surprise yourself

Okay, I think I’ve gotten all the trip-planning out of my system. Just in time too, since I’m leaving soon! There will likely be a several-weeks break in posting here, unless I find myself floundering in immoderate waters, in which case I may use this blog to throw myself a rescue line. I feel cautiously confident though. And wildly excited to have the privilege of traveling at all.

Here’s a story from last Friday. I had the evening free (a rarity for me on Fridays), and detoured on my way home to pick my partner up from his office. It started snowing as I drove, and by the time we got home, a real storm was developing. Bumping elbows companionably in the kitchen, fat snowflakes out the window, nosy dog underfoot…it was starting to feel like a seriously cozy night. Perfect for some unwinding, wrapping up loose ends, cuddling on the couch. Also a perfect night for a glass of wine, and as the thought entered my mind, my partner produced a surprise bottle, salvaged from a work event.

Surprise bottles of wine were once a sore subject around here. I could write pages about them. One chapter would be about the challenges I experience when trying to moderate at home (nearly all my problematic drinking happened at home, so it’s not really a surprise that this is my trickiest area). Another would have to do with the challenges of any alcohol-based surprise, which are unsettling and triggering. The longest portion of this complex backstory would no-doubt be the difficulties of clear communication around an issue that often makes me feel defensive, or ashamed — it’s not always easy to explain to my partner that even though I appear to be doing much better, some of this still takes an awful lot of effort, for me. And, quite frankly, hard not to be irritated with him when he presumes that I’m “fixed,” or otherwise pushes my drinking buttons, or demonstrates that he’s got some problematic drinking behaviors too.

On this beautiful, snowy Friday night, I said I’d love a glass of surprise wine, but not until after dinner. We ate, my partner poured two glasses, and we sat down at our computers. I got busy trying to finish a writing project, silence fell. An hour or so later, he stood up and asked if I’d like a refill, and I glanced to my right. There sat my glass of white wine, untouched, in its little 5oz glass. Whoops.

I did drink the glass a bit later, and had a second after that. I enjoyed them both, and between them, they were enough for me. We watched an episode of something, and tried to persuade the dog to go outside to pee, even though she was adamant that it was much too cold. We didn’t finish the bottle. Before bed, we stuck a cork in it, and the last third is still sitting in our fridge. Maybe I’ll have it tonight. Maybe I won’t.

This take-it-or-leave-it feeling is new for me. I don’t know how solid it is yet, so I’m not counting on it continuing. My continued healthy habits certainly don’t depend on it. But even so, it made me feel really proud and happy. I’m not even sure I can remember the last time the two of us shared a bottle of wine without finishing it. I’m sure it wasn’t on a snow-bound evening at the end of a long week.

I say this not because I think moderation is easy (it isn’t), or that it always feels uncomplicated (it doesn’t), but because after nearly an entire year of working hard at this, I find that I am still surprising myself. I remember how it felt when my drinking was out of control, when the first pour at the end of a long day had become the biggest reward I knew, when I did embarrassing things to make sure I always had “enough” to drink. And I remember the long, long months at the beginning of this moderation thing, when I constantly felt like I was just going through the motions, and lived in fear of my inevitable backslide.

And now, some 10-11 months into this, there’s a third of a bottle in my fridge and it doesn’t worry me. There’s actually another whole bottle of wine in one of my kitchen cupboards, for that matter. I bought it for an event that was cancelled at the last minute, so I stuck it into the cupboard, thinking I might bring it to the next dinner party (or whatever) that we get invited to. It’s a nice bottle, a pinot noir that I like a lot. Most of the time, I forget it’s there, even though it’s been in the house for a month or so. The primary thing I feel when I remember this bottle is surprise, because this ‘keeping alcohol around’ thing is still very new to me. Plus some pride, and another little surge of the thing that got me here in the first place: hope.

For all of you who read along here, I hope you have a great winter solstice, or any other winter holiday(s) you celebrate, and a tremendous New Year.


keeping things in perspective (travel habits pt. 5)

When I make plans and work on strategies, I can develop a kind of tunnel vision. It helps to step back and remind myself why all this work is worthwhile. After all, with five posts in a row making vacation-planning seem like a minefield of drinking challenges, moderation is starting to seem a bit like the chore that critics sometimes claim.

