of women and wine

A colleague of mine came out as “getting sober” not too long ago. I admit, I don’t know the backstory – whether it was a full-blown case of alcoholism or just frustration and confusion over how to navigate the "institution of women and wine” that triggered her desire to change - but it has sat for weeks at the base of my brain stewing and my uneasiness with the matter was finally brought into focus by this article. Please read it first, if for no other reason than you will need it to understand the pool references.

When I shared this article on Facebook, a friend of mine commented about how acutely aware she became of the "wine movement" when she decided to give up most drinking. Initially I thought, there's no "wine movement" yet clearly, women are being targeted by not only the industry (at least half of the memes in this blog post were pulled from a liquor store's website) but each other. All you need to do is pay attention to the memes floating around out there, who is sharing them, when, and why, and a very distinct pattern emerges: women and wine.

I have been half-heartedly dog-paddling to the “other side of the pool” for several months, debating whether I am ready to break into a casual but committed breast stroke. While the article definitely has a strong feminist slant to it, without getting into an argument about sexism, this line in particular resonated with me:

"Do you remember the Enjoli perfume commercial from the 1970s? The chick who could bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never let you forget you’re a man? I blame that bitch for a lot. For spreading the notion that women should have a career, keep house, and fuck their husbands, when the only sane thing to do is pick two and outsource the third."  For your convenience, I found the ad on YouTube.

It resonated with me because let's get real: it's not just men that place this "24-hour woman" expectation on our heads, but ourselves and each other. There was a period at the height of my anxiety issues in late 2013 and early 2014 when because I had quite voluntarily bitten off way more than I could chew, my mental, physical, and psychological health as well as my marriage and family life were all suffering. I was too afraid to admit I was unable to be a "24-hour woman" though. I didn't want to be a failure, to be thought of as not being able to do it all. I wanted the world to see me as some kind of Wonderwoman and shuddered at the thought of showing the cracks in my armour as I descended deeper and deeper into utter despair.

As staunchly as I refused to let go of any of my commitments, I equally staunchly refused to seek medical help, because I knew what a doctor would say if I admitted how serious my situation was. Days were fuelled by coffee and fast food and junk food and my night would only come to a halt at 2 or 3am when I was relaxed enough that my brain would FINALLY stop worrying about all the things I still hadn't accomplished, which ranged from making more time for my husband and planning our annual vacation to losing weight and quitting smoking to sweeping the piles of dusty dog hair from the corners of the stairs and scraping the soap scum off the shower walls with an expired Subway gift card to delivering client files on time and meeting deadlines at my day job to writing the paper due for school and that novel I always wanted to write. Many nights, the ability to “relax” came in the form of “Mama needs a little wine…” because 3-4 hours of wine-assisted unconsciousness was better than not sleeping at all. "Sleep is for sissies" or "I can sleep when I die" I would say but really, I was killing myself.

While I am up on my soap-box here, let's not be completely gender-biased about this either. I think men often fall in this category, too - there is definitely social pressure to play the sports, make the money, fix the things, and drink the Scotch while still being a family man who plans surprise parties for his wife and without being asked brings home flowers, chocolate and (of course) wine... A man who can’t hold his liquor? Shameful! The Dude who is always the DD? Must be in AA. The guy whose wife drinks but he doesn’t? She must have him pussy-whipped. He doesn’t like to drink? Stick in the mud! So a quick shout-out to the men.  But now back to the women.

I'm in a much better place now - I've dropped about 75 lbs, I don't smoke anymore, my marriage and family life is healthier than it has been in years, and I seem to have made serious strides towards that elusive "work-life" balance that people talk about. When I finally implemented major lifestyle changes in late 2014 including shutting down my studio, downsizing, simplifying, taking care of my body, and reducing the complexity and quantity of commitments in my life, it involved cutting back on my alcohol consumption. I would jokingly thank Weight Watchers for my sobriety as I could only “afford” the points for one bottle of wine per week, a far cry from the 4 or 5 I would consume over the course of an average week.

