For what has probably been at least a couple of years, I’ve had what I can only describe as a nagging little voice inside that keeps asking if I’m drinking too much or too often. The more I’ve tried to ignore the voice, the louder it seems to be getting. Then, last week, two things happened to make me pause and really pay attention.
Given my growing struggles with anxiety, I took the leap into my first appointment with a therapist. In the final moments of our initial hour together, after she had worked through a variety of intake related questions and quickly uncovered some deep details, I found myself faced with a question that I didn’t know how to answer. How have I been coping with the anxiety and trauma that I’ve experienced in my life? My perfectionism was already on the table, but I was struggling finding words for what else I might be doing. So she continued to dig. Any drugs? No. Smoking? No. Eating Disorders? Never. Drinking? Maybe.
I explained that a glass or two is what I use to relax, it’s what I look forward to as a way to shut off the day and quiet my mind. But even when I try to keep it to just one, it usually turns into two – and every so often, three or four. Also, I’m not sure at what point in my life I went from just the occasional beer with dinner or out with friends to drinking every single day. Then my therapist asked if I thought I could cut back or stop while we do some of the work that might help with my anxiety and lack of sleep – clearly, alcohol does not help with healthy sleep patterns, this isn’t news to me. My mouth said “absolutely”, but the rest of me didn’t feel so certain about this new plan.
I’m not sure I’m ever out with someone at any time when drinking isn’t a part of the occasion.
Growing up with an alcoholic father, it isn’t much of a stretch to worry that I could head down the same path – but in no way, shape or form am I anywhere near his condition. He had turned to both alcohol and drugs at a very young age, teens from what I understand, and he never turned back, right up until the day it killed him. These days, everyone drinks. Everyone uses that glass or two of wine after work to wind down, brush off the day, and just let go, right? It’s everywhere, it’s what people I work with talk about and look forward to at the end of each day, it’s at every social event, every casual afternoon or evening spent with friends. I’m not sure I’m ever out with someone at any time when drinking isn’t a part of the occasion. So it’s easy to justify to myself that it’s harmless because it’s so mainstream. However, is drinking every single day really okay for me? Is it harmless that it’s become my go-to method to relax? Is it fine that I’ve already had the looming thoughts that this could easily turn into something much more serious if I’m not careful?
The night after my therapy appointment, I decided that stopping my drinking during the week was the best way to go. I would still allow myself the enjoyment of a drink or two on the weekend, given that my husband and I love to make a fun cocktail, or crack open a great bottle of wine together. Stopping during the week would be a great step towards serious moderation and would lend itself well to my self-care. I was so exhausted after that first appointment, that it was not so difficult to wind down without the wine that night. In fact, it felt a bit liberating.
Then came the next day, which was filled with travel. Flying into a city for work and back out all in a day, and no matter how much I do it, I’m still not a big fan of flying. Actually, the flying itself is fine, it’s more that I don’t get along so well with turbulence. My anxiety is set on high the moment the plane starts to shake. I don’t always have a drink before boarding a plane, in most instances if I’m going somewhere for work, I refrain for obvious reasons and today was no different. I was on a fairly short flight, jumping in a rental car and then driving for nearly two hours and back. Alcohol on the way was not an option, but as the plane hit some pretty heavy turbulence, and the gentleman next to me seemed to be doing just fine after his three straight vodkas, the craving hit me pretty hard. No amount of trying to distract myself from the bumping about with reading or listening to music was doing the trick. My heart was racing, the sweat was steady, and the arm rest might have been developing a permanent imprint of my hand. A drink would have taken the edge off for sure, but I continued to refrain and surprisingly we made it to the our destination alive.
…the moment the bartender offered me a drink, I accepted.
I spent the next hours driving through the county that not only had I lived in briefly as a kid, but more importantly it was the same place where my father passed away 23 years ago. I had been on this same trip a number of times before, but none of them sent me into the thought pattern that this one did, which was obviously related to the prior days’ therapist visit. Despite wanting to drop everything and look for the spot where dad died, or drive by the house where we used to live, I powered through my work, made my way back to the airport, and found myself with about an hour of time on my hands. Normally, I would sit, and have a drink while I catch up on emails, but today I was just hungry and had this new commitment to myself and my therapist. Or, so I thought. I sat on my barstool (I should have just sat at a table), grabbed a menu searching for lunch and the moment the bartender offered me a drink, I accepted. Inside I kept telling myself not to do it, but with tension from the thoughts swirling through my head all day combined with the potential turbulence ahead of me, a vodka and soda felt right. But I at least kept it somewhat controlled and only took a single when she offered a double, right? Until I ordered another. Just a little something to take the edge off and keep me relaxed on the flight. This was justification at its finest.
I am tired of being numb.
I mentioned earlier in this post that two things made me stop and pay attention to my drinking. The second thing happened while I was nearing the end of my flight back home, which was much less disruptive, in case you were wondering. As a part of my work for the women’s purpose group I have recently joined, I had selected one of a number of suggested books for reading, The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown. As I read through a section called ‘Numbing and Taking the Edge Off’, buried within the chapter a statement jumped out at me: We cannot selectively numb emotions. When we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions. That was it. That was exactly what I have been doing and I could finally see it clearly. I know I use alcohol to unwind and shut out the stress, which isn’t so great in itself, but in doing so, I recognized immediately that I have been missing some pretty great feelings and experiences. I’ve been numb every single night. I’ve been numb on Saturday afternoons. I’ve been numb when I’m with my husband, who I already spend such a small amount of time with because of our schedules. I am tired of being numb.
As badly as I felt about choosing to order those two drinks that day, instead of beating myself up I decided to let it go. I knew that I hadn’t truly decided that I was ready to make a change until that moment. Here I am less than a week later and it already isn’t easy (which is just another sign that I was drinking too much), and I imagine figuring out what works best for me will continue to be a process. For the time being, I think moderation is my friend. I don’t believe that one needs to necessarily quit altogether, depending on the individual and the circumstances, and I still don’t consider myself an alcoholic. For now, my goal is to stop drinking altogether during the week, and to limit it on the weekends, especially given that is the time I get to spend with my husband. It might turn out that I need to do something more, and maybe my feelings about this approach will shift in some other way. I just know that I’m already happier for having finally recognized clearly what I’ve been doing, and now when my therapist asks if I’ve been using drinking as a coping mechanism, instead of a weak “maybe”, my answer would be a firm “yes”.