Moderating in May

One tool I have been using since I started this journey is monthly plans. Each month, I make a specific drinking plan, and then try to implement strategies that let me reach my goals. Some of my strategies work better than others, so I am always learning as I go.

My May goal is to stick to “by the book” moderation, which means following the Moderation Management limits. For women, that means no more than three drinks on any occasion, no more than four drinking occasions per week, and no more than nine drinks in any week. Those are limits, not goals — I intend to drink below those limits most occasions/weeks.

Although I often fall short of perfection, I have seen consistent overall improvement. I hope to see the same this month.

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green light

The most essential tool I use is counting my drinks, which I do with an online tracker. If I enter zero drinks, the number shows up in green. Three drinks or fewer (“moderate” numbers) show up in blue. Anything over that shows up in red, which stings a bit more than you might expect.

Every Friday, I plan for zero drinks. This is because Fridays are my toughest day of the week. Not just because “it’s the weekend, I deserve a drink” kicks in (although there’s that), but because I have a specific commitment on Fridays that involves late nights, lots of social triggers, high stress, and a drive home when my energy and inhibitory control are at an all-time low.

For the better part of a year, I drove home via a liquor store, where I would pick up a 3-liter box of wine to “help me unwind.” Then I’d go home, drink glasses of wine like they were lemonade, and eventually stagger off to bed. Saturday mornings were kind of miserable, because although my total alcohol consumption was often lower than “normal,” I accomplished it in a very short time frame. I’d been a daily drinker for a long time, so I rarely got hangovers anymore…until my Friday nights got to be so busy, and then my Saturdays started getting really icky. In a roundabout way, this became one strong motivation to change my behavior (eventually!).

These days, I do not drink on Fridays. No swinging by the liquor store, even when I want to. The first Friday on my 30+, my urge to follow old habits was so strong that I actually left my wallet at home, just so that I couldn’t buy wine, and I still just barely made it through the night without heading out again. These days, Fridays are a lot easier.

When I look at all those green zeroes entered on my Friday nights, I think of them as little green traffic lights. Instead of my weekends starting off with exhaustion, hangovers, and self-recrimination, my Saturday mornings are full of energy. A green light is permission to go forward, and by sticking to abstinence for my Friday nights, I give myself permission to go forward with a great weekend. It’s a different kind of treat than wine used to be. A better kind of treat, obviously, but I also understand that it may not always feel better in the moment.

Saturday mornings, though, always feel better now.

bouncing back

I wrote about my crushing emotional hangover, but neglected to return for a prompt update: it wore off about 3-4 days later. Life resumed its normal dimensions, and the single night of drinking to excess seemed like no big deal. Is it ideal? Not really, but it was also just one night out of a whole month of mostly reasonable drinking behavior, so overall, things have improved immeasurably for me in 2016.

Depression is a terrible thing, but once it’s gone, everything seems better. And truly, life is pretty good this week. Last weekend, I hiked up the highest mountain in South Dakota. It is not actually a very tall peak, but that sounds more impressive than “went for a nice walk,” so I’m sticking with my original phrasing.

Summer hiking season is just around the corner, and I am impatient. I feel frustrated to still be so slow and heavy, but the truth is, without the constant drinking, I can hike further and faster at any size. I just need to keep reminding myself of that fact while huffing and puffing and wishing I could be 23 again.

It has been three months since I decided to make serious changes to my drinking habits. In that time, I’ve saved hundreds of dollars, I’ve lost a few pounds, and I’ve started to feel like my life is opening up in ways I’d forgotten were possible. More than anything, I am surprised by the feeling of possibility unfolding.

strategies & structure

My personal take on moderation is that it’s mostly not a question of willpower, but rather, a set of learned skills, habits, & strategies. That is, if I want to effect long-term changes in my behavior, I do so by making specific changes, not by simply clenching my determination very tightly.

I had a whole post written about this, but wordpress inexplicably ate it. So I will continue this thought next time inspiration strikes.

