by Casey Elliott
Annie Grace is the author of This Naked Mind: Control Alcohol, Find Freedom, Discover Happiness And Change Your Life and The Alcohol Experiment. Alcohol misuse is related to more deaths in the United States than drug overdose, and deaths related to alcohol use have increased drastically since 1999. In 2017, 2.6 percent “of roughly 2.8 million deaths in the United States involved alcohol. Nearly half of alcohol‐related deaths resulted from liver disease (30.7%; 22,245) or overdoses on alcohol alone or with other drugs (17.9%; 12,954),” according to a recent study in Alcoholism.
Like so many millions of Americans, Annie struggled with alcohol use and did not like how it was negatively impacting her life. I spoke with Annie to discuss her journey, and how people can change their relationship with alcohol.
Casey Elliott: Tell me a little bit about how you came up with “This Naked Mind.”
Annie Grace: It really started with my own journey. I grew up in an alternative environment with hippie parents and an upbringing where no alcohol was involved. I drank a little bit in high school and a little bit throughout college. Later, I was told (while I was working on Broadway at the corner of Wall Street) that I needed to participate in happy hours because it would further my career. This is when I developed a method of alternating between drinking a glass of wine and drinking a glass of water. It progressed to a point where if I felt I was getting too tipsy I would go to the bathroom, throw up, and drink more wine. I had all of these healthy things to support my life like exercise, but then I found that I could open that bottle of wine because that was easier than putting on my running shoes. At one point I’d buy a box of wine and drink two bottles of wine a night on average. I was the Head of Global Marketing at a major corporation and was responsible for overseeing 22 countries. To cope with the pressure, I created this cycle of self-loathing every time I made a goal about my drinking and couldn’t make it. Finally, I was at the airport coming home from a business trip, realizing I was bringing the worst part of myself home to my husband and two sons. I said to myself, “Okay, I’m going to take a year and answer the question of ‘Can I stop drinking?’”
CE: I think that a lot of people go from drinking occasionally to drinking regularly to binge drinking, particularly people who have stressful jobs or home lives.
AG: Yeah! So I started methodically researching what were the underlying reasons behind my drinking and how other people use drinking to cope. I haven’t wanted to have a drink in five years, mostly because I’ve made it an empowering choice and not a rule. After not drinking for two or three months, I decided to film myself drinking a bottle of wine and witnessed how little pleasure I actually received from drinking. After watching this video of myself, I thought “other people need to see this,” so I decided to share my collection of journals and research (which would later become the This Naked Mind book) and 20,000 people downloaded it in two weeks.
CE: I’m always surprised at the stories people will share with me once they find out where I work. Do you people reach out to you often?
AG: Yes! It’s one of those things where we are all putting on a blindfold when it comes to drinking. I was always feeling like I couldn’t say “no” when offered a drink because we’ve made it very stigmatized to discuss cutting back on drinking. It’s expected that you have to have a drink or you have to justify why you do not want a drink. We’re a society of needing to please other people.
CE: 192 people die every day from drug overdose -- that includes prescriptions, heroin, cocaine, and meth, but when you add in alcohol-related deaths it skyrockets to over 400/day. Why do you think we overlook alcohol in our addiction crisis?
AG: Well, alcohol is very highly taxed, so there is a lot of money to be made by companies and governments. Most restaurants would have a hard time sustaining business because alcohol is the most profitable item they sell. In general, it’s often the single biggest ad spend -- just look at Super Bowl ads. There’s so much profitability in the alcohol industry; a friend who previously worked in the alcohol industry told me that 80 percent of industry profits come from 20 percent of people who purchase alcohol every single day. They are putting the bulk of their efforts to sell to those people and they are always thinking of how to encourage people to drink younger.
CE: So it is January and a lot of people choose to go “dry” or quit drinking for the entire month. What are the positives of "Dry January" or "Sober October"?
AG: First, I think it’s brilliant. I was in the UK during January in 2015 and someone said, “Oh my gosh, you’re doing Dry January? It sucks but we’re raising money for a good cause!” [Note: in the United Kingdom, many people also raise money for a charity of choice while they are participating in Dry January.] Dry January gives people an entry point to quit drinking and the opportunity to learn about being mindful regarding their alcohol use. I would say the only downside is that it creates a 'forbidden fruit symptom' where a lot of people may binge drink as soon as the month is over. This is why I created The Alcohol Experiment -- every single day you get an email and a video and a journal to write in, and it’s an empowering choice to not drink with positive reenforcement, whether a person wants to quit drinking permanently or just reevaluate their relationship with alcohol.
CE: I live in DC -- and you’ve had folks on your “This Naked Mind” podcast that also live in DC and have discussed how it is a very alcohol-infused environment. What are your recommendations for those who don’t want to drink?
AG: So a lot of what I’ve noticed in my own world is that there are certainly the instances of where it is the extreme of the extreme, and people take it as a personal affront if they aren’t drinking. My goal is to create a way to open up that conversation and make it more of a norm, instead of an anomaly.
CE: One of the most upsetting trends I am seeing is with “Wine Mommy” language and merchandise. What do you think of this trend?
AG: What most people don’t know is there is an alcohol advertising forum where they share numbers and data with each other. Around a decade ago, the forum identified women as an underserved market. What’s sad is that all of the merchandise that is popping up in homes (that we think are fun and cutesy) are actually a marketing tactic from these alcohol companies. Furthermore, as women we want to be valued and treated with equality in society. So, in a way, we treat it as: “Well, the men drink so I can go do what the men do and drink as much.” Wine has become the center of “mommy culture” or the “mommy tribe.” Now mommy playdates are centered around drinking and I hear from moms who are finding themselves wondering “How did I get home?” or falling asleep in the middle of the day and leaving their children unattended. This goes into a larger conversation about how we can address drinking without attacking other people.
CE: This is a question I get asked all the time: how do I address a concern over a loved one’s drinking with them?
AG: Often it feels like judgment even if it’s not intended that way. I recommend three things: 1) create boundaries for yourself, but not for the loved one you are concerned about, 2) build a rapport with your loved one; no one internalizes the advice they didn’t ask for, and 3) be there when they ask for help.
Media and communications expert by training, Casey Elliott's career has focused on nonprofit legislation and grassroots advocacy. Originally from Salt Lake City, Utah, Casey writes about addiction, an issue close to her and her family's heart.