The extreme party habits of celebrities may make fascinating tabloid fodder. Yet reading about Britney Spears's recent rehab stint and Lindsay Lohan's "proactive decision to take care of my personal health" following an alleged drinking binge can also raise an alarm for your own social calendar. For single people seeking true love, late nights and barhopping often come with the territory-but overdoing can be dangerous. "Abuse means the use of a substance in such a way that it leads to unintentional negative interpersonal or social consequences," says Keith F. Durkin, Ph.D., chair of the department of psychology and sociology at Ohio Northern University. Read the following quotes-if any of them sound like you, it may be time to get a grip on going out and perhaps look for less alcohol-fueled avenues for romance.
1. "I'll have one more round in case that special someone shows up."
Feeling compelled to have one more drink or stay out late is common. "You go the bar to socialize - to meet people, have a good time, see and be seen - and if you don't, you feel you're missing something," says Dr. Durkin. "You're not thinking about the alcohol or the consequences." But chances are, you'll simply get loaded rather than meet your perfect match. "It's like a gambler's fallacy: one more hand and my luck will change," Dr. Durkin points out. "Mr. or Ms. Right could be at Starbucks the next morning while you're at home nursing a hangover."
2. "I didn't intend to have sex last night-I'm not sure how it happened."
Nearly 25 percent of respondents to a 2005 Ohio Northern University admitted to having unplanned sexual activity while drinking. No surprise, since of alcohol reduces your inhibitions. But feelings of regret following an impromptu sexual episode can be difficult to deal with, particularly if you're female. "Culturally, women have it worse in terms of shame and guilt after a one-night stand, which can increase the desire to drink, so it becomes a vicious circle," says Cheryl Piper, RN, a certified addictions counselor and director of nursing for the adult facility at Rosecrance Health Network, a leading provider of substance-abuse treatment services in Rockford, Illinois. "Women as a rule suffer more consequences, so if your drinking becomes problematic you're at risk of significant physical as well as psychological complications." And if sex is unprotected as well as unplanned, you're inviting STDs.
3. "I'm too hung over to go to work today. I think I'll call in sick."
"A lot of productivity is lost due to drinking," says Piper, adding that more than 50 percent of referrals to Rosecrance come from employers who "recognize that employees who once were very productive and dependable are now calling in sick, coming in late and looking a little rough around the edges." The occasional mental health day won't cost you your job, but a pattern of them indicates a problem.
4. "I'm nervous about my date tonight. Better down a little -liquid courage' before going out."
Alcohol changes the brain chemistry, so that first cocktail is likely to make you feel more at ease and talkative. But fortifying yourself with a few belts before you walk out the door isn't social drinking, it's using alcohol as a crutch. "When you use drinking as a coping mechanism, that's a real danger sign," says Dr. Durbin. "What are you going to do in the next level of anxieties in the relationship: meeting the parents, having an argument, performance anxiety?"
5. "I only got drunk last night because I was trying to keep up with my date."
When the person you're into asks if you'd like another glass of wine, it's easy to just say yes. "Someone might try to impress a date by -matching' him or her drink for drink, and that could become a disaster," says Piper. "When two people overindulge, the potential for hurting yourself or the person you're with is greater since neither one of you is in control."
Getting a Grip
Here's how to cope if you recognize yourself in the above scenarios.
Remember, drunk isn't sexy. "If you get to the point where you're the crazy drunk dancing on the piano or in the bathroom puking, people are going to turn and walk the other way," says Piper. Booze can make you feel irresistible but rarely makes you come off that way. Space your drinks by slowly sipping a glass of water in between each one.
Know your limits-and stick to them. Controlled drinking can work. Try this experiment: Set a fixed number of cocktails that you'll allow yourself to have in a drinking situation. If you break your own rule and exceed your limit, that's a red flag. Don't ignore it.
Discover excitement without imbibing. All your social functions need not center around a bar. "Find outlets to have fun and meet people where booze isn't involved," says Dr. Durkin. "Try a volunteer activity, join a health club, get a hobby."
By following these steps, you can mix and mingle without overdoing it. If adhering to these guidelines is hard for you, it may be time to seek a referral to an addiction counseling service.
Nina Malkin is the author of An Unlikely Cat Lady: Feral Adventures in the Backyard Jungle.
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