Alcohol Awareness Month: An Addiction Therapist’s Honest Take on Gray-Area Drinking
Updated: May 17
For most of us, the word “alcoholic” makes a specific image come to mind: maybe a middle-aged or older person, usually male, whose drinking has taken over their life. They might be out of work because of alcohol, and maybe their wife has left them. They might even be having trouble with basic life skills like bathing or having clean clothes to wear.
Right? That’s the stereotype, anyway.
What we don’t talk about enough is that problem drinking can look many different ways. And even people who don’t meet the qualifications for a diagnosis of alcohol use disorder (what may also be referred to as “alcoholism”) can still use alcohol in ways that are harmful to their health, their relationships, and their overall well-being.
More and more women are falling into what we call “gray area drinking.” Having a couple of glasses of wine at night to take the edge off the day. Meeting friends at Happy Hour after work and knocking back some drinks. Does that describe you or anyone you know?
I’m an addiction therapist who works specifically with women. A lot of my clients ask me questions like, “Am I an alcoholic?” or, “Am I drinking too much?”. (Don’t get me wrong -I DO work with some men, too - but the trend I’ve seen is that more and more women are drinking excessively.)
The truth might fall into a gray area – what’s “too much” for one person may not be too much for another. As your therapist, what I can do is help you uncover your own reasons for drinking and whether or not your drinking habits are healthy for you.
So let’s get into it. Here’s my honest take on gray-area drinking, why it’s so hard to identify, and what you can do to get some support if you need it.
What is a “gray area drinker,” anyway?
“Gray area drinker” isn’t a clinical diagnosis, nor is it an official term. In general, though, when we talk about gray area drinking, we’re referring to that tricky area in between alcohol use disorder (alcohol dependence, or what you might call an “alcoholic”) and an occasional drinker.
In some research, “gray area drinking” is identified as anyone who drinks over the official guidelines for moderate drinking but not so much to meet the criteria to be diagnosed with alcohol dependence.
The CDC recommends that women stick to one drink a day, and men to two a day. So if you’re a woman who drinks more than one drink a day, then you might technically be considered a “gray area drinker.” And remember, “one drink” is only 5 ounces of wine – not necessarily those generous pours that we treat ourselves to now and again.
Another interesting thing is that, according to the CDC, 90% of people who drink excessively do not meet the diagnostic criteria for alcohol use disorder. Which means gray area drinking is a lot more common than we realize and, from a treatment perspective, is often an overlooked population.
Gray area drinking among women is on the rise
Alcohol use among women has been steadily increasing, especially since the pandemic.
We’re now head-to-head with men in both overall alcohol consumption as well as rates of alcohol use disorder. In some studies, young women have reported even higher rates of drinking than their male peers. One JAMA study found that increases (over 12 months) in overall alcohol use, high-risk drinking, and alcohol use disorder were especially notable for women.
And we’ve seen this shift happen right before our eyes. The fact that many of us women drink to cope has become so normalized that it’s almost part of mainstream culture.
We’ve all seen the memes and the TikToks.
“It’s wine o’clock somewhere.”
“I cook with wine. Sometimes I add it to the food.”
“This is my mommy juice.”
This all seems funny and harmless on the surface, but it reflects a darker truth – women are more likely to drink to cope, rather than drinking for enjoyment. And when anyone drinks to cope, it can become a problem.
Am I saying that all “wine moms” are gray area drinkers or even have a problem with alcohol? Absolutely not. I completely get it – we, as women, are forced to deal with a lot. We’re expected to be perfect, to do it all, and to look good while doing it. It’s understandable to be under stress. It’s understandable to want to take the edge off. That’s all totally valid.
At the same time, it’s also important to recognize that the normalization and even glamorization of drinking and “wine mom culture” can make it hard to realize when alcohol might be becoming a problem in your life.
Signs of gray area drinking
Again – gray area drinking isn’t an official diagnosis, so there are no clear guidelines on what, exactly, makes a gray area drinker. Some reports measure this by the quantity of alcohol consumed. But in my experience, it’s not so much the quantity as it is why you’re drinking.
Here are some signs, based on what I’ve seen as an addiction therapist, that you may be a gray area drinker.
Your first instinct is to pour yourself a drink when you’re feeling overwhelmed or stressed.
It would put you in a significantly bad mood to not be able to drink for any period of time.
Drinking has negatively affected your performance at your job – for example, maybe you’ve had to call out sick because of a hangover.
Drinking has had negative impacts on your relationships, or the people around you have mentioned that they’re worried about your drinking.
You tend to drink alone, when you’re not in social situations.
You have lied about or hid your drinking from other people.
You think about alcohol, and it causes you anxiety or stress; for example, you would be distressed if you learned that you were out of wine at home.
You drink more and more because you’ve built up a tolerance.
You feel anxious when you’re hungover or sober.
You worry about whether or not your drinking has become a problem.
You’ve felt embarrassed of yourself because of something you did while drunk.
You Google things like, “How much alcohol is too much?”
You’ve watched Instagram reels or Tik Toks about women who aren’t drinking anymore because you're curious about how that works
You’ve thought about talking to a professional about your drinking, but you’re afraid to be labeled as an “alcoholic”
Next steps and when to seek support for gray area drinking
If you think you may fall into this gray area of drinking, the most important thing is to know that you’re not alone. There are so many people, especially now, who are dealing with this. Everything you’re feeling is valid.
Another important thing to remember is that you are not a bad mother, friend, daughter, employee, (and on and on) because of your drinking. You are MORE than just your drinking. All it takes is some support to get through this. Relationships that may have been affected by alcohol use can be mended.
Your first step is to recognize that alcohol may have become a problem for you. This, in itself, can be a challenge. After all, you’re not that middle-aged alcoholic person we mentioned earlier, right? Like I’ve said, gray area drinking has become so normalized, especially among women. It’s hard work to detangle everything you know about yourself and your drinking habits from the societal messages you may have heard or see everyday.
Next, seek support to make a change. You don’t need to have a severe alcohol dependence to benefit from addiction therapy.
As a therapist, I help women uncover the reasons that underlie their drinking habits. Together, we can explore your relationship with alcohol, uncover underlying reasons behind your drinking, figure out what (if anything) needs to change, and take steps to get you there.
Please, don’t hesitate to contact me to schedule a free consultation. The first step toward a happier life is often the hardest one to make.