Wednesday, 11 May 2022

Why I quit drinking

On a snowy weekend in early December of last year I was watching And Just Like That, the sequel to Sex and the City. I'm a big SATC fan, and to my delight the revival turned out to be just as good as the original (and much better than the movies if you ask me). I particularly love Miranda in the new show, whose style has come a long way from the stuffy suits and severe hair she wore in her thirties. I'm obsessed with her outfits and love that she rocks her grey hair, but what really got to me was how they portrayed her drinking. 

It's done so subtly: a smuggled bottle of wine at a piano recital here, a shot to calm her nerves before a speech there, being the first to finish her glass of wine at a restaurant when your companion's glasses are still half full. It was done so well that I didn't notice it for the first few episodes until Charlotte finds the mini bottles of booze in Miranda's backpack and starts voicing her concerns to Carrie. My first reaction was "Charlotte is such an interfering drama queen, always blowing everything way out of proportion" - but when I heard myself think that, my next reaction was uh-oh. Houston, we have a problem.  

I had long been unhappy with my drinking. I was looking forward to my wine at the end of the day a little too much, you know? I always had wine in the house, just in case. In case of what? A sudden wine shortage? If the pandemic taught us anything it was that we didn't have to worry about that: when everything was closed, liquor stores remained open, doing a booming business. 

There were plenty of times when I promised myself to only have two glasses, but ended up drinking four or five instead. Or when I had the day off, and we cracked open a bottle shortly after lunchtime "because it's 5 o'clock somewhere". Drinking and cleaning house was one of my favourite things to do on days off, because swigging wine makes the tedious chore of dusting and mopping floors a lot more fun!
And cooking with wine? The best. Just to clarify, I mean drinking wine while cooking, not putting the precious wine into the food (what a waste). Countless movies and commercials taught me that this is sophisticated behaviour, and who doesn't want to feel sophisticated?

The thing is, according to the alcohol-obsessed world we live in, I was fine. In our friend group I was by no means the heaviest drinker; quite the opposite. I didn't drink every day. Sometimes I really did only have one glass of wine. I never drank hard liquor. I never drank when I was on call and I didn't overdo it when I had work the next day. 
I never drank in the morning or on planes (weird distinction, but getting loaded at airports and on airplanes is a thing). 
I didn't have the shakes or any physical dependency. 

But what happened more often than I'd like to admit was that I had stupid fights with my husband. When I had been drinking I would wake up every night at 2am with a severe case of self-loathing and shame. I can't overstate how awful those wake-ups were: I was drowning in self-hate and humiliation, even if nothing bad had happened. I felt like I was losing myself.

I don't know if you know, but you waste a lot of time when you drink regularly. I would have all these plans of what I wanted to do after work: do yoga, write a few hundred words for my novel, cook a nice meal. But when I walked into the door the wine was calling my name from the fridge, and my brain, knowing that there was no quicker way to receive a dopamine hit than getting some alcohol in my bloodstream would fire up on all cylinders: it would awaken the beast (aka my craving). Just one glass it would whisper seductively, you deserve it. Yes, I did, didn't I? I was working hard, driving hundreds of kilometres every day, doing a damn fine job if I say so myself. What was the harm in one glass? Wasn't a glass of wine a day good for your heart? You could read that anywhere. Nine times out of ten I'd give in, still thinking that I could do yoga and write after I had my relaxing glass of wine. 

Well, dear reader, sometimes that did happen. Just like it sometimes snows in May (we had snow last Sunday, so I'm speaking from experience). But most of the time I would adopt a mindset you may be familiar with: the fuck-it attitude. The fuck-it attitude feels amazing in the moment. "Fuck it, I'll have another glass and I don't care" you say to yourself, feeling like a rebellious rockstar. You're so badass and wild!
After glass number two the ship for yoga and writing had sailed. 

The rest of the night would follow a predictable pattern: more wine, watching old shows I'd seen before (because you can't follow the plot of a new one), sometimes eating dinner, sometimes not. Then the 2am self-loathing session, followed by the resolve to not drink the next day. 
Shampoo, rinse, repeat ad infinitum.

