moderation and the big picture

There was a time when all my attention and energy was focused on figuring out this whole (not) drinking thing. For the first 3-6 months, it felt all-consuming, in a way that frequently made me uncomfortable. Generally speaking, I do not like to spend a lot of time working on “self improvement,” trying to analyze myself, or otherwise looking inward; it’s just not that interesting to me. It’s also necessary sometimes, and healthy sometimes, and I was able to accept that and throw myself into this project.

And it was worth it! I drink less than 10% what I used to, and these new habits get easier and easier with practice. My stretches of drinking only within recommended healthy ranges seem to be getting longer. My life is more full, which is also directly related to some of the changes I’ve made. Things are better, and I want them to continue to get better.

I also get tired of thinking about it sometimes, and I’m glad I’ve made changes that are (mostly) solid & sustainable, so that I don’t have to as much. Balance goes two ways — it’s not only important to take responsibility for our own health, but to actively engage in building healthier communities and ecosystems and so forth. And that’s what I’ve been doing, alongside lots of other things, so it’s been a good year for my personal health.

This blog is a tiny slice of my life, but it’s been an important slice. I originally planned to maintain this blog for an entire year, and I’m still going to try. It’s just difficult, occasionally, to find the right tone. That’s because this tiny slice of my life is not particularly representative of the rest. It makes writing blog posts harder sometimes. Where I used to think thoughts entirely focused on moderation, now, if I’m going to write about moderation, I have to narrow down my perspective in a way that sometimes feels arbitrary. Or myopic, like my attempt to write about election night as a personal trigger, rather than an event with real-world, disastrous consequences. I didn’t drink (acute nausea will do that for you), but that’s hardly a silver lining; just another piece of life, it all its complexity.

It’s something I’ve struggled with before. It’s been a complicated kind of year for me, and I’ve resisted the urge to filter most of it through the drinking/not drinking lens. I wonder sometimes if that’s why some of us are so drawn to moderation, because it doesn’t feel like a whole new identity in the way Sober does. Moderation is something I do, not something I am; or that’s one way to think about it, anyway.

What remains is this question of balance. Keeping myself healthy may not always feel intrinsically interesting to me, but it’s a necessary piece that enables me to continue to do the things that are. So I’ve been trying to integrate moderation into my personal sense of identity — it’s a piece of who I am, but not the whole of who I am. Even if it is the main thing I write about here. Same for other online recoverists, of course, and for most people in general.

Onward.

 

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spot the trigger

Triggers come in all shapes and sizes, and I have a big, juicy trigger looming up this Tuesday: election night.

Ugh.

It’s not just the presidential race (though I know that’s a big contributor to stress for a lot of us), but also a couple of state and local contests & ballot issues that have me chewing my fingernails. I have many vivid memories of election nights spent compulsively hitting “refresh” on my browser, sweating over each incremental shift in the returns. It’s not a great way to spend an evening, but it feels impossible to avoid the anxious cycle.

Spotting triggers is a great start, but not actually a brand-new skill. I used to spot triggers all the time, I just usually prepared by making sure I was fully stocked up on booze ahead of time! For awhile, it felt like my only alternative was to sit tight, do nothing, and sweat through a miserable night…but I’m finally starting to realize that there are often better options out there.

One part of this involves realizing that I am going to be anxious no matter what. I’ll be anxious if I stay home, and I’ll be anxious if I go out. As a general rule, I cannot think my way out of anxiety, or force myself to feel a different way. But I can sometimes manage the anxiety a bit. I can’t change how I feel, but I can control what I do, which might help. I don’t need to spend all of Tuesday evening locked in an addictive loop of constantly refreshing to get returns in 1% increments. I can carve out some time to do something else, and cross my fingers that that may alleviate just a bit of the unpleasant feelings.

