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.

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[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.

The D-Word

Disease. Is alcoholism a disease? I was mulling the first of the 13 statements used by Women for Sobriety to build a healthy sober “new life.” Conversations in WFS meetings aren’t unlike the “step work” done by AA participants; they involve unpacking and applying the statements to one’s own life. Anyway the first statement says this:

I have a life-threatening disease that once had me. I now take charge of my life and my disease. I accept the responsibility.

In chatting online with some other ladies about this statement, I realized I was uncomfortable with the word “disease” and couldn’t quite pinpoint why at the time. A little more investigation gets at the heart of things: it’s not the D-word in and of itself, it’s what it implies: that you are powerless. Just like the AA thing that people trip over when they don’t want to say they are “powerless over alcohol.” Then there’s the whole business of giving it up for a “higher power,” which, in this era of individualism and secularism, doesn’t go over well with everyone. And it poses the same problem as the disease thing: that you are not the boss of yourself.

I get it. I mean I disliked the disease word because I dislike seeing myself as a victim – as someone who will be buffeted around by life, my body, by others, by my “disease,” by whatever. Ugh. Fuck that. Besides, if I’m “powerless over alcohol” how am I ever supposed to get past the label and the stigma of being an alcoholic? That makes no sense.

Except it does. And I suspect that recognizing the paradox of the “power of being powerless” is essential to sustained, peace-yielding recovery.[1] There are swaths of philosophy on the question of how “free” we really are to choose how we live, and I’m no philosopher. But the gist, I think, is that defining your alcoholism as a “disease” or something outside the bounds of your will is itself an act of will. It’s the choice to stop investing pointless energy in to “managing” your drinking and focus it elsewhere: on healing from shit you’ve been avoiding by drinking, on making new friends, on healthy activities, on new experiences.

From this perspective, the matters of “disease” and “Higher Power,” while fodder for all kinds of interesting philosophical discussion, are only practically useful to the extent that they help you resolve this weird, weird thing where you have no real freedom without limits.

“No alcohol ever, under any circumstances” is a one big, self-imposed limit, but because it is self-imposed, it’s still a choice. So, you’re “bound” by fundamentally accepting a kind of powerlessness over alcohol, but that acceptance is what sets you free. Which is cool. Confusing, but cool.

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[1] See Levi, D. (2016). The power of powerlessness. Philosophical Investigations, 39(3), 237-252.

An Angry Kid and No Answers

One of the first times I thought really, really seriously about my drinking was six or seven years ago with a pissed off teenager in my face. I had picked up my 15 year old daughter from a school rehearsal mid-evening, and said I’d just need a minute to (of course) stop at the liquor store.

“Why do you always have to buy beer?” she stormed.

I don’t remember the rest of the conversation specifically, but I do remember the voice of reason (not Drinking/Pirate Guy — I think I’ll call him Cap’n Mo,) screaming “You DO always have to buy beer. Red flag! Red flag!” I remember fumbling around like an idiot trying to soothe my daughter and explain myself in a way that would sufficiently minimize and excuse my daily drinking. Basically she called bullshit on me. I had nothing, and I knew it.

The whole thing blew over quickly, and I don’t think my daughter has ever brought up my drinking since. But that exchange and the shame I felt have never left me. What should I have said that evening if I could have been honest with her and myself? “I always have to buy beer because I feel uncomfortable and anxious if there isn’t alcohol in the house. I have to buy beer because I like to drink.  I couldn’t wait to pick you up tonight so I could get home and have this beer. I have to buy beer because I think I might have a drinking problem.”

Think. Six or seven years ago. All this time with the whisper: “I think I might have a drinking problem. Do I have a drinking problem?” This whole sobriety thing isn’t easy, but God it feels good to take the ambivalence out of that statement. To remove the question mark. To just accept that my relationship with alcohol has, over many years, developed in to something unhealthy, and that I will be a happier healthy person if I abstain.

 

More on Drinking Stories

Like I said earlier, my drinking story is boring. This is something I should probably be grateful for. But I have also wondered why we are drawn, with horror and fascination, to others’ “rock bottoms,” and feel compelled to share our own. In other words, why are stories so central to recovery work?

I started looking for some ideas about this and found one explanation in this article about what’s described as “autobiographical reasoning.” The authors claim that despite the central role of story in AA and other twelve-step type groups, the purpose and therapeutic role of story hasn’t received much research attention. Crazy huh?

“Autobiographical reasoning” basically means that we make sense of ourselves and our actions through story. Our autobiographies have two threads that seem at cross-purposes: On the one hand, our stories give us a stable sense of ourselves and our identities over time. On the other hand – and this is especially important for drinking stories – our autobiographies communicate change over time. You know: “I used to be this way; now I’m this way.” But there still needs to be an “I” who can make that statement right?

Too much metaphysics in that for a hasty blog post. But one take away for me was that we need others’ redemption stories. I was a little worried that reading drinking memoirs might be akin to rubbernecking when passing traffic accidents — that it might be gratuitous somehow to partake of others’ despair.

Instead, I think what we are looking for are roadmaps to change, and hope that we can change. After all, the tellers of dark drinking tales are those who have come out the other side. To appreciate their journeys, we need the full narrative sweep: origin stories, the fall, and the redemption. “Autobiographical reasoning” tells us that we need to see the possibility of change in stories, but also that there is a coherent person – an “I” —  who can learn, albeit often gradually and with some pain along the way, to make that change.

So, the bottom line is that I’m feeling a little less guilty about being drawn to others’ drinking stories. It seems a pretty human thing to be drawn to redemption narratives, and this isn’t a matter of being entertained by someone else’s suffering; its about hope for our own recovery.

Triggers

I was thinking about “triggers” after my wine-in-cooking episode on Sunday. How and why did a recipe with wine in it set me off?

I recently read an interesting conversation about booze glasses. Some folks had to get wine glasses right out of the house because they were too triggering; others enjoy their non-alcoholic drinks in pretty glasses without difficulty. This surprised me, as I haven’t had that experience of being triggered by glasses.

I was also surprised when, the day before my little meltdown, I read a post about how non-alcoholic beer triggered the schizzle out of a guy. Sober Tony confessed he swilled a six of them, and wondered if you had to drink alcohol to reIapse. Now for me, having a near-beer doesn’t trouble a wit. I don’t feel like I need a real beer, or I need more than one. It seems to satisfy the beer urge without causing any problems.

However, I now better understand the negative reactions I got in my support group a couple of years ago when I said I was enjoying non-alcoholic beers. I felt oddly… judged. Well no. I felt judged. Period. But I can see now that this behaviour could very well be triggering for others, and that these folks might well assume I was on the downward road based on their own experiences.

More importantly, I can see that they were wrong. I mean some triggers would have to be such no-brainers as to be universal. For example: don’t open a drink and put it in front of you and stare at it. Probably a trigger.

But beyond obvious stupidity, we probably all have unique complements of triggers and temptations, and I think it is important to respect that every sober journey has its own quirks and characteristics. I don’t have to feel bad about drinking near beer if it works for me and my sobriety. I just have to stay self-aware about what works and what doesn’t.

Also on a happy note family dinner last night the wine was flowing, and I was just fine with my lemon-lime and bitters! No cravings. Huzzah!