Friday night lights

Every Friday, I have a commitment that keeps me out fairly late. For the first year or so that I was doing this, I would invariably swing by a liquor store on the way home, pick up a 3L Bota box, head home, park myself on the couch, and proceed to drink glass after glass like lemonade.

My Friday night commitment is stressful in a couple of ways, and I told myself that I needed that wine to calm down enough to sleep. Mostly though, I needed the wine because Friday nights trigger my social anxieties, and wine was my only coping mechanism for handling the wired, nerve-jangled, over-threshold feelings after. It took so long for that feeling to fade that I often didn’t head to bed until midnight or later. The late nights didn’t help with the awful Saturday mornings either.

The first Friday during my 30, I had to leave my wallet at home, because I knew that no matter what I planned on, my end-of-night reflexes were going to drive me straight to that liquor store. I made it home that night, fingers clenched tightly around my steering wheel, and then paced through my house, rationalizing why it would be okay for me to turn around and go out to buy wine. My partner, patient and kind, listened to a 45-minute monologue about how unfair it was that I wasn’t drinking, how it would definitely be okay if I just had a drink (or ten) this Friday, how hard this was, how embarrassed I was that this was so hard. Then he fixed me a cup of tea, and I tried to pretend to be appreciative, instead of bursting into tears (because tea was NOT the beverage I craved!). It was much, much harder than any Friday night had been for the past year. When I finally did crawl into bed that night, I lay on my back, unable to sleep, hot tears of humiliation and despair trickling down my temples.

I struggled with Fridays for a long time. Avoiding the liquor store became easier with practice, but I still had trouble calming down when I got home. I would arrive home around 10pm, and pace, drink tea, try to read, try not to talk about how much I wanted a drink, and eventually feel the nerve-jangled feeling subside, until I eventually calmed down enough to drag my exhausted body to bed. Saturdays were better, but the late nights still took a toll.

Then I started making adjustments. I started addressing conflicts more directly, and discovered that this made my social anxieties decrease. In April, I sat down with the other organizers and restructured the event, so that it is less intense for everyone, less dependent on my contributions, and can be run with fewer people. In May, I arranged with someone to start trading shifts, so that I could leave hours earlier most Fridays, and skip others altogether. I re-engaged with my purpose for being there, which helped smooth out my internal conflicts and make me feel happier about the whole thing again. I started bringing a water bottle, so that I’d remember to stay hydrated. I tucked a book into my bag, so that I could sit in a corner and read if there was ever a quiet moment. I practiced some breathing exercises, and then forgot to practice them, because I was feeling so much more comfortable in general. Saturday mornings became reliably normal, even good, after refreshing nights of sleep.

The past two Fridays, I needed to cover the whole evening, meaning I’ve been driving home around 10pm again. I drive straight by the liquor store, and I always mean to give it a knowing wave as I pass…but I always forget, because by the time I get there, I’m thinking about other things. That’s something I would never have guessed was possible.

I got home around 10:15 last night, and let the dog out for a romp in the yard. I drank a glass of water, fixed myself a small snack, started a load of laundry, headed to bed, and was asleep before 11. I feel just fine this morning.

Changing my drinking habits was not a magical fix for everything in my life. Many rough edges remain, and I am discovering that by drinking so much for so long, I failed to develop other (better!) coping mechanisms. But I’m learning. I’m making changes in areas I would once have described as unrelated to drinking, but which now seem related in the way that all the parts of my life are connected. I am spending less and less time thinking about (not) drinking, and that leaves my brain free to dream up solutions to other things in my life. Like coping better with my existing commitments, learning new ways to relax, or even hot little revolutionary thoughts about what I want to do in the future.

I’ve been looking back at the last six months, and all the changes I’ve made, and am amazed by how far-reaching the consequences of changing my drinking habits have been.I feel just fine this morning, and also find that I am looking forward to next Friday. I complain about it sometimes, but it’s a good event, meaningful, and often a great deal of fun. That’s a far cry from being just another reason to drink. Life in general turns out to be much more interesting now that it’s not just an endless series of reasons to drink.

