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.




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.


Low hanging fruit

Willpower is a limited resource; don’t overwhelm it.

This is one thing I have learned in my 292 non-drinking days.  In other words, when you’re trying to give up alcohol, let yourself indulge in other ways.  As I talked about here, I gave up sugar and white flour for awhile last year.  I did feel good when I did that, but it got to be too much.  Too much self-denial.

But, I feel ready to make some other changes in my life.  So this week I have made a (late) New Year’s resolution.  It’s to do all the healthy things for my body that I enjoy.  I love taking walks, so I am going to do more of that.  Going to the gym helps me clear my head, so I am going to go when I can, but only for that reason.  Not to lose ten pounds.

I am going to drink more water.  Who doesn’t like a nice, cold glass of ice water?  I’m going to eat more sardines (for the Omega-3s!) because I’m one of those strange people that really likes sardines.  I’m going to eat all the fruits and vegetables that I like.

At the same time, I am going to continue to eat dessert when I want it, eat my apples with gobs of peanut butter (this is a major weakness), drink diet soda and lots of coffee, take the elevator instead of the stairs, and veg out on the couch playing Angry Birds when I want to.  And I won’t kick myself for it either.

Above all, I want to be kind to myself.  Kind to my body, kind to my brain and my emotions, kind to my overstretched willpower.  They’ve all served me well these last 292 days.

My mantra for this is the title of this post:  low hanging fruit.

I can resist anything except temptation

Don’t worry, I didn’t drink.  I have just always enjoyed that quote from Oscar Wilde.  It’s funny how we all have different things that we’re drawn to — and that can become unhealthy.  For some people, it’s alcohol or drugs.  For others, it’s food.  Or sex.  Or gambling.  Or exercise.

For me, it’s not an “accomplishment” to avoid overexercising.  Just the idea of congratulating myself for that makes me crack up (“Good job, self, for vegging on the couch tonight!”).  But I know for folks with eating disorders, this is no joke.  And personally, I don’t see the appeal of gambling at all.  Everyone knows the odds favor the house!  How do you think they pay for those big casinos?

But denial is a wonderful thing.  Looking back, the warning signs were screamingly obvious:  drinking in the morning, hangovers most days, thinking of that bottle of wine or brandy in the cupboard as “my little friend” (yes, I really thought that).  Blacking out.  Just like “everyone knows” that the odds favor the house, everyone also knows if you do all these things you have a problem with alcohol!  But I refused to see it.  Because these things were only sometimes, not all the time, I could point to the “sometimes” when I was fine, and delude myself into thinking that was my “real” drinking behavior.

This past weekend I was at my daughter’s indoor soccer game.  At this facility, which is also for adult soccer leagues, they serve beer and wine at the snack bar.  One of the other moms was drinking a beer as we chatted.  She made a joking reference to it, something like “the best thing about indoor soccer …” and the rest of us laughed.  I thought I detected an undertone of defensiveness in her joke.  This is something I have become hyperaware of lately, the way people talk about alcohol, the invitation to share the joke about “yay, alcohol!” or “boy, I sure need a drink.”  Later this woman gave me a hug, and the beer smell washed over me.  I’m not saying this woman was drunk or had a problem — in fact I like her very much — but it made me glad I don’t have to worry anymore about hugging people and subjecting them to my alcohol smell.

Lest I get too cocky congratulating myself, I have to admit that the next day (Sunday) I feeling particularly rushed and stressed, and I had to run out to the grocery store for the second time that day when I forgot an ingredient for dinner.  At my local grocery store they sometimes host wine tastings on the weekends at happy hour.  So guess what I saw as soon as I walked in the door?  I can’t believe how instantly I felt it would be an extremely excellent idea to have a little wine.

I bought ice cream instead.

I counted the days today and I am on day 290 sober!

Give me a damn drink

I love traveling, but I hate flying:  the packing, the getting up at odd hours, the schlepping of luggage, and most of all, the flight.  I am prone to motion sickness and also slightly claustrophobic, and I hate the squished-in feeling of a crowded flight (and aren’t they all crowded these days?).  I used to always sit in an aisle seat near the front of a plane (bulkhead!) and spend the flight reading a trashy novel, but now that I have kids, it usually doesn’t work that way.

