“I Deserve Resolution”

Yesterday one of my Buddhist recovery group members brought in a reading from Pema Chödrön about loneliness. There’s tons to unpack in the article, which is about how we experience loneliness. But what really stuck out for me in the bit we discussed was Chödrön’s claim that “as human beings, not only do we seek resolution, but we also feel that we deserve resolution.”

By resolution, I think she means we want the comfort of feeling like we’ve nailed down all our struggles, that we can control our environments, anticipate what’s coming, and repair or conquer anything that doesn’t please us. I read philosophy here and there — particularly the kind that tries to make sense of the mental and physical activity we seem to need to do as part of our essential nature. We’re a scheme-y bunch. We try to problem solve, fix, create, destroy and change our worlds. We pretty much suck at sitting still, and accepting the things in life that hurt us, even when this may be the better thing to do. because dammit we deserve control! We deserve certainty!

But do we in fact deserve these things? This was the part yesterday that gave me pause. Because yeah. I DO think I deserve certainty. Which is just… not true. I’ve identified self-pity as the main driver of my drinking behaviour. At heart the rationale goes like this: “My life sucks, so I deserve to drink. If only I could get everything to go right… etc. etc.”

If your definition of a good life is certainty and security — certainly these are things that I crave constantly — you can be pretty sure that your life is always going to suck, because things are always going to be changing. There is no big-R Resolution. This leaves one — well okay me — with a dilemma: keep pouring beer and wine into bottomless place of feeling uncertain, or figure out how to make peace with uncertainty.

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The Perfect Metaphor for Addiction

One thing I keep reading about in my sobriety quest here is to watch out for the ways in which addiction can manifest itself in new ways. Master the alcohol thing, and whoops: something else pops in to the picture. My thing these days seems to be sugar: sugar, sugar, sugar. Bring on the sugar!!! That one is pretty common, apparently. Other “food issues,” may occur, or you find yourself drinking way more coffee, or smoking, or maybe you even swap out another drug – say weed – for your alcohol.

The prospect of cross-addiction is discouraging for those of us in early sobriety, but, as I discussed in an earlier blog, the same mindfulness and tools you use to stay sober can be applied to anything else in your life that seems to be claiming your attention in an obsessive way.

Obsessive craving can have any object. When drinking isn’t the object of my craving, it might be something else: Chocolate. Going for a run. Slow-cooked short-ribs. Another book I don’t have time to read. Another shirt I don’t need. So, the trick has got to be looking past the object of one’s craving and mull what the eff is going on when that craving is taking over your head and your body.

What is it with we human beings that we’re so damn needy? I’m convinced that the things most of us are after aren’t “things” at all, but feelings of belonging, recognition, and purpose. When we don’t get this, we go chasing after stupid stuff that feels like what we need, but isn’t. We want relief from the suffering that comes with feeling deprived, even when we don’t get what it is we’re really feeling deprived of.

Hungry Ghosts

hungry ghostsIn Buddhist cosmology (worldview), the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts is one of six human realms on the wheel of life. Each of these realms represents a human tendency in each of us that must be understood if we are to be liberated from suffering. Hungry ghosts are gory. This picture is typical. They look miserable, and they usually have these big swollen bellies because they are sooooo hungry. But the deal is they can’t eat. They try and try and try but the food bursts into flames when it goes down, or they have teeny tiny mouths or throats that won’t let the food down.

In traditional Buddhist/Hindu versions, hungry ghosts are getting their karmic comeuppance for being assholes in a previous life, but I’ve never bought the reincarnation aspect of Buddhism in any literal kind of way. Nor does Dr. Gabor Maté, who wrote In The Realm of the Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction. He’s all about compassion rather than judgement, and I like that.

Maté draws on the hungry ghost metaphor to describe the suffering of the many patients he has worked with in Vancouver’s east downtown: probably the most notorious catchment of poverty and addiction in Canada. The main message in Maté’s book is that addiction isn’t punishment for past misdeeds, nor the outcome of individual moral failings. Addictions are the outcome of unmet needs like that belonging, safety and purpose I mentioned above. The hungry ghosts are “ghosts” because they are trapped in past, trying to “feed” the gnawing emptiness of unresolved pain in their lives.