The plan: by mutual agreement, on Tuesday night my partner and I are going out for dinner (in a restaurant with no television, radio, phones, or internet-ready devices!), then we’re going out to a movie. No sitting at home following unnecessary “live updates.” Following that plan, we shouldn’t even get home until about 9:30 or 10pm. By which point, many races should already be called, and we can check out the state of the world, celebrate or agonize together, and go to bed.

My hope is that this will diminish some of the feelings of inescapable anxiety, lack of control, and the lure of escape that alcohol promises. Not to mention, give us the chance to enjoy some good food and a promising-looking film.

Well, that’s the plan anyway. We’ll see how it goes, and be glad when it’s finally over.

long dark evenings

I like winter, but it’s a challenging time of year for me. It’s so easy to get depressed, and even easier to just spend every evening vegetating in front of screens. Over dinner last night, my partner and I agreed that we really need to find more ways to fill these long, dark evenings.

One of my personal ‘life lessons’ from the past ten months has been this: drinking is not an activity in itself. I used to treat it that way, as the very best answer to an empty stretch of evening time, or a rainy Saturday afternoon. It doesn’t play that role in my life anymore, which has opened up a lot of time, a lot of freedom, and a lot of questions about what kind of person I really want to be.

Without excessive drinking, my evenings have already become more full. I’m more likely to set up evening activities, more likely to try new things, and more likely to spend quality time with my partner. But it’s still easy to slide into a rut, which is normal (but worth fighting!), so I’m brainstorming some ideas to mix our evenings up a little. Writing them down here means I have a place to check back the next time I’m feeling short on inspiration!

Reading, good movies/shows, conversation

Not every evening needs be be a non-stop whirl of entertainment. The truth is, I’m a hermit by nature, and I love quiet evenings doing nothing in particular. I just think I maintain my equilibrium better when I spend my time enjoying just one well-chosen movie or show, and actually paying attention to the experience (ha, that sounds familiar). Or reading; an evening spent reading makes my brain feel a lot better than an evening locked in front of a screen.

Reading is also something my partner and I can do together. We can pick a book and read it out loud, alternating a chapter a night, and it’s a surprisingly cozy way to spend time together. It’s how we read the whole Harry Potter series! We just need to find the right book. That’s going to be one of my quests over the next few weeks.

Make stuff

This requires just a bit more effort than reading or watching a good movie. Or a lot more effort, depending…I’m including almost any kind of creative endeavor here.

Making stuff with my hands is therapeutic in a way few other things are. It’s just tough to figure what to do with all the junk once it’s made. I like to crochet, for instance, but don’t really need an infinite amount of lumpy hats. So one plan could be to find a place to donate fiber crafts, so I can make as much as I want. My favorite current activity involves a lot of specialized equipment, a lot of mess, and a great deal of satisfaction…but I’d really like to figure out a complementary creative activity that is more portable, less messy, and pushes similar mental buttons.

Recently, I’ve been drawn to painting, which never appealed to me before. I think I’ll try to figure out a way to experiment a bit to discover what medium would fit what I’m looking for. Ironically, the only place locally that offers evening painting classes is a wine bar, which I could probably make work, but doesn’t actually sound like what I’m aiming for overall. Hmm.

Take a class

Speaking of classes…my partner and I have taken classes together before and enjoyed most of them. I’ve been taking art classes recently too, which have been a ton of fun. So maybe another art class, or an exercise class (although group exercise makes me feel unbearably cranky), or something. We could take ice skating lessons through the local parks department. Or yoga. Or work on our Spanish. Something, anyway.

Just got my parks & rec brochure in the mail, so I’ll see what’s on offer. The nicest thing about a formal class is that it provides that external push — on my own, I can find it difficult to exit the house and “do something fun,” but a class makes sure I get moving. Plus, it gets me around other people and out of my hermitage.

