Are You A Suburban Alcoholic?

image suburban alcoholic parents“I think it’s all the stay at home moms who contribute to the alcoholism in our city.”

I attended a beautiful wedding over the weekend. After the ceremony me and my friends went to a nearby bar before the reception.

Although the passed h’ordeuvres and open bar would not be available for another forty-five minutes, we decide not to wait.


We order margaritas and contemplate whether we live amongst a society of secret suburban alcoholics.

Taking in the gorgeous view of the Pacific ocean, we share tales of others’ drinking issues.

“I think it’s a sign of the times. Look at affluent cities everywhere. Everyone is stressed out,” says John.

I mention the drunk parent at the Cub Scout meetings, and Sara talks about the miserable surgeon who uses on the job and rarely sees his kids.

Sipping the “SkinnyRita,” I comment on my surprise and elation earlier in the week when I’m carded buying alcohol.



An estimated 17.6 million adults in the USA are either alcoholics or have alcohol problems, according to the National Institutes of Health. By some estimates, one-third of alcoholics are women.

This post targets adults living in suburban sprawl whose alcohol intake increases as stress levels rise. Tips on handling alcohol consumption follow, as well as a Just Say No-worthy story at the bitter end.

What is an alcoholic?

It’s difficult to precisely identify an alcoholic for many reasons.

Are we talking the medical (or disease) model? What your physician or mental health provider labels as problem drinking? The legal mandates which law enforcement and the court system abide by?

While the facts about alcohol are well documented, debate among professionals remains.

The issue of whether a person has crossed the imbibing line often depends on how s/he functions at home, at work, at school, and in the community. Also worthy of consideration is the individual’s feelings and thoughts about drinking.

Does s/he view the habit as problematic and interfering with daily functioning?

If you’re sober during the day but get wasted every evening are you functioning?

Are we self-medicating?

As a psychotherapist I see more and more adults using alcohol to cope with anxiety. It’s rare when the client is bothered by their alcohol intake:

“Who doesn’t need a couple of drinks to unwind after a long day?”

“Surely you’ve read the statistics showing that alcohol increases longevity. And it’s not like I’m foolish enough to drink and drive.”

“I’m more creative after a few beers.”

“It makes me a better parent.”

“Believe me, nobody at my company wants me delivering the bad news during the staff meeting without a shot or two to take the edge off.”

“I can control my urges. I haven’t had a mishap in years.”

There are many assessment tools out there but the following four questions from the Cage Questionnaire cut to the chase. Answering yes to two or more questions may indicate a problem:

1. Have you ever felt you needed to cut down on your drinking?

2. Have people annoyed you by criticizing your drinking?

3. Have you ever felt guilty about drinking?

4. Have you ever felt you needed a drink first thing in the morning to steady your nerves or to get rid of a hangover?

Not your mama’s mommy blog…

There’s a host of blogs, authors and Twitter handles that promote parenting and alcohol consumption. Has it gone too far, or are sites like,, and more open about mixing motherhood and Manhattans?

Author Christie Mellor, AKA “Martini Mom” clarifies that moms who write about alcohol do not advocate supervising a bunch of two-year olds while sauced. It’s about attitude, not alcoholism, she says. “The addition of alcohol to your incredibly overscheduled, child-centered life wasn’t going to suddenly make you a relaxed ‘three-martini mom.’ It was simply going to make you a very busy drunk.”

Let’s say you function pretty well but notice how you accelerate faster on the drive home when thinking of the vintage Bordeaux.

Or you have an online marketing biz, but add to the blogroll.

You spend A LOT on Premium Tequila Don Anastacio…

If you don’t have an alcohol abuse problem, but want to cut back for personal or health reasons, the following tips can help.

