Sober Fun

A couple of years ago I was working on a study of the “internationalization” of universities. The huge influx of students who don’t speak English as their first language is supposed to be this awesome thing that brings diversity to universities. Ideally anyway. But it’s actually very difficult to get international students and domestic students to interact and form friendships.

What’s kind of interesting here is the apparent level of obliviousness – at least as best as I can tell from the academic literature I read on this topic – about the role that drinking culture may play in this absence of cross-cultural friendships. I found only a couple of research articles that spoke directly about partying as a cultural thing that might influence “internationalization” efforts, specifically by really turning off the students (like the Chinese students in this case) who just weren’t in to it as a leisure activity. I wondered at that time whether our own cultural blindness to the ubiquity of “partying” in unis and colleges might explain why this factor wasn’t more widely considered.

I also remember reading said research articles, and feeling a stab of sorrow. My own young adulthood exploration was cut short when I became a mum at 19, but I remember being a person at that time, and in to my early 20s, who did not think about alcohol. My social life (scant as it was) did not revolve around alcohol. I was a person then who did not have drinking tightly wound in to my identity. I was, in this sense, free. Perhaps I was romanticizing this period in my life, or romanticizing Chinese kids going bowling or something, but I wanted to be there again. I wanted to know what it would feel like to have fun without drinking.

Okay, so guess what? Freedom is feeling more possible. It has been almost two months now, and on sober reflection – for real. Sober joke. Ha! – I can safely say that I have had no net loss of fun in my life sans alcohol. I’ve felt twinges of longing in the moment for the wonderful, terrible “fuck-it” self-indulgence that accompanies a drink after a crap day, or in a celebratory moment. But when I back up and look at the big picture, they were moments and nothing more.

There are highs and lows in this process, but these past few days I’ve had lots of moments of feeling excited about a sober future and its possibilities. Now all I have to do is learn more Mandarin and find myself some Chinese kids to go bowling with. 加油!

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Boozeless in Beijing

As a note to anyone who cares, I’ve been remiss on my sober blogging. But I’m still with the program! Closing on in my 60-day mark, and I am weirdly excited about this. Certainly more excited than I thought I would be. Heck I never thought I’d get to sixty days with no alcohol in my body, let alone contemplating how I might feel about it.

Anyway, in addition to closing in on my 60-day mark,  it has also been almost a year since I got back from China. I spent August in Beijing last year. My friend took me to a couple of great micro-breweries but you’d have to know where to find these places, or even that they exist. Because here’s the thing: best I can figure, Beijing has no booze culture. I mean I am sure there are Western-style bars and clubs where you can imbibe freely, but my point is that these are destinations. They are not ubiquitous.

I thought about this absence of alcohol quite a bit while I was there, and again when I got home to Canada. The contrast is striking. In Beijing I swear all people do is eat out. (Which is awesome. The food is awesome.) You can’t spit without hitting a restaurant. (Not that I tried. But I could have because people spit a lot there. Wait this is a tangent, right? Anyway.) But what I didn’t see in Beijing was people drinking. Restaurants served alcohol — particularly that ubiquitous Chinese beer Tsingtao — but almost as more of an afterthought. You didn’t see a lot of alcohol on the tables. Most people drank water with their meals as best as I could tell.

Certainly I drank daily there, but I was self-conscious about it: more so than usual. It was striking to me that there were about a bazillion people living their lives without routinely thinking about, drinking, avoiding, or otherwise managing alcohol in their lives. It was striking to be a minority figure as a regular drinker.

In contrast, once back in Canada and out cycling or walking with my partner, I noticed that most every restaurant that wasn’t a fast food joint had a sandwich board on the sidewalk that advertised the daily food special AND the daily drink special. Patios are often festooned with alcohol marketing swag. We’re tempted to cool off with sangria, draft beer, and fruity cocktails. Booze menus come out with the drink menus. Alcohol is everywhere.

You don’t realize how pervasive and normal alcohol consumption is in our culture until you’ve got something to compare it to. Who knows then — maybe some seeds of sobriety were sown for me in Beijing. Sometimes I still remind myself of what I saw (or rather didn’t see) there when I am mulling my Reasons to Stay Sober list.

Sober Note: Feeling left out because you’re not drinking? Feel like a weirdy because you’re the only one ordering a non-alcoholic beverage at your table? You don’t have to run with the drinking pack. I know it feels like everyone is doing it, but there are whole cities and cultures where everyone is NOT doing it. Having that perspective does help!

