Be Realistic

I’ve been thinking about my tendency to make changes in my life during periods of relative optimism — times when things are going pretty well for me, rather than those “rock bottoms” we’ve all heard so much about.

Two years ago (almost), I decided to take steps to change my drinking habits. Doing so was scary. I felt like I was inching my way out onto a thin wire, suspended over a yawning chasm of possible failure. But also, for the first time in a long while, I felt like there was a tiny spark of hope inside me. It was the hope that made me lean out over the terrifying void. Without hope, why bother trying at all?

Today, I feel like I am standing on firm ground. No chasm in sight, just this annoying rock that I keep stubbing my toe on. Yes, I would like to stop stubbing my toe — no more weekends with a night or two spent glugging beer on my couch! But, if I do stub my toe a few more times, it’s really not that big a deal. It’s not the same thing as falling to my doom. I can try again, or try something different, and I am confident that I’ll figure this out eventually.

Of course, all I’m in for now is a tune-up. It’s not the whole-life-makeover that I needed two years ago, more of an adjustment. That makes a difference too. But I still think that hope is important. I think we have to feel like things can change for the better, instead of feeling like we have to wait for them to get worse. It’s one of the things I like best about Moderation Management, that it’s based on evidence, and thus tells people true things — that problematic habits exist on a spectrum (and are easier to change now than after we’ve practiced them a few more hundred times); that we can change (but might need extra help to do so); that we are always capable of learning, and life skills are one of the things we can learn.

The truth is, most people who try to change their drinking habits succeed. I wish I’d known that two years ago: my tiny spark of hope could have really used the boost. I’m glad I know it now. And I’m glad that life continues to present these moments where the effort seems manageable, the timing seems right, and we can inch our way just a bit further toward our goals.

We often use the phrase “be realistic” to discourage people, to make them aim smaller. But when I think about it, I want to tell people to be realistic about this process. Because the reality is: it might not be pretty, it probably won’t be linear, and it will definitely take a lot longer than we’d hoped, but when we set out to change our drinking habits, the odds are in our favor.

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’tis the season

Ahhh, the time of year when we all recommit, or at least start thinking about doing better. Myself included! It’s not New Year’s Resolution time, but everyone I know seems to be sitting up, shaking themselves off, and deciding to try a little harder before the holiday disruptions hit. Or at least pledging not to eat *only* cookies for the next few months.

For myself, after a long period of successful moderation, I stopped being able to log into Abstar (my tracking tool). Just a glitch, but it happened at a moment when I just didn’t have much motivation. You know that feeling that doing X amount of work is totally worth it? Well, I just didn’t have it.

So I stopped tracking, and opted to go into autopilot mode. And you know, it actually went pretty well for a while. A surprising number of my new habits really are entrenched — I just do them automatically. I drive home and don’t stop at the liquor store. I go out with friends and order a beer, or decide I’d really rather have water, and that’s all I drink for the evening. I enjoy many alcohol-free evenings that are filled with all kinds of things, from meetings to hot mugs of tea, and this feels entirely normal. Delightful, even!

BUT (you knew there was a “but” coming, right?!), old habits die hard. For me, the stickiest habit has been drinking at home. Once I stopped tracking, it got just a tiny bit easier to decide to indulge in this particular unproductive habit. Not every night, and not in anywhere near the quantities I used to, but I welcomed the habit back into my life on the occasional weekend night. And once summer wrapped up, and the nights grew longer, and the weekends started being overwhelmed by soggy snowfalls and bitter winds, the creep became just a bit more determined.

I don’t have a dramatic tale of “relapse,” just a routine experience of occasionally finding an unwanted habit hard to resist. I’m not even particularly upset about it, I just think it’s time to recommit to doing better. Because really, I can do better, and all it probably takes is to start tracking again. If I’m not tracking, I’m not counting. If I’m not counting, I’m not being accountable for my own behavior. It really is the basic foundation that I rely on.