How to cut down on drinking:

  • Set a drinking goal. Choose a limit for how much you will drink. Make sure your limit is not more than one drink a day if you’re a woman, or two drinks a day if you’re a man. Write your goal on a piece of paper. Post it where you can see it, such as on your refrigerator or bathroom mirror.
  • Keep a “diary” of your drinking. Write down every time you have a drink for 1 week. Try to keep your diary for 3 or 4 weeks. Review how much you drink and when.
  • Watch it at home. Keep a small amount or no alcohol at home.
  • Drink slowly. Sip your drink slowly. Break for an hour between drinks. Drink water with alcohol. Do not drink on an empty stomach. Eat when you are drinking.
  • Take a break from alcohol. Pick a day or two each week when you will not drink at all. Then, try to stop drinking for 1 week. Think about how you feel physically and emotionally on these days. Adapted from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism

Where “taking the edge off” starts and a colossally bad decision ends:

On July 26, Diane Schuler, a 36-year-old mother of two, plowed her minivan into oncoming traffic after driving the wrong way on New York’s Taconic State Parkway for almost two miles, killing herself, her 2-year-old daughter, three young nieces and three men in another car. Her 5-year-old son survived. Police said last week that shortly before the crash, which occurred on a Sunday afternoon as Schuler was driving the kids back from a weekend of camping, she had smoked pot and imbibed more than 10 drinks’ worth of vodka. Her blood-alcohol level was at more than twice the legal limit. A bottle of Absolut was found smashed in the wreckage.

As I read this story I wondered how it began for Diane Schuler. Did she binge-drink in college? Did it get worse after her daughter was born? Where was her husband? Was she part of Mommy and Me Happy Hour Playdates? Did she drink in secret? What was her childhood like? Did mom and dad drink?

Did she ever sit down at a bar at 3:15 pm and joke with her suburban friends that forty-five minutes was too long to wait to get the party started?


What about you?

Are we more stressed out than ever, or is a busy life an excuse to drink more?

Are we (becoming) the Self-Medication Nation?

Speak on it, baby. You never know how many secret suburban drinkers are sipping while reading this…

{Photo: Shellnot via Flickr}

About Linda Esposito

Hi there! I'm an Anxiety Saboteur and the creator of the soon-to-be retired If you want to join me on Wired for Happy click this link to subscribe for details.

21 Responses to "Are You A Suburban Alcoholic?"

  1. Alison Golden - The Secret Life of a Warrior WomanNo Gravatar says:

    I gave up drinking in pregnancy and never started again (I prefer my calories to come in a chocolate form.) I never was much of a drinker but I’ve noticed how for others, two drinks every night is as normal as brushing your teeth twice a day. And considered perfectly OK. Even healthy. The acceptance that mothers need a glass of wine at 5pm and another later and that is what makes life worth living (almost) is hard for me to judge and when I’ve questioned it, I’ve got slapped down. Hard. Because I don’t drink, it is hard for me to assess when the line is crossed. It seems to me the line gets crossed a lot earlier than others around me seem to feel. I know I feel the odd man out, and a highly puritanical, party pooper because of it. But then I always have. ;-)

  2. Kathy MorelliNo Gravatar says:

    Woah, love this. I think we are already the self-medicating nation. I see people (I am not talking about one particular person here, rather a composite)….People who drink one and two bottles of wine at a sitting a few times a week, or who smoke pot every day for twenty five years, or who fall down on purpose to go to the ER to try to get some Oxycontin…This is a regular day for me…I constantly wonder why there are more traffic accidents! I also have seen the proliferation of (I guess supposed to be funny) alcoholic handles on the internet ..I think that ppl who are not personally affected by substance abuse dont really understand the enormity of the problem, so it does seem like a harmless funny joke. But I think that ppl dont really get it…I have a booklet in my office called Rethinking Drinking, it is free from the NIH can order them in bulk. It tries to explain problem drinking and how addiction can sneak up on you. Some ppl are open to the discussion others are not. I think if you get blitzed every night you have a problem. Now there is a huge lobby to leaglize marijuana,. I totally oppose that. We are self-medicating enough. .

