May 1, 2016

My Sobriety Thing

Spring in Chicago on the 606
A friend recently asked, “Do you do anything to transition from work to relaxation without alcohol? If you feel comfortable sharing it in writing, that is. What you have pointed out in the past is very true for me. Daily life is hard and I need something to look forward to at the end of the day. Alcohol becomes the habitual something.”

My answer: Sort of. The area of habit and behavior regulation is well-trod and people are vocal in their support of, or opposition to, various methods. This post isn’t an exhaustive essay or instruction manual. I'm speaking for myself only; answering a question posed by a friend.

My Sobriety Thing

It is 10 months for me. I've figured out how to make the transition from work-work-work to relax/take the edge off at 6 pm-ish. Mentally, this ability is essential so I can sleep and wake up and do it all over again. Otherwise, I'd drive until I ran out of gasoline somewhere in Iowa.

In no particular order:

1. Everyone uses something for coping: gambling, porn, weed, cigarettes, booze, exercise, shopping, food, prescription drugs, cutting, gardening, social media. You name it. Everyone.

2. The mind wants and needs a trigger to signal the end of one activity (job, life responsibilities) and the beginning of another (relaxation, escape). I need a way to handle stress and blow off steam and vent. I need a way for my brain to stop running-running-running and relax so that I can get up and do it again.

a. Some coping mechanisms are more culturally and socially supported than others: exercise, shopping, gardening. As such, these also may imply a moral fortitude, which further masks the self-medication.

b. Some coping mechanisms show up on people's physical beings. Because the effects of use are apparent, they can draw finger pointing and shame: cigarette smoking, booze in excess, morbid obesity, extreme thinness.

c. Some coping mechanisms don't readily appear, giving the illusion that a person is stable or, even, more moral: gambling, online porn, prescription drugs, cutting.

3. I came to a point last summer where I wanted to remove alcohol as my coping mechanism. 

Why? For several reasons that make sense to ME. Reasons that have meaning and make my decisions around alcohol clear:

a. My dad’s health was failing markedly. My parents lived 80 miles away. One Saturday night after a fall and ambulance ride to the ER, my mother phoned a sibling for back-up. They couldn't go because they had had some drinks at dinner. Not too many, but enough to make the drive unwise. Good judgement. While I totally get it (I, myself, was into a glass of wine when she called my house next), I had an epiphany.

I can't be sharp and clear-headed 24/7 and still drink. It's not so much the driving (although being stone-cold sober as a driver is important), it's about having the stamina to handle things coming fast and furious at 2 a.m. in the ER, or hospital room, or living room. And staying sharp and kind and humorous for hours without break. Over the last 16 months, I made more than 75 round trip visits to advocate and give care.

b. I was working odd hours and ended up getting promoted (Yay! and Wait, whaaa?), and my volunteering blossomed. I began work on a new non-profit regarding transportation options for seniors without access to a car. I couldn’t afford to, nor did I want to, screw any of this up. I had to prioritize.

c. There is a history of alcoholism in my family. Alcohol consumption means something to me that it may not mean to you. It is a double-edged sword. It can and does kill. It is like a syrupy sweet poison that people who know what it can be still go ahead and drink.

d. I very much wanted to establish sobriety before my dad died. I had a fear that I would drink even more at the funeral luncheon, dinners, brunches, or just from seeing people because one drinks at these things. Drinkers take cover in such environments because they provide the perfect mask for something I wanted to do anyway.

e. My mother needs me and I want to be there for her. I continue to travel and give support. But, the support goes both ways! I value her friendship.

f. My MIL is entering palliative care. I want to be sharp and clear-headed for this and for whatever else waits around the corner.

