It’s Five O’Clock SOMEWHERE….But Not Everyone is Drinking

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Almost 5 O’clock in Cinque Terre, Italy


Do Ground Round restaurants still exist? I remember back in the 70’s The Ground Round was my favorite place for happy hour. They served free popcorn and good cheap wine (well, back then what I considered good, what did I know?). I was so excited when a Friday rolled around and I could meet my friends or my sister there for a nice glass of Beringer’s white Zinfandel. Yes, the pink stuff. I loved it. It wasn’t every Friday, mostly when I came home from college (the drinking age was 18 back then, and you could smoke cigarettes in restaurants). Life was good. Simple and good. But different.

For example, when it came to drinking and alcohol there was no such thing as “binge drinking”. I only knew one girl who could drink more than 2 or 3 beers. She was in my dorm back then, a small tiny girl who could pack away 8 beers. Eventually it would affect her and she would be embarrassingly drunk, but it took awhile for that to happen. We all thought she was funny, crazy in a good way, wild and different, and although we didn’t know what to make of her, I remember being fascinated that she could drink all that and still walk. Back then it was kind of cool.

These days, things have changed. Binge drinking has become more of the norm on college campuses. If someone drinks 8 beers in a short amount of time at a party, I am not sure if anyone would even blink. They are all usually doing the same thing. Despite the fact that the drinking age has changed and smoking cigarettes is no longer cool, drinking alcohol somehow has permeated most people’s lives in a very sneaky way. It is not like in Europe where wine may be a part of most meals because that is what they do and have always done as part of their culture. Here in the US it feels more like a gradual brain-washing over time, probably by the alcohol industry to make drinking intertwined with almost all aspects of life that are fun. Add to that the fact that alcohol is an addictive substance that gradually changes the brain to make you crave and need it, then, bingo, you can make yourself some good money if you are in the business.

And, it is not only young, college-aged people who get sucked in. Young mothers are another target particularly for the wine industry. Who hasn’t heard of “wine-o-clock” or “mommy’s juice”? I totally could identify with this crowd. Having young kids is stressful and crazy at times, and a big glass of chardonnay certainly feels good at the end of the day when that last kid is tucked in bed. A reward. Is this how it starts? And then there are the funny wine-themed cards, the wine-themed dish towels, coasters, napkins, pillows……I have bought them and I own them because I buy them and people buy them for me because they know I love wine!  Anyway, personally, being Italian, wine might be a part of my culture, but I really didn’t see it that much growing up. My mom never drank and my dad might have an occasional tiny glass of red chianti with a Sunday pasta dinner (you know, that kind that comes in the straw-wrapped bottle?). Eventually, he would get the gallon size bottle of some cheap wine I can’t remember the name of, and it would last for weeks in the fridge.

When I traveled to Italy, however, I got a taste of how they drink wine over there. It is served in a glass pitcher at lunches and dinners. It is almost always homemade, pretty inexpensive and delicious, always served with lots of good food. They don’t drink it to get a buzz. It goes with food. In fact, if you just pop into any random restaurant or bar for just a glass of wine, they bring you food. Peanuts, a platter of cheese and bread, chips. They don’t just drink, you need to eat when you drink wine.

Here, in the US, wine plays a much different role. We women like to meet each other for wine happy hours. We love doing wine taste-tastings, especially at all of the wineries that have opened. They are absolutely wonderful, with their beautiful tasting rooms, gardens and views, gorgeous spaces to sit and eat food and drink. It all adds to an amazing experience that makes you feel very spoiled and special….especially after you buy a bottle of their very expensive wine, and then buy more after getting a little tipsy with that first bottle (why not? you deserve it!). And so it goes…. But women aren’t the only ones with money, I mean, not the only ones who deserve to treat themselves. Enter breweries. Don’t get me wrong, even though I am not a beer drinker, I just love the coziness of those places, I love the fact that you can taste-test something before buying it. I know lots of women who love their beer (and don’t like wine) and a brewery might be a fun place for them. But mostly, when I think of beer, I think of men (and sports). Budweiser and Super Bowl. It just goes together. Did you ever watch a football game and NOT drink?

Where am I going with this? I just wanted to share a personal story of a journey I started after seeing an ad about wine. At first, I impulsively clicked on it because I thought it was going to be something funny. You know, a “wine-o-clock somewhere” story. But it wasn’t, I was tricked, or so I thought. But I got sucked into reading the article anyway.  It was not what I thought, it was about how “wine-o-clock” has gotten a hold of mostly women and how it gradually can take over and become a not-so-healthy habit at the very least and at worse, a true addiction. I totally connected with every word. Yes, yes, yes, when 5 o’clock rolls around and it is time to cook dinner, if there is an open bottle of wine, I am having a glass. If it is a Tuesay and I walk by the neighbors building I also will go tell my husband and join them (since moving to Florida and with Covid, everyone tends to sit outside at happy hour to drink before dinner, safely socially-distanced but still within earshot). Then there is “real” happy hour on a Friday and Saturday (hey, it’s the weekend, right?) and then of course my personal favorite, “Sunday Cookin” which of course means wine for me, wine in the sauce, wine for me….and wine for me. Yes, I totally related to the article and gave my email for more information. I was curious.

