“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.

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#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.

 

 

 

 

Reprogramming My Brain

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

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

patio

Ahhhh, patio season!

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

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

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

Easier on Myself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Cottage Cravings! Ugh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hopefully every craving you survive makes you stronger?

 

Dem Precepts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hey! I’m Less Stupid!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The 30 Days Post

(Well actually today is Day 32, but I’ve been busy!)

I had a really crucial conversation with my daughter (who is in recovery as well) right around the time I quit drinking. I’d been toying with the 30 days thing but, as I shared with her, the last time I pulled off 30 days, it was only a matter of a few weeks before I was back to old form. “How long does it take,” I asked her, “before quitting stops being a total drag?” In her experience, and in common lore among the NA/AA crowd, it seems that the 3 month mark is a bit of a turning point.

I took a deep breath. “I’m thinking about doing 100 days this time,” I said. Saying that out loud for the first time, I felt like I was making a commitment. My daughter would not and has not asked that of me, but I know that was the moment I made the commitment to myself.

Part of this was fuelled by solidarity. It was a way I could quietly support my kid, who is still in fairly early days herself. But part of the commitment was sparked by genuine curiosity: What would happen at the three-month mark that didn’t happen in the first thirty days? Maybe nothing. But maybe something. I guess I’ll find out.

My first thirty-day sobriety bout was more difficult than this has been. I counted *hard.* I toyed vaguely with permanent abstinence, and attended Women for Sobriety meetings, but I just couldn’t get my head wrapped around whether or not I actually needed to quit drinking. And I never seriously visualized or thought of myself as a non-drinker.

I think what is different this time is that I am much, much more open to the (growing) possibility of ongoing sobriety. Before, I was (figuratively but sometimes literally) drumming my fingers and pacing, waiting for the thirty days to be over. I expected white-knuckling, and that’s what I got. This time, I’ve spent these past thirty days observing how I feel (lots through this blog), and actively practicing sobriety.

What does practicing sobriety look like for me? Well not a whole lot different on the outside except I find I need to keep myself busier in the evenings, which — surprise! — is less difficult when I’m not sitting on my ass all night.  I’m going to bed earlier, and giving myself permission to have dessert. I’ve been experimenting with and embracing non-alcoholic beverages like drinking vinegars. (I know that sounds revolting, right? But they are freaking delicious.) Instead of just coping with not drinking, I am thinking in terms of changing the habits that accompany my drinking.

Most of the practice of sobriety in on the inside though. It is “trying on” the sober identity, like you’d try on something you never thought would look good on you. It’s bringing some patience and mindfulness to cravings instead of just feeling pissed off or sorry for myself that I can’t have a drink. A lot of it is just not judging the experience, if that makes any sense. I’m not expecting it to be great, or awful. It just is what it is.

I still feel a little stupid committing to 100 days instead of sobriety forever. I still feel trepidation using “drinking” in the past tense, or saying I “quit drinking” with finality. I’m scared I will sabotage myself if I start thinking “never again.” I’m feeling very positive about one hundred days. But the real goal, in my heart of hearts, is to finish 100 days with the desire to keep going. Maybe this is just my way of doing the “one day at a time thing.” It’s a weird little mind game, but its working for me.

 

 

 

What Would It Fix?

I think I am finally coming off the early sobriety pink cloud I mentioned a couple of weeks ago. The last week has been somewhere within the range of  “meh” to downright bummed out.

You do hear some great things about early sobriety: relief from the guilt, a sense of possibility, having more energy, and no hangovers! (I super love the last one.) This can lead to magical thinking about sobriety: Once I am sober, everything will be awesome. But sobriety doesn’t change you. It doesn’t change everything. It just gets you and your bad boyfriend, alcohol  (Cap’n Mo — I told you the drinking voice in my head is a pirate), out of your damn way so you can work on changing.

27727875ba5bffa70f11b819342845d5--captain-morgan-drinks-spiced-rum

Come on, baby; you’ll feel better.  You know I love you.

I knew drinking wasn’t going to “fix” everything when is I started this. I knew it. But there are things you know in your head that you don’t know in your heart and soul until you’ve lived them. Now I am working my way in to living a life that is, at present at least, about the same as its ever been, sans alcohol.

One thing that keeps going through my head when I have a wild attack of self-pity or frustration is just thinking “Okay I could drink tonight. I could totally choose that. I could observe myself buying a bottle of wine, triumphantly opening it, drinking it, and uttering a satisfied “There. That’s better. Fuck it!”

But what would it fix?” Seriously? I might have a few minutes of feeling like I got some treat I’d somehow earned just for having a bad day as a human being, but I wouldn’t feel any better going to bed half cut than I feel going to bed sober. And I’d pay for it the next day in guilt, guilt guilt: “To hell with it. Might as well buy a bottle tonight too. I can’t do this. I suck.” Self-pity/shame spiral. That’s how you fall off the wagon.

I got through the night before last without drinking, and it was still a crap night, but it was a crap night unaccompanied by the delusion that I needed alcohol to get through a crap night, or that alcohol would somehow make the night less crap. Once you stop operating under that very entrenched belief that alcohol “takes the edge off,” you can see that your life is just your life with all its regular ups and downs that happen no matter what. And you can at least start asking yourself, “Okay. This is my life. Now what?” That’s a scary feeling. But it is a different and better feeling than being stuck on the roller coaster. At least my feet are on the ground now.

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.