Alcohol (Over) Consumption

For the past thirty days, I have not consumed alcohol. Not a glass of wine. Not a shot of whisky. Not a sniff of anything alcoholic. Nothing. Bone dry. And it hasn’t been easy.

While I am not a bartender, alcohol is a huge part of my life, as I suspect it is in your own life. I live with a bartender. We have a huge collection of spirits at home. I run this website, a site that was created purely because alcohol and it’s consumption exist. Alcohol is everywhere: on billboards, in magazines, it’s hard to even find a TV show or movie that doesn’t involve it somehow.

When so much of your life revolves around alcohol, it’s a tough thing to avoid. A couple of years ago, I started seeing a new doctor. As part of our first meeting, I had to go through a list of questions, one of which was how many alcoholic drinks I consume in a week. So I told her and she responded by telling me how many drinks a woman should consume at a maximum during that time and I was over that number. I mumbled excuses about being married to a bartender and something about our lifestyle. She cut me off, looked me deep into my eyes and sincerely asked, “Do you think you have a drinking problem?” I half-laughed, feeling shocked that she would ask that because I knew that I was in control of my life but then I realized that maybe alcohol does play a bigger role in my life and maybe I should get a better grasp on what that role is. I have been thinking about that ever since.

So with that, I took thirty days away from alcohol and my reasoning this comes from many places.

Alcohol Over Consumption | Bartender Atlas

It’s January
Firstly it’s January. December means lots of holiday parties, lots of family hang times and lots of alcohol consumption. Lots of alcohol overconsumption. Every function – whether it be during the day or in the evening – often had an booze focus. And when you are invited as a guest to these functions, you don’t want to be rude by denying them (especially when said functions are sponsored by a specific alcohol brand). So you consume and you drink and you wake up the next day, checking your calendar to remind you of where you are heading today and you do it all over again. And while you never feel drunk or out of control for the month, you do feel this continuous flow of alcohol through your body. You wake in the mornings feeling a little slow, a little less productive and you just crave for it to all be over. I reached this point early on in December, before Christmas even arrived and it was near the end of those holidays when I realized that I hadn’t even had one Rum & Egg Nog. I mean, I wasn’t even being festive. So reasoning #1 for taking January off from booze: December overwhelmed me and I didn’t feel good about it or myself or my body. I wanted to gain control of all of that again.

The second reason for choosing to take thirty days alcohol-free should be obvious: health. While smoking and drugs and other addictions always have a health focus and it is shoved down our throats how bad they are for us, somehow alcohol (over) consumption usually slips past that. We know to not drink and drive (RIGHT?!) but otherwise, the health risks of consuming alcohol are not usually well advertised. They are not flashing in front of us when we purchase it or consume it (Well, unless you are pregnant, there are warnings on most bottles about that). Part of this problem is that the damage that alcohol does to our bodies is mostly on the inside so we don’t see it. (Except for when you see those red-faced knobby-nosed old men, there you can clearly see the wear of alcohol on the outside.)

Do you know how many drinks is the maximum that you should consume in a week? According to the Canadian guidelines for women it’s ten drinks. For men, it’s fifteen. For the average person, that may seem like a lot. That’s a glass of wine or two at dinner each night. But if you are reading this post, you are likely someone who works in the restaurant/bar industry. Or you are one who loves cocktails and booze. So consuming only ten or fifteen drinks in a week may be a wakeup call. I see people all the time sit at a bar, consume four cocktails or drinks, do a shot with the bartender and then head out the door to go visit another bar. Essentially, that person will consume the maximum recommended amount of alcohol for the week, within an evening. Now multiply that by how many days a week that person goes out, and that number really gets up there.

I grew up in a family where alcoholism was present. My grandparents were alcoholics and while they dealt with their addiction before I was born, the fact that they were alcoholics was always present. When I was about fourteen years old, I had an Uncle pass away from cirrhosis of the liver. As a kid, you don’t really understand when someone has a disease or recognise they are ill until they are really sick. I remember at Christmas and family gatherings, he was the life of the party. Always hilarious and smiling and happy. His son, my cousin, is the same. You would laugh so hard at his jokes that it was all you could do to not pee your pants. But then my Uncle got sick. He was an alcoholic. I remember visiting him in the hospital when he was near his end. I remember standing at the end of his hospital bed and looking at him. Seeing his yellowed skin. Seeing his puffy body. I remember thinking: this is not the man that I know. Where are his smiles and his jovial personality? His body had given up to him, so damaged from what he did to it. I remember seeing sadness in his eyes that day. He knew. We all knew.

