Lifestyle & Parenting

How Much is Too Much? Expert Madeleine Shaw Weighs In On “Gray Area” Drinking

April 14, 2024

Are you familiar with the term “gray area” drinking? It refers to a situation where a person does not fit the traditional stereotype of a problem drinker, however knows that they are losing control. In such cases, it can be hard for the individual to identify as someone with a drinking problem, or to let those around them know that they need help. “There is so much shame around it,” says Madeleine Shaw, a Vancouver-based social entrepreneur, author, speaker and mentor, who herself was a gray drinker and is, today, celebrating her third sober anniversary. “I am a huge proponent of normalizing the conversation about addiction and recovery.” We chatted with Madeleine to learn more. —Vita Daily

Photos by Felicia Chang Photography

Can you share a bit about your personal journey with “grey area” drinking and how it led you to advocate for normalizing conversations about addiction and recovery?

For people new to the term, “grey area” drinking covers the broad range between anything more than occasional consumption, and full-blown addiction. It reflects the tricky nature of determining at what point someone’s drinking transitions from being “take it or leave it” to struggling with Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD).

I also want to note that when it comes to alcohol’s health risks, the picture is increasingly less grey. Previous guidance from the Canadian Centre for Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) for “low risk” drinking specified up to 2 standard drinks per day for women and up to 3 daily for men. In 2022, however, this was significantly lowered to a maximum of 2 drinks per week for people of all genders, citing alcohol’s role in causing cancer, heart disease and violence.

Drinking habits tend to be progressive, gradually increasing or becoming more entrenched over time. How do we know when we are crossing into a problematic place? No objective method or standard exists to do this. Being aware that we are in a ‘grey area’ of risk reflects the reality that many people don’t know where they stand with respect to their drinking.

When I was growing up, the picture that I formed around alcohol was that most people who consumed it were “normal” drinkers. There were also a minority of “alcoholics,” spoken of in whispers, who were unable to remain under control. This, I understood, was a shameful thing to be.

I wondered and worried for years whether or not I had a drinking problem. Because I was not exhibiting stereotypical “alcoholic” behaviour like drinking in the morning or making a fool of myself or harming others when drinking, it made it harder for me to name what I was experiencing as problematic. Because of the stigma that the term carries, I was also terrified of being labelled as an alcoholic.

And yet my relationship with alcohol was becoming worrisome to me, even though there were no glaring red flags. Learning that there was a grey area spectrum was liberating, in that it allowed me to raise my hand as someone with a problem.

My story is that by around 2015, I had an established daily ‘wine o’clock’ habit of enjoying a glass after work as I made dinner, usually followed by top-ups or another glass with dinner. I became concerned, and spent the next 5 years experimenting with “moderation”, Dry January and other sober spells. I also did a great deal of reading and podcast-listening about sober curiosity, AUD, recovery and sobriety.

I had a final ‘ah-ha’ moment in 2020 that showed me once and for all that I was not in control, and I quit drinking for good just over a year later.

Looking at the timing, I can see that Covid definitely played a role in waking me up to the fact that I was on my way to having a serious problem. Alcohol became even more important to me at that time, and the daily sense of fear and disappointment became another reason to drink.

Grey area drinking tells us that we are flirting with something dangerous, from both an addiction and a broader health risk perspective.

What are some common misconceptions people have about grey area drinking, and how do these misconceptions contribute to the stigma surrounding it?

I would start with some misconceptions about alcohol and drinking in general. There is a persistent myth that “moderate” alcohol consumption is safe, or even beneficial to health. Neither of these things are true.

Another very misleading misconception is that determining whether alcohol is a “problem” is solely based on whether or not we are addicted to it. That’s a real concern for sure, but the reality is that alcohol can have serious adverse health impacts well before we get to that point.

Current research demonstrates that:

If anyone reading finds the above facts surprising, they’re not alone. According to the Canadian Cancer Society, 40% of Canadians are not aware that alcohol (ethanol) causes cancer. Many of us don’t even recognize that it’s a drug.

The fact that alcohol–despite its multiple, demonstrated social harms–remains free of warning labels and is widely socially accepted as a source of relaxation and celebration absolutely played a role in leading me astray. It also made it harder to ask for help when I recognized that I was struggling.

