little bitty building blocks

On their own, the tools of moderation can seem spectacularly unimpressive. “Count all your drinks” or “learn to savor a drink slowly” sound like absurdly tiny things. I mean, even when I was drinking heavily, I could count my drinks…or thought I could, anyway! I also thought I could savor a drink slowly (ha!). In fact, many of the tools of moderation are refined versions of things we’ve already tried to use to control our drinking, often without much success.

Of course, one reason for this lack of success is because the process of moderation requires re-configuring my relationship with alcohol. This is more or less why I’m struggling now — not that I don’t have some of the tools to do better, but that I am lingering over the dregs of my bad relationship rather than pulling things into order again.

But also, the tools for moderation really are small. They start as tiny things, which is not the same thing as easy. Learning to savor just one drink slowly was HARD for me at first. But once I started building several of these small skills, I found I could stack them together into different configurations. Learning to do them well was even more important — turns out, one beer does not always count as “one drink,” and that taking twenty minutes to down my glass of wine isn’t really that slow!

More practice means more fluency, so it even gets easier to practice new habits in a new place. This is more apparent to me now than ever — the tools that have become internalized habits, for me, are just there, on auto-pilot, all the time. No willpower or struggle required. At the beginning though, I think drinking is the thing that feels cohesive. It’s a big, monolith thing in our lives, with shape and force and strength. And the bitty moderation tools seem small against that big thing.

Moderation has something to do with numbers. But also, it’s about gathering a bunch of these little things…

…and using them to build a whole, organized system that does what we want.

 

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what is “moderation” anyway?

I learned about Moderation Management several years ago, via a New Year’s Day Gabrielle Glaser article. I knew my drinking was a problem, and had known for years, but I hadn’t heard of non-12-step programs before, much less a self-directed program with roots in behavioral science. It was an exciting moment for me!

The main thing that attracted me to MM is that it’s evidence-based. There are evidence-based abstinence programs too, although I didn’t know about them at the time. But even if I had, I would probably have tried MM first, for the obvious reason: the goal is moderation, not abstinence. Abstinence was scary, and failure-intolerant thinking is deeply toxic for me. Moderation sounded more manageable in many ways.

I’m not sure I really understood what moderation really meant, at the time. It’s hard to visualize, when you’ve been over-drinking for as long as I had. I know the recommended drinking guidelines filled me with horror and futility — the weekly limit for women was less than I often drank in a single evening. Moreover, I had tried “cutting back” many times before, and knew all about the embarrassing cravings, the way my best intentions got lost after the third drink, the way I often seemed to drink more when I was trying to restrict myself. Focusing on the numbers was too overwhelming for me at first.

As I’ve written before, I opted to trust that things would get clearer as I went — if I could figure out each tiny piece, then stacking them together would eventually work out. I committed to a “30” (which stretched somewhat longer once I realized how scary moderation felt), I learned how to calculate a standard drink, I slowly sweated my way through learning basic skills and tools. And eventually, it did start to make sense.

Moderation is not just a goal, it is a process. Another term for it might be “alcohol-inclusive recovery,” meaning we’re all working to change our problematic drinking behavior, we’re just getting there via slightly different routes. I am not as far along this process as I could wish, but I am much further along than I used to be. That’s worth recognizing and celebrating.

Of course, it is also a goal. Drinking less than I used to is a form of harm reduction, and an excellent thing, but my long-term goal is to consistently drink within actual, evidence-based limits. That’s a solid, quantifiable, achievable goal. I will get there, eventually.

At the heart of moderation is one essential skill: learning to live according to our deeper values, so that we can prioritize long-term goals (health, happiness, community, family, etc.) over short-term appetites. Because of this, learning to moderate has helped immeasurably with other areas of my life. I have re-organized our spending, so that it better matches our long-term goals. We eat far more healthily (of course, it helps that we’re not trying to cook while drunk!). We go to the gym regularly, and all kinds of other shifts, small and large.

But I’m not perfect. My life now reflects my values far better than it did a few years ago, and yet there continues to be so much room for improvement. That’s okay too, I think. If all it took was wanting to do better, none of us would ever be struggling.

 

 

cold on a cold day

I woke up at 4am this morning and realized I have a cold. Which might help explain the anxious/overwhelmed feelings from yesterday — even a mild virus can crank up my body’s stress levels, and do funny things to my thinking.

One thing about feeling stressed is that I often blame myself. I’m anxious, headache-y, and tired; it must all be my fault for having drunk wine last week (or various other reasons I will fixate on). Of course, drinking wine does cause me to feel anxious, headache-y, and tired, so the connection is easy to make…but also, sometimes it’s just a virus. Not everything is actually my fault, believe it or not.

I enjoyed my soup, hot tea, and quiet evening last night. I even read a chapter of a good book at the end of the day, all tucked into bed and slowly giving in to sleepiness. It was nice, and relaxing, and felt like a return to normal routines. But I still feel sick today, because that’s how colds work. I’ve learned to be okay with that, mostly, instead of frantically searching for a magical cure (and isn’t it amazing how alcohol pretends to be the magical cure for so many things?!).

