My history with alcohol has been fairly tame. In my teen years, I partied with friends, but eventually my drinking tapered off as I got older and focused more on physical and spiritual health.
Over the years, my attitude toward drinking ranged from indifference to suspicion as I noticed how others used or misused alcohol. My own use as an adult went through long periods of complete abstinence. My late husband, John, and I weren’t regular or heavy drinkers. But we did have the occasional bottle of wine, and he liked his microbrews.
Prior to my husband’s death in 2017, we had steadily increased our alcohol consumption as a result of influence from friends who were wine connoisseurs. We even joined a local wine club the month before John died. We’d spent our last wedding anniversary at a winery and on a whim we joined their club. We had planned to make it a monthly date day out when we’d go pick up our two bottles. That never happened.
I thought I’d cancel my membership after he died since I didn’t need to spend the money on two bottles of pricey wine each month, but as with many things, I balked at doing so (the psychological impact of a partner’s death brings many surprises). Initially, I kept the membership as a memorial to something we had done together before John died. But that meant I now would have a regular supply of wine whereas before I didn’t buy wine for daily use.
Along with my two bottles a month, I could partake in a free wine tasting every day of the year, and I could include a friend. The winery was a short 50-minute drive that included scenic rolling hills of other vineyards. My first drive was alone, and I used that time to contemplate what would’ve been. When I got to the winery to pick up my wine, I sat on the same bench where John and I had taken a selfie weeks before and just wept. I couldn’t let go of the connection to that winery.
Instead, I drank more wine. At first, I’d give a bottle away to someone I knew couldn’t afford expensive wine as I knew they’d appreciate it. But soon I found that I could polish off two bottles a month. Eventually, I let go of the wine club and switched to buying less expensive brands at Trader Joe’s or Sprouts. My wine intake stayed steady at about two bottles a month. The amount I drank wasn’t the issue—my motive for drinking was.
One night when I had had enough of being sad, crying my eyes out, and just feeling grief-weary, I downed a glass. I immediately poured myself another glass and proceeded to drink that. In that moment, I knew I was misusing alcohol. Before I finished the second glass, I started feeling the effects of the first one. In a split second, I knew I was on the verge of choosing something dangerous.
I looked at my young adult daughter and asked her to take away my glass and (gasp) dump the rest of the bottle down the drain. To my surprise, I didn’t have the strength to do that on my own and I didn’t have the willpower to stop.
My vulnerability in that moment scared me. I’m a lightweight by nature so the two glasses I had downed hit me hard. As I waited for the effects to wear off, I realized I was in trouble. I quit drinking right then. I needed to institute a period of abstinence to get clarity. What surprised me was how easy it was for me to misuse alcohol. I didn’t have an “issue” with drinking, but it suddenly became an issue when I drank with impure motives.
I eventually reintroduced alcohol back into my dining experience but with an increased awareness of how and when my grieving may influence my drinking. I periodically hit the pause button on alcohol consumption if I sense I’ve had a lot of grief triggers and the temptation to imbibe too much is high.
This experience taught me how important it is to be brutally honest with myself in my grieving. Grieving is hard work. It takes energy and effort, and often wipes you out. To ensure I use healthy coping methods, I have tried to be more mindful of how the energy drain of grief affects my normal capacities. Alcohol is an easy trip to numbing land but doesn’t aid my grief progress.
These days, I stay attuned to what’s triggering a sad moment, adjust my expectations of myself, and express my grief as needed. No hiding. No numbing. Just being real and raw with the ebb and flow of my grieving when it comes.
Christine Lister LMFT, #50744 is a licensed therapist in private practice in Southern California, offering in-person and telehealth sessions. She specializes in anxiety, grief (especially loss of spouse), parenting, and young adult transitions from a faith-based perspective as desired. To find out more about Christine, visit her website: ListerCounseling.com