Choosing to not drink is easy; sobriety is hard

I don’t mean that the act of not drinking is so difficult. I mean, it can be, especially on the Saturday of a long weekend where I just feel good all day, and what could make it better besides a lovely cocktail or two? In all honesty though, overall it hasn’t been difficult for me to choose to not drink.

That said, after posting this at the beginning of November, the de facto start to the American holiday season, I did imbibe on Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve. Neither time was crazy. I had maybe two glasses of good wine. No hangover, not really any disrupted sleep. But it felt empty. Kind of pointless without the high.

So since Christmas Eve, I’ve abstained. And the difficult part has been the actual state of being sober. The fact that I’m not using alcohol as a proverbial lidocaine to numb my feelings feels a bit like drinking water from a firehose. Emotions are no longer dampened or delayed. They scream in your face, wanting attention, wanting to be dealt with and examined. Right. Now.

Sobriety and self-regulation go hand-in-hand. In my experience (your mileage may vary), you can’t navigate one successfully without the other. It doesn’t have to be sobriety as in abstinence from alcohol, either.

Back in March of the ill-fated year of 2020, I remember feeling like finally all my hard work in therapy had paid off because the world was closing in around us (that’s quite hyperbolic… but that’s 2020 for you) and I felt sober of mind. I felt like I could see the world from up above, and observe my own actions and thoughts rather than be my actions and thoughts. And it was freeing and overwhelming at the same time.

I remember thinking that even beyond work done in therapy, I had come a long way, being able to withstand an undetermined amount of time of isolation at home. Uncertainty everywhere else. I’d come a long way from the child or teenager who when she just couldn’t stand it anymore (pick whatever it you want) she went to her room and slammed the door. Or walked out of the house and slammed the door. I slammed doors a lot.

The slamming of a door, proverbial or literal, is a symptom of emotional dysregulation. As a teenager, I let the annoyances, sadness, and frustrations pile higher and higher because “You will be Little ladies,” and “You don’t need a nap during the day,” and “I’ll give you something to cry about,” and “Do you want an attitude adjustment?” Instead of trying to enter the conversation, I was intimidated by whatever consequence awaited me (and I assumed there would be from prior experience). So I just grinned and bore it. Or didn’t grin. But definitely had to bear it. And then it would get to be so much that eventually I would yell so loud and slam the door so hard and cry so uncontrollably as I walked as fast as I could to my friend’s house across the church parking lot and present my emotional dysregulation volcano or dumpster fire or whatever metaphor you want. I made it someone else’s problem because I wasn’t given the skills or the safe space to practice. There was very little room for error, and especially since I was a high-achieving, super motivated student and responsible member of the family.

So now as a grown-ass adult, I am doing my best to realize when I am getting ready to slam a door, and being completely sober can make it even more difficult. But I don’t like slamming doors, or yelling, “I hate you!” or “I never want to see you again!” or “You don’t understand me and you never will!” so I try my best to make sure it doesn’t happen.

I’m still learning how to self-regulate. The third week in January, a four-day work week I might add, was one of great emotional dysregulation. By that Friday night, every single grief, worry, sadness, emotion was turned up loud. And the only way I knew how to navigate it was to just pull the plug from the wall. I’m still learning how to turn the volume dial.. like back in the day when you got a new boombox and the volume or tuner dial were oh-so-sensitive. Or when you accidentally gun the rental car out of the airport parking lot. Nothing under 90, amirite?

The problem with using alcohol or any substance to soothe is that the practice of regulating yourself is delayed. You might think, Yeah, I need to work through this, but not tonight. It’s been a week. I’ll relax tonight and deal with it another time. But doing that is only putting a kink in the hose. It’ll straighten itself out at some point and then where will you be?

I think one reason I don’t turn to alcohol when I’m confronted with negative experiences or emotions is that it isn’t my only coping mechanism. I think this is key. I write. I read. I go for a walk. I go for a run. I message a friend. I have other ways of turning down that dial, and those things have aided in my entire journey with alcohol.

154 days

I spared a moment of generosity this week and placed my leftover candy in the main office at work. I’d been stealing “fun size” candy for days now, weeks. I had originally bought it for a meeting I had this month, thinking, “Yeah, Elizabeth, you can control yourself with candy in the room. Just three pieces a day. That’s it.”

I was wrong, and I knew I was setting myself up for failure, if eating more than three pieces of candy was considered failure.

The truth is, my body doesn’t tolerate dairy products well, but it’s mostly when they’re raw. When milk is really overprocessed into milk chocolate candy, I can handle it in small(ish) doses. So that’s why I gave myself the green light to essentially binge candy every day.

Now, do I have an unhealthy relationship with food, that is, bingeing? Maybe that’s for my therapist to say. But I know that sometimes I do, especially when it comes to sugar or junk food.

As a rule, we generally don’t keep it in the house. If we do bring junk food into the house, we know that it’s for a special treat and we don’t expect it to survive more than a couple days. This includes Oreos, pints of ice cream, a cake or pie I bake, et cetera.

But I don’t forbid myself to eat sweets. I think that could backfire pretty badly. I also am not prediabetic (according to recent-ish bloodwork). I’m at a healthy weight, I have good blood pressure (albeit kind of low) and I, in general, am a healthy person.

