Stressful holidays

When I was a kid, I remember watching Family Feud once, and the question was, “What are the most stressful times of the year?” My child mind was completely gobsmacked to see that “Christmas” was number 1! It was not just that it didn’t stress me out, I was completely unable to imagine how it could possibly stress anyone out. It’s the most wonderful time of the year! It says it right there in the song!!

Needless to say, I am no longer puzzled by this.

Last year I was not happy during the holidays. It was my first sober Christmas and I spent the whole holiday being mad about it. When a co-worker gave me a bottle of brandy for Christmas, I almost drank it.

This Christmas was actually really nice. My brother and his wife came over, my parents were visiting, and it was a lot of fun. It made me realize something: not only was this Christmas much better than last year, it was better than any Christmas I can remember for oh, maybe a decade or so. I was never good, ever, at managing stress. Being busy meant being irritable and unhappy, full stop. No doubt this is part of what made me start drinking too much in the first place.

Quitting drinking, then, has forced me to learn to manage my stress. Here is what I have learned to do:

1) Living in the moment, only thinking about what I have to do right now rather than worrying about what I have to do later.

2) Slowing down. Instead of rushing through tasks, I do them efficiently, but deliberately. When I do chores that don’t use my brain too much, I use that time for thinking about something interesting. Something I read about, something I’m writing.

3) Asking my husband if I can go take some quiet “me” time before I start feeling resentful that I haven’t had any.

4) Meditating. I did this almost every day during the holidays. And yes, there is an app for that.

5) Not leaving my own interests behind. I still do my jigsaw puzzles, my crossword puzzles, and my history reading. Instead of thinking “I’m too busy for that,” I still do it, just for a shorter time period.

I also made a pre-resolution resolution that all my resolutions this year will be positive and specific (like “I will write another screenplay”), not negative and general (like “I will eat less”). More to come.

 

 

 

Blame

Over the weekend, I read this article:

Woman charged in car crash

Basically, a woman who was drunk on a mixture of alcohol and Ambien went to move her car from the street to her driveway. She apparently mistook the accelerator for the brake and plowed into her house, killing her husband and son in law and injuring her daughter. She had her grandson in her lap when she was driving. (He was unhurt, as was she.)

This is a terrifying story. Imagining what her daughter must be going through is horrific. But what most jumped out at me in this story was this quote:

“She told a deputy, ‘it wasn’t because of drinking, it’s because it’s a new car,’ the charges say.”

She has just killed two people she loved, injured another and endangered her grandson, and her first thought is to make excuses. I bring this up not to point fingers but because I understand it. She is deflecting blame, certainly. But she is also saying, Officer, this would have happened whether I was drunk or not.

I used to think, if I, say, slurred my words when talking to my husband at dinner, or if I overbalanced and almost fell when I was tucking my daughter into bed, or if I woke up with a bruise when I didn’t remember injuring myself:  anyone can  stumble and lose their balance. Why blame the alcohol?

If drinking is your crutch and your friend, your first thought is to protect it. My friend was not to blame. Don’t make me give up my friend.

It really helps to think of one’s desire to drink as a separate entity, “wolfie,” in Belle’s terminology. I’ve also heard people talk separately about their “addict self,” opposed to their real self. Among other things, it helps to externalize the (potentially crippling) guilt. Instead of beating yourself up (“why do I still want to drink when I know how destructive it is? I must be so selfish and irresponsible …”), you can fight against it. Wolfie wants me to drink, but I don’t want to.

Ugly

This one’s for all the parents out there.

I don’t like being a mom. I don’t like having my attention divided all the time. I don’t like not having any downtime. I don’t like being a disciplinarian. I don’t like making people do things they don’t want to do.

I love my kids. I love the moments when I connect with them as people, but I hate being in charge.

I have never wanted to admit this. I talked, like everyone else, about how busy I was, how stressed I felt. I discussed the daily frustrations with the same laugh, the same “what can you do?” ruefulness. All the while feeling like a fraud.

The result is that I have spent many years feeling very, very sorry for myself. And it went to the heart of why I drank. It was to soften the outlines of what I perceived as a cage.

I always thought the sky would fall, the world would end, if I ever gave voice to this. But I realized that doesn’t have to be the end of that thought. The next step is, okay, so what do I do about it? Yes, my children need me to be in charge, to say no to things and put up with the resulting storm, and to make them do things sometimes that they don’t want to do. They need that from me. But my needs are important too. And if I have a better handle on what I want, I can figure out what to ask for. That’s not possible if I’m trying to deny it all the time.

