sustainability, not perfection

I’ve bounced back to my usual cheerful self, but am still a bit shaken by last weekend. Since I changed my drinking habits last January, I’ve had a handful of days when I drank in response to stress and/or boredom, but they were rare and far between…Labor Day weekend was the first time I drank for three days in a row in response to a triggering situation, and it felt an awful lot like a return to old habits.

It really scared me.

In trying to regain my mental balance, I asked myself what I would have done before 2016. In the past, what was my response to stressful situations, and how long would a drinking binge have lasted?

I have no answer to that, because for many years, I took very infrequent breaks from drinking. It’s a reality that seems very far away to me now, almost incomprehensible — how could I possibly have drunk that much, that often? Well, I did. For the past 5-10 years, I drank at least half a 3L box of wine almost every night, often more. I declared my intention to quit many times, but only actually took a few breaks that lasted longer than a couple of days. And after every break, whether it had lasted one day or thirty, I began drinking again, in the same manner & frequency.

Over the past 7+ months, that has stopped feeling normal. In fact, what feels normal now is to abstain most days, enjoy a few drinks out with friends on some days, and “go overboard” with 4-6 drinks once or twice each month. It’s that last bit that I’m still working to change, especially when it happens in response to stresses that I would like to have other ways of handling.

On Tuesday, when my spirits were lowest, I wondered if the problem lay in pursuing moderation. It seems like a logical question, actually — by allowing myself to drink sometimes, am I making it more likely that I will drink when under stress? Maybe. It is certainly easy to think that if I were totally abstinent, I would find it easier to say, “nope, I don’t do that anymore” even under stress.

Or maybe not. Every time I have sworn off alcohol, I returned to drinking at my former levels, usually within a matter of days (or hours). Perhaps, if I had committed to permanent abstinence seven+ months ago, I would have white-knuckled my way through last weekend. Or perhaps three days would have become seven, and by next weekend, I would have been back to buying a box of wine every other day, hating myself desperately. I have no way to know, except to acknowledge that none of my vows to quit ever produced any lasting change, while pursuing moderation-base behavior modification has produced some fairly amazing differences so far.

Here is one measure of progress: three days of stress-related drinking seemed like a frightening aberration, not the norm. What has felt normal are the days since — days where I caught up with my to-do list, took care of myself, started a new pottery class, caught up with a good friend, abstained from alcohol, got an overdue notice from the library, ate tomatoes from my garden, and looked forward to the weekend. As the little voice of panic in my head calms down, I can see that I am still doing pretty well, and that my “new normal” feels remarkably sustainable, even if it is not quite perfect.

Which I think should be my goal: sustainability, not perfection. My drinking escalated over 15+ years; it seems reasonable to give sobriety, health, and happiness at least an equal amount of time to gain momentum. A lifetime, even.

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perspective

I feel much better today, probably thanks to a good night’s sleep. But I’m still struggling with my tendency to beat myself up, my tendency to over-react to regressions. Like most over-reactions, the underlying source is fear. Fear that I will fall back into old habits. Fear that alcohol abuse is a temptation I’ll never really overcome. Fear that life is just a bit more than I can handle.

It’s really hard to maintain a reasonable perspective about my own behavior. That’s one reason that record-keeping is essential, because it provides an objective measure of progress over time. On my own, my perspective tends to be limited to the past few days. If it’s been a good week thus far, I start to feel like I have everything figured out; if I’ve had a rough patch, then I feel like I am spiraling out of control. It is astonishingly difficult to accept that learning new habits requires an ebb and flow, a pattern of progress and occasional regress.

What really matters is progress over the long term. Short-term regressions are useful, or so I try to tell myself, because they sometimes contain valuable information. They show me where I still need to do more work, where the cracks in my foundation may lie, where I need to get creative and challenge myself to try something different. They just don’t always feel comfortable. Oh, and I hate them.

