I knew I had a problem with binge drinking after I urinated in a washing machine. I was living in the college dorms, but my sick roommate locked himself in our bathroom, so I stood on the nearest top loader and relieved myself. When I discovered a friend doing laundry the next day in the same machine, I offered to re-wash his clothes.
Aside from the washing machine moment, most of my drinking was romantic, or at least that’s how I remember it. A bottle of wine by the river with a date. Drinks during a Mardi Gras in New Orleans. A small flask at a cheap movie theatre with a friend. I struggle to remember the boring, everyday drinking, the kind that flirted with dependency.
After college, I met a woman who told me she had no interest in dating men who regularly drank. She said this to me at a bar. The irony should have been uncomfortable, but I was confident in my drinking routines. I related to her family stories of alcohol abuse with my own, while downing a whisky sour. I tried to convince her, and myself, that she had nothing to worry about.
We were both in our early 20s and broke. The first time she visited my small rental in Boise, Idaho, I showed her around. We walked on creaky floorboards, browsed the kitchen with peeling vinyl countertops, and avoided certain dark stains on the carpet. I felt embarrassed despite all the scrubbing and vacuuming.
“Looks clean,” she said. “My landlord doesn’t take care of my place, either.”
At the outdoor shack where I stored beer bottles she peeked inside.
“What’s that about?” she said.
“I take them to a recycling centre every few weeks.”
“Seems like a lot.”
I tried to explain it away, but I felt humiliated. I thought I had control over my drinking, so much so that I didn’t even bother to clean up my empties before she came to see my place. Her reaction left me wondering. Humiliation can lead to more drinking for some people, but for me, the feeling went off like a smoke alarm in the house. I had to check it.
She left and I counted the bottles. To compare, I looked up ranges for problematic drinking. The US National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) run by the CDC defined heavy drinking as 15 or more drinks per week. My average per week? Seventeen.
How did I slide into the heavy drinking range, a range that put me at-risk for health issues and dependency? My binge drinking stopped in college. I graduated, took on two part-time jobs, and used beer to transition from being at work to being at home. It relaxed me, but after four months with this routine, I started thinking about the lagers in my fridge by the middle of the day. The calming effects lessened over time, so I upped it.
The first day I skipped my routine, I felt fine. On the second day, my body turned against me. My head throbbed and a general anxiousness consumed me. I wanted something, anything to calm me down, but I didn’t want to knock one back and say to hell with trying to change my habit or risk losing my relationship.
I walked to the grocery store and browsed the medicine aisle. Maybe a sleeping aid to get the day over with? No, I hated pills. Instead, I stopped by the tea aisle.
Reducing alcohol consumption
It sounds ridiculous, but chamomile tea helped me break my habit. I bought a box and got home. Chamomile does not pack the same kind of punch of a black porter, so I made a few cups that first night. With each sip, the sharp urge for alcohol dulled.
The next day, I filled my cabinets with boxes of herbal teas. Lavender. Lemon Balm. Peppermint. Over the next week, the few beers in my fridge ran out and I stopped buying them. The shack stayed empty and I saved the beer money to spend on dates.
I hadn’t intended to go completely sober, but following a few more rounds of sharing family history with my girlfriend, we agreed it would be best for me to try. To this day, I sip teas after work and have not had an alcoholic drink since my fridge ran out of booze seven years ago. I never told my girlfriend, now wife, that tea helped me to end my drinking.
“So that’s why you’re always making hot liquids,” she jokes. “I just thought you had a tea problem.”
I thought about convincing her otherwise, but I stopped. Maybe I do have a tea problem, but for me, it’s better than the alternative.