One Drink Too Many: My Journey of Breaking Free from Alcohol

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May 15, 2022

12 min read

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The moment I realized that alcohol was taking far more from me than it was giving.

3:00 AM.

Most nights I would wake up at that unfriendly hour and the thoughts would come rushing in. Why couldn’t I control my drinking? How could I be in this ridiculous place? How could I do this to the people I loved, to myself? How could a glass of fermented liquid have so much power over me? How pathetic was I?

And then the shame:

How could I act like this? I’m a religious woman. The wife of a rabbi. A role model and an inspiration to my community. And on top of all that, I’m a life coach! If anybody knew the real me, what would they say? I’m such a fake!

Then came the inevitable promises: I’ll stop drinking. I’m done. This is crazy. No more.

How could I act like this? If anybody knew the real me, what would they say? I’m such a fake!

I would toss and turn, ruminating about drinking and aging and frustration and parenting and inadequacy, often until the darkness slipped innocently into daylight. I chased sleep, but it eluded me. Sometimes I would catch a few early hours of rest. But soon enough it was time to wake up and start the day.

And that’s exactly what I would do. I’d start the day and function normally. I would take my son to school and carry on with my work and my responsibilities. Yes, I would have a headache, but Tylenol and lots of water took care of that. Yes, there was that tiny voice in the back of my head sending me muted messages of fret and worry that my drinking really wasn’t okay.

But my justifications overrode my concerns. After all, so many people drank so much more than I did. I never binge drank or passed out, and I was light years from hitting rock bottom. That term had nothing to do with me! I was actually pretty in control. I never drank more than three glasses. Everyone has to relax and live a little. And besides, I looked completely normal on the outside and no one was the slightest bit concerned about me. I must be over-analyzing it, it must be totally fine.

But was it?

The late morning and afternoon brought a lovely respite from my preoccupation with alcohol. I actually forgot all about it and carried on with my life. And my life was in fact wonderful, new and exciting. We had recently moved to Israel to a beautiful neighborhood in Jerusalem. We live above a forest and I take daily hikes through the Judean hills, in awe about the choice we made to redirect our family’s destiny to Israel. While the decision was painful and involved leaving some of our family and community, I was and am deeply proud of the decision to call Israel our home. I preoccupied myself with learning Hebrew, acclimating to my new home and kick-starting my life coaching business for the English-speaking community here in Jerusalem.

Despite all the gratitude and excitement about this new chapter in our lives, I couldn’t shed the sense that something just wasn’t right. I was often moody and withdrawn. I was constantly arguing with my son and couldn’t deny a rising tension between myself and my husband. I began to feel vaguely paranoid and would question my family’s love for me. Did they think I was selfish? Could they see I was depressed? Was I losing my husband’s affection? Was I a bad mother?

I would often attribute this background noise of depressive thinking to the inevitably painful adjustment of leaving family, moving to a new country and starting over again from scratch in a whole new world. I constantly wavered between an acceptance of the normalcy of these feelings given the seismic change we had made, and an intuitive sense that there was something else I needed to confront.

It was all pretty confusing, but there was one thing I knew for sure. By 5 PM I would get a visit from the “Wine Witch” – that voice in my head that told me it was time to chill. That a glass of wine was my way to relax, almost like a prize for another day on this earth. What a nice and necessary way to wind down a day!

Despite that small voice inside of me that knew there was a problem, come evening I was a master at ignoring it. It was time to chill and enjoy my wine.

I began to think, even scheme. How much wine was left in the bottle in the fridge? I really can’t open a bottle of red and leave it on the counter, what would my husband think? No way am I hiding a bottle! That is NOT normal. I’ll put ice in my glass to stretch my drink. I’ll add a bit of water to the bottle so it doesn’t look like I’ve been drinking at all. Should I open the red because there’s only a bit left in the bottle of white? Should I use a disposable cup to hide the evidence?

Despite the fact that a still-small voice inside of me knew there was a problem, come evening time I was a master at ignoring it. It was time to chill, cook dinner, clean up, and enjoy my wine.

Because that’s what I believed – that I needed wine to relax and enjoy my life. In fact, I believed this thought for many years, until I discovered the truth about myself and my relationship to alcohol.

My Journey to Freedom

My journey toward freedom from alcohol began one year ago when I heard about something quite remarkable that I decided to ignore. My friend Katie had come over and I went to pour us a glass of wine. Katie and I loved to hang out and talk about life over a bottle of wine, almost like an unspoken badge of friendship cementing the bond between us.

But that day was different.

“I’ve actually decided to stop drinking,” Katie stated reluctantly. “Please don’t feel bad. You know how much I love you. But I’ve realized that my life can be so much better…so much happier, without alcohol.”

I actually did feel bad. What did she understand that I didn’t? Was I not happy? I shifted uncomfortably in my seat.