The fact is, I used to spend FAR more time managing my drinking on vacations (and at home). Drinking was a constant source of anxiety, upheaval, and shame. Anxiety that I wouldn’t be able to get enough to drink, irritability when I had to cut back, and shame around my behavior. Round and round it went. Besides the logistical challenges, and the emotional volatility, vacations all took on a certain fuzzy sameness. I love traveling, but the more I drank, the more my vacations became centered around managing alcohol, same as every other part of life.

What a waste.

I don’t miss that version of my life, or the way I could never seem to gain any traction against that boozy rip tide that was slowly eroding the ground I stood on. I appreciate that moderation has helped me get closer to the kind of person I really want to be. I don’t want to be a person who drinks every day, or who drinks immoderately most times I drink, because those habits aren’t healthy, and because I have first-hand experience of what they do to my life. But changing those habits is hard work, and I shouldn’t lose sight of that just because I’ve managed to get to a point where it doesn’t feel like hard work on a daily basis.

There was a time when I had to plan like this for everyday life (although usually in a much less organized fashion, because I was struggling more then). Figuring out how to get through my back door, through my kitchen, and through another evening without wine was enormously challenging. There were times when I despaired of it ever getting easier, or embarrassed myself with how frustrated I felt. Now, I walk in, set my bags down, settle into my evening routine, and completely forget to marvel at how easy this feels. Taking an hour or two to formulate a plan to help make sure (not) drinking is equally non-intrusive during travel feels regressive, simply because I’ve acclimated to the total ease of my day-to-day routine. But its actually a tremendous privilege.

Really, I wanted to write these posts out in exhaustive, boring detail precisely because I couldn’t do this when I started. Changing my drinking habits was really hard at first, and I was too scared and overwhelmed to pick things apart to any great extent. These vacation habits, by contrast, have much lower stakes, and I have a much bigger bag of tools to tackle them…and yet, I will still struggle, and probably fall a little short. And that’s okay. This is a long process, and I’m happy with the direction I’m heading. In fact, it feels almost refreshing to revisit a prior stage, because I can do so with such confidence. The ground beneath my feet is stable now, and that makes a tremendous difference.

triggers and problem-solving (travel habits pt. 4)

For most of us, some drinks are easier to discard than others. They’ve been described as “low hanging fruit,” i.e. easy to remove from the tree. For me personally, that’s almost any daylight drinking, because as long as there is daylight, there is almost certainly something else that I could be enjoying at least as much. True for me in everyday life, and even more true in a new, exciting place. For someone else, the easy-to-skip drinks might be different, but that’s the fun of moderation: we each get to have our own style.

I’ve been practicing moderation for about ten months, and so I have gained a lot of experience in skipping drinks. I’m no longer particularly worried about the easy-to-skip category of drinking, I’m worried about the kind of drinking that is substantially harder for me to figure out, which involve triggers.

Granted, it’s not always possible to know in advance exactly how we’re going to feel, but I’m old enough to have a pretty good idea how I’m likely to respond to many things. So I can make a list of some general triggers that I’m probably going to encounter on this trip, including:

  • Jet lag — any time I am short on sleep, I’m going experience more urges. Throw in that internal dislocation that comes with crossing time zones, and I can expect to have some strong cravings at some odd times.
  • Hotels/motels — for whatever reason, hotel rooms make me want to drink. Fiercely.
  • Travel fatigue, or vacation down-time — when I’m overwhelmed or out of my element, I start wanting to just check out.
  • Boredom — the flip side of doing too much is doing too little
  • Local specialties — being offered the chance to try something local to that region, so that my vacation takes on new flavors, is irresistible to me.

Having pinpointed specific triggers, I can start brainstorming specific solutions. Let me pause to point out that someone else’s triggers & solutions might be completely different; different things work for different people, and the only “best” answer is the one that works for you. These are just a few things I can clearly identify in advance.

For jet lag, the right answer for me is definitely to be alcohol-free for at least the first few days of vacation (including airports and planes). Of course, that’s easy to say — the challenging part with all triggers is translating intent into action. So I have specific tools in mind: I’m going to enlist my partner as my sober buddy (and be one to him in turn); I’m bringing a refillable water bottle and some trail mix in my bag (dehydration and hunger distort my judgment); I’m doing what I can to minimize jet lag itself (starting to adjust sleep hours ahead of time, for instance); and I’m going to create an offline drink-counting journal to help make sticking to my commitments easier (like a counting card, basically). The idea is that by abstaining during the first few days of this trip, I may make it easier to abstain during the next few days of the next trip…habits are powerful things!

