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.

The First 10 Days

Since I did not start this literary journey until my 9th day of sobriety (I hate that word, makes me sound so stodgy, I’ll need to come up with a better adjective), I am going to use this post as a brief overview of how my first days uninebriated (slightly better) went.

Day 1: A Saturday. Was planning on starting this new adventure on January 1st (as I’m not terribly creative), but I was feeling gungho and thought I should just start early so that I can be the designated driver at my husband’s work holiday party that evening, which was to be held at one of my favorite drinking spots. We accidentally arrived at the party 1.5 hours early because he neglected to update his calendar with the appropriate time. I strongly considered ordering a bottle of wine to pass the time, but realizing that by the time his boss and coworkers arrived I would already be louder and friendlier than I should be, decided to hold strong, and ended up playing games on my phone in the car until the appropriate party start time. I spent the evening sipping iced tea and coffee, watching my husband’s coworkers get hammered, and was grateful I could drive us home safely just as the others were starting to think that shots might be a good idea.

Day 2: Sunday morning – Woke up without a hangover! What strange new world is this? Did copious amounts of laundry and had a quiet day. No cravings to speak of.

Day 3: Oh shit, I’m being a real asshole today. This was a rough one. I didn’t necessarily want to drink, but I was extremely moody, overwhelmed, and short-tempered. Happy New Year’s Eve kids! Had a house full of teenagers playing video games and eating me out of house and home. Watched the husband drink his beers and judged him.

Day 4: It’s New Year’s Day! Woke up quite late with a nasty head cold. Otherwise, I had a lovely quiet day sipping tea and soup. I had to return to work the following day and allowed myself to enjoy my last day of rest.

Day 5: Back to work. This is where the triggers come in. Until this point I had been off for the holidays. Now I had to return to deadlines, urgent emails, staff problems, etc. Don’t get me wrong – I love my job, really. However, I have never done my job without having a little something to take the edge off at the end of the day. At around 2pm on a typically workday I do a mental inventory of the remaining alcohol in my home and determine if a stop off at the grocery store might be in order, and I don’t stop thinking about it until I get that first sip upon entering my home. Today, as usual, the thoughts started up and I decided to try a substitute. I picked up a few different types of non-alcoholic wine and beer and gave them a try. Not too bad – not alcohol, but not bad. I don’t particularly enjoy soda or juice as years of dry wine and dark coffee have made them taste cloyingly sweet to me. The non-alcoholic wine still tasted more like juice than wine to me, but not as sweet, and I can drink it in a fancy grown up glass without feeling like a child pretending, which is frankly one of my favorite aspects of drinking. It also helps with the issue of peer pressure. Yes, I’m an educated, self-possessed woman who does not need to give in because others are doing something, but damn if that FOMO isn’t real, and the fake wine allows me to sip on something without making me feel like I’m standing out. (I do realize for some people drinking near beer and fake wine might be a slippery-slope to trigger town. If that is the case for you, by all means find your own method. I’m just trying to find what works for me.)

Day 6: The bestie. This was on a Friday and the bestie came over, as has been a near weekly tradition for the last 15 years and inevitably involves copious amounts of wine. I was not feeling particularly strong, but I chose to observe how I was feeling throughout the night. She had her Malibu and soda (which I hate anyway, way too sweet) and I had a non-alcoholic sparkling pineapple water. At one point we were laughing about something and she commented that even stone sober I’m still a total weirdo, which I took as a high compliment, particularly since I was worried I would be boring. It turns out, if anything, alcohol pushes my personality into annoying territory, and frankly, I’d rather be boring than obnoxious (Far less regret and embarrassment).

Day 7: Bonus to waking up without a hangover this morning – my youngest daughter had her 9th birthday party at a trampoline park today, which normally would have been a nightmare with all the screaming, light, and movement. I would have normally been overwhelmed and grumpy. Today I was actually enjoying being there and watching my daughter and her friends play. My husband and I even got out there with them for a bit, which we have NEVER done before. We ended the day with a date night at a great Italian restaurant and we both opted for water. I focused on actually enjoying the food and ambience – the flavors, the texture, the decor, the twinkling lights. It was lovely.

Day 8: This is officially the longest I’ve gone without a drink in over two years. I felt good. I was productive. I did shitloads of laundry. Did I mention I have 5 children? Dear God, the laundry. And the dishes. And the cooking. The Eldest Child can drive now, which is a godsend, as she is the “involved one”. If there is a club, class, volunteer opportunity, or extracurricular that will require constant driving, she’s in it. She makes me very proud and very tired.

Well, we’re all caught up. Day 9 was in yesterday’s post. Today is Day 10 – double digits, and I won’t lie, the alcohol witch whispered at me during that 2pm hour, but I came home, poured a nice glass of fake Chardonnay, and am sending my musings out into the great unknown.

Day 9 – Well, Here I Am

Yes, that title is a bit confusing, particularly as this is obviously my first blog post. It is, however, my 9th day of sobriety. I had my last alcoholic beverage on December 28th, 2018 and I have no intention of looking back. I’m tired of it – tired of the 3am guilt, tired of the dehydrated mornings, tired of the space alcohol takes up in my brain. I think about it from the moment I get up (regretting my weakness from the night before and promising to make a change) until the time I pass out at night (after a bottle or 2 of wine and several Amazon purchases I will not remember in the morning). So, I’m making a change and putting my journey on the internet for some added accountability.

This isn’t something I feel like I can share in “real life” due to the nature of my career. I am a social worker by education and in management at a large nonprofit organization. I literally work with people needing addiction treatment and have helped many clients down the path to sobriety, followed by going home and downing a bottle of wine just to “cope” with the stress. It takes a special level of cognitive dissonance to be an overly-enthusiastic drinker while in this field, but I am nothing if not the master of excusing my own behavior. Yes, I drink more than the guidelines, but those are only guidelines, suggestions really. I can do it all! I can raise a family, manage a household, work full-time, complete my doctorate, and drink everyone under the table while doing it! I’ve earned the right to relax at the end of a hard day (and during a normal day, and all day on the weekends…).

The truth is I’m a big old hypocrite. How can I teach others what I am unwilling to implement in my own life? How can I dispense wisdom about mindfulness, healthy coping mechanisms, and living your truth when I shamefully drown my stress and anxiety with alcohol. So here I am. I’m looking forward to the journey (and scared shitless).