Katie then gently described her research into a common phenomenon called “gray area drinking.” Gray area drinking (GAD) is defined by experts as that murky space between social (take-it-or-leave-it) drinking and destructive (rock-bottom) drinking. What makes it most difficult to “diagnose” is that people in this zone don’t often exhibit symptoms. They appear completely normal and totally functional, sometimes even amazing, successful and inspiring. They are CEOs and money managers. They are therapists and teachers. They are parents and spouses who care. But unbeknownst to everyone around them, alcohol has become way too important and the desire to drink has taken center stage in their lives.

According to Jolene Park, health coach and certified functional nutritionist and founder of The Gray Area Drinking Resource Hub, some of the most common characteristics of gray area drinkers include the following:

  • GADers can stop drinking and they have stopped drinking for periods of time – even weeks or months – but it’s hard to stay “stopped.”
  • It’s hard to stay stopped because their drinking doesn’t look problematic to those around them.
  • They ricochet between ignoring that still-small voice inside telling them to stop drinking and deciding that they’re overthinking and just need to “live a little.”
  • They silently and quietly worry and question their drinking – often for years before stopping for good.

Was Jolene in my brain? That was me she was describing! I watched her powerful TED Talk and again, felt she was talking just to me. I googled gray area drinking and discovered a world of resources. How could I never have heard of any of this before? Does our culture expect you to hit rock bottom and enter a rehab before it’s time to address your concerns? Millions of people worry about their drinking long before they would ever be defined as alcoholics. I pored over the literature and discovered a universe of people that felt just like I did. I felt supported and encouraged.

And then I decided to ignore it… and go on drinking.

Fast forward almost one year later. It was the second day of Passover. I was cleaning up from the Seder. The sun had gone down, the festival was over, and I was in my familiar spot at the kitchen sink, doing the dishes. So much had changed – our move to Israel and beginning a whole new life – but my drinking habits were the same. And so was the cycle of emotions and physiological symptoms that surrounded it. The early morning wakeups, the inexplicable anxiety, the bouts of depressive thinking, the consistent worry that something was wrong. That night I went to pour myself a glass of wine, as I customarily did when I would tidy up from Shabbat and the Jewish holidays, but suddenly I stopped in my tracks.

Did I drink to relieve anxiety or was it actually the alcohol that was creating the anxiety in the first place?

Was alcohol making me depressed?

Did I drink to relieve anxiety or was it actually the alcohol that was creating the anxiety in the first place?

Did I not just celebrate the festival of freedom last night?

Am I a slave to alcohol?

What does it mean to be free?

I took a deep breath, sat down on my kitchen chair and reflected on the turning point in the Hagaddah. The Children of Israel, in their lowly and confused state, cry out as best they can: “And we cried out to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our suffering, our labor and our oppression.”

And that’s when the process of redemption begins.

So, with hopes for my own redemption tucked deep in my heart, I too cried out: “God! My all loving Father in Heaven. Please help me want to WANT to stop drinking! I see I cannot do it without You.”

Suddenly, I recalled Katie’s words to me. Would my life be happier if I weren’t drinking? How do I want to feel? What kind of person do I want to be? Does alcohol bring me closer or farther to the life I truly want to live?

Instead of my customary glass of wine, I walked away from the bottle (and the sink full of Seder dishes too). I turned on my computer and began to check out the vast resources and networks of support for gray area drinkers.

I haven’t had a sip of alcohol since, and even more remarkably, I’m losing the desire for it more and more each day.

I feel alive, happy, and guilt free. I learn from experts who educate and inspire me to understand the honest effects of alcohol and what it means to change the whole way we relate to it. I connect to a caring community based on embracing everyone and supporting each person in his or her journey with compassion. My sleeping has normalized (no more 3 AM ruminations!) and the depressive and paranoid thoughts are gone. I’m no longer in conflict with my family. I stopped withdrawing and taking things so personally, and when I have a struggle or a difficult thought, I face it. I work my way through it. I am simply myself, freed from the shackles of alcohol.

The holiday of Shavuot is around the corner, and I plan to celebrate it with 49 days of freedom from alcohol. Every year on Shavuot we renew our vows with God and recommit to forging a relationship with Him through the Torah. A relationship of joy, closeness, trust and intimacy, which is the very reason we were physically freed at all. Life without alcohol frees me from the cycle of shame and denial and brings me closer and closer to myself, my loved ones and my God.

I hesitated to tell my story because it’s so common and not really spectacular. It happens to so many people. But I came to realize that that’s exactly why I must tell it. This story might be describing you, or almost definitely someone you know and love. The fact that it’s so common is the reason it simply must be told.

I also hesitated to tell this story because I was embarrassed. What would people think of me? Would I lose my clients? Would my community be disappointed with me? But I’ve come to see that it’s telling our truth that sets us free, and if I can help one person recognize that they may have slid into gray area drinking, and help them in their journey toward freedom from alcohol, then it’s worth it for me to share it.

As celebrated therapist and author Brene Brown wisely said, “Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.”

For more information about gray area drinking, here are two invaluable resources to get you started:

Discover Jolene Park and the hub of resources she offers at: https://grayareadrinkers.com/

Discover Annie Grace and her life-changing solution for sobriety at: https://thisnakedmind.com/

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