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Grey Area Drinking - What is it?

Updated: Jan 12, 2023

Addictions, like alcohol use, are not ‘one size fits all’. Instead, they work on a spectrum. A lot of what we think about addiction is stereotypical and it keeps a lot of people sick as a result.

In some individuals, it’s obvious that they’re struggling. Their relationships are broken, they can’t hold down a job, their health is failing, and it’s become blaringly evident that their DOC (drug of choice) is calling all the shots.

However, this isn’t the case for everyone. In fact, most individuals who struggle with substance use often fall below the radar because outwardly they appear to be fine.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) defines binge drinking as drinking 5 or more drinks on an occasion for men or 4 or more drinks on an occasion for women.

Further, the CDC defines heavy drinking as drinking 15 or more drinks per week for men or 8 or more drinks per week for women.

Think about that for a moment and really let it sink in…

As a woman, every time I went out and had FOUR drinks or more, technically I was binge drinking. I don’t know about you, but four drinks were just a warm-up for me.

Next, let’s consider heavy drinking being classified as having EIGHT or more drinks per week for women. Multiply that by a lot, and that’s where I was at in a typical week – easily more if I decided to tie one on during the weekend. How many times have you gone out and had more than 8 drinks in one sitting? If you’re a weekend drinker, chances are it’s a lot.

In my drinking days I used to read these statistics, along with taking every “Do You Drink Too Much” quiz in existence. And if you do this, or think about it a lot but avoid educating yourself for fear of what you’ll find yourself facing, then you might have an issue.

I used to tell myself that these stats were bullshit. I’d convince myself that everyone and their dog drinks in ‘excess’ if this is what it’s defined as. The thing is, we surround ourselves with like-minded individuals, so if you drink outside of these parameters, then it’s likely that most of the people you know do too.

I’m going to sound like a preachy mom when I say this – just because ‘everyone’s doing it’ doesn’t make it right or okay. 🤪

Alcohol is ethanol and ethanol is poison – a neurotoxin to be specific. It is a direct cause of several different cancers, and a huge contributor to things like heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, digestive issues, liver disease, renal failure, depression, anxiety, and cognitive diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia.

We try not to think about these facts because we prefer instant gratification and drinking is fun. It’s our band-aid, the almighty suppressor of the bad feelings, and it helps us ‘relax’.

Most of us go through a party stage in life – usually throughout our teen years and part (or all) of our 20’s. Then we start adulting, aging, having kids, and start to consider our health, relationships, longevity…you know, big picture stuff. It’s here that we find ourselves at a crossroad with our drinking habits. Most of us slow down around this time; I know I certainly did. But that obviously didn’t mean that my drinking career ended there. Because by the time I reached this point, I didn’t even know how to live without drinking – and I didn’t want to. I chose to ignore all the warning signs and continued to make room for alcohol.

Alcohol is so important to us that we will do literally everything in our power to ensure it remains in our life without actively destroying it.

It’s in this headspace that the grey area drinker is born.

What is Grey Area Drinking?

Simply put, a grey area drinker is someone who frequently consumes alcohol above the recommended guidelines but manages to maintain a socially acceptable standard of living. This person likely has a decent job, a family, a social circle, and a seemingly happy and comfortable lifestyle.

The grey area drinker typically wades through life with the nagging question, “do I drink too much?” touted over and over by their inner dialogue. Often times, they’re in total denial. They’ll downsize their issues, compare their drinking to other heavy drinkers, and confide only in friends/family who they subconsciously know will console them and reinforce that they surely don’t have a ‘drinking problem’.

So long as the grey area drinker can maintain a perceived perfect balance between reality and their substance use, and given that no one they care about begins questioning their drinking habits, they rarely give their alcohol use any deeper thought.

In short, when you ingest enough poison push comes to shove eventually. No one is an exception to this rule. It just comes down to how long you’ll choose to ignore it and/or blame other sources for these issues:

  • A new or worsening health issue

  • Weight gain that you can’t combat

  • Immediately thinking "I need a drink" whenever you're faced with any level of stress

  • Feeling anxious over non-drinking activities outside of work/regular routine

  • Waking up hungover more often than you’d like to admit

  • Enlisting the ‘hair of the dog’ technique (i.e. drinking more alcohol to cure a hangover)

  • Feeling guilt or shame over your drinking

  • Drinking in secret or hiding the amount that you drink from others

  • Realizing that your tolerance is growing or that you’re beginning to drink more over time

  • Feeling irritated when there isn’t booze present at any given event/social outing

  • Looking forward to having a drink everyday after work

  • Struggling with cognition – memory problems, feeling like you ‘can’t find the right words’, running out of patience often

  • Feeling depressed, anxious, angry, or stressed unless you’re drinking

When the scales begin to tip, many grey area drinkers will start to accept that they:

a. Drink too much

b. May need to cut back

c. Aren’t entirely sure if they can cut back

My own experience with grey area drinking is slightly unique. I didn’t start out as a grey area drinker or as a naïve party girl that straightened herself out to a socially acceptable standard. To give you the condensed version, I knew without a doubt that I was an alcoholic from the time I was about 16. The acceptance came very early for me. I made half-assed attempts to quit drinking before even entering my 20’s, but I just wasn’t convinced that my life would be better without it. It took 16 years and A LOT of heartache and soul-searching before I finally found my way out of the hole I had dug.