Last weekend I flew to Chicago with the family, which is a four hour flight.  On the way out we got up at 3:30 in the morning to catch a 5:45 flight.  My 8 year old was so stressed out about getting up at 3:30 that she couldn’t sleep, and got up at 9:30, 10:00, 10:30, 10:45, 11:00, 11:20 … each time telling me, “Mom, I am only going to get (six, five and half, four …. ) hours of sleep!”  Seeing her little stressed-out face was like seeing a miniature reflection of me, and believe me it was an exercise in self-control to try to stay calm and help her relax (“Don’t think about trying to sleep just think about relaxing and how comfortable your body is … “) especially as she would ask me “Mom, are you frustrated?” looking keenly into my face through her tears.

(Through gritted teeth)  “No, I’m not frustrated.  Now … go … the … fuck … to … sleep!”

No, I didn’t say that.  But I’m sure my frustration came through.  And I certainly wasn’t doing her or me, or my husband, any favors, lying in bed practically vibrating with it, thinking much the same thing my daughter was thinking.  I’m only going to get four hours of sleep …

I used to have a drink before, or during, every flight, if I could possibly find a way to do so.  That wouldn’t have been an option for this flight, probably, even in my drinking days.  The morning was a mad scramble, and ordering wine from the flight attendant at 6:30 in the morning would have been a tad conspicuous even if I wasn’t with my family.

So, Chicago was great, but before I knew it, it was time to fly back.  This time our flight was in the evening, and we got to the airport early and had dinner at the airport.  We ate at a sit-down restaurant, and we were seated, of course, right next to the bar.  The full bar.  All those bottles.  The people at the next table were drinking wine, and the smell drifted over.

I had motive.  And opportunity.  If my husband hadn’t been there, I don’t know if I would have ordered that drink.  I feel like I might have.  As it was, I spent the meal in a state of resentment and frustration.  At this restaurant they cover all the tables with paper and give you crayons if you have kids.  The girls asked me to draw something, and I drew an alien.  And a dog.  Then I started drawing hearts to form a grid, 5×5, in different colors.  How pretty.  Except with each row of five, I was grimly chanting in my head: Give. Me. a. Damn. Drink.

I’m sure I was a delightful companion.

So all that’s over now.  That was last weekend.  Back to normal, right?  I’m not sure.  I have a feeling of being back at square one, and I don’t like it.  I think it was maybe too easy to quit before, and I didn’t develop as many tools as I should have.  The tools I did develop were this blog, being mindful, and exercise.  So I’m turning to this blog first, and writing this post.  What else?

Halfway to 90

Forty-five days sober as of yesterday.  I went on another weekend trip last weekend and had only a few twinges of desire for alcohol, both times at restaurants when I saw fellow diners at the next table enjoying wine with dinner.  This type of temptation is easy to deal with.  The real challenge, I’m finding, is at home, at “happy hour,” when daily stress is at a maximum — I’m just home from work, trying to make dinner, everyone is hungry, my husband and I are both irritable.  Both yesterday and the day before my husband and I got in petty spats about who needed to do what, or (more importantly!!!) who had more of a “right” to be stressed out.

Both times I dearly wanted to bury my nose in a nice glass of brandy or wine.  I did not, but clearly this is something I need to deal with.  My husband and I discussed it afterward and I told him this is what I meant when I told him back on that day, “I’d rather have a drink than have a fight.”  When the fight is something stupid like who picks up more or who deserves to go have a quiet moment, something that I know doesn’t matter in the long run (I know we both work hard, at work and at home) — I’ve always wanted to find a way to avoid it altogether.

Yes, I know how stupid this sounds — to justify drinking for such a trivial reason.  But, I told him all of this, and he responded instantly, “I’d rather have you snap at me.”

Of course he would.  But I do need to find a way to take things easier and deal with stress better.


Sigh.  And things were going SO well.

I had a great weekend, a quick trip to visit a friend and her family in a nearby city.  The weather was beautiful, the kids got along, the dogs romped together like puppies.  It was great to see my BFF and her hubby.

Then, yesterday, I was home with the kids again, surrounded by dirty laundry, un-unpacked suitcases, and a messy house.  The girls were bickering.  We had to go grocery shopping and return a bunch of books to the library.  I was trying to quickly clean the bathroom before we left.  I squirted the blue toilet bowl cleaner and looked around for the toilet brush, but it wasn’t there.  Suddenly this was just the end, the last straw.  Where … is … the … goddamn … TOILET BRUSH!!!

Fuck it.  I wanted a drink.  I really, really wanted one.

I went and sat down in the living room.  My dog jumped up on my lap.  I stroked him as I raged inwardly about how it isn’t fair, it isn’t fair, it isn’t fair.

After awhile the feeling ebbed a little.

Then I got the toilet brush from the other bathroom.

I cleaned the toilet.


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.