 

 

Reprogramming My Brain

I realized this week that there have been a couple of points of progress. First, I have stopped having that feeling like I should be stopping at the liquor store on my way home from work. That was happening every day, and now I am not thinking about it much at all! Second, it’s not feeling so weird to not drink beer at night. It felt really odd at first, and now it is starting to feel normal.

I do wish it wasn’t patio season though! I suppose I could have waited until patio/cottage season was over, but there’s always a good reason to wait, right? There is never an easy time to quit. Anyway I do have these little twinges out riding my bike when I see people sitting on patios with pints, or glasses of wine. The thought that always, immediately pops in to my head is this half-wistful, half-pissed off “Well. So much for that then. No more patios for me.”

patio

Ahhhh, patio season!

The thing is, that is really very silly. Last I checked, they haven’t outlawed non-alcoholic beverages on patios. It’s not like there are bouncers who won’t let you in unless you promise to drink. In other words, there is no reason in the slightest I can’t still enjoy sitting on a patio on a nice summer evening. It is just so hard-wired in my brain that patio+alcohol=fun, that it’s really difficult to rework the equation. I think that part of quitting drinking is to reprogram your brain. You have to have some experiences that help you to break the automatic associations of alcohol with events you have enjoyed.

For some people, strong associations can can be triggering. I was talking to my daughter, and she still doesn’t feel like she’s in a place where she can go out to a pub and hang out with other people who are drinking. So I expect it is different for everyone. You have to be secure that you can safely navigate a social outing that you would have boozed at before. I’ve read lots of good advice about that: making sure you’ve got your own transportation home, going with sober peeps, having a sponsor or sober buddy on speed-dial, and bringing your own non-alcoholic drinks if need be. But even with all these safeguards in place, you have to feel ready.

I have gotten through a couple of drinking occasions now with success, and it does build your confidence and hope a bit. It doesn’t mean I’m ready to run out to the pub every Friday night now or anything. Why hurl yourself in to temptation when you don’t have to? But, I do think I should hang out on a patio soon, perhaps with a big cold soda, cranberry and lime, and give my brain some further hard evidence that my life isn’t over as a sober person!

Easier on Myself

perfectionism and solitudeI know it is still early days here (this is Day 42), but I have this inkling that I may be easing up on my perfectionism. Wow. That would be cool.

For as many years as I’ve been running, I’ve been fighting the nagging Beeotch in my head who tells me I’m not going fast enough. There’s a healthy space of setting personal goals and taking pleasure in achieving them. It’s one of the things I love about running… setting little goals for myself and achieving them: one extra hill on my hill repeats. One quarter mile push when I feel like I am spent. You get the idea. The Beeotch is not satisfied with this.

Beeotch in my Head: “You are slow. You can’t run fast. You’ll never be any good at this.”

Me: “Fuck off. I like running. Quit wrecking my fun.”

But the Beootch in my Head is persistent. She comes back pretty regularly to try her hand at undermining me. And here’s the thing. I think she might have been dating the Drinking Voice in my Head, Cap’n Mo.

Several blogs ago, I wrote that I was surprised that I was far from alone in managing to exercise like a lunatic despite daily drinking. I’m thinking this has served two functions. First, has served as a subtle form of self-flagellation to assuage my drinking guilt. Second — and perhaps more importantly — it has been on my list of “Things I Do That Prove I’m Not a Drunk.”

I’m wondering whether these conditions have empowered the Beeotch in my Head. She can come after me harder and push my perfectionist buttons when I’m already feeling crappy about myself, and pouring energy in to denial.

So the thing is that I am noticing the Beeotch retreats more readily these days. I felt a little slow-ish today, and I fully expected her to show up, which she did. But it was — I don’t know — just easier to blow her off. “Not every run has to be my best run,” I reminded myself. And I let it go. It has been part of feeling more at ease about missing gym days, or not quite reaching my mileage goals during a busy week.

In the months leading up to my quitting, I had been worrying that I was getting a little obsessive about exercise. I felt anxious if I missed the gym. I found it easier to work out than to be around other people. Socially, you get reinforced because people admire you for being all fit and dedicated and stuff, not knowing that you are using exercise to hide from the shit in life that scares you or makes you feel bad about yourself.

I’m truly wondering whether the obsessive gym behaviour has in fact been connected to my drinking. Who knew?

 

Cottage Cravings! Ugh.