Maté’s patients are hard cases, and their unmet needs are obvious. Many are Indigenous Canadians who grew up under the worst of circumstances.[1] But this doesn’t stop Maté, an educated and comfortably well off white guy, from seeing himself reflected in the eyes of street alcoholics and heroin junkies. Cause he’s a junkie too. But his “fix” is classical music CDs. Yup. You just never know what your thing is going to be, right?

In one particular story that really stuck with me, he describes keeping his nine-year old son waiting for half an hour because he just has to go buy this one CD at his favourite classical music store. It really struck me because I thought about all the times when my kids were little that I’d pushed them beyond their limits of patience, hunger, or fatigue for just a little bit more shopping. All the times that some mindless hunger, that craving for something led me to make stupid, selfish choices.

We’ve all got a little or a lot of hungry ghost in us, don’t we? I’ve never been able to relate to the idea that I might be “drinking to numb,” which I know resonates with many. But when I think about alcohol addiction as the product of the wanderings of this sad, hungry human being with needs that feel insatiable: well, I see myself there. I still don’t know what to do about that, entirely. But I see the hungry ghost inside of me with some clarity now, and that recognition does help me to head that poor little sucker off at the pass. At least until I figure out what kind of nourishment she really needs.

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[1] I want to note here that here in Canada we treat our Indigenous people like shit. Always have. So, the high rates of addiction and poverty in Indigenous communities are the outcomes of intergenerational trauma. Maté’s work illustrates this sharply.

A Plug for Women for Sobriety

I’m home for a visit and I get to see my kids and some friends. I’m also going to drop in on the lone Women for Sobriety group in my home city. I decided this post should be a commercial for WFS because I am surprised that WFS groups have never achieved the kind of traction they should. I got this idea from my daughter’s girlfriend. I was telling her all the things I liked about WFS and she suggested a blog. So here it is!

I am not going to diss AA, but I will respond here to some common criticisms of AA and talk about why WFS might be an alternative. (This is directed at women, of course, but I’ll point out that WFS does have a Men for Sobriety branch.) I’ll also offer the very important caveat that I have not attended AA meetings. So, I’m just going from what some other people have told me has been a “put off” for them in AA. I’m agnostic on AA; I really can’t offer a personal opinion.

BUT well hey, the point is that if you are not into AA for whatever reason(s) here some reasons to think about WFS as an alternative. Because I do believe we need, need, need sober communities to stay sober, and it is great that there are alternatives.

AA Objection: I Don’t Like Dwelling on the Past

I know, I know. AA folks will immediately object that they do not encourage stuck-ed navel-gazing once you’ve done the grown-up work of accepting responsibility for dumb shit you’ve done in the past, and/or forgiven those you need to forgive. Nonetheless I expect that some AA meetings and members have trouble getting out of stuck, and that this may contribute to the perceptions (fair or unfounded) that AA is too much about remorse and regret.

In WFS, twelve steps are replaced with Thirteen Affirmations. The affirmations are written specifically to encourage women to think forward about building a new, positive life and self-image. In fact, the ninth statement explicitly stated: “The past is gone forever. No longer will I be victimized by the past. I am a new person.

In my experience, this statement doesn’t preclude the work of reconciling past actions and relationships; it’s not like you’re chastised for talking about the past. Instead the statement is a reminder that we only have control over how we direct our lives in the future. Which kind of leads to the next objection:

AA Objection: I Don’t Do/Get/Like the “Higher Power” Thing

I have consistently stumbled over the idea that I am powerless over alcohol and have to give my power over to…yada yada. I get why you have to admit defeat in the sense that you quit the futile effort to “control your drinking,” but I’ve had some unease around the way that AA frames agency, or one’s personal power to act and change.

WFS affirmations address this by focusing on taking control over one’s life in positive ways. This is captured in the first statement, “I have a life-threatening problem that once had me.
I now take charge of my life and my disease. I accept the responsibility.
” I think this focus on assertive self-care may be especially important for women, who generally tend to give away a lot of their personal power in their focus on caring for others.

