Two week, y’all… hooraaaaay !
How time has flown by!! I almost want to make the “standing ovation” joke, as does my buddy Jim Simmonds in his own “two-week alcohol free” post (check out his blog if you haven’t already!)
But as Jim so wisely says: two weeks is “OK, not bad. It’s a start”. And indeed, some of my “normal” friends (the ones I find myself spending more time with nowadays) sometimes don’t drink for a whole month -or even two- and find that it’s no big deal.
But still, I am happy (dare I say, proud?) to have come this far. I think that I have only been sober for this long on two other occasions since I was 15 years old. And both of those were last year!
One was a “1 month” challenge that I did (alone) last winter, and during which I basically WAITED until I was “allowed” to drink again. The other was a 10 day Vipassana meditation retreat I went on that previous summer, during which I was much too busy learning how to meditate to even think about drinking, and where drinking was not even an option, so staying sober was easy. This is not the post for this, but I am realizing now how instrumental the ‘discovery’ of meditation was in my desire to lead a healthier lifestyle and consider giving up drinking (i.e. self-medicating with alcohol) for a considerable period of time (i.e. more than the 2 days it takes to recover from a hangover). As I gained better coping mechanisms that help(ed) me accept reality as it is (and not how I want it to be), it became less necessary to “drown” my emotions, and easier to consider longer periods of time (a lifetime???) without a liquid crutch.
This time feels different though, because I don’t have a “let’s start drinking again” reward waiting for me at the finishing line. When I feel overwhelmed by my decision to live alcohol free (foreveeeer, gasp), I tell myself that if I want, the finishing line can be at the end of this “3 month challenge” to which I have officially signed up online, and that I have by now mentioned to most of my friends. So far, this 3 month challenge is what I have been using as my “excuse” to stay sober during social events, but sooner or later I am going to have to think about what to say once that period of time is over.
Most of the time, I think of pushing back the “finishing line” indefinitely, depending on how brave I am feeling. Honestly, I don’t know where that line is, and don’t want to know: I only need to concern myself with today, and I know that today, I won’t drink. And in that sense, there is no line, only a new lifestyle to adopt, to learn how to love, right here, right now. I won’t lie: it’s not easy, and the thought is still very scary. For now, focusing on the present moment and on the idea that “I will not drink today” is enough — and all I can manage. I am too scared to make big, permanent decisions about the future. I think of my romantic relationship in a similar manner: I chose to be with my partner every day. Although I might end up staying with him “forever”, that “forever” can only be created day by day. The same goes if/when I ever get married. Meditation is also responsible for teaching me to be wary of making BIG DECISIONS or assumptions about the future. I could get run over by a car, I could get cancer, I could be dead tomorrow, so who knows what will happen in 30 years. And in any case, all I ever have is right now 🙂
What I wanted to write about today, however, was not “right now”, but lunch.
This week, a Famous University professor is giving a series of conferences at my department, and today I was put in charge of escorting her to the restaurant, where 4 other PhD students and myself were to entertain her while we eat and make awkward conversation about our academic work. Urgh.
I’ve always disliked these tedious events. First of all because people say “whom” way too much. Second, because of my impostor’s syndrome. And most of all because of my “savior’s syndrome” which causes a pathological need for me to make sure that everybody is ok – (and these events are often so stiff and formal that I know I certainly don’t feel ok, and project that everyone else feels just as nervous as I do, which generally sends my anxiety levels up up up through the roof, though I always somehow manage to hide everything under a thick layer of smiles and artificial answers, and oh yeah … under the warm, fuzzy artificial and temporary comfort of “just a little drink or two”. Urgh. So today I faced a classic case of “needing-liquid-courage-to-survive-this”. And survived with sober courage 🙂
At these lunch events, I always used to order beer as an aperitif, then oysters as a starter, just so I could get white wine after that and “not look like an alcoholic”. I would usually be the “wine” initiator and get the people to join in, blaming my French upbringing and claiming that “a good meal needs wine”…. basically, disguising my need to drink under the cloak of cultural specificity and etiquette. And indeed, French professors visiting our department would usually also want wine with their lunch.
But today the professor was American, and so were all the other students present. When the waitress asked if anybody wanted anything except water, EVERY SINGLE PERSON said no, thank you. And so did I, after everyone else. Then, as the daunting conversation dragged on and I enjoyed my delicious and wine-less crab cake, I couldn’t help but notice a group of three old ladies sitting opposite us, behind the professor (to whom I would lend a lazy ear but had trouble focusing on). Why was I so captivated by these three ladies? Because they looked so happy to be there, chatting together, three old friends catching up at a fancy restaurant with beautiful white table cloths and soft music. Oh, yeah…. and each holding a GIGANTIC (God Bless America) glass of white wine in their hands. And that, my friends, was a tough moment for me. I had not given any thought to potential triggers or “strategies” I would need to navigate this event. I had naively figured that this was lunch with a bunch of “normal American” people, and would simply not involve alcohol at all. I hadn’t thought that the people around us, the setting, the environment in itself could have such a strong impact on my desire to drink.