  3. Linda EspositoNo Gravatar says:

    @Alison–good for you for not needing alcohol since ’99. And yes, chocolate is just as soothing, in my book:). You know, I don’t really follow the mommy blogs, and I certainly didn’t know about their existence 10 years ago when my son was born, but the two-glasses of wine seems to be a parenting imperative in some circles. I completely agree that people seem to be drinking earlier in life…You’re no party pooper–I’d say others may be envious of your lack of imbibing.

    Thanks for sharing–I always appreciate your comments:).

  4. Linda EspositoNo Gravatar says:

    @Kathy-Whoa–falling down on purpose to get a rx for Oxycontin?? Never heard of that one–ugh! That sounds like a great booklet from NIH, Rethinking Drinking, but you’re right, some ppl will not be open.

    I have to admit, I used to laugh at the Twitter handles of the parents (let’s not forget the daddy blogs) who incorporate alcohol-related themes in their biz, but after reading about Diane Schuler’s tragic case, I just see it as irresponsible and a lot of justification/rationalization, etc.

    Thanks for sharing your professional observations. I agree that it’s almost miraculous that we don’t have more industrial/traffic/drowning accidents.

  5. BethNo Gravatar says:

    This article made me think of my grandmother who died alone a few years back. She was “sick in the head” according to my family, and was found dead in her home surrounded by empty bottles of alcohol.

    Not that I’m in agreement with the Mommy blogs, but I believe if my grandmother had access to others going through the same thing, she wouldn’t have died in desolation.

    Sometimes we just need to hear that we’re not freaks, or outcasts, or weak.

  6. Linda Esposito (@TalkTherapyBiz)No Gravatar says:

    @Beth–thank you so much for sharing your story. That is so sad about grandma…if only she had access to information and social support.

    Her story reminded me of a training I attended on mental issues in the elderly population. The speaker told us of a home visit he went on while doing outreach at a Leisure World complex (not-assisted living facility in CA) and this elderly women who was completely drunk when he arrived. He mentioned that the purpose of the visit was to check on her since concerned neighbors had seen her behaving incoherently. When he brought up the numerous empty bottles of vodka under her bed, she answered, “Bottles? What bottles?”

    I’ll never forget that one.

    May your grandmother Rest In Peace:(.

  7. RochelleNo Gravatar says:

    I enjoyed reading this post. Thank you for sharing it Linda :-) Going to share it!

  8. irenesavareseNo Gravatar says:

    Great post Linda,
    I ask the question: “Could you take a few days/weeks break?” Also, “what is your spouse/family/friends saying about your drinking?”
    I ask couples what role drinking plays in fights and how they self-soothe when anxious.

  9. Linda EspositoNo Gravatar says:

    Hey Irene–

    Love the question about what role drinking plays in couples’ fights….never thought of that one.


  10. Jen GreshamNo Gravatar says:

    Great post, Linda. I think it’s often hard to know, as you point out, when this casual, take the edge off drinking crosses the line. I had a male friend who was very unhappy in his job. He started drinking at night as a kind of treat for getting through the day. He wasn’t drinking more than 2 drinks a day, but I was concerned about him. He’s since changed jobs and stopped drinking so much, but I think about all the folks who never get the courage to change…or stop drinking.

    • Linda EspositoNo Gravatar says:

      Hey Jen–

      It is hard to know where to draw that line. Some can handle alcohol better than others, some have more of a tolerance, and maybe even more self-control. I think alcohol is used frequently as a treat, much the same way that eating certain comfort foods. Again where do you draw the line? Do you look at alcohol as a reward for dealing with stress, or when you accomplish a goal and want to celebrate, or both???

      It’s a hard one, but with a bit of self-awareness each person can find the answer. Another barometer is to look at your sleep quality. While alcohol may help you fall asleep quicker, the deep, restorative sleep will be affected. Waking in the middle of the night on a consistent basis means alcohol is a culprit. Nobody functions well without adequate rest.

      I’m glad your friend made that wise move to switch jobs–good for him!

  11. DanNo Gravatar says:

    Wonderful article, Linda; and right on the money! I’m glad you took the time to really get in to the topic!