Despite getting a better grip on reality, I still have a love-hate relationship with drinking. It was nice having a socially acceptable “excuse” for saying no to the drink, but once I got close to my goal weight, even that didn’t stop me from getting pressured and caving on a regular basis. “Just one glass,” they would say. "You lost so much weight... you deserve to treat yourself..."

And I admit, if I knew there was a social event where I would be expected (yes, expected is the right word) to drink, I'd start swapping real food for wine or do extra exercise to stay inside my points that week. BBQ? Cold summer drinks. Dinner party? Wine for the host. Canada Day picnic? Champagne! Wedding? Signature cocktail. Drinking is planned for and it is expected that guests will partake by virtue of the fact alcohol has been provided, and while admittedly no one is pouring it down my throat, abstaining is often a great way to draw unwanted attention to yourself. "Are you pregnant?"

Why is every occasion a reason to drink? Does it never end? In social situations I often feel like it's almost a "keeping up with the Joneses" type thing - a cosmopolitan modern "24-hour" woman not only brings home bacon, fries it up, and makes her husband feel like a man but she raises kids, throws Pinterest-worthy parties, and goes to Orange Theory 5x a week PLUS she must down as many beers much wine as her husband girlfriends to be accepted as one of the boys girls.

Consumption of wine is a focal point of so many gatherings - paint night, professional retreats, girls' weekends, mommy getaways, bachelorettes, divorce parties... If I say I don’t want a drink, I get the side-eye that says everything from you’re a party pooper to you're boring to you're not very cool to you're probably judging me, even when the truth is that I (actually) just don’t want a drink.

Before anyone jumps down my throat about being “against” drinking or accuses me of judging those who do, stop. The truth is, if there is a party, I spend time planning cocktails, often fitting it into the theme of the party. Tacos? Tequila! Cuban? Rum! Christmas? Peppermint Schnapps! In May we had a gathering where I made 2 gallons of Singapore Sling to go with my Haianese chicken rice. TWO GALLONS. It was on tap, and if anyone hadn’t tried it or their glass was empty, I was sure to hook them up. And I recently invited myself to (ironically) a pool party and we brought not only dessert and a salad but beergaritas, sangria and a bottle of red.

Have you ever heard people freak out about a dry wedding? It’s like it would be humanly impossible to have a good night without alcohol. In my case, the irony of consuming alcohol is that I experience MORE anxiety over my conduct than if I abstain. Being tipsy and having “lower inhibitions” in public isn’t “relaxing” for me at all.

Frequently it’s not until I am well past the point of “tipsy” and well into “drunk” that I can turn off my social anxiety, at which point I become afraid of appearing foolish so a different kind of anxiety sets in. And before you gasp in horror at that, I’d like you to take into consideration that I am by most accounts a rather high-strung OCD kinda gal and people think that it’s great when I just "let go and have a little fun!” As much as I’d like to say I never pressure or judge the person who isn’t drinking, when I am in a party mood, I feel embarrassed and like I am going to be judged if everyone else isn’t drinking, too, so of course I invite them to join - drinking alone is no fun!

But here's the stupid part - my tendency when I have hit the tipping point between tipsy and drunk is to simply withdraw (go to bed, find a quiet place to hide, leave the event) so no one sees me stumble or hears me slur. Which means that all the people drinking with me ultimately end up drinking without me. I'm not able to talk about the evening's fun and frivolity the next day because, well - I tap out. So I have to ask myself, how is drinking with friends more fun than drinking alone?

I think it's really easy to become a member of the women and wine movement, and by the time you actually realize you're caught up in it, you've got a hell of a time breaking free from the established patterns not only because you’ve developed a habit but you’ve developed a social system and circle that perpetuates this mentality.

And just to be crystal clear, I am not talking about the functional alcoholism and physical addiction and getting blackout drunk every possible chance you get consumption of alcohol, I am talking about straight up habitual institutionalized socially accepted daily consumption of alcohol, and the tendency to feel outright defensive anytime someone questions it.

