Photo by Thomas Martinsen on Unsplash
Do you ever think 'Who Even Am I?' Those odd moments when you catch yourself saying or doing something that just well isn't 'you' ? Or perhaps as in my case, 'not' doing something.
Here I sit on a glorious sunny Sunday afternoon with a few hours to enjoy before the new work week starts to loom down. This is definitely wine-worthy. In fact, I have formed my own Life Degustation - certain occasions, times and people that are perfectly complemented with wine. Except, today, held in my hand is a sparkling water. Because somehow I have accidentally (almost) completely given up alcohol. I'm slightly aghast to even write that. Am I destined to the life of a teetotaller? A weird word that never made sense, and felt more apt as a descriptor for a drunk person (what are they totalling anyway?) or at least created by someone with a few beers in their belly. It's kinda hard to write because there is part of me that feels disappointed that I am becoming so, well, downright sensible.
Now believe me when I say I am not here to ride my righteous high-horse through your field of frivolity! My intent was never to head down Abstinence Avenue. But I can't help but notice all the ways that my life has become better, the less I have drunk - more clarity, better sleep, higher levels of natural joy, increased productivity and a depth of resilience I never knew I had. So I am going to 'fess up - here's how it went down....
When one of my children became very unwell just over twelve months ago, I had the foresight to know that my default coping mechanism, as it had often been throughout my life at stressful times, was going to be reaching for a few glasses of wine at the end of the day. And that with a a long journey ahead, this strategy that had thus far served me ok-ish, was probably less than ideal in the long run. So I engaged a psychologist that used mindfulness techniques. (click here for more info)
Don't get me wrong. No-one would refer to me as Gab The Drunk (well, rarely). I didn't drink til I passed out. I could always stop drinking after a few wines, though not as easily on a night out as I could on a Wednesday. I did have alcohol free days. It was just more nights than not, I relied on that glass or three of chardonnay as a symbolic gesture that the day was completed and I was now in switch off mode. With a few sips I was taken away from the stress of work or parenthood or life. The edges blurred a little. The intensity of whatever was going on that had my heart-racing and stomach churned, lessened. It all didn't matter as much. I numbed down a little. It was a fast-track to a nicer place. For sure I was drinking above the recommended safe levels I'd seen but geez who wasn't? I mean it allows a thimble-full per day or something? Of course there was also the comfort in knowing many people who drank at higher levels than me.
And yet, at every visit to the psychologist, where my goal had been recorded as ' to lessen the dependency on alcohol to cope with stress' I squirmed as I listed off how many glasses I had consumed since the previous fortnight. Sometimes it was ten, sometimes it was fourteen, sometimes it went above twenty - which , if I'd had a luncheon or a night out plus 3 glasses say four or five times times per week was not that difficult to get to. Perhaps there were times it was above 30, but I couldn't bring myself to count that far or admit it. Oh the times I sat in his room and rued this stupid goal. Yet the worst part was at home trying to put into practice and clearly seeing HOW MUCH I was depending on those few wines and how incredibly difficult this half a lifetime habit was to shift. Still, I was never trying to give it up. I just wanted to loosen the grip a little. Have some space around it.
Here's the five things that have helped me accidentally (almost) completely give up alcohol.
1. Realising a thought is just a thought.
Through my mindfulness meditation practice observing thoughts and body sensations without acting on them, I began to clearly get that the the thought "I really need a wine" was truly just another thought that actually had no inherent power over me. This was a habit - readily rewarded by my brain with a good ol' dose of dopamine when I followed through but there was space to make choices around it. At the same time, through meditation practice I was beginning to get moments of peace and calmness that were similar to a wine or two but without the the fogginess. This new way of dealing with life intrigued me.
2. Utilising technology for feedback.
I discovered that I thrive with feedback and data. Because I was simultaneously trying to get fitter, I had bought a sports watch and I quickly realised that getting feedback not only encouraged me, but could also discourage me. For example, when I did drink alcohol, my heart rate increased by over 10 beats per minute and stayed that way through the night and well into the next day. That was a clear sign to me that something about the alcohol was stressing my body. No more out of mind, out of sight - or abstract warning from the World Health Organisation - I could see with my own eyes the negative impact on my body.
3. Alcohol made me anxious.
Twelve months ago I would have thought that statement was all kinds of messed up. No, I would have assured you, life made me anxious, a lovely yellow viscous chardonnay was just a big glass of calm. The solution. The antidote to this crazy little thing called life. I sensed the way it wonderfully wormed its way through my body as my shoulders dropped from my ears. Now I know that while perhaps in the moment, there is a little and temporary dip in my anxiety, (though I suspect it's more of a masking of the anxiety sensation) - absolutely, undoubtedly, undeniably that night, when I inexplicably wake up with a pounding heart at 3am and well into the next day, the anxiety o-metre is cranked to high. It's hard to explain, but I feel it now clear as can be if I do have even one wine. A background shakiness, skirting at the edge of fight or flight. Perked up and ready, deer in the headlights style. And that's without taking into account the accompanying foggy head, dry mouth and dull headache. To now wake with a sense of calm and capableness is the best feeling in the world.
4. It was a major contributor to my IBS.
After the diagnosis of IBS five years ago, I was told wine should be fine in small amounts. No doubt I took more note of the 'should be fine' than the 'small amounts' bit, but after many years of a low FODMAP diet, cutting out this and that, swilling Apple Cider Vinegar (with Mother of course...whatever that means but I love the oddity of it), wheat packs on belly etc the BIGGEST difference has been almost (accidentally) completely giving up alcohol. If I do indulge, I wake to a familiar feeling of an irritated and angry gut. A feeling that I had become so accustomed to over the years that I thought it as normal. My gut does not like alcohol. Without alcohol, my gut is the best its been for many, many years.
5. The less I drank, the less I enjoyed it when I did.
Now, this - THIS is the biggie. It's been a slow burn. At first all my energy was in resisting and trying not to. Then I had a night out where I did the classic 'how can I still manage to do this, after all these years?!!' trick of not eating before I started drinking. Although not a big night by old measures, I woke with a thumping headache, raw stomach and both a familiar and foul feeling - a hangover. Of course it wasn't the first time I thought 'never again' but this time with the benefit of repeated weekends without one, it suddenly seemed like an obvious choice. Feel like this, or feel how I've been feeling. No brainer.
I also noticed when I drank how tired it made me feel. I'd look forward to a wine at lunch with friends but afterwards it left me looking for a corner to grab some zzzz's. And the woozy feeling I so craved once upon a time, now felt odd. A little uncomfortable. A little detached from everything. Rather than waking feeling rested, it only takes a wine or two for me to wake with an underlying dread and be slow out of the blocks.
I doubt I've had my last hang-over and who knows, I may finish this post and decide I will pour a wine while there is still warmth in the air and a little bit of sun left in the sky after all. But I will do it with more mindfulness about why. I will think of tonight's sleep and how I'll wake tomorrow morning. What I do know for sure is that in exploring my relationship with alcohol, I uncovered more than I expected, saw all the ways it impacted on me and my life and despite just wanting a modification accidentally (almost) completely gave it up.
Cheers to that! Gabrielle