hope

I did not plan this “30” in advance. Oh, I’d been thinking about changing my drinking habits for a very long time, both in the 4am “I’m a broken person who needs to stop” sort of way and a more subtle, kinder, fragile determination that was growing somewhere deep inside me. But I am slightly embarrassed to say that what actually happened was that I ran out of wine one day and decided not to buy more.

Running out of wine actually happened a lot (I was drinking about a liter and a half of wine every evening, so I ran through it rather quickly!), and was something I devoted an astonishing amount of energy trying to manage, prevent, and fix via hasty runs out to the liquor store. What was different about this particular day in January? Well, I wasn’t feeling great, so I recall feeling that it might be easier just to take a day off (I sort of snuck up on the idea of taking more than just one day off). And deep down, that fragile, careful feeling of determination had been steadily growing, and I’d been doing my best to nurture it, until it finally coalesced into a tiny, flickering spark of hope.

I did not change my drinking habits out of fear, self-loathing, or “hitting rock bottom,” I did it because I started to believe that things could be better. Not consistently, not strongly, and not loudly, but just a tiny bit at a time, a little tickle of optimism that I did my best to protect.

It was a pretty weak flicker at first, which is partly because it is chemically difficult to feel good (as in happy, optimistic, or capable) while also drinking two full bottles of wine every single night. Your brain just can’t do it. But as things have started to level out, and as the mental & emotional chaos caused by drastically cutting down starts to fade, I find that the little spark of hope sometimes flares up into a huge, thundering beacon of optimism. “Sobriety” (in the sense of healthy drinking habits, whether zero or moderate) is exciting! Not perfect, not easy, but holding an astonishing amount of possibility.

It is also sometimes boring. Not because drinking is actually more interesting than not drinking (it feels more interesting. It isn’t, really). But because life itself has a lot of boring parts. Also depressing, sad, infuriating, stupid, aggravating, and disappointing parts. That’s life. Even on the boring rainy days, it’s still good to feel that little flicker of hope, sticking with me.

Advertisements

a short story about relationships and rain

Several weekends ago, I was having a very bad day. A number of personal & professional disappointments had coincidentally arrived all at once, it was raining heavily, I was feeling discouraged, my partner was also depressed. I wanted to drink.

Of course I wanted to drink! It had worked to help me through days like this before, and it promised to help the time pass. I never thought drinking cured anything, but it made bad days feel a little more removed, let me feel like I had a solution for crummy days. A day like this was perfect for grabbing a twelve-pack, turning on the television, and doing my best to switch my brain off.

I was sitting on the couch, with the rain hammering on the windows, the house becoming gloomier by the second, wishing I could drink. My partner jumped to his feet, insisting that we had to go out. We went out. We ran through the rain, shocked by its coldness, to eat a hasty snack at a terrible fast food restaurant, and we started laughing at the idea that this was somehow better than sitting in our warm, snug house. We splashed over to the discount movie theater for $2 tickets to a movie that would be released on DVD within the month, bright-eyed and grinning at each other. It wasn’t the most special of days, but it was one of those times where you feel suddenly great as a couple, like it was us against the world, a reminder that we’re good friends who laugh at the same dumb stuff.  And if I’d been drinking, I would have missed the whole thing.

Maybe next time I’ll be the one who jumps up and insists that we run headfirst into the rain. This time around, I’m okay with being the one who is working on some hard changes and sometimes needs an extra nudge. The laughter, greasy food, wet feet, and hope are things we can share between us.

the J-Curve of Change

This is post has pictures.

Well, one picture. A graph, actually. I hope you did not get your hopes up too much.

Here it is, the J-Curve of Change:

j-curve

This little picture is used in a lot of different contexts, to describe the economy or corporate takeovers or how hard it is to learn to drive shift. It describes what happens when you try to change the status quo.

Most of the time, when you try something new, it’s because you think it holds the promise of tremendous progress. What you are already doing must be working to some degree. It’s not going to get you to where you want to be, but it’s been working okay for a while now, and there’s a certain level of skill mastery, so it’s hard to give it up and try something new. You take that risk because you expect great rewards.