AA Objection: Guys

I have nothing against guys. I like guys, and I have no trouble attending my mixed-gender Buddhist recovery group. But, for some women, substance abuse issues are tied in to past or present traumas that may include sexual or domestic abuse or violence. Someone or something (I can’t remember) made the very valid point that as a women-only space, WFS may provide greater safety for women who have had traumatic experiences with men in their lives. I’ve also heard that some AA groups have difficult managing those members who think the meetings are a great place to meet women.

Positivity

Something I really like about Women for Sobriety is its focus on the positive. I tend toward cynicism (I think its an occupational hazard), but its hard to stay cynical when a meeting discussion turns on something like the tenth affirmation, “All love given returns.
I will learn to know that others love me.
” It’s possible that these affirmations can be interpreted as “Pollyanish.” However, meetings are, like AA, focused on a given statement/affirmation, so they are places you can explore any feelings they might prompt in you – even cynical ones.

I think it is also helpful that these affirmations are stated aloud among a community of other women. It’s more powerful than trying to say things to yourself in the bathroom mirror. If you’re someone like me who has a default loathing of affirmations saying these things out loud can be challenging, but… well it’s a good challenge.

If for whatever reason you’re not feeling AA, Women for Sobriety may be an option for you. If I still lived in my home town I’d be back at my group in a heartbeat. At the end of the day, though, you really do have to find the group that’s right for you. Some of the folks I’ve met at my Buddhist group have told me that the “culture” of AA varies considerably from one group to the next, so if you’ve been put off by a past experience with any group, don’t give up!

 

 

Right Now, It’s Like This

I’ve mentioned in the past that Buddhism and recovery are intimately linked for me. I can’t remember how I stumbled upon podcasts from Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society. I didn’t even know at first that its founders had come to Buddhism through addiction and recovery, and when I first started listening to the podcasts, recovery wasn’t even on my mind. Who knows. Maybe that was what planted the seeds for me that quitting drinking was desirable and possible.

Noah Levine, started Refuge Recovery as a Buddhist alternative for recovery. Another founding member, Mary Stancavage, is a recovering/recovered alcoholic, and is, I think still my favourite speaker. One of the first things she said that really stuck with me was “Right now it’s like this.”

Well what’s that supposed to mean? Without a context it sounds stupid, right up there with the banal tautology, “it is what it is.” But it actually contains an important Buddhist insight for recovery, which is that you have to learn to sit with your unpleasant feelings, without judging them, and without going off all half-cocked trying to fix them.

Part of Buddhist philosophy is recognizing that shitty things are going to happen, and that the pain that comes from shitty things happening is just part of the human experience. Which sounds like a total bummer, I know. Who wants to hang out in a faith where the first noble truth is “All life is suffering?”

But the big paradox is that we suffer way, way more when we fight what hurts in life by denying it, numbing it, trying to beat it up, trying to fix it, or otherwise get rid of the pain. So, the challenge is to instead observe what makes you feel hurt, uncomfortable or angry, and just let yourself feel your feelings.

I need to stress that this doesn’t mean inaction. You don’t just go “Oh well, life sucks,” and give up. It’s just that you don’t take action until you are calm, and you’ve made some peace with the fact that something in your life is hurting.

Anyway, if you are someone like me who goes all reptile brain when confronted with shitty feelings, every fibre of your being screams “Do something!”[1] For me in the past “doing something” has included, among other bright ideas, running away from home, burning furniture, attempting suicide, and in less drama-fuelled instances, impulse buying and drinking.

Freaking out in response to my own pain has always been in part out of panic: “I’m going to feel like this forever!” That panic has been amplified by the extreme and instant reactions of my body to emotional stress. I just want the bad feelings to stop. So, you do stuff. Stupid stuff. Which, in the words of David Bowie, amounts to putting out the fire with gasoline.

Right Now, It’s Like This. But Not Forever.

The hardest thing in the world when you are in the throes of “do something!” is to sit and, as Stancavage describes, repeat “Right now its like this.” The “right now” part is a gentle reminder that you are not, in fact going to feel this way forever, no matter what your amygdala is screaming. The “it’s like this” part is recognizing that you’re not doing so great, and bringing some compassion to that. You acknowledge your own pain, and notice the tendency in your head to make it bloody worse by feeding it.