The motel issue is actually the easiest to solve: we’re booking most of our accommodations through sites like airbnb. This solves a whole tangle of issues, because it gives us more control over cooking our own food, setting our own schedules, and having more living space during our “down time.” My goal is to avoid drinking during evenings in our rentals, at least for the most part (an occasional shared bottle of wine over a meal we cook together is one thing, gulping down booze while mindlessly surfing the internet is not what I’m after). Same as at home, really, so it’s mostly a question of being prepared for this to feel harder, simply by virtue of the new surroundings. I’m also aiming to abstain on the nights I’m in a hotel, which I’ve done before (with difficulty, but also with success!), to keep flexing that particular skill until it gets easier.

Travel fatigue is harder for me to figure out, because I can’t predict it. I like being in new places, I love seeing new things, and yet I have my limit, a certain point where I just want to curl up and turn my brain off for a bit. This is especially true in places where I am experiencing a lot of culture shock…but actually, it can happen anywhere, because even the best vacations can have moments where I really just want to switch off. It’s definitely stress, which is also a considerable trigger for me in regular life, and so I’ve been working on healthier ways to handle stress. My drink-tracking-journal is going to have a second section, a list on paper of things I can during those times when I want to retreat to my room for a bit (reading, maybe some yoga-type exercises, maybe there’s something creative I could carry along easily?).

Boredom is the flip side of vacation stress. I don’t actually think it will be a huge factor on this trip (there’s just too much going on), but my experience is that “doing nothing” is really hard on me. It’s supposed to be relaxing, but unstructured time is actually pretty challenging. I need to remember that drinking is not an activity in and of itself. So as far as specific strategies, finding things to do that are a good fit for me (not the “must see” lists for tourists, but the things that actually delight me) is essential. It requires me to take responsibility for myself, which is something moderation seems to have helped with quite a bit. The biggest challenge I have here, actually, is that my partner loves the idea that vacations should be spontaneous, which in practical terms means he turns vacation planning into a total headache…really, relationships and drinking triggers are their own set of issues, worthy of any number of posts!

Finally, the trigger that is most emblematic of travel & vacation: not wanting to miss out on local flavors or special opportunities. And actually, I have no intention of missing out. The whole point of making a plan is to make sure that my overall alcohol consumption doesn’t become an issue for me, so that I can say “yes!” to a sample of local cider, a bottle of local wine served with dinner, or the chance to share drinks with friends, without feeling guilty or seeing my behavior spiral out of control. Again, I think it helps to avoid treating drinking as a complete activity, even if it’s dressed up as a tasting session or whatever. I can sample local wine and beer over dinner, or after a full meal, or during a tasting opportunity that also includes food & water. At home, I like my drinks to be a small, but enjoyable, part of life; the same basic rule of thumb applies on vacation.

These are just a handful of potential triggers. As I continue to plan the trip, I’ll be on the lookout for others, and devote a minute or two to trying to problem-solve for those too. It seems like a lot of extra work, doesn’t it? At least when it’s all written out like this. More on that in part 5.

check my carry-on (travel habits pt. 3)

A plan is just a description of what I hope to achieve; I achieve it by stringing together some appropriate skills and tools. They tend to sound deceptively simple. Measuring, counting, and tracking, for instance, are ridiculously basic (and yet, somehow, I did not manage to do any of those things during my 15-some years of heavy drinking, so perhaps they aren’t that simple at all!). But when I first started trying to moderate, I was appalled by the suggestion that counting my drinks would somehow fix my drinking…and of course, it won’t. It’s just one of many tools that add up to a sum that is greater than its parts. For those interested, I think the Responsible Drinking book is a better resource for those tools (and for moderation in general) than this blog.

