I’ve now been a mother for 21 years. My eldest child requested to try a fair number of drinks for their birthday, and so we had something of a “tasting menu” after dinner, which we dubbed their “emboozeling”, with a variety of cocktails and sips and smells of a variety of other things. They had maybe the equivalent of a drink and a half over the course of the evening (tasting at least 8 different drinks), and then came home and made themself a rum and coke float.
They have been plied with much advice over the past few days. I’m putting it here so that it is in one place.
1. Understand the size of an actual serving of alcohol, and be aware that drinks vary wildly in their alcohol content. Or as my aunt says, “Stick with beer or wine or straight spirits unless you can watch the bartender.” My cousin amends, “Or make the drink yourself.” Object lesson: a “California Libre” (rum, coke, and lemon slice) has half a serving of alcohol the way my husband makes it. A Manhattan has two and a half servings. And some cocktails have as many as five shots in them. That’s one “drink” that is actually five servings of booze at once.
There are two main categories of things people do with hard liquor… some are “sipping” drinks that you keep in hand for a while so that people don’t keep offering you booze faster than you want to drink it. And others have a ton of alcohol so that you get as smashed as possible as quickly as possible. You cannot tell which is which just by tasting them.
The shorthand is that a shot (1-1.5 oz) of hard liquor is a serving. But hard liquor can vary from 35% to 75% alcohol (not counting everclear types), so this is a rough guide. Know what you’re drinking. 5 oz of wine is considered one serving, but wine also can vary from 6% to 16% alcohol, give or take. We’ve seen firsthand what happens when someone used to 7% wine suddenly starts drinking 13%…. And 12 oz is one serving of beer, which varies from about 2% to about 5% alcohol (with some outliers).
Glasses are deceptive in their sizes… if you really want to know how much alcohol you’re getting, measure it. Don’t eyeball the highball.
2. Know your limits. In order to avoid most of the problems that can come along with alcohol consumption, it is wise to limit consumption to no more than 3 servings of alcohol in one sitting, or 7 servings in one week. Binge drinking kills brain cells, and most of the worst things that can happen to people related to alcohol happen when they have a lot of booze at once. Your liver and brain are precious to you. Be kind to them.
(And for future reference, pregnant women should drink no more than 1 serving in a given day, preferably no more than 1/2, and no more than 3 to 3 1/2 servings per week. There’s lot of research showing this to be a safe maximum level of consumption for pregnancy, with no increase [and possibly some decrease] in negative effects short and long term for the baby vs. abstaining. Negative fetal effects are caused by heavier drinking, more than 1 serving per day, more than 7 servings per week, and any binge drinking. Even one binge drinking episode can have negative effects, and those effects can be devastating and lifelong. We don’t know where the cutoff is between 3-7 drinks per week, erring on the side of caution is keeping it under 1/2 measured serving per day. The curve is “J” shaped, and steep.)
Moreover, if you find yourself “needing a drink” or reaching for alcohol after stressful events on a frequent basis, be aware. Never treat drinking as “mandatory” or “assumed” or “expected”. It should be a choice you make, each and every time, and done mindful of the consequences. Do not slide down the slippery slope. It’s okay to be the designated driver, and it’s okay to choose friends who do not lubricate every social event with alcohol. Drinking is not bad or wrong in and of itself, but there are risks, and a potential for abuse, and it’s much, much simpler in the long run to have personal rules that limit the possibility of it becoming a problem.
3. Alcohol metabolizes at approximately one drink per hour. Not one cocktail, not one large solo cup full of beer, but one SERVING of alcohol per hour. Men may metabolize a little faster, women a little slower, and body weight matters– smaller people metabolize slower than bigger people when it comes to booze, most of the time. The best rule of thumb is do not drink and drive, ever. With a great deal of experience with both my personal limits for drinking and driving, I have learned that I can, in fact, have a small amount of alcohol at dinner and then drive safely a few hours later. But it’s less than a full drink for me to be comfortable doing that, and I can feel the minute I should stop, and I’ve been driving now for 26 years. If you have a measured drink and must then drive somewhere, make it be at least two hours after you finished the drink. Or call me for a ride. Or call a taxi. ESPECIALLY if you are at a party, do not count on “I only had one cup”. I have had the experience where I thought I had one glass of wine and a boy kept surreptitiously pouring more into my cup when I wasn’t looking. Not to get into my pants, but just because he thought it would be funny. Taxis are way cheaper and less dangerous than DUI. Much less hassle.
Even small amounts of alcohol can dull reaction times, way under the legal limit. There are people in this world who are capable of driving competently at .08. But even if you’re under .08, you can still be impaired enough to do damage, and the cops can arrest you for DUI if you’re intoxicated at all and driving badly.
If you are at a party and your designated driver is drinking, call me. Call a taxi. I don’t care which.
4. You can make really delicious fancy drinks without alcohol. Mixers can be very tasty. Tonight we had ginger ale, peach sorbet, grenadine, rose water and mint. It was every bit as good as the version that also had zinfandel in it. Virgin margaritas can taste way better than the boozy ones if made from scratch (and restaurant margaritas can be the worst for giant drinks that get you smashed quickly.)
5. Regardless of the politics of rape… the fact of the matter is that the vast majority of rapes are committed with the use of intoxicants (not only “mickies” like roofies or GHB, but just flat out getting someone so drunk they can’t resist or consent) and by people the rape victim knows. Keeping your hand over your drink (to avoid the sneaky top off or drop in) and keeping an eye on your drink from bottle to mouth is prudent. If something happens and someone rapes you while you are drunk or drugged, it will absolutely NOT be your fault. But there are ways of minimizing the risk of that happening in the first place.
