What is Gray Area Drinking? 5 Signs You May Have It

A gray image of a house with details about gray area drinkingPhoto by Christopher Swoszowski

Before I quit drinking for good in 2014, I would stop drinking and then start again. This went on for a decade. After a couple weeks or months of my self-imposed drinking hiatus, I’d think, Why am I being so restrictive? I don’t need to be so all or nothing about alcohol. I can have a glass of wine with dinner, out on a date, or while socializing with friends.

So I’d start drinking again.

I’d soon be right back where I left off—drinking, and continuing to drink because once one glass of wine was in my bloodstream I’d always say, Oh screw it, I’ll have another glass, which always turned into another. During the last year of my drinking, I stopped stopping. It was common for me to have wine most evenings, which put me well into the excessive, risky drinking category. I’d tell myself at the beginning of the evening, or at an event, or whatever, “I’m only going to have one glass of wine,” but I’d easily and frequently finish the whole bottle.

This is gray area drinking, the space between the extremes of “rock bottom” and every-now-and-again drinking: a gray area that many, many people find an impossible space to occupy.

When I stopped for the last time in 2014, it was nearly impossible to find any guidance or inspiration for stepping off the gray area drinking merry-go-round. Gray area drinkers usually don’t need to go into an alcohol detox program to stop drinking, and AA doesn’t resonate with many of us. But that doesn’t mean we don’t question or spend a lot of time—often years—thinking about our drinking and wrestling with the internal dilemmas and concerns surrounding our habits.

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Nothing “bad” happened as a result of my drinking. I never got a DUI, lost a job, or got into a physical altercation because of my drinking. But that didn’t mean it wasn’t a problem. According to Sharon Wilsnack, an alcohol researcher at the University of North Dakota, the type of drinking I engaged in is, unfortunately, very common, especially among women today.

“We are now witnessing a global epidemic in women’s drinking,” she says. “Between 2002 and 2013 problem drinking among women increased 83.7%.”

And according to Harvard Health, the pandemic has been a catalyst for more drinking, especially for those who identify as women, 41% of which reported increases in heavy drinking.

It doesn’t take much to become a gray area drinker. According to a global study published in the Lancet, there is no safe or recommended intake level for alcohol. One 5 oz glass of wine every day, or seven drinks a week is considered moderate drinking for women. For some, this amount can feel manageable with no discernable consequences (other than the health risks, like increased risk of breast cancer for women especially, associated with drinking any amount of alcohol). But for others, this can catapult them into the uncomfortable gray area—there’s nothing terrible happening because of their drinking—but it just doesn’t feel good.

Gray area drinking is extremely common, and that’s precisely what makes it so hard to identify. Our society has normalized problematic drinking, so you first have to recognize that just because everybody is doing it, doesn’t mean you have to.

Here are five signs that you might be a gray area drinker.

1. You silently worry, regret, and fret about your drinking.

You wake up in the early morning hours feeling remorseful recounting the night before, but you get up and function well during the day. You get your workout in, eat a balanced diet, or exhibit other “healthy” lifestyle choices. Other days, however, you experience wasted mornings and weekends, feeling hungover and angry over little things. Other people don’t often know about these days—they don’t see your sleepless nights, your self-loathing, your racing, anxious mind. What goes on internally regarding your drinking is different from what you present externally.

2. You drink between two extremes.

You’re not an end-stage, lose-everything kind of drinker, but you aren’t an every-now-and-again drinker, either, where you have one glass of champagne at a wedding a couple of times a year. Most people don’t fall into either of those black-and-white drinking extremes; many people land somewhere between these extremes: in the gray area.

3. You can stop drinking and you have stopped drinking for periods of time—even weeks or months—but it’s hard to stay stopped.

You’ve taken a break from drinking at different times in your life for various reasons—maybe you were doing a nutrition or fitness challenge or you swore off alcohol as one of your New Year’s resolutions. But then something comes up—a holiday, work event, or a stressful time—and it’s just too hard to keep turning down the drink forever. So back on the drinking carousel, you go, and you quickly end up regretting how much you’re drinking.

4. Your drinking often doesn’t look problematic to those around you.

You drink like most people in your social and business circles—neighborhood block parties, book clubs, girls’ night out, work events. You probably know people who drink much more than you do. If you talk about it with others, they might say, “You don’t have a problem, why are you worrying so much about this?” So you tell yourself you’re not that bad.

5. You ricochet between ignoring that still small voice inside of you telling you to stop drinking, and deciding that you’re overthinking and you need to just “live a little.”

Alcohol is your reward at the end of the day. It’s how you have fun, relax, unwind, connect, have sex, and fall asleep at night. Everything in moderation, right? Yet, you’ve lost count of how many times you’ve woken up the day after “living a little” and said, “Never again. I can’t keep drinking like this.”

Gray area drinking can be a slippery slope, and the societal pull to keep drinking is strong. Friends and family would often say to me, “Can’t you just have one drink with us?” The answer was no, but they couldn’t see what was silently happening in my mind, body, and life as a result of my drinking—they only saw my life from the outside, which looked ‘fine.’

When I made the decision to stop for good, December 14, 2014, I knew I was done forever. I knew I was done because I had so many stops and starts, and this time, I knew not to dwell in the gray. I told myself that no matter what happened in the future, good or bad, there would be no more silent debates, bargaining, justifying, or wondering if I could have one, because one always turned into more, and I was ready for a full stop. I haven’t had a drink, sip, or drop of alcohol since.

Here’s How You Can Step Off The Gray Area Drinking Merry-Go-Round:

1. Ask yourself what you really want.

Giving up alcohol is not a guarantee or protection against hard, uncomfortable emotions or events happening in your life. I often had moments of intense frustration, anxiety, and worry about relationships, work, and finances early in my non-drinking days. I wanted to escape into a bottle of red wine for a couple of hours.

But I didn’t. Instead, I began asking myself what I really wanted? What was feeling malnourished? Did I want more quiet time and downtime, or was I seeking more connection and intimacy? Do I really just need to rest, eat, hydrate? Was I hungry for a creative outlet and more fun or purpose? I came to realize that alcohol would never give me any of those things. Once I started to give my body, mind, and psyche what they really craved, the cravings for alcohol lessened.

2. Find gray area support.

In the last five years, the global community began talking about gray area drinking online—search Instagram hashtags like #grayareadrinking to find others who have been where you are. There are also many online communities like Tempest’s online membership, coaching programs, and podcasts (I host The Edit podcast with Aidan Donnelley Rowley), that can help you feel less alone.

Reach out to healthcare professionals who don’t wave you aside or downplay your concern about your drinking. There are many qualified coaches, therapists, and healthcare practitioners who understand gray area drinking. You deserve to talk with and surround yourself with like-minded people who understand your drinking pattern. Find them. They are out there!

3. Add one to three new things into your life.

Deciding to remove alcohol is a courageous act of self-care—you should feel good about your decision to go alcohol-free. Now turn your focus to all the possibilities and things that you can add to your life. What are some relaxation or leisure practices you’ve put off or haven’t had time for? Maybe it’s time to nurture the relationships or the spiritual side of your life that you’ve neglected? From fitness to good food to emotional well-being, there are so many great resources available to you.

* * *

Gray area drinking is real—a lot of people identify with this drinking paradigm. You are not alone, and you’re also in good company when you decide to end this pattern and forge a new one that’s more in line with the life you want to be living.

It’s time we drop the rock-bottom-required-to-stop-drinking idea. We don’t need to run our lives completely off the rails to prove, justify, defend, or explain why we are choosing to stop drinking. We simply need to know that there’s a better version of ourselves that is waiting for us to meet them.

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