 

Emotional Hangovers

I overdid it on Saturday. I’ve had a few drinks during my 2-3 months of moderation practice, including enough to get me properly (if briefly) buzzed, and never experienced such a miserable reaction. When I woke up Sunday morning, I had a splitting headache, a dry mouth, and the usual unpleasantness of a hangover. But it was the emotional hangover that took me by surprise.

We are told that mistakes are good for learning, so here is what I learned. ALCOHOL DOES CRAZY THINGS TO MY BRAIN CHEMISTRY. Sorry for shouting, it was just amazing to witness. And awful to witness from the inside, because the thing about whacked-out brain chemistry is that the bad feelings are incredibly real. For the interests of posterity, here are my first 72 hours post-binge.

Waking up hurt, first because my head was pounding, and second because a bone-deep depression was settling in. Depression is not remorse. Depression is a thick gray fog, an exhaustion that makes life seem barely worth enduring. Depression is the end of hope, and depression is always endless. Mine has gotten much, much better over the past decade; these days, it manifests mostly as a couple of occasional “off” days, which might not even be noticeable without my particular personal history. This was a full-on plunge into the abyss though.

Depression lies to you. Mine tells me that I am broken. I am a failure. Around noon on Sunday, I decided to skip taking more aspirin, because a throbbing headache seemed like a preferable distraction from the depression.

Some of my depressed thoughts centered on my drinking. I should note that my particular voice of depression almost never talks about my actions. What I actually do isn’t that important, because my depression prefers to talk about what I am. So I did not spend Sunday regretting my actions, just my entire existence. Intellectually, I was entirely capable of knowing that I’d made one, smallish error and would soon be back on track. Emotionally, I was certain that I would never, could never, ever figure this out. “You are going to be a problem drinker for the rest of your life,” said depression, “and P.S., you’re a failure.”

Sunday was just a rotten day, the kind where you blink back tears and go to bed early just for the sake of finding unconsciousness. I hoped Monday would be better. It wasn’t.

Monday, I woke up exhausted. That thick gray fog still covered all my mental real estate, but I know how to handle it. Do what you can, I told myself, and take care of yourself when you can. After all, I’ve handled episodes of depression before, and I know all the tricks.

Except on Monday, I discovered that my chemical reaction from over-drinking apparently wiped out all my willpower. Someday, I will read up on some addiction neurochemistry and maybe come a little closer to understanding the technical explanation. For now, what I discovered was that I could not possibly resist any impulses. And I was full of a ton of impulses, almost all of them for things that aren’t good for me.

I thought donuts might make a good snack, and went and bought four. And then I panicked, because I knew that once wine o’clock rolled around, I was going to go buy wine. Whatever mechanism in my brain had sustained me for the past couple of months, making decisions each day to abstain from alcohol or have just one, was now completely broken. I was a failure, and therefore, I was destined to fail.

Except that I have some practice handling depression, and 2-3 months of practicing new habits to fall back on. My new habits did not include going to the liquor store, and my rational mind knew that I didn’t want to. So carefully, without rocking my delicate mental boat too much, I structured my evening so that I would not buy wine. I found a good book. I took the book to bed (I never drink in bed, so it’s one of the less-triggering places in the house), and read there until about 8pm. Then I fixed myself a healthy snack, drank a big glass of water, and then opened one of the two beers that remained in the fridge (at which point, future-me may read this and roll her eyes severely…drinking is not a good coping mechanism. Sorry future-me). Sitting on the couch, I watched a light comedy, sipped my two beers, and headed to bed. I felt awful, but at least the damage was limited.

Tuesday, I woke up feeling mostly back to normal. More tired than usual, but my willpower was back. My confidence was back. Oh, and that thick fog of depression was finally starting to blow away, enough that I could see the faint outline of the sun. It might take a few more days to clear completely, and I’m going to continue to take careful care of myself throughout, but I think I’ve minimized the fallout reasonably well. And maybe learned something new about the value of not over-drinking.

