“I Don’t Drink”

This really weird thing happened to me last Friday. I mean I did it, but it also happened to me. I’ll explain.

I started attending this discussion group thingie — part of my quest to get a life, socially, which I observed very early on in this quitting drinking thing was going to be important. But anyway. The discussion group was a BYOB event, and people brought snacks and stuff. I had a little bit of anxiety because I knew there would be wine, and I’d probably want to drink some. But I’m getting used to the idea that I just need to stock up with my own non-alcoholic drinks and kind of enter these things in a “state of readiness.”

So we’re settling in and talking about who has what to drink, who’s sharing, and whether anyone should make a run to the boozeteria in the building and buy more. There’s gin. There’s beer. There’s wine. “Well I don’t drink, so I’m good.”

Whaaat? Who said that?

Oh. Holy shit. It was me.

I’ve been trying to figure out what happened there. I remember a tiny pause before it fell out of my mouth, but it was only a tiny pause. It was kind of scary but empowering at the same time. The thing is, I really didn’t think too hard about it. Mostly I just said it. It didn’t feel particularly momentous. Which maybe means something.

I am working toward five months sober now, and I’m realizing that much of “month four” was very anxious. I decided to keep going past my initial commitment of 100 days, and those next 30 days or so were… well yeah. Anxious. Not white knuckle anxious, but just a lot of me wondering: “Can I keep doing this? Do I want to keep doing this?”

So now I’m thinking that when I said “I don’t drink,” it felt pretty natural. Far out. It may be a sign that I’m moving my identity from “someone who’s trying to quit drinking,” to “someone who doesn’t drink.” That isn’t something that’s happening over night. I’ve regarded it as an open-ended thing from the start. It’s been the only way I could do this without the “Oh my god what do you mean never drink again?” panic setting in.

But it’s also been unsettling to have it so open-ended. I think that explains the difficulty of Month Four. Anyway, it was kind of cool to have a moment where the destination of that journey felt like something real. I’ve been taking it on faith that this sobriety thing actually might have something to offer. (Otherwise you’re just perpetually miserable that you are being deprived.) My “I don’t drink” declaration felt like some faith rewarded — some real progress. I needed that.


Well. So Much for Nihilsm.

One of my favourite songs to listen to when I’m all angsty is Florence + The Machine’s Hurricane Drunk. Florence Welch’s big, wild voice is perfect for capturing the narrative of self-destruction in the songs lyrics. The song is about the pain of a break-up: “I’m going out…I’m gonna drink myself to death,” she wails.

It’s a “fuck it” song of first order. Unlike typically hedonistic “in-da-club-let’s-drink-and-shag” songs celebrating alcohol-fueled excess, Hurricane Drunk is dark and stormy: “You can’t save me now…I’m in the grip of a hurricane…I’m gonna blow myself away.”


Oh Florence you wild woman. Bring on the suffering!

Man, I love that song. It reminds me of those times when I was hurt or pissed off and thought I’d show the world a thing or two by drinking myself to oblivion. I mean that’s overstating it, as I was never an oblivion kind of girl. The occasional times I got “oblivion” drunk I’d just fall asleep. Hardly the stuff of an epic break-up song. But oh, the idea of cannon-balling into a sea of alcohol and emotion. That was good stuff.  I still have this idea sometimes: the “fuck you world (or whoever, or whatever); I’m gonna drink myself to death.” Especially if I could be like Florence, or Hemingway and make art out of it. Heck.

Jane, a sober compatriot at my Buddhist recovery meeting[1] got me thinking about this longing to go down in flames. She’s been hovering around some depression. “Everything feels flat,” she said. “I want to drink wine, and be miserable and just roll around it in. But it doesn’t work. But I want it to work.”

Jane said this with a combination of longing and resignation that I understood right away. Before I quit drinking, I’d noticed a growing gap between my expectations of alcohol and what it actually delivered: Not catharsis, but hangovers. Not urbane, joie-de-vivre “oooh didn’t we have a lot of laughs” nights out, but drinking at home so you don’t have to drive or worry about making an ass of yourself in public. Not penning song lyrics, but reading something before bed that I don’t even remember reading in the morning.