Unlike when I began, almost two years ago, I don’t feel ashamed of my drinking, or afraid that I can’t change. I just feel like I want to live a great life, one that reflects my values and contains a lot of love, adventure, and high-quality experiences. Most of the time, life is hard, and much too short. But my life also contains many opportunities for joy; I want to be able to seize them.

humming along

When I started this blog, I was thinking about drinking (or not drinking) very intensely. As is probably obvious from my total lack of recent posts, it’s just not at the forefront of my mind lately. That’s okay, but every so often, I think I ought to wrap things up here in some way. Not a happily ever after — this is not the end of my story, nor even (I imagine) the end of my efforts to drink within healthy parameters. Just a check-in, really, and an acknowledgement that I don’t really have much left to say on this subject.

Alcohol is no longer central to my life, nor is it entirely out of my life. I have not become a perfectly moderate drinker, but I’m really pretty close. And I have become more comfortable with my lack of perfection, reassured by the fact that an occasional mistake is not actually catastrophic, and that an occasional bad week is only a bad week, and not the beginning of the end. I also recognize that as I continue to grow older, health is something that I’m needing to pay more attention to in a variety of ways, and I will probably continue to need to revisit issues of diet, exercise, drinking, and so forth. Living is a complicated business, and I am far from having it all figured out.

When I started this journey, I just wanted to change my drinking. I didn’t intend to be introspective, or even use terms like “journey.” But, when I first stopped spending every evening drunk, I started discovering some embarrassing truths. Including the simple fact that I didn’t know what to do besides drinking. I’d treated drinking as a real activity — the main event — for so long, I couldn’t remember how else to fill downtime, or how else to fill my mind.

I knew that changing my drinking habits would be hard. I didn’t know that one of the hardest things would be discovering that I had become boring. It shouldn’t have been a complete surprise, I know, since I was perfectly aware of how I was spending all my spare time (and how much time was being converted to “spare” just so I could start drinking). But because I remained fairly functional, and most of my drinking happened in the evenings, I could pretend I was leading a full life…not just to other people, but to myself. It took cutting out the alcohol to realize just how much time I’d been wasting.

For awhile after cutting down, I relied upon new ways of filling time. I tried new hobbies, signed up for evening classes, cleaned the house, volunteered, went to bed early. All good things, but mostly, these were things I engaged with at a fairly superficial level. Like watching a movie, or eating a tasty meal — nice ways to spend time, but not much deeper than that. That seemed fine to me, because going through the motions was better than standing still.

Modern life offers an endless number of distractions, and I’ve been thankful for it. I also think that we (or I, anyway) need things that engage our deeper abilities, that we need interests that go beyond consuming (eating, drinking, buying, browsing, clicking), that we need to be challenged to think critically and creatively, and that we should be actively trying to figure out how to build healthy communities with other human beings. Some of these are things I’ve been working on for awhile, others seemed to involve a lot of trying and discarding new things, and a whole lot of feeling uncomfortable.

Imagine my relief when some of my new explorations eventually led me to things that burrowed down into my brain and wouldn’t let go. Projects, passions…call them what you like, but we all need things that challenge us to use our brains, our abilities, our hands, our empathy, our creativity, and all the other things that make us whole. I’ve found some things that fill me up, right up to the top, and make me stretch, and grow, and struggle to learn more.

That is the simple version, anyway. Real life tends to feel more complicated, and perhaps I will think of things differently tomorrow. For today, I am glad to be where I am. And I am forever grateful to the tools and people who helped me get this far — particularly the  Moderation Management resources & tools, and the great MM forum/community (and all the passionate people who work to keep it so fabulous). It’s not easy, but it’s absolutely worth it.

I am not the same person who started this blog, and the magnitude of the difference sometimes staggers me. I used to wake up in the middle of the night and think, “I really can’t keep drinking like this.” Then lie awake, terrified and hating myself, because I knew I would. Now, if I wake up in the middle of the night, I have so many things to think about. My brain is humming. My hands are itching for morning, so I can find time to do what I love. I am not always happy, but I have such great joy in my life; I am the same person, and yet, I am completely different.

Not happily ever after, just pretty good right now.

 

when the shine wears off

This is the third week in a row that I’ve gone to the gym almost every day. So far, it’s been kind of fun, I’ve been feeling very proud of myself, and I know I can look forward to a better summer hiking season if I keep this up.