  • When you consume more alcohol than the recommended amount, you not only set yourself up for a higher risk of liver damage, including cirrhosis of the liver, but also the following:
  • Anemia
  • Cancer including mouth, throat, liver, breast. Your risk of getting one of these cancers is even higher than getting cancer from smoking. Let that really sit in for a moment.
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart & Stroke problems
  • Brain damage. Research has shown that alcohol overconsumption can lead to dementia. It literally causes your brain to break over time.

So the second reason for me to take a break from was purely for health. I take the time most days to do a pilates class or some form of exercise. I have maintained a pescatarian diet for more than half my life. I do my best to consume only whole food. I do all of the right things but, truthfully, consuming too much alcohol almost reverses all of that hard work. And for what? A few hours of feeling that buzz? Is it really worth it?

Being a part of this industry without working behind an actual bar has given me a different perspective on alcohol consumption and it’s effects on people. As a photographer, I am often hired to photograph booze-related events by alcohol brands and when I am photographing, I always act professionally in that I don’t consume any alcohol until after my cameras are put away. Having these experiences has definitely altered my perception of people and of alcohol.

I have seen people who I love. Who I have so much respect for and who I have great conversations with, alter in personality after a few too many cocktails. I have seen them from being friendly and outgoing to not being able to hold it together, nearly falling over, not being able to get a sentence out. I have seen this alteration take place within a couple of hours. I know that many of us have been there. From a sober outsider, this is a terrifying thing to witness. There are some people in my life who I love and respect but I now know that once they hit their fourth drink, I need to separate myself from them because they are no longer tolerable, at least in my personal terms. We all have that friend, right? The one who once they have too many, becomes another being. Someone who may be negative or nasty or suddenly be trying to pick-up friends or may simply be behaving as they never would in any other circumstances. It’s behaviour like that that I wish I could un-see. That I wish I didn’t know existed because it makes me sad for that person, it makes me both lose respect for them and also the urge to offer them a big hug and ask “What made you this way?” Over-consuming alcohol may make you feel better, it may make you feel invisible, at the top of the world, at least for those couple of hours. But it sure as hell doesn’t make you look better.

The problem is that this industry encourages this behaviour. If you work in the industry, it’s nearly impossible to dodge a shot from the bartender as you leave his bar. It’s hospitality to offer one as a thank you for visiting them and paying money at their establishment. And it’s polite to accept and to thank them for this little gift. This thing is: is that little shot really worth it? Do you need it? The answer is likely always a resounding no. Remember, as a woman, you are only supposed to consume TEN drinks in one week. That shot counts as one.

Over-consuming alcohol in an evening changes you. It changes your behaviour and your personality and I firmly believe that it doesn’t make either better. You are wonderful and beautiful just the way you are. Trust me, you don’t need that liquid courage.

But I love it
Having said all that, I don’t mean to be square-pants over here. I love alcohol. I could drink only mezcal for the rest of my life and be happy because I love it so much. I love cocktails. I love sitting at bars and watching the bartender work. I love talking with them. I love being in dark moody spaces – whether they be a dirty dive bar or a proper cocktail spot. I love watching the other patrons – couples on dates, girlfriends catching up, individuals at the bar – experiencing bits of others’ lives. I love learning about spirits, about how they are made, about the people behind them, about their story. I love the feeling after having a glass of bubbles or a full red wine. All of it, I love. But by not drinking alcohol for these past thirty days, I spent a lot of time thinking about the why. Why do I like to consume alcohol and when? I wanted to understand this so that I could then understand it’s place in my life.