You know this thing? Say something simple where someone cuts you off in traffic or has thirty items in the 16-item express line. And you go off on this monologue in your head about what an asshole the person is. And by then you have a bunch of cortisol in your system and you feel like shit. And you wouldn’t have felt like shit now, fifteen minutes later, if you hadn’t fed the beast of your own annoyance imagining the person probably also beats her kids or cheats on his taxes, and it just isn’t fair and what is wrong with some people and…uggggggh.

Now think about how we do that stuff with our relationships and with “big problems.” The monologues are even worse. Buddhism helps adherents to recognize that we actually grow our own suffering when we dig into our pain, create stories around it, justify it, punish ourselves for it, punish others for it, or play the blame game. You feel worse. And you further elaborate on why you feel worse. Hence drinking, or your pathology of choice.

“Right now it’s like this” is a way to turn off the mental gymnastics. You acknowledge that you’re hurt or angry or anxious or scared, but you also try to stay with the recognition that in our lives, all of our feelings, good and bad, are in constant motion. You can stop panicking, and stop trying to fix and explain things when you are least equipped to deal with them. Honestly, you start to figure out that most of the feelings do in fact pass, and most weren’t half as big a deal as they felt in the moment.

For the tough stuff that doesn’t pass right away, you can call a truce with the fact that you are going to feel pain in your life. You just are. And that’s not fun but if you just breathe a bit and give yourself some space, you can deal with it like a grown up. Over time, you forge faith that you’ll figure out what to do about the pain once you’ve got yourself calmed down and your heart and mind are back at full capacity.

I’ve been learning that most of my awful feelings do pass. Really. My cravings for alcohol pass. My sadness passes. My anger passes. My anxiety passes. Every time I let myself just sit and feel those feelings without succumbing to “do something!” I feel a little less panic-struck the next time:

“Remember that thing and how you didn’t react, and if you’d reacted in that way you wanted to it would have been ten times worse?”

That. It’s a learning process. And I can safely say that every time I handle my pain – great or small – with calm dignity, I feel just a tiny bit better about myself.

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Endnotes

[1] It’s worth noting that the compartmentalization of brain functions has been critiqued as overly simplistic, and hence misleading. There’s a brief summary of this critique and an account of the origins of the “three brain” model via Wikipedia.

Self-Compassion

Okay I think I have this diagnosed, sort of. I’ve been having a really hard time lately with my Drinking Voice, which still sounds like woe-is-me. And I hate feeling sorry for myself. That doesn’t mean I don’t do it. I just hate it when I do do it.

Hate is a strong word. And I’m hating on myself. I kind of figured this out last Sunday at my meeting because someone came in with another self-compassion reading — this one from Brene Brown — and I had another viscerally angry reaction to the idea that I’m supposed to be all “accepting of myself just the way that I am.” Like people go around the circle saying “I liked the reading and here’s why.” And I’m thinking, “I hated the reading. Can I say that? Why do I hate the reading?”

Uggghhhhh. Hate, hate, hate. And all the feelings that come with that. I always think I’m too grown up now to have feelings of self-loathing. But I realized that the readings were pissing me off because I don’t want to be nice to myself. There is no self-compassion going on here. Somewhere along the way I rejected the core idea — and I mean core to both recovery and my Buddhist practice — that self-compassion is critical to healing both ourselves and the world.

So why can’t I muster self-compassion? I think it boils down to my chronic resentment of the world that I can’t get a permanent, full-time job. I don’t like feeling resentful. I don’t like feeling bitter. These feelings make me not like myself, so I get pissed off at myself for feeling these feelings. It’s like this: “If you are feeling resentment and bitterness it is because you are a loser and you should get over yourself. Lots of people have it worse than you do.”

I’m not sure what to do with this. I started in on Kirsten Neff’s book Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, and just “bringing awareness” to moments like when she says it is okay to physically hug and stroke yourself to show yourself compassion, which makes me want to thrown the book across the room. But that reaction is the problem, right?

I am just going to keep going and try to keep myself open to the message that self-compassion is good. In my head I know that is true, but my heart isn’t listening yet.

 

Tough Times

Things are tough these days. A good day is followed by a bad day. My cravings for alcohol have been more frequent and intense these past couple of weeks than I’d like. Last night I just wanted to buy a bottle of wine and some good Scotch, and sit on the couch with my husband, listen to music and get drunk.

