Like most of us who have made it through our teenage years and early twenties, I have handled my fair share of toxic exes. As a now-married woman, I thought those toxic relationships were behind me. The best part - I thought those toxic relationships had nothing to do with me, right? I mean... I definitely was not the problem. I am obviously fucking perfect! Ask my husband.
So... why have I spent most of my twenties feeling so much less than perfect? Yes, I know - no one is perfect. Consider it a segue for me to say: I feel like from the outside looking in, I have my shit together. I have stability. Relationship stability and gratefully, financial stability at the moment. I see a therapist. I exercise. I keep my house clean, and organized. I approach everything holistically; and I eat right for the most part, with the exception of my nighttime bowl of ice cream or occasional cookie (damn you, Crumbl). I seem to be one of those people you say are, "great on paper," when I read this back to myself. So why am I on edge, irritated, and feeling like I'm dissociating all the fucking time? And by "all the fucking time," I mean, years of my life have been spent in a near constant state of agitation, with regular cycles of anxiety and depressive states. This is not isolated. This is one of the running themes in my adulthood.
I have blamed my diet, I have blamed my lack of exercise, I have blamed my hormones, my job, my pets, my family, my sleep, my water intake, messes in my home - the list goes on and on. I have blamed every one of my external stressors that exist; and while several of them definitely are justified in causing me duress, many of them are within my power to control, and so I have. I have done everything in my power to control as many aspects of my life as I can. Yet, despite my desperation to identify and control my stressors, my negative mentality, my anxiety and depression, my stress levels, my dissociation - these factors have remained intact. Am I just destined to be this cynical bitch? Is this how I am supposed to live my life? What is the fucking problem? What is my fucking problem?
Could it be... me? Am I my own fucking problem?
Me, and my choice to cling to the one precious thing in my life that "helps" me manage and control all this bullshit. My coping buddy, and maybe your coping buddy, too.
Here in our story we meet the most toxic boyfriend of them all: Alcohol. Did I mention I've been with him for almost ten years? How did we get here? The honeymoon phase was so promising... I've known him since my early teenage years but I was never really into him then. I suppose because of my more privileged upbringing, and seemingly normal teenage stressors, I never really... needed him. I am grateful for that. Then somewhere along the way of college work stressors, belonging vs. fitting-in stressors, money stressors, unaddressed parents-quickly-moving-from-childhood-home stressors... he started to look better and better.
This is where I always seem to pinpoint the beginning of my true relationship with alcohol shifting from, "I want to drink this to elevate a good time with my friends" to, "hey, that's right... I internally feel like shit right now, but I don't have to if I have a drink about it." And the ~fun~ thing about drinking in college - it's a "societal norm." My favorite term! I did this for 4 years of college under the pretense of it being, "normal behavior." I have done this my entire adult life under the pretense of it being, "normal behavior."
When I uncovered that I was my own fucking problem earlier, what I really meant was that I finally accepted the second of a two-part truth about myself. The first truth is that I know alcohol is a coping mechanism for me. It has been my entire adult life. I have never denied this specific issue, and I don't think many of us would. In fact, I personally use it to my own advantage (like any true Slytherin). I have used this little fact about myself to win over interviewers (seriously, I got that job), because it's just that fucking relatable for all of us. It's just that "normal." No, I have never denied this about myself. What I have repeatedly denied - the second of the two-part truth - that my relationship with alcohol was and is my problem.
I am one of those mystic people who can binge drink on the weekend and be completely put together. Drive myself from point A to point B if not more perfect than had I driven it sober. Mother the drunk people around me. If I feel the effect of the alcohol more than I like, I can "attune" and pull my consciousness right back to where it needs to be to focus, walk, form thoughts and sentences. After all, I have prided myself for years on being able to handle my liquor, throw back shots at happy hours, and taunt the people around me (especially men) who can't keep up. As a woman in a "man's world," as far as career goes, this part of my life works very much in my favor.
Ultimately, I provide all of this information to say: I never saw myself as an "alcoholic." Most of us don't. When you're able to function from the outside looking in, how can you consider yourself an alcoholic? You hold down your job, you maintain your social life, you pay your bills and take care of your family, your pets, and your home. You don't have to have a drink every day, you can go without it when you need to. That is what I used to say - if I don't want to drink during work nights, I won't. THEREFORE, I am clearly not an alcoholic.
It was not until several weeks ago that I realized there was something larger at play here. It was not just about how much or how often I drank, but rather a realization of how my brain reacts negatively to it. A realization of how alcohol keeps me in this constant state of agitation, anxiety, fear, and volatility.
When I decided I was not going to have any alcohol in the month of January, it was to cleanse. We had just been on the road for several weeks since we skipped the holidays this year; and between Vegas shenanigans and NYC, I was feeling pretty gross. I initially wanted to stop drinking for the month to get my shit together physically, and to give myself a break. I do this every now and then (you know, because I'm not an alcoholic, I can quit whenever I damn well please!).
Then, something weird happened this time around.
The first few days without alcohol were "easy." I can go 3-5 days without alcohol normally. I don't choose that, but I can. I know now that's because it takes 3-5 days for the effects of moderate alcohol use to begin to leave your system. So - the first few days felt like a normal week to me. Once that 6th day came around, where I would normally have reached a weekend and had a drink... I started noticing that I did not just want a drink, I downright needed it. I must have always felt the need but never registered, as I am always planning to have a drink on Friday/Saturday/Sunday, regardless.
