During Lent and since I spent a lot of time reflecting on the role alcohol plays in my life. As part of this work I have done some basic research into what is considered healthy levels of alcohol consumption. This should not be surprising. So often when it comes to things like our health we turn to quantifiable measures.
What I found was a huge range of what qualifies as “excessive” when it comes to drinking. It varies first and foremost by gender. Across the board men can drink more than women and still stay within the “healthy” range. But from there the variations spread out over such a range as to become confusing. For an idea check out this article that gives a thorough overview. But ultimately, the measure depends upon who and where you ask. Contrast this article from the UK to the CDC’s recommendations. I suspect it also varies just as widely depending on when in history you were asking as well.
The point is that there is not universal agreement as to the numbers. Indeed some have calling the CDC’s recommendations into question. For example in New Zealand it is recommended that a man consume no more than 1-2 drinks per day with a cap of 14 drinks per week. Moreover, they also recommend not drinking on 2 days per week. At the more liberal end countries like Italy or the UK can allow for 3-4 drinks per day (although it varies depending on which source you consult).
While it is clear that everyone thinks there are limits on how much booze we drink before it becomes a problem it seems to me that there is a more compelling and important question to be asked here. Just why do we drink? If we are really going to understand drinking in the context of health then I think we need to take an equally candid look at why we drink. So perhaps it is more helpful in making a true assessment to ask the question of why? Here there is some literature but again it is widely varied and often focuses only on problematic reasons. One of the more useful ones I found is here.
But in the end when it comes to assessing our relationship with alcohol many times “why” turns out to be the most important question we can ask ourselves. Sometimes we drink for positive reasons- to celebrate, to compliment a meal, to enhance time with friends. Other times we drink to cope with negative things like depression, anger, stress or anxiety.
Of course not all “negative” reasons for drinking are inherently unhealthy. There is nothing wrong with having a scotch to unwind after a long meeting. But is that the only way you have of coping? Why are you turning to that bottle? Is it because you have no other way to manage the difficult feelings inside or is it a compliment to other mechanisms. Is that drink taking the place of spiritual or emotional resources or is it simply one of many ways you have to help unwind and leave that meeting behind you for the night?
The point is that the “why” matters. Those of us who drink have lots of different why’s. And many times they are circumstantial. When we come back from that stressful meeting we will not always choose to cope with it by having a drink. Maybe sometimes instead of the drink you might go a for a run to burn off the stress? Or you might sip on that drink while venting to your spouse as well. Indeed, having a variety of why’s and more importantly a variety of ways of coping with the negative ones would seem to be indicate a healthier relationship with alcohol. But when the reasons we drink becoming fewer and more consistent, it is then that we have to be especially vigilant.
I can think of no more poignant example of an unhealthy “why” than the character of Brick from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I saw this play years ago at McCarter Theater in Princeton and this scene left an indelible impression. Indeed in those times when I have turned to alcohol to cope with stress or to otherwise help me quell some inner demon, I have replayed it in my own mind, wondering if I too am looking for that “click.”
Brick: Somethin’ hasn’t happened yet.
Big Daddy: What’s that?
Brick: A click in my head.
Big Daddy: Did you say “click”?
Brick: Yes sir, the click in my head that makes me feel peaceful.
Big Daddy: Boy, sometimes you worry me.
Brick: It’s like a switch, clickin’ off in my head. Turns the hot light off and the cool one on, and all of a sudden there’s peace.
Big Daddy: Boy, you’re, you’re a real alcoholic!
Brick: That is the truth. Yes, sir, I am an alcoholic. So if you’d just excuse me…
Big Daddy: [grabbing him] No, I won’t excuse you.
Brick: Now I’m waitin’ for that click and I don’t get it. Listen, I’m all alone. I’m talkin’ to no one where there’s absolute quiet.
Big Daddy: You’ll hear plenty of that in the grave soon enough.
For the fully dramatic effect you can watch the scene here.
Why do we drink? What are we looking for that drink to do for us? As much as “how much” and “how often” these are also the questions we need to be asking ourselves as we assess our relationship with alcohol. As much as I love beer the fact is I cannot drink as much as I might sometimes like and hope to remain healthy, not just physically, but emotionally, spiritually and relationally as well. As a result I have to keep looking at my habits and asking that vital question, why? Because if we are looking to booze to bring us peace, we might find temporary relief, but it cannot ever truly silence our inner demons.
If you have ever wondered about the health of your drinking habits do please check out the links in this post. This story from NPR includes some links that offer assessment and tips for learning how to drink in more moderation.