I still wanted alcohol to do great things for me, but it just wouldn’t. At some point, you have to stop banging your head against that wall. This realization isn’t readily accompanied by a rush of freedom or enlightenment. In fact, there is some grieving along the way. You grieve that part of you that wants to let booze help you to be an emotional train-wreck. You grieve the romance of self-destruction.

Sigmund Freud proposed that people have both a “life drive” (libido, or core sexual energy) and a “death drive” (aggression, which may be turned outward on others, or inward on oneself). There is no direct evidence that these drives exist, but they have nonetheless served as powerful ways to think about our motivations.[2] In other words, they help Freudian analysts to ask important questions like “why do people do the same dumb shit over and over again?”

Maybe with age and sobriety I’ve just worn my death drive out. I don’t want to do the same dumb shit over and over again. Do I miss the drama of being led around by my reptile brain? Sure, sometimes. Part of me will always want to be Hurricane Drunk. Part of me will always see romance in nihilism. It’s just that I am liking stable and sober me more.


[1] Pseudonym

[2] Kernberg, O. (2009). The concept of the death drive : A clinical perspective. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 90, 1009–1023. http://doi.org/10.1111/j.1745-8315.2009.00187.x


Recovery is Messy

I have learned a lot about recovery over the past few months. One thing that never ceases to fascinate me is that it’s a process, not an epiphany. I mean its fascinating because even though I get it, I kind of marvel at how deeply entrenched the epiphany thing is — like for me personally, but also as a cultural thing. The pervasive “rock bottom” trope tells you that you have to come as close as possible to killing yourself as you can before the light bulb moment. Then you change.

I have a couple of thoughts on this. First: it’s bullshit. In an odd way, I think it can actually fuel nihilistic drinking. “I”m not there yet. I can keep going. I should keep going.” The (twisted) logic here is that the more effectively you propel yourself to the “bottom,” the sooner you can get better. Or something like that? But we drinkers are all about twisted logic right?

Second and more deeply, I think the “rock bottom” myth plays in to the hope that “if I’m fed up enough, willpower will come.” Rock bottom becomes “the event” that will magically infuse you with the mojo you need to quit for good. In other words, we think, somehow, that rock bottom will make quitting easier.

I think this is one of the reasons why we love redemption stories. They turn change in to a mysterious force from the outside that descends upon you, and smooths the path. But if there is one thing I’ve learned — be it quitting smoking, trying like hell to stay on top of  my to-do list, or shit-canning 90% of what I write before anything is published — it is that change comes out of getting up the next day and trying again.

It takes courage and fortitude just to ignore set aside the self-loathing you feel after you’ve bolloxed it up, and just start over. I don’t always have this courage and fortitude, for the record. But I try to remind myself that starting over is always good. Even if you feel like you are completely full of shit. Even if you don’t feel you deserve to try again. Even if you have failed fifty times before.

This is why recovery isn’t a tidy epiphany, or an “event.” It’s a process. Some of us who learn the hard way have to get realllly good at failing before we succeed. Trying to change and failing is normal. It’s really normal. So if I am talking to someone who is trying to moderate, or quitting for a few days or weeks at a time and always finding themselves back at the starting line, I don’t know what else to do but validate “trying again.” My kid and I talked about this once a while back. No matter how much wallowing you’re doing, and no matter how much you’ve botched up in the past, you can be sober today. Hard to argue with that logic, isn’t it?

Playing the Tape Through

tapeI guess this is an AA thing: a recovery tool you can use when you are experiencing a craving is to “play the tape through.” That is, instead of rationalizing your way into a drink, you “play the tape through” by imagining what happens after that initial, satisfying “Ahhh! Fabulous.” It goes like this: “Fuck it. Might as well have another one! And another.” And… hangover. Shame.

I recently spoke to a lady who had fallen off the wagon and quickly regrouped — how fortunate! — and this was precisely her experience. A drink with dinner turned in to an all-nighter, just like that.

The thing is, I wouldn’t do that. The first 24 hours of my tape, even the first few weeks, would be pretty tame. But you really do have to play the tape all the way through, whatever that looks like for you.

I was thinking about this a little bit last night when wine was calling out to me: “Drink me! Wouldn’t I be lovely with that big steak you’re about to tie in to? Steak is a special occasion! You can do it just this once!”

