The 30 Days Post

(Well actually today is Day 32, but I’ve been busy!)

I had a really crucial conversation with my daughter (who is in recovery as well) right around the time I quit drinking. I’d been toying with the 30 days thing but, as I shared with her, the last time I pulled off 30 days, it was only a matter of a few weeks before I was back to old form. “How long does it take,” I asked her, “before quitting stops being a total drag?” In her experience, and in common lore among the NA/AA crowd, it seems that the 3 month mark is a bit of a turning point.

I took a deep breath. “I’m thinking about doing 100 days this time,” I said. Saying that out loud for the first time, I felt like I was making a commitment. My daughter would not and has not asked that of me, but I know that was the moment I made the commitment to myself.

Part of this was fuelled by solidarity. It was a way I could quietly support my kid, who is still in fairly early days herself. But part of the commitment was sparked by genuine curiosity: What would happen at the three-month mark that didn’t happen in the first thirty days? Maybe nothing. But maybe something. I guess I’ll find out.

My first thirty-day sobriety bout was more difficult than this has been. I counted *hard.* I toyed vaguely with permanent abstinence, and attended Women for Sobriety meetings, but I just couldn’t get my head wrapped around whether or not I actually needed to quit drinking. And I never seriously visualized or thought of myself as a non-drinker.

I think what is different this time is that I am much, much more open to the (growing) possibility of ongoing sobriety. Before, I was (figuratively but sometimes literally) drumming my fingers and pacing, waiting for the thirty days to be over. I expected white-knuckling, and that’s what I got. This time, I’ve spent these past thirty days observing how I feel (lots through this blog), and actively practicing sobriety.

What does practicing sobriety look like for me? Well not a whole lot different on the outside except I find I need to keep myself busier in the evenings, which — surprise! — is less difficult when I’m not sitting on my ass all night.  I’m going to bed earlier, and giving myself permission to have dessert. I’ve been experimenting with and embracing non-alcoholic beverages like drinking vinegars. (I know that sounds revolting, right? But they are freaking delicious.) Instead of just coping with not drinking, I am thinking in terms of changing the habits that accompany my drinking.

Most of the practice of sobriety in on the inside though. It is “trying on” the sober identity, like you’d try on something you never thought would look good on you. It’s bringing some patience and mindfulness to cravings instead of just feeling pissed off or sorry for myself that I can’t have a drink. A lot of it is just not judging the experience, if that makes any sense. I’m not expecting it to be great, or awful. It just is what it is.

I still feel a little stupid committing to 100 days instead of sobriety forever. I still feel trepidation using “drinking” in the past tense, or saying I “quit drinking” with finality. I’m scared I will sabotage myself if I start thinking “never again.” I’m feeling very positive about one hundred days. But the real goal, in my heart of hearts, is to finish 100 days with the desire to keep going. Maybe this is just my way of doing the “one day at a time thing.” It’s a weird little mind game, but its working for me.

 

 

 

What Would It Fix?

I think I am finally coming off the early sobriety pink cloud I mentioned a couple of weeks ago. The last week has been somewhere within the range of  “meh” to downright bummed out.

You do hear some great things about early sobriety: relief from the guilt, a sense of possibility, having more energy, and no hangovers! (I super love the last one.) This can lead to magical thinking about sobriety: Once I am sober, everything will be awesome. But sobriety doesn’t change you. It doesn’t change everything. It just gets you and your bad boyfriend, alcohol  (Cap’n Mo — I told you the drinking voice in my head is a pirate), out of your damn way so you can work on changing.

27727875ba5bffa70f11b819342845d5--captain-morgan-drinks-spiced-rum

Come on, baby; you’ll feel better.  You know I love you.

I knew drinking wasn’t going to “fix” everything when is I started this. I knew it. But there are things you know in your head that you don’t know in your heart and soul until you’ve lived them. Now I am working my way in to living a life that is, at present at least, about the same as its ever been, sans alcohol.

One thing that keeps going through my head when I have a wild attack of self-pity or frustration is just thinking “Okay I could drink tonight. I could totally choose that. I could observe myself buying a bottle of wine, triumphantly opening it, drinking it, and uttering a satisfied “There. That’s better. Fuck it!”