Not that I didn’t ask for downtime, before. But it was always coming from a place of resentment, and I usually used my asked-for downtime to do something mindless, like play Angry Birds. Nothing wrong with that, but I could actually feel myself vibrating with tension as I supposedly relaxed. “I’m relaxing, dammit!” sums it up. Of course with a drink in my hand.

This is what I’ve found.  It is much easier to say “I’d like to spend some time tonight doing some writing” than it is to say “I’d like to spend some time tonight playing Angry Birds.” Nothing wrong with either one, as I said. But for me, it’s easier. And pursuing my own interests naturally leads to the “me” time I so desperately wanted. For example, a friend of a friend, who is a screenwriter, offered to read my screenplay and help me with it. I made the time because this is something important to me. And we spent an extremely enjoyable couple of hours talking about character motivation, plot mechanics, and writing visually. Then I came home and put my mom hat on again.

And the world didn’t end.

 

Out of the mouths of babes

I ran an errand with my daughter, a quick grocery store trip after dinner.

On our way to pick up a gallon of milk, we walked through the liquor section.

My Daughter:  Mom, why did you used to drink brandy?

Me(scrambling for an answer): A lot of grown-ups do. I thought it helped me. But I realized it didn’t.

Daughter: I’m glad you don’t drink anymore, Mom.

Me: I am too.

 

 

What are you doing with your sobriety?

I’m writing fiction again.

I used to write constantly — stories, mostly.  I wanted to write a novel but I never could get one going.  I think I was intimidated by the architecture of it — how to sustain a plot.

Having kids was the main reason, or I guess I should say the first reason, I stopped writing.

Drinking was a way to cope with being a parent, and I only realize now how much energy it sucked out of me.  I thought it was helping me.

About a month ago, I suddenly started writing a screenplay, which I have never done before.  I got the idea for it, and I told myself, don’t worry that you don’t know anything.  Just start writing.  And I did, and I’ve kept it up.  I mostly take it scene by scene.  If I get stuck, I just jump ahead a little bit and go back and fill in the gap.  It helps that my screenplay is based on real events in history, so the story is there, I just have to prune and shape it.

At about the same time, my best friend, who lives in another town, asked me if I wanted to try a writing exercise, known as the letter writing game.  Basically, one person writes a letter in character, another person responds with a different character.  You just keep writing back and forth and see how the story develops.  We’re just getting started, but it is so much more fun than I even imagined.

I’m writing again.  And, I have to say, it is fantastic.

 

Top Ten

Here, in no particular order, are my favorite things about being sober:

1.  Saving money

One bottle of wine per week became two, then a bottle of brandy + a bottle of wine, then two bottle of brandy.   This plus individual glasses of wine or brandy whenever we went out.  I bet I am saving $150 – 200 dollars per month, easy.

2.  NO HANGOVERS.

No nausea, no headache, no fatigue.  And I don’t have to cover it all up and pretend I feel just peachy, because admitting I have a hangover means admitting I drink too much.  Which brings me to …

3. No shame

No waking up in the morning wondering what I might have said or done the night before.  And how much did I drink?

4.  Better sleep

I sleep well and wake up refreshed.  Plus, I used to think I could mitigate a hangover if I stayed awake until I sobered up a little.  So I’d be trying to focus on a book or a crossword with my eyes closing.   Now I can go to bed when I’m tired.

5.  Not having to sneak around

I never kept a “secret stash” but I used to shove the bottle back in the cupboard so it wasn’t easy to see how much (or rather how little) was in it.  I also used to buy the second bottle of the week and keep it shoved in the back and sometimes used it to replenish the bottle that was in the front.  My husband didn’t check up on me deliberately very often, but he sometimes he would notice and make a comment.  I was trying to forestall this.

6.  Not having to plan my day around when I can have my first drink

7.  Being able to handle unexpected things

I am so lucky there was never an emergency where I had to drive in the evening when I wasn’t capable of it, or capable of admitting that I couldn’t!  I am so happy to be able to volunteer to run an evening errand, anytime.

8.  More energy

I love being able to go to the gym or go for walks.  I love that I can walk up a steep hill without huffing and puffing (well, not as much 🙂 ).

9.  I look better

I actually hoped that stopping drinking would make me lose ten pounds and look ten years younger.  That hasn’t happened, but my husband tells me my eyes sparkle more now.

10.  More brain space

If I had to say my favorite thing about being sober, this is it.  I actually have the energy, the time, and above all the mental space to DO things.  These are neglected hobbies like doing jigsaw puzzles, reading history books and biographies, writing in my journal, going for walks, and doing crossword puzzles.  But these are also things like helping my daughter with her homework, reorganizing my kitchen cupboards, and what I can only call “self-understanding.”  I am starting to understand myself better, what made me drink in the first place, what kind of person I am — and more importantly, what kind of person I want to be.