What you expect is that you will follow that little red dotted line — that from here on out, things will immediately be better. But the problem is, you have not yet learned to do the new thing as well as you did the old thing. Your results are probably going to be worse at first, because you are trying to learn something totally new, and you usually can’t do something brand-new quite as well as whatever you had practiced doing before.

That moment when your expectations and your reality diverge is scary, but it’s nowhere near as demoralizing as the fact that they will keep getting further apart for some time after that. You can be trying with all your might, and actually learning at a pretty decent rate, but because you already had something that was working for you, it feels like perpetual failure. You plunge down into the valley of despair, and it is a long, hard slog through that valley until you get to a point where the new habits are starting to work as well as the old habits. Even longer until you come close to closing the gap with your expectations.

Many people give up somewhere near the bottom part of the curve. They decide that they must be doing something wrong, that the new habit/skill might work for other people but simply doesn’t work for them, or that they’ve simply hit an unacceptable level of failure, and they go back to what they already know will work. Even though they were actually learning normally. Even though only the new skill offers the chance to get where they want to be.

The J-Curve is not a guide to overcoming addiction (and nobody should mistake me for an expert on that anyway). It’s far too linear, too convenient, to really illustrate life. But it’s still a nice visual reminder to me to stop expecting immediate results when I’ve made a big change. Yes, I had hoped that I could quit drinking-to-excess and everything in my life would immediately improve. But in fact, I am trying to learn some challenging new skills, and finding it really difficult sometimes. Relearning moderation feels weird, artificial, and uncomfortable. It feels unsustainable, insufficient to get me through life. Every setback feels hugely magnified. It’s hard to feel motivated to keep slogging through this valley, sometimes. It even feels like things are getting worse instead of better. Drinking might not have been a good coping strategy, but it enabled me to cope, in my fashion. Without drinking, I do not have a pocket full of shiny new coping mechanisms, I have a flabby handful of new things I’m trying. And I am not very good at most of them (yet).

This picture reminds me that this feeling is normal. It has to do with the gap between my expectations and my experience, not with an objective assessment of how I’m really doing. It reminds me to search out other measures of progress, to help motivate me to keep struggling, enduring, and waiting until the expectation gap starts to close. My Abstar row is one such measure: even though I frequently felt like I was barely getting by, the numbers tell a very different picture. Feedback from the MM forums, and from my partner, have been others. This is one reason I’ve concentrated so heavily on celebrating small successes and listing benefits, because I want to continue to feel motivated as I slog through the valley. Those small successes are real; the feeling that I’m failing may just be an error in perception.

truer selves and finding my balance

I am back from almost a week of camping. It was fun, fulfilling, and exactly what I wanted, which is not something that can be said for every vacation. Even with the rain, snow, hail, ticks, and various other minor inconveniences, it was just right.

Drinking-wise, I didn’t have anything to drink during the five days away, and I didn’t have any drinking urges, and I didn’t think much about drinking (or not drinking) at all. Then, as we were driving back last night, it occurred to me that I would like a drink when I got home, so we grabbed a six pack and drank beer on the couch, freshly-showered and still dazed from the shock of being home again. Three beers; within moderate limits.

For a lot of people, camping and drinking go together. Not for me. Actually, when drinking started to become a growing part of my camping and hiking adventures, that’s when I started to realize that drinking was changing who I was (dimly, anyway, through the confusion created by my alcohol-soaked brain). We all have passions that help drive our choices in life, and spending time in wild places — hiking, paddling, backpacking, camping, or just being — is one of mine. When I talk about hiking or camping, I’m talking about part of the bedrock of my truest identity, that version of myself that I am trying to fight my way back to. Alcohol was never a big part of it, and ended up eroding more of it than I’d like.

So, for the last five days, I felt like my favorite version of myself again. It was not perfect, but it was intensely profound. I am still trying to process it. It was a glimpse of who I used to be, or who I hope to be, and it was (necessarily) of limited duration, because I knew I had to come home and resume normal life again. But it didn’t feel like a complete fluke either. It felt almost…normal?