But what would it fix?” Seriously? I might have a few minutes of feeling like I got some treat I’d somehow earned just for having a bad day as a human being, but I wouldn’t feel any better going to bed half cut than I feel going to bed sober. And I’d pay for it the next day in guilt, guilt guilt: “To hell with it. Might as well buy a bottle tonight too. I can’t do this. I suck.” Self-pity/shame spiral. That’s how you fall off the wagon.

I got through the night before last without drinking, and it was still a crap night, but it was a crap night unaccompanied by the delusion that I needed alcohol to get through a crap night, or that alcohol would somehow make the night less crap. Once you stop operating under that very entrenched belief that alcohol “takes the edge off,” you can see that your life is just your life with all its regular ups and downs that happen no matter what. And you can at least start asking yourself, “Okay. This is my life. Now what?” That’s a scary feeling. But it is a different and better feeling than being stuck on the roller coaster. At least my feet are on the ground now.

Constant Craving

Caroline Knapp’s drinking memoir Drinking: A Love Story continues to be widely read twenty years after its publication. Knapp’s writing is emotionally honest yet unsentimental in a way that gets you right in to the mind games that we play with ourselves around drinking.

Like many others I’m sure, I’ve underlined and dog-eared parts of Knapp’s book (among others) to  reflect on my drinking. One section that really hit home for me was her account of a formless kind of need in alcoholics that nothing seems to satisfy. Swilling scotch from a bottle at the time, she recalls, “I just remember the hunger, the need….Most alcoholics I know experience that hunger long before their first drink, that yearning for something, something outside of the self that will provide relief and solace and well-being.”

Knapp goes on to recall her childhood…craving and obsessing over attaining things — party shoes, she says, or horseback riding lessons. Over time, the object of that craving became alcohol, but the underlying drive to fill a hole she just didn’t understand was always the same.

It was the little kid thing. “That was me,” I thought. I’ve always viewed my drinking behaviour as a long, slow evolution of my habits in adulthood. There was no alcoholism in my home, so no obvious need to go back to my childhood make sense of my drinking. But I immediately recognized myself as a child in Knapp’s chant: “Fill it up, fill it up, fill it up. Fill up the emptiness; fill up what feels like a pit of loneliness and terror and rage…”

The pit I have been trying to fill since childhood is one of profound loneliness. When I was a kid, I fantasized about being anything or anyone other than what I was, and what I was was a gifted little dork with no social skills, and big emotions that came out at all the wrong times. In retrospect, I would have been diagnosed with ADHD and childhood depression. ADHD People are often “divergent thinkers,” so my mind did constant acrobatics, trying to imagine ways of being in the world that might feel less sad and angry, where I might fit in with my peers, where I might not have felt the need to hide in bathroom stalls and the corners or rooms with books, and the diaries I wrote in constantly.

I am still lonely, as I’ve mentioned. Perhaps this is a blog and a journey as much about loneliness as about drinking. I had all this trepidation leading up to quitting drinking before I actually committed. Now I’m having trepidation about committing to some kind of sobriety community. It’s just like quitting drinking. I know I have to do it but I’m scared.

Emotional Triggers

Today is Day 27. On Day 26, I wanted to drink rather badly.

So first: A success story. I cooked with wine last night but didn’t drink any. Yay! Followed the plan of buying a tiny bottle… 375 ml. My partner reserved the cup I needed for my ciopinno, an Italian seafood stew. It was freaking delicious. As I said, I refuse to stop cooking with wine. But anyway. He reserved the cup, discreetly drank the rest in a boring non-wine glass, and even covered up the stuff I needed so I wouldn’t be all tempted by the smell. That was great. I still wanted wine with dinner, but it didn’t wreck my meal or anything.

What wrecked my day and evening and made me want to drink last night was envy: a formidable, old enemy of mine. One thing I have been noticing about myself is that, at least so far, I’m not particularly triggered by stuff outside me; its the inside stuff. I got through the pub fine, and my partner still has alcohol in the house. I mentioned I’m not triggered by pretty wine glasses, or non-alcoholic beer. Instead, I am triggered by shitty, shitty feelings that cause me to think hopeless thoughts.

Yesterday we visited my partner’s dad, and he has a beautiful, spacious condo with a kitchen I would die for. And he doesn’t cook! Oh the agony. We drove home past all of the beautiful houses in our neighbourhood back to our unremarkable walk-up apartment. I went down the rabbit hole: Why can’t I be financially successful? Why can’t I get a big-girl job? Why can’t I ever have  a nice kitchen? Why did I make stupid life choices?