You can’t always get ….

There is a cruel irony to alcohol.  The more you need it, the less you can — or should — drink it.  It’s like the old Bob Hope joke about banks:  “A bank is a place that will lend you money if you can prove you don’t need it.”

I think a lot of our attempts to moderate, or take a “break” from alcohol, use this same line of reasoning:  if I can go without alcohol for a month/a week/a year, I’ll have proven I don’t need it (so I can drink again!).

When I knew I was drinking more than I should, I would find reasons, each day, to drink.  Holidays, social occasions, of course.  “I’ve had a stressful day,” that was always a good one.  But those rare nonstressful days were an event — a special event!  And what better way to celebrate a special event than to have a drink?

It took up a lot of mental space, all this excuse-making.  I’m realizing that for those two weeks that brandy bottle was in my desk, my mind was searching for an excuse to drink it.  I was thinking about alcohol again daily, like I haven’t for months.  I read somewhere once on an addiction blog — this was food addiction, but the principle is the same — that she used to binge-eat, in part, in order to stop wondering if she should binge.  Think about that for a second.  It sounds so backwards and contradictory, but somehow it also makes perfect sense.

No, I haven’t fallen off the wagon

Interesting fact:  one theory on the origin of the phrase “on the wagon” is that condemned prisoners got one last drink before getting on the wagon to go to be hanged.  The theory is that it originated as a joke that life without alcohol would be … well, like taking a ride to the gallows.

(Ah, gallows humor — literally.)

Sorry I haven’t posted in a while.  My parents came to visit and that kept us busy.  I have told my parents what happened and that I’ve quit drinking.

I mentioned awhile back that I was eager for one of the side benefits of giving up alcohol — dropping a few pounds.  I am not overweight, according to the scale, but I have a little “brandy belly” that I hoped would go away.  Well, it wasn’t budging and I was getting impatient so I decided to drop sugar and refined flour too.  Right when I stopped drinking I couldn’t imagine giving up anything else — in fact, I felt like I was “owed” any other indulgence I could get my hands on!  I still think this is absolutely true at first, by the way, so anyone reading this who is still in early days, please, have chocolate, candy, cake, whatever you want, if it helps in not drinking!

But somehow, after a month or so, I felt ready.  I was feeling so good overall, that I noticed my body didn’t feel as good when I ate sugar or processed food.  It was like removing one poison put me back in better touch with my body and how it felt, how it reacted to what I was feeding it.  And my body feels better when I give it good fuel to run on.  I know, it’s a radical idea, but bear with me here.

So (drum roll), after two weeks with no sugar and white flour, I have finally dropped five pounds (or so), and I think almost all of it was from around my middle.  My pants fit better, and I’m able to wear jeans again that had become uncomfortably tight at the waist.  And I know for a fact that I couldn’t have done this when I was drinking.   Getting through each day was all I could handle.  Actually, I didn’t even feel I could handle that — not without alcohol, anyway.   So glad to be here on the other side.

You’re my obsession

My husband tells me that I’m not happy unless I’m obsessing on something and/or going through some of kind self-improvement kick.

When he first said that to me, I thought, doesn’t everyone do that?

Apparently, they don’t.  By “obsessing on something” I mean discovering and then devouring some new author or musician, or some area of study:  a historical era, for example, or some sociological trend.  It means reading and researching about something, getting as much information as I can about it, talking about it to anyone who will listen, and almost having to force my mind away from it to handle work, family, or other obligations.  Looking back at the last twenty years or so, here is a sampling of things that I have obsessed over:

the Monkees

Buster Keaton

History of dieting, including how medical advice about nutrition changes through history

Hollywood during the studio era

Generational theory of history (Strauss and Howe)

Financial planning and economics

Entertainment geared toward women, like romance novels, soap operas, women’s films

NYT Crossword puzzles

Presidential biographies

the Civil War

Weird Al Yankovic

Each of these things, as my obsession ebbs, stays with me, but at a level of more “normal” (whatever that means) interest.  I still listen to the Monkees and Weird Al, I will pick up a new book on the Civil War when one comes out, I still do my daily NYT crossword.  The same thing has happened to me over the years with diet and exercise.  I have gained and lost the same ten or fifteen pounds four or five times over the course of my adult life.  This is not the unhealthy “yo-yo dieting” that doctors warn you about (at least, I tell myself it is not), but rather two different weight set points, my “healthy lifestyle” set point, and my “lazy lifestyle” set point.  They are about 10-15 pounds apart.  To kickstart a “healthy lifestyle” time period, I usually need to find some new hook of diet or exercise that inspires me to make a change, something new or novel that my obsession-prone mind can sink its teeth into.  Then, as the obsession ends, enough of my new habits stick around to give me a nice, balanced, healthy lifestyle that I can stick with, until some major life change (having a baby, getting the house remodeled, etc) shakes up my routine.  I always think it will be easy to get back into those healthy habits after the major life change ends, but doing so always proves elusive.  It’s like being on the other side of a locked door, and I need some new hook to get me back in and get me through the door.

