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.

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