My rational brain and the better part of my heart know that a fulfilling life does not come from status or from stuff. But, man, I sank like a stone. Two things happened. First, I didn’t frigging like myself anymore. I intensely dislike Envious Me. Envy is a toxic emotion, and my capacity for it something I really loathe about myself. I fight it, but I can never quite shake it.

The second thing that happened inside me was despair, because I am so convinced that no matter how hard I work, I can’t change my financial circumstances. Despair gives me one big, whopping case of the fuck-its, moreso even than the envy. “I might as well drink. I have nothing else.”

Wow, is that bullshit. Even as I write it I’m thinking “Oh get over yourself!” I have tons of great stuff in my life. My kitchen sucks, is all. But emotions can be strong, and that deceives you in to thinking they are right — that they are some sort of accurate reflection on the state of the world and your place in it. Enter cognitive behavioural therapy I guess?

Also I swear I need to get out more. I have no community. I keep mentioning loneliness, and not doing anything about it. I say this because having authentic relationships with other people helps you to check your small, distorted thinking when you start losing gratitude to the demons of envy and self-pity. In short, everyone has their crosses to bear, and I think I need to put myself in a better place to see that. Right now all I have is the noise in my head.

When I am Tired

I suppose it would be lovely to say that sobriety has resulted in me having boundless energy, but hey — life is still life, and I still have the same demands and stressors I’ve always had. So yeah. Some days I’m meh in the energy department. But at least I know I am really, actually tired. The thing is, if you are a functioning daily drinker, which I have been for many years now, an always ready-to-hand denial strategy is to plead fatigue when you are in fact, either half-cut or hung over.

My drinking has crept up over time. (Which I hear it does. Which is scary.) A couple of bottles of beer a day went to a couple of pints. A couple of pints went to sometimes three, or a couple of pints and wine with dinner. Before laying off the stuff, wine with dinner was going on more evenings than not.

And I found myself feeling tired. I was so tired that the details of going to bed were fuzzy some nights. I slept poorly, so woke up tired many days.

Edit: I found myself feeling tired. I was so tired drunk that the details of going to bed were fuzzy some nights. I slept poorly, so woke up tired hung over many days.

In the months leading up to my quitting thing here, I kept hearing the word “tired” coming out of my mouth while chastising myself in my head for being so full of shit. I felt like I was lying most of the time when I said it, and I was. To others, but of course mostly to myself.

It’s easy to perpetuate the lie when you’re a functioning alcoholic because you still keep up your routine. You go to bed. You get up and do your grown up thing. You come home and drink at night. For me, the routine was so entrenched I didn’t even know anymore what a good night’s sleep felt like, what it felt like to wake up in the morning after a good night of sleep, or even what if felt like to wake up after an authentically bad night of sleep.

I can say that I’m sleeping better and feeling better in the morning when I wake up, which is great. On the nights I don’t sleep well, I might still wake up feeling like crap, but at least it isn’t a crap sundae smothered in a topping of denial and guilt. I’m just tired. Not more or less hung over — just tired. So even if I don’t feel great physically I’m weirdly happy just to be in my sober body and clear head.

 

The Roller Coaster Sucks Rocks

There are a lot of things about quitting drinking that remind me of when I quit smoking. That was a long time ago now, but I still vividly remember The Roller Coaster. It looks like this: “Dammit. I need a cigarette.” (Smokes cigarettes.) Wakes up in the morning. Guilt, remorse, and frustration. “Dammit. I need to quit!” (Stomps around mired in self-loathing, resolved to make that change.) Several hours pass. “Dammit. I need a cigarette.”

Repeat. Again, and again, and again. Up to the top, down to the bottom. And you get exhausted and you want to barf, but you just don’t get off the fucking ride.

When I did finally manage to quit smoking, I remember that the most powerful tool I had in my tool-belt was really acutely calling to mind the awfulness that is the roller coaster. When I craved a cigarette, I would ask myself: “Do you really want to get back on that ride? Because that is where this goes. Not maybe. Definitely.” And I had umpteen past attempts to quit as evidence that even a drag from a cigarette was like handing my ticket to this guy:

Carny

The quitting drinking thing is really very similar. I have these fairly regular thoughts: “Maybe I could have just one.” And the worst part is that you get some sober time under your feet and you start getting all cocky about it. “Yeah. I totally got this.”