Well, I kept getting these emails daily, most of which I would skim through and delete. There were bits and pieces of some truly interesting things that eventually got me hooked. I am a sucker for anything related to brain chemistry and brain function, to understanding biological reasons we humans do what we do, eat what we eat, drink what we drink. I always have been adamant that willpower is a stupid word because there is no person in the world who can fight biology (if you drink a gallon of water, can you use your willpower to avoid peeing for two days?). The same holds true for people who starve themselves then try to resist eating too much. It is not about willpower. Well, apparently, if you ever have decided you really shouldn’t drink so much (maybe you noticed you have gained weight or you just are sick of poor sleep or headaches in the morning) you will find it isn’t so easy. And it is not because you don’t have enough willpower. According to these emails, alcohol really changes your brain. I couldn’t resist. I finally clicked on that button “start your 21 day reset May 1st!”.

Right away, I was regretting it. I paid 96 dollars to try not to have wine for 21 days? Even my husband asked “if you want to not drink for 21 days to see how you feel, why don’t you just do it?” Because I couldn’t. I just couldn’t make up my mind to do it, and because I was just too darn curious as to what this was about. I knew I had fallen into a habit that I wanted to change (but not enough). I didn’t ever get drunk or drink an excessive amount, but at my age, even 2 glasses of wine can make you feel less than your best (especially if your wine glasses might be kind of large), especially if you are retired and want to do water aerobics every morning at 9 am and ride your bike in 90 degree weather for 20 miles… makes life harder when you are as old as me.

So I started the 21 day “reset” the day I signed up, a few days before the scheduled May 1st start day because, why not? Part of the program was joining a Marco Polo group (we had about 20 women in our group which eventually increased to 33 and ended up with about 14 of us regularly checking in). If you are not familiar with the Marco Polo app, it is basically a way to share a video of yourself talking or whatever, as long or short as you want with whoever you add to your group. I love the app and use it with my kids. Anyway, we all kind of introduced ourselves and shared why we were doing this. These women were from all over the country, from Colorado, Texas, Maryland, Wisconsin, California, Michigan. They were all ages, retired, single, with young children, with older children, with grandchildren. They were from all walks of life, doctors, teachers, nurses, physical therapists, homemakers, etc. They all had different reasons for wanting to take a 21 day break from drinking (mostly wine drinkers, all women). Some drank like me, just wine, not to get drunk but gradually, it had seeped into life mindlessly becoming a habit. Others found themselves escalating into using alcohol to numb something, often staying up very late to finish a bottle or two of wine. We all listened to each other’s stories without judgement. We all read the books and emails and learned about how alcohol gradually affects the brain and takes away our brains natural ability to feel happy and good. How alcohol over time creates a need for more alcohol to get the brain to feel good again. Eventually, our brains can’t do it on their own, and so, the craving begins. Not only that, but we eventually get conditioned by people, places and things. Just like with food, if we drink in the same place doing the same thing over and over again, repetitively for days on end, eventually, we don’t even think about it anymore. Think about the person who turns on the TV every day after a long day at work, feeling tired and stressed, grabs the bag of chips and sits on the couch and munches until the bag is gone. Eventually, just sitting on that couch triggers the need for chips. The same thing happens with drinking. If you pour yourself a glass of wine after work every day while you relax in front of the television, or while cooking, eventually, it just won’t feel right if you try to cook without that drink.

We also learned about drinking and our culture. Why is it wierd to order water or iced tea instead of a drink at a restaurant? Why do people wonder why you are not drinking? When did it become un-cool to just not want a drink? Why do people think you “must have a problem” just because you don’t want to drink? Let’s face it, drinking is the norm, not drinking is wierd to most of us who socialize mostly with drinkers. I never really thought about it until now.