What my ‘trigger weekend’ drinking showed me is that I am still struggling with drinking as a response to stress. This should not be a surprise to me. Drinking is a socially-accepted, widely-promoted way of handling stress. Drinking as a way to handle stress is also something I grew up seeing my parents model, which means it is hardly surprising that I found myself trying the same thing, and something my partner also tends to struggle with. In the short-term, drinking is also effective as a response to stress — it makes me feel buoyed up, cheerful, relaxed, and relieved.

Daily heavy drinking over a long period of time is a terrible way to manage stress, of course. I found that out the hard way, and have learned the lesson well. It’s not a road I plan to go down again. Nor do I think I am heading in that direction, really…which does not eliminate my occasional panic over the possibility.

Looking at the past few months, I can see that, increasingly, I handle most of the stresses in my life without alcohol. The number of things that are truly triggering to me has shrunk considerably, from “practically everything” to a few really deep-rooted issues. Those issues are known to me, they mostly consist of things I’ve been trying to deal with for most of my adult life…the fact that I haven’t magically fixed them in the past six months is a thought that should make me laugh sympathetically, not beat myself up!

I drank to cope with life last weekend. That’s the first weekend like that since…well, since January, at least. I also kept my overall numbers low, and most importantly, stopped after just three days. Next time, I will plan ahead better, and look for addition sources of help if I need them. Next summer, I will try to keep in mind that August may just be a difficult month for me in a variety of ways I’m still working to understand. This is a long-term change, and it really isn’t particularly realistic to think I’ll get everything right in the first attempt.

Beating myself up is an old habit, a bad habit. It’s also a habit that serves my old drinking behavior. A year ago, after a weekend like that, I would still have been drinking, in part as a way to cope with my own self-loathing. It is hard to learn how to move on, how to recognize that dwelling on the past doesn’t change anything, and how to focus simply on making sure I do a bit better in the future. That’s a skill I’m still trying to master, so I guess this is a chance for me to practice again.

 

triggers

Over Labor Day weekend, I thoughtlessly stepped into a situation that was full-on triggering for me (not unpredictably so, but I neglected to predict it anyway). This is not a tale of triumph — I promptly drank, all three days in a row.

It took me by surprise, and left me feeling rather defeated. I’ve been quite proud of how significantly I’ve changed my drinking habits, and especially of how much I have resisted drinking in response to stress. And then, in the face of some fairly predictable life events, I reverted straight back to old coping mechanisms. Oh, I engaged in plenty of harm reduction, because moderation has taught me very useful lessons, but it was still exactly the kind of drinking I really wanted to be able to say I don’t do anymore. Not in quantity, but in terms of trying to use alcohol to “fix” things (real life problems, my feelings, etc.).

Taking a deep breath and a step back, I think the pattern has been there all along. Which makes sense, of course — I spent years reaching for a drink when life threw sharp edges at me, and the habit isn’t gone just because I’ve been working on some better habits for a few months. Not only that, but massively reducing my drinking has not magically fixed everything in my life…still lots of things to handle, and I’m not always going to do so gracefully, I guess.

Curiously, I actually drank less than I did while on vacation, but it hit a lot harder. Maybe that’s because it was three days in a row, and certainly I was less careful about hydrating with plenty of water, but I think it is just as likely to be because of the underlying triggering emotions. Whatever the mix of contributing factors, today I feel tired, blue, and also a bit like I want another drink.

Yuck.

I’ve written before about my difficulty handling failure; this is a good example. I’m over-reacting emotionally, and I can recognize it, but I still find myself wanting to add more over-reactions on top of it. I want to stop blogging (because I don’t want to write here, or elsewhere, unless I also have a plan to fix everything); I want to commit to some sort of penance or punishment; mostly, I want to craft a narrative that shows that I still know what I’m doing.

What I’m trying to do instead is accept that I just feel crappy today, and let it be. I know the next steps: no drinking today (or for the foreseeable future, at least until my emotional balance reasserts itself and I can assess things in a reasonable frame of mind), just take care of myself. Small, practical things, like exercise & drinking plenty of water.