It is Day 40 today. Last night was sooooo hard. I thought at first with this whole not drinking thing that I would be most at risk at home, because that’s where the daily habits are most entrenched. However, this hasn’t really been the case. If I’m alone and happen to be feeling sorry for myself, I might fantasize about drinking, but the audience for my fantasy is a skeptical, Sober Me going “Really, genius? And then what?” Maybe there have just been too many times in the past that I’ve self-medicated and… well… it never actually works.

Last night I was not alone. I am with folks at the family cottage. The cottage is very cottage-y: one swims, naps, reads, cooks and drinks. So G&Ts and beers come out around 5:00, followed by copious amounts of wine with dinner. The dedicated (myself formerly among them) would carry on with one or two more drinks after supper during “everyone sits around reading” time before bed.

Around 5:00, I was starting supper while cheerful people around me bustled back and forth fixing cocktails and pouring cold pints. I thought I was going to have an aneurysm, I wanted a drink so badly. It’s alarming how something that is psychological can feel like a physical thing that is taking over your whole body! I mean I wasn’t twitching on the floor or anything, but it was really uncomfortable. “If I just… do it, everything will be easy and normal again,” I thought. I wanted relief. I wanted to stop trying. I wanted a fucking drink!

I’ve got nothing here but waiting it out. “This will pass,” I kept reminding myself. One thing I’ve found useful from Buddhism is recognizing that there are two kinds of suffering: primary suffering – the “shit that happens because you are a human being” – and secondary suffering, which is the extra shit you pile on by trying to wrestle down the primary suffering, if that makes any sense.

The short of it is that when we feel uncomfortable, stressed, anxious or otherwise miserable, we scrounge around trying to make those feelings go away – to fix them, or drown them, or distract ourselves from them. To make them go away and never come back. Paradoxically, all this struggling can just compound the problem.

So, the idea is that, instead, you look that primary suffering squarely in the eye, and do nothing. You go: “Hello craving. You kind of suck.” And you just sit with it. You don’t screw yourself in to the ground analyzing it (my personal favourite); you don’t fight it; you don’t give in to it either. You just sit with it. And it does pass.

Last night’s craving moments passed. About midway through supper I was still noticing the wine on the table, but I wasn’t salivating for it anymore. Supper was good and my strawberry, basil and balsamic drink was good. And there was ice-cream and strawberries after, and those were good. I got to wake up this morning sober, which so far has not gotten old. It’s awesome.

Hopefully every craving you survive makes you stronger?

 

Dem Precepts

If you really want to be a good Buddhist you take the five precepts: you agree to

  1. refrain from killing (I’m still not a vegetarian. Sigh.);
  2. refrain from taking stuff that doesn’t belong to you (This isn’t just material “stuff.” It can include others’ time, attention and labour.);
  3. refrain from inappropriate, exploitive, or harmful sexual relationships;
  4. refrain from false speech (like not lying, which is of course harder than it ought to be); and
  5. refraining from taking intoxicants that cloud the mind.

I will say that not drinking gives me a fighting chance of living according to the precepts. It’s always bugged me that I haven’t been on board with number five.

Lots of the precepts seem like “well duh,” but like most religious stuff, it is much more complicated and subtle once you dig in to it. The gist in basic Buddhist terms is to live your life in a way that minimizes your own suffering, and that of others.

So a little more on number five there, for obvious reasons: Buddhists don’t tell you drinking and drugs are immoral in and of themselves; rather, intoxication is more likely to lead to you screwing up the other precepts. (You know. I know. We’ve all been there.)

The “clouding the mind” thing is super important too. One thing I’m struck by when I listen to other recovery stories — I’ve been doing a ton of that on the Bubble Hour — is how people describe coming to see themselves and the world more clearly. They don’t always love everything they see, but there is a freedom and peace that comes with knowing that you aren’t bullshitting yourself day in and day out about your alcohol use.

But its more than that. People talk about getting their heads out of their own arses — about how drinking leads to self-absorption, and sobriety helps them to re-evaluate and work on their relationships with others. Community is really important for most people in achieving and maintaining sobriety because we need to give and receive love to feel whole as human beings.

Maya, in Eastern faith traditions, names the veil of ignorance that we live under when we cannot see ourselves and the world clearly. And one of the biggest deceptions we live under is that we are separate from others. You can’t achieve enlightenment without grasping, fundamentally, that we are interconnected, and you really have little hope of seeing this when you are chronically under the influence. I think that Maya is kind of synonymous with using alcohol for “numbing,” because we just don’t want to see things clearly! It is, or has become, too painful.