But I know, I know I know what this would lead to. My tape plays out something like this:

“Well. A glass of wine with dinner. That wasn’t so bad. Maybe I really can have a drink once in a while.”

One or two weeks later: “I think it is probably safe to have a glass of wine. I’ve waited a while.”

One month(ish): “Well so long as I’m having wine with this nice dinner a beer while I’m cooking wouldn’t kill me.”

Then the caution starts to dissipate, and false confidence kicks in: “Hey, I’m a responsible drinker now! I’ve totally got this. I will only drink if we are having a nice meal on the weekend, or if we are going out for dinner.”

Going out for dinner: “It’s a going out night so I’ll have a beer or two before we go out.” *Ends up hammered that night.*

“Oops that wasn’t good. I’d better be careful. I’ll do better next time.”

At this point I’m well on my way to getting back to daily drinking. “Being careful” is vague and means nothing, so this is about the time you start making rules for yourself, and you’re back in to the hell of moderating. Then you get tired of trying to moderate, and you just give up.

So, if you are a “high bottom” kind of girl like me and prefer the slow dull daily drinking to the more dramatic binge/bender pattern, your particular challenge might be like mine. Your “tape” might play out longer and more slowly than that of someone who cannonballs in to the deep end and gets smashed the first time they pick up the next drink.

This is a little bit sneaky. Well no actually its a lot sneaky because your ability to moderate in the early days of being off the wagon makes for a longer slower descent. So I find I’ve had to really think hard about all the stages of my rationalizing, because my tape plays out over a much longer time period.

I know this because I have had one experience with it already.  I’ve mentioned I quit for about 40 days three years ago. The first few times I brought a beer home — just one! Not keeping it in the house! — I was delighted that I’d achieved normal drinking. I think it took about two months before I’d fallen back in regular drinking, and maybe a couple more months before I was drinking daily again. But I was drinking daily again. This is the inevitable consequence of that first drink, months earlier.

In this sense, past efforts to quit or moderate are really useful sources of information. This means that any effort to quite for any period of time is a good thing. It might not stick this time, but it’s one more opportunity to learn about what your “tape” looks like.

Maintaining Sobriety

In my last post I said I don’t spend a lot of time these days sweating acute cravings. When I decided to do the  “100 days sober” thing this time (I’m on 111 days today), it was because I’d discovered (the hard way as always seems to be the case) that 30 days sober was not enough to make a decision about how I wanted to proceed in my relationship with alcohol. Cause honestly, most of the first weeks you’re white knuckling — you’re in a tailspin trying to figure out what the fuck to do with yourself besides drink. You think about drinking constantly.

This hanging-on-for-dear-life stage doesn’t characterize the long term experience of “being sober,” though, so you really can’t make an informed judgement about sobriety based on these first, crappy, difficult weeks. This was wisdom I received from others, particularly my daughter, who told me that you have to give yourself enough time for sobriety to feel at least semi-normal before you can grow your brain back and actually start thinking about sobriety without a hull full of emotional baggage.

I’ve reached the stage where sobriety feels (more) normal, but as I am learning, the risk that comes with this is complacency. It’s another one of those wicked paradoxes that seem to accompany both the depths of addiction, and its cures. The more normal sobriety feels, the greater risk that you’ll stop investing in maintaining it, and the greater the risk that you’ll lapse. So sober has to feel “normal” enough for you to get on with your life, but not so normal that you stop looking over your shoulder.

dinosaur-car-wing-mirror-600x391I don’t mean “looking over your shoulder” in the tin-foil-hat/I-hear-voices kind of way. It doesn’t require that kind of obsession or energy. I think it’s more like checking your mirrors regularly when you’re driving. It’s a good, important habit that you do without thinking hard about it. So in that sense its easy. BUT if you don’t actually observe what you’re seeing and respond effectively, “checking the mirror” becomes an empty exercise: you’ll see but not see whatever is coming up to bite you in the ass.

I check my mirrors now which is cool. But doing that attentively and well is, I think, the long-term and more subtle challenge of maintaining sobriety. That part is definitely still a work in progress.