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math matters

I am putting together a post to celebrate my six month moderation anniversary, which means I am adding up six months worth of numbers. Changing my drinking habits has involved learning new things about myself, and one new discovery is that I adore moderation math.

Moderation math is simple, just measuring, counting, and tracking. They rely upon each other: you need to measure accurately to count accurately, and you need to count your daily drinks to track your behavior over time. Put together, this provides us with the essential feedback that we need to make and evaluate a behavior modification plan…sounds pretty sexy, I know.

I doubt most of us get really excited at the thought of counting. I certainly didn’t. In fact, the counting and tracking emphasis in MM was quite off-putting to me at first. It felt artificial, rule-bound, and petty. I just couldn’t wrap my mind around the idea that moderation was mainly a question of entering numbers on a spreadsheet.

Now I can see that it isn’t. Tracking is what enables moderation to reach its real goals, which include things like enjoying a drink with friends, or seeing your blood pressure drop significantly. But we need tools to get there, and tracking is one of the most fundamental. Tracking tells us where our behavior is, and lets us set a target for where we want to be, and thus forms the bedrock for any changes we want to make.

Early on, I found myself really struggling with a little voice in my head that urged me to fudge my drink counts. It suggested things like counting three 7% IPAs as three standard drinks, and arguing with that voice took up loads of time (so did the big blowout that started with three 7% beers). It seems to me this is a pretty normal thing. For one thing, it is easier to roughly count glasses/bottles than calculate the total amount of actual alcohol (although there are nifty online tools that do the math for you!), and so there’s some initial resistance to overcome. For another, alcohol dependency just makes honesty difficult. That little voice in my head urges me to fudge things so I can drink more. That’s not a cause for shame, it’s just a normal part of this experience, and honesty is just another skill that gets easier with practice.

All of this gets easier with practice. That’s the other beautiful thing about moderation math: eventually, it takes almost no time or energy. It’s just a habit. But unlike alcohol abuse, tracking is a habit that sets me free. Free to enjoy a beer on a hot summer day; free to get up early for another bike ride; free to think about more interesting things; free to figure out what kind of person I want to be. I still have to check on myself occasionally, but the brief thoughts involved are balanced out with hours and hours of newly-minted freedom. Can’t beat that deal.

 

 

sadness and a sunset beer

I was lying outside in my hammock last night, enjoying the warm breeze, when a soft wave of sadness rolled over me. The perfection of the evening suddenly seemed diminished by the fact that I couldn’t enjoy a drink. No cool bottle tucked into my hand as the sky slowly faded from orange to darkest blue. No sweet sips, no heady buzz.

This is a feeling that fills me from time to time, a kind of grief. On the surface, it has to do with rules. There is no beer in my hand because I have imposed a “no drinking at home” rule on myself.

In fact, my rules are flexible. If a drink in my hammock would fill me with as much pleasure as I’d imagined, then I could incorporate an occasional sunset beer into my plans. It might take a little effort, since I’ve learned that drinking at home creates challenges for me, and I’d need to work to integrate it into my plan in a truly healthy way. But if this were truly the source of that small swell of grief, I would probably find the work worthwhile.

It’s not, because I’m not really missing a sunset beer in my hand. I’m missing the way I used to drink. I miss the mindlessness. I miss feeling like alcohol will help me cope with feeling bad. I miss the lack of responsibility. I miss knowing that one drink can be followed by another, and another, without any limits. Even if a cold beer had arrived in my hammock at that very moment of my desire, it would not have touched the real source of my sorrow.

Mourning a drinking habit is normal. Because moderators can still drink, I suppose it may come as a surprise that we still mourn. I do, anyway. I don’t get to drink the way I did anymore. That’s the solid truth at the heart of it all.  I can have a sunset beer any time I want, but right then, it wouldn’t have given me what I was missing. I was missing something that used to be a big part of my life, and isn’t anymore.

