when the shine wears off

This is the third week in a row that I’ve gone to the gym almost every day. So far, it’s been kind of fun, I’ve been feeling very proud of myself, and I know I can look forward to a better summer hiking season if I keep this up.

As the third week unrolls, however, I can feel my motivation starting to flicker. It’s normal, at least for me — I always start an exercise program enthusiastically, hit my goals regularly for the first few weeks, and then fizzle. It’s not unlike several of my previous attempts to quit drinking: highly successful for a short period of time, but easily derailed once my momentum slows down.

In the early days of changing my drinking habits, I used to refer to this as the “LOOK WHAT I CAN DO!” feeling, a great leap of energy and euphoria from discovering that I could pull off this ‘abstaining’ thing for day after day. Then the shine wears off, the brand-new trick becomes increasingly tedious, and the thought that I have to keep this up forever starts feeling awfully depressing.

I also struggle with the fact that results are not instantaneous. What can I say, I like instant gratification. I also live in a culture where instant gratification is wildly over-promoted, with exercise gurus promising “overnight results,” self-help slogans suggesting you can turn your life around with this “one simple trick,” and an endless barrage of shiny ads promising immediate gratification for desires you didn’t even know you had. Message received: I want things to work right away, so I can move on to the next great thing. Also, I really hope that the next great thing is made of chocolate.

And so here I am, almost three weeks of regular exercise achieved, and I am not noticeably stronger, faster, more toned, or otherwise transformed. I’m just me, with a somewhat stinkier pile of laundry and a ravenous appetite (which might be due to the increased exercise, or you know, might just be because I like to eat). The shine is tarnishing, my new activity has a long way to go before it becomes an ingrained habit, and in the  meantime, it requires a considerable amount of effort. Sigh.

I’m trying to put the pieces together to make this a sustainable habit, and one of those pieces is figuring out how to navigate this (predictable) stretch between “LOOK WHAT I CAN DO!” and that far-off time when going to the gym is just part of my normal, everyday routine. It may be a long stretch, I don’t know…certainly, it won’t be as quick as I would like. But I feel a big surge of confidence every time I remember one thing: I already managed a huge change in my drinking habits, so maybe I can figure this out too.

Thinking back to what worked for me with drinking, I have a few ideas for how to navigate this little valley of dullness. One of which is to remove my focus from how I feel. We humans are fascinated by our feelings, but they can be a tremendous distraction. The truth is, gyms are full of people who don’t feel like exercising, they just do it anyway. I can’t only do the things that feel easiest, or most comfortable, otherwise I’d still be drinking wine all evening long…and anyway, the more we do anything new, the easier it starts to feel. So instead of obsessing over changing how I feel; I need to focus on changing how I act, and trust that my feelings will catch up eventually.

Focusing on a simple action, for the short-term, my primary goal is to continue to make it to the gym 4-5 times per week. That adds up to about 20 times per month, which I’m trying to track (note to self: get a calendar that would make this easier). Short-term goals should be quantifiable and achievable. Long-term motivation absolutely depends on regular, observable “successes,” so this sort of short-term goal setting helps a lot.

I’m doing what I can to remove obstacles to going to the gym, making “success” as easy as possible. I go at the same time every day (first thing in the morning — the time change might be part of why my motivation took a hit this week!). I have a gym buddy. I sort out my gym bag the night before, and make sure I go to bed at a sensible time (and don’t drink a lot, obviously).

I’m also focusing heavily on the auxiliary benefits. Three weeks of regular exercise simply aren’t enough to produce dramatic changes, anymore than my first 30 days without alcohol fixed everything in my life. But there are immediate, short-term benefits. For instance:

    • I am sleeping better and waking up more easily
    • I went for a steep hike, and wasn’t noticeably sore the next day (this is AWESOME!!!)
    • The day after my hike, I went back to the gym to lift (and felt like a BADASS!)
    • I am proud of myself each time I make it to the gym, and start my day feeling like I’ve already accomplished something important
    • I have missed days at the gym, and then gone a day or two later — recovering from “going off-plan” is such an important skill for me to practice
    • Gym time is something I share with my partner, which means we are starting each day with a shared activity, which makes both of us happy

Each of these is worth celebrating, and I do. I’m lucky enough to live with my gym buddy, so on our way out the door, we discuss how proud we are of ourselves, or how much we enjoy stealing a little quality time together. My partner has started referring to gym mornings as our “date mornings,” only semi-jokingly. But even on my way home afterward, when I am by myself, I spend a few minutes sincerely congratulating myself for having made it to the gym one more time.