I Miss Booze. A Little. But Not Much.

Today my husband came home with a six pack of our old standard beer, which is hard to find here in Ontario. I had a twinge of longing. A twinge of sadness. This is the kind of stuff I was afraid if when I thought about quitting drinking: that I’d long for the fun parts of drinking: trying new drinks, enjoying favorite drinks. Talking about new drinks and old favorites. The occasional nights when getting plastered on good Scotch was really fun.

Do I miss these things? I have to be honest: not very much. I’m surprised as hell, believe me. Working on Month Four here, I’ve been thinking back to all the trepidation of quitting. I could not imagine my life without alcohol in it. I was scared shitless I’d never have fun again.

The thing is, the fear is worse than the thing itself. It’s like getting a shot when you’re a little kid: you expend masses of energy being terrified of the pain. Then it happens and you’re like, “that wasn’t so bad.”

This is where it really helps to hang out with sober people and see them being happy. You do have to see this to believe there is life after drinking, because your boozy brain will do everything in its power to persuade you that if you stop drinking Fun Will Die.

But how much “fun” was I having, really? I do sometimes miss relishing the first bit of a nice beer or wine or G&T. But honestly, honestly after the few first sips it all got pretty mindless. You stop enjoying, and then you’re just drinking. That’s how it really goes. I think we do a lot of confusing “fun” with “habit.” Even if our habits are bad for us and make us miserable, there’s a sense of safety in them, right?

So I’ve done some mental math. After 108 days of sobriety:

  • Number of times I’ve thought: “This would be more fun with booze:” 0.
  • Number of times I’ve wished I could have a drink: After the first couple of weeks, maybe once or twice a week.
  • Number of times I’ve longed for a drink for more half an hour or so: a handful. Maybe four or five times. But then it passed and I didn’t die or lose a limb or my mind or anything waiting it out.
  • Number of times I’ve wanted wine with dinner: Several, but for five minutes and then I’m over it. Most of the time I don’t notice now.
  • Number of times I’ve thought “Being sober is awesome!” Every. Damn. Day. No kidding.

So if I add up all the minutes in my life over the last (almost) four months, I figure the waking hours I’ve spent genuinely miserable that I’m not drinking are… man really hardly any. On the other hand, the number of moments I’ve felt proud of myself, or like my life has new possibilities… those little moments happen daily. And waking up without a hangover of any sort: the novelty has not worn off yet. So on balance, the “good” feelings that have come out of all of this have outweighed the cravings and frustrations a hundred-to-one, I’m sure.

I don’t want to minimize the fear of quitting — the fear of No Fun and imagining what the hell you are going to do with yourself, or who you’ll even be if you aren’t a drinker. I have felt all those things in spades. It’s just strange to think back to that fear and see, in retrospect, that quitting looked so much bigger and scarier than it has actually been.

“The Drinking Quiz”

If you’ve ever wondered about your drinking, you have probably taken a drinking quiz or two to figure out if you have a problem. I first did this a few years ago. Can’t remember the exact deal, but it would ask things like whether you blacked out, or missed work, or binged. In my case, quizzes would return something tepid like “you may have a problem with alcohol.”

In my head: “Okay this says I’m not an alcoholic per se but I may have a problem with alcohol? What does that mean? I’m not that bad right? I don’t black out. I don’t miss work. I feel bad about drinking sometimes but I like drinking. Do I have to quit? I don’t think I have to quit because I’m only a 7 out of 12. I’m okay. I’m mostly okay. I only may have a problem. That’s not the same as a problem, right? Now if I was a 10 out of 12…”

Etcetera. Etcetera. Etcetera. How. Exhausting.

Probably about six years ago, my doctor casually asked me about my drinking:

Her: Ever feel like you should cut down?

Me: Yeah. Sometimes…

Her: Do other people criticize you about your drinking or tell you to cut down?

Me: Not so much. Not really.

Her: Do you ever feel guilty about drinking?

Me: Yeah… yeah I guess I do. It does bother me a bit.

Her: Do you ever drink in the morning or anything? To calm down or nip a hangover?

Me: (I totally got this one). Nope.

Her: If you’ve answered yes to one of these questions, you have a problem, you know.