Anyway, these were the kinds of things I already kind of knew but did not really think about. I did not realize the habitual grip drinking wine had on me until I stopped it. At first I truly felt what they call the “wine witch” at 5 pm. A somewhat strong urge to pour that glass of wine, even when there is no reason other than habit to have it. We learned that having something else to substitute is helpful, as is just paying attention to how you feel. I discovered Kombucha gingerade which is a fermented tea that is just yummy. Also, an alcohol-free wine (Ariel) that is ok, good to sip while cooking without getting the effect of feeling tipsy. Anyway, after a week or so I discovered that I started to absolutely love the feeling in the morning I had. I just felt different, better than before. I didn’t realize that even a little wine can stay in your system for hours, 12-24 or more, depending on how much you drink. I was loving this feeling and it helped motivate me to make it through those 21 days. When I finally was done, I was kind of excited about learning that once I got out of that automatic habit, once I became more aware that I NEEDED to be more aware, I felt freed. My brain has started to rewire itself, thank goodness, and now it is much easier to catch myself. Yes, I had wine after that 21 days, and it did not taste as good as I remembered. I also paid attention to how I felt when I had that first glass again. I paid attention to how I felt in the morning. And I decided I wanted to continue this so-called “journey” into “re-negotiating my relationship” with alcohol (wine). When was it good to have it, and when was it stupid to have it? I have decided that drinking wine, even a little, almost every day is not good for my body and detracts from feeling my best. I have also decided I will keep wine in my life because I truly enjoy it when I am mindful and when it is a conscious decision to have it, not just me being a robot because I have been mindlessly conditioned. I will enjoy happy hour with my friends which doesn’t happen often these days. I might have good red chianti when I get inspired to cook some amazing Italian food. But I am truly thankful for taking the time to take on this challenge. I believe it will make me healthier and happier in the long run. I believe it is consistent with my repetitive message of “listen to your body” that I am always preaching. I tuned my body out, but it was not my fault. You really gotta be careful with alcohol, it really can be sneaky. I didn’t realize how bad I felt until I felt so good again.

If you want to learn more, here is a useful link: Sober Sis 21 Day Challenge

I just hope one day that we will stop judging people who struggle with giving up alcohol, even when they need to because of their health. It really is not their “fault”….they have been sucked in, their brain has been hijacked, and it takes a lot to learn how to change and get it back to normal. Having a non-judgemental and understanding support system really helps. Being non-judgemental of yourself really helps, too.

Finally, I hope that we will all someday realize the one person at the table who is NOT drinking with the crowd is probably the coolest of all.

Please Note: talk to your physician before making any changes to your drinking habits, especially if you are a heavy drinker as suddenly stopping alcohol can have severe health risks, including death.

Self-Sabotage or YOLO:Intrepreting That Voice in Your Head

Spending too No automatic alt text available.much time in Italy can really ruin you. After a wonderful 3 week trip over a year or so ago, to celebrate our friend’s 25th anniversary it was not easy to transition home to New England. There were no platters of beautiful homemade pastries and espresso to wake up to every morning. No liter jugs of amazing red wine sitting on the table at lunch time. No longer did we have 2 hours to linger over dinner. Back to rush rush rush. With the exception of one little habit I seemed to have fallen into. Wine.

As most people know we Italians love our wine, especially red wine. As a dietitian I have rationalized how good it is for me (and probably the reason my HDL level, the “good” cholesterol, is out of sight). The problem was, during that vacation we drank wine pretty much daily. We did not drink excessively, just often. When a liter pitcher of wine is 4 dollars, why not have it with your pizza while sitting outside under an umbrella in the sunshine on a cliffside in Cinque Terre, or while watching the children chase the pigeons at an outdoor cafe on the island of Murano? After all, You Only Live Once.

When I got home, a meal no longer felt complete without a glass of good wine. Oh, and of course I needed to find one of those glass pitchers that were all over Italy (and no where to be found in stores in CT). I finally found one on-line and was all set. Unfortunately, the reality that I was no longer in Italy and had to go to work took a while to sink in. I found myself sleeping poorly. People think alcohol makes you relaxed and sleep better, but it actually interferes with sleep. And for me, someone who needs to remember to drink water, I found myself getting somewhat dehydrated on a daily basis. Not good.

Since then, I have obviously had to readjust to real life. As I was working on easing back into a healthier lifestyle, I noticed some very interesting things going on in my head. You know, that voice we all have in our minds, often referred to as “self-talk”. I have written about self-talk before, and how important it is to be aware of what you are saying to yourself, as thoughts affect mood and moods then affect behavior. When there is a constant negative dialogue going on, eventually negative, or non-supportive, and often unhealthy behavior results. So, as I have been reflecting on this wine “habit” I have come to the conclusion that it is very difficult to distinguish between when this voice is giving appropriate advice, or when it is basically trying to undo all efforts and progress to a healthier lifestyle. I am passionate about savoring life and all it has to offer. I absolutely LOVE the expression You Only Live Once (YOLO). I don’t believe in rigid anything. Rigid diets, rigid exercise plans, rigid house cleaning, rigid schedules. When life gives you the opportunity to experience something awesome, I say go with it. For example, I was planning on getting some work done last Saturday, but then found out there was a Women’s March in my state that I had the opportunity to join. The work could wait. Sometimes, if I come home from work after a long day and tell myself I need to rest, and my husband had a hard day at work and wants to go our for dinner, I quickly change my mind about that rest. I love rolling with it all. You know, YOLO.