4. I came to realize that, while there is a physical component to alcohol dependence, I was drinking out of habit.

a. It is easy and fairly inexpensive. A mouthful of wine or beer and, Bingo!, I'm relaxed. The edge has come off and I'm in a new groove for a few hours.

b. The habit came with big negatives. I was not a bottle-a-day drinker and always had a low tolerance. A lousy drinker, actually. Two glasses hit me hard. Nonetheless and importantly, the bad feelings, guilt, sh*tty next mornings, and endless inner monologues about "will I or won't I drink today" continued unabated. The mental effort to maintain and protect my drinking was huge. To what end?
From Nina Puro's interview of Mary Karr: Mary Karr Names Names, via the The Fix:
“Nobody really talks about what happens to you and your level of self-confidence when you tell yourself every fucking day you’re going to drink X, and then you drink 10 times that—or you’re not going to drink at all and you drink anyway. You become very split off against yourself. So there was a part of me that would yell and scream and say, “You stupid bitch, goddamnit, you said you weren’t gonna drink and you drank anyway.” And there was this other part that was like “Fuck those people! Fuck the rules!” you know, blah blah blah… You assume that when you quit drinking, you’re surrendering to that kind of nasty schoolmarm rule-maker. But for me getting sober has been freedom—freedom from anxiety and freedom from…my head. What has kept me sober is not that strict rule-following schoolmarm. There’s more of a loving presence that you become aware of that is I think everyone’s real, actual self—who we really are.”
Source: https://www.thefix.com/content/mary-karr-liars-sober91684?page=all (used with permission)
5. I began to better understand my own trigger and habit. I never in a minute thought I'd stop drinking without replacing it with something else. Now...what to do?

a. Most immediately, I went to the store and bought the best N/A beer I could find. I happen to really like beer, so this has been fine. Most days I’m a one-and-done with it before moving to hot water (too lazy to put in a tea bag) and I LOVE tonic water. It has this bite to it that sends a transitional signal to my brain. And, any decent bar or restaurant can mix up a tonic with celery salt, a seltzer with cranberry juice, or anything you ask them to do. You know all those artisanal bartenders? Let them at it, baby. They know their stuff.

b. Second, I wrote up a list with all the names of everyone I knew for whom alcohol is a problem. I wrote down the names of people I knew in recovery. And, I wrote out the names of everyone I knew who died from an overdose, alcoholism, and an alcohol-related accident or illness. I wrote down what a hangover feels like and I how much water I was drinking to compensate for fluid loss. How my skin looked. How much Advil I was eating. About what time I started to feel human the next day (9 a.m.? 11 a.m.? 1 p.m.?). I wrote this stuff down for reference. Turns out I don't refer to it much. It's still on my desk, though, to remind me what days were really like before I quit.

c. I emailed a friend in recovery and asked her questions about sleep restoration and headaches and anything I felt like because we were sort of secret sisters. Get a secret sister.

6. New habits

a. I use exercise to blow off stress. Not in the evening, but usually in the morning. I've found that doing it is more important than at what time it is done. My brain knows.

b. I lost the weird, puffy pillows under my eyes, for the most part. I stopped waking up with flushed cheeks or with small broken blood vessels in the whites of my eyes. I still have dark circles, but that may be dietary. I could drop dead or stroke this afternoon, but I'm living with only ONE question each day: Will I drink? Yes or No. Up to now, I answer NO and, like magic, all the interior noise and guilt and nagging disappears because it's over. No follow-up questions. Nothing. Just me doing other things.

c. Writing is a must for me. If I don't write, steam builds up in my head and I literally get uncomfortable. I say to you: write or walk or volunteer or cook or scream in a primal fashion.

d. X marks the spot. Cross off each day on a calendar. I found it reassuring in the beginning. Calendars and journaling can be a comfort.

e. Remember WHY you are changing your habits. Oftentimes, this brings me back to reality. It’s gotten easier since my new habits are becoming ingrained.

f. Be ready for bad days. I can’t count how often I picture Lloyd Bridges, from the movie Airplane!, saying “Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue.” Laughter helps.

g. Of course, if there's a physical dependence component, pick up the phone and call your doctor. Call a professional. They do this for a living (!) and want to help. They won’t make you feel worse than you already do.

7. One last thing: It's not your imagination. Society won't like you.

Understand that your non-drinking flies in the face of every television/social media advertisement out there. You're not spending money on things that make the economy go 'round. Want to see the lights dim in the eyes of a server or bartender? Don't buy alcohol. You will be considered a party pooper.

Important: Many people will take your behavior as a direct indictment of theirs. You know darn well this is not why you quit, but there's no explaining it. So don't feel the obligation to try.