Abuse, unspecified

I had a doctor’s appointment yesterday and they did something they haven’t done before: gave me a copy of my medical report for me to take home. I think they have a new computer system.

This wasn’t a full medical report, just a summary. It listed, for example, medications I’ve taken, recent lab results, date of my last physical, and previous diagnoses. For this last, at the very top it says “Alcohol abuse, unspecified: in remission 5/2013.”

I suppose I should feel good about this (the “in remission” part), but instead it made me feel ashamed and exposed. I imagined every doctor, every nurse, every tech who pulls up my file seeing this emblazoned at the top. I suppose it upsets me to think that this won’t go away. It’s like cancer or something, I can’t make it disappear, it just goes in remission. It will always be on the list.

On another note, my husband and I started watching The Wire on DVD (no spoilers, please! We’re only on season 1), an HBO police drama set in Baltimore. There is a scene where two characters, heroin addicts, are forced to attend an NA meeting. Waylon (played by Steve Earle!) is the former junkie, now clean, who gives a speech at the meeting:

Here’s the line I loved: “When it was almost over for me, when I was out there standing on them corners without a pot to piss in, everyone who knew me or loved me cursing my name, you know what I told myself? I said, Waylon, you’re doing good.”

That’s that wolfie voice that I talked about last time, whatever you want to call it:  the drug talking, the inner addict talking, that little part of you that doesn’t care about anything as long as you can have a little drink.

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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.

Low hanging fruit update

Awhile back I posted that I was going to try to make healthy choices as long as it was something that I enjoyed. Healthy food, healthy exercise. And not beat myself up over it when I didn’t.

This is actually something that is somewhat difficult to maintain, for me. As much as I like to think I am a person who naturally craves balance, this is only true for some parts of my life. I like balance when it comes to structuring my time — work, family, friend, and “me” time. But when it comes to eating and health I have a surprisingly hard time trying to find a balance between healthy eating and indulgence.

I also have a fatal attraction to extreme diets. I found myself, this week, reading up on cleanses, fasts, detox diets, and  something called a “fat fast.” (This is what it sounds like – you eat nothing but fat!)

I am not actually doing any of these things, however. I was not always so wise. I had periods of disordered eating in high school and college. I was not an anorexic, but I definitely had periods of fasting, followed by periods of overeating. I remember wishing I could be just “a little bit” anorexic – enough to lose, say, ten pounds.

In my more rational mind, I believe something like intuitive eating is probably the most sustainable way to maintain good eating habits. As I understand it, this involves respecting and listening to your body. I find that when I am mindful of how the food I eat makes my body feel, I do all kinds of good things. I eat more slowly and chew my food more thoroughly. I don’t eat until I am uncomfortably full. I don’t eat that last bite just because it is on my plate. I eat more vegetables and less sugar.

But, here’s the thing. The things my body wants are boring.

When I was practicing intuitive eating, my body would tell me it didn’t want dessert! Or I would take a bite or two and it would be enough! And it would make me get off my ass and make a salad for lunch instead of reaching for something more convenient. Stupid body! Why do I have to listen to you?

It is strange to talk about the wisdom of the body on an addiction blog. Isn’t the whole point to conquer what my body is telling me it needs? Isn’t that what addiction means? I don’t think so.  Never having been physically addicted, my reasons for drinking were all in my head. My body did its best, but the nausea, night sweats, and crippling hangovers sent me a clear message that my body wasn’t happy with what I was doing.

So here is what I have been able to do, and what I plan to continue to do:

1) Daily walks

2) Taking vitamin D (I was low in my last blood work) and cod-liver oil

3) Eating slowly and mindfully, and paying attention to how it makes my body feel

4) Exercising outside when I can, at the gym when I can’t, but only for the mental health benefits, not to put pressure on myself to lose weight.

5) Taking a few minutes each day to just breathe, especially when I feel stressed.

Sigh. So boring. 🙂

 

The A Word

Am I or am I not an alcoholic?

This is something we drinkers seem to spend a lot of time asking themselves, and I wonder if it is helpful.

On the pro side, I think the fact that the label exists gives us an opportunity to put a label on a problem. It is undoubtedly a problem which has existed since the first alcoholic brew was brewed. But older terms like “drunkard” and “sot” are entirely pejorative, while “alcoholic,” at least in theory, is more neutral and clinical.