I’ll work on posting something more profound eventually. For now, it’s time for more hot tea.

cranky on a beautiful day

I am cranky today, though not for any significant reason. Just lots of small things, which add up to general crankiness. It’s a day when I’d like to pull the blankets over my head, ideally while on vacation at the beach.

Besides all the usual reasons to be cranky (like how nobody is returning my calls, which means I can’t get anything done, which makes me want to jump up and down with frustration), I suspect my mood is soured by having consumed alcohol too many days last week. I spent most of the week visiting family for Thanksgiving, and drank wine. A glass of wine with dinner and, most nights, a glass (or sometimes two) of wine after most of the family went to bed at night. Not a lot on any particular evening, but I can’t remember the last week where I drank every single day. It adds up, and mostly what it adds up to is an icky, tired sort of feeling. Yuck.

So, what can I do to stop being cranky? Besides run away to some beach, obviously.

How about a plan to eat healthy tonight (big pot of soup, no alcohol, that sort of thing)? I don’t really think food will magically make me happy, but feeling like I can control at least one thing often helps. Okay, big pot of soup it is.

Jumping up and down in frustration might actually be a good idea. It’s exercise, after all. Exercise and spending time outside are both things that help a lot, but also require time and energy. It’s astonishingly hard to prioritize these things — something I should really work on (but also, I am tired of always having so many things to work on!).

Finish something. The major cause of my crankiness has to do with being overwhelmed (surprise! I went away for a week, and now the catching-up seems unmanageable!). Writing things down, so that my “to-do list” becomes quantified, and then crossing them off, helps with that feeling of control. Of course, I can’t finish everything, both because I lack time, and because nobody is returning my calls. But sometimes, finishing anything is still helpful.

I could add other things that might help tonight, like reading a good book (time away from screens is so good for my brain). But when I try, it quickly seems like I am just trying to create even more work for myself. Perhaps it would be good just to have an evening filled with soup, tea, and an early bedtime, and then try to figure out tomorrow when it comes.

Okay, I’ll go with that.

Be Realistic

I’ve been thinking about my tendency to make changes in my life during periods of relative optimism — times when things are going pretty well for me, rather than those “rock bottoms” we’ve all heard so much about.

Two years ago (almost), I decided to take steps to change my drinking habits. Doing so was scary. I felt like I was inching my way out onto a thin wire, suspended over a yawning chasm of possible failure. But also, for the first time in a long while, I felt like there was a tiny spark of hope inside me. It was the hope that made me lean out over the terrifying void. Without hope, why bother trying at all?

Today, I feel like I am standing on firm ground. No chasm in sight, just this annoying rock that I keep stubbing my toe on. Yes, I would like to stop stubbing my toe — no more weekends with a night or two spent glugging beer on my couch! But, if I do stub my toe a few more times, it’s really not that big a deal. It’s not the same thing as falling to my doom. I can try again, or try something different, and I am confident that I’ll figure this out eventually.

Of course, all I’m in for now is a tune-up. It’s not the whole-life-makeover that I needed two years ago, more of an adjustment. That makes a difference too. But I still think that hope is important. I think we have to feel like things can change for the better, instead of feeling like we have to wait for them to get worse. It’s one of the things I like best about Moderation Management, that it’s based on evidence, and thus tells people true things — that problematic habits exist on a spectrum (and are easier to change now than after we’ve practiced them a few more hundred times); that we can change (but might need extra help to do so); that we are always capable of learning, and life skills are one of the things we can learn.

The truth is, most people who try to change their drinking habits succeed. I wish I’d known that two years ago: my tiny spark of hope could have really used the boost. I’m glad I know it now. And I’m glad that life continues to present these moments where the effort seems manageable, the timing seems right, and we can inch our way just a bit further toward our goals.

We often use the phrase “be realistic” to discourage people, to make them aim smaller. But when I think about it, I want to tell people to be realistic about this process. Because the reality is: it might not be pretty, it probably won’t be linear, and it will definitely take a lot longer than we’d hoped, but when we set out to change our drinking habits, the odds are in our favor.

’tis the season

Ahhh, the time of year when we all recommit, or at least start thinking about doing better. Myself included! It’s not New Year’s Resolution time, but everyone I know seems to be sitting up, shaking themselves off, and deciding to try a little harder before the holiday disruptions hit. Or at least pledging not to eat *only* cookies for the next few months.

For myself, after a long period of successful moderation, I stopped being able to log into Abstar (my tracking tool). Just a glitch, but it happened at a moment when I just didn’t have much motivation. You know that feeling that doing X amount of work is totally worth it? Well, I just didn’t have it.

So I stopped tracking, and opted to go into autopilot mode. And you know, it actually went pretty well for a while. A surprising number of my new habits really are entrenched — I just do them automatically. I drive home and don’t stop at the liquor store. I go out with friends and order a beer, or decide I’d really rather have water, and that’s all I drink for the evening. I enjoy many alcohol-free evenings that are filled with all kinds of things, from meetings to hot mugs of tea, and this feels entirely normal. Delightful, even!

