A Brief Period of Sobriety

August 12, 2010  |  journal entries

I decided not to drink in August. I’ve done a few periodic breaks from alcohol over the last few years, but I haven’t done that recently, so it was about time to try it again.

I like to practice not drinking, not necessarily because I think I have a problem with alcohol, but because at times I can lean too heavily on it to curb the anxiety I sometimes struggle with. It does seem to work, but I’m not sure that’s the best way to deal with it. Well, I know it isn’t the best way to deal with it, but it’s an easy way, and pretty effective.

A quick whiskey on the rocks and I am good to go. That tightness in my chest, the clutch around my heart, the panic, the cloudy mind, all lighten and start disappearing.

Someone told me once that I should be medicated if New York causes me so much anxiety and stress. I snapped back that if it got to that point, it clearly wasn’t healthy for me to be here, and I would leave. And as much as I hate to ever think that she could have possibly had a point, I have to wonder if that might be true. Of course there are things one can do before one medicates. I can change my lifestyle, change my nutrition, change my daily habits, exercise more. I think I’ve been overcompensating with alcohol, trying to avoid the realities of the stress of this city and the lifestyle here.

I remember talking to my therapist about this at some point, wondering if I was drinking too much. I wondered if drinking every single night—not to the point of drunkenness, just to the point of subduing the panic—was something I should look at, be curious about. She said she was more interested in my lack of restful sleep.

Well, now I sleep restfully. Now I don’t have to get up at 7:30 am to commute to a corporate job, and I get enough sleep. The nightmares are less. The insomnia is less, usually. My mind quiets and calms at night, usually.

But I still drink.

Aside from detoxing, aside from possibly dealing more directly with my anxiety, I want to cut down on the calories I take in. You’ve probably seen Kristen’s Twitter stream, she bakes constantly, and cooks delicious food, and while that makes me very happy, it has not been wonderful to my waistline. I’m struggling to squeeze into my old jeans. I’m also 31 now, and I think something happens to the metabolism in the late twenties-ish time, and my body just doesn’t process like it used to. Plus, though I’m no longer sitting at a desk at a corporate job all day every day, that also means I’m not making time on my lunch breaks for a trip to the gym, and I think some of my habits have changed. I need some new ones. I joined a gym, I’m back to jogging and lifting weights, I’m trying to get a regular schedule going.

One of my favorite writing and life mentors, Tara Hardy, has a poem talking about her sobriety, and says “Ask yourself, what would it mean if we all got collectively un-numb? In touch with possibility daily? That’s what I’m asking. Put nothing between you and your disappointment, and your grief, and your rage, and what they want us to believe is dangerous: hope. Desire. Need. Meet your need naked.” I’m thinking about this as I’m nearing the end of week two of this cleanse, this voluntary brief temporary period of sobriety, and as I keep thinking how easy it would be to pop open that beer that’s in the fridge.

I’m experimenting with a more focused and deliberate Buddhist path, too, and one of the Five Precepts is to abstain from escaping from consciousness—traditionally, this stated as abstaining from alcohol, but it can be many things that we use to turn our brains off, from a video game to a joint to whiskey to working out to mindless tv to surfing the Internet. The sangha I attend most often has a very contemporary interpretation of the precepts, seeing them as not so much as rigid guidelines as much as attempting to see their essence, to get at what the rule was getting at, and to apply consciousness to the practice. So it’s not so much about abstaining from alcohol as it is being mindful of the reasons why we are drinking, often the same reasons why I watch episode after episode of 30 Rock, or surf around on tumblr for hours.

I know I use alcohol to escape my mind, my suffering, my emotions.

What would happen if I did that less? What would happen if I had to sit with it more directly? To sit quietly with that pain and suffering, with the dukkha?

So I guess this brief stint of sobriety is attempting to experiment with that, too.

I’m also doing a sacred intimacy/tantra workshop in the end of August, a similar one that I did last year, only this year I am coordinating the workshop and attending as a staff member. I’m thrilled about that, one of my intentions for this year was to deepen my tantra practice, and my involvement with the tantra school with which I’ve been studying for almost ten years now took a leap. Every time I do one of these workshops, they recommend doing a little bit of detox and not ingesting substances like drugs or alcohol for the few days around the workshop, and I often do about a week of sobriety leading up to one of them. This time, I figured I would extend the time to an entire month, as an experiment, and see what happens.

It’s easy to drink. It’s harder not to, it’s harder to sit with what I’m going through and harder to order club soda and lime at a bar, harder to breathe through the social anxiety or excitement or turn down a nice glass of wine at dinner with friends. But it’s temporary. And perhaps I’ll learn something.

 

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8 Comments


  1. hey, i think that's an awesome project. i don't have a problem with drinking, and sometimes am frustrated by the mood-altering properties of it because i love the taste and would drink more often if it didn't ultimately make me drunk.

    but i know lots of people who use it to calm down, to take the edge off or turn the volume down, and that's a scary prospect. it's not having a drinking problem, but as a long-term habit, it's the first step towards having one in my opinion.

    i love hardy's quote, and i agree that there are a million things we can do to numb ourselves. what we call substance abuse is only the tip of the iceberg. i use food in a similar way, and internet, and sometimes reading mindless fiction. one way i deal with it is to have a rule that i don't buy things like ice cream and keep them in the house — if i want it, i have to go out to the ice cream parlor. by the time i've made it out of the house and walked all the way there, it means something different. that could be a good halfway house for alcohol too.

    sometimes i reach for the computer and then stop myself, say to myself 'what would happen if you just laid down on your bed?' invariably i either then take a nap, pick up a knitting project, or call a friend to talk. as in, i go about my real life, the one i was trying to get away from.

    so best of luck with your project, stay strong! and throw that beer out if it's tempting you!

    xo FG

  2. Good on ya, Sinclair. I have also been working on drinking less over the past year or so, for many of the reasons you named, and also the wow-how-much-of-my-budget-is-going-to-booze?? reason, and also health reasons…as you probably know, there are some scary studies out there about the impact of drinking (even a little bit) on one's risk of breast cancer, and since not bearing children is also a risk factor there, it really gives me pause.