Also, embracing the term gives one a blueprint for what to do about that problem. If you say “My name is XXX, and I’m an alcoholic,” everyone knows what that means. You give up alcohol “one day at a time”, you attend meetings, you follow the twelve steps, which no one knows except the “admitting you’re powerless over alcohol” one, and the one where you have to apologize to everyone.*

At any rate, there is a kind of peace, I think, in embracing a label. In addition to giving you a blueprint, it gives you instant membership into a group.  This can be your group that you meet face to face, in your AA meetings, and also just a badge of “this is who I am.” An army of people who share a certain characteristic, which gives them a certain bond.

On the other hand, I think that many people who may be concerned about their drinking strenuously resist the “alcoholic” label. Or they spend time trying to figure out if the label fits their behavior — time that would be better spent thinking about what to DO about their behavior. Thus the old saying “People who aren’t alcoholics don’t lay awake at night trying to figure out if they’re alcoholics.”

As for myself, I do not call myself an alcoholic. But is there a good reason for that, or am I just in denial? In honor of this post, I decided to answer the 26 question quiz that was designed by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. I am answering these as I would have in the months before I quit drinking.

(I first found this quiz in Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story)

1. Do you drink heavily when you are disappointed, under pressure or have had a quarrel with someone? YES

2. Can you handle more alcohol now than when you first started to drink? YES

3. Have you ever been unable to remember part of the previous evening, even though your friends say you didn’t pass out? YES

4. When drinking with other people, do you try to have a few extra drinks when others won’t know about it? YES

5. Do you sometimes feel uncomfortable if alcohol is not available? YES

6. Are you more in a hurry to get your first drink of the day than you used to be? YES

7.  Do you sometimes feel a little guilty about your drinking? YES

8. Has a family member or close friend express concern or complained about your drinking? YES

9. Have you been having more memory “blackouts” recently? YES

10. Do you often want to continue drinking after your friends say they’ve had enough? NO

11.  Do you usually have a reason for the occasions when you drink heavily? YES

12. When you’re sober, do you sometimes regret things you did or said while drinking? YES

13. Have you tried switching brands or drinks, or following different plans to control your drinking?  YES

14.  Have you sometimes failed to keep promises you made to yourself about controlling or cutting down on your drinking?  YES

15.  Have you ever had a DWI (driving while intoxicated) or DUI (driving under the influence of alcohol) violation, or any other legal problem related to your drinking?  NO

16.  Do you try to avoid family or close friends while you are drinking?  NO

17.  Are you having more financial, work, school, and/or family problems as a result of your drinking? NO

18.  Has your physician ever advised you to cut down on your drinking? YES

19.  Do you eat very little or irregularly during the periods when you are drinking? NO

20.  Do you sometimes have the “shakes” in the morning and find that it helps to have a “little” drink, tranquilizer or medication of some kind? NO – but I did find a “hair of the dog” helped a hangover

21.  Have you recently noticed that you can’t drink as much as you used to?  NO

22.  Do you sometimes stay drunk for several days at a time? NO

23.  After periods of drinking do you sometimes see or hear things that aren’t there? NO

24.  Have you ever gone to anyone for help about your drinking? NO

25.  Do you ever feel depressed or anxious before, during or after periods of heavy drinking? YES

26.  Have any of your blood relatives ever had a problem with alcohol? NO (that I know of)

Holy that’s a lot of “yes”s! According the site, answering yes to even two questions means you might have a problem and answering yes to more than 8 questions means you should seek help immediately. I have 15 yeses. Yipes.

I like these questions because the thread running through them is “Are you using alcohol to self-medicate?” and “Is your drinking slipping out of your control?” – rather than things like “do you drink alone”/”do you drink in the morning?” etc.

So after that, does it still make sense for me to reject the “alcoholic” label? Maybe not. But I still maintain my belief that normal drinking to problem drinking to alcoholic drinking is a continuum. And while one can pick an arbitrary point along that line to say this is an alcoholic and this isn’t an alcoholic, I don’t know how helpful it is to do so. I think I prefer the Allen Carr “pitcher plant” approach, which emphasizes the addictive properties of the drink, instead of the addictive nature of the drinker.

If you would like to take the test at the NCADD site, here it is.

*I do know more about the 12 steps now.