BUT (you knew there was a “but” coming, right?!), old habits die hard. For me, the stickiest habit has been drinking at home. Once I stopped tracking, it got just a tiny bit easier to decide to indulge in this particular unproductive habit. Not every night, and not in anywhere near the quantities I used to, but I welcomed the habit back into my life on the occasional weekend night. And once summer wrapped up, and the nights grew longer, and the weekends started being overwhelmed by soggy snowfalls and bitter winds, the creep became just a bit more determined.

I don’t have a dramatic tale of “relapse,” just a routine experience of occasionally finding an unwanted habit hard to resist. I’m not even particularly upset about it, I just think it’s time to recommit to doing better. Because really, I can do better, and all it probably takes is to start tracking again. If I’m not tracking, I’m not counting. If I’m not counting, I’m not being accountable for my own behavior. It really is the basic foundation that I rely on.

Unlike when I began, almost two years ago, I don’t feel ashamed of my drinking, or afraid that I can’t change. I just feel like I want to live a great life, one that reflects my values and contains a lot of love, adventure, and high-quality experiences. Most of the time, life is hard, and much too short. But my life also contains many opportunities for joy; I want to be able to seize them.

humming along

When I started this blog, I was thinking about drinking (or not drinking) very intensely. As is probably obvious from my total lack of recent posts, it’s just not at the forefront of my mind lately. That’s okay, but every so often, I think I ought to wrap things up here in some way. Not a happily ever after — this is not the end of my story, nor even (I imagine) the end of my efforts to drink within healthy parameters. Just a check-in, really, and an acknowledgement that I don’t really have much left to say on this subject.

Alcohol is no longer central to my life, nor is it entirely out of my life. I have not become a perfectly moderate drinker, but I’m really pretty close. And I have become more comfortable with my lack of perfection, reassured by the fact that an occasional mistake is not actually catastrophic, and that an occasional bad week is only a bad week, and not the beginning of the end. I also recognize that as I continue to grow older, health is something that I’m needing to pay more attention to in a variety of ways, and I will probably continue to need to revisit issues of diet, exercise, drinking, and so forth. Living is a complicated business, and I am far from having it all figured out.

When I started this journey, I just wanted to change my drinking. I didn’t intend to be introspective, or even use terms like “journey.” But, when I first stopped spending every evening drunk, I started discovering some embarrassing truths. Including the simple fact that I didn’t know what to do besides drinking. I’d treated drinking as a real activity — the main event — for so long, I couldn’t remember how else to fill downtime, or how else to fill my mind.

I knew that changing my drinking habits would be hard. I didn’t know that one of the hardest things would be discovering that I had become boring. It shouldn’t have been a complete surprise, I know, since I was perfectly aware of how I was spending all my spare time (and how much time was being converted to “spare” just so I could start drinking). But because I remained fairly functional, and most of my drinking happened in the evenings, I could pretend I was leading a full life…not just to other people, but to myself. It took cutting out the alcohol to realize just how much time I’d been wasting.

For awhile after cutting down, I relied upon new ways of filling time. I tried new hobbies, signed up for evening classes, cleaned the house, volunteered, went to bed early. All good things, but mostly, these were things I engaged with at a fairly superficial level. Like watching a movie, or eating a tasty meal — nice ways to spend time, but not much deeper than that. That seemed fine to me, because going through the motions was better than standing still.

Modern life offers an endless number of distractions, and I’ve been thankful for it. I also think that we (or I, anyway) need things that engage our deeper abilities, that we need interests that go beyond consuming (eating, drinking, buying, browsing, clicking), that we need to be challenged to think critically and creatively, and that we should be actively trying to figure out how to build healthy communities with other human beings. Some of these are things I’ve been working on for awhile, others seemed to involve a lot of trying and discarding new things, and a whole lot of feeling uncomfortable.

Imagine my relief when some of my new explorations eventually led me to things that burrowed down into my brain and wouldn’t let go. Projects, passions…call them what you like, but we all need things that challenge us to use our brains, our abilities, our hands, our empathy, our creativity, and all the other things that make us whole. I’ve found some things that fill me up, right up to the top, and make me stretch, and grow, and struggle to learn more.

That is the simple version, anyway. Real life tends to feel more complicated, and perhaps I will think of things differently tomorrow. For today, I am glad to be where I am. And I am forever grateful to the tools and people who helped me get this far — particularly theĀ  Moderation Management resources & tools, and the great MM forum/community (and all the passionate people who work to keep it so fabulous). It’s not easy, but it’s absolutely worth it.

I am not the same person who started this blog, and the magnitude of the difference sometimes staggers me. I used to wake up in the middle of the night and think, “I really can’t keep drinking like this.” Then lie awake, terrified and hating myself, because I knew I would. Now, if I wake up in the middle of the night, I have so many things to think about. My brain is humming. My hands are itching for morning, so I can find time to do what I love. I am not always happy, but I have such great joy in my life; I am the same person, and yet, I am completely different.

Not happily ever after, just pretty good right now.