I’m probably going to have to kick my own ass to get to my meeting on Sunday because I still want to self-isolate and push away the “good” messages about sobriety. I know they are true. It is just that right now I don’t want them to be true. What I want to be true is the the lie that alcohol will make me happy.

This is nuts. I don’t get it. How is it that I have been sober for 138 days now, and still, despite ample evidence to the contrary, believe that my life just *might* be better if I hit the bottle again?

I guess this is the seduction of alcohol. I was thinking a little bit about how people (including me) have described and thought about their relationship with alcohol as something that is, all at once, heady romance and dysfunctional fuckery. Your Drunky Voice is a bad boyfriend (or girlfriend) who is always waiting to suck you back in. The resonance of Caroline Knapp’s book title, “Drinking: A Love Story” lies, I think, in her insight that the addict’s relationship is intensely emotional in that way that an unhealthy romantic relationship is.

Perhaps the emotional relationships we have with alcohol explain why reasoning your way out of it seems, by itself, an inadequate strategy. Right now I feel like I’m hanging on to reasoning, but all my feelings say GO DRINK! I’m honestly not sure what to do about this. Not today at least.

“I Don’t Drink”

This really weird thing happened to me last Friday. I mean I did it, but it also happened to me. I’ll explain.

I started attending this discussion group thingie — part of my quest to get a life, socially, which I observed very early on in this quitting drinking thing was going to be important. But anyway. The discussion group was a BYOB event, and people brought snacks and stuff. I had a little bit of anxiety because I knew there would be wine, and I’d probably want to drink some. But I’m getting used to the idea that I just need to stock up with my own non-alcoholic drinks and kind of enter these things in a “state of readiness.”

So we’re settling in and talking about who has what to drink, who’s sharing, and whether anyone should make a run to the boozeteria in the building and buy more. There’s gin. There’s beer. There’s wine. “Well I don’t drink, so I’m good.”

Whaaat? Who said that?

Oh. Holy shit. It was me.

I’ve been trying to figure out what happened there. I remember a tiny pause before it fell out of my mouth, but it was only a tiny pause. It was kind of scary but empowering at the same time. The thing is, I really didn’t think too hard about it. Mostly I just said it. It didn’t feel particularly momentous. Which maybe means something.

I am working toward five months sober now, and I’m realizing that much of “month four” was very anxious. I decided to keep going past my initial commitment of 100 days, and those next 30 days or so were… well yeah. Anxious. Not white knuckle anxious, but just a lot of me wondering: “Can I keep doing this? Do I want to keep doing this?”

So now I’m thinking that when I said “I don’t drink,” it felt pretty natural. Far out. It may be a sign that I’m moving my identity from “someone who’s trying to quit drinking,” to “someone who doesn’t drink.” That isn’t something that’s happening over night. I’ve regarded it as an open-ended thing from the start. It’s been the only way I could do this without the “Oh my god what do you mean never drink again?” panic setting in.

But it’s also been unsettling to have it so open-ended. I think that explains the difficulty of Month Four. Anyway, it was kind of cool to have a moment where the destination of that journey felt like something real. I’ve been taking it on faith that this sobriety thing actually might have something to offer. (Otherwise you’re just perpetually miserable that you are being deprived.) My “I don’t drink” declaration felt like some faith rewarded — some real progress. I needed that.

Me and My Drunk Family

Sometimes I have wanted to drink to enter forbidden territory: to do things I normally wouldn’t do, and say things I normally wouldn’t say. This is a weird way of planning for your own chaos. “I wouldn’t actually, but if I got drunk I might and then it would be ‘cause I was drunk.”

Have you ever thought this way?

I can’t say I did this routinely when I drank, because I have never actually liked the feeling of being out of control. Sometimes I intentionally drank too much with my stepdaughters. It seemed the only way to connect without fear of their rejection, and the only way to make myself relatable to them across our very different family histories.

Lot of other times I fantasized about drinking to connect with others. Drinking is a “social lubricant” to be sure, but that’s not always just to get through hanging out with strangers or quasi-friends or co-workers. Honestly, those more distant relationships never troubled me too much.