Guys, it was so boring. As was Googling every few months if I was an alcoholic, which usually reassured me that I wasn't (the not drinking daily and not in the morning will save your ass every time). I'm not convinced that these quizzes aren't created by the alcohol industry, but that's a topic for another day. 
It was such a colossal waste of time. Especially when I was sitting around with our drinking buddies and they were all going on and on about all the things they were going to do, which we all knew would never happen. 

Why? Because drinking shrinks your world. Without you noticing it slowly gets smaller, your anxiety gets bigger, and as a result you do none of the things that require some courage. But when you have a few drinks in you you will talk about all the cool stuff you are going to do soon! Tomorrow, you will cut back and change your life.

I tried what almost everybody who has a sneaking suspicion that they're drinking too much tries: I attempted to cut back. I made tons of rules: always take a day off after a day where I drank. No drinking during the week. Stopping after two glasses. Switching from wine to cider (because it has less alcohol content). Sooner or later I'd break every single one of the rules. Enter: more self-loathing, berating myself for being a spineless person with no self control, being disgusted with myself. 
All this while I was simultaneously on a mindfulness journey of self-compassion, self-love and radical self acceptance. Talk about contradiction!

The beginning of the end for me was the pandemic. With the added stress, fear, and the collective "let's all get wasted because the world is ending!"-vibe I threw all caution to the wind. I replaced wine bottles with boxes (much more bang for the buck, and you can destroy the evidence by burning it), because if I ever wanted to escape reality it was then. Besides, everybody was drinking like crazy! There were memes and jokes about it everywhere, and it felt like something that united us while we were physically separated. 

I haven't mentioned it yet, but that was always my main motivation: escape the thoughts in my head and numb the pain of being alive. Having a mental illness makes it painful to be with yourself if you haven't learnt the proper tools, and the quickest way to check out was to down a few vinos. Of course, the nasty side effect of boozing it up regularly is that after a while it makes your depression and anxiety much worse. One of the sober accounts I follow on Instagram puts it like this: 
"Drinking booze to feel happy is like lighting your house on fire to feel warm." Amen, sister. 

Back to that day in December. I saw Miranda open the Amazon package with the book Quit Like A Woman and not remembering that she was the one who ordered it late at night when she was drunk. And I saw myself in her. I've done stuff I couldn't remember the next morning. I've made plans I regretted the next day, and broken promises I should have kept. 
I'm 42, and I kept thinking where I would be at 55, Miranda's age. Would I still pound back cheap boxed wine, but maybe start earlier and earlier in the day?
Would I still dream of all the things I wanted to do, but never get around doing them because I was either too busy drinking or too busy being hungover? Would I still hang out with people I didn't really want to hang out with, just because they were drinking buddies?

And what about my health? My mental health was already going downhill faster than you could say cheers. But what if my physical health would follow? Every morning I would inspect my face carefully in the mirror, wondering if my wine consumption showed on my face. My stomach was permanently bloated,  my cellulite was spreading from just being cute on my bum down my legs front and back; and I watched my hands with eagle eyes to check for the faintest tremor (thankfully, there never was one).

What a stupid way to live. What a waste. I was done. There was no dramatic rock bottom, no intervention, no near-death experience. I simply had enough of wasting my life that way. 

Instead of asking myself if I was an alcoholic, I asked myself if alcohol was serving me, and the answer was a resounding hell no. 

I had my last drink on December 30, 2021. It was the bottle of champagne my husband had bought me for Christmas - the only reason it was still there almost a week later was that I had started to quit two weeks earlier. 
I drank that bottle methodically, knowing that it would be my last drink. Maybe not forever, but for a good long while. 

Now that I'm in month five I can't imagine ever wanting to drink again. It's the most liberating feeling! I love waking up with a clear head. I sleep amazingly with no more 2am wake-ups. My skin looks better, my bloat has gone way down, and even my cellulite is retreating - who knew that's possible?
But the best part is what it's doing for my mental health. My anxiety has gone down dramatically, and I'm learning to introduce stuff into my life like boundaries, saying no without apologizing and learning new things. I'm over 60,000 words into my new book, and I have a new curiosity for life that was missing before. I'm listening to new podcasts, reading books I've never considered reading before and I'm interested in different ways of seeing the world. 