So I just let my sadness wash over me, and let it fade, and smiled a little in the darkness. A touch of melancholy sometimes visits when I am tired, when a long day is winding down, when I am breathing in and out. That’s okay. It always passes, and I’m happy just to be here.

faking it

Moderation felt really bad when I first tried it. This was a shock to me, because abstinence had felt amazing. My alcohol-free “30,” which lasted 45 days, filled me with euphoria. The further I got from daily drinking, the stronger and more alive I felt. Except that as my streak stretched on, the question of “what next?” started to bang in my head, and the euphoria gradually trickled away through the cracks.

People who choose permanent abstinence have at least one answer for what comes next: more abstinence. Coming to terms with that is its own challenge, but not the one I was facing. Abstinence doesn’t worry me, but “permanent” really threw me, and I knew I wanted to work on this in a way that helped me navigate my own issues with perfectionism.

So I chose to try moderation, and it did not feel easy. Of course it didn’t. If moderation were easy, I would have already been doing it. These were new skills for me, and learning anything new is hard. I don’t mean that I never enjoyed a drink during early moderation. I enjoyed several of them quite a bit, but I had to balance that feeling on a knife-edge. I felt like I was teetering on the brink of failure, but I also had no patience with my own caution. Something like calm contentment, or simple pleasure, felt like a mirage; at best, I’d catch a glimpse of it out of the corner of my eye, as my emotions windmilled wildly through my mind.

When I tried to have a single drink, I felt like a blinding spotlight was trained on me, like everyone could see what a fraud I was. It felt artificial. I nursed resentment against people who can do this easily, so-called “natural moderators” who find it perfectly normal to have a single drink and then move on to other interests. Some of my drinks left me feeling frustrated and deprived. Moderation did not feel anything like my previous drinking habits. Or rather, it was just close enough to tease, so that a night with three drinks could feel significantly less satisfying than a night with none at all. Except that some abs nights felt terrible too — feeling like a fraud was not limited to nights when I tried a drink.

I couldn’t control my feelings, but I decided that I could control my actions. For me, moderation did not begin with feeling a certain way. Moderation began with acting a certain way, and trusting that my feelings would eventually calm down and catch up. In other words, I faked it.

My feelings did eventually catch up. Or they’ve caught up for the moment, anyway…I will probably plunge back into confusion at some point. But somewhere in late June, I shifted gears. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it happened after I decided not to drink at home anymore. I think that took a lot of internal negotiation off the table, helped by a few other tweaks I’ve been making. But I also think that a successful behavior modification program should get easier as you go. If it doesn’t, adjustments are probably warranted.

For the past month or so, moderation has felt easy. There were a couple of days when I chafed against it a bit. There have been cravings, most of them slight. But the amount of energy I’ve had to spend to make sure I stick to my plan has been truly negligible. My energy is going toward other things, and I feel calm, contented, and happy about that state of affairs. Mostly, I don’t feel like a fraud anymore. I feel like me.

 

 

cruising

I’m having trouble thinking of anything to say that relates to drinking. It’s just been that kind of week, or month, or whatever.

To beat the summer heat, I’ve been getting up early to go bike riding. My bike is new; when you stop drinking 3-4 Bota boxes a week, you can save up for a new bike really quickly. They should put that in the advertisements for moderation: may come with new toys.

I haven’t ridden a bike regularly since I was in college, but riding a bike is…well, like riding a bike. Most of it seems to come back very quickly, but I’m still working through some seat-related soreness. I keep my rides short so that I don’t have to walk around bow-legged for the rest of the day. But I have fun.

Riding my bike, trying to pedal faster & faster so I can feel the wind against my face, is not really about drinking. Except that it is, because now that I am not drinking to excess, there is more to me. More corners of my life that can be filled with things like bike rides. More early mornings. More breath in my lungs, more blood pumping through me, more strength in my legs. More time. More tomorrows.

 

thinking about drinking

A habit, by definition, is something you do without thought. It’s a behavior loop that is so entrenched that you can perform it without having to think about the steps at all — habits even get processed in a different part of the brain than conscious behaviors. That’s great news for our brains, which save a ton of energy by putting habitual behaviors on autopilot, but is also why it’s really hard to dig those stupid habits out from deep storage and re-wire them (and especially so when we’re talking about an addictive substance).