When I went to college we were warned against leaving drinks unattended (males and females alike), not because of the risk of rape or roofies, but because at that point there were assholes running around who thought it was hilarious to drop PCP into people’s beverages and then watch them freak out. Especially at campus parties and special events, where eating brownies was just about guaranteed to get you high (pot), and taking random cups of beverage could be a long trip off a short pier. If you choose to experiment with drugs, do it knowing exactly what you’re doing and what you’re taking and what the consequences might be, legal, medical and psychological. Don’t do it blind. This kind of stupidity does, happily, tend to be confined to bars and college parties in my experience, the more random people at the party, the more vigilance you should have, in general.
And if you see someone doctoring drinks or encouraging someone who is already too drunk to drink more… call them on it. Loudly. Make a scene if you have to. Call the police if necessary. Any group of people worth hanging out with will back you up. That shit isn’t cool. Pushing alcohol past the body’s natural limits is dangerous. And drugging people without their knowledge is bullshit.
6. There is no sorority, fraternity, group, social club, or date worth risking alcohol poisoning to stay involved with. None. Any group or person that does not take “I’d rather not” or “I’ve had enough” as a completely valid reason not to imbibe intoxicants is not worth being around. See #2 and #3. (Also: if you are going to violate the “no more than 3 drinks” rule, it better damn well be spread out over as many hours as you’re having drinks. You only have one liver.) You can do a drinking game with non-booze or diluted booze.
7. You’re legal now. You can buy all the booze you want. Do not, ever, under any circumstances, buy it for minors. They’ll ask. You can blame me if you want… “My mother would never forgive me if I bought you booze and something bad happened.” Secret: I might, eventually forgive you. But it would take a very long time. Don’t do it. That kind of popularity is not worth having.
8. Drink as much water as you do alcohol. On days when you have more than 1 drink, consider taking extra b-vitamins and an aspirin to help your body have fewer side effects. If you ever DO drink more than you normally would or should, consider R-lipoic acid (or the more easily available alpha lipoic acid) to help protect your liver and brain from the toxic effects of alcohol.
9. Caffeine cannot make someone sober. Nor can exercise. It takes time to metabolize alcohol, period. If someone you are with is having a hard time (vomiting, passing out) do not treat it lightly. Watch them. Call for help if needed (and err on the side of calling for help vs. waiting it out if they are having trouble staying conscious). It’s okay to be the person who says, “Enough.”
10. Alcohol is not just alcohol. Many alcoholic beverages also contain high fructose corn syrup, artificial colors and flavors, sulfites and other preservatives. Mixers can be particularly bad in this department. Distilled beverages derived from wheat are unlikely to contain gluten, per se, but may be irritating to the system for other reasons. If you notice negative effects after a particular beverage, it may not be the alcohol causing the problem, but something else. Wine headaches are usually sulfite allergies. Beer can contain gluten, though it often is tolerated okay, because of how the fermenting process works. There are wines that do not contain detectable sulfites, beers made from sorghum which were not made from gluten-containing grains. “Malt beverages”, often referred to as “wine coolers” are often made from gluten-containing grains. You can mix your own coolers (Lemonade and red wine is delicious) or highballs (little bit of rum, lot of limeade) with things you handle better. Get to know what you tolerate. Keep in mind that some beers and wines are clarified with a variety of substances that precipitate out things that make them cloudy. Some of those “finings” are possible allergens. If you notice yourself reacting to a beer or wine, it may be a brand-specific issue, not “all of that variety”. Cheaper liquors are notorious for the artificial colors, flavors, and HFCS. They often don’t list ingredients. It will take time and experimenting to find the ones you handle best. Clear, good quality alcohol (gin, vodka) diluted in fruit juice is probably your safest bet, potato vodka and sake are probably the least allergenic things out there.
11. If you don’t drink beer very often, it’s way easier to afford getting the good stuff. That’s true for most alcohol. Booze can be expensive, the temptation is to go cheap. I tend to prefer to drink less, but better quality stuff when I do.
12. Alcohol can be medicating. Like all medications, it has potential side effects. It is a depressant by nature, both in that it depresses the central nervous system, and that it can worsen depression. The worst time to drink is when you are depressed. It is a muscle relaxant. This can be useful, in moderation, occasionally. It tends to reduce anxiety and inhibitions, and in small quantities this can be useful in some circumstances. It can also reduce your control, coordination and general competence level, which is not usually worth it in high pressure situations. It can relieve pain, temporarily, short term. But it tends to “put off” difficult things, rather than fixing them. It is not an easy way out, no matter how simple it seems. There are times when a stiff drink (stiff=probably containing several servings) may well be an expedient short term “solution” for emotional pain. That’s *a* stiff drink. If you find yourself needing that drink on a regular basis to deal with an ongoing situation…consider finding other ways of dealing with the situation, or the “cure” may become the problem.
Alcohol can be fun. It can be delicious. It can be relaxing. It is not without risk, and being aware of those risks and intelligent about your choices will reduce the chances of having an alcohol-related disaster.
Personally I’ve gotten throwing-up drunk three times in my life. It is not fun and it is not worth it. 2 drinks are more fun than 5, and more than 5 is a trip to the porcelain throne. There are people who will brag about having a much higher tolerance for that. Don’t be those people. There are much better skills to develop and higher aspirations to have.
You don’t have to be obnoxious or superior about not wanting to get drunk, easy enough to say, “I’m a lightweight” and act a bit sillier than you feel, while sipping your highball (heavy on the orange juice, light on the vodka) slowly. My personal interest is in you preserving your brain cells. And the rest of you.
Happy birthday. I love you!