Only you don’t got it. One drink isn’t one drink. It’s one drink this time. And then a couple of drinks in a couple of days. And then just on weekends. And then….

Yep. I know how this works. Roller coaster. Every. Damn. Time.

Letting it All Hang Out

I’ve always been a heart-on-my sleeve kind of girl, but not by choice. Mostly its been because I had big, big feelings that came out way more than I wanted them to. This caused me nothing but grief as a kid and a young adult. One of the great successes of adulthood for me has been figuring out how to take those emotions and just *sit on the fuckers.* They’ve cost me too much chaos on my life.

Now, most of the time if  I feel awful inside and can put on a mask, or shut my feelings down and pour them in to work. I am rather proud of myself when I do this.

“I’m super good at chewing my feelings in to high density spit balls and flicking them away.”

“Ummmm… good for you?”

I mean, squashing your feelings down is supposed to be a bad thing, right? Only for me it seemed to be the only way to get a handle on storms of depression and anger. I was some seriously umpredictable weather.

So now I’m more even. More predictable. Less chronically angst-y. I feel like a grown up, dammit!

But then I wonder sometimes whether I’ve stunted the whole garden instead of just the weeds. I lack creativity and spontaneity. I’ve learned to fake an energetic, friendly demeanor that makes other people happy, but not me inside. I’m also really shitty at hugging. I’m a bad hugger. And I can’t write poetry anymore.

Lots of times I’ve fantasized about drinking to “let it all hang out,” so to speak. To express stuff without auditing everything I say and feel. I have fantasized about drinking as a way to have “heart-to-hearts” with other people, complete with ooey, gooey emotions that make me cringe when I’m sober. Maybe I’ve watched too many movies where alcohol is involved in falling in love, or epic chick-bonding.

In real life, drinking to bond, at least for me, has failed either because 1) I fall asleep (boring/inoffensive drunk — c’est moi); and/or 2) it gets sloppy and maudlin and no one remembers the details anyway and it just feels stupid in the morning.

Maybe I had this dumb idea that if I quit drinking I would magically feel less lonely? Then again its only been 23 days. How much is my life going to change in 23 days, even if I am being all sober and stuff? I have the patience of a three-year old. The kind of three year old that fails the marshmallow test.

Problem Drinking: Disease or Choice? Or Both?

An article I recently read described a precedent-setting 1968 US court case in which the defendant, chronic drunky-drunk Leroy Powell, was found guilty of public intoxication[1]. The judge in this case reasoned that Leroy, an alcoholic, had nonetheless chosen to only have one drink in the morning because he knew he needed to semi- have his act together in court. Because he’d been deliberate about this, he demonstrated that he chose to drink and therefore could be held responsible for his drunken conduct.

As I considered in an earlier blog, this whole “disease of alcoholism” thing invokes a lot of questions around morality and personal responsibility. The question is whether problem drinking is something that happens to us (like a disease), or something we do to ourselves. The distinction influences the way people judge alcoholics. If someone determines, like the judge in the Powell case, that drinking is a choice, it’s easier to dismiss the suffering of addiction as lying in the bed one makes. The “disease” model more compassionately views the addict as someone who needs and can respond to treatment and “get better.”

The distinction also influences how we judge ourselves, and act on those judgments. Here’s the problem and paradox: On the one hand, if we don’t accept responsibility for our drinking, we dwell in denial. In the Land of Denial, something outside of ourselves can always be invoked to explain why we drink. “My job sucks. My life is stressful. The weather is bad. I’m celebrating. I’m pissed off. It’s Tuesday.”

On the other hand, those moments of clarity where one either recognizes or wonders about her problem drinking, are often accompanied by deep guilt and self-recrimination. And then these awful feelings lead to pain, which leads to… more drinking!

When I think hard about this for myself, I realize that I need to be compassionate with myself because it isn’t easy to quit drinking, and many of the sources of stresses in my life (and others’ lives) are legitimate. It seems fair to acknowledge these things. Also, I know that if I fall in to beating the hell out of myself, this can contribute to sadness, frustration, anger and relapse.

But then I ask: Where is that line between being compassionate and forgiving with yourself, and making excuses for yourself? What if being compassionate with yourself spins in to “I’ve had such a hard day. I deserve this drink. Poor me.”