But close relationships: that’s been another matter. Drinking just might, just might be the way to get feelings out that you have trouble expressing, or are scared to express, or even know you shouldn’t express but want to anyway. Parents, partners, friends, kids, siblings:

Could we drink and laugh and fight and hug and cry?

 Could we bond? Could we connect? Could we heal?

I know this is bullshit. Drinking to wrap a fuzzy glow around your relationships looks so great in the movies but in real life it is what I previously classified as “drama” and it is something you should run, not walk away from.

This doesn’t mean, however, that you can’t think about what it is you’re trying to accomplish with the “drinking-so-we-can-talk” thing. Maybe it’s a way to express your deep need for connection with others without accepting all the risks that come with this. After all, if things go sideways, or you make yourself too vulnerable, you can laugh it off the next day. “Ha ha! We were sooo drunk, eh?” Or, “Sorry I said that, man. I was sooo drunk.”

But part of you meant it. Or meant some of it. If you can remember what you said anyway.

A lot of the particulars of Freudian psychology have always struck me as (again) bullshit, but as a “movement” it very successfully communicates the importance of taking your unconscious and subconscious impulses seriously. There’s an awful lot rolling around under our surfaces, isn’t there? And alcohol (or your drug of choice) is appealing in part, I think, because it appears to offer direct connections to the deepest parts of ourselves and others – places where we normally (and sometimes rightly) fear to tread.

For me all of those complex feelings are bound up in my family – my complex, blended family of ex-partners, new partners, broken friendships, and the insanity of five girls who ranged in age from nine to seventeen when we met. My family has (as I’m sure been the case for most of us) the greatest source of both joy and pain in my life.

When I think about my family I want to get drunk. Sometimes that is because I’m all empty-nest now and I miss the craziness, even though it was far from all good. Sometimes I want to get drunk because when it worked for bonding, it worked great. I want to get drunk with my kids. I want to get drunk with my husband. I want another Christmas with twenty people in the house and we had a blast and yes, we were all drunk.

Mostly being sober is pretty manageable but when I think about my family: Yeah. Liquor store. When I try to understand this, I think it is just reflex to want alcohol to cope with the sheer emotional investment I made in my family, and the pain of not always having that reciprocated, or even recognized.

And when things went sideways (which they did often) I felt like a failure. Not the perfect mum. Not the perfect step-mum. Not the person who could dispense wisdom, stay calm, and shepherd everyone in the right direction. I couldn’t control the outcomes. I couldn’t get it right. Those failures run deep. Like Freudian deep. And a little irrational part of still craves both alcohol, and its partner in crime: namely, the fantasy that I could create the Perfect Family.

Managing my family relationships without drinking is still something about the future that scares me. We are going to see my husband’s kids soon, and his first granddaughter. I’m anxious about that. Drinking would help. On the other hand, my kids are super proud of me for quitting, and my oldest daughter, also in recovery, is a great inspiration and motivation for me to stay sober.

In so many ways, my Drunk Family has been the devil I know, and it is still the greatest pull I feel back to wanting to drink. But part of this sobriety thing is having the faith that you can make those relationships over in new, more authentic ways, right? And honestly, so far it is going fine. I just need to have courage: the courage to be myself and let everyone in my family be themselves too, without trying to control the outcomes.

Recovery is Messy

I have learned a lot about recovery over the past few months. One thing that never ceases to fascinate me is that it’s a process, not an epiphany. I mean its fascinating because even though I get it, I kind of marvel at how deeply entrenched the epiphany thing is — like for me personally, but also as a cultural thing. The pervasive “rock bottom” trope tells you that you have to come as close as possible to killing yourself as you can before the light bulb moment. Then you change.

I have a couple of thoughts on this. First: it’s bullshit. In an odd way, I think it can actually fuel nihilistic drinking. “I”m not there yet. I can keep going. I should keep going.” The (twisted) logic here is that the more effectively you propel yourself to the “bottom,” the sooner you can get better. Or something like that? But we drinkers are all about twisted logic right?

Second and more deeply, I think the “rock bottom” myth plays in to the hope that “if I’m fed up enough, willpower will come.” Rock bottom becomes “the event” that will magically infuse you with the mojo you need to quit for good. In other words, we think, somehow, that rock bottom will make quitting easier.