I feel like I've finally woken up after having been asleep for about half a decade. Alcohol was fun until it wasn't, and I know that I will never be able to go back to those days of infrequent, moderate drinking. It's an addictive substance, and after consuming it for long enough it will get you hooked. I was there - now I'm not.

I don't call myself an alcoholic or addict. I don't consider myself to be in recovery. I don't attend AA meetings or any other program. There's absolutely nothing wrong with any of these labels, and I know that they help many people. It can be easier to stay within the safe walls of a black-and-white world: if calling yourself an alcoholic helps you not to drink, go for it!

I consider myself to be a grey area drinker. I was right in between heavy and moderate, with some days leaning more towards one end, and on others leaning towards the opposite. I probably could have kept going like that forever - maybe I would have ended up with liver disease (women are much more affected by booze than men), maybe not. I didn't want to wait around to see what happens, because you know what? I deserve better. I wanted more. More life, more adventure, more of being myself again.

My guides throughout this journey are books, as they have been my entire life. I quit with the help of Annie Grace's excellent book This Naked Mind. I then proceeded to read as many female-written quit-lit books as I could get my hands on, and I'm now slowly getting more active in the social media sober world. I've heard time and time again that you need community, and I wholeheartedly agree. But I don't believe that the community has to be IRL only - knowing that the authors of the books that have helped me so much are out there, living their happy sober lives is enough for me. And for all its drawbacks, social media has always been a community for me when I couldn't find people IRL who were into the same things I'm interested in. Besides, for the first little while I felt safer hiding behind a screen, being an observer rather than an active participant. 

Now that I'm feeling more settled in my alcohol-free life, I'm ready to step out of the shadows into the light (hence this blog post). 
I was so worried about quitting. Worried about never having quite the same amount of fun again, worried that I might bond less with my husband or my sister, worried that I would never be able to go to a pub or party ever again. And honestly, the first couple of months were hard. I grieved for the loss of my friend alcohol like it was a lost lover. We'd spent a lot of time together, and it was hard to say goodbye. Some of my drinking friends reacted less than pleased, and in the beginning I didn't know what to do with all this free time I suddenly had on my hands. 

But guys, life is so much better for me now. I have much more inner peace than I've had before. I used to spend an extraordinary amount of time thinking about alcohol every day: should I drink today, how much, should I take a break, am I drinking too much, did I do or say something stupid, and on and on. It was exhausting. My brain is already tormenting me thanks to depression and PMDD, I didn't need the added voice from alcohol and all the angst that comes with it. 

I've been to a couple dinner- and birthday parties since quitting, and here's what I have to say about that: if it's a good party with great people you'll have a blast. Plus, you will be wittier, enjoy the food more and actually focus properly on the conversation! And no hangover the next day! Total game changer. 
But if the people aren't your cup of tea or you're not in the mood you will have no patience and want to leave. Which you can, because you simply drive yourself home! Many of us use alcohol to make a boring or uncomfortable situation more bearable, and that's out for me now. But is that really a bad thing? I call that a win, not a loss. 

Interesting side note: for a while it got worse before it got better. After years of ignoring my body and mind's cries for help by drowning them in booze, I finally listened when I stopped numbing myself.
In March I had to take a month off work to deal with all the accumulated stress and burnout that I had never properly dealt with before. But now I'm slowly coming back stronger than before. I'm handling stuff head on. I'm actually confronting problems instead of hiding from them. Rich and I are having big plans for our future. 

And when I suddenly lost my corgi Lily last week, a terrible and completely unexpected loss that collapsed my entire world, I didn't do what I've done in the past: I didn't cry into a wine bottle and feel sorry for myself. I was devastated and it hurt like hell, but I sat with the pain. I cried until my eyes swelled up so much they hurt and I howled with agony, but I stayed with the feelings. And in all the sadness and misery, I also remembered so many great memories, and more than once I smiled and laughed through my tears. 
I didn't expect having to grieve sober so early, but now that I have to I am more grateful than ever for not drowning my pain anymore. It was so much worse when I was still drinking. It amplified the pain and dulled the shine of the great memories. 

You never know when your moment of clarity comes. Mine came on a snowy weekend in December, when I recognized myself in a fictional character on TV and didn't like what I saw. 
And just like that ... I changed my entire life. 

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