Maybe the difference is between self-compassion and self-pity? It’s not always easy to see this. Self-pity, for me, is always accompanied by a feeling of entitlement and deprivation: that I deserve something I’m not getting. Self-compassion, on the other hand, feels like an easing. I feel like a little rest happens inside: “It’s okay if this is hard and you get tired and cranky sometimes.” But that feeling doesn’t extend to it being okay to stop trying.

So the whole responsibility and disease thing seems to be a “both/and” rather than an “either/or.” Whether you call it a disease or not, you can recognize that alcoholism comes out of pain, vulnerability and fatigue. Sometimes its just hard to be a human being. But that doesn’t mean we can’t work toward controlling and changing how we respond to our own suffering. That’s the responsibility part, and also something that invites us to focus on the road ahead instead of the baggage of the past.

————————————–

[1] Levi, D. S. (2016). The power of powerlessness. Philosophical Investigations, 39(3), 237–253. http://doi.org/10.1111/phin.12099

Day 22. And Monday.

I went from zero to fuck-it in about 10 minutes this morning. I’m glad it is not evening right now, because it would be that much harder not to drink my face off. This is not cool.

I think what did me in was reading job ads. I pretty much get by on contract work and teaching, but I do long for a “real” job with those things that an adult starts to worry about, pushing 50 and all: a pension, benefits, security. But when I read through those ads and see that despite a PhD and solid track record in research and publishing, I don’t seem to “fit” anywhere, I feel resentment, and I feel despair. I shut down inside.

A few weeks ago, before I took the plunge and quit drinking, I told a family member. “I know I drink too much. But I can’t think of a good reason to stop.”

When I heard those words coming out of my mouth that day, and I was scared. I mean, this is realllly dark (sorry) but it occurred to me that one could, if inclined, use alcohol as a long, slow form of suicide. And I realized I was lacking both hope and a sense of purpose in my life. I am feeling that lack this morning, which is why I want… oblivion. Drinking is an excellent, effective way to just damn-well give up.

The little bit I’ve learned from reading and practicing Buddhism the past couple of years is that we are not our thoughts and feelings. There are ways, through meditation, to gain some distance from the storms that gather inside our hearts and heads, recognizing that these come and go. Sometimes that’s easier said than done, of course. But one can try.

So I’m going to go for a run and get some of this crap out of my system. And then I’m going to be a good Buddhist and try to sit quietly with what is painful, and if all else fails muster some faith that the crap feelings will pass. I mean they do, right? I’ve felt this way before. And then a couple of days later it’s like “What the hell was all that about?”

Some days are tougher than others.

High-Bottom

I wish I’d known about the “high bottom alcoholic” thing sooner. The first time I tried to quit drinking a couple of years ago, I was listening to drinking horror-stories that, at the time, confused me. Like, “I think I have a drinking problem, but holy shit, I don’t do that. Maybe I’m normal?” This wasn’t just a denial thing; there was genuine uncertainty at play.

I’ve resolved this for myself now: If you think you’ve got a problem, if there is something amiss in your relationship with alcohol, and you can’t get a handle on changing it, then yes you have a problem. Period. It really is that simple.

What I lacked back in the day there that might have helped me along to this realization was knowing that there’s a great big tribe of “high bottom people:” people like me who have not suffered significant, or even tragic consequences from drinking. Instead, we just finally get sick and tired of being sick and tired. This article, “5 Challenges Faced When You’re a High-Bottom Alcoholic” was really helpful to me, because I realized that a lot of the issues I was encountering as a novice quitter were common. Like “helpful” friends who think you are fine and should just “cut back,” or perhaps a greater risk of slipping in to “maybe I can moderate” thinking.

I especially liked the author’s concern that one may think oneself “not a good enough alcoholic,” because I seriously had this feeling sometimes when I was attending f2f meetings. That’s weird, but it’s a thing. Like you should go out, be wildly inappropriate in public, have sex with a stranger, lose your phone, smash your head on some furniture, and remember none of it. All this in order to have a more fitting “bottom,” a truly “rock” bottom, to end your drinking career.

This is ridiculous, of course. I am grateful that it has never come to this for me. But I guess what we’re all looking for is a sense of belonging with these things. There’s enough in the world to have imposter syndrome about without adding “imposter alcoholic” to the list. The high-bottom/low-bottom thing helps me to see through the overt behaviours we associate with alcoholism to the thoughts and feelings that I think we all share, regardless of the particularities of our consumption patterns. HIgh-bottom or low-bottom, we really are all in this together.