If anything, when I did cut back, and when I went through two pregnancies totally sober, I wrongly associated the changes I had made with becoming better at managing my drinking. Because even though I no longer drank myself into oblivion without caring whether I woke up the next day or not, I still didn’t keep promises to myself. I still overdrank every time I promised myself I’d take it easy. I still returned to nightly drinking after swearing I wouldn’t after both of my pregnancies. I still felt misplaced anger, shame, and guilt without understanding the underlying reasons why. If anything, the emotional baggage only grew heavier as time went on. Sure…I cut back, but it didn’t fix anything. Instead, it prolonged the suffering.

I know I can’t speak for everyone. But if you are questioning your drinking habits, I encourage you to really dig deep and be completely honest with yourself. You have nothing to fear by being truthful with yourself – no one will know or judge you whether you continue to drink or not.

These questions were compiled to help individuals assess whether they might qualify as a grey area drinker. I’ll answer them myself, and I hope you’ll take the time to answer them as well, whether or not you feel it’d be beneficial.

Have you ever decided to stop drinking for a week or so, but only lasted for a couple days?

Every morning I woke up swearing that it’d be the day that I’d cut back or quit altogether. It didn’t matter if I had one single drink the night before or ten. I always regretted drinking. I just couldn’t get myself to follow through with quitting.

Do you wish people would mind their own business about your drinking, and stop telling you what to do?

I can’t think of any occasion where someone confronted me about my drinking. But I’m sure people have thought it about me in the past, and I’m not too sure how I would have responded.

Have you ever switched from one type of drink to another in the hopes that this would keep you from getting drunk?

Absolutely. This doesn’t work, though. Regardless of what you choose to drink, it’s the high or ‘state of being’ that you’re after, not the amount. If wine usually gets you torqued, and you switch to beer, you’ll likely just drink more beer to achieve the same effect.

Have you had to have an eye-opener upon waking in the past year?

No. I spent every morning shaming myself, panicking, and (like I said) promising myself I was done, so I’d never drink in the morning to kill a hangover. I also connotated morning drinking as the defining factor which indicated I had officially fell off the deep end, so in true grey-area-drinker fashion, I’d avoid it at all costs.

Do you envy people who can drink without getting into trouble?

Shit, yes. I did everything in my power to become that person (on the outside at least) after holding the title for so long in my teen years/early 20’s.

Have you had problems connected with drinking in the past year?

Emotionally, physically, intrinsically…all of the above.

Has your drinking caused trouble at home?

The short answer to this question is no. Things had always been ‘fine’ and to this day, my oldest (7) has very little knowledge surrounding alcohol, but she knows ‘mom & dad don’t drink alcohol anymore’, and we’ve had a few light talks on the subject. Like most moms, there is no greater purpose in my life than to be a supportive and present parent to my kids.

Unfortunately though, our perception as parents is entirely separate from what our children perceive. We may think that our bad habits don’t hurt anyone besides ourselves, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Therefore, the long answer to this question is absolutely. Addiction ruins lives, and our kids are affected by it whether we want to believe/deny/ignore/downgrade it or not.

In terms of my own life and my own experiences, my hope is that through sobriety, I can heal myself enough to be the example my kids need in order to reverse the generational cycle. No one will ever be a perfect parent and no one expects us to be. But it is our responsibility as parents to continue to work on ourselves and grow with our children.

Do you ever get ‘extra’ drinks at a party because you did not ‘get enough’?

I have literally never drank without having more than I originally intended to – without fail. Even if I drank within reason, I’d still consume more than I originally promised myself I would.

Do you tell yourself that you can stop drinking anytime you want to, even though you keep getting drunk when you don’t mean to?

I told myself this for years, even after proving to myself at a young age that I couldn’t. “I can quit any time, I just don’t want to” was my mantra. Funny how often this is said with no follow through to prove it!

Have you missed days of work or school because of drinking?

Yes, plenty.

Do you have ‘blackouts’ ever?

Yes, plenty.

Have you ever thought that your life would be better if you didn’t drink?

I wondered about this constantly, but I was so consumed by the fear of quitting that I wouldn’t even give myself the chance to find out. I thought that my life would be empty without alcohol. It’s literally the complete opposite.

When you lose control of your own life because your addiction is at the helm, you’re not truly living. There is no happiness in being a slave to anyone or anything. The good news is that you have a choice when it comes to addiction (unless your body makes that choice for you first). If you feel that you struggle with grey area drinking, feel free to reach out to me on FB or Instagram. Remember, addiction works on a spectrum. It can’t be defined as a single set of traits as it occurs for a variety of different reasons and therefore, presents itself in different ways for each individual. Start by asking yourself what drinking/using is adding to your life, and if it's making you truly happy.

There’s no shame in questioning your habits and changing them if they aren't working for you anymore.

Today, I’m 212 days sober.

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