    Ironically, I’ve been dealing with “the other” side of this lately – working with The Office of National Drug Control Policy’s Parent support site – aimed at helpful them prevent / treat their kids when substance abuse enters into the situation. When working with kids/teens, it’s amazing how often the source of the substance abuse problem, literally, figuratively, and genetically, is the parents.

    Some of the ideas I keep close at hand in the therapy office:
    “If it makes a problem, it IS a problem” – from an old series called Chalk Talk. Basically, if we are talking about your drinking making problems at home, school, work, car, then you have a problem we need to look at.

    Drinking is NOT a coping mechanism or stress reduction technique! Whatever your stress, kicking back 6-7 commercial alcoholic beverages (the ones they shove down your throat during breaks in every televised sporting event) is not “healthy”.

    I encourage to people to look at WHAT they are drinking – alcohol is something to taste and enjoy, like a good steak or a nice meal. Throwing back 10 $0.50 beers, or a box of wine is a much different behavior and attitude than enjoying a few craft beers or fine wine. I call it the Filet Mignon v. McDonald’s theory…

  12. Linda Esposito (@TalkTherapyBiz)No Gravatar says:

    Hey Dan–

    “When working with kids/teens, it’s amazing how often the source of the substance abuse problem, literally, figuratively, and genetically, is the parents.”

    Great point about alcoholism starting with mom and dad. I can’t tell you how many young people I’ve counseled who half-joke that they attend friends’ parties where alcohol is a featured guest. I’m sure you don’t need to think too hard to guess who the hosts are–yup–mom and dad.

    There are other ways to “bond” with your child. And treating your child(ren) as a drinking bud does not bring you together–alcohol is often called a defense against intimacy.

    Love the ending analogy.

    Thanks for your thoughtful feedback:).

  13. SteveNo Gravatar says:

    This is a sad topic of conversation. I read that story a while back, and I don’t think that poor lady’s husband was in the know. How could she hide it in her own house? Easy. People have been closet drinking since alcohol was created. It would be interesting and useful to compare the drinking habits for rural climates.

  14. The Zen of Anxiety: How to Identify and Express Feelings | TalkTherapyBiz says:

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  15. Juliet AustinNo Gravatar says:

    Great article, Linda.
    Another factor in all this has been the expansion of the wine industry– increase in boutique wineries, better wines that cost less, magazines about wine, courses on wine tasting, wine tour vacations, etc. Let’s face it, it’s fashionable to “be into” wine.

  16. Samantha BangayanNo Gravatar says:

    I feel lucky that I never got into the habit of drinking. I almost never saw any type of liquor at home as a child, so I thank my parents for the good influence too. I’ve seen the complete opposite here in Huancayo where it’s just as you describe it — people are self-medicating. They use drinking as a way to solve their problems. There was a recent tragedy here within my group of friends and the solution was to go out and drink. Peer pressure plays a huge role too. I wonder if the stats on alcoholism in Peru (or even South America) are higher!

  17. Linda Esposito (@TalkTherapyBiz)No Gravatar says:

    @Steve–great point. In terms of rural, it just may be higher, and easier “to hide” the problem.

    @Juliet–You’re so right. Wine is much more sophisticated than say, imbibing on Jack Daniel’s. What is boutique wine, anyway?

    @Samantha–interesting and not surprising about Peru, or specifically the Andes. I imagine it may be more acceptable in more rugged, mountaneous regions, but who knows? It just may be a universal issue…

    Thanks for weighing in everyone:).

  18. Lea SmithNo Gravatar says:

    I believe that there is a differencd between alcoholism and alchohol abuse. I am a drinker. I occasionally abuse alcohol. I also am still fighting my ex-husband and parents plus siblings in a four year divorce. I left because I could not be a role model to my children and stay in an abusive, alcoholic environment. My sister lied to the judge and told him I was suicidal. I lost my children for over a year and a half.