Will any of this, or all of this, be enough to effect a long-term change in my slothful behavior? I honestly have no idea. But even if I manage to keep up my gym habit for just a couple of months, I believe I will enjoy considerable benefits. I have a hiking trip planned for early May, and it will be FAR more enjoyable with a month or two of regular exercise beforehand. Really, any amount of exercise is always good, so I should just keep doing what I’m doing. Eventually, I hope to find a different kind of shine, or at least, a comfortable sort of glow that can stick around.

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the drinks we keep

I’ve spent the last six weeks working on a project that threatened to overwhelm me. Tuesday night was the day of the big decision — would our hard work make a difference, or would we lose this thing in a big way? Two hours before midnight, the decision finally came down: we won.

Along with the relief and exhaustion, I wanted to celebrate. Not with the big group, just with my co-organizer — the one person who actually understood all the agonizing, the late nights, and the hard work that actually made this happen. We went over to her house, canvased her fridge, found just one beer, and split it happily into two small glasses. A few other people came over, we hung out exuberantly until my yawns became too obvious, and then I wandered off home.

Deciding to moderate means I get to decide which drinks I want to keep in my life. Of those I’ve chosen to hang onto, my favorite are those I share with others, especially the celebratory sort.

It has nothing to do with the contents of the glass, of course. It’s the celebration, and the sharing. It’s sitting down at a battered kitchen table, raising the glasses, and meeting the eyes of the person who was standing shoulder-to-shoulder with me in this particular struggle. We could have toasted with water, with corn chips, with a fist bump.

When given the choice, I like being able to toast with something alcoholic, because I like the way the slight buzz amplifies my feelings of relief, release, and jubilation. And I like the ritual of it, the social moment of recognizing a shared joy and enjoying a shared treat. But the drink is the smallest part of that, and that’s good too. It means I’m not losing my sense of elation to that nagging desire for more buzz, more beer, more numbing intoxication. There was a time, not that long ago, when the fact that it was only half a beer would have frustrated me. I’m glad that part is past too. It was late, and I was tired: half a beer was plenty!

As things go, this was actually the first (and thus far, only) drink I’ve had all month. The fact that it’s rare helps make the toast feel more special — I can tell you from experience that there is nothing special about a “treat” that I give myself every day. It’s the paradox I keep rediscovering: by drinking only rarely, I end up free to enjoy a drink anytime I really want. The less I drink, the less I need to think about my drinking. It took awhile to get here, but it turns out to be a good place to be.

 

itchy feet and winter blues

I get a semi-annual case of restless feet, as my urge to wander kicks in hard each winter. Usually in November and around February/March…there’s probably some connection to the rapidly-shifting length of the days. It makes me cranky, I feel like running away from home, and that “life’s not fair/I deserve a break” feeling kicks in pretty hard. Doesn’t help that I’ve had a cold, or maybe several colds in a row, for about five weeks now. Or that there are some things going on in my work life that are generating indescribable amounts of stress.

Once upon a time, my answer to this was the same as my answer to everything: more wine. It didn’t fix anything, but it made getting through a cranky evening feel briefly better. But I don’t do that anymore; in fact, the idea isn’t even appealing. It’s not a question of talking myself out of it, it’s just that the impulse has died down to a flicker.

A year ago, I wouldn’t have believed that was possible. The way we feel seems so real, so profound, that it can be incredibly difficult to imagine feeling any other way. During my first six months (or so) of changing my drinking habits, I pretty much resigned myself to feeling deprived/inauthentic/unhappy about it. I couldn’t control my feelings, so I just concentrated on controlling my actions. Then, as I drank much (much!) less, for a long enough period of time, I was surprised to find that my feelings started to catch up. The “not wanting” feeling is the result, not the cause, of drinking less — a distinction I find important.

