My husband and I were in the greeting card section of Target one Friday on one of our less exciting date nights, and we came across a card in the Forty-Something Birthdays section. (Yes, that is a thing, apparently.) It said, "We've still got it." And inside, "And by 'it' I mean one bad knee and a La Croix addiction."
Jeff has a bad knee. I have a La Croix addiction. I took a picture of the card.
Two years ago in May, after seven months of toying with the idea of total sobriety from alcohol and drinking about once month, I decided to quit drinking altogether, and possibly forever. Lots of things happened in those two years -- including becoming a compulsive drinker of any kind of canned sparkling water, but La Croix is my favorite. Compulsivity has always been part of my life; and I've gained a lot of strength and freedom from addressing it in a Twelve Step program called Co-dependence Anonymous. It was in CoDA that I realized I needed to quit drinking for a while, not because I'm addicted to alcohol, but because alcohol was holding me back from addressing my soul's primary issue, which is struggling with boundaries in relationships.
I'd like to share some insights I gained about myself, alcohol's place in my life and our culture, and why I decided to let it back into my life this month, in measured doses. This will be a two-part blog -- there's lots to say!
Today, in part one, I'm going to share personal/relational insights. Next week, we'll talk about cultural insights.
1. A buzz does not take the place of a boundary. The first two weeks that I was totally sober, I noticed that my children have bad table manners. Without the slight blurring of the edges that a nice glass of wine with dinner does to the nervous system, I didn't notice or care so much that my kids were eating salad with their fingers instead of their forks. Sober, I realized I had power over this problem: I could train my kids to eat like humans.
This was the first instance in which I realized that I used alcohol to tolerate unpleasant or unhealthy things that were happening in my presence. In more serious cases, having a slight buzz took the place of setting boundaries. Drinking, I could stay in a really unhealthy conversation at a family function; I knew it was unhealthy, but the alcohol made me not care as much, and even helped me participate. But for the last two years, sober, I felt the full inappropriateness or unkindness of things being said around me, and recognized that I had the choice to leave the room, or possibly even the gathering.
Alcohol does what no other drug does chemically in the brain: It makes you feel simultaneously dumb and happy. As a depressant, it dulls the senses and slows cognitive function, but it also gives you a shot of dopamine to make you feel high. It's a relief to be dumb sometimes -- to not have to see or mind unhealthy situations or annoying people or feel socially awkward. And who doesn't want to feel happy fast? But using alcohol regularly to escape reality robbed me of the greater pleasure of having power to change situations and solve problems.
An interesting question I began to ask myself, and I challenge you to ask yourself. What does alcohol help me tolerate that maybe I should not be tolerating? As a young mom, alcohol can make you not mind that the kids are screaming, making huge messes, and eating like wild boars; but without alcohol, would you be more motivated to problem solve to create more peace in your home by setting limits on their behavior and practicing self care? Socially, alcohol takes the edge off of being around people that you find unkind or extremely irritating. But if you can't tolerate friends or toxic family members sober, maybe you should choose to limit time spent with them instead. Or, learn to set boundaries within those interactions that promote healing and honesty.
This is the most profound thing I learned from taking drinking off the table. I was using alcohol as a way to cope with things in my life that simply didn't need to be in my life.
2. Alcohol makes me enjoy me more, but it doesn't necessarily make other people enjoy me more. Last summer, Parents Magazine published an article called "Parenting with a Buzz." (More on this in next week's blog.) A study showed that children notice the change in their parents' personality when they are drinking but they don't typically like it. This is true for my kids. For the hour or so that my nightly drink was working its brain chemistry magic, I felt more at ease with myself and that life was just a little more fun; I felt I was being more fun for my kids. But I wasn't. In fact, I was less present with them during a buzz and even less present afterwards, when the dopamine wore off and I just felt tired and unmotivated to engage in anything beyond watching TV.
3. My feelings are not my enemy, and I'm strong enough to feel them all. My husband was the first person to point out to me that I was using alcohol inappropriately. As I would pop the top off a beer and say, "I've had a tough day," he would get a worried expression on his face. My husband has self-control in heroic proportions, so I felt like he was judging me for being a normal person who just "needs" a drink at the end of a hard day. But counter-cultural though this might be, I now agree with him. I don't think a bad day is a good reason to drink.
As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 6:12, "'Everything is permissible for me'-- but not everything is beneficial. 'Everything is permissible for me' -- but I will not be mastered by anything." I was afraid of discomfort, sadness, anger and anxiety. I had a beer to not feel those things -- and I wasn't blacking out or even getting drunk, so what was the big deal? Well, masking my feelings made them my master. We are always controlled by what we fear. Sober for two years, I've had to feel everything -- and sometimes it felt like surgery without anesthetic. But I survived. And the feelings pointed me to problems that needed solving in my life, relationship and soul -- as God intended them to do. It forced me to resolve conflicts, set better boundaries, and find other ways to cope: prayer, exercise, asking for hugs, calling my sponsor, crying, cleaning out a drawer, meditating on nature, sticking to my guns.
I am so much stronger than I was two years ago, and I felt that in full force when we began to shelter in place in the most stressful season I can remember my country living through. While alcohol sales went on the rise and people started posting memes about homeschooling and day drinking, I felt strong -- not superior, but strong. I've felt anxious, afraid, sorrowful, and bored -- all feelings that are appropriate, and I've been able both to receive comfort from others and give it back to those who are feeling the same way without needing a nightly glass of something to do it.
So, after all this good learning, why did I decide to let myself pop the top on a can of sparkling pink wine? Honestly, I'm ready to test myself. Can I live a life that includes alcohol in moderation -- in my case, about one drink a week -- and still life a life in touch with my feelings and using other tools to cope with unpleasant situations? Can I split a SLO Brew Blood Orange Hefeweizen with my husband and not let it become my master? So far, so good. I have accountability in place with my husband and friends; I talked to my Recovery pastor and he agreed with the assessment that I'd identified triggers and knew how to manage both boundaries and beer. We'll see how it goes. If I start needing to apply too much energy to not drinking, then it's time to go cold turkey again, because I need that self-control for other things, like being patient with my kids and not eating too many donuts.
In the meantime, I'm going to remain transparent about this journey, and I hope you will walk through it with me.
If you are struggling with any kind of compulsive behavior or addiction and your life feels unmanageable, please reach out to me! I'll hook you up with some help! Also consider joining my on-line class: The Bridge: A Biblical Introduction to the Twelve Steps. Find information and free registration here: https://www.marinerschurch.org/events/event-detail/?eventid=170552