    I quit drinking for over a year because someone in my family had to be sober. Now that I am divorced and have regained full custody of my children, I also drink sometimes. I have moved to a small town and we joke about my children showing up at the window at the local tavern to speak to Mom. I have another friend whose children do the same. This is especially true when one of our many festivals is in progress. When they do, I walk out to see what they want. If they want time with me, then I leave my friends to spend time with them. If they just want more silly string, I give them enough money to make sure everyone has at least two cans. The police are watching my children like hawks. They follow the school bus home every day. My neighbors are watching my children, as I am theirs. The merchants are watching my children. If you are a male by yourself and someone takes your picture, it is because we are profiling. We are just checking to make sure you are not a pedophile. We only allow one man in town to wear a speedo, just because he is special. Oh, we also have hidden cameras. At girl’s night out we were joking about needing some because we had a couple of crimes this past summer. We however, wanted the citizens to have a code to shut them off. Within two weeks I was leaving my summer job at city hall and I looked into the office door of the chief of police and spotted our main street on television.

    I also frequently speak to my children about alcoholism and other addictions. I want my children to know that many people choose to misuse many substances. I tell my children that they are at risk because alcoholism runs on both sides of their family tree. (Strangely my parents have four children and none of us have drinking problems.) I tell them that making the decision to never drink is a wise choice. I explain the differences between responsible drinking, abuse, and alcholism. I also give them my opinion on everything from psychotropics to marijuana to crank. We frequently have these talks. I also tell them that people who are going to end up as their adult peers are going to drink and use other drugs. I tell them that it would be normal for them at some point to experiment. I also warn them that if they are using anything to self-medicate that is a sign to get help and quit abusing. I tell them that no substance should never take priority over loved ones. I tell them that drinking is not an important, essential element of life. I am blessed to have a male friend here who has never had a drink because of family history. I explain to them why he does not drink. I tell them what a brave, admirable choice he has made. I point out that he still fits in here even though most adults here are social drinkers.

    Yes, they do knock on the window at the bar sometimes. It is within walking distance from our home. Ours is an eccentric, free-spirited, tourist community. Outsiders joke about it being a town full of hippies. One tourist even asked me once where to find the hippies. I realized it was Friday after 4:30, and I popped off “oh, they’re down the street at the Tavern without even thinking about it.” Most of the town meets at the tavern on Fridays starting at about 4:30. Yet it is unwritten law that everyone maintains a certain level of respect and sobriety here. The people in this community will escort you out in a heartbeat. The bartenders will cut you off and send you home. (This doesn’t ever happen to locals. It would be humiliating.) If you leave town drunk, you are very likely to end up in a very rough county jail.

    It’s Friday night and I miss being at the Tavern. I don’t remember what day I drank last because it has been a while. I can also pass a urine and a follicule test much to my family’s dissapointment. The children wanted to have someone spend the night. I am lucky enough to tell them yes and to get to stay home.

  19. Linda EspositoNo Gravatar says:

    Hi Lea-

    It sounds like you’ve been through quite an ordeal. I hope you find the strength and the calm to finally end the legal issues with your ex-husband and your family.

    This is a wonderful quote:

    “…no substance should never take priority over loved ones.”

    And not to sound like I’m preaching, or overly-clinical, but I hope you and your children had a frank discussion regarding your absence from their lives. You sound like a very honest woman, and I applaud you for finding a way to stop alcohol abuse. Kids are really perceptive, as I’m sure you know, and one thing I encourage parents/caretakers is to be honest in the face of a family crisis. Especially given the emotionally volatile/hostile environment that you’re kids have been exposed to the past few years (I’m extrapolating this from your comment).

    Sadly, many do choose the bottle over their loved ones. Even more tragic is when the bottle becomes the lover/spouse/therapist/etc. There can be no true intimacy or relationship with others if the bottle takes center stage. Also, for as long as someone is self-medicating through alcohol, no true change is made b/c we have to be able to feel our feelings in order to understand them, reconcile them, and recover from them.

    On a lighter note, your town sounds really cool. I like that everyone watches out for the kids. I’m a bit concerned about the “Speedo guy,” though it sounds like you guys have a strict selection process when it comes to swimming attire:P.

    Thanks for sharing, and I wish you the best with your situation.

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