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  • laurenwhitehurst8

A Tough Subject

I’ve been thinking a lot about my relationship with alcohol lately, and I have finally decided to write about it.

The fact is that I have been contemplating whether to write about this topic for several weeks. I jotted down the idea a while back, but every time I revisited it, I just wasn’t sure if I wanted to broach it in any public way. It’s not like I have thousands of readers (or even 20+), but putting my thoughts on paper about this subject amounts to a confession of sorts, one that identifies what feels like a weakness I have not yet been able to master or resolve for myself. And that isn’t easy to admit to when you believe you are a decisive and disciplined individual.

Anyhow, I’ve started now, so here goes nothing:

I love wine. All kinds –white, red, rose and almost any variety. I love the taste of wine, and I also like its effects – a glass of wine signifies a transition from daytime bustle to evening calm. Sharp edges of whatever stress the day brought blur ever so slightly and become eminently tolerable. The world softens just a little, and even though its problems don’t completely recede, it’s easier to also remember its beauty.

I don’t drink wine during the day except under two circumstances – at lunch either after an amazing hike in Colorado looking back over the mountain I just ascended or in Europe, specifically France or Italy, where that’s the midday custom anyways. I do drink wine most evenings, though that practice has varied over the course of my adult life a lot. There were many years with small children when drinking a few glasses was the nightly norm, (whether Jim was in town or not), another period when I told myself I should prioritize my health (physical over mental perhaps) and drank a single glass, measured at 5 oz in a Pyrex, after dinner once my kids were in bed. And then there was the pre-pandemic phase where Jim and I only imbibed on weekends, defined as Friday thru Sunday inclusive. My diet soda intake increased during my more tee-tolling periods, so I am not sure if I was actually enhancing my physical health, but I certainly had fewer wine headaches.

And that’s one rub. Wine gives me headaches. Not always, and rarely when the wine is really good, but often enough. I can almost tell when it is going to happen. I will be brushing my teeth before bed, and I feel just a slight tinge of sharpness in my head. At that point, I take two Advil and hope for the best. Sometimes the Advil works and sometimes, I wake up at 2 o’clock in the morning with a migraine and drag myself to the bathroom to pop a Sumatriptan (look it up -- it’s amazing stuff). That works 99% of the time and if it doesn’t, caffeine in the AM is my final weapon. As I read back on this paragraph, I am amazed that I drink wine. And yet, every middle of the night when I have a headache, I swear I am going to manage my intake better, and in the morning after coffee, I tell myself that it wasn’t so bad.

When I was in college, I drank a lot more than wine. Your choices were grain alcohol punch or beer. I never liked the taste of beer, and I have a sweet tooth. The problem was, well, you all know the problem: with punch from the barrel, you don’t know when you have consumed too much until it’s too late. Hawaiian punch: it punches –quite suddenly. I recall trying to convince my college friends to drink boxed wine before we went out to a party (remember boxed wine?), but that wasn’t very successful. By the time I graduated, I swore I would never drink hard alcohol again. I didn’t, for 25 years. And even today, I only partake in an occasional margarita (sweet tooth!).

Growing up, I had parents who drank regularly, so perhaps their habits are part of why regular intake feels somewhat normal to me. My parents were also realists about regulated substances. Once I was a teenager, they let me taste their drinks, and at some point during those years, they negotiated an agreement with me: permissiveness on alcohol for a total ban on drugs. They knew I’d drink at parties and told me I could always reach out to them in any situation where alcohol caused trouble, but in turn, they made me promise never to try any kind of drugs. I’m not sure if this was a good idea or not, but I did feel I could be open with my parents about drinking. And it worked – I may drink my share of wine, but I’ve yet to pop even a gummy.

Today, I’m also managing the alcohol issues that come with my own kids. Jim and I carried my parents’ philosophy into our own parenting. We have frank conversations about drinking with the twins, both about the science of how it impacts a teenage/young adult brain and how drinking too much means losing control in situations and risking truly dire consequences. We let our kids taste our drinks starting when they were in high school, and we’ve told them to let us help them learn their limits. The result to date: my son doesn’t drink – he just doesn’t like the taste; my daughter does, and we have an open relationship with her as it relates to alcohol. I manage my worries when she recounts what happens at school because I truly believe she is safer for her ability to speak honestly about her challenges and experiences.

Where I started with all of this was that I have been thinking about alcohol a lot lately. It’s been on my mind because Jim and I are still in our pandemic alcohol phase. Eighteen long months ago, we were practicing weekend drinking rules for the most part, and this was going quite well. And then COVID hit along with its very real stresses: senior year spring ruined, Jim in a new position with new reports -- all virtually, me managing grocery shortages and 90% of the household cleaning, and all of us swimming in hand sanitizer if we had to leave the house. After a month of confinement, Jim and I decided to add a hump day. Wednesday became kosher for drinking. A few months later, with no real end in sight, we decided to move to a pandemic policy. Alcohol became a nightly affair.

Fast forward – we are vaccinated and living a pretty normal life. Jim has retired; the kids are home for the summer, and we are eating out, visiting museums, and carrying masks in pockets. Concerns about physical health (and guilt about setting an example for Emma) have started to rebalance the scale. Jim and I agree we need to moderate, but we are having a difficult time deciding how to balance the enjoyment we reap from alcohol (Jim’s just retired!) with what we know is an unhealthy long-term habit. Good for the soul; bad for the body. It’s a little like my headache wars – in the light of day, we make a sensible plan, and with a view of the sunset, we give into desire.

Our latest pact is to moderate – try to drink a little less on at-home weeknights for now. We will probably coast that way through the summer and set a different, more measurable course in the fall. I don’t know if the changes to our life – what we value post-pandemic, how we live with Jim working less and us traveling more – will impact what we decide. There is a balance to be had between physical and mental health when it comes to alcohol. It may be that it’s a moving target forever, but I hope I can arrive at a place where I feel at peace with the tradeoffs involved.

By the way, it's Friday. After five o'clock...

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