As the third week unrolls, however, I can feel my motivation starting to flicker. It’s normal, at least for me — I always start an exercise program enthusiastically, hit my goals regularly for the first few weeks, and then fizzle. It’s not unlike several of my previous attempts to quit drinking: highly successful for a short period of time, but easily derailed once my momentum slows down.

In the early days of changing my drinking habits, I used to refer to this as the “LOOK WHAT I CAN DO!” feeling, a great leap of energy and euphoria from discovering that I could pull off this ‘abstaining’ thing for day after day. Then the shine wears off, the brand-new trick becomes increasingly tedious, and the thought that I have to keep this up forever starts feeling awfully depressing.

I also struggle with the fact that results are not instantaneous. What can I say, I like instant gratification. I also live in a culture where instant gratification is wildly over-promoted, with exercise gurus promising “overnight results,” self-help slogans suggesting you can turn your life around with this “one simple trick,” and an endless barrage of shiny ads promising immediate gratification for desires you didn’t even know you had. Message received: I want things to work right away, so I can move on to the next great thing. Also, I really hope that the next great thing is made of chocolate.

And so here I am, almost three weeks of regular exercise achieved, and I am not noticeably stronger, faster, more toned, or otherwise transformed. I’m just me, with a somewhat stinkier pile of laundry and a ravenous appetite (which might be due to the increased exercise, or you know, might just be because I like to eat). The shine is tarnishing, my new activity has a long way to go before it becomes an ingrained habit, and in the  meantime, it requires a considerable amount of effort. Sigh.

I’m trying to put the pieces together to make this a sustainable habit, and one of those pieces is figuring out how to navigate this (predictable) stretch between “LOOK WHAT I CAN DO!” and that far-off time when going to the gym is just part of my normal, everyday routine. It may be a long stretch, I don’t know…certainly, it won’t be as quick as I would like. But I feel a big surge of confidence every time I remember one thing: I already managed a huge change in my drinking habits, so maybe I can figure this out too.

Thinking back to what worked for me with drinking, I have a few ideas for how to navigate this little valley of dullness. One of which is to remove my focus from how I feel. We humans are fascinated by our feelings, but they can be a tremendous distraction. The truth is, gyms are full of people who don’t feel like exercising, they just do it anyway. I can’t only do the things that feel easiest, or most comfortable, otherwise I’d still be drinking wine all evening long…and anyway, the more we do anything new, the easier it starts to feel. So instead of obsessing over changing how I feel; I need to focus on changing how I act, and trust that my feelings will catch up eventually.

Focusing on a simple action, for the short-term, my primary goal is to continue to make it to the gym 4-5 times per week. That adds up to about 20 times per month, which I’m trying to track (note to self: get a calendar that would make this easier). Short-term goals should be quantifiable and achievable. Long-term motivation absolutely depends on regular, observable “successes,” so this sort of short-term goal setting helps a lot.

I’m doing what I can to remove obstacles to going to the gym, making “success” as easy as possible. I go at the same time every day (first thing in the morning — the time change might be part of why my motivation took a hit this week!). I have a gym buddy. I sort out my gym bag the night before, and make sure I go to bed at a sensible time (and don’t drink a lot, obviously).

I’m also focusing heavily on the auxiliary benefits. Three weeks of regular exercise simply aren’t enough to produce dramatic changes, anymore than my first 30 days without alcohol fixed everything in my life. But there are immediate, short-term benefits. For instance:

    • I am sleeping better and waking up more easily
    • I went for a steep hike, and wasn’t noticeably sore the next day (this is AWESOME!!!)
    • The day after my hike, I went back to the gym to lift (and felt like a BADASS!)
    • I am proud of myself each time I make it to the gym, and start my day feeling like I’ve already accomplished something important
    • I have missed days at the gym, and then gone a day or two later — recovering from “going off-plan” is such an important skill for me to practice
    • Gym time is something I share with my partner, which means we are starting each day with a shared activity, which makes both of us happy

Each of these is worth celebrating, and I do. I’m lucky enough to live with my gym buddy, so on our way out the door, we discuss how proud we are of ourselves, or how much we enjoy stealing a little quality time together. My partner has started referring to gym mornings as our “date mornings,” only semi-jokingly. But even on my way home afterward, when I am by myself, I spend a few minutes sincerely congratulating myself for having made it to the gym one more time.