I read an article about addiction and how a new study has discovered that when people are happy, when they are in good environments, they thrive and that addiction isn’t something that is experienced. They tested it with rats, with those addicted to cocaine and those not and it was conclusive: happy rats, don’t need drugs to thrive. And so I noticed it in myself. When was I craving alcohol the most? Oftentimes, it wasn’t when I was out with friends. It was when I was sitting at home for the third night in a row by myself and I was bored and unhappy. That’s when I wanted alcohol the most. So I let that realisation process in my head. Would having a shot of whisky really make that moment better? Likely nope. But maybe getting up and doing something else: starting a new book, putting on a different movie or show, doing some stretches, having a bath, actually  and likely would make that moment better. Alcohol, drugs, any kind of substance really just puts a mask on ourselves and our lives. A little wall, even if just for a few hours, to help us avoid what we don’t want to feel/see/experience. And while that is fun at times, it really shouldn’t be something that we rely on for living a great and fulfilling life.

My Sober Month
So we stuck it out. And how was my experience with these thirty days alcohol-free? Truthfully, it was difficult. More difficult than I imagined.

The month started strong and easy because we were both sick. Grossly sick and being that sick makes you want to do basically nothing, especially drink. On day five, I was starting to feel slightly better and all I wanted was a drink. Just a glass of wine or whisky or mezcal or anything brown in the glass. Anything. Then the following day, I got a delivery of some great wine. It was near torture to not open a bottle. I lovingly stacked them in the wine rack, literally caressing the bottles knowing they would have to wait. SodaStream saved me. I went through an entire tank of co2. I may have consumed more fizzy water this month than anyone else on earth. And tea. I drank a lot of tea whenever I was craving something more than water. I got creative with blending essential oils in my cup. I tried anything to make those liquids more interesting.

For the first couple of weeks, I avoided going out. Dates with friends meant meeting in the daylight hours when coffee was the reasonable thing to drink or lunch was the proper meal to eat. It was easier to avoid drinking alcohol if it wasn’t available. I feared in those first couple of weeks that I wasn’t dedicated enough to stick with my thirty days alcohol-free. And I really didn’t want to half-ass things here.

Eventually, Josh and I got a little more brave and we went out for dinner to a new restaurant that the city is currently raving about. We sat at the bar and drank mocktails and it was torturous to not have one of those glasses of wine that kept going out. From there we headed to a small cocktail bar with a veteran bartender who we knew would understand where we were at. And he did. He was professional and he made us the most perfect non-alcoholic-treat-of-a-drink possible. We went to brand-sponsored events and drank fake G&T’s; we went to a fundraiser for the Sexual Assault Action Coalition where it seemed every single bartender in the city was; we went to a cocktail competition to support a friend with our cheers since we were unsure of how tasty the drink actually was; we hosted a mezcal tasting through Bartender Atlas; we went to a dinner party to celebrate Chinese New Year. And we did it all without a single drop of alcohol. It was hard. I felt so uncomfortable at times until I realized that my discomfort was coming from me and not from those around me. They were not projecting any of their judgments on me, I was doing that to myself. So I became comfortable with being the sober person in the room. And you know what? After a while, once I found that confidence, it wasn’t that bad.

So after thirty days alcohol-free, how do I feel? I feel great. Actually really great. I feel lighter. My skin is brighter. I feel more productive and happy and I feel like I am doing things as I ought to be doing them. Like cake and massages, I believe that alcohol should be used as a treat. An indulgence. Not something that is overplayed night after night. While I work within this industry and while alcohol is always likely going to be a big part of my life, I am going to be a little more conscious about how I treat it from this day forward. Those ten drinks a week are a little more precious and special now and I plan to treat them with the upmost respect.

Some great alcohol-related resources
Centre for Addiction & Mental Health (CAMH)
AA Toronto Agnostics
Alcoholics Anonymous

Jessica Blaine Smith
Co-creator at Bartender Atlas
Jess co-created Bartender Atlas with her bartender husband Josh Lindley. She has worked as a full-time freelance photographer for the past two decades. Her photography focuses on lifestyle portraits, food & drink photography and corporate portraits and events She recently photographed Evelyn Chick's For the Love of Cocktails book. While not a bartender herself, she definitely loves a strong stirred cocktail, preferably one that is brown and/or smokey. Jess is a proud ambassador of her home city of Toronto.
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