But sometimes, I may come home from an especially chaotic day at work, feel emotionally drained, and cracking open a bottle of wine makes lots of sense. The dialogue in my brain may go something like this: “You deserve it. You only live once!” When this same dialogue happens more than once in awhile, well, an unhealthy habit is formed. That YOLO language sounds more like sabotage.  One definition of sabotage: “any undermining of a cause”. I came to the conclusion it is not always obvious or easy to keep a healthy balance in life when it comes to living that happy-but-healthy-ish lifestyle we all want. How do we find that balance, and know for sure that we need to go for it (YOLO), or that we need to make a different choice because in reality we are sabotaging our efforts, or “undermining our cause”of wanting to be somewhat healthy?

After much reflection, here is my advice to those who can relate to this, and also struggle with the balance between enjoying all life has to offer, yet maintaining healthy balance in life. Remember, this is my experience only. Yours may be different.

  1. Ask yourself: do I have a “cause”? By this I mean a health goal. Is there something your doctor may have identified (high blood pressure, a need to decrease salt), or maybe a health goal you have for yourself (increase physical activity, decrease alcohol, etc). If something jumps to mind right away, then you know what it is. You must also ask yourself it this cause or goal is healthy and realistic. For example, if it is an extreme weight loss goal or anything to do with perfectionism, then it may not be a healthy cause. A true cause typically is more about clear-cut and damaging behaviors you may have fallen into and really do want to change (plopping on the couch, grabbing a drink, etc).
  2. If you have identified a specific behavior you want to change, and it is a realistic goal (litmus test: do most people agree this is a healthy goal?) take the time to identify your triggers. For example, for me, having an open bottle of my favorite wine in the fridge is not too wise, and may be referred to as a “sabotaging environment”. For the person who really needs to increase physical activity for health reasons, putting on your jammies the minute you walk in the door is also self-sabotage.
  3. Once you identify your triggers, modify your environment towards being more supportive. Make it doable. For the person who wants to increase activity, put on sneakers instead of slippers. Start small.
  4. Pay attention to your dialogue without judgement. Notice how hard it is to ignore. Even if you give in (I am putting on my PJs, I deserve it! YOLO!) don’t judge yourself. Instead, reflect on the reality (how many days are you actually putting on those PJ”s, and are you expecting too much to stop this behavior every single day? Can you modify your goal to make it doable?) If you change your dialogue to one of acceptance and learning (“wow, that was harder than I thought. Let me readjust this. On Tuesday and Thursdays I am putting on sneakers). In my world, Friday happy hour is totally good with me. And if a friend I have not seen in awhile invites me to happy hour during the week, I am going. This is not about being perfect. It is about gradually changing bad habits.
  5. Substitute a new behavior for the old one you want to change. Omitting something from your life leaves a huge void. You need to fill it up with something equally enjoyable but more supportive of your goals for health. For me, having a constant cup of hot herbal tea is symbolic of relaxation and serves a similar purpose as that wine. I feel like I deserve it and it represents nurturing.
  6. Instead of jumping right into your old behavior when it feels like a YOLO moment, take 20 minutes to stop and think. Postpone it, take a long hot shower and relax and think about your goals for yourself. Then make a decision without judgement. Is this just an automatic impulse, or is it truly an opportunity that arose, or a true need (you really may be exhausted and need to go straight to that couch). Some days are like that and it’s all good.
  7. Remember, it is repetition that creates habits, both good and bad. Once you get a few weeks under your belt of a new healthy behavior, you do feel better, both physically and emotionally. After a month or so, some new habits will take hold. After this, when you feel a YOLO moment coming on, go for it! Once it is a mindful choice and not just an automatic conditioned habitual response, then it truly is ok to totally enjoy every moment of every day. But, you want it to be your choice, not mindless.
  8.  Give yourself time. Don’t give up! Remember, it is all a learning experience.

I will always want to enjoy as much of every day as I can. I light candles for ambiance, even if nobody is home. I have “happy clothes” which I put on the moment I walk in the door. I may take hours to cook a single meal on Sunday because I enjoy every minute. But, these things don’t interfere with my health. Lack of sleep and dehydration definitely do. If you have something that makes you feel less than optimal, don’t beat yourself up or expect change tomorrow. But do start paying attention to that dialogue in your head. THAT is where to start, the rest will eventually fall in place. And if not, seek help. Life is too short and remember….YOLO!