I’m still not sure if wanting a drink when I got home was habit (getting home, especially while tired, is an obvious trigger for me), or something more like mild grief over the end of a vacation. I guess I don’t need to pick it apart too much, other than as past of my continuing quest to figure out when I can (or cannot) go ahead and have a drink.

What I do know is that part of me felt resentful for coming home and having to start thinking about this again. I expect I am not the only person trying to change her drinking habits who gets frustrated by how much time, energy, and attention this takes. The version of myself that I most want to be focuses her attention, energies, and passions on things other than drinking (or not drinking) — community, friendships, hiking, exploring, hobbies, etc.. It was really nice to get to do that for this past week. It was kind of deflating to come home and realize that I probably can’t just keep coasting, that I have to get back online and log my drink count into Abstar, and make sure I keep holding myself accountable. I honestly don’t know if I’ll ever get to relax and just count on my new habits to keep hanging around. Probably not entirely.

The flip side of this is that because changing my habits takes so much energy, it’s tempting to treat it as a full-time hobby in itself, until “the struggle” — all this work involved in changing my habits — actually becomes part of how I define myself. Which isn’t my objective either. Somehow, I want to find the trick of paying just enough attention to make sure I keep making changes, but not so much that I forget to rebuild more enriching parts of my life. It feels hard to get the balance right. It feels worth it to keep trying.

tools & strategies: moderation (very first steps)

Moderation is complicated for me to write about, because there is so much to it, and so much I am still figuring out. For this post, I’m just going to focus on a few early skills I found useful.

  • Abstinence (yes, still)
  • Not romanticizing moderation
  • Breaking new skills down into bite-sized pieces
  • Practicing stopping
  • Record-keeping

I said before that abstinence is my safety raft, and I still feel that way. Abstinence is a place to rest, a place to gather my courage, a tool to help me think without alcohol influencing my brain. But alcohol is not the only thing that plays tricks on my brain. Feeling stuck, feeling trapped, feeling like I have to be perfect…all these things trip me up. In other words, I want to be careful that I don’t feel trapped on that raft, just in case I over-react by leaping headfirst into whitewater.

Moderation helps me balance things out, helping me feel flexible enough to be comfortable. But moderation is not my reward for abstinence. Drinking is never going to be as central to my personal reward system as it used to be, and making my peace with that is obviously an ongoing process, as several posts on this blog demonstrate. Early in my moderation efforts, I didn’t think about this too much, because it was so overwhelming….I just tried to think of moderation as a real skill to learn, not a fantasy about drinking like I used to.

Learning new skills is incremental. I could stick with the swimming analogy here. When we start learning to swim, we practice achievable things like floating, getting comfortable sticking our faces underwater, and kicking. Later on, those things become instinctive and we focus on more advanced skills, because those skills have now become achievable. The things we work on should increase in complexity at a pace that matches our learning speed. Too slow, and we get bored (and give up). Too fast, and we get overwhelmed (and give up). But — and this is important — as long as we’re learning, we’re always working just as hard. Dog-paddling across the shallow end takes just as much effort as maximizing the efficiency of our breaststroke will later, they’re just two different points on the learning curve (and an efficient breast-stroke will take you further, through rougher water, but let’s leave this analogy behind for a bit).

That is great in theory. In practice, it would probably help if you at least knew how to swim before trying to teach yourself the basic skills. I had no idea how to moderate, and when I realized that, I panicked. That’s part of why my “30” lasted 45 days: I was trying to figure out what to do next, and I didn’t know where to start. I wanted to break moderation down into tiny steps, but I did not know what those steps were.

The scariest thing to me about trying moderation was that I might start drinking and never stop. After all, I had done that before. Several recovery groups claim that problem drinkers must either abstain completely or fall off the wagon completely, and those messages permeate popular awareness, lodge in my brain, and form the stuff of nightmares and self-doubt. So I decided I probably needed to start by learning how to stop. I used the same tools I had already practiced for abstinence (planning, accountability, visualization, and so forth), and tried to set up situations where I could simply practice stopping.

