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.

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“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

A Pill for Sobriety?

I recently read and re-posted this very interesting critique of AA on two counts: first, the author points out that there is very little science to back AA, or evidence of its effectiveness. Fair enough. The pluralists among us can acknowledge the lack of scientific evidence but still recognize that AA and its variants do a lot of good work for a lot of people.

The “lack of science” bit can give us more pause when it comes to public policy and its funding consequences, and this is the second and I think central thrust of author Glasser’s discussion. In short, AA orthodoxy pumps tons of money in to residential treatment programs that aren’t accountable to anyone for their outcomes. And AA seems to crowd out other ways of thinking about addictions and treatments.

A really interesting alternative discussed in depth is Naltrexone, which seems to quite magically interrupt that craving for the *next* drink that sucks us all in. (The next, and the next, and the next…). The Finnish doctor interviewed in the article offers lots of caveats, and highlights the complex relationship between taking the drug and engaging in therapy and behavioural changes, including abstinence. In other words, Naltrexone is not a panacea.

  • As in the case of AA, I’m agnostic on the drugs thing. If they help, great. If there is promise, let’s raise awareness and make combinations of drugs and behavioural interventions part of the “toolkit.” But as I approach my 100th day of sobriety (for realz!) I’m reflecting a lot on all the things I would *not* have experienced if I’d just popped a pill:
  • I would not have thought so hard and so much about my loneliness, and the difficulty I have reaching out to other people.
  • I would not sought out the stories and experiences of other people with addictions; and as a result,
  • I would not have strengthened my conviction that compassion and humility are values worth building your life around.
  • I would not have given myself a chance to structure my life differently, try new things, or meet new people.
  • I would not have rethought my relationship to exercise, and softened back to a place of loving it instead of using it as punishment for drinking.
  • I would not have felt fearful, vulnerable, or self-questioning in ways I haven’t had the courage to in many years.

When I think, “should I drink again,” or wonder if a pill would let me drink again as a social drinker, I realize that ultimately this isn’t a very important question. The question is what is still available to me to learn? After going it alone for most of this three months of sobriety, I’m dipping my toe in the water of a “sober community,” and feel I have so much to gain from the wisdom of others, and so many possibilities for experiences and changed perspectives that have not yet unfolded for me.

I would never judge someone for taking Naltrexone. I just know that for me, it would have been a shortcut that may have left me sober but still “stuck” in ways I wouldn’t even have understood. This “old school” sobriety trek is scarier. And harder. But I think it’s more rewarding.

Getting Your Head Out of your Own Arse

This really may evolve into a blog that is mostly about Buddhism and recovery. They just seem to go together for me. I even joined a recover/meditation group finally! I am very proud of myself for taking this step. I know I need a community to keep off the sauce.

The first time I tried to quit drinking was over three years ago. I had thirty-odd days under my belt, and my partner and I had split up, which in my mind had a whole lot to do with how much we drank together. It was a pretty dark time. Hurt like hell, and my whole world was out of kilter. But it was also a catalyst, accompanied by a lot of time for reflection.

I can’t even remember how I first came across the Against the Stream podcasts at that time, but they were the spark that got me invested in Buddhism. More than anything it seemed, at a time when I deeply needed it, meditation offered a potential way to tame the roller-coaster of “big emotions” that seemed to keep getting me in trouble and fucking up my life.

Even though I started drinking again, and even got back together with my partner, the link between the early lessons I learned in Buddhist practice and the ways forward to sobriety has been set in my mind. So there was a bit of a foundation here this time when I got back on the wagon.

My Meditation Group: “Disinterest”

SO the Buddhist thing of the week, from my meditation group, was achieving “disinterest,” which is really a kind of detachment from your own emotions and experiences. That sounds awful doesn’t it? But it isn’t. It isn’t, as one group member put it, the same as “dissociation,” where you detach completely from your emotions. That, she observed, is part of what gets you drinking or using in the first place. Nor is it “not caring.” Disinterest isn’t apathy. You still stay very present in the world. You’re just work at being waaaay less invested in the importance of our own emotions, thoughts and experiences.

Really, we are all pretty self-absorbed as a default. That’s not evil or malicious or selfish or anything; it’s just part of the mundane human experience. I think about my plans, have my feelings, reflect on my experiences, see the world through my eyes and how it affects ME. You are doing the same thing in your own head about you. We all do it. But here’s the thing: if you are in the throes of some kind of addiction, you do it even more.

With sobriety, achieving a calm and thoughtful distance from my emotional storms seems a lot more possible. If nothing else, in meditation, you sit with your own head for a few minutes each day and realize that most of what goes through it is self-absorbed (in that mundane way) and pretty much boring as fuck.

So the way I see it, the sobriety thing and the meditation thing are working along the same current, which is “get my head out of my own arse.” I am far from achieving “enlightenment” which, in the Buddhist sense means that you’ve been liberated from your own ego and all its baggage. But I feel like I’ve got a better chance of moving in that direction when I’m sober.

 

Sometimes You Just Suck It Up

Out for dinner a couple of nights ago, and boy was it EVER one of those nights. Wine on the table at the cottage has settled in to a mild distraction/annoyance that quickly passes. I did most of the cooking the nights we were there with family, so this is always a great distraction for me. Being physically busy really helps me to stay grounded in all kinds of ways, including staying sober.

