Trying Out Sobriety–One Year Later

It was one year ago today that I was sitting in my doctor’s office and he said to me, “I think you should give up alcohol–entirely.”  I’m sure it was the stricken and horrified expression on my face that forced him to add, “…for at least two weeks, until you can come back for a re-check.”

I had come in because I was having repeated bouts with atrial fibrillation, and while I had realized some time before that alcohol could be a trigger for a-fib, I had refused to admit that it might be the trigger.

I told him, “I really don’t know if I can.”

I did not and do not consider myself to be an alcoholic, but I certainly had become alcohol dependent.  All I could think about, sitting with my doctor, was how much my life would have to change if I gave up my nightly “beer time.”   But suddenly, I had a very concrete reason to abstain.  Suddenly, it seemed like I was besieged by commercials promoting a-fib medication that reminded me that “a-fib is the leading cause of heart attack and stroke in men over 65.”  Since I was two months away from turning 65, I felt like the ads were mocking me–rubbing salt in the wounds.

I made it through two weeks and sure enough, my heart seemed to be settling down.  Two weeks became six and on December 20, 2017 I wrote a piece called Trying Out Sobriety reflecting on what I had learned after six weeks of abstinence.  Today, makes it fifty-two weeks since I gave up alcohol.

Last Monday, I was meeting with my addiction medicine therapist, a woman who has been an invaluable source of care, insight, and support throughout this process.  She asked how I intended to celebrate one year of sobriety.  I told her that I didn’t plan to do anything.  Making a big deal about sticking it out for one year sounds like something an addict would do.  “Celebrating” makes me think about rewarding myself with a 22-ounce Double-IPA, thank you very much. So, no celebrations don’t seemed called for.  I did tell her I felt I needed to write about it.  That means if you are reading this, you are celebrating with me, and thank you for coming (cue fireworks!).

I don’t want to recount everything I wrote about last December. You can read about that here.  However, one constant has been my therapist’s admonition that I needed to shift the focus of my thinking to concentrating not on what I had lost or given up, but rather on what I had gained.

Some gains I have made are quantifiable, but we need to do the math.  Let’s say that I used to drink 300 out of 365 days per year.  That would mean I took roughly 65 days off per year due to illness, guilt, or hangover recovery.  On the days I drank, I drank between 2 and 4 beers, so let’s call it an average of 3 beers a day.  That means I consumed about 900 beers per year. At roughly 150 calories per beer, I can approximate that I saved 135,000 calories over the course of the year.  Now, if I had eaten a lean diet and not replaced some of those calories by indulging in pastries and chocolates of all kinds, I’d probably be down to 75 pounds.  However, I have lost a solid 10-12 pounds and the ever-growing beer gut has vanished.

I never used to keep track of how much I was spending on beer between the six-packs I’d drink at home and the tabs I would pay at a bar.  I really didn’t want to know.  However, if a beer from a 6 pack ran 2-3 dollars and from a bar was 6-8 dollars, let’s just guess that my average cost per beer ended up being $4.  That means I saved $3,600 over the past year.

Best of all, I feel healthier and happier than anytime I can remember.  Yes, I’ve struggled through some depressive periods over the past 12 months, but I revel in the changes I have made in my life.

I go to bed every night knowing that I will not wake up with a hangover and the guilt that would come with it. I can almost always remember exactly what I said and did the night before, something that increasingly would elude me on drinking nights.  I feel stronger as I’ve pushed myself into more challenging hikes around the county and trying to be on the trail two to three days a week. I practice yoga and meditation 5-6 days a week and marvel at how the importance of that practice has grown for me over time. There seems to be a part of my brain that was always thinking about drinking that gets to rest and dedicate itself to other things.

Do I miss it?  Yes–every day.  I still feel jealous when I’m surrounded by drinkers at a bar or a restaurant, and I’m making may way through another bottle of Pellegrino.

Back when I wrote the initial article, I was already hedging–assuming I would cheat occasionally.  What could it hurt, right?  But, it’s just been easier to stick to my new habit and continue to build on the gains I have made as a person.  Nothing about alcohol ever helped me be stronger, smarter, or kinder.  I think I’ve made some strides in those areas.  I don’t want to give them up now.

Thanks for celebrating with me! (cue balloons!!)

 

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Depression–Again

I’ve wanted to write this piece for some time, but I wanted to start with:

“It’s OK.  I’m feeling much better now.”

I didn’t expect it would be July before that happened.

I did not see this one coming.  Near the end of March, I was about to write a piece about how well the experience of sobriety was going with one of the most remarkable things being a nearly euphoric sense of well being. I had just finished a 30-day writing challenge and had gotten to spend five days on the Oregon coast.  I was physically active and had my volunteer work going to keep me engaged. I felt great.

