With so much of American culture centered around alcohol consumption, it’s not always easy to tell the difference between low-risk drinking and the signs of a more serious problem. The concept of gray area drinking, popularized by Jolene Park in a 2017 TED talk, may help you determine if your alcohol consumption deserves a closer look.
Defining Gray Area Drinking
The CDC defines moderate drinking as two drinks or less per day for men or one drink or less per day for women. Binge drinking is defined as consuming five or more drinks on an occasion for men or four or more drinks on an occasion for women—which is approximately the amount of alcohol required to bring an average-sized person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08%.
An alcohol use disorder (AUD), which is sometimes referred to as an alcohol addiction, means that a person exhibits a long-term pattern of difficulty controlling their alcohol use. AUD is diagnosed based on criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and not on the number of drinks a person consumes in any given time period.
Gray area drinking refers to drinking in a way that is unhealthy but doesn’t quite fit the criteria for an alcohol use disorder. Some signs that suggest a person might be a gray area drinker include:
- Finding it difficult to picture socializing without alcohol
- Regretting the amount or frequency of alcohol consumed
- Often drinking more than they first intended
- Struggling with chronic hangxiety
- Using alcohol to shift their moods
- Finding it difficult to stop drinking for an extended period of time
- Trying to compensate for the negative health effects of their drinking via exercise or diet
- Worrying that drinking is keeping them from living the life they deserve
Recent studies have found that gray area drinking is quite common, with nearly one in four American adults saying they fall into this category.
How Pop Culture Complicates the Issue
Often, gray area drinkers have a sense that alcohol is not having a positive effect on their physical or mental health. However, they may feel as though they can’t share their concerns with friends or family because others wouldn’t see their habits as the sort of “problematic” drinking that warrants medical treatment.
Much of this is due to pop culture portrayals that rely heavily on the belief that you can’t be having fun unless you’re drinking. When people are constantly bombarded by images of happy drinkers in TV, movies, and music, they start to view alcohol consumption as a natural and normal part of being an adult. For example, we’ve created an entire “wine mom” culture that celebrates excessive drinking as a way to cope with the stress of parenthood. Moms buy oversized wine glasses that say “Mommy’s Sippy Cup ” and refer to their wine as “Mommy Juice” without thinking about the risks associated with this high level of alcohol consumption.
When the media does explore the effects of alcohol addiction, the portrayal often relies on stereotypes of what addiction looks like. For example, the recent HBO hit And Just Like That… picked up with the main Sex and the City stars as they were navigating the challenges of life in their 50s. The ladies were all gray area drinkers in the original show, but Miranda is now bringing a purse full of wine into a child’s piano recital, sneaking nips in her backpack while completing her grad school coursework, and becoming visibly perturbed when she can’t order alcohol before noon. Yet, Carrie brushed off this behavior and sidestepped Charlotte’s concerns until Miranda had her own personal “rock bottom” moment.
Do Gray Area Drinkers Need Treatment?
Gray area drinking is not a medical term, and many people who fall into this category can quit drinking without outside assistance. However, experts recognize that alcohol use disorders exist on a spectrum. A person doesn’t need to have hit a “rock bottom” crisis moment to be in need of help changing their relationship with alcohol. In fact, many people with an AUD are considered functional alcoholics because they are able to maintain jobs and relationships despite the toll their drinking is taking on their physical and mental well-being.
It is important to understand that alcohol use disorders are chronic and progressive illnesses. They often develop gradually over time without a single identifiable “trigger” moment. Co-occurring mental health conditions like depression and anxiety can also play a role in tipping gray area drinkers towards a diagnosable alcohol use disorder.
If You Need Help, We are Here
If you have concerns about your relationship with alcohol, trust your gut. Speaking to your healthcare provider can help you determine the best way to move forward. If addiction treatment is recommended, the residential substance abuse treatment program at Waypoint Recovery Center can help. Located in Cameron, South Carolina, we help clients begin their recovery journey with holistic and strength-based treatment that is personalized to fit their unique needs. If you’d like to learn more, our admissions representatives are standing by to help you take the first steps towards a brighter future.