    Hope you'll do an update closer to the end of the month (or however long your break from the bottle turns out to be) on how it's gone for you and impacted other aspects of your lifestyle…including sex!

  3. I have been on lots of strong painkillers because I'm having major problems with my back and shoulder

    As a result I've not been able to have alcohol for around 4 months -the longest I've gone without alcohol for 5 years (before that I had been teetotal for faith-based reasons for around 4-5 years)

    I have to say its been very hard -especially around the social/ dining situations -I too find it hard to not have wine with a meal or a G&T whilst out with friends.

    But, it has proven to me I can cope without alcohol, I feel physically better, I enjoy better conversations when I'm out with friends, and I've found some lovely 'grown up' soft drinks that I wouldn't have ordinarily drunk (elderflower fizz anyone? So yeah, its hard but there are certainly benefits

    And in relation to faith (I'm Pagan by the way) it certainly fits better with the way I try to lead my life (as the 'harm none' principle includes yourself)

    Stick with it, and it will be worth it :)

  4. Knowing when it becomes a problem or interference is different for everyone. And while it may not have been a problem before you started this rest from drinking, it always feels good to have the peace of mind that comes from knowing that you're able to step away from it for a month, or as needed.

    I have a bit of an addictive personality (it's an Aries thing, yeah?), so from time to time I put the beers down, even though drinking doesn't affect my work or personal life (I'm pretty sure). And I feel about myself knowing that I can leave the bottles in the fridge just for the sake of leaving them in the fridge.

    Good work and I'm sure this spell will treat you well. You'll enjoy a Jameson on the rocks in a new light come September.

  5. my unsolicited advice:

    walk through your anxiety unencumbered

    learn to put down panic yourself

    when you can

    breathe

    running away from it

    no matter how you do it

    only delays the work

    and deepens the chasm

    remove alcohol from the pattern

    which is not to say, "don't drink ever"

    but is to say

    don't drink to hide

    and don't fool yourself about it

  6. I'm impressed by the bravery of this post. I've also had periods of time in my life where I struggled with problematic drinking much like yours–drinking on a regular basis *in order to* numb difficult feelings. Admitting that is scary because it means acknowledging those feelings, in all their rawness, and maybe having to do something about them. But I'm confident you have the strength to do that.

    For what it's worth, from an outsider's perspective: I'd already noticed a new clarity and vibrancy to your writing in August. I've really been enjoying the longer, more frequent posts.

  7. I had a horrible break-up with the other mother of our child last year. After not fighting for most of our relationship, we fought viciously and violently at the end, fuelled by alcohol (both of us) and marijuana (her). The night we actually broke up I was drunk and goading her to hit me and the next day I felt so ashamed I could die. It was then that I went totally sober for many months.

    We tried sharing the house still so we could co-parent and I made one of the house rules no alcohol or drugs. This was only followed by her for about 5 days and then she carried in a slab of beer and started smoking pot again. At least I was stone-cold the night that she barricaded me in my room holding a screaming toddler while she kicked me. Needless to say she was intoxicated.

    I had a lover at the time (just to complicate things more) who had a history of alcoholism and going through a break-up of her own. We made a pact to stay totally "dry" together through the ensuing stress and we did and I'm so proud of both of us. I'm sure that it fuelled some really great sober emotion processing and decision-making through a time that otherwise could have destroyed both of us. Neither of us had a single drink for about 5 months, and then literally only a couple of drinks over the next few months.

    Since my lover and I broke up I softened on the "sobriety stance" and on a couple of occasions have drunk during times of stress and regretted it the next day. Without the clarity of sobriety under such huge stress during the break-up I wouldn't be able to recognise the difference in myself when drinking now and I don't like that difference.

    Before I was sober I was drinking every day but not huge amounts, not unlike yourself. Enough to take the edge off after work, or a reward of a couple of glasses of wine after the baby went to bed. But I do think my drinking was problematic (rather than actually alcoholic) in that I was using it for stress relief and was really feeling like I didn't want any sober days at all. I think deciding to make a change at the time I did really stopped me getting more into the danger zone with the alcohol. Suddenly being solely responsible financially for the house and child-based expenses as well as negotiating visitation/custody issues was intensely painful, depressing and frustrating and I could have slipped into a drunken haze every night very easily. And I really didn't want to do that to me or my child.

    So I think after a few weeks of occasional drinking I may well become totally sober again. Not for wowser-ish reasons, and I've certainly got no problems with other people drinking. But because I don't like the effect it has on me and my psychological, emotional and physical health. And I really like being a sober parent and enjoying every single moment I have with my boy in a state of clarity.

    So good luck with staying "dry"! It certainly gave me some clarity and improved my health – I lost about 15 kilos after the big break-up and most of that was because I quit drinking alcohol. BTW – I love your blog and read religiously :)

  8. This is a very open, honest and mindful post. I don't drink very much, but I do recognize those other avoidance/numbing behaviors being a part of my repertoire. When I do stop myself from being unmindful about my activities, it's very interesting. I feel the restlessness that normally gets distracted by activity, I feel the anxiety, stress, fear. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is sit quietly with all of it.

    good luck and let us know how things work out. The Tara Hardy quote is very good and I'm intrigued by your exploration of Buddhism. Also, love Tongue-Tied's poem above, as usual, she puts it all in a nutshell.

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