And then, everything seemed to go south on me.  Suddenly, I began to feel a sense of isolation and anger began to build up inside of me.  I was plagued both by self-pity and a sense of inadequacy.  I didn’t have friends to be with.  I no longer had the comfort of a bar or a brewery to use to pass the time and enjoy the boozy camaraderie.

I can’t explain the weird reversal of my my emotional state.  There was not an easily identifiable trigger.  I simply drifted into a state of withdrawal and anger bordering on a kind of rage–rage at the news, rage at nearly everyone I encountered on the road, simmering anger at every person in every bar or restaurant I entered who was allowed to enjoy their beers, when I had to deny myself.  Was it their second or third?  Why were they allowed to toy so casually with their health when I could not?

I have been seeing a therapist who specializes in addiction medicine and I saw her twice during the month of May when things were going badly.  Before the appointment begins, I have to take an iPad and click through a multiple-choice questionnaire about my mental state and how I’ve been doing since the last visit–have I been drinking, have I taken drugs, have I felt depressed, had I had thoughts of harming myself–you get the idea.

I feel like a kid in class when I do the iPad thing, wanting to get good scores for my efforts at abstinence but also wanting to be honest about how bad this bout of depression had been.  When I got to the question about harming myself, I had to press the button for “once or twice” instead of the usual “never.”

I had not actually contemplated suicide over the past two months.  I hadn’t started to imagine how I would do it or make a plan. It wasn’t like that.  But I was feeling a deep sense of weariness, a feeling of being overwhelmed by the effort it took to say “no” to alcohol every day, and to simply cope with everyday life.  Dealing with a minor car problem seemed epically difficult.  The multitude of unfinished projects around the house made me feel surrounded by failure even though they were dwarfed by the overall beauty of our house and our yard.  I hate to use a Hamlet reference (it’s so former-English-teacher-ish), but when he thinks about death he imagines the peace that comes from ending the “heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks/That flesh is heir to.”  A respite from all of those “thousand shocks” was all that led me to momentary thoughts of being able to go to sleep and not get up to once again have to fight that feeling of being overwhelmed.

It is as hard for me to describe clawing out of a depression as it is to explain how I fell into it, but two things stand out as I look back at how I began to heal.

Since I retired, I’ve been a casual and occasional hiker around the county of San Diego even going so far as to join a hiking group that meets up once a week.  I was far from passionate about it.  However, inspired by my niece who has set a goal of 100 rigorous hikes during 2018, I started upping my interest as she and I began to meet up occasionally, and she introduced me to more and more challenging peaks to climb.  As I started to get stronger, I started to push myself to take on these tougher hikes 2-3 times a week. The hikes became easier and my body began to recover more quickly between them.  I found that the hikes literally cleared my mind as I was immersed in the natural terrain and the physical exertion I was putting in.

But that kind of healing takes time and 6-8 hours a week of physical activity was not going to, by itself, be enough.  When I was still deeply mired in feeling bad, I sat on the edge of our bed with my wife and admitted the obvious–something that she clearly already knew–that I was really struggling with depression once again. She did the best of all things.  She let me talk through my confusion, my anger, my sadness and just acknowledged and affirmed what I was feeling.  When I was all talked out, she held me close and we just quit talking and I could feel something melt away inside of me.  I can’t explain it.  There was no advice, no insight–just warmth and love and reassurance.  It was as if a boil had been lanced and the healing began almost immediately.

When I first wrote about my decision to abstain from alcohol back in November of ‘17, I recognized the the decision was going to force me to confront some substantial issues.  At the time, I wrote, “Alcohol had simply helped me paper over feelings of isolation or purposelessness or inadequacy.  Now, I need to confront those feelings for what they are and see what kind of growth can come from that.”  

Maybe that is what I was going through here.  Maybe this was a time of growth and reassessment of my purpose and the things I need to work on to stay connected to the people in my life.  I’m working on all of those things.

I hope it will be enough to keep the storm clouds away.

Trying Out Sobriety

My entree into the world of heavy drinking was as slow as my exit was abrupt and unexpected.

I can find notes in journals that go back as far as the 80’s where I was making resolutions to cut back on my drinking, but it wasn’t until the past 15 years or so that I developed into a much more heavy and habitual drinker.

I can’t offer a substantive reason for how it developed, but there was a confluence of events that influenced me.  In 2000, my son left for college, and I felt a seismic shift in my life as I saw my role as “dad” begin to shift and, in my mind, diminish.  At the same time, I discovered the comfort one could find in being a regular at a local pub or in the bar of a local restaurant.  I liked bartenders knowing my name, knowing my drink, making space for me at the end of the bar, fronting me a drink from time to time, giving me attention that I felt, for that brief moment made me special, a friend.

