Dear SGP,

I’m three years sober, and my sister has always supported my recovery. Last I heard (we don’t live in the same city), she considered herself a “moderate” drinker, although I never quite knew what she meant by that other than really liking wine. Lately, she’s been asking me about “gray area drinking,” and if I think her drinking is problematic. I’m an alcoholic in AA, and have no idea what this concept entails, let alone how to advise her about it. Any thoughts?

-Sister Sober

Dear SS,

Gray area drinking is certainly having its moment in the press, and its definition is as confusing and malleable as the name suggests. Forbes attempted to explain it in April 2022 :

“You can see how a couple glasses of red, white or rosé in a single evening can quickly push you into the gray. The reality, however, is that some people can exist in the gray area without encountering major problems (aside from the health risks associated with any degree of alcohol intake). But for others, this fuzzy spot between teetotaling and alcohol use disorder (AUD) can start to feel unmanageable.”

Since “problem drinking” is so vague, many people want a label to name their issue, which is maybe why Forbes referenced alcohol use disorder here (which no one has heard of) and not alcoholism (which everyone has heard of, but not everyone is quick to claim, especially when casually reading a random issue of Forbes on the toilet). So, for the sake of this article, we’ll divide “problem drinking” into three categories: gray area drinking, alcohol use disorder, and alcoholism. Let’s attempt to break down all three, shall we?

A cursory Google search tells us alcohol use disorder and alcoholism are essentially the same thing — a chronic disease characterized by uncontrolled drinking and preoccupation with alcohol. The former kind of makes it seem like you have an allergic reaction to booze rather than an unrelenting need to chase the bottle. I say: whatever works. If identifying as an alkie is keeping you from getting help, call it whatever you want. The important thing is that the problem is acknowledged; how you get there is irrelevant.

Gray area drinking doesn’t commit to a hard definition, because in order to welcome as many people as possible into its ranks (i.e. cover all the people who don’t want to name their issue either of the above labels), it needs to be somewhat indistinct. Countless people face consequences of drinking, both fleeting and dire. In fact, the ways that alcohol does harm are so endless, we could all be considered gray area drinkers if asked about our worst night on the sauce, or our worst hangover/shameover the next day. Returning to Forbes’ dicey definition: “some people can exist in the gray area without encountering major problems (aside from the health risks associated with any degree of alcohol intake).” So health risks aren’t considered “major” problems? Okay… we’ll just leave that there.

Your sister asked your opinion about her drinking. Enter: a word Forbes used that we actually like. And that’s “unmanageable.”

I ask my drinking friends “Is it making your life unmanageable?” when they inevitably come to me to diagnose whether they have an issue with alcohol or not. I can’t tell you how many people have used the disclaimer, “Well, I don’t drink in the morning/every day/ to blackout/ alone/at work/ behind the wheel/ around my kids, so I’m not an alcoholic, I’m just….” and then go into a description of their drinking *still* affecting them negatively to the point of somberly asking me what I think, and what they should do.

While no one can identify unmanageability for someone else, it’s pretty fucking easy to identify for one’s self. (Not easy to admit, but if drinking is making your life suck, you know). This is why we love the word “unmanageable”, which we learned in good ol 12 Step, but can be used to bridge the gap to self-awareness for anyone questioning their relationship with booze. It works well because it’s not a judgment. It’s just a yes or no. You could say it’s black and white. See where we’re going with this?? In other words, it’s not “gray”. At all.

So you can ask your sister if she thinks that word applies to her. You can also offer some context if she’s fuzzy on what it means. We all have our own versions of unmanageability, but my personal view is that “normie” drinkers don’t have to bend over backwards trying to decide if their drinking is an issue or not, because it’s just not. They can abstain from drinking without really trying. They don’t drink enough to have to take repeated breaks. Drinking isn’t a major factor in their everyday or even their every week. They decide whether to drink or not based on whether they actually feel like it. They can be around alcohol without feeling activated by the stress of partaking or not. They don’t consistently have next-day regrets that make them question their will to live.

The rest of us aren’t so lucky. And I say “us” because whether you ID as a GAD, an AUD, or an alcoholic who needs AA, we all get stressed by drinking. We feel ashamed. We drink when we don’t want to. We can’t stop after one. We dislike who we are when drunk, and/or hate ourselves sober. Our friends’ eyes darken when we try to make a horrible night sound “funny.”

I think it’s less important to nail down what kind of drinker your sister is, and ask what about her experience with drinking is cause for concern. Just because her habits may not fit a cliched view of what alcoholism looks like doesn’t mean they aren’t bad enough. When people get rid of their preconceived notions, they can actually look at *their* life, the only one that they have, and whether it’s feeling good or not. That’s really all that matters, not an ever-changing definition of when drinking is too much. In other words, we’re as diverse as our drinking issues….LOL?

You can share with your sister more in-depth what worked for you about AA. Let her know you can direct her to a meeting if she ever wants one. But only, like, once. Don’t prescribe or overwhelm her with choices. Unless she asks, keep the suggestions to yourself beyond that. And don’t feel the need to nag her in two weeks about getting help. Deep down, your sister already knows what’s up. Whatever she ends up calling her relationship with booze, only after admitting exactly what it is can she take appropriate actions to feel better.

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