Podcast-and-clean

You would think I’d get more done during winter evenings, but I actually get less done. Something about the fact that it’s already dark outside means we both shut down kind of early, leaving many household tasks half-done. One solution (can be done alone or together): listing to a podcast or audiobook while loading the dishwasher, sweeping the leaves back outside, or re-organizing the hall closet. This combines well with crochet, art, and many other things too, and while it seems almost as mindless as Netflix, it seems to leave me feeling more cheerful. I think it’s the satisfaction of checking items off a to-do list, but may also just be that I’m moving my body around.

Bookstore browsing, coffee shop catch-up, trips to the library

I like going out for dinner, or out for a drink. But sometimes, I want to spend an evening out that’s not centered around eating. Browsing through a bookstore, or spending time at the library, can be pretty good options. So can catching up on some writing projects at a coffee shop. Huh, even taking a book to a cozy bar/pub/cafe and reading around the fireplace might be nice, if I found a comfortable one.My partner and I tend to be creatures of habit. Trying to persuade ourselves to get out of the house can be tough on a day-to-day basis, but if we got into the habit of meeting up at a coffee shop one night a week, we’d slip into that groove pretty easily. Just have to figure out what we want.

Board game pubs, bowling

Speaking of things besides eating, there are a lot of fun things to do in my town that are “alcohol adjacent,” meaning the venue serves drinks, but the fun isn’t dependent on them. There is a board-game pub with a couple of hundred games to check out, plus any number of places with “pub quiz night” type entertainment. A drink in these situations is genuinely enjoyable, and a large chunk of the reason I aim for moderation over abstinence. Bowling, laser tag, whatever…anything that involves getting off the couch, laughing, and connecting with others works for me. The barrier here is that I usually have to do the inviting, which I can probably manage.

Be kind to myself

The above lists are a bit limited in scope. Some of that is because I left out things I know I don’t personally enjoy (like “take a long bath,” blerg). Mostly, it’s because I wanted to list fairly easy things, the ‘low hanging fruit’ of evening entertainment. Things that may be slightly more challenging than lying on the couch, but that aren’t actually a huge struggle.

There are plenty of things I’d like to do that are a bit more complex, for me.  For instance: exercise more, go for late-night walks, cook something new. The truth is, I’m just not in the mood sometimes, which probably means I need to tackle those activities in a more organized way if I want to actually change my relationship to them. For now, I just want to start small, and remind myself that there are lots of easier things I can to get through the winter in some kind of balanced state.

October/November goals

My October plan was:

[…] my October goal is to follow the Moderation Management guidelines for low-risk drinking ranges, and my expectation is that this should be more manageable than it was in August & September. For women, that means 0-4 drinking occasions per week, 0-3 drinks on any occasion, and 0-9 drinks in any week.

In October, I had fourteen drinks, spread out across eight well-separated occasions. About two evenings with drinks each week, and an average of just about three standard drinks per week. This was my second ‘completely moderate’ month since I started trying to moderate — no immoderate occasions, days, or weeks. I’m very pleased!

I think my success at this stage reflects the fact that my new habits are becoming more ingrained. October was actually a fairly stressful month, but because my routines were normal, my new habits carried me through without a great deal of effort. The impact of the higher-stress parts of the month was to increase urges — I wanted a drink more, and had more intrusive thoughts about alcohol, during those times — but my actual behavior stayed consistent with what I want. Which is the goal, of course.

I’m still working on strengthening some healthier coping mechanisms. A bad day doesn’t make me significantly more likely to drink, usually, but it still makes me likely to lie flaccidly on the couch, surfing the internet and/or thinking idle drinking thoughts, and I’d like to empower myself to play a more active role in stress-relief.

Moderation in October felt significantly easier and more “natural” than in any previous month, which is a nice trend. Significantly less angst about drinking overall, in spite of the occasional fierce urge. The drinks I did have were enjoyable, of no great significance, and felt like a perfectly generous quantity overall. Since my new habits seem to be producing good results, I’ll keep the same plan in place for another month: my plan for November is to follow the Moderation Management guidelines for low-risk drinking ranges (0-4 drinking occasions per week, 0-3 drinks on any occasion, and 0-9 drinks in any week).