I’m still a long way off from achieving enlightenment! On good days I have catches of light — tiny spaces where I feel the kindness and compassion toward others that one tries to cultivate as a Buddhist. On bad days, I walk around lost in the noise in my own head. But sobriety may be turning down the volume a bit, and at least I’m feeling less stuck. And I can finally *nail* that fifth precept. Yeah!

Walking Wounded

I’m doing that thing that you do in recovery where you “drunk watch.” You go out somewhere, and you look at who is drinking what, and you feel happy if you see some other people with non-alcoholic bevvies. You mull about the rest: what is there relationship with alcohol? Who is going to drink too much tonight? Who’s a normie and will have there one or two drinks and not think twice about it?

I also look at people walking down the street and wonder about their stories. One lady I saw the other day looked particularly tired and out-of-sorts. Disheveled. Was she hung over? I wonder who might be sitting in my class hung over as hell. It could be anyone. It could be one of my A students who wouldn’t dream of missing class. Achievers drink too.

Functioning alcoholics. How much functioning is really going on? As I read and listen to the stories of other people in recovery, I wonder how many of the walking wounded I encounter every day, and don’t even know it. Who is bored or lonely today? Who is planning which liquor store to stop at on the way home from work? Who feels unloved by a spouse, or undervalued at work? Who has vodka in her purse? Who is in chronic pain? Who is stressed out caring for aging parents and kids?

We’re awfully good at hiding our sadness and suffering from the outside world. But then we live in a world that isn’t very accepting of our vulnerabilities. Recovery is making me think a lot about compassion, and the fear that keeps us from feeling it, and expressing it. I think I’m chicken, so I’m still hiding. I’m doing this no-drinking thing like I do pretty much everything: alone. I’m working on this “reaching out” business. I am very proud of myself for looking up a local Women for Sobriety meeting face-to-face. I haven’t heard back yet, but I hope it will work out that I can go.

 

Hey! I’m Less Stupid!

I am noticing something. I am less stupid now. Here’s the thing: I have for the longest time been this person who wakes up pretty smart in the morning, and I’m brilliant for a few hours, and then it is all downhill from there. By bedtime, I have a double-digit IQ. This is still the same pattern, only by bedtime, I am finding myself sharper, and I really like it! I can get a little more work done before bed, or read in bed, and some of it actually sinks in. Or I have a little burst of energy before bed and might tidy something up, or get a little house thing done that makes me feel good, like ironing. (I really like ironing. I don’t know why. I just do.)

A couple of things about drinking that really scared me these last few months were the “grey outs” where I didn’t *quite* remember going to bed, and the growing number and persistence of questions in my head: “Would I have done that/said that/remembered that if I were sober?” I couldn’t answer these questions because I never took a break from drinking. It was a rare day that I didn’t have a couple of drinks, so there wasn’t even a fully sober me to use as a basis of comparison — a control group, if you will.

Alcohol does cause cognitive impairment and brain damage over time. Part of the alcoholic’s awesome arsenal of denial skills is playing games with that idea. The whole “cognitive impairment” thing doesn’t really apply to me because:

“I am a moderate drinker, not an alcoholic.” (Moderate is the *best* lying word ever!)

“I don’t black out.” (But I grey out. But that’s okay. I still remember. Sort of.)

“I’m high functioning!” (Produces evidence via job success, clean house, great grades in uni, etc.)

“I’m only 32. I’ll start to worry when I’m forty.” (Or choose some other arbitrary and elastic number.)

That’s the other thing. Whether we like it or not, our drinking years accumulate. The idea that those effects occur over time starts to resonate. I think a lot of people my age and a bit younger (I’m 48) have an added dimension to their sobriety journey in recognizing, painfully, that their daily drinking can be counted in decades. If I am brutally honest with myself, I say that I have been a daily drinker or close to it for twenty years. Twenty. Years. All of a sudden that cognitive impairment over time thing becomes relevant, even if you don’t count yourself among the most hard-core of alcoholics.

The good news is that the fuzziness from drinking seems to reverse pretty quickly if you lay off the stuff. Count me as anecdotal evidence for this! And honestly, middle-age is accompanied by a deep recognition that your time on earth is on the waning side. Do I really want to spend another decade or two in an beer and wine induced fog? I think being less stupid is better.