Those aren’t my words in the title, it’s a quote from Bernd Heinrich’s Bumblebee Economics, or so I’m told. I found it in this rather lovely NY Times article about hunting for Arctic bumblebees. Doesn’t that just make you want to be a kick-ass bee scientist, headed up for a summer of research above the arctic circle?! Well, it has that effect on me, anyway…the fantasy may be more fun than the reality, I suppose.
When I was drinking heavily, time started to compress, becoming filled with drinking thoughts and alcohol-related anxiety. Without noticing, I started treating drinking as a full-time hobby, an interest that could fill any evening (and then, every evening). During the time when my drinking accelerated most quickly, I was dealing with depression, anxiety, and some real world stress, which made the prospect of an evening “relaxing” with wine seem like a real treat. Too many people depending on me to be the responsible one, the one who is always okay; too much feeling like I really wasn’t okay, not at all.
Evenings are shorter when you fill them with wine. Weekends can be shortened too, especially if I treated myself to a beer around noon, then another, then another, then switched to wine toward the evening. Less time for thinking. Less time for dealing with things. Mornings were rough, but I ramped up my drinking slowly and steadily enough that I rarely got hangovers. I just woke up feeling slow, sticky, and requiring several glasses of water, a couple of aspirin, and a lot of coffee to get up to speed. Slow mornings, short evenings, and thoughts buzzing with an increasing amount of alcohol-fueled anxiety in-between. Did we have enough wine in the house? Or should I buy more? Wasn’t I drinking too much? What was wrong with me? Would people notice? Why wasn’t anybody noticing? Ahh, wine o’clock again, time to turn the volume in my brain way down.
The most embarrassing thing, by far, when I quit drinking like that was discovering that I didn’t know how to fill my time anymore. Long, long, empty evenings stretched out before me, filled mainly with the struggle to surf through drinking urges. Weekends lasted forever, and at the end of them, if someone asked me what I’d done last weekend, I just stared at them blankly, then blushed. To my acute horror, it turned out that drinking so much, for so long, had turned me into an incredibly boring person. I hated it, and I hated those long, empty evenings that I had to endure.
I started signing up for things just to fill time. I learned how to make yogurt, because spending an hour or so boiling milk was preferable to spending it feeling empty. When my volunteer organization scheduled evening meetings, I sighed in relief (though I also had to make a plan for getting home afterward without buying wine along the way). I signed my dog up for classes. I signed myself up for classes. I sewed a quilt (although I hate sewing). I accepted every single invitation that came my way (except the ones that involved drinking, at least at first). I started a blog. I paced. And if I’d read an article like that one I linked to above, about a group of people who spend weeks passionately hunting bees, I would have been filled with envy and misery: why hadn’t I been able to fill my life with that kind of passion?
As the months went by, I stopped feeling like I just needed to fill time. It’s not perfect, and I still don’t have a lot of things figured out, but I’m starting to remember how it feels to have a rounded life that actually interests me. Just as an example: when I first quit, I used to ride out the toughest urges by curling up on the couch, wrapping myself tightly in a thick blanket, and watching old, familiar movies (like The Princess Bride, or something else I’ve seen a million times). These days, my movie-watching gravitates to more interesting fare. Movies that challenge me, are off-beat and weird, have subtitles (which are embarrassingly hard to handle while drinking, so I have years of foreign films to dip into!), and that require that I pay attention all the way through. I still watch dumb movies sometimes, but it’s awfully nice to have variety, and to feel myself wanting to use my brain again.
It’s a relief, honestly. I have these evenings that can be used to do all kinds of things, and weekends I look forward to. Life is still frustrating, stressful, boring, and embarrassing sometimes, but it has mostly stopped feeling like a constant struggle. The bad parts pass a it more easily, and the good parts are brighter, and more interesting, because I’m not stuck in a tight, spiral orbit around alcohol anymore.
That’s my clear long-term goal: to never let alcohol be the center of my life again. But along the way, I’ve discovered that I need to keep filling my life, keep pursuing other interests, so that I’m less tempted to fill the emptiness again. My drinking was a bad habit, and habits tend to stay wired in our brains, even as we adopt other habits to replace them.
Sometimes, understanding that I need to be present, be engaged, and be involved in a variety of things exhausts me. That’s a bit embarrassing to admit too, actually, because it feels like being present in my life is just a requirement of being an adult, and one I should probably have accepted a long time ago. But it’s a responsibility I’m still making my peace with, and I am slowly learning to be patient with myself. Seen through a slightly different lens, of course, it is a tremendous opportunity. I am a fortunate person in an uncountable number of ways, and I finally get to take real advantage of that again. And if I sometimes still wrap myself up tightly in a blanket, and lie on the couch watching The Princess Bride, then that’s not such a bad thing either. Balance, I guess, is what I am describing. It feels pretty sweet.