Experts in the Media

Sarah Rusbatch – & The Sydney Morning Herald

“Grey Area Drinking” Coach, Speaker and Co-Founder of Free Spirit Drink Co

Again you’re doing Dry July. Ask yourself the truth: why?

Dry July is fast approaching and for light drinkers, a month off is a great way to experience improved sleep, more energy, less anxiety, increased motivation, weight loss and mental clarity. It is a brilliant opportunity to experience what life without alcohol can feel like.

But for anyone teetering close to alcohol use disorder, a month off has a darker side. It can leave them believing they don’t have a problem and their habits don’t need to change. This was me for years. Every time I successfully took a break, I convinced myself I didn’t have a “problem” and returned immediately to my problematic relationship with alcohol.

We live with the belief that you only have a problem if you can’t take a break or you drink every day. That you are either a) an alcoholic or b) a social drinker. But it’s no longer this black and white.

Grey area drinking is the new terminology to describe dysfunctional drinking that isn’t necessarily a physical, every-day dependency. Using a scale of one to 10, where a one might be someone who rarely drinks, and a 10 is someone who drinks daily and needs medical assistance to stop, grey area drinking sits somewhere in the middle – five to eight. Grey area drinkers can and do take breaks, but their drinking remains problematic.

A modern-day dependent alcohol user is far from a stereotypical “alcoholic”: often middle aged, professional and middle class, people highly functioning on the outside, but slowly crumbling on the inside.

Many of my clients don’t identify as being an alcoholic and don’t drink every day. But alcohol plays a major and often debilitating role in their life. It can cause anxiety, low self-esteem, poor sleep, low mood or even depression, lack of energy and motivation, weight gain, hormone imbalance, an increased risk of cancer and heart disease, and in some cases impact relationships and work performance.

Many of my clients also use alcohol to numb emotions and avoid facing challenging situations, which means they never build the skills and emotional resilience to deal with adversity. Alcohol is a way out and that innocent glass of wine to take the edge off can and does quickly develop into a dependency.

The Cancer Council of WA just released a report, WA’s Hidden Crisis: Harm from Alcohol. It shows the impact alcohol-induced injury and illness is having on the state’s health system and finances. And it’s highly likely few of the people who end up on our operating tables with alcohol-induced cancers or injuries would class themselves alcoholic.

This outdated stereotype and the shame associated is what keeps many people stuck.

One of my clients was recently turned away from a rehabilitation facility because she wasn’t drinking enough. She was drinking a bottle of wine a night, which equates to 70 units a week (the recommended government guideline is 10 units a week). This wasn’t deemed serious enough for her to be offered medical assistance.

The other problem with using the term ‘alcoholic’ is that it places the onus on the person for not being able to control their alcohol use. We take the spotlight off alcohol and on the person for developing an addiction to what is a highly addictive substance and a Group 1 carcinogen.

A UK liver specialist recently stated that only a third of the patients they treat with alcohol related cirrhosis have a severe alcohol dependency. The remaining two-thirds are classified as heavy social drinkers.

It’s time we changed this narrative and the old-fashioned stigma that prevents people asking for help.

The end of Dry July is sometimes celebrated on August 1 with copious amounts of alcohol, which can damage a liver that is only just starting to repair.
While there are many benefits to a month off alcohol, it’s important to also use that month to reflect on our habits, behaviour patterns and mindset around alcohol. So that come August 1, there’s a positive change in our relationship with alcohol that we’re happy to make.