What this means in practical terms is a frustrating irony: once you try to change a drinking habit, you end up thinking about drinking all the freaking time. For a little while, anyway.

This is not to say that I didn’t think about drinking before. I did. I thought about drinking when I woke up sweating at 3am, anxious and self-hating and desperate with the knowledge that I definitely needed to quit. I thought about drinking when I got up at 6am and headed straight for the drawer full of aspirin and antacids. I thought about drinking in the early afternoon, when my brain started anxiously counting up all the booze in the house and making sure there’d be “enough” for later. I thought about drinking on my way home, feeling my spirits lift at the knowledge that I’d soon get the rush of that first pour.

But from wine o’clock onward, I didn’t think about drinking at all. I just drank; no thought required.

By contrast, when I finally did quit, I started thinking about drinking all the time. Not quite the way that makes it sound (though there was some of that too). My drinking-thinking went through some pretty distinct phases.

  1. During my “30+,” I mostly thought about how hard it was not to drink, and about how much I wished I could drink, and about how incredibly impressed I was that I was managing not to drink. It went according to a schedule, actually. I would wake up in the morning and rejoice in my clear head, go about my day and think about how proud I was that I wasn’t drinking, and then as the evening grew closer, start thinking about how much I wanted a drink, and rationalizing possible excuses to drink, and thinking about how annoying these cravings were, until I eventually dragged my tired, drink-craving self off to bed. Then, a blank period of exhausted, restorative sleep later, I’d wake up rejoicing again.
  2. When I started trying to moderate, I discovered more thinking waiting for me. During my 30, I had to think really hard about triggers, how to navigate normal situations (like how to go to the grocery store without also visiting the liquor store, or how to go out to eat without ordering a drink), and how to start filling the gaps in my life. Now I still had to think about all those things, but also about learning a huge set of brand-new skills. Counting, planning, tracking, stopping, and more, and even figuring out the theory took a surprising amount of effort…actually putting them into practice is exhausting.
  3. Eventually, I started to get the hang of these new skills. At which point, a huge portion of my conscious thought began to be taken up by monitoring my progress. My new skills were not habitual, I had to think about them all the time. And the novelty had worn off, so I was practicing new skills (in ways that were often very tedious and not always immediately rewarding) and feeling sick of the whole thing. This was, perhaps, the most irritating phase, and I’m not really sure it’s behind me.
  4. There’s also this fact: drinking takes up a lot of time & energy. When I was drinking heavily, I had no idea how true this was. None. As the fog blew away, I found myself with vast empty evenings and no idea how to fill them. Drinking papers over the cracks in our lives. Without it, I had to think about things like:
    1. How to fill empty time
    2. What are my passions in life
    3. What feelings led me to drink, and how could I better address them
    4. What do I wish I had more of, in my life (community, connections, muscles, etc.)
    5. Who am I, now that I am not drinking
    6. How central to my identity is drinking and/or not drinking
    7. What’s a good way to deal with a bad day
    8. What are ten other ways to deal with a bad day
    9. What’s a good way to deal with a good day
    10. What’s a good way to deal with a boring day
    11. What’s a good way to deal with a perfectly normal day
    12. And so on. These thoughts might not seem like they are about drinking, but they do tend to circle back around it.
  5. Beneath, below, above, and beyond this, are the constant, niggling thoughts of failure. Will I really be able to keep this up, what if I revert to former habits, am I slipping backwards, is this really going to be this much work forever? I don’t dwell on them, usually, but keeping those thoughts at bay takes its own sort of work.
  6. A new trend, so gradual that I hesitate to mention it: thinking about the whole thing much less, because so many aspects have themselves become habitual. This comes and goes, and feels like a mirage. Plus, I don’t always notice it, because it involves not thinking about the very thing I would need to think about to notice it. Confusing, I know.

Learning a habit takes a lot of thought. Maintaining it takes some routine behaviors, like tracking & monitoring, but ideally, not quite as much effort as unlearning & re-wiring previous behaviors.

I am not against thinking, really. It’s just tiring. I would rather spend my time and energy on other things things, like entertaining my dog, changing the world, or running through the rain. Self-improvement honestly isn’t that interesting or fulfilling to me, even if I accept it as a rather obvious necessity. At the same time, it is crucial that I keep this up, and I am incredibly proud of myself for prioritizing my health in this way.