I think this is one of the reasons why we love redemption stories. They turn change in to a mysterious force from the outside that descends upon you, and smooths the path. But if there is one thing I’ve learned — be it quitting smoking, trying like hell to stay on top of  my to-do list, or shit-canning 90% of what I write before anything is published — it is that change comes out of getting up the next day and trying again.

It takes courage and fortitude just to ignore set aside the self-loathing you feel after you’ve bolloxed it up, and just start over. I don’t always have this courage and fortitude, for the record. But I try to remind myself that starting over is always good. Even if you feel like you are completely full of shit. Even if you don’t feel you deserve to try again. Even if you have failed fifty times before.

This is why recovery isn’t a tidy epiphany, or an “event.” It’s a process. Some of us who learn the hard way have to get realllly good at failing before we succeed. Trying to change and failing is normal. It’s really normal. So if I am talking to someone who is trying to moderate, or quitting for a few days or weeks at a time and always finding themselves back at the starting line, I don’t know what else to do but validate “trying again.” My kid and I talked about this once a while back. No matter how much wallowing you’re doing, and no matter how much you’ve botched up in the past, you can be sober today. Hard to argue with that logic, isn’t it?

Playing the Tape Through

tapeI guess this is an AA thing: a recovery tool you can use when you are experiencing a craving is to “play the tape through.” That is, instead of rationalizing your way into a drink, you “play the tape through” by imagining what happens after that initial, satisfying “Ahhh! Fabulous.” It goes like this: “Fuck it. Might as well have another one! And another.” And… hangover. Shame.

I recently spoke to a lady who had fallen off the wagon and quickly regrouped — how fortunate! — and this was precisely her experience. A drink with dinner turned in to an all-nighter, just like that.

The thing is, I wouldn’t do that. The first 24 hours of my tape, even the first few weeks, would be pretty tame. But you really do have to play the tape all the way through, whatever that looks like for you.

I was thinking about this a little bit last night when wine was calling out to me: “Drink me! Wouldn’t I be lovely with that big steak you’re about to tie in to? Steak is a special occasion! You can do it just this once!”

But I know, I know I know what this would lead to. My tape plays out something like this:

“Well. A glass of wine with dinner. That wasn’t so bad. Maybe I really can have a drink once in a while.”

One or two weeks later: “I think it is probably safe to have a glass of wine. I’ve waited a while.”

One month(ish): “Well so long as I’m having wine with this nice dinner a beer while I’m cooking wouldn’t kill me.”

Then the caution starts to dissipate, and false confidence kicks in: “Hey, I’m a responsible drinker now! I’ve totally got this. I will only drink if we are having a nice meal on the weekend, or if we are going out for dinner.”

Going out for dinner: “It’s a going out night so I’ll have a beer or two before we go out.” *Ends up hammered that night.*

“Oops that wasn’t good. I’d better be careful. I’ll do better next time.”

At this point I’m well on my way to getting back to daily drinking. “Being careful” is vague and means nothing, so this is about the time you start making rules for yourself, and you’re back in to the hell of moderating. Then you get tired of trying to moderate, and you just give up.

So, if you are a “high bottom” kind of girl like me and prefer the slow dull daily drinking to the more dramatic binge/bender pattern, your particular challenge might be like mine. Your “tape” might play out longer and more slowly than that of someone who cannonballs in to the deep end and gets smashed the first time they pick up the next drink.

This is a little bit sneaky. Well no actually its a lot sneaky because your ability to moderate in the early days of being off the wagon makes for a longer slower descent. So I find I’ve had to really think hard about all the stages of my rationalizing, because my tape plays out over a much longer time period.

I know this because I have had one experience with it already.  I’ve mentioned I quit for about 40 days three years ago. The first few times I brought a beer home — just one! Not keeping it in the house! — I was delighted that I’d achieved normal drinking. I think it took about two months before I’d fallen back in regular drinking, and maybe a couple more months before I was drinking daily again. But I was drinking daily again. This is the inevitable consequence of that first drink, months earlier.

In this sense, past efforts to quit or moderate are really useful sources of information. This means that any effort to quite for any period of time is a good thing. It might not stick this time, but it’s one more opportunity to learn about what your “tape” looks like.