Until May 2022, Pamela Wampler, now 53, didn’t see the wine she enjoyed in the evenings as a problem. “Drinking wine seemed like it was acceptable,” she says. The habit had started when she was around 40 years old and it just seemed normal.
About five years ago, a job change for her and a health scare for her husband amped up her stress level. “The one thing that helped me numb the day was drinking wine — it was a normal thing for me to go home and drink,” she says. “Wine was my best friend.”
Drinking quickly became a daily habit, and soon enough Wampler was finishing a bottle — sometimes two — every night. She started gaining weight and she stopped eating at night — choosing to drink instead.
Wampler was hungover about three times a week, but she was holding down her job as a resource specialist teacher. Her two adult sons didn’t think she had a problem. “I was really good at hiding it,” she says. “But my husband knew because there always had to be wine in the house — I got angry if there wasn’t.”
A wake-up call at the doctor’s office
Wampler had been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder at age 40 — around the same time she started drinking wine. In March 2022, she called her doctor because she wanted to increase the dose of her medication. Her doctor asked her to come in for an appointment.
Wampler knew she had gained weight and her suspicion was confirmed at the doctor’s office — she was up 70 pounds. And her blood pressure — which had been normal all her life — was high. “I just sat in her office and cried. I told her, ‘I know I’m over the top, and I don’t know what to do. I need help,” she says.
Still, Wampler wasn’t convinced that her drinking was the problem. She thought that if she just drank a little less and exercised a little more, her weight and blood pressure would return to normal.
Unfortunately, small shifts weren’t going to be enough. Blood tests revealed that Wampler’s liver enzymes were “off the charts,” and an ultrasound showed that she had an extremely fatty liver. “My doctor said I was in the beginning stages of liver failure and within two years my liver would probably stop functioning,” she says.
To make matters worse, the drinking that had harmed Wampler’s health could also impact her ability to access healthcare. “I wouldn’t be eligible for a new liver because I would be considered an alcoholic.”
Wampler still didn’t believe that her drinking could be that much of an issue. She told her doctor that her habits were normal. “I said, ‘I’m just a mom who drinks wine, I’m not an alcoholic.’ And she says, ‘No, you need help.’” Her doctor wasn’t buying it and, finally, Wampler heard her. “I think I needed that slap in the face from my doctor that said, ‘You need to change your life,’” she says.
Coming to terms with her problem
Wampler’s doctor referred her to a 10-week virtual substance abuse program. “I thought, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I was still thinking I didn’t have a problem,” she says.
The program included virtual meetings with a counselor. Wampler attended, even though she wasn’t convinced of her alcoholism. Over time, she realized that she was a functioning alcoholic. Functioning alcoholics don’t fit our cultural stereotypes about alcoholics — they have often have homes and jobs and families and they often don’t think of themselves as alcoholics — until they try to stop drinking.
Wampler started to understand her alcoholism when she tried — and failed — to cut back on alcohol. “It was too overwhelming. I thought about wine constantly. It’s all or nothing with me and my drinking. I can’t stop at one — I love it too much,” she says.
Wampler would have her first glass of wine at five o’clock when she made dinner, and she would keep drinking until 10 p.m. “It’s that time period that I struggle with,” she says.
Wampler was prescribed a medication that would curb her craving for wine for the first couple of months. She had her last drink on May 5, 2022 and started the medicine on May 6. But even with the support of her doctor, the substance-abuse program, her counselor and her husband, quitting drinking wasn’t easy.
“I grieved wine. There was a point when I was on a video call, and the doctor said, ‘You need to choose your life over wine. You need to choose your family over wine.’ And there was a part of me that thought, ‘I can’t give up wine.’ It was that hard to do,” she says.
She used walking to support her sobriety
Wampler stayed sober through the month of May — but it was a struggle. Work was stressful and she missed happy hours with her friends. She missed wine.
On June 3, her first day of summer vacation, she was watching the TODAY Show when they mentioned the Start TODAY Facebook group. The group was launching a 30-day walking challenge for June. She thought: “This is what I’ve been looking for.” She joined the group and decided to replace her evening drinking time with walks with her husband. “That’s how I distracted myself from the wine,” she says.
Walking was the perfect fit for her at that point. “I was at rock bottom. I was overweight, had no energy and couldn’t have stepped into a gym. I didn’t feel good about myself, but I could walk around my block,” she says.
Wampler discovered that walking helped her mental health as well as her physical health. “I didn’t realize how much clarity it would give my mind. It really is an outlet for me, and I crave it every day,” she says.
Finding alternatives to alcohol
Wampler found more ways to fill the spaces in her life that had formerly been occupied by drinking. She substitutes sparkling water for wine — she set up a sparkling water bar at her home with different flavors, plus additions like berries and lime. After her nightly walk, she’ll curl up with sparkling water in a wine glass and watch TV.
Wampler doesn’t go to happy hour as often as she used to — and she only goes with friends she feels comfortable with. But when she does, she orders sparkling water in a wine glass.
Wampler admits that becoming sober has changed her relationships. The dynamics have shifted in areas where her social life revolved around drinking. “You do lose some friends and some outings. I realize my life is more important than that, but it’s still hard. It’s still a challenge. I’m still working on that,” she says.
How quitting wine has improved her life
Wampler has lost 50 pounds so far, but she says that’s not the main benefit of her sobriety. “Number one, it has helped my marriage. It’s changed our relationship completely. Instead of me sitting on the couch drinking wine, we’re out walking together every night. And instead of going to a wine tasting on the weekends, we find a trail and go walking,” she says.
Plus, she lists several other positive changes she’s seen since she stopped drinking:
- Her memory is better. “It’s bad enough being in menopause and not remembering things. But that plus the drinking really clouded my memory,” she says.
- She’s happier, and she feels like her old self: “People say they can tell I’m not just pretending to be happy anymore. They can tell that I’m actually happy.”
- She feels better physically. By August 2022, her liver enzymes had gone back to a healthy level and her blood pressure had dropped.
- She still takes anxiety medication, but now that she’s not drinking, it’s actually working.
Why she decided to open up
Wampler says she hesitated to post about her sobriety in the Start TODAY group. “I didn’t want people to judge me. I think that’s why I drank in the first place, because I’m a perfectionist, and I didn’t want people to know I wasn’t perfect. I kept it all good during the day and then drank to numb it all at night. But I decided to put it out there. I am broken, I am not perfect, and I struggle,” she says.
Instead of criticism, though, Wampler has been applauded by people in the Start TODAY community. In the three weeks since she posted about about her 8 months without alcohol, Wampler’s post has gotten more than 3,000 likes and hundreds of comments. People are congratulatory — and they want to know how she did it.
Even with all the praise and the benefits she’s enjoying, Wampler acknowledges that sobriety isn’t always easy. “I still love wine. I love the smell of it. When someone’s having a glass of wine on TV, I think, ‘That looks good.’ I still fight that urge,” she says.
But giving up wine has been worth it for Wampler. “When you pour yourself a glass of wine and you’re just sitting home drinking, life is passing you by. Life is short, and I was wasting time. Now, I’m living my life.”