This “hook” is usually something new and sometimes faddish, but not unhealthily so.  One time it was the South Beach diet, another time it was learning to cook with lesser-known whole grains like spelt, and another was impulsively signing up with a personal trainer, and another was discovering a surprisingly economical farmer’s market.  Over the past year or so (it must be said) I’ve put on on some weight, what I might delicately call a “brandy belly.”  Even while being unwilling to give up alcohol,  I have been searching for a new hook, a new enthusiasm, that would get me back into the “healthy living” column.  I think I even had the idea that if I was healthy in every other way, I would be able to justify continuing to drink.   Although, I do also remember thinking once, I’ll get healthy and then eventually it will just be a logical thing to do to quit drinking.   But quitting drinking first was unthinkable to me.

So, I tried yoga, which I enjoyed but it didn’t ignite the spark I felt I needed.  I tried looking back at the South Beach diet, but … been there, done that.   After we got our dog, nightly walks became a part of my routine, which was (and is) fantastic but didn’t lead to any weight loss as I had hoped.  All in all, I did feel marginally fitter, but not enough to really feel good about it.   And through it all I continued to drink.

But now, I have a real opportunity.  I have been exercising more, daily, in fact, over the last four weeks, because I need the therapeutic effects of exercise.  It’s the only mood lifter or stress reliever available to me these days, and it helps immensely to combat the restlessness I feel, particularly in the evenings.  But though again I do feel fitter, I still haven’t lost any weight.  This is no doubt because I have permitted myself over the same period to indulge a little more in desserts and sweets.  I even bought myself a Pop Tart a couple weeks ago, because I remembered how I loved them as a kid and I thought this might be the only time in my life I could justify eating one.

It wasn’t very good.

I’m wary of trying too hard to diet because my sobriety is more important than anything.  If I feel the need to indulge myself with something, better a cookie than a glass of wine.  But I have time now to plan and cook better, healthier meals, if I can find the enthusiasm to do so.

But someone I don’t know and don’t care about might judge me!

There were a number of places I used to buy my brandy.

One was a grocery store within walking distance of our house.  This sounds ideal, but it wasn’t.  For one thing, all their spirits were kept in a locked cabinet, so the cashier had to run get the key and open the cabinet for me.  Then I had to pretend to scan the shelves looking for what I wanted rather than show that I knew EXACTLY where the brandy was (I gave up on this pretense after awhile).  Meanwhile people are waiting in line behind me.  It was all just so … conspicuous.  Plus, I always felt I had to have something else to buy, to justify running to the store.  We’re out of eggs?  Oh, I’ll go!  But I rarely got to go by myself, one or both of the girls would always clamor to come with me.  More conspicuousness.  Who is that lady with the two children buying eggs and brandy?  At 11 am?

There was also a different grocery store, where we did our weekly shopping.  This one was better because the spirits were kept on open shelves near the wine.  Easy to slip into the cart.  But I didn’t always do the weekly shopping, and it was further away — not somewhere I could “pop over” to anytime.

Then there was a drugstore downtown, near the stop where I caught the bus after work.  It was easy to leave work five minutes early and stop in before catching the bus home.  But here again the spirits were kept behind the counter, and you had to ask the cashier to get it for you.  Still, this seemed the best option and it was where I bought my brandy most frequently.

Except … I started recognizing the cashiers.  And were they starting to recognize me?  Standing in line, I would see the cashier who waited on me last time and pray, please don’t let me get her, please don’t let me get her … but it seemed I always did.  One time, a lady waited on me that I knew I had seen before.  She got my brandy without comment and ran my card.  As she handed me my receipt, she said, “See you next time.”

What does she mean by that???

Yes, I really did worry about this.   It’s actually been a real, tangible benefit of the last few weeks that I haven’t had to think about this.  I went to that drugstore yesterday to get some shampoo, and the two cashiers on duty were totally unfamiliar to me.  I remembered how I would have felt relieved at this, a few weeks ago.  Now, it didn’t matter, and I had to smile.