While not myths per se, imprecise terms like Moderation and Responsibility are commonly used when we try to understand how to enjoy alcohol without falling into the trap of addiction. Having tried to apply both of them to my own drinking without success, I now see them as little more than a way for the alcohol industry to place the onus of risk on the drinker, and not their products.

As one example of this, the primary way that alcohol works is to impair the prefrontal cortex of the brain, where we do things like make decisions based on morality and common sense. How can someone be expected to be responsible in their use of a product that attacks our ability to do this very thing? How can moderation be reasonably applied to a substance that cannot be safely consumed in any amount?

Another myth is that of “normal” and “alcoholic” drinkers, and the corresponding belief that as long as we are not falling-down addicted to alcohol, we’re OK. The notion of grey area drinking was extremely helpful to me, because it gave me a name for something that–addicted or not–simply did not feel like it was serving me.

Finally, there are persistent myths about sobriety, namely that it’s boring or that people who quit drinking feel deprived. Having been sober for a few years, I’m happy to report that it’s one of the best things I have ever done for myself. I feel free now, and enjoy having more energy, better sleep and overall peace of mind.

I don’t miss or crave alcohol: it’s more like the feeling of remembering a former romantic partner that I’m glad I broke up with. I admit, however, that I can feel a bit left out in situations where most other people around me are drinking.

How did you come to recognize that your drinking habits were problematic, even though they didn’t fit the traditional stereotype of a problem drinker?

It was a process that unfolded over many years, and as I said, there was no one moment where I knew that I was entering the realm of problematic dependency. There were clues, though, like having an ever-expanding list of excuses for having a drink.

For most of my drinking years, alcohol was reserved for special occasions, celebrations and fancy dinners. Over time, however, it also became a kind of consolation or reward for things like loneliness or having a hard day at work. Eventually, I bought into ‘wine o’clock’ culture and it became something that I just did every day.

Over time, I also started to think about drinking a lot more. Things like anticipating whether there was wine in the house for when I would want a drink after work, wondering whether there might be alcohol at certain events, and also a lot of worry about my drinking. I eventually identified a voice in my head that I call The Winer, who would show up to tell me that I did not have a problem, and was all-around masterful at rationalizing drinking.

Covid also didn’t help: life just felt kind of bleak and colourless. I don’t see it as coincidental that my moment of truth about alcohol happened during Covid.

In April of 2020, I had just completed a 100-day alcohol-free challenge and was feeling fantastic. Day 101 happened to coincide with my daughter’s 15th birthday, and I somehow found myself knocking back most of a bottle of champagne. I have seldom felt so disappointed in myself.

The good news was that I was no longer “wondering” about whether or not I had a problem. I knew that I needed to quit, which I finally managed to do a year later.

In your experience, what role does shame play in preventing individuals from discussing concerns about their relationship with alcohol, and how can we work to overcome this barrier?

For me, feeling shame about my situation was as much the problem as the drinking itself. There is endless shame in the words and labels associated with alcohol addiction, which has been traditionally seen as a moral failing. Think about how wounding these terms are: lush, drunk, wino. Who wants to join that club? In this way, shame silences us.

One of the biggest things that gets in the way of helpful conversations about alcohol is 1) the default assumption that alcohol’s main risk is addiction, rather than health impacts, and 2) that if we accept that we have an issue with alcohol, we need to label ourselves as “alcoholic” and enter a treatment program. While treatment may be necessary for later-stage AUD cases, the grey area concept can work as a way to catch oneself before it gets to that point. This, in a nutshell, is how it worked for me.

I think that taking a close look at our language and beliefs about alcohol and drinking is a good place to start in understanding the role that shame plays.

While I recognize and respect that the term alcoholic is empowering to many people in recovery, I personally don’t identify with it and can see why others feel the same way, even though I readily admit that I was struggling with a dependent relationship with alcohol. I started off calling myself “sober curious” and now say that I’m sober or alcohol-free. It also feels right to name where I’m at now as being in recovery.

For me, writing and publicly sharing about my story is incredibly healing. Talking about it has also helped me to recognize when I may be using other everyday behaviours in unhealthy ways, for example shopping or social media scrolling. Ditching shame also made it easier for me to get support from those closest to me.