Damn. I was so busted. First I didn’t realize she had been administering a very short, and very effective drunky quiz. Usually I’m smart enough to know when I’m being cornered by a shrink or doctor. Not this time. The four questions she asked me are part of the CAGE diagnostic, which has been found to be highly accurate for identifying problem drinkers. Second, my vague “yes” responses didn’t deliver a comfortingly vague diagnosis with a middling score that might help me to keep downplaying my drinking.

I’ll say I responded with that typical mix of denial and recognition that messes with your head when you are asking yourself “Am I an alcoholic?” But this quiz caught me off guard because aside from the reference to morning drinking, it didn’t include any of those extreme behaviours (DUIs, criminal convictions, job losses) that many take to be the markers of “real” alcoholism. I kind of had no wiggle room on this one. Obviously it didn’t change my behaviour right away. But it sure as hell didn’t let me off the hook as “not a real drunk” like some of the other quizzes had.

I was thinking about this because I’m extra-reflecting on the occasion of my 100 Day Thingie yesterday. I was thinking about all the exhausting years of trying to decide if I was an alcoholic. If someone asked me if they were an alcoholic today, I would ask them these questions:

  • Does drinking make you feel shitty about yourself?
  • Do you expend a bunch of energy trying to manage your drinking?
  • Do you expend a bunch of energy trying to figure out if you’re an alcoholic or not?
  • Does the idea of living without alcohol completely freak you out?

For me, these have proven to be the core questions to answer. There are many variations on this of course. Nothing here will be a surprise to anyone who’s been in recovery for a while. But if you just happen to trip on this blog as one who is “sober curious,” maybe you can mull these questions in addition to others you might be asking yourself. I think if I’ve got a big point here it is this: whether you use the label “alcoholic” or not doesn’t matter. In fact it just interferes with the process of honestly answering questions like those in the CAGE, or the similar ones I just asked.

PS: I am no longer nearly as freaked out by the prospect of living alcohol-free. Still a little freaked out, but not terrified like I was when I started. There is hope.

#selfcare WTF? (Oh yeah. And 100 Days)

I was listening to a recovery podcast the other day and found myself quite frustrated. Guests and host had been going on a bit about being able to tell the difference between taking care of yourself and being self-indulgent – the latter being that frantic trying-to-fill-a-hole-you-can’t-fill business that seems to underpin a lot of addictions and addictive behaviour.

All very interesting and worth thinking about. Until, no shit, they try to sell us something! Uggggghhhhh! Carefully selected wellness products, that somehow – in their minds anyway and bless their hearts – are distinctive in being offered being cognizant the aforementioned distinction between wellness and frantic hole-filling.

But isn’t buying shit pretty much hole-filling no matter what? Maybe they’re just confused? Maybe we’re all confused. I certainly don’t always know when I’m practicing “self-care” versus “self indulgence” either. I don’t always know when I’m working on my self-esteem versus just being a self-absorbed navel gazer.

The challenge is to figure out what healthy self-care looks like, I suppose. I’m not denying we need it. I go off my nut if I don’t keep up with exercise. I love my nice bubble bath, and writing, and new socks, and cooking something gorgeous, and clean sheets. But just as often I am self-indulgent, especially when it comes to buying shit. I’ll get some… thing. A new lipstick. Another shirt I don’t need. And realize I wasn’t self-caring, I was indulging a pity party/sense of entitlement of the variety that has in the past, preceded drinking.

That’s why its so confusing when self-care and consumption get mixed together. I read a couple of articles about surging use of the #selfcare hashtag, both of which pointed to the relationships between wellness and consumerism. Examples were pointed to where our collective fascination with #selfcare is happily being exploited by advertisers on Twitter. We get conditioned to think that wellness is something to be found not in our relationships, but in our personal individual consumption of weekend retreats, or vegan facial treatments, or heirloom vegetables.

There’s this weird political angle too, where self-care is some kind of political act to validate your identity group. Justify it as activism if you will. To me, obsessively documenting your lifestyle on social media feeds the kind of focus on the self that, ironically seems to keep us unhappy instead of making us happy.

