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.

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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.

On Being Lonely

Today on a podcast I was listening to, Emma Seppala, a researcher with the Stanford  Center for Compassion and Altruism Education and Research, described loneliness as a crisis of modern society. From this talk, I was also reminded of Sherry Turkle’s paradox of “Alone Together,” wherein she considers how technology provides an immediate yet ultimately illusory sense of connectedness at the direct expense of the face-to-face events and activities that really connect us.

Yesterday I rode my bike along one of my favourite streets. It is always busy with people walking, and people sitting in restaurants chatting. But on this exquisite summer night I felt terribly alone observing it all. One has the sense that others must be lonely too — indeed as I considered my own loneliness in the moment, I more carefully watched those who were also alone on the street. Surely some, like me, were experiencing the same sense of being a detached observer. This isn’t always an awful thing, but sometimes it is a profoundly lonely experience.

Thinking about the loneliness of others, at least in this moment, provided little comfort. It is sometimes hard to escape the clinical detachment of the observer, especially when it is providing a sense of protection. One can intellectualize and rationalize loneliness: “I am a rock. I am an island.”

On my way home I stopped for a bottle of wine. My husband was out of town, and it was a rare night to be alone. I was looking forward to this. Sort of. It had a shadow cast over it though, because I was thinking about all of the nights I’ve experienced in my adult life where being alone was a thing to be celebrated with drinking, and how the pleasure of this has waned so significantly over the past few years.

I had a small glass of the wine I’d marked with some sort of significance. It didn’t soothe. It didn’t free me. It was just there, and I was no less lonely.

This all made me wonder about the relationship between loneliness and alcohol. How much do we drink because we are seeking meaningful connections with other people? What experiences, feelings are we seeking connect with or heal — we who drink in bars, behind keyboards at night, or in lawn chairs on weekend afternoons? And it’s so fucked up because using alcohol to fix stuff or fulfill yourself or lubricate your relationships just doesn’t work. Real connection is a clear-eyed business. It is also something that takes courage, and a courage that, as is said, “can’t come from a bottle.”

I’m not preaching. Just thinking.