(Re)gaining control of our drinking doesn’t fix everything. It certainly hasn’t turned me into a nicer person, or smoothed out all the bumps in life. But it is enormously freeing. In spite of all the irritability, both real and seasonal, I’ve rarely felt less burdened by alcohol-related thoughts. When I notice them, it’s by their absence — I catch sight of the fact that I’m not thinking about needing a drink, feel surprise and pleasure, then return to my other preoccupations.

So what about the stress and cranky evenings? Well, some it is just inevitable. The itchy feet may just by my weird brain buzzing away, but the work stress is real, and largely outside of my direct control. Drinking wouldn’t make it go away — in fact, by exacerbating depression/anxiety, drinking tends to make me feel more stressed over time, even as it pretends to be a short-term solution. One of the skills I’ve learned over the last year is to drink less during the stressful times: an occasional drink is something I still enjoy in good company, but I don’t drink at all during the cranky/stressful/angry/sad times.

Most of the time, stress goes away naturally. That’s certainly true for my seasonal restlessness, and probably true for most of the work-related stress too. Sleep helps. Exercise helps a lot. But time helps most of all. When time doesn’t help, it’s usually because there’s an underlying problem that needs to be fixed. Somewhat to my own amazement, I’m actually getting better at addressing those problems directly. Once I stopped relying on a maladaptive coping mechanism, I really did have to figure out some more functional skills, and solving problems directly turns out to be a pretty effective one (who knew!?!).

I’m still trying to figure this out, because clearly, stress is just one of those things we all have to deal with in various ways for the rest of our lives. I don’t have all the answers for myself yet, although I am learning to accept that stress is sometimes inevitable, endure it, and let it pass. Not everything needs an instant fix, and accepting that is a novel sensation. Maybe I can still fantasize about running away from home, while also staying put and engaging in the things I need to finish up first.

one year

January 27th, 2016 was the day I decided — tentatively, fearfully, not quite letting myself think about it too much — to take concrete steps toward changing my drinking habits. Twelve months later, and I can’t say I’ve figured everything out yet. But I’m not so tentative, I’m not so afraid, and I find myself free to think about any number of things now.

The past year has been enormous in terms of self-confidence, self-control, personal growth, and all that good stuff. Personal shrinkage too — my body continues to change and become healthier as I continue to use it for things other than soaking up liter upon liter of wine. I’ve saved hundreds of dollars. I’ve enjoyed dozens of well-chosen drinks, and a couple hundred comfortably alcohol-free evenings. I feel normal, for lack of a better word…or as much like normal as I really want to be anyway.

It’s been a good year for me in ways that have no obvious connection to alcohol too. That’s not a coincidence. The fact that things in general was going better was one reason I found the courage to try (again) to change my drinking, but also, of course, drinking substantially less does have a way of opening up other opportunities. It is both cause and effect, all in one, and creates a cycle of a whole new sort. I’ve traveled more this year than any year in recent memory. I’ve been involved in some good projects here in my own community too. I’ve felt more like my favorite self than I have in years. I’ve felt more free than I can remember.

Adding up all my numbers over the past twelve months, I find I have consumed an average of less than one drink per day. That’s a huge reduction from the many years before, and comes close to being within healthy drinking limits. I intend to do a little more trimming and pruning, so the number for the next twelve months will be somewhat lower…but it’s a comparatively small adjustment, when contrasted with the changes I’ve already made. When I was drinking problematically, or even in the early stages of attempting moderation, I simply could not form a mental picture of what “moderate drinking” actually looked like. Now that I’m closer, it’s coming into much better focus.

I also don’t have as much to say about it as I thought I would. That’s okay. For awhile, thinking about (not) drinking took up a huge amount of my attention, but as more and more of my new habits became ingrained, I’ve found myself free to think about all kinds of other things as well. Which is one of those things you hope for, isn’t it? I did, anyway, wishing desperately that I could get to a point where alcohol had moved so far out of the center of my life that I just didn’t find myself preoccupied with things related to it. It’s a good thing, but also means that I am probably going to post infrequently, if at all, to this blog in the future.

Having tipped my terrified self onto the path of moderation, and then determined to fake my way through a lifestyle change until it felt more real, I feel that I’ve emerged out the other side with a better understanding of how I want to live my life. I have a better understanding of why choice, freedom, and control are important to me, and how to work toward those things in various areas of my life. Instead of feeling desperately broken, I have started to figure out how to move my lifestyle into closer alignment with my values, and it’s a pretty cool thing. So as the next year unfolds, I am working toward some other changes. Feeling like I actually have the power to make those changes is a strange, wonderful thing, and one I can trace directly back to moderation.

