Sadness and Change

It’s been a rough month. I did what addicts do. I thought everything could stay the same. I thought I could hang out with my same friends, go to the same places, live at the same breakneck pace, just minus the alcohol. I had not even fully identified my triggers, let alone addressed them appropriately. So I drank. One glass of wine with a friend. Half a bottle with a coworker after a particularly stressful day. That obviously quickly snowballed into my old habit, and it only took a week or so to get there.

A coworker of mine died this week. A friend. He was in his 30’s and he died, not in an accident or one of the usual causes of premature death. He was feeling under the weather, went to bed, and died. Two young kids and a wife. A kind, compassionate person who dedicated his life to caring for others. A person who had been sober for years.

So, I stopped drinking again. How can I continue to take my life and health for granted? How can I drink so much that I forget every evening that I spend with my family when he will never see his kids grow up?

Now I’m doing the hard work. Identifying triggers. Introspection. Changing habits. I haven’t had a drink since the night before I found out about his death. I’m dedicating my sobriety to his memory. I think he would like that.

Checking In

Hello to anyone who might stumble upon this! I’m just doing a quick check-in because it has been a while. The past several weeks have been crazy. The semester started and I’m drowning in psychopharmacology at the moment, which makes me even more grateful that I’m currently sober. I can’t even imagine wrapping my head around the effects of psychotropic medication on polymorphic genes if I were even slightly impaired.

I’m so fucking tired, but good tired. Like I’m really working my ass off and good things are happening tired. I have a government audit to get through this week on a grant that if not renewed will cost half of my team their jobs. So, only mild pressure.

I’ve also had a potential career opportunity dangled in front of me that would result in a 40% pay increase just in time to help my daughter with college, but it would mean leaving a job I’m just starting to really settle in to and make my own. I also wouldn’t be the boss anymore, and I really love leading a team. But, as my son would say, “gotta get them phat stax.”

I’ve also received some private messages from people who have read my ramblings and I am so sorry to anyone I haven’t responded to yet. I love meeting new people on this journey and as soon as I get through midterms I will start responding. Also, if anyone has a particular social-worky topic they want me to cover I’d be more than happy to give it a go.

Until I have time and/or insomnia again – May you all experience life to the fullest and if something is keeping you from doing that, remember the first step of meaningful sobriety: Own Your Shit.

Connecting to Your Wise Mind

There is a treatment modality I am particularly fond of call Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). It works particularly well for those who tend to lean too heavily into either their emotional mind or their logical mind. As someone who has worked a lot with dual diagnosis patients (those with comorbid substance use disorders and mental health issues), I have used this technique a lot with others. Well, now I’m using it on myself. Stopping the use of a mind-altering substance, particularly one that has been used as a coping mechanism for many years, can often result in a flood of emotions and false equivalencies that can undermine recovery.

The concept is that if we lean too heavily on making decisions based on our emotions we tend to disregard logic. If we lean too heavily on logic we tend to disregard our equally valid emotional responses. The Wise Mind is the middle road. It is often visualized with a Venn diagram with emotions in one circle and logic in the other. The Wise Mind is the area of overlap.

When stopping a substance like alcohol your emotional mind might be telling you that you need a drink to handle negative emotions such as stress, anxiety, depression, anger, loneliness, etc., in addition to positive emotions such as would arise during times of celebration, relief, and camaraderie. The image of the sad drinker does not necessarily ring true for many users of alcohol. Often alcohol is emotionally associated with very positive emotions and celebrations. I drank with friends, during birthday parties, anniversaries, my wedding, to toast love and to welcome new life. My emotions tell me that those special events will lose their spark if I’m not drinking.

Your emotional mind is not the only culprit in stalling recovery. Your logical mind will also come into play. Your logical mind takes in data, analyses the data, and releases the results from the data constantly. For example, in the past your logical mind will associate celebrations with alcohol. The data you have fed your logical mind is that when you are celebrating a joyous occasion and having a good time you are also drinking alcohol, so it correlates alcohol use with celebration and fun. Of course for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. If you believe that alcohol = joy, then your logical mind will naturally flip that to believe that without alcohol you will not experience the same level of joy. The same goes for negative feelings. You may have provided your logical mind with data that says alcohol relieves stress due to the relief you get from clouding your mind with an intoxicating substance, which when flipped suggests to your logical mind that in a life without alcohol your stress will increase or you will have no way to relieve that stress.

In order to reprogram your logical mind you need to add new data that disproves the previously collected data. Does your joy at parties or celebrations with those you love stem from the alcohol or from the people you are with? If you find that you must drink alcohol to enjoy being around certain people is being with them the best use of your time and energy? Once you start gaining awareness and collecting data you are going to find that you experience some internal struggle. You have some data that tells you one thing and new data that challenges those conceptions.

