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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- How to fill empty time
- What are my passions in life
- What feelings led me to drink, and how could I better address them
- What do I wish I had more of, in my life (community, connections, muscles, etc.)
- Who am I, now that I am not drinking
- How central to my identity is drinking and/or not drinking
- What’s a good way to deal with a bad day
- What are ten other ways to deal with a bad day
- What’s a good way to deal with a good day
- What’s a good way to deal with a boring day
- What’s a good way to deal with a perfectly normal day
- And so on. These thoughts might not seem like they are about drinking, but they do tend to circle back around it.
- 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.
- 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!]