It’s been a great year.

New Year

I’m back. Thanks to irregular internet connections, I didn’t post a December report/January plan this month…may get around to it, but still mentally catching up, so may not. I drank a bit on vacation, but there were no major excesses (kept to my plan to limit “overages” to the 3-5 drink range; most “drinking days” were limited to a glass or two of local wine or beer with dinner; I said “no thanks” to many drinks; had more drinking days than I do during normal weeks, but still had plenty of days without any drinks at all). I did manage to practice abstinence in all the hotels we stayed in, which was a particular goal of mine…but one that felt so much easier than expected that I mostly forgot to celebrate it.

Mostly, I came away with the same thought I seem to have after every splendid vacation: as long as drinking never interferes with my fun (no hangovers, but also not prioritizing “finding a drink” or getting tipsy over other, more meaningful, opportunities), I just don’t feel too worried about it one way or another during a trip. I’m not perfect, and I’m never going to be, but working to learn how to moderate seems to have improved my self-control considerably, and I felt very good about the feeling of confidence I carried with me on my travels. For instance, ordering a glass of wine and not needing to worry that it would mean a whole night spent drinking my way to bed…huh, another thing I forgot to celebrate, since it just seems normal now.

Instead of picking apart my travel experiences, I find myself thinking ahead to the new year. I’m coming up on my one year anniversary of practicing moderation; I think the second year is looking pretty promising. I’m also finding myself examining other aspects of my life, and looking to apply the lessons I’ve learned. I suppose it all comes back to balance, as usual.It’s that time of year, isn’t it? Even if you never make New Year’s resolutions (and I never do), it’s so easy to get caught up in the sense that each year is another opportunity to try to open ourselves up in some new way. I’m enormously proud of the changes I’ve made to my drinking in the past year, even if I still think there’s room for improvement (will I ever really feel like I’ve got it? Not sure, honestly).

But it’s the other changes that really delight me, the ones that aren’t strictly about drinking, except that they are. The way my partner and I are kinder to each other now, even with our regular cranky moments. The way we spend more time doing real things, like going for walks or having conversations. The way my mind bubbles with thoughts about interesting things, like books I am reading, things I want to write, art I want to make, hikes I want to take, dreams I want to explore. The ways I have grown in confidence, happiness, and control.

Naturally enough, I’m in the middle of a mid-January burst of enthusiasm for building even better habits in the upcoming year. I’m trying to apply the things I’ve already learned, like breaking goals into smaller pieces, and figuring out tiers of positive reinforcement, and so on.

This month’s project is focused on significantly trimming our budget so we can attain more financial freedom (a process that is shockingly similar to moderation!). It was inspired, in part, by the amazing amounts of money I’ve saved by not drinking it all away, but also by the fact that there’s just so many more things I want to do now. Mostly though, I landed on this project because I’ve started to realized how interconnected all the different aspects of my life really are, and I feel brave enough to deal with the challenges this presents. Something like eating more healthfully, for instance, relates to things like dining out less (which helps us save more), but also might make me think about how I’m spending my evenings, and whether dining out is sometimes just a “treat” I’m using to try to ameliorate some stress I could address more directly, and the dynamics in my relationship, and perhaps dozens of other things. Or maybe it’s not that complicated, but if it is, I think it’ll be okay.

It all turns out to be a way of being kind to myself. After all those years of feeling bad, drinking, and then feeling bad about drinking, this continues to be a liberating concept. I’m not interested in beating myself up for past spending excesses, or vowing to never spend another dollar again. I just want to look at the big picture, to consider my deeper priorities, and find ways to tug my life into slightly better alignment with them. Which might mean cutting out something I used to think I couldn’t live without, or maybe learning how to make it just an occasional treat, or finding some totally new thing that I’ll find I like better, I don’t know. Mostly, it means learning to accept that I’m definitely not going to get it absolutely right, but I can learn to be gentle with myself about mistakes, and not let them knock me completely off course. See, I told you it was exactly like moderation 😉

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.