Will any of this, or all of this, be enough to effect a long-term change in my slothful behavior? I honestly have no idea. But even if I manage to keep up my gym habit for just a couple of months, I believe I will enjoy considerable benefits. I have a hiking trip planned for early May, and it will be FAR more enjoyable with a month or two of regular exercise beforehand. Really, any amount of exercise is always good, so I should just keep doing what I’m doing. Eventually, I hope to find a different kind of shine, or at least, a comfortable sort of glow that can stick around.

the drinks we keep

I’ve spent the last six weeks working on a project that threatened to overwhelm me. Tuesday night was the day of the big decision — would our hard work make a difference, or would we lose this thing in a big way? Two hours before midnight, the decision finally came down: we won.

Along with the relief and exhaustion, I wanted to celebrate. Not with the big group, just with my co-organizer — the one person who actually understood all the agonizing, the late nights, and the hard work that actually made this happen. We went over to her house, canvased her fridge, found just one beer, and split it happily into two small glasses. A few other people came over, we hung out exuberantly until my yawns became too obvious, and then I wandered off home.

Deciding to moderate means I get to decide which drinks I want to keep in my life. Of those I’ve chosen to hang onto, my favorite are those I share with others, especially the celebratory sort.

It has nothing to do with the contents of the glass, of course. It’s the celebration, and the sharing. It’s sitting down at a battered kitchen table, raising the glasses, and meeting the eyes of the person who was standing shoulder-to-shoulder with me in this particular struggle. We could have toasted with water, with corn chips, with a fist bump.

When given the choice, I like being able to toast with something alcoholic, because I like the way the slight buzz amplifies my feelings of relief, release, and jubilation. And I like the ritual of it, the social moment of recognizing a shared joy and enjoying a shared treat. But the drink is the smallest part of that, and that’s good too. It means I’m not losing my sense of elation to that nagging desire for more buzz, more beer, more numbing intoxication. There was a time, not that long ago, when the fact that it was only half a beer would have frustrated me. I’m glad that part is past too. It was late, and I was tired: half a beer was plenty!

As things go, this was actually the first (and thus far, only) drink I’ve had all month. The fact that it’s rare helps make the toast feel more special — I can tell you from experience that there is nothing special about a “treat” that I give myself every day. It’s the paradox I keep rediscovering: by drinking only rarely, I end up free to enjoy a drink anytime I really want. The less I drink, the less I need to think about my drinking. It took awhile to get here, but it turns out to be a good place to be.

 

itchy feet and winter blues

I get a semi-annual case of restless feet, as my urge to wander kicks in hard each winter. Usually in November and around February/March…there’s probably some connection to the rapidly-shifting length of the days. It makes me cranky, I feel like running away from home, and that “life’s not fair/I deserve a break” feeling kicks in pretty hard. Doesn’t help that I’ve had a cold, or maybe several colds in a row, for about five weeks now. Or that there are some things going on in my work life that are generating indescribable amounts of stress.

Once upon a time, my answer to this was the same as my answer to everything: more wine. It didn’t fix anything, but it made getting through a cranky evening feel briefly better. But I don’t do that anymore; in fact, the idea isn’t even appealing. It’s not a question of talking myself out of it, it’s just that the impulse has died down to a flicker.

A year ago, I wouldn’t have believed that was possible. The way we feel seems so real, so profound, that it can be incredibly difficult to imagine feeling any other way. During my first six months (or so) of changing my drinking habits, I pretty much resigned myself to feeling deprived/inauthentic/unhappy about it. I couldn’t control my feelings, so I just concentrated on controlling my actions. Then, as I drank much (much!) less, for a long enough period of time, I was surprised to find that my feelings started to catch up. The “not wanting” feeling is the result, not the cause, of drinking less — a distinction I find important.

(Re)gaining control of our drinking doesn’t fix everything. It certainly hasn’t turned me into a nicer person, or smoothed out all the bumps in life. But it is enormously freeing. In spite of all the irritability, both real and seasonal, I’ve rarely felt less burdened by alcohol-related thoughts. When I notice them, it’s by their absence — I catch sight of the fact that I’m not thinking about needing a drink, feel surprise and pleasure, then return to my other preoccupations.