This time, though, we were in a restaurant. It was a beautiful summery night, and everyone at the table (except my ten year old niece) was drinking beer or wine. I was so agitated, and missing my best defense: the ability to move around. It was really tough. I suppose  I could have gone for a little walk, but this was a last resort. I just pretty much decided I’d have to suck it up. It was not fun. But it passed, as I kept reminding myself it would.

Meditation has helped a lot. When you’re meditating and cultivating mindfulness, one of the aims of it is to observe and accept your feelings as things that your mind comes up with. But Your feelings aren’t “you.” They are things you can acknowledge without letting them define you. You get the gist of this in meditation, and then in a very weird and wonderful way, it starts to pop up on other areas of your life where you aren’t thinking at all about meditation. How cool is that?

So let’s say your craving is like an annoying office colleague. You have to work with this person and you don’t like her very much, but hey — she’s there and you have to cooperate with her to get shit done. So when you have to meet, you acknowledge her politely, and have necessary conversations. You don’t get all pissy, or aggressive, or passive aggressive. You just stick with business, and think about something pleasant you’ll get to do later. In other words, you have to have the interaction, but you don’t get all emotionally invested in it because you don’t want a few difficult moments to wreck the rest of your day.

So I had an annoying, unpleasant, annoying interaction with craving. Sometimes it is just like that. Some days suck. Some moods suck. Intense cravings really suck. But you really can just sit with those things and not invest a pile of emotional energy in to them. You don’t have to dwell. You can acknowledge the suckyness is there, but still stick with business. This is a really hard thing to learn if you are someone like me who has spent a lifetime reacting sharply to every feeling that’s ever entered your body or head. I’m a work in progress for sure. But the little victories feel good.

 

 

Kinds of Chocolate and the “Addictive Personality”

This morning I was eating yogurt-covered pretzels. I buy them sometimes at Bulk Barn, but with the understanding that whatever I buy must be consumed within 24 hours. ChocolateThis is not because there is someone with a gun to my head telling me eat the pretzels. It is because I will not be able to resist eating them. In this sense they “must” be consumed immediately. There is no other way.

So I ate the last of them this morning. I had a familiar moment of something like panic and disappointment when I looked for more and the bag was empty. I also have this reaction and feeling when I have a milk-chocolate bar in the house, or god forbid, white chocolate. I devour it mindlessly, and then realize its gone, and I STILL WANT MORE.

You probably know where I’m going with this. Chocolate. Booze. Same thing. 1) There is never enough. I always want MORE. 2) I feel shocked and unsatisfied when the treat/drink is already gone. Why did it go so fast? Now I must have MORE. But I don’t want more. But I want more.

Quit Drinking Lore has it that lots of us pick up new addictions and obsessions as substitutes for our alcohol addiction. Picture that popular-if-inaccurate trope of AA members with death grips on their coffees and cigarettes. Sometimes quitting a substance can lead to religiosity: an addiction to a real live church, or a zealous anti-substance-of-choice stance.

Okay. There’s a line to walk here. Another other big idea I’ve gotten out of reading recovery literature is that it is okay to make peace with some of those substitute addictions when you are battling the Big One. So I’ve now pretty much swapped alcohol for too much sugar and OCD-like consumption of ginger-ale with a splash of OJ and lemon. (Delish.) And vaping. I’m vaping more.

These new obsessions and “addictions” are arguably a form of a catharsis — much lesser forms of evil/suffering because you’ve chosen to make a priority of getting the main-stage evil/suffering the fuck out of your life. The lesser evils may have to be contended with in their own right at some point, but a girl can only handle so much self-discipline at once.

The Addictive Personality

So yesterday I was talking to a guy who professed he probably has an “addictive personality.” That’s probably what got me looking at my empty pretzel bag this morning thinking “Jesus. Holy Yogurt Pretzel Addiction. I WANT MORE!” It was discouraging in the moment. “It’s always something,” I thought to myself. I have the “I want more” reaction to: chocolate bars for breakfast; clothes; alcohol; sociological theory; exercise. So do I have an addictive personality? Am I sentenced to a life of fighting the “I want more” war on two or more fronts?

I can see how this could lead one to despair. Fuck it. There’s always something. I will never be at ease. I will always be fighting, fighting, fighting. Fuck. It. (Chugs bottle of wine.)

Kinds of Chocolate

Maybe there is an alternative to the fatalism of declaring yourself to have an “addictive personality” though. For me anyway, here’s the thing. My best strategy in the morning is to eat a square of dark chocolate with my morning coffee. (I know this whole chocolate thing is very idiosyncratic, but bear with me.) I love doing this. It’s a great way to start my day. It’s not that much chocolate, and when I eat my little square, I AM SATISFIED. I do not need more. I have the same response when I drink a near-beer. This never stops being a revelation. “Weird! I can drink this ONE beer and be good!”

What these picadillos suggest to me is that there are probably other ways to substitute habits and behaviours that satisfy, once you are attuned to your I WANT MORE response. These healthy and satisfying changes may not present themselves to me — I’m going to have to experiment and work at it, I figure. But I see possibilities that I did not see before because I was not intimate with my cravings in a mindful way.

One of the gifts of going through the process of getting sober is that you learn a *lot* about the physical and psychological characteristics of  your “I want more.” You come to know your enemy in the cold light of day. Now that I have some grip on the difference between “satisfied” and “I want more” in a couple of areas, I think it’s going to become easier to head “I want more” off at the pass. So do I have an “addictive personality?” Maybe. But it doesn’t have to be a metaphorical death sentence either.

 

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!

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!