This question recently came up for me: just how much alcohol does it take to trigger the phenomenon of craving that can result in a full blown relapse?
I recently attended a business dinner sponsored by a treatment facility at an upscale eatery in Birmingham. Upon my arrival, the friendly waiter offered me a glass of wine from the two bottles he carried. “What would you like…red or white?” he asked. “I don’t drink,” I answered. “I’ll just have a glass of water.”
I have been sober for over 5 years, so being around alcohol neither makes me anxious nor does it make me want to drink. Being sober does, however, make me keenly aware of what is going on around me. I noticed that I began to feel uncomfortable as each guest arrived and was asked “red or white?” Why would a nice restaurant like this one seem so focused on encouraging people to drink when the event is being hosted by a treatment facility? There was definitely a disconnect for me, so I kept observing.
The entree choices were wonderful; beef, salmon, chicken, pasta. Being a carnivore, I opted for the beef. I have to confess that I am a VERY fast eater. (I think it comes from being the youngest of eight kids. You have to eat fast, or you may leave the table hungry!) About three quarters of the way through my entree I must have stopped long enough to allow my taste buds and olfactory lobes to transmit a message to my brain: “I think there’s alcohol in this!” Upon asking the waiter, “what’s in the sauce?” I learned that I had just consumed meat drenched in a red wine demi-glace. I was frozen for a moment. Then a host of thoughts flooded into my mind. They included (and in no particular order): Oh no, I just ingested alcohol! It probably burned off in the cooking process. I hope it burned off in the cooking process, but my chef friend said alcohol is not always 100% burned off. Oh God, I hope the phenomenon of craving isn’t tripped. I sure hope I’m not relapsing. Am I feeling light-headed? Why in the world would they serve food with alcohol in it to a group of professionals from the treatment industry? I’m scared. I’m angry. I’m confused. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah blah. You get the drift.
Thankfully, I was seated next to another person in long-term recovery who assured me I was ok, but who agreed that she was equally confused by alcohol being served in this context. I left the dinner, made a call to my sponsor, and processed through the emotions that had emerged seemingly by accident.
Or was it by accident? This situation gave me an opportunity to talk with other friends in recovery about what had happened. One person shared an experience he had when he attended a wedding reception at one of our area’s finest hotels. True to form, they served sorbet before the main course. Did you know that sorbet recipes often call for alcohol to improve its texture? I didn’t know that. I just learned that by reading an article by Max Falkowitz called, The Science of the Best Sorbet. My friend hadn’t read that article, so he didn’t know either. Thankfully, his date, a non-alcoholic, tasted her sorbet first and said, “I don’t think you want to eat that. It’s got liquor in it.” Disaster averted. 25 years of sobriety not interrupted.
Now was the hotel being careless by serving sorbet that contained alcohol? That’s a matter of opinion. It does demonstrate a lack of understanding of the disease of alcoholism. Alcoholics are allergic (have an abnormal reaction) to alcohol. Period. To ingest alcohol triggers a chemical reaction (I’m not going to go into the science of it, because I’m not a scientist) that manifests in an uncontrollable craving to drink more.
So, is an eating establishment responsible for informing customers when alcohol is used in the preparation of food? I believe they are. Don’t many dentists post latex warnings in their offices? Have you ever heard an announcement on an airplane that peanuts will not be served because of a passenger’s severe peanut allergy? Have parents ever felt frustrated by what snacks your kid can take to school based on whether the food is peanut or gluten free? Why would an alcohol allergy be any different?
When I talked about my experience at a mutual support group meeting, a friend who was celebrating his 20th year of continuous sobriety shared a conversation he had with his sponsor years ago. They were arguing about whether my friend should use the lifetime supply of toothpaste he had just purchased that contained a small amount of alcohol. Their conversation ultimately landed on the question I posed at the start of this article. Just how much does it take…what’s the least amount of alcohol that an alcoholic can ingest without triggering the reaction that leads to a relapse?
For me, the answer is simple: I don’t know, and I am not willing to risk my sobriety to find out.