Sigh.

the in-between years

I found Moderation Management in January 2014, when I read this article and promptly embarked on my first “30.” It was hard, but I managed to go without drinking for a full 30 days. On day 31, I went out for a drink with some friends, which turned into six or seven drinks. Within a week, I was back to drinking at my former levels.

That’s not uncommon, but I didn’t know that then. At the time, I just thought I’d failed. I had been telling myself I was a loser during years of heavy drinking, so one more failure fit easily into the self-loathing narrative. At the same time, I was enormously relieved that I had been able to take a 30 day break. If I could do that once, maybe I could try to do it again someday. I filed that thought away under “tiny glimmer of hope.”

Even when I was drinking heavily, I was able to make a lot of sensible decisions (thanks to MM, I learned to call this harm reduction). I didn’t drive drunk, for instance. I calculated risks and tried to make reasonable decisions, even when I felt completely incapable of making changes. I never “hit bottom.” Most of the time, I still felt like myself, just a bit more buried under my drinking problem with each year that passed. So I used those years to try to gently nurse that bit of hope.

Between January 2014 and January 2016, my drinking continued to slowly escalate, and I continued to try to keep that tiny glimmer of hope alive. Admittedly, I mostly did this by not thinking about it too hard, because I was afraid I would drown it in a torrent of self-disgust. But little by little, I tried to let myself believe that changes were possible.

Did any of that make a difference? I think so now, although I wasn’t sure then. I think it helped make the idea of long-term change seem possible, while also making the stakes for my next 30 seem a little lower. After all, if that one didn’t work, maybe I could try again. Or maybe I could try something else.

It would be easy to chalk those years up as more time lost to drinking. Personally, I think I’d planted some seeds of possibility, they just needed to lie dormant for a little while. Maybe my moderation journey started six months ago, but I think it is equally accurate to say that its roots stretch back to at least 2014, or perhaps even earlier. Change takes time, and even the in-between years were important.

August report/September goals

My August goal was as follows:

My August goal is to continue to stay within recommended alcohol intake ranges, which for me means following the Moderation Management guidelines. For women, that means 0-4 drinking occasions per week, 0-3 drinks on any occasion, and 0-9 drinks in any week.

I intend to continue to keep alcohol out of the house, for the most part. I have several travel/vacation plans upcoming in August, which will require some thought as they approach. I do not expect August to feel as easy as July did, but I plan to continue the skills and strategies which have been working so well for me.

In August, I had 40 drinks, spread out over 13 separate drinking occasions. Five of those occasions were over MM limits, or “red.” In other words, I missed my August goals by a fairly wide margin.

However, most of my “reds” were low — I had five drinks on one occasion, six on another, and the remainder consisted of four drinks. Four drinks is enough to make me feel like I am going wildly overboard, while still being only one more than healthy guidelines suggest (public health advisory note: four drinks for a woman is considered an episode of binge drinking, so it’s still not recommended). Overall, I had far more control over my drinking than on many previous occasions, despite being on vacation and otherwise faced with unusual circumstances, which is good progress.

I am somewhat ambivalent about my drinking in August, which veered above my usual limits, and I think I could have planned better and set more realistic goals. I also think that I need to continue to grapple with how to handle unusual circumstances (like vacations), and how to handle specific social occasions…which will be an issue that comes up for me again in late September.


My September goal is to continue to stay within recommended alcohol intake ranges for most of the month, which for me means following the Moderation Management guidelines. For women, that means 0-4 drinking occasions per week, 0-3 drinks on any occasion, and 0-9 drinks in any week.

For the last week of September, I will be traveling and spending six nights with a group who are mostly heavy drinkers. At the moment, my tentative plan is to join them in a nightly drink, but restrict myself to 1-2 drinks, with a cap of 9 for the week (in other words, drinking more frequently than the MM limits recommend, but sticking within overall numerical limits). But I will think about it more closely as the dates approach and revise my plan. Learning to plan for unusual circumstances and novel situations is a skill I would like to work on, so this will be an opportunity to do so.