This post is about the tremendous value of covering your eyes, plugging your ears, and singing loudly in an effort to block out scary things. But, you know, strategically.
When I first launched myself on my “30,” determined to finally make significant changes to my drinking habits, I did my best to engage with the Moderation Management program. I read the “Steps of Change” document. I posted on the forum. I started an Abstar row. I talked to my partner about what I was doing. I sweated through the bad nights.
But I also ignored several key pieces, very deliberately. Perhaps none more so than the recommended drinking limits.
That’s because the recommended drinking limits terrified me. Thinking about them made me want to cover my eyes, so I did (metaphorically, anyway). The best I could do was occasionally part my fingers and take a quick, sideways peek out, to check if they were still lurking. Yep, still there. Better cover up again.
For the previous decade or so, I had been drinking about two bottles of wine a night. I could (sort of) imagine drinking nothing, because I had abstained briefly once or twice before. I could not imagine drinking 0-3 drinks just a few times a week. If there was a time when I had managed that, it was so long ago, and so obscured by the weight of countless boxes of wine, that I could not recall how it was possible. I mean, I definitely wanted to “drink like a normal person,” but the idea that “normal” people sometimes had a drink, stopped, and were perfectly satisfied to wait a week or two until their next one made no real sense to me.
So I ignored it. I concentrated on finishing my 30, then spent an additional 15 days abstaining while trying to figure out a post-30 plan. Even when I started trying to moderate, I told myself I was in a skill acquisition phase. I might have occasionally allowed the MM limits to linger in my peripheral vision, and I tracked my numbers carefully, but I saved my direct attention for the skills I was trying to develop. After all, I was trying to simultaneously learn new skills and figure out how to teach myself those skills…always a tricky proposition, and more than enough to keep me busy.
Finally, when my grasp on the building blocks of moderation seemed a little less shaky, I took a real look at the limits. This was months into my journey, and I was feeling a lot more confident. Even if they were just as scary, I thought maybe I could handle a quick, hard look. To my surprise, they weren’t that far off from how I’d been drinking while trying to master my foundation skills. What had once seemed terrifyingly incomprehensible now seemed merely challenging.
Since then, I’ve been using the MM limits as a baseline. They’re what I aim for, even though I’m also not yet capable of achieving them with perfect consistency. I’m also not that far off, which is important to me — consistent small success is more effective for changing behavior over time, especially contrasted with continually falling short.
I find I have to guard against a “less is always better” tendency that creeps into my thinking. Adopting that kind of standard means I am destined to always feel like I have fallen short. In fact, if 0-3 drinks per day is a healthy range, 1 is not necessarily better than 3. Of course, any individual person might have good reasons to understand that 1 is better than 3 for them. For some, drinking three drinks makes them considerably more likely to have a fourth (and fifth, and eighth), in which case they have very good reason for imposing a personal limit that is lower.
And I do think it is important to frame MM guidelines as limits, not goals. Aiming to drink nine drinks every week is problematic. That’s not because nine drinks is inherently worse than six, but because planning my life around maximizing my opportunities to drink is exactly what got me into this mess, so it’s not the habit I want to be practicing. Part of changing my habits means stepping back and enriching all the other areas of my life, so that I am increasingly focused on all the other things I want out of a week, and drinking is, essentially, an afterthought.
That’s how the last couple of weeks have been. Drinking has not been on my mind, and the drinks I’ve enjoyed have been opportunistic and appropriate to the occasion — a pint of beer, ordered with a meal, on two separate occasions. To me, this is what moderation success feels like: a whole lot of time spent thinking about other things, and occasional guilt-free enjoyment of a tasty craft beer. It’s also a feeling I enjoy relatively infrequently, for a day or two, maybe a week here and there, punctuated by long stretches where moderation (including abs days) feels unnatural, burdensome, irritating, and way too much work.
The idea that I might someday get to put drinking out of my mind, while still doing the things I need to do to maintain healthier habits, for longer periods of time remains largely incomprehensible to me. An interesting fantasy, but not something I can really focus on as a goal. But once in a while, I am gathering my courage to part my fingers and take a quick peek at it. Who knows, maybe I’ll eventually feel ready to take a serious look and realize it’s not that far from what I’m already doing. Not quite yet, but maybe someday.