The answer, like with almost anything, is balance. Some time needs to be spent thinking, and some time needs to be spent splashing in puddles. Some energy can go to evaluating my progress for the week, and some energy can go toward, say, working for my community to adopt a living wage. Sometimes I can read other people’s stories and share what few insights I have about moderation, sometimes I can read a really good book instead. Some nights I can give myself a hug for working so hard for my own health, and some nights I can pull the blankets over my head and think about nothing at all. Balance comes with practice, with skill mastery, with time, and with a need for occasional adjustments.

Finding the right balance takes thought too, but, like most thinking, it turns out to be worth it.

[ETA: this was written a few weeks ago and scheduled to post now. More on ‘thinking less’ later this month!]

the casual charms of zero

It feels odd to write a paean to onesies without mentioning the fact that days without drinks are also quite lovely. Abs days, as MM folk sometimes call them, or just most days, as I’ve lately been practicing.

Last Tuesday, I had an event that went late. On my way home, I called my partner and asked if he wanted me to pick up something for dinner. Then remembered another errand I had to run too. When I finally got home, it was dark and raining, and after I’d dumped my armload of stuff onto the counter, and we’d sorted out a meal, we plonked down on the couch and watched an episode of Breaking Bad. I didn’t realize until the next day that I never even thought about drinking — not when I called to ask about dinner (which used to be code for “I’m picking up my wine, do you want something to drink? Because I’m going to drink ALL the wine, so you’d better place your order now”), not even when I was actually parked just one door over from the liquor store to run my errand, not when I walked through the back door, not when we were watching television. An evening spent at home, without drinking, is just normal now.

My abs days come in every flavor. There are the days when I think about this whole changing-my-habits thing quite a bit. The days when I find myself desperately craving a drink. The days when I am grumpy about how I can’t get drunk anytime I want. The days when I am tired and go to bed early. Even the days when I was sort of planning to have a drink, and then just don’t really feel like it, which are still a surprise to me.

Mostly, abs days just feel ordinary. That should come as no surprise. Since starting on MM, my abs days have outnumbered my drinking days more than 2-to-1. The majority of my days — good, bad, and everything in between — have been spent without a drink.

Fridays are always abs days for me. That’s because my Fridays usually include an event that goes late and involves a fair amount of stress. I never drank at this event, but I used to routinely pick up wine on the way home and drink it to “unwind.” I didn’t drink more than my normal amount (which was a lot), but I did drink it more quickly, so more and more of my Saturday mornings were being ruined by a hangover. That was one source for the motivation I found to change my drinking habits: I wanted my Saturdays back!

Now, I just get through the Friday event and come home. It is often a hard night for me — my partner has noted that I am far more likely to complain about wishing I could have a drink on those nights than any other, sometimes really grumpily. But I don’t have that drink, or the ten that would follow it. I’ve also taken steps to reduce the stress that Fridays cause me, such as arranging to leave earlier, and am in the process of scheduling more Fridays off. And while Fridays are often a struggle, Saturdays are consistently better.

I usually like abs days, but I don’t always pause to notice it. It’s just normal. I come home, or fix dinner, or head out to a meeting, and drinking isn’t particularly on my mind. I like that. I like not worrying about it. Deciding not to drink at home helped make abs days even easier, because if I’m staying in for the night, it’s not even a question.

There are two times of the day when abstinence feels especially lovely. The first, of course, is when I wake up in the morning. For most of my life, I have been a morning person. I wake up early, and I get things done. I love the way the world is quiet, but then slowly hums into action. And for years, I let that feeling go, because I was drinking so much that my mornings were just a cloudy, slow-moving grumble. I needed coffee to get me moving, aspirin to dull my aches, antacids to calm my stomach, avoidance to handle the self-loathing thoughts. Now I just wake up early, stretch, hop out of bed so I can go discover if my partner has, once again, provided me with his daily small gift of kindness in the form of a mug of freshly-made coffee.