I know that sugar can mess with a host of body processes, including menstrual cycles and metabolism. However, right now it’s been kind of an outlet. An indulgence.

I think at this point in 2020 (almost to the end but who knows what 2021 will bring…) we’ve all found our vices. Maybe we’ve rediscovered them. Maybe we hate them; maybe we embrace them. Maybe like mine, sugar, I say hi, how are you, and move on, neither fixating nor ignoring.

However, one thing I have forbid is drinking alcohol. It’s been about five months since I’ve had an alcoholic drink. I know I’ve passed the 150 day mark.

Before May 2020, I had another dry spell around 2012-2013, when as part of youth leadership at a church we were encouraged not to drink, even in the privacy at our own home. (I have a lot of feels about that that I’m sure I’ll write about… at some point.)

I am genetically predisposed to an addiction to alcohol. I’ve known this for a very long time, but continued to play with fire. It’s very difficult for me to moderate. First, I have one glass of wine. Then, I start to feel a little uninhibitied and want to get to a good buzzed state, so I have another. Cue more intoxicated decision-making and I could polish off a bottle by myself over the course of a weekend afternoon and evening.

Same goes for holidays, though I completely viewed them as a free pass to day drink. Add on trips to wineries, one of my favorite pastimes. There’s something so cozy and “adult” about sitting on a stone patio overlooking rolling hills with a glass of wine in hand on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

Late in May, after a particularly active evening of drinking whatever was available, I puked. Thankfully, not in someone’s house or someone’s car (both have happened, unfortunately), but it was enough to jar my brain into rethinking my relationship with alcohol.

I felt like absolute warmed-up death the next day. Missy, our dog, must have known how guilty and physically awful I felt, because she cuddled on the couch with me all day. I don’t have “normal” hangovers, I guess – my stomach feels bad and I have no appetite, not even for that sugary or fried junk food I mentioned earlier.

It was then I decided to see how long I could go without drinking. A long COVID summer lay ahead. First I got through Memorial Day. And then vacation, my first vacation in years that I had been 100% sober. And then a camping trip. Finally, I had made it through a sober summer and stared down the barrel of the beginning of everyone’s favorite shitshow of a school year. Well, now, that wasn’t too bad, was it? Now we’re on the verge of the holidays, and this will be my first holiday season in probably my entire life (since I was a teenasger) where I’ve been completely sober.

The first couple weeks, I felt like I was on Cloud Nine. I felt like all my ducks were in a row, as it were, and that I was in control. Slowly, the elated feeling faded away into monotony. Every day felt the same. Friday? Ok, great. Maybe we’ll order pizza. (No wine.) Saturday afternoon grilling on the patio? Nice, grab a sparkling water. (No tequila mixed drink.) Sunday afternoon, how about the winery? Oh, nevermind, I’m going to do ____ instead.

Throughout this experiment with sobriety, I’ve discovered a lot about myself. For one, I knew I had a poor relationship to alcohol. I’ve used it as a balm for pretty much everything – happiness, grief, weddings, funerals, regular ole days, Superbowl. No longer can I ignore my feelings, though. Friday nights can be particularly difficult as I anticipate the weekend ahead while considering the week behind me. Having a few glasses of wine or cocktails on a Friday night delineated my teacher-ness and my Elizabeth-ness. And now I don’t have that.

I have learned to work through my feelings day by day, which frankly, really sucks. It really sucks to have an intense moment of grief and no way to assuage it besides the meditative coping mechanisms in my mind. There’s no crutch anymore; just me.

I was very worried about appearing socially sans alcohol. I really thought it made me funnier, more charming, more witty. Turns out, I’m alright without it. Now, we also have COVID to thank for not having to navigate the social world in all its glory right now. That I am very thankful for.

I have to find other ways of sorting through feelings and having special moments. My “thing” right now is coffee + reading in the mornings before work. I’ve been making myself a French press every morning that I enjoy with whatever dairy-free creamer of my choice. On weekdays, I don’t have much time, maybe 20 minutes, to sit and read and contemplate the day. But on the weekends, I find I get out of bed with even more gusto than on a regular morning. I have found that I love enjoying my coffee with a book or some writing before the dog and husband are awake for the day. In the summers, I can sit in my chair in the living room and watch the sun rise in the east.

Waking up not hungover is probably the best feeling there is. No regret, no wondering if I say or did anything stupid. No guilt about Aaron having to take care of my drunk ass. And no waking up in the middle of the night, heart racing, sweating, worrying. That’s it, just worrying.

So you see, the sugar consumption is not the biggest deal in the world. Maybe I’m replacing my habit, but there are many reasons why not drinking is the right choice for me right now. And it has nothing to do with an external religious force that makes me feel guilty for imbibing. It has everything to do with my relationship to myself.

This week I felt a really intense craving for a glass of wine, the bottle of Chianti I have in the other room. I could see myself picking out my glass, opening the bottle to let it breathe, take a sip and savor it in my mouth. And then the daydream faded like it was a balloon being popped, and my rose colored glasses were simply just glasses again.

All I can say is that I’ve picked a hell of a year to stop drinking, and it’s not over yet.