Q&A: How I Moderated My Drinking

We know excessive drinking can be a problem, but what about those of us who look forward to a soothing glass of wine at the end of the day?

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It’s the day after New Year’s, which means you’re probably still recovering from ringing in 2012 and vowing to have a more moderate relationship with alcohol. Last year, Vogue magazine writer Rebecca Johnson wrote a compelling feature about her decision to try to do just that. A mother of two young children, she detailed her journey to curb her drinking and challenge her love for “wine’s long, slow slide to pleasantly buzzed.” She explained, “I like how it muffles the critical voice in my head, the one that rears its head at the cocktail hour, when all the petty irritations and insults of the day have come to rest like the sooty sediment in an ancient bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon.”

Unlike hardcore alcoholics, however, her story wasn’t one of lost weekends, disastrous affairs, car crashes or family conflict. She wrote:

I knew I had to cut down for much more prosaic reasons — I couldn’t sleep, I got tired of feeling vaguely lousy the next day, and, most important, I had the nagging sense that alcohol, once a boon companion I could take or leave, had settled in for a longtime stay.

Using the website Moderate Drinking, which has been shown in several studies to help drinkers like her, Johnson began to address the problem. TIME Healthland caught up with her for insight on moderation for those whose resolutions involve reducing alcohol consumption.

What made you want to reconsider your drinking?
I felt like I started to drink a little more when I had kids and was home every night. You can’t go to the movies, your world becomes constricted, plus you’re tired and don’t want to read. It all came together in a perfect storm of drinking more.

I was staying home more often and finding that there was a kind of passivity that was feeding into “I’ll have another” while watching TV. I didn’t use to have that life, but as a parent I did.

The brakes [used to] kick in automatically, and then they didn’t. The brake pads got worn down, and I had to stop and think. I like to research things, and I found that nothing was pitched to me, and that’s when I went and found Reid Hester [a leading alcohol researcher who runs Moderate Drinking].

(MORE: Still Hungover? How to Tell if Your Drinking Is Really a Problem)

What was most helpful about the site?
One of the things I found kind of fascinating is how they sought to quantify your drinking, and I thought that was really useful. The privacy of the website is [also] a great thing.

It asked me some questions I’d never asked myself before, like, Why do you drink? Because it feels good. But why?

If I’d been face to face, I wouldn’t have responded. That helped me a lot actually, because it forced me to say, “I’m using it to relax,” but then there’s a cost. If a person delivers that message, it’s easy to focus on that person being annoying. If it’s just on the computer, it’s harder to find fault.

Had you considered abstinence-based treatment?
I did see someone at Hazelden, and I thought it was creepy. I really felt like they were pushing me into the either-or model. This guy said he thought I should go away for four weeks to rehab. I felt that was absurd.

There are days that I don’t drink at all, and it’s no big deal. It was one size fits all [there]. Really? You can’t listen to me and see that it’s not a huge problem but it is a problem? I felt like he just didn’t believe me. I could see in his eyes that he [was seeing me as] a liar. He asked me, “Can you hold your hand up?” — to see if it would shake — and I felt this was just wrong for me.

(MORE: Four Tips for Staying on the Wagon)

In the article, you wrote about defining moderation. For example, New Zealand and Ireland consider two drinks a day the limit for women, while the U.S. says it’s one.
Some people say more than one glass of wine a day [for women] is a problem. When you really look at the research, you can’t find a [clear line] where one is good for you and [two is bad]. Everyone is nervous, as if they can’t make up their minds based on hard research.

I know they tell you to abstain for 30 days when you start, to get out of the automatic, habitual aspect of drinking. What was that like?
My husband said I was an unbelievable bitch for the first week or so. [But I did think] that it was so helpful. I really did feel better. I connected with genuine happiness.

So why go back to it?
Alcohol is like a shortcut to happiness. If you have to wait for your brain to reset, you no longer have a reliable shortcut to happiness. If I can find that on my own, it’s great and a better happiness, but it’s not that reliable.

The problem is that there are these aftereffects. You feel bad the next day. People always ask, Why do writers drink so much?, and I think that one of reasons is that they like the hangover because it justifies sitting there and not doing anything physical.

It’s a difficult issue. It’s complex to be alive. Some small pleasures do lead to greater happiness, and that’s what a glass of wine is, it’s a small pleasure. Life is hard, and it’s really nice to have a glass or two.

How has your drinking changed?
I never finish a whole bottle of wine. I haven’t done that since I wrote the article.

I cut out hard liquor altogether. I do drink a lot less, and I see that it’s possible not to drink. That was very helpful. That alone will give you a lot of insight about who you are and how you drink.

(MORE: A Drink or Two a Day May Lower the Risk of Alzheimer’s)

You also used a home device to test your blood-alcohol level and help you stick to your limits.
It’s called Alco Hawk. I thought it was really great. I still break it out occasionally when I want to drink more. If [my BAC] is 0.08 [the legal level of intoxication], I’m not going to drink any more. That corresponds with two to three glasses of wine, and that’s a perfect area where I want to stop.

Alcohol takes away the higher thinking that keeps you from acting impulsively. If you have an objective third-party technology telling you that you are actually kind of drunk, that’s good.

How do you handle the issue of alcohol around your children?
My kids are 7 and 8. I don’t think you should drink around your children. I don’t want them to see me drinking. It does impair your judgment. There is a part of me that thinks it would probably be better if I didn’t drink at all. I know I do like it, and I do have to be vigilant. I think the moderation movement can give you tools to watch it.

Do you ever slip up?
Every now and then I’ll have a sort of binge where I decide I’m just going to do it, about once a year, and that’s the only time I ever have hard alcohol.

What would you say to those with similar drinking patterns?
There are other people I love who do think they drink too much. I tried to talk to them about it, but they really didn’t want to go there. I think they could really benefit from doing what I did, taking a long, hard look, taking off for a month.

Why don’t we want to admit we drink a little too much? If only to make it safe for those people to say, Yeah, I drink too much, but I’m going to keep drinking.

What was the response to the article?
Reid apparently had a huge uptick [in traffic to the site]. I got some really condescending reader e-mail, saying, Oh, just because you have a house in the country and are financially not suffering, it doesn’t mean you’re not an alcoholic. It was heartbreaking to read. Some people were angry because I was talking about drinking just two glasses of wine a day, so I got it from both ends. They said that drinking two glasses is nothing and it’s ridiculous to call it a problem.

Maia Szalavitz is a health writer for TIME.com. Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.

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