This is where cognitive dissonance comes in to play. Cognitive dissonance is when you have multiple beliefs that contradict each other, and you can sense the discomfort of those contradicting beliefs because can’t seem to make them fit together. In addition to considering logically whether alcohol is truly necessary for joy or stress relief, as you look more into your alcohol use you will collect and process additional scientific data from outside resources. You have learned that alcohol may be unhealthy for your body. It increases cancer risks and can severely damage your liver and pancreas. It increases your risk of accidents and can result in very negative consequences, such as DUIs and risky behaviors. You may be uncomfortable with how much you are drinking and may be concerned that you are consuming too much and it is becoming a maladaptive coping skill. You also believe logically and/or emotionally that alcohol contributes to your wellbeing by relieving stress and increasing enjoyment.

Breaking down these beliefs can be difficult, but are necessary for truly reaching a point where your Wise Mind can take over and you can eliminate some of your cognitive dissonance. To better illustrate my point I have included a scenario that reflects a fairly typical day in my life.

Scenario: I had a stressful day at work. A big grant is due. A client loses their housing. Three employees call in sick. By the time 4pm rolls around I am emotionally and physically exhausted. I’m craving a drink. My emotional mind is craving relief from the negative emotions I am experiencing. I need to counter the emotions with logic to reach the Wise Mind. Logically I know that the problems will still exist after I have that drink. I mentally walk myself through the evening. If I drink one glass I will inevitably finish the bottle. The grant will still be due, but now I am not doing my best work on it, if I work on it at all, and my mind will be less sharp the next day. My client will still be in the same situation and my workload will continue to pile up from the staff shortage. Instead of drinking I choose to implement a balanced solution to my problems. I spend 20 minutes when I get home decompressing. I practice some mindfulness, make a cup of tea, and create a list of what I need to accomplish. I make progress on the grant, research resources that might help my client, and am able to sort and prioritize the office workload so that the critical tasks are completed. I wake up the next morning tired, but further along than I was the day before. I have treated myself kindly and with care by acknowledging my emotions, finding a logical path forward, and not putting off my issues to the next day for a foggy, even-more-stressed version of myself to deal with.

Today I am going to choose to feel my emotions, treat myself kindly, and use my logical resources to find balance.

Cravings Still Exist

This really spoke to me today. I’ve been riding waves of cravings each day and I appreciate the reminder to stay vigilant.

The longer I go without alcohol, the less brain space it takes up. But occasionally a thought or craving will appear and, though fleeting, the intensity is surprising.

It’s been nearly eight years. Eights years! I spend most of my mental energy on things like kindness, honesty, service, and finding my glasses. But yesterday, tidying after a weekend of company, I felt a ZAP of wanting while handling the recycling.

I am generally comfortable being around normies drinking normally (which, I constantly say on The Bubble Hour, should be considered ABNORMAL because alcohol is addictive).

My rules are simple: I don’t buy it or pour it for others. I don’t handle the empties, more out of sassy contempt for stupid alcohol than anything. My husband is quick to considerately buffer me from theses tasks, anyway.

Our company this weekend was low-key and didn’t drink much more than a glass…

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No Booze Calendar

So, part of what took me so long to give up booze for good is the stigma that come with not drinking due to a history of overindulgence. My friends, family, and coworkers are drinkers. Maybe not in the all-or-nothing manner I am, but it is certainly enough a part of our culture where not drinking stands out as odd. Historically when I have tried to quit drinking I have failed 100% of the time because of social pressure. My plan is to lay out an excuse calendar for myself that will get me through the year without outing myself as an overly enthusiastic bottle drainer.

January 1 – 31: I’m doing dry January like my friends in the UK.

February 1 – March 2: I’m on the Whole 30 diet. No booze for me!

March 3 – 5: I have a headache/stomachache/explosive diarrhea.

March 6 – April 18: I’m giving up alcohol for Lent.

April 19 – 27: Not drinking for Good Friday/Easter/Passover/Earth Day/National Jelly Bean Day.

April 28 – May 5: I’m on a medication I shouldn’t mix with alcohol.

May 6 – June 5: I gave up drinking during Ramadan.

June 6 – June 30: I’m on a cleanse/diet/clean eating plan to kickstart the summer.

July 1 – July 31: I’m participating in Dry July, as they do in Australia, to raise funds for cancer.

August 1 – 31: August is National Wellness Month, and I am focusing on self-care, stress management, and finding healthy coping mechanisms that don’t involve alcohol.

September 1 – 30: September is either Sober September or National Self Improvement Month! Don’t compound back-to-school stress with drinking. Take time to focus on self-care and cut out harmful habits (like alcohol).

October 1 – 31: I’m participating in Sober October!

or

It’s National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Did you know that having only 3 servings of alcohol per week increases your risk of getting breast cancer by 15%, and for every additional drink per week the risk rises an additional 10%?

November 1 – 30: In Ireland they have No Alcohol November. This happens to be Holy Souls Month, where many Irish Catholics give up drinking as a sacrifice for their deceased relatives.

December 1 – 31: It’s National Impaired Driving Prevention Month, so I am acting as the designated driver all month.

Does anyone else have any handy excuses to get through social events this year?

