing a global epidemic in women’s drinking. Wilsnack found that females "born between 1978 and 1983 are the weekend warriors, drinking to black out,” whereas “women in their 40s and 50s have a very high risk in terms of heavy drinking and weekly drinking.” While alcohol abuse impacts all social classes, women who have a college degree are twice as likely to have a drinking problem, and those with high-status jobs in male-dominated environments have increased risk of alcohol-use disorders over their blue-collar counterparts. Take an honest look around and you’ll notice that women are drinking more than they ever have before.
We’ve all seen studies on the benefits of alcohol. These stories tend to clog up our Facebook feeds every few months and are usually posted by individuals who drink a bit more than the average bear. Headlines assert that “moderate wine drinking is good for your health,” and “people who drink live longer than those who don’t,”or so the story goes. Sometimes I wonder if the scientists and journalists are in cahoots with each other as a means to justify their own drinking problems. All joking aside, defining “moderate” drinking has become extremely subjective, and the way I see it, too many people who believe that their consumption is within the healthy zone are only kidding themselves.
The fact is, even moderate consumption of alcoholic beverages can impede your progress by undermining your focus and drive. For most people, it’s often easier to kick back with coworkers over a few drinks than it is to hit the gym or sketch out a business plan or train for that half marathon. After a beverage or two, time and motivation have been tossed out the window. Drinking also impairs judgment, thereby drastically increasing your chances of ordering that pepperoni pizza instead of sticking with your nutrition plan. We all know that after a few beers or glasses of wine, we’re far more likely to make poor choices, which can spiral into regret the next day. This is often where a pattern starts to form- you don’t want to feel badly about failing to meet your goals and commitments, so you drink again to numb the associated feelings of guilt and shame. When we drink to drown our problems, we’ve crossed the border into dangerous territory.
Alcohol also wreaks havoc on the body in several ways. Alcohol contains 7 calories per gram and has no nutritional value; add in mixers and you may be drinking more than half of your daily recommended caloric intake in booze. Alcohol signals the body to produce the stress hormone, cortisol, a primary cause of abdominal fat and one of the greatest impediments to weight loss. If you’re working on building muscle, all that hard work you’re putting in at the gym can be undermined by regular drinking since alcohol interferes with the body’s ability to produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and inhibits the absorption of muscle and endurance-building nutrients like Vitamin B12 and zinc. Many studies also show that alcohol consumption increases your risk of cancer, kidney problems, infertility and dementia, while contributing to increased blood pressure and mental illness.
I’m not here to tell you to quit drinking forever, and I do believe that you can succeed at what you put your mind to even if a few drinks a week are part of the equation. Instead, what I’m trying to say is that we, as women, are avoiding an honest and overdue discussion about how much we drink and what it’s doing to our lives. We’re hiding behind what has become an institutionalized hazard- the wide social acceptance and even encouragement of being a drunk. Yep, let’s call a spade a spade. At the end of the day, there’s nothing amusing about drinking Chardonnay from your child’s sippy cup, or getting plastered at a meeting on women’s leadership, or holding a three-martini playdate. Sex in the City isn’t all it’s cracked up to be (trust me, I lived it), you’re not really wittier three sheets to the wind, and Joan Crawford was a horrible lady. You, my dear, are worth far more than any of these played out stereotypes. Perrier, anyone? We have a lot to chat about.