This desire to feel “normal” with our relationship to alcohol is something I hear so often, so I know I’m not alone in this feeling.

I used this sentence in my last blog post (see below) and it triggered a heartfelt response from one of my best friends.

“Caitlin,” she said, “when I read that I felt like what you were saying is that I’m not normal, which implies that there’s something wrong with me.”

She was also quick to remind me of a webinar we had listened to where the host kept talking about “normal people,” distancing herself and other “problem-drinkers” from people who didn’t have a perceived problem with alcohol.

This is actually language I hear often from people in recovery-based programs. There are the “normies” and then there are those in recovery. I remember how odd it felt when I was introduced to someone through a dear friend and former heroin user who actually said, “Are you a normie or one of us?”

On the one hand, I understand this form of othering. When you are part of the minority, the 10-15% of the population who suffer strongly from addictions, it is a form of finding community and solace. “We might be weird/strange/different/addicts and have a set of experiences that no one who hasn’t been an addict can understand, but at least we’re in it together.”

I also can totally understand where my clients are coming from when they say, “I just want to drink like a normal person.”

When I hear “normal” I know what my clients really mean is not overthinking it, not debating internally over whether to have a third glass, not stuffing the fear that you might lose control, not using alcohol as a substitute for something else.

Normal means average, standard, keeping with the status quo.

It means how we perceive others when we are at a restaurant and see someone ordering one glass of wine, or splitting a bottle between two people but declining the third partial glass. It means how we view that new girl we meet at a party who totally knows she’s done after 3 drinks. It means watching some leave their cocktail half empty after last call and doesn’t rush to the bar for for “one more for the road.”

But is it really so clear cut? For those of us slightly outside of the “norm” described above… does that make us abnormal?

The reality is that many more of us fit into the spectrum between what is considered normal drinking and problematic drinking – the difference is that we don’t talk about it. It’s not socially acceptable to say that we might have a problem, precisely due to this fear of “othering.” The idea that if you have a problem with alcohol you must be an alcoholic, or you must choose sobriety as your only option, is often what prevents many people from getting support.

The black/white idea has been perpetuated by more traditional approaches to addictions… even so far as creating the concept of denial. You are either an alcoholic, or you’re not. You have a problem, or you don’t. But if you have a problem and aren’t able to admit you’re an alcoholic, then you must be in denial.

Unfortunately, this idea keeps a lot of people from seeking support, or looking for alternatives. As Dr Joseph Nowinski, a psychologist, researcher and author of “The Almost Effect” writes in his Psychology Today article The myth of the “fine line” separating normal from problem drinking:

“So when men or women whose drinking might place them fairly deep into this zone argue that they are not alcoholics, they may not be in “denial.” That’s not to say that these people are not experiencing behavioural  emotional, or physical problems related to their drinking; but the truth is that they are not yet dependent on alcohol, and abstinence may not necessarily be the only viable option open to them.”

Which is where my work comes in – supporting women to find options that are meaningful and relevant to their unique lives and experiences.

It is also where the challenge of “naming” what we experience or desire becomes a bit more difficult. I was describing this challenge to a new member of my team last night – saying that I feel like I have to use a lot of words to describe what I do.

This brings us back to the question of how to define our drinking in terms of the ideal, in terms of the changes we want to make.

My friend suggested “healthy” vs “unhealthy” drinking… which probably has a less stigmatizing effect than normal vs abnormal.

I often coach clients to talk about the changes they’d like to make in terms of their health… when you tell others you are changing your drinking because you want to be healthier – it is harder to argue, whereas speaking in terms of “problems” with alcohol can be quite triggering to others.

What do you think?

What about searching for other adjectives that represent how you want to feel about alcohol such as balanced, independent, collegial, fun, unattached, flirtatious, casual?

For me, the ideal is definitely casual. We see each other every once and awhile, but it’s no biggie. Alcohol’s not what I turn to when I’m sad, in need of support, feeling lonely or wanting to have a wild time.  I now know how to access these things without alcohol.

It is so important to get clear on what you want your relationship to alcohol to be. Without this clarity, it is almost impossible to work towards a goal. Imagine training to run a marathon, and expecting to finish without a map or a even knowing where to cross the finish line?

What is your ideal relationship to alcohol? What adjective would you use to describe this goal? Let me know in the comments!

Did this blog resonate with you? Can you imagine a larger conversation where it would become more comfortable to discuss these ideas without fear of judgement?

Please share this with someone you’d like to loop into the conversation, let’s start creating a groundswell 🙂

And make sure to open next week’s email which will be about the cult of busy, lost friendships and some interesting/hard revelations from my time in Canada (yep, I’ll be on the plane back to Mexico next week!)