Practicing stopping is no different from practicing having one drink (or two, or even thirty-five), except that it shifts the emphasis away from enjoying the drinks and onto sticking the landing. This shift in focus might have been a good thing for me, because the fact is, I didn’t enjoy most of my first attempts to practice stopping. It was just as hard as abstinence had felt in earlier stages. It made me frustrated and irritable, triggered urges, and sometimes seemed totally pointless. But I wasn’t trying to celebrate the drinking experience, I was celebrating the stopping. This seemed to make a difference. In fact, it seemed to work pretty well for me.

Describing all this now seems so easy. In reality, I fought my way to each moment of illumination. For most of my first month of attempting moderation, I mostly felt impatience, confusion, and like I was just faking it. I did not feel like I had anything figured out, and every experiment with moderation made me feel like I was in immediate danger of getting sucked down by an undertow. What made it all come together was that I kept records. I counted every drink on Abstar, and filled in every little zero for the days when I abstained. I counted up my successes too, to keep up the habit of providing myself with as much timely reinforcement as possible.

I say that practicing the skill of stopping seemed to work. But it never felt like it was working. I just counted up my drinks, and started to realize that, empirically, this was a skill I was accomplishing more often than not. And if it wasn’t, I could recognize that and “re-set the challenge,” picking an easier situation to try to practice the same skill until I got better at it. It was rough, imperfect, and fundamentally unsatisfying.

It was a pretty decent start.

tools & strategies: abstaining (later)

I still use the tools and strategies I relied on during the first few weeks of my 30+, but over time, things shift. What was once hard was now easier, what had once seemed impossible was now worth considering. Over my second, third, and further weeks, I could expand my use of these tools, and maybe even try new challenges.

Incremental progress is an essential part of skill acquisition, so recognizing that it was happening to me was a huge confidence booster. I added a few new tools, and started practicing them in new settings, and feeling like I was starting to lay the foundation for really becoming good at abstaining. Some of the new tools I tried and liked:

  • Anticipating triggers
  • Practicing saying “no”
  • Observing how “normal drinkers” behaved
  • Raising the difficulty level when I felt ready
  • Giving myself breaks when necessary
  • Celebrating my progress

Even if I could, I did not want to spend the rest of my life sitting around watching movies every night. Once that became relatively easy for me, I started trying to identify some “less triggering” options for evening activities. This was surprisingly hard, by the way — I had incorporated drinking into so many facets of my life that it was hard to find an option that didn’t include the habitual ordering of drinks. Once I thought of an option, I would walk myself through the evening in advance, identifying the moments where I would have to say no and practicing ahead of time. Going to my favorite Indian restaurant without ordering a drink? Well, that would start with not picking up the drinks menu, and with telling the server that I was going to stick with water tonight.

Not ordering a drink was one thing, but actually saying no to a free drink was another. Over a month into my 30+, I went to a gathering at a friend’s house and was offered wine. “Thanks,” I said, “but no wine for me tonight! Do you mind if I grab myself some water?” Yes, I had practiced that ahead of time. Several times.

Then I spent the whole night watching how other people drank. It turns out, more than half the people at that gathering also said no to offered wine. I’m honestly not certain I would have noticed that if I hadn’t been thinking about it so much, and nobody looked sad to go without. The people who were drinking wine mainly stuck to a single glass, except our host, who had two whole glasses and confessed to me the next day that she felt like she’d overdone it. I did not reciprocate with a confession about how I used to drink at least two bottles of wine every single night. Maybe I’ll tell her someday. Maybe not.

Any behavior gets stronger with practice. I know this from other things, and assumed it applied to abstaining too, even though it felt really hard at first. The more I practiced, the more it felt easy to me to come home (without stopping at the liquor store), go grocery shopping (without stopping at the liquor store), go out for dinner (without ordering drinks), or even have a bad day (without drinking it away). Cravings came and went, and I practiced getting through them. And even though the urges and emotional struggles didn’t magically go away, my confidence grew, which made it a little easier to handle them.