I am not qualified to classify myself (or most mommy wine drinkers) as “alcoholic” (functional or otherwise) but I would definitely classify myself as being pretty weak-willed. I mean, how could I say no to a nice red pretty much any day, at any time, for basically any reason including no reason at all? Who am I to say to say no to an ice cold cooler on a hot day? Baileys in my coffee or Amaretto in my tea on a cold winter morning?  If it’s there, handed or offered to me, I have a hard time thinking of a reason to say “no" because the message I get every single day reinforces the institution of women and wine.

So can we just talk about the “reasons” why we think we “deserve” wine and have no reason to say no? Because that shit is messed up and defies logic. I had a good day. I had a bad day. My kids made me mad. My kids got As on their report cards and I need to pat myself on the back. My friend had a bad day and doesn’t want to drink alone. We’re having a party. We are getting married. I’m sad. I’m celebrating. I’m worried. I need an escape. I have to show my kids I am hip.  I’m going on a date. Someone died. It’s the weekend. It’s 10% Tuesday. It’s Wednesday and it’s raining. I can’t sleep. I’m bored. The bottle was opened and I didn’t want to leave it unfinished. I’m nervous. I’m excited. I’m stressed. My period came.

Face it: we will be judged whether we choose to drink or not to drink, depending on what side of the pool we’re on and who we're wading in it with. I don't entirely agree with the smugness the article's author takes towards the end - there are many celebratory occasions when imbibing wobble juice is not only acceptable but genuinely enjoyable - but I am self-aware enough to realize that responding to someone's expression of having a bad day with “Where’s the wine?” is dismissive, glib, and in some ways irresponsible - do I really want to be a person who encourages people to self-medicate with alcohol when they are in distress?

I admit, I have been incredibly guilty of being the first one to throw out the "where's the wine?" comment, when what I really mean is, "Congratulations that's so awesome - you should feel really proud of yourself!" or "Holy shit - that sucks - I hope you are able to give yourself some self-care soon and please let me know if there is anything I can do to help."

I've felt for some time that my relationship with alcohol, and with wine in particular, has occasionally teetered into questionable territory. It comes in waves with me - brief periods of time where not only the frequency of wine o'clock escalates but the quantity (a glass becomes a bottle) and I have had to stop and make a conscious choice to say to myself, "Whoa, hey - back it up, sister..." Especially in summer. Seriously, starting in May every goddamned event I go to - picnic, camping, reunion, wedding, etc. - I have a drink placed in my hand, and by the end of August when I stop and do the math, I become aware of how it has just kind of snuck up on me. Again.

And I know I can't be the only one caught in this cycle, but it's such an uncomfortable conversation to have.  How do you say, "I think we drink too much - how about you?" without getting uninvited to every future gathering? According to AA, the first step is admitting you have a problem, so how can you ask people to come to a "dry" BBQ *just for a change* without people questioning your motives or assuming that you're in rehab? It's just so much easier if we just don't admit that we find it difficult or frustrating to be submerged in this culture of women and wine.

It has somehow become more socially acceptable to say, "I need wine," than, "I need support." There is something very very wrong with that and I guess I'm resentful of the "women and wine movement" because of how I am realizing it has affected my interpersonal relationships. As much as I have become an unwitting purveyor of this norm, I have more importantly realized that I have become desensitized to having my own feelings and thoughts dismissed or ignored through the words of a meme from a well-meaning friend, and by following my own advice to get me to a winery. Maybe - just maybe - what we all really need is a break to get some me time - get some exercise, meditate, go for a walk in nature, take a nap, or find a sympathetic ear. When none of that helps and only wine takes the edge off, then maybe I (or you) do need to look at a 12-step program, and if that's what I (or you) need, there's no shame in that.

I'm not suggesting that I (or you) need to run out immediately and sign up for detox, but I am going to be paying much closer attention to when and why I am putting wine in my body.  In my slow but pointed flutter kick closer to the other side of the pool, I’ve also decided that I will start using proper words to express empathy instead of posting a meme or giving you the number for dial-a-bottle. I'm not going to judge you when you drink nor pressure or question you if you don't drink. And when I show up at your next party, instead of bringing wine you will probably get a bouquet of freshly chopped rhubarb or a pot roast for the freezer or maybe a nice wheel of brie.

I invite you to do the same.

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