Oh how I was wrong! Seeing these cute 80 year old ladies enjoying their drinks triggered a pretty strong wave of cravings and permissive thinking on my part, to the effect of: “well if these grannies can do it and haven’t died of liver failure yet, then so can I, right?”, or “after this 3 month AF nonsense I’ll go back to moderating, yeah, no problem”, or even: “urgh why can they have fun and enjoy their meal and not me? It’s not fair”, etc. etc. etc. yada yada, whine whine (about wine). URGH …
“Chimp mind”, “wine witch”, “wine hound”, “addiction monster”, …. I need to find a nickname for the part of me that thinks these thoughts. Every one else seems to have one 🙂 So far I have just been calling it “the blob”, because it wants to gobble up anything it can, not just liquid stuff. Anyway, I felt pretty sorry for myself for a minute. Then I focused my attention on my breath, reminded myself that this was a “first” (first sober “elegant and awkward lunch at a fancy restaurant”), and payed attention to my immediate surroundings again. Fast forward about an hour, and I was pleasantly full from the delicious food, happy that the boring conversation was drawing to an end, and that the cravings had passed. I was surprised to notice that felt absolutely 100% satisfied. Nothing missing from my life. No need to drink. Everything was ok. I had survived. Most importantly, I completely forgotten about my earlier dissatisfaction and “hungry ghost”-ness.
Realizing this, I cast a quick curious glance over to the “party grandmas” to see how they were doing, and guess what ?!
The initially chirpy, cheerful and energetic ladies were now half asleep, their smiles wiped off of their faces and replaced by a kind of dull, grey-ish shadowy, closed and definitely-not-cheerful look. They looked tired. Full, but not satisfied. And then it struck me: what I had taken for their initial “happiness” was probably just that high you get from the first sips of alcohol (especially on an empty stomach) and that some of us keep chasing (but never find) until the drinking session comes to an end. What I seemed to be observing in their faces was that heavy sensation that you get when you have indulged, and yet remain unsatisfied. And right there and then, it was such a strange feeling: I did not envy them anymore. I was almost happy (like, 90% happy) to be the sober one. Or rather (because I have no idea what these ladies were actually feeling – I can only project), I knew that if I were in their place, sitting at that table after having had a few glasses of wine, I would NOT be feeling happy or satisfied.
I have sooooo many memories, TONS of them, of sitting there, at the end of a great meal, feeling awful and DEVOURED by a desire to keep drinking. And guilty for having these cravings, for wanting more to drink when everyone else around me seemed to have had enough. And wonder “what is wrong with me?”, and not care, because all I cared about was “how and when do I get my next drink?”. Taking the cue from other people’s reactions of having had enough (as opposed to having the sensation of having had enough) would be what would get me to stop drinking. If left to my own devices, I would just keep going, because deep inside, I would still feel that something was missing, that I needed “just one more” to be satisfied “at last”.
But no amount or food or wine would ever satisfy a “hunger” which has nothing to do with anything physical. After an occasion like this, I would often go home and stop at the liquor store on the way back. I would keep drinking, alone, in secret, shamefully, knowing that other people would not, that they would not even think about drinking. And the cycle of shame, secrecy etc. would keep going. And going. Again and again.
All of this I realized today at lunch, and remembered, as I sat there looking at those cute old ladies. I remembered WHY I wanted to quit in the first place, and why all this “frustration” that comes with “early sobriety” is worth it. And why I want to keep going. I thought of all this as the people around me rambled on (“Have you not read Professor Such and Such’s new book on The Influence of Whatever on Some Other Thing No One Has Ever Heard About in the Second Half of the Thirteenth Century?. it’s remarkable!”), and my own awkward, sober event came to an end.
When everyone got up, they asked if I was going back to the University with them, and I said that no, I was sorry, but I had something I had to do in town. So I happily said goodbye and left.
And it’s true: I did have to leave, because I wanted to make it to the SPCA before they closed. Yep, today, after lunch, I went to the SPCA and adopted a cat (!!!! See previous post).
A beautiful 1 year old female cat, with gorgeous green eyes, WHOM I brought back this afternoon, and who is peacefully asleep next to me as I type this. Her name is Fern, and just like me, she is calm, cautious, and very very affectionate. Oh, and she doesn’t drink either 🙂