Onward.

 

smart sinners

One reason I decided to try Moderation Management instead of one of the other programs out there was that I hoped it would give me more tools to deal with “lapses” like last Saturday. At the very least, I hoped it would provide a way to contextualize mistakes so that I could continue making progress toward my goal of drastically changing my drinking habits.

For many abstinence-based programs, a day of drinking (or even a single drink) is a relapse. “Relapse” connotes a very serious issue, and a substantial loss of ground; in many programs, if you relapse, you are told you must start over from day one. It is as if there is a sobriety meter which will spin all the way back to zero if you have just a single drink.

That approach makes no sense to me. More than that, I know that those kinds of perfection-based programs work very badly for me. For me, knowing that I could have to start again from day one would be enough to make sure I’d never make it through a day three. For better or worse, I’m a person who needs a little more flexibility, more room to breathe and err, in any serious endeavor.

Moreover, the image of the sobriety meter spinning back to zero makes my head hurt. If I vow today to stop drinking forever, I have not magically wiped out the thousands of days that I have spent drinking to excess. Those days still exist, and I carry the very real cost of them in my body and life. Likewise, if I have a drink today, I do not wipe out the dozens of days of healthy habits that I have recently accumulated.

In Moderation Management, people make mistakes. We drink when we didn’t mean to, or exceed the amount we’d planned on. These are lapses, mistakes, slip-ups, or blips. They aren’t what we’d planned or hoped for, but at the same time, we’re all only human. Human beings are prone to error, especially when it comes to error-inducing-substances like alcohol.

I recently read an article about weight loss, which listed successful strategies with (not coincidentally) many similarities to the MM model. In the article, weight loss specialists describe perfectionism as a problem that overcomes many people. Apparently, the tendency to try to get your diet & exercise habits completely perfect, and to give up as soon as you slip, is common (and here I thought it was just me…). Describing this problem, Dr. Lawrence Cheskin, director of the Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center, said this: “You don’t need to be a saint; you need to be a smart sinner.”

That’s the approach I’m after. One where I can make mistakes, or purposefully stray, just enough to keep good habits sustainable. One that celebrates my ability to be smart, creative, and sometimes just a bit naughty, while still giving me tools to make significant changes over time. One that allows me to be human.

one bad night

Saturday was not a very good day. First, I was tired, because I’d been up late Friday night. Second, it was cold, wet, with a slow-moving winter storm rolling into town, which made me feel confined & restless. Third, my significant other really wanted a drink. Accordingly, around 4pm, we went out and got that drink, or rather, some beer (for me) and bourbon (for him) to take home. I was pretty sure this would lead to me drinking too much. I also kind of wanted to drink too much.

Guess what I did next? Ow, my head hurts this morning.

Worse than the headache is the emotional hangover. I’ve done very well during the month of April, until last night. Last night, I went straight back to old habits: filling down-time with alcohol, because I was bored and irritable. Waking up this morning, I felt terrible. I felt like I had failed.

And yet what, exactly, have I failed? I overdid it one night, just like millions of people sometimes do. If you count up all the drinks between my 30 and now, it comes to less than one week of my previous habits. Even last night, when I really went wild, I had somewhere between six and eight drinks (counting gets tougher when you’re inebriated) over the course of about five hours, which is considerably less than I used to drink every single night of the week. Today, my head hurts, my stomach is delicate, and my mood bleak. But I have the rest of my life to keep figuring this out.

Mistakes are a part of learning. Yesterday, I discovered that long weekends with bad weather are more difficult to navigate than I had anticipated. My partner probably learned something too, as he feels responsible for my glum mood this morning. So, the next time this situation rolls around, perhaps one or both of us will act differently. I am also in the process of learning that one bad night does not derail all progress; it’s a lapse, not a relapse.

At least, these are all the things I am trying to tell myself, in between feeling like a failure. The rational part of me can write things like above, but the rest of me is dealing with the chemical backwash from a large quantity of alcohol. Time for a little self-care.