One example that helps illustrate how much easier things get with practice. On the first Saturday morning of my 30+, I wrote this on the MM forums:

Grumpy night last night, which I anticipated. Friday nights I have a 4 hour commitment (big group event, no alcohol but exhausting). Driving home after, I am always that perfect combination of too-wired-to-sleep and totally-drained-of-self-control, and always swing by a liquor store for something to take the edge off. I thought it over earlier, and opted to leave my wallet at home (minus my driver’s license!)…no credit cards = no option to buy wine. Then drove home late at night feeling very grumpy with my earlier-in-the-day-self for thwarting my tired-and-want-a-drink self. Still, it worked!

That is the only time I’ve had to use the leaving-my-wallet-at-home strategy, simply because I’ve since had many opportunities to practice driving home while tired and cranky (and not buying alcohol). But if I hadn’t left my wallet at home the first time, I almost certainly would have come home with wine. In fact, I remember my urges being so bad that night that I almost went home, collected my wallet, and headed out again…I had to do some serious urge-surfing to get through it, and may actually have cried a little in frustration. Picking up wine that night would not have been the end of the world, of course. Or maybe it would have, because my new habits were very fragile things then, and perhaps even that single failure would have shattered me.

All that practice is great, but it is also exhausting. As my first month wound down, I found myself tired and blue about the thought of keeping it up for an indefinite future period. So instead of continuing to raise the difficulty, I lowered it. I had more movie nights at home (something I already knew I could do), and engaged in other forms of self-care. I took it easy for a bit, and after another week or so, felt able to go back to facing more challenges. Learning to give myself occasional “easy weeks” has been really valuable to my continued progress.

Finally, I was having progress worth measuring. I had been sober for 30, 35, 40 days, and practice was helping that behavior get stronger. I was sleeping better, feeling better, and was so much less bloated that I could fit into an old pair of “formerly too tight” pants. I was getting more done each day. My partner was thrilled, and the longer I stuck with abstinence, the more thrilled I felt too. Here’s what I wrote mid-March, when things were finally starting to click:

I was a heavy daily drinker for a long time, and during that time, my world seemed to get smaller and smaller. An incredible amount my energy revolved around thoughts of alcohol, and an incredible amount of my time involved drinking alcohol. I may find getting through wine o’clock difficult on some days now, but at least when that passes, I have the rest of the evening to do other things! Over this past few weeks, I’ve started feeling myself expanding again. Old hobbies (or new) are something I have time for. So are long conversations with my SO, or spontaneous walks through still-too-cold evenings, and both those things are of much higher quality without a few drinks making me sluggish. More intangibly, I feel like there is simply more possibility in my life now.

Constantly focusing and re-focusing on what I was gaining was essential to me. It formed the primary reinforcement for the small changes I was making, so that I could continue to practice these new habits and feel like they were worthwhile. Small changes are the foundations for bigger things down the road, and I wanted my foundations as solid as possible, so I reinforced, and reinforced, and reinforced, no matter how silly I felt for constantly counting up my meager achievements. It helped.

tools & strategies: abstaining (early)

To quote myself from a truncated post:

My personal take on moderation is that it’s mostly not a question of willpower, but rather, a set of learned skills, habits, & strategies. That is, if I want to effect long-term changes in my behavior, I do so by making specific changes, not by simply clenching my determination very tightly.

There are a lot of skills involved in successful moderation, and I’m not sure I’ll ever identify (much less master) all of them. But one that I had to begin with is the skill of intentional abstinence.

Whether it’s a single day or a much longer period, abstaining is an incredibly powerful tool. In fact, it is so powerful that — unlike any other tool I can think of — it is enough, on its own, for a huge number of people to change their harmful drinking habits. But then, abstinence itself is built up of many smaller skills. Things like resisting cravings, turning down an offered drink, and sticking to a plan are all essential, and often very difficult.

My first period of intentional abstinence began in late January and lasted 45 days. Parts of it were very hard, and parts were surprisingly enjoyable. I was not sure I would make it through more than a single day at first, and by the end, I was kind of wishing I could just keep it up forever. Except that “forever” scares me, and unbroken streaks unsettle me, so moderation is a valuable sort of punctuation.