The second lovely moment of every day is bedtime. I love going to bed sober. It is not a thrilling happiness, just a head-to-toe relief, a contentment that fills me up and carries me off to oblivion. Even when life is stressful, even when I am anxious, even when I am depressed, even when I am lonely, going to bed sober is a treat.

I slept really badly last night. First I could not fall asleep, and then I was trapped on a ship with a monster. It chased me, and I ran across wildly-tilting decks, trying to reach a door that I could slam between us, feeling its teeth scrape my arm. Then I woke up sweating, with my heart pounding and a sick, anxious feeling in the back of my throat. It took a long time to realize it had been a dream, and I was just having a bad night. It took even longer to breathe deeply and be grateful that bad nights are a rare thing, so rare that I could not even remember the last night I had woken up in 3am feeling anxious and sweaty. At least I could rule out alcohol as the cause this time, even if I get frustrated that abstinence doesn’t guarantee perfect sleep, or a perfect life.

Life on abs days is just normal. So is life on days where I enjoy a single drink, for that matter. Real life is sometimes hugely stressful, frustrating, sad, and often downright boring. Even when I make big, thrilling changes, like dramatically curtailing my drinking, I end up rediscovering that I am still stuck with me, and stuck with my imperfect, frustrating, sad, boring life. It has lovely parts too, that much should be obvious by now. But there are bad days, whether I am drinking, sober, or mysteriously plagued by nightmares. It’s all a lot more manageable now that I’m not getting drunk every night, a sentence that should surprise absolutely no one.

I went out for dinner with friends the other night. The place we went has great cocktails, and a note on the drinks menu cautioning that cocktails are extra strong. While my companions debated the choices, I looked at the menu and suddenly realized that I wasn’t going to order a drink. Cocktails are a bad idea for me anyway (especially strong ones), but even the wine and beer list was just more than I felt like thinking about — I was tired, and wired from my conflict-laden meeting, and I really just wanted to hang out and relax. I stuck with water, and felt relieved about my decision. Proud of myself, but mostly, quietly happy to be awake enough to participate fully in the conversation, not to mention drive home safely at the end of the evening.

Abstinence is a part of moderation. As I work on changing my drinking habits, I am learning that I tend to feel best when abstinence is simply my default state. I spend less time negotiating with myself if I just assume that I’m not going to drink tonight…and then, if a social opportunity does arise, I can make a decision based on how I feel that evening, instead of fretting about sticking to a predetermined plan. Ironically, by keeping my abs days high and my drinking counts low, I can have enough flexibility to enjoy a drink anytime I truly want to.

Of course, it’s not always that easy. Right now, just about five months into my big changes, I find that I have weeks at a time that feel like smooth sailing. Then, inevitably, it seems I hit another rough patch. Abs days do not feel like a treat during a rough patch, and although they are equally necessary, they do not make me feel instantly better. I have years of problematic drinking practice, and it’s an urge that will probably continue to prod me during periods of stress in my life.

One night last month, I had five drinks. We went out with a friend, had a round of margaritas, and I guess mine was strong enough to raise my BAC past the “screw it” line. I insisted on stopping to buy a bottle of wine on the way home, we shared the whole bottle at home while doing nothing else of interest, and I woke up the next day feeling less than great.

There was a time in my life when this would have signaled the end of my attempts to change my drinking habits. Having said “screw it” one night, I would feel that I had failed, and having failed, feel free to give up. Not in a liberated sense, just in a tired, self-loathing, unable-to-cope-with-failure kind of way. When my choices are all or nothing, it always seems inevitable that I’ll eventually fall back into nothingness.

I still felt like a bit of a failure; that voice in my head has not magically gone away . But I also felt like I had practiced abstaining on dozens of days after a day when I had one, two, or even six drinks — it might not be easy, but I already knew I could get through this kind of day. I did not even pause to consider whether I might give up, just drank lots of water, told myself I’d look for any useful lessons after a few days, and spent yet another day practicing this particular piece of the puzzle. I might still feel like a failure some days, but at the same time, I am becoming harder to defeat.

A day without a drink can feel like anything at all. Even hope.