The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

I drank every day. What kind of effect was it having on my kids?

I told them the right things but modeled the wrong behavior. So I cut back.

Rachel Lincoln Sarnoff's kitchen, where she keeps her liquor cabinet. (Rachel Lincoln Sarnoff)

My 22-year-old son is home from college on a warm night, and the back door is open to the garden as I stir-fry broccoli for dinner. My husband and daughters will be back soon, and we’ll gather at the table to talk about the day. I open the liquor cabinet and pull out the half-gallon bottle of vodka. It’s Wednesday.

“Want a drink?” I ask. I fill a glass with ice and measure out a shot and splash in the alcohol. (I pretend it’s just one but know that, filled to the rim, the shot glass is two and a half ounces of liquid — a double shot and then some.) “There’s beer in the fridge.”

He shakes his head. “I’ll be with my friends this weekend. I’d rather drink then.”

And I think: When I was my son’s age, I never abstained. In fact, I have imbibed pretty much every day of my adult life except when I was pregnant or breastfeeding. The last time I was sober for more than a few days was 13 years ago, when I weaned my youngest. I lift the glass to my lips and the cold liquid warms my throat and leaves a pleasantly medicinal taste on my tongue. Then, I silently voice a suspicion that I’ve contemplated and dismissed for years.

Am I an alcoholic?

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Later that night, my husband snores beside me as I open my laptop. The frayed edge of the quilted cotton coverlet is soft from 20 years of washing, and the air smells like the lavender lotion I just rubbed on my hands. My phone plays soothing white noise. I am in my most safe and secure place, so why do I feel afraid?

My grandfather was an alcoholic. But after a few seconds of Googling, I discover that we are no longer supposed to use that word. The new term is “alcohol use disorder,” which is defined as “a condition in which a person has a desire or physical need to consume alcohol, even though it has a negative impact on their life.”

Do I have a physical need for alcohol? When the sun goes down, I open the cupboard — it doesn’t matter if I’ve had a stressful day or just came back from yoga. I look forward to pouring a drink. I like the ritual: the clatter of cubes dropping into the glass; measuring the liquid and tipping it in. After the first sip, I feel my muscles relax and my pulse slow. I don’t know if this is habit or dependency — I’ve never stopped drinking long enough to find out. Does alcohol have a negative impact on my life? Not really. I don’t pick fights with my husband or yell at my children (or at least no more than I would do sober). I haven’t lost my job or ruined my relationships. I don’t fall down or black out.

States rushed to loosen alcohol laws in the pandemic. Heavy drinking went up, some studies say.

But, as I continue researching, I realize that I drink more than I should. I discover a recent study showing that even moderate drinking can have negative effects on the brain. And I quickly realize that I am actually considered a heavy drinkerdefined as more than seven drinks a week or three drinks a day for women — which increases the risks of heart disease, stroke and diabetes. When I’m out with my friends, two drinks is the minimum; sometimes, we’ll have three. If you calculate my daily cocktail (and consider that I’ve knowingly been serving myself an extra ounce of vodka each night for the past few years) I’m often drinking fourteen or more drinks per week.

That’s heavy.

But I’m not drinking alone. As many as 30 percent of American women now have five or more drinks per day — a 41 percent increase from pre-pandemic levels.

Sitting in my bed as the clock ticks to midnight, I wonder when it started: Did I learn to drink by watching my grandfather? Yes, and — when I was growing up, all adults drank. A six-pack with the game, a bottle of wine at dinner, cocktails in the afternoon and mimosas at brunch. It’s no wonder I got my first fake ID at 15 and spent that summer vomiting tequila. For decades, my husband and I regularly consumed a bottle of wine at dinner; now, I’m tinkling ice cubes in a glass.

Panic grips my gut: What have we been teaching our kids? When the older two were in high school, we talked with them about what alcohol does to the adolescent brain and referenced a study that showed teen drinking negatively affects processing and memory. We said all the right things — and modeled the wrong behavior. What damage had we done?

I tried mindfulness to quit drinking. It actually worked.

A few days later, the late-afternoon sun streams gold through the window and I settle onto our stained white couch. I take a deep breath, pick up my phone, and text my son and his younger sister, who is also in college: I’m thinking about the way Dad and I consume alcohol in the house and how that may have affected your views of drinking. I’d love to know what you think. xo Mom

My son responds: I think you’re overthinking things. I think you have a healthy relationship with alcohol. I drink a few nights a week — usually just a beer. My daughter chimes in: It’s never been something that affected me. I only drink on the weekends — one night or two.

Of course, they could be lying. My adult children have their own adult lives with their own adult problems — which could include an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. But I don’t think so. My husband and I have very close relationships with our children — we talk or text multiple times a day — and, from what I can see, neither of my older children drinks daily or parties excessively.

But at 14, my youngest daughter is more vulnerable. A quick search on my phone shows that teenagers who begin drinking at her age are 17 times more likely to drink excessively and that female high school students are now more likely to binge drink than male students. Her older brother and sister are no longer in the house as models — all she has is us.

So I fill our battered red kettle with water and set it on the stove. The burner clicks on and I pull out my favorite oversized mug — stamped with “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life. xo Prince.”

I drop in a peppermint tea bag and pour the boiling water and inhale the sweet, sharp scent and take a sip. I commit to doing this daily — instead of opening up the liquor cabinet — and restrict my drinking to a glass or two on weekends.

I realize that this action is itself a privilege. I recognize that for many, it’s not as simple as making the decision to shift a habit from alcohol to tea. For those who experience alcohol use disorder, resources are available — including Alcoholics Anonymous, which helped my grandfather finally get sober. But this is how I plan to reset my relationship with drinking. Yes, I know that I might fail, at times, but I’m no longer fooling myself about what’s at stake.

My daily ritual now involves tea. Often, my daughter will share a cup with me. Her favorite mug? “Positivity, please.”

Rachel Lincoln Sarnoff holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Southern California and is pursuing an MFA in fiction at Pacific University. She is an environmentalist who blogs as Mommy Greenest.

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