Living in San Diego a new brewery began to open up almost weekly and so frequent trips to visit those spots weren’t drinking; they were research.  It seemed important to have tried the latest beers to keep up in conversations with other beer geeks. Beer festivals became a monthly diversion.

I did not, and do not consider myself an alcoholic, but my habits surrounding my drinking became more and more unhealthy.  Four beers a night felt like my ceiling and I felt cheated when I didn’t get there.  That meant happy hour had to get started earlier on some days, and that, at times, I would ditch my night-time walk to sit outdoors in the cold and enjoy a 22-ounce beer, alone, and content with the isolation and the quiet.  If I was feeling good, I didn’t mind breaking through my self-imposed ceiling.

I told some friends that I was aware that I was “drinking like there was no tomorrow” and I meant that literally.  If I felt good at the moment I was drinking, it was easy to convince myself that an extra beer or two would not hurt me in the morning, no matter how many days I’d wake up with a bad stomach and have to fight through dizziness for most of the day. No matter how many plans I made to cut back, they all failed.  As soon as I began to feel better, I was good to go again.

In the back of my mind the bigger “tomorrow” of how I might be affecting my health always pinged at me too, but to a lesser degree.  I had developed a kind of fatalism as I grew older and seen younger, health-conscious friends and colleagues felled by accident and heinous diseases.  I became convinced that if I was going to get sick or disabled, it was going to happen if and when it was going to happen, regardless of my drinking.  In fact, it was more reason to enjoy what I liked while I could.

What made me change direction was a doctor’s visit that was prompted by increased heart palpitations that I was having.  It is a condition I’ve had for years and I’ve been through every test and monitoring protocol that they offer with no definitive result.  Caffeine and alcohol were certainly potential triggers, but so are dehydration, exertion, stress, anxiety–take your pick–I’m prone to all of these things.

However, I was frank with my doctor about my drinking habits and he just cut through the bullshit and said, “I think you should quit–entirely–so we can see if you feel better without the nightly alcohol.”  I was a little scared at the thought.  I wasn’t sure I could do it.

That was six weeks ago.  Friends and family members had urged me to moderate my drinking for years, but I suck at moderation.  Quitting, it turns out, I can do.  Moderating, not so much.

While I found I did not suffer from any physical withdrawal symptoms, I spiraled pretty quickly into a depression that was full of self-pity and anger–anger at having to change my ways, anger that I hadn’t changed sooner, anger that I might have actually done physical damage to myself that I’d now have to deal with.  I felt fearful that I’d resolve to make this change and quickly slide back into the well-worn ruts of my long-established habits and disappoint myself and the people closest to me.

I felt like by making this decision I had created a void in my life–no more breweries, no more happy hours, no more wine tasting, no more catching the game at my local sports bar.  I couldn’t imagine doing those things as a non-drinker.

I think what hurt the most though was knowing I was leaving behind the thing I liked best about drinking.  It was the sensation that I would sometimes get, especially when I was out somewhere on my own, sitting outdoors on a warm day, that there was absolutely nothing to worry about, that all was truly right with the world.  The hazy, carefree numbness that alcohol gave to me was its greatest gift.  It somehow took away the worries I carry, the sense of always needing to be responsible, the sense of needing to always be doing something.  With a couple of beers under my belt, I could put my headphones on and be thoroughly content–at least for an hour or two.

In working with an addiction medicine therapist to help me navigate this change, I’ve gained a lot of insight. She has helped me to shift my concentration away from what I felt I was losing to what I was gaining.  First off, I discovered that I had not created a void by giving up drinking.  The void had been with me for a long time.  Alcohol had simply helped me paper over feelings of isolation or purposelessness or inadequacy.  Now, I need to confront those feelings for what they are and see what kind of growth can come from that.

I discovered that my denial that drinking had become a problem for me had become a huge burden, one that I could now unload.  I had no idea how exhausting it had become justifying my excesses to myself.  I didn’t realize how much guilt I was carrying around until I no longer needed to do so.

I thought social events would be troublesome, being around so many other who were able to drink with impunity while I was having to walk the straight and narrow, but again I found a sense of relief.  Throughout the night, I didn’t have to think about how many drinks I had consumed, or how many more I might be able to allow myself.  I didn’t have to worry if I’d be OK to drive.  The one down side was that I found it hard to simply relax without the aid of a few drinks.  I guess maybe that will come with time.

It’s only been six weeks.  Six weeks of sobriety after 800 weeks of indulgence give or take.  I honestly don’t know where this all leads for me.  It would be so very easy to slide back into my old habits.  I’m not trying for life of pure abstinence.  I expect that there will be some cheating going on from time to time.

And that seems OK to me.  But for now, I like where I am.  It feels good to be able to change.  It feels good to be on a new pathway. It’s why I liked the quote I chose for the beginning of the post.  I’m not expecting some kind of sudden perfection.  I just want to keep moving forward.