We need to talk about our daily drinking
This Milwaukee Press Club Award-winning story originally ran in 2018.
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We drink a lot here. Not everyone, of course, but many of us. Having only lived in Milwaukee, I didn't notice this for a long time; however, numerous friends and family members who moved to other states later confessed that they didn't realize how much we imbibe in the Badger State until they relocated. In fact, a friend once told me that, after moving to Portland, she learned there really was such a thing as "going out for a drink," which in Wisconsin is usually code for "going out for multiple drinks."
In case it isn't completely obvious: Drinking alcohol is deeply distilled – I mean instilled – into our culture. We have strong roots in the brewing industry. Minors can drink alcohol in a bar or restaurant in Wisconsin if they are accompanied by a parent or legal guardian who gives consent. And according to surveys conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we lead the nation in binge drinking and often top lists of alcohol-related rankings.
And yet there are so many hypocrisies within our drinking culture and, consequently, we live in a conflicting environment where imbibing beer or booze is condoned and condemned at the same time. We joke/don't joke that "it's always 5 o'clock somewhere" and yet liquor stores close at 9 p.m. We also hear and read mixed messages around booze and health: Drinking wine is good for your heart, yet it might also damage your heart and kill you. (Luckily, drinking and driving never carries a contradictory message. It's simply never OK. Not even in Wisconsin.)
Is it possible, though, to drink every day and remain healthy? According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, moderate alcohol consumption is defined as having up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men. Moderate alcohol consumption may provide some health benefits like reducing the risk of heart disease or diabetes. So yes and no.
The bottom line is that regular to heavy drinking happens much more than we talk about it, whether it's knocking back the daily nightcap to getting blackout blitzed on the regular. A local psychotherapist who wishes to remain anonymous – so we'll call her Jane – confirms this.
"Lots and lots of people drink every day, both in my field of work and outside the field," says Jane. "People just can't talk about drinking every day because deep down most people know it's not really about the ritual or the winding down or liking the taste. They feel that they need it."
She says it's common knowledge in her industry that patients often under-report how much they drink to their doctors and therapists.
"People are embarrassed and ashamed of it," says Jane. "And no one talks about it so it gets more and more secrecy around it, which leads to more and more shame."
So what if we took the shame out of everyday drinking – at least for a minute or two – to talk about how much we really drink (those of us who do, of course).
I'll go first.
I go in cycles of over-consuming alcohol. It's easy for me to blame my job, because I am an entertainment writer who reports almost daily on some aspect of the service industry. I also work in the service industry from time to time, which I could also use as an excuse, but I won't. I simply find myself drinking everyday for a while, then reflecting on that fact, freaking out a little and stopping for a spell.
But taking a break from drinking in Wisconsin isn't always easy or supported. Some people have found it's simply easier to drink in Wisconsin than not to drink. Quitting drinking sometimes makes other drinkers uncomfortable, and so they question why the person is taking a hiatus from booze and/or try to persuade them otherwise. According to Jane, the afore-quoted therapist, "If you quit drinking in Wisconsin, you are either pregnant, on a 'cleanse' or people assume you are a raging alcoholic and have to quit," she says.
Doug MacKenzie owns Soul Boxer Cocktail Co. and yet he is in complete support of anyone who chooses to cool it on the hootch for a while.
"No one should have to make excuses for not drinking," says MacKenzie. "It's OK to say, 'I don't feel like drinking.'"
So why do we drink so much, other than because it's just part of our culture?
It varies from person to person, of course, but weather, stress, our roots in the brewing industry and mental health might contribute. People also drink because alcohol makes us feel more connected to others and can enhance conversation. (Well, until it doesn't.) And excessive drinking around the holidays is common because it's the season of over-indulgence, but also because we sometimes have to "deal" with family who have uncomfortable expectations of us or very different views.
So what do we do about it? We can quit or curb our drinking, of course. This may require counseling or in-patent services. We can take time off drinking to assess the situation. Or we can simply continue drinking, which many of us will do whether or not we want to admit it.
"Regardless of our choice, supporting one another is most important," says Jane. "If a friend takes a break from drinking, support that. Don't ask them why they quit or try to get them to drink. If you're out with friends, try not having 'one last round.' Or if you decide to drink every day, be responsible about it. Don't drink and drive.
"Hold yourself accountable and don't ever use it as an excuse. Also, feeling shame around drinking is pointless. Own it or stop it."
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