Abstinence is like my safety raft. Because I can pull myself up on it when I need to, I feel safe and able to experiment with moderation. If I did not have my raft, I don’t think I could venture into deeper waters at all. So I really wanted to figure it out, and I really want to keep practicing it and getting really, really good at all the skills involved.

To begin with, abstinence really did feel mostly like “clenching my determination very tightly.” I made it through one day at a time, often very unhappily, because my brain was clamoring at me to go ahead and have a drink. Luckily for me, the very worst of that faded relatively quickly. I used a very limited tool set to get through my first week of abstinence:

  • Peer pressure, AKA planning & accountability
  • Hiding, AKA trigger reduction
  • Exhaustion
  • White-knuckling, urge-surfing, negotiating, and talking through it
  • Distraction
  • Celebrating everything

My starting plan was as simple as it comes: don’t have a drink today. My 30 was not something I planned far in advance, it’s something that began because I managed to run out of wine one day. I ran out of wine approximately every other day, so what was different about this one? I’d been thinking about trying another 30 for awhile (yes, I had done one before, and promptly returned to drinking heavily), and had finally gathered enough internal momentum, I think. The first day was fine, the second had moments of sheer terror. I tried to make it easier for myself by finding some support and external accountability: I shared my plan with my partner, so he could help to the best of his abilities; I joined the MM forum and wrote that I was starting a 30, and forced myself to check back regularly; I started an Abstar row. Anything I could think of to help me stick with my plan for even a short period.

I also organized my first week so that it was as achievable as possible, which was my best effort at trigger reduction. No going out to eat, no parties, no high-stress situations, I just planned for every evening to be spend home alone. This was still tough for me because, like many people, I did the majority of my problematic drinking at home, so even just spending a quiet evening at home was a big, big trigger. I tried to avoid my big at-home triggers (sugar, fighting with my SO, certain other kinds of stress), and made sure I had zero alcohol in the house so that, instead of trying to make myself not want a drink, I was just trying to stop myself from going out to the liquor store.

Because I had to leave the house to get a drink, exhaustion turned out to be a powerful tool. It may sound silly, but even something like changing in pajamas made it easier to stay in. I tried to throw up as many speed-bumps as possible, so that staying in (and abstaining) would be as easy as possible. If I really felt miserable, I just went to bed. One night, I climbed into bed at 8pm. Then I did the same thing again the next night.

I still had urges, of course, some of them quite strong. I dealt with these the same way I deal with them now. Sometimes, I just clench that determination and unhappily endure. Sometimes, I urge-surf. Sometimes, I negotiate with myself (“if you wait until 8pm, you can have a drink…if you still feel like one”), which is one way moderation seems to help me: when I tell myself that I might be open to a drink, but not now, it’s honest enough to work. And sometimes I would talk it through with my partner, who patiently listened while I monotonously and tediously went round and round through all my reasons for wanting a drink, talking myself into it, and talked myself out of it again. Too much of this can be hard on a relationship, but a little bit of it is really helpful. Not just because it helped me to sort through things out loud, but because it helped him understand how difficult this actually is for me. That first week was hard and messy.

I leaned hard into distractions. Anything mindless worked that first week, with old, familiar movies being especially helpful. I would set myself up on the couch (not where I usually sat to drink & watch t.v.), dim the lights (again, this was about trying to make my home less triggering), fix myself a hot cup of tea, curl up under a blanket, and watch something like The Princess Bride. It almost made the evenings enjoyable, and at least made most of them endurable.

Finally, I made a huge deal out of every single improvement, victory, or benefit that I was experiencing. My tentative, newbie posts on the MM forum from this time include many recitations of how great the sleep was, how nice it was to see my face less puffy, how thrilling it was to wake up feeling good each morning. Because I needed to feel like I was succeeding, and because I needed to focus on what I was gaining more than what I was giving up. Also, I was feeling shy, and a chipper facade gives me courage.