For as long as I can remember, I have reached for a drink in times of distress. Many of us do, that shouldn't be shocking. But now, more than ever, I am fucking distressed. This is the first time I quit alcohol for this long, and the first time I have quit alcohol since Serenity passed in July.
July - when my consumption increased tenfold.
I did not realize that I had an unhealthy relationship with alcohol until it was out of my system and I was holding myself accountable to this original 30-day goal. I did not realize that I have not been processing emotions. Any emotion. Not only that - I have not been feeling them at all... I have not really allowed an emotion in for years. I have kept them suppressed with alcohol for a very long time. This is a new revelation for me. To think... I have blamed my birth control for all these years... (I still partially do. I stubbornly will not write that one off).
However, since removing alcohol from my system and sustaining that, there has been some evidence based facts that cannot be ignored:
James and I fight a lot less. The volatility that existed before - it's not there now. Dare I say... we're functioning like... a healthy couple?
I have a higher appreciation for my partner. AND I want to, and can express it (this might sound silly to you, but this is a huge step for me as someone who struggles to show affection).
I care a lot less about the organization and cleanliness of my home (in the best way).
The dogs barking at the UPS guy don't send me into a fit of rage. It still irks me, I just react in a much healthier way now.
I'm naturally reaching for healthier foods. I assume here because sugar is addictive, alcohol is sugar, and therefore you want more sugar. Don't quote me.
And most importantly... I am crying. Like a lot?
Sobriety has seemed to allow emotions in - allow me to actually feel them and react to them, rather than my usual, "OH MY GOD, what the fuck is that feeling in my chest, how did it get there, and how can I remove it ASAP?" *queue Mike Wazowski*
I have felt grief more over the past 6 weeks than I have in the past 7 months all together. I have cried in front of friends, coworkers, James, and my parents. Again, maybe this sounds silly to you, but I never did this before. I have only ever cried alone behind a closed door in the form of a complete system breakdown riddled with self-blame, after not processing appropriately for months on end until it finally bursts from every fiber of my being. Those breakdowns are usually followed by depressive states that can last weeks or months, until the cycle repeats itself.
Let's take a look at some of these select few facts about alcohol use that I swiped from Holly Whitaker's "Quit Like a Woman." I highly recommend this book to anyone who relates to this blog post, as she discusses what it's like to choose not to drink in a culture that is obsessed with alcohol.
Disrupts your sleep pattern: increases anxiety, depressive states, irritability, and appetite.
Fuels your anxiety: alcohol works as a depressant. It may relax you initially, but because the body is constantly seeking homeostasis, your body works harder to counteract and leaves you feeling more anxious than when you had that first sip.
Ruins your body's natural detoxification process: alcohol is the most toxic thing you can ingest. Your liver and kidneys prioritize it when removing toxins from your body, leaving other toxins with no escape.
Causes weight gain: it's straight-up sugar.
Disrupts hormone function: responsible for regulating metabolism, sex drive, sleep cycles, energy, menstrual cycles, and stress response, to name a few.
It fucks up your brain: our most precious organ. And it's not isolated to heavy drinkers. Even one drink will effect your brain. It effects memory, motor function, inhibition, personality, emotional volatility, etc.
It fucks up your brain. This is the piece that resonates most with me. Our brain is everything for us. My brain, is the reason I reach for alcohol to cope in the first place. Like any other muscle, the brain has muscle memory. In my case: my brain registers pain and knowing (through learned experience) that the pain goes away with alcohol, my brain triggers me to grab that drink. Ta-da! Now I have to retrain it. Now that I am awake to the relationship I have and how it effects me in these negative ways that I don't fucking like, I have to ACTIVELY choose another path - a healthier coping mechanism.
This growth shit is not for the faint of heart. Sitting in discomfort is rough. It is so much easier to give in and fall back into old habits. Why? Because that's the pathway your brain knows. So many times these last 60 days I have wanted to reach for a drink to "take me out of my misery." However, I know what happens when I do; and I prefer this healthier version of myself who processes emotions, who has patience and tolerance, who thinks clearly, and appreciates the little things in life so much more. It gets more difficult with time, somehow, and I find myself remembering these words I have just typed, "I prefer this healthier version of myself."
So this is where we are today. I don't know what my relationship will look like at the end of my 90-day sobriety. I have not decided if I will bring alcohol back with boundaries, or if I will extend my goal to 120 days. I am taking it one day at a time, knowing that behavioral changes are not linear.
Until then - if you relate to this specifically, I will leave you with a short list of alcohol alternatives that have worked in our home these last 60 days, and as always... please reach out!
Sparkling Water: Personally, we really love the Waterloo Brand. It's cheaper at Sprouts here than our local grocery. You can likely find it at Fresh Thyme in the Eastern states.
Hot Tea: Having a warm mug in your hands and something to sip on over a period time is a soothing, and busying alternative. My favorite is Yogi Brand, Egyptian Licorice.
De-Alcoholized Wine: We have only tried a couple, but in my opinion the Surely Brut Sparkling White Wine tasted the most like wine to me, rather than grape juice (as James says). I don't really care for sparkling wines, but it's not super carbonated.
Non-Alcoholic Beer: There are so many domestic options now apart from O'Douls these days, which is great! I like Heineken Zero. We have also discovered Brew Dog is producing non-alcoholic versions of their favorites (Elvis Juice!!!!). I strongly suggest trying Athletic Brewing as well. I really enjoyed their Golden Ale, "Upside Dawn," as an alternative.
Stayed tuned for part two of this discussion, where I really would like to deep dive more into the spiral change model as it correlates to unhealthy coping mechanisms and addictions; and why it is so hard to quit these patterns.