So what about the stress and cranky evenings? Well, some it is just inevitable. The itchy feet may just by my weird brain buzzing away, but the work stress is real, and largely outside of my direct control. Drinking wouldn’t make it go away — in fact, by exacerbating depression/anxiety, drinking tends to make me feel more stressed over time, even as it pretends to be a short-term solution. One of the skills I’ve learned over the last year is to drink less during the stressful times: an occasional drink is something I still enjoy in good company, but I don’t drink at all during the cranky/stressful/angry/sad times.

Most of the time, stress goes away naturally. That’s certainly true for my seasonal restlessness, and probably true for most of the work-related stress too. Sleep helps. Exercise helps a lot. But time helps most of all. When time doesn’t help, it’s usually because there’s an underlying problem that needs to be fixed. Somewhat to my own amazement, I’m actually getting better at addressing those problems directly. Once I stopped relying on a maladaptive coping mechanism, I really did have to figure out some more functional skills, and solving problems directly turns out to be a pretty effective one (who knew!?!).

I’m still trying to figure this out, because clearly, stress is just one of those things we all have to deal with in various ways for the rest of our lives. I don’t have all the answers for myself yet, although I am learning to accept that stress is sometimes inevitable, endure it, and let it pass. Not everything needs an instant fix, and accepting that is a novel sensation. Maybe I can still fantasize about running away from home, while also staying put and engaging in the things I need to finish up first.

one year

January 27th, 2016 was the day I decided — tentatively, fearfully, not quite letting myself think about it too much — to take concrete steps toward changing my drinking habits. Twelve months later, and I can’t say I’ve figured everything out yet. But I’m not so tentative, I’m not so afraid, and I find myself free to think about any number of things now.

The past year has been enormous in terms of self-confidence, self-control, personal growth, and all that good stuff. Personal shrinkage too — my body continues to change and become healthier as I continue to use it for things other than soaking up liter upon liter of wine. I’ve saved hundreds of dollars. I’ve enjoyed dozens of well-chosen drinks, and a couple hundred comfortably alcohol-free evenings. I feel normal, for lack of a better word…or as much like normal as I really want to be anyway.

It’s been a good year for me in ways that have no obvious connection to alcohol too. That’s not a coincidence. The fact that things in general was going better was one reason I found the courage to try (again) to change my drinking, but also, of course, drinking substantially less does have a way of opening up other opportunities. It is both cause and effect, all in one, and creates a cycle of a whole new sort. I’ve traveled more this year than any year in recent memory. I’ve been involved in some good projects here in my own community too. I’ve felt more like my favorite self than I have in years. I’ve felt more free than I can remember.

Adding up all my numbers over the past twelve months, I find I have consumed an average of less than one drink per day. That’s a huge reduction from the many years before, and comes close to being within healthy drinking limits. I intend to do a little more trimming and pruning, so the number for the next twelve months will be somewhat lower…but it’s a comparatively small adjustment, when contrasted with the changes I’ve already made. When I was drinking problematically, or even in the early stages of attempting moderation, I simply could not form a mental picture of what “moderate drinking” actually looked like. Now that I’m closer, it’s coming into much better focus.

I also don’t have as much to say about it as I thought I would. That’s okay. For awhile, thinking about (not) drinking took up a huge amount of my attention, but as more and more of my new habits became ingrained, I’ve found myself free to think about all kinds of other things as well. Which is one of those things you hope for, isn’t it? I did, anyway, wishing desperately that I could get to a point where alcohol had moved so far out of the center of my life that I just didn’t find myself preoccupied with things related to it. It’s a good thing, but also means that I am probably going to post infrequently, if at all, to this blog in the future.

Having tipped my terrified self onto the path of moderation, and then determined to fake my way through a lifestyle change until it felt more real, I feel that I’ve emerged out the other side with a better understanding of how I want to live my life. I have a better understanding of why choice, freedom, and control are important to me, and how to work toward those things in various areas of my life. Instead of feeling desperately broken, I have started to figure out how to move my lifestyle into closer alignment with my values, and it’s a pretty cool thing. So as the next year unfolds, I am working toward some other changes. Feeling like I actually have the power to make those changes is a strange, wonderful thing, and one I can trace directly back to moderation.

It’s been a great year.