The Relative Nature of a Glass of Wine – Substances as Coping Skills
Posted on April 7, 2017
Before we shift into self-care strategies, I want to discuss an often-ignored part of our self-care discussion. Too often, shame and hypocrisy keep us from addressing our own use of substances to manage the stress and trauma of our work. For some of us, this is a coping mechanism; for others, it can border on or eventually become an addiction.
I titled this post, “The Relative Nature of a Glass of Wine” because of a behavior I recognized in my life. Most of us have heard that a glass or two of red wine a day is healthy for our heart. If you go out to a nice bar or restaurant and order a glass of red, you’ll get a small amount of wine in a large glass –what is considered an actual “glass of wine.” However, at home, there is nothing to prevent you from just filling that big glass to the top and calling that your first of two healthy life choices for the evening!
There was a point in my career where, the more stressful my day had been, the fuller that glass got filled. After two big glasses, I felt pretty good, and sometimes I just finished the bottle, because, I reasoned, there wasn’t enough left to bother with putting the cork back in. The wine was effective at making me feel better and helped me to fall asleep, but I often woke up halfway through the night and didn’t get any good sleep afterward.
Waking up tired the next day, I would caffeinate up all morning, and into the afternoon if needed. Wired and tired at the end of the day, I looked forward to that big glass of wine as a reward for a productive day. Wanting a good night’s sleep, I might then take some melatonin, or something stronger, at bedtime. While this helped with the waking up in the middle of the night, it left me dragging in the morning, so I needed to hit the caffeine hard.
After a few months of doing this daily, I realized how much I was relying on substances to manage my entire day. This realization was not a comfortable one for someone who has worked in or around substance abuse treatment most of my career. While I would not label my use as an addiction to any of the substances that were getting me through the day, I was relying on them heavily as a coping mechanism to deal with the stress of my work.
This awareness prompted me to start having honest conversations with my friends about our behavior, and most of my friends in similar fields admitted to falling into the same kinds of patterns. The irony that a bunch of us “healers” were managing our stress through substances, was not lost on me at all. Most of those I talked to did not consider their actions to be an addiction. However, we all had to admit to the intense level of shame we felt in having the conversation about our use.
I thought about those in our field with genetic sensitivity to addiction, and wondered if falling into these behavior patterns impacted them. Over my years in this field, I’ve known many co-workers whom I guessed were struggling with addiction, and others I worried about being at risk for developing one. Most of these people’s employment did not end in a positive way, as many got fired – more than a few for being drunk or high on the job.
It strikes me looking back how, in helping organizations dealing with substance abuse, not one of these situations was talked about honestly. No one ever discussed the team being a dysfunctional mess, or the stressful, even traumatic, work as pieces that may have played some role in our co-workers’ addiction. Addiction rarely occurs without a high level of stress and, for many, the difficult work of helping others was the stress that pushed them from use to addiction. I think that if we’d said any of this out loud, many of us would then have had to turn the mirror on ourselves, and our own substance use, which we did not necessarily have the emotional capacity to do in those situations.
While I take full ownership for my behavior, I also realize that I had never, until relatively recently, had a conversation with anyone about substance use and burnout in the helping professions. As I’ve started to share these insights at my trainings, I’m surprised by the number of heads nodding in silent agreement when I discuss substances as a coping mechanism. Seeing this reaction, I know that I’m not the only one who has experienced this reality or fallen into these behaviors myself. Whether it is the extra glass of wine with dinner or the third margarita at happy hour on Friday, substances can too easily become our default way to deal with stress.
Unfortunately, this coping mechanism often replaces going to the gym, getting to sleep on time, or practicing mindfulness. Like too many of our clients, substances become our default way to deal with the stress and trauma in our lives. While usually effective in the short-term to help us feel better, we eventually start to experience weight gain, sleep problems, and other issues associated with both substance use and a lack of healthier behaviors.
Since having this realization, I’ve stopped buying wine and other alcohol for the house, and started to pay attention to why I’m having this beer or glass of whiskey. I’ve been surprised at how much of my drinking had become a response to stress, rather than something for enjoyment. Additionally, when I do have a nice glass of something now, I enjoy it, instead of downing it quickly.
I want to open the comment section today to any thoughts or insights on this topic. I feel we must remove the shame and guilt around this subject in order to have honest discussions about one very real danger of burnout and helping trauma.