What next?

Someone asked me the other day if I still feel like drinking sometimes.

The answer is YES. Sometimes, perhaps most often, it is at social occasions when it would be nice to join in with everyone else.

But my problem was more with “stress” drinking rather than social drinking. I had a day like this last weekend when we had to cram in two soccer games (across town from each other), yard work, grocery shopping, and laundry. Then it was dinner time, and cleanup after dinner, and making lunches for the next day … I stood there in the kitchen really wanting a glass of wine.

We didn’t have any in the house, so you could say this is all moot, but I have two basic strategies for dealing with this situation. If it’s really bad, I just stop what I’m doing. I go sit down somewhere quiet, telling my hubby and kids that I need some quiet time. I turn on my meditation app, or just sit quietly. I check in with myself — am I thirsty? Hungry? Do I have tension somewhere? (Neck, shoulders, back.)

But sometimes this isn’t possible. If I’m out somewhere, for example, or maybe I don’t feel I need a major intervention. That’s when I ask myself, so I have a drink. What next? Do I have another? Do I still have to make the lunches? Most importantly, has any problem been solved? I also visualize that feeling of being tipsy — not the good “ahhhh” feeling, which is really only at first — but the woozy, flushed, over-warm feeling.

It helps take me out of the immediate desire into thinking about what drinking would really do for me. So this has become a little catchphrase for me whenever I feel like drinking. So I have a drink. What next?

Two years sober

I know I haven’t posted in forever. As a peace offering, I submit this photo of my dog:

buster2

How could anyone be mad at that face??

I wanted to mark this day because Mother’s Day, 2013, was my last day of drinking. It’s the day I went to the hospital, the day I realized I needed to change my life. And I did change it.

I’ve been having a good day today. I mentioned awhile back that I was writing a screenplay. Well, I finished it, and I’ve been trying to reach out to anyone and everyone who might be connected to the theater or film industry.  Today I got an email from a friend of a friend, who is involved in local theater. She offered to set up a reading of my script with real actors, so I could see and hear my words being performed! How exciting is that?

Hope everyone is having a wonderful Sunday, and a special sober happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers out there.

 

What’s your poison?

In the US thirty years ago, wine drinking was passe. It was seen as vaguely pretentious, the province of connoisseurs and poseurs.

(One of the alcohol books I read recently went into the history of this quite a bit. The growth in the alcohol – especially wine – industry is almost entirely due to an increase in women’s drinking. Men’s rate of alcohol intake has remained fairly steady. Scary.)

I can attest to feeling the shift toward wine somewhere in the mid-90’s. Suddenly wine was everywhere. So when I started drinking daily ten or so years later, wine was a natural choice. Europeans drink two glasses of wine every day, don’t they? Tannins are good for your heart. It also seemed to fit with a persona I wanted to create – that of a mom who wore motherhood lightly, who didn’t let it become my defining characteristic.

Wine was great. So how did I get to brandy?

There were a few reasons. What started it is that I bought a bottle for a recipe. The recipe called for two tablespoons, and after that I had a bottle sitting in the cupboard which would be a pity to waste.

The second is that I got a kick out of the way brandy is talked about as having medicinal value, especially in British fiction of the 19th century. “She’s had a shock – fetch the brandy!” This is part of my Xer heritage – the notion of being hip by taking something hopelessly stodgy and lame and enjoying it ironically. (Hipsters going bowling is the ultimate example of this.)

But here’s the real reason, the main reason: wine wasn’t doing it for me anymore, it wasn’t giving the punch I needed. I also had to drink so damn much of it. It was getting conspicuous. Brandy, with its higher alcohol content, enabled me to drink less for the same effect. Brilliant.

I read somewhere, have no idea if it’s true, that hardcore alcoholics all end up drinking straight vodka as their preferred drink of choice. No messing around. And I’ve certainly read personal stories from drinkers who drank cooking wine, mouthwash, cologne … you get to a certain point, it doesn’t matter what form the poison comes in, as long as you get it.

 

Dreaming about Drinking

I’ve gotten to the point when I don’t think about drinking during the day very often. I have reaped enough benefits from quitting that the siren call of drinking is muted – or drowned out, har har.

And yet, in the night I often dream about drinking.

I’m not sure what this means. Wish fulfillment? My unconscious still working through issues? I am starting to see a pattern to these dreams. They usually involve being presented with an opportunity to drink. Then I usually decide I am going to drink, but then things happen that prevent me from being able to do so. Sometimes I do drink, but then circumstances conspire to keep from drinking any more.

I thought I would share with you the dream I had last night, since it was pretty typical. I dreamt we were hosting a party at our house. The guests were people I didn’t know very well. (Oddly, the Seattle Seahawks were there. Marshawn Lynch ate all the tacos.) I was tasked with mixing all the drinks. A woman asked for a Manhattan, and I found I had no idea how to make one. I remembered that the end result was brown, so I mixed together cream, hot cocoa mix, and vodka (ew!). I decided, if she doesn’t like it I’ll just have to drink it myself.

She took it, and wandered off. I kept waiting for her to come back. When she didn’t, I thought: I can make one for myself anyway. But my hostess duties kept preventing me from doing so (including making more tacos!). I kept thinking about that drink, and I woke up still wanting it – until I came fully awake and was relieved it was only a dream.

That’s the positive side to having these dreams: I always wake up relieved that I did not, in fact, drink. So that’s maybe what my brain is doing for me: rehearsing making a different choice. It always reinforces for me my confidence with the choice I have made.

 

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.

 

 

 

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.