When I think about the tools I already have, I am reminded that one of my favorite, and most fundamental, tools is abstinence. I guess that may not be intuitively obvious (people looking to moderate may not be hoping to focus on abstaining; people aiming to abstain often see the two things as contradictory; etc.), but for me, my moderation efforts are built on a strong foundation of skipping lots of drinks. I’ve written about this before, but in my earlier months, I used to picture abstinence as a large, comfortable safety raft. Anytime I felt like I was getting in over my head, I could haul myself onto my raft and enjoy a calm, safe pause. I practiced saying “no thanks,” or deciding not to drink that day, countless times, because I wasn’t comfortable saying yes unless I know I could comfortably experience the same situation without a drink in hand. I think vacation works the same way, it just plays some funny games with my mind.

Abstinence itself requires some planning and tools, of course, otherwise no one would be a problematic drinker. For instance, I would like to check into a hotel, freshen up, and then spend the evening doing something other than drinking. For me, that’s a behavior that really does take hard work. I need to consider what to do instead of drinking. Read? Work? Go for a walk? All of the above? Figuring it out takes some planning, a lot of practice, and then usually a bit of refinement (then more practice, and more), but it’s amazing when it all starts to pull together into a routine. I used to come home, walk through the back door, and immediately pour myself a glass of wine from the box on the counter. Now, I come home and rarely even think about drinking at all. I’d awfully proud of having built that!

Some specific travel skills I want to build include:

  • Checking into a hotel/motel (or other accommodation) and spending the evening doing things other than drinking. This is built from tools like stress-management, urge-surfing (and other urge techniques), distraction, etc..
  • Continuing to practice skills like having one drink at a restaurant (and then stopping). This relies on tools that control my BAC (like pacing, eating, choosing low ABV drinks, etc.).
  • Enjoy the drinks I do have. Mindfulness is one tool here.
  • Avoiding dramatic overages (my “no hangovers” goal). Harm reduction is good, and things like proper hydration, spacing, controlling the amount of alcohol available, and so forth are really valuable, especially in situations where I am still struggling with healthier habits (like vacations!).

My experience is that many of these tools travel with me. I have experience with things like delaying, distracting, and (to some degree!) stress management. I’m just trying to put these things together in a new situation. I’m not starting from scratch, but that doesn’t mean things will be easy either — behaviors have to be practiced over and over to become habits, so using my tools in these specific situations is not going to happen on autopilot. At least for now.

There is one travel-related skill I have practiced again and again: sticking the landing. When I get home from a trip, long or short, I have practiced immediately resuming my healthy habits, until I finally felt it become second-nature. Just like abstinence used to be my safety raft, this solid feeling that I can slide right back into my new routines, no spiral-of-escalating-drinking, helps give me security and confidence. So that’s a given. A few more thoughts on some trigger-specific strategies will follow in the fourth part.

goal setting (travel habits pt. 2)

Generally speaking, I am told that a good goal is one that is specific, measurable, and achievable. For instance, a goal like “I will exercise for twenty minutes three times a week” is evidently more likely to produce long-term changes than a goals like “I will get in better shape” or “I am going to exercise more.”

But sometimes, we just don’t know enough to set a specific performance goal yet. We require new skills, new knowledge, or a better understanding of our abilities. “Start with a plan” is actually a really difficult thing to try when it comes to moderation, because how do we know what kind of plan to make if we’ve never moderated successfully?! That’s why I think it makes sense to begin with ‘learning goals,’ which focus on gaining more understanding and practicing new skills. We can start sketching in some rough performance goals, but put off fine-tuning them until later.

A “learning goal” might be something like “figure out my triggers,” or “track my drinking behavior,” both of which involve making observations and keeping records. It’s a good place to start, but at this point, I have a handful of experiences from the last ten months to draw from. I am gaining a sense for which tools travel with me, which appear to take more effort, and where my greatest challenges probably lie. So this is my first trip where I am going to tentatively try some performance goals, but I’m going to start with a wider target range of behavior and a generous allowance for mistakes. I’m aiming for a solid, sustainable trajectory toward healthier travel habits, so setting myself up for success is important.

