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.

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