How can we encourage more open and honest conversations about drinking and its potential consequences, particularly for those who may not fit the stereotypical image of someone with a drinking problem?

Many of us are struggling with mental health issues like depression and anxiety. Through the social acceptance of having questions or concerns about what’s happening with our mental health, we normalize and de-stigmatize it and make it easier to get support. I think that we can do the same thing with alcohol and other drugs, as well as more socially sanctioned behavioural issues like our relationship with our phones, work, food and so on.

Another huge aspect around the grey area drinking conversation is that we think that the only issue or risk when it comes to alcohol is addiction, which carries massive amounts of shame. I have found it to be more useful and compelling to have conversations about the increasingly well-recognized health risks of drinking, rather than debating whether or not someone is addicted. We all want to be healthier, right?

A curious thing that I’ve noticed on that front is how people are very concerned about food labeling, organic certification, free range, BPA and GMO-free and so on. But for some reason, alcohol gets a pass: we even make jokes about it. Wine is basically fruit salad, right?

What advice do you have for friends or family members who suspect that a loved one may be struggling with grey area drinking but are unsure how to broach the topic or offer support?

I would suggest that anyone considering raising the topic of someone else’s habits or coping mechanisms start with an assessment of their own relationship with alcohol or whatever other drugs, substances or forms of behaviour that they themselves may be using.

Including ourselves in a conversation about how we deal with stress and self care in everyday life reframes it into an “us” conversation. Rather than locating the “problem” as being someone else’s issue, are there any common patterns that we could identify within ourselves and share with others as a discussion point?

My belief is that we all benefit from learning more about how our nervous systems work and exploring healthy ways to manage stress and anxiety together.

I don’t find questions like “Do I/you have a drinking problem?” helpful. This line of questioning takes us into shame-laden terms like alcoholic and addict, and can lead into unproductive debates about quantity and frequency of consumption.

I prefer simpler questions, for example: How are we, generally? What’s missing from our lives? Where do we need care or support? Are we perhaps using alcohol (or whatever substance/behaviour) to meet needs that may have better solutions?

These types of questions surface things that may be underlying the unhealthy behaviour. While we may not recognize it on a conscious level, our habits can be emotionally tied to unresolved personal issues or trauma. The research and reading that I have done about addiction supports the idea that in order to change unhealthy coping mechanisms, it’s not just about stopping the behaviour; we also need to understand and address what’s driving it.

We can all benefit from checking in with ourselves about our coping mechanisms and whether they are genuinely supporting our health and wellbeing, or acting as stand-ins. Using addictive behaviours or substances to meet needs that require authentic forms of healing like therapy or boundary-setting will never get us the support that we need, and further risks taking us down the road of addiction.

Looking ahead, what do you hope to see in terms of societal attitudes and policies regarding grey area drinking and addiction, and what steps do you believe are necessary to achieve this vision?

There is a growing contemporary trend towards sober curiosity and questioning our relationship with alcohol. Many readers will likely have noticed the proliferation of non-alcoholic wine, beer and cocktails as part of this (I’m a huge fan!).

My hope is that everything that I have touched on, including research, awareness, the recognition that addiction is not a black and white issue, and a growing variety of approaches to recovery, will keep expanding. It’s a complex issue that we are nowhere close to fully understanding.

I’m also very hopeful about mandatory labelling requirements for alcoholic beverages being implemented in the not-too distant future. Overall, I’m seeing more open conversations, destigmatization, and ways for people to better understand their relationship with alcohol, and to get help if they need it.

What support systems or resources do you recommend for individuals who identify with grey area drinking and are seeking help or guidance?

There are a multitude of resources available, with entire websites devoted to this topic, books, podcasts and so on. Here’s an excellent TEDx talk that’s a wonderful place to start and includes a smart list of healthy ways to support our nervous systems. The book Quit Like a Woman: The Radical Choice to Not Drink in a Culture Obsessed with Alcohol by Holly Whitaker is my number one pick for anyone wanting to learn more about alcohol, what it does to our brains and bodies and holistic ways to change your relationship with it.


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