Sober

Being the mother of a 12 year old girl means I get to listen to modern pop music again. A lot of it is repetitive drivel, but there is the occasional diamond. I liked Pink’s “Just Give me a Reason” from earlier this year, which inspired me to check out her earlier material. I stumbled on this song, which seemed appropriate for this blog:

I’ve been reading addiction memoirs lately. These are the titles I’ve read:

Dry, by Augusten Burroughs

Mommy Doesn’t Drink Here Anymore, by Rachael Brownell

Drinking, a Love Story, by Caroline Knapp

Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood, by Koren Zailckas

Parched, by Heather King

Unwasted, by Sacha Scoblic

Sober is the New Black, by Rachel Black

I liked all of these books, though some more than others.  I feel like I got something out of each one, and I’ll probably talk more specifically about them in future posts. For now, what struck me is that all of these people were different – different ages, different in how low their “bottom” was, different in how long they drank, how early they started drinking, whether they considered themselves alcoholics, or whether they drank to be sociable or drank to tolerate loneliness, etc. – but in many key ways these stories were all the same. This can be summed up in one sentence:

Alcohol made my life better, and then it made my life worse.

It made me think about how alcohol can obliterate your individuality. You might be a quiet drunk or a boisterous drunk, a mean drunk or a sloppy, sentimental drunk – but take a bunch of drunk people and they will all be a lot more alike than the same number of sober people.

Each writer gets to a point, too, where she has to describe daily or nightly drinking, and what struck me is how boring it is. I don’t mean I was bored reading, just that all the things that make a good story – learning, growth, life – stops. You’re just waiting, as a reader, for the writer to hit bottom so growth can start again. David Sedaris, one of my favorite authors, sums this up nicely:

Worse than anything was the dullness of it, night after night the exact same story … Call me at 11 pm, and after a minute or so I’d forget who I was talking to. Even worse was when I placed the call. “Yes,” I’d say. “May I please speak to … oh, you know. He has brownish hair? He drives a van with his name written on it?”

“Is this David?”

“Yes.”

“And you want to speak to your brother, Paul?”

“That’s it. Could you put him on, please?”

Most often I’d stay up until 3 am, rocking back and forth in my chair and thinking of the things I could do if I weren’t so fucked up.

 Hope everyone has a wonderful, sober Labor day weekend!

 

 

Shit happens

The very first time I remember using alcohol as a coping mechanism was when I stepped in cat shit.

I was a new mom, on maternity leave with my newborn baby. The baby wasn’t sleeping and was crying a lot. My c-section incision was hurting as I walked around the house bouncing and rocking her. I wasn’t in a good mood.

Finally, luckily, the baby spit up, and she calmed down after that. That was the good news. The bad news is that it was more like a series of projectile vomiting episodes, and the baby, the couch, the nursing pillow, and me were all now doused in baby vomit.

I changed my clothes, the baby’s clothes, and put her in her swing while I ran our clothes downstairs to throw them in the washer.  At the time, our cat had a tendency to poop on the laundry room carpet instead of in her litter box. Usually I was very careful to check the floor before stepping into the room, but I was in a hurry. I was thinking about the baby vomit soaking into the couch cushions upstairs, and how on earth I was going to clean it. So, with my arms full of vomited-on clothing, I stepped in a pile of cat poop with my bare feet.

Oh, shit.

After I cleaned up my feet, and then sprayed the carpet and scrubbed it, and then attempted to clean the couch and the nursing pillow, I was crying with frustration. The only alcohol we had in the house was an ancient bottle of vodka. I poured myself a shot and threw it back. And then I floated through the rest of the afternoon. Cat poop, baby vomit, crying baby? I laugh at all of you.

I didn’t repeat this experiment then, but the memory stuck with me.  And years later, when I was drinking much more frequently, figuratively stepping in cat shit was a welcome excuse to drink.  In fact, I would have to say I sometimes wanted to be stressed out, I wanted shit to happen, if it meant I could have a drink at odd times of day. I deserve this.

That inversion – going from using alcohol to cope with stress, to welcoming stress if it allowed me to drink – is surely where a line was crossed. It’s when I should have realized that alcohol was a bigger problem than any of the problems I claimed to need alcohol to deal with. But I always thought my problems needed to go away first. I’ll quit when things are easier, when I’m not so stressed. Meanwhile that gave me a perfectly logical, perfectly perverse reason to make sure my problems didn’t go away after all.

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.