Here’s the thing: for me anyway, self-absorption is the enemy of sobriety. Much of my “sober journey” thus far has been trying to get my head out of my own ass, and challenge my tendency to self-isolate. It’s required doing something that’s scary for me, which is being more open to other people’s stories, more empathetic, and less selfish with my time. There is a deep paradox here that I don’t get but know to be true for me: self-love will come out of a deep regard and compassion for others. I have heard others in the sober community with whom this resonates. Maybe what I’m getting at is that “self-care” is a complement to, but not a replacement for the kind of care that is exchanged in community with others.

I hope this doesn’t come off too harshly. I don’t mean to begrudge anyone their lavender scented eye masks or Sunday lattes, or acupuncture treatments . I just think we have to be careful to keep our perspectives and priorities clear in a media saturated world that constantly tells us that we can’t be happy or well unless we are buying shit. We also have to work hard to strike that good balance between caring for ourselves, and caring for others. It’s not easy, is it?

P.S. Today is my 100th day of sobriety. I only committed to 100 days. In theory I could jump off the wagon again tomorrow. But I don’t want to. I will keep going. I like being sober.





New Head, New Habits

happy coffeeLast week I was working on a couple of projects I really wanted to finish up before bed. I’d been cooped up in the house pretty much all day except for my morning run. My husband got home, and he likes to just crash in front of the TV after a long day. I was still pretty wired to work though, so I zipped over to a coffee place on my bike.

Holy shit! Its five o’clock and I’m sitting in a coffee shop! I was delighted.

You’re probably already thinking: “Delighted? What’s the big deal? It’s a coffee shop.”

But I’m telling you, I was deee-lighted. Like a kid in an ice-cream shop. Five pm coffee never would have happened “before sober” because even when I kind of wanted to go for coffee later in the day Cap’n Mo would remind me that I had to go home and drink beer.

“But,” I said, “it would be relaxing to go for coffee and I could get some work done before supper!”

“No! You must go home and drink beer. It’s five. That’s what we do at five. We drink beer.”

Even at the time I knew this reasoning was absolutely bizarre. But I followed orders. Beer 3; Coffee 0.

So I was delighted last week because I am free to choose something besides drinking at night. Going for coffee was hardly an epic life change, but then a lot of the sobriety stuff is incremental, and the rewards insert themselves in to your life mostly quietly. You realize you feel better when you wake up in the morning. You find yourself investing in activities that you neglected before because you didn’t have time and energy for them when you were drinking. And maybe, just maybe, you try some new things.

At first you try new things and shake up your old habits because you desperately need to distract yourself from cravings. But for me, this is giving way to maybe trying new things for their own sake. I’ve been thinking about this for the past couple of weeks because I’m finding myself not wanting to go to Tim Horton’s.[1] I’ve always been a Tim’s girl. Like always. I still love the coffee, but I’m finding it less pleasant to sit there and work. It’s noisy and stressful. And their bagels suck. And their staff always look unhappy and tired.

Thing is, even when I wasn’t enjoying going to Tim’s anymore, I kept at it. I kept going. It was a habit.

Even when I wasn’t enjoying going to Tim’s drinking anymore, I kept at it. I kept going. It was a habit.

Holy shit (again). It’s a metaphor. Sort of. Anyway, I am not an adventurous person. I don’t generally seek out changing anything in my life without a lot of navel-gazing preceding it. I’ve always considered this a bit of a character flaw — well flaw is probably too harsh — but I do think that a lot of my rigidity around certain habits is rooted in a fear of change.

I might never know this for sure, but I suspect that the overall feeling of being “stuck” in my drinking may have something to do with that fear of change. This is something I need to find out, so I need to keep staying sober. It’s Day 98 today. I had originally committed myself to 100 days of sobriety. It’s gone by much faster than I thought it would! According to the deal I made with myself, I could “celebrate” on Thursday with a glass of wine. I’ve even pictured this event. But then I’m kind of… “Nah. Meh.” I don’t want to quit quitting. I’m already eyeing that “four month” virtual chip!

[1] For my friends outside of Canada who don’t know the big deal with Tim Horton’s coffee/doughnut shops in Canada, here it is: http://www.cbc.ca/news/business/tim-hortons-why-the-coffee-giant-is-genuinely-beloved-by-canadians-1.2748530