Hump Day

Jesus F. Christ my head hurts. Not sure why, but I’m on my 4th evening of pounding headaches. It’s always worse in the evenings, or maybe I just notice it more now because I’m finally still. Maybe it’s the stress from work. Seventy-five percent of my case managers quit in the last 30 days for better paying opportunities, which is a standard part of the nonprofit industry, though unfortunate that it happened at the same time. The lack of staff puts outcomes at risk, which puts grant funding at risk, which puts my program at risk, which puts my vulnerable clients at risk, which sucks. Or maybe the stress is from my kids who have finals next week. These children I’m trying to guide to adulthood without being either a “helicopter mom” or too detached. The Eldest is supposed to leave for college in eight short months and has let her grades slip this year, putting potential scholarships at risk, which puts her ability to go to her chosen faraway college at risk, which may end up being a tough life lesson. Even if she makes it, how am I going to pay for it? It could be the battle for the IEP at my younger daughter’s school, or my son who is completely uninterested in school, or my stepdaughter who’s mother visits her a few times a year and always leaves emotional turmoil in her wake, or from my doctoral program that just started back up for the Spring semester, or the internship I need to establish in order to collect the data I need in order to complete my dissertation.

Breathe. 

This is all part of the journey. All of these daily stressors and worries, both positive and negative, that I use to drown with alcohol every night. I can feel now. I can feel all of it. Like electricity it courses through my system, furrowing my brow and settling in my shoulders and neck like rigor mortis, as if that is where stress goes to die.

And the nightmares. Vivid flashes of unfinished tasks and hidden fears. I didn’t remember my dreams before getting sober. I always just passed out. Now my brain is awake again and it is letting me know it. I know that eventually homeostasis will be reached and my brain and body will reach a place of harmony, and I can’t very well expect 20 years of heavy drinking to be repaired overnight.

Trust the process.

That’s what they told us in grad school. When we complained about writing a biopsychosocial for the hundredth time, or any of the million other seemingly pointless tasks you have to do, or when you couldn’t fathom how a patient treatment plan was really going to work, they always told us to trust the process. They were right. Trust the process. Walk the walk. Do what you need to do. It will come out alright in the end.

Fun While It Lasted…

Not to worry, still sober, just not feeling terribly enthusiastic about it today. The freshness and excitement of a new activity, in my case sobriety, has started to dull a bit on Day 11. I craved the relaxation of a nice glass (bottle) of wine (vodka). I fantasized about downing shot after shot as the world gradually melted around the edges. Then I did the unthinkable, I forced myself to finish the fantasy – to play it out to the natural conclusion, and it went something like this:

6pm – Get that first strong drink down and feel the tension melt away as if by magic.

8pm – Begin slurring and stumbling in front of the children.

9pm – Overshare on Facebook.

10pm – Make ill-advised internet purchases.

11pm – Pass out with a moderate case of the spins.

3am – Wake up with a full bladder, headache, and dry mouth. Stumble to bathroom. Chug full glass of water. Lay awake awash in shame and regret.

4am – Still awake. Have to pee again. Somehow still thirsty. Damn water.

5am – Realize I won’t be falling asleep. Take Ibuprofen. More water. Check news on phone. Trump is still president. Fuck.

6am – Fall back asleep.

6:30am – Alarm goes off. Hit snooze 7 times. Hate myself.

7am – Lie in bed although it is becoming alarmingly late and will most likely be late to work. Open phone and see several Facebook notifications. Have vague memory of posting. Check post. Nearly die of embarrassment. Delete post and hope everyone else on feed was also drunk and doesn’t remember.

7:30am – Jump suddenly out of bed realizing the time. Get lightheaded. Sit back down. Through on stretchy work pants and cardigan. Hair in ponytail. Makeup will have to be done en route.

8am – Hate myself and swear I’m never drinking again while sitting in miserable traffic.

9am – Coworkers ask if I’m well. I murmur vague excuse about having a headache while sipping Gatorade. No one is fooled.

12pm – Check bank account. See unknown charges. Become detective to see what Drunk Me bought. Wonder why Drunk Me thought I needed a box of baked cheese snacks and a sweater for the cat.

2pm – Start craving a glass (bottle) of wine (vodka).

6pm – Rinse and repeat.

Am I really willing to give up nearly 11 days of sobriety for a fleeting moment of “relaxation” just to fall back into the miserable cycle? That’s what addiction does to the mind. The beginning almost seems easier, because the pain of the addiction is fresh and real. The further out you get from the acute withdrawal the less it seems like a big deal. The wine witch creeps in and starts whispering.

Maybe I’m overreacting? Surely I can drink on occasion. I’m not a real alcoholic. It wasn’t really that bad. I just needed to recalibrate. I’m fine now. Just one glass. Just one more glass. I’ve earned it.

No. I’ve earned sobriety. I deserve to be the best version of myself I can be. I’ve shed too much blood, sweat, and tears building my career and getting my education to pickle my brain and risk my job. My family deserves to have me fully present. I’ve taken the classes. I’ve read the books. I’ve survived the days of early withdrawal. I’ve have hundreds of Day 1’s and I’ve failed every. damn. time. And maybe I’ll fail again, but not today.