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.


2 thoughts on “sustainability, not perfection”

  1. Great post! You pose an interesting question….had you been completely abstaining would you have felt such a failure falling off the wagon that you would end up in a worst state or by moderating did you minimize the impact, get back on your feet, forgive yourself and move on without the self loathing, simply admitting you didn’t feel good about what happened? I don’t have the answer either. I read about a lot of great days of sobriety followed by huge crashes when someone gives themselves no wiggle room. On the other hand, the people who seemingly have been able to commit to no alcohol at all, after a long period of time, seem so enviably happy and satisfied with their new lives. So much to think about and figure out as we grow through this!


    1. Thanks! It’s a learning process for sure. I struggle with that a bit, because for me to learn effectively, I need to experiment a little, and sometimes that’s stressful for me. I just want to have this figured out overnight, never mind that that’s probably not how changing our habits really works!

      I think making huge life changes does make a lot of people happy (and actually, I’m probably one of them, as the changes I’ve made to my drinking habits make me absurdly happy on a near-regular basis). But I also see people regularly who have been sober for one, five, or fifteen years, and who say they haven’t found much joy in sobriety. It’s such a spectrum!


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