What I’m thinking is a list of travel-moderation goals that look something like this:

  • Observe and learn more about what works for me, especially in common travel/vacation situations (this has been the only goal I’ve had for previous trips…it’s a great place to start)
  • Measure, count, track, and continue to keep records on my behavior (oh yeah, and I’ve been doing this one too…I take tracking for granted these days!)
  • Enjoy plenty of abstinent days, adding up to at least a third of my vacation days (that’s a lot fewer than my “at home” habits, but seems like a reasonable starting point)
  • Aim to avoid more than two drinking days in a row
  • Aim to keep “immoderate” days within the 3-5 drink range
  • Practice stress-relief techniques (of the alcohol-free variety) while on vacation, especially during evenings.
  • Practice abstaining in hotels/motels (something I have practiced before, and which is very challenging for me…more on this later)

This whole process is similar to the one I went through when I first started trying to change my drinking habits, except the stakes are lower and I’m more able to think through all the angles now. Learn a lot, then try to practice new skills in environments where I think I’ll succeed, and keep learning and adjusting as I go. It’s worth reminding myself that, early on, I did these things while clinging tightly to my long alcohol-free stretches, and that was a key factor. I suspect that successful travel habits will similarly be tied to lots of abs, at least for me.

I’ll refine that list of goals again before I leave, which will help keep it fresh in my mind. What will actually help me achieve it, however, are the strategies and tools I’ll be practicing, which I’ll write about more in the next post(s).

Do habits come in travel sizes? (travel habits pt. 1)

My December posts are probably all going to be vacation/travel-related. I’ve written several times here about the way vacations and travel seem to cause my best-laid plans to go astray. So, looking forward to a trip at the end of the month, I thought this might be a good opportunity to plan ahead for an upcoming challenge, rather than just waiting until I’m in the middle of it.

Each vacation is different, but my experience has been that my routines tend not to be as spontaneous as I imagine. That is, even when I travel, I tend to fall into fairly predictable patterns. Therefore, my goal is to find a set of “travel habits” that I can start to build and carry with me as I go, while accepting that there are inherent challenges: i.e., habits depend on familiar circumstances, and vacations are, sort of by definition, a break from familiar circumstances. Just like I can’t seem to find my preferred toothpaste in a 3 oz tube, maybe I’ll need to accept that my travel habits may never be exactly what I want, but it seems worthwhile to try.

I’m breaking this up into several posts, because it’s long and potentially tedious. Today, I’ll start by acknowledging that a part of my brain is reluctant to engage with this at all. Making a plan feels too much like “thinking about drinking,” and many of us seem to have somehow absorbed the (deeply flawed) message that “real moderation” doesn’t involve having to think about it. My experience is that successful moderation can eventually involve relatively little thought and effort, but to get to that point, we have to be willing to put in a considerable amount of work up-front. Having done a lot of that in my day-to-day life, it feels a bit like taking a step back to go start at square one again with regard to travel. Plus, there’s another part of my brain arguing that the whole purpose of a vacation is to be spontaneous and cut loose. Brains can be so frustrating.

If there’s one thing my past behavior has shown me, it’s that “no plan” is the same thing as “no moderation.” It’s not enough to wish I could moderate, or to passively participate in drinking opportunities while crossing my fingers that somehow, this time, it’ll work out for the best. As anyone who has had a serious drinking habit develop could tell me, that’s a recipe for a quick slide back into scary drinking. And, like most of us, I know that from my own experience too — I spent years declaring my intentions to cut back, and trying to will myself into better habits, while actually drinking more and more as time passed.

Willpower is not what changes behavior, especially not over the long-term. For that, I need a plan, and some tools for translating that plan into meaningful behavior changes. So that will be part 2, coming soon.

December plan

For the first three weeks of December, my routines should be mostly regular. So for the first three weeks of December, my plan 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).

For the last 10 days of December, I will be traveling, then on vacation, then traveling again (some work, some fun). Not just a mild disruption, this will be a long period of complete upending of all my routines. I’m trying to look at this as an opportunity to practice some travel-sized habits, but it’s hard not to feel a little anticipatory frustration about how difficult good habits can be to practice under unusual circumstances.

My first step is to make a plan, and I don’t want it to be one that’s hard to hit. My plans are usually intended to be descriptive: my best guess at what I think I can accomplish (not how I wish I could be, not a big declaration that I try to stick to by sheer willpower, just an educated estimate of where my current tools & strategies should enable me to land).

So I plan to start with a series of posts here, working through some of the stages of making a plan. Plans take work, and figuring out how to build habits for unusual circumstances has been a challenge for me thus far…time to start discovering what I can do when I really put in the effort.