5 Shocking Lessons I Learned in Two Months Without Booze

Self on 02.14.13
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I was astonished when a post I wrote in January called 5 Amazing Lessons I Learned by Giving up Alcohol for One Month got a major response. I’ve been publishing content to the internet on a semi-regular basis for 8 years now, and never has a piece I’ve written generated so many personal and heartfelt emails thanking me for sharing my story and for motivating others to make changes in their own lives. Hundreds of people signed up for my newsletter, many of them emailing to let me know they intend to follow my story of one year without alcohol in hopes of gaining personal inspiration.

As a result, I intend to write more posts in 2013 (either here at Parentables or at my own web site) with what I’ve learned and some discoveries about how life can unfold when one ditches alcohol for a year. Here is your February edition of lessons from month two.

1. A LOT of people want to learn how to cut back on drinking but are afraid to talk about it openly.

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Perhaps this shouldn’t have come as a surprise, but by going public with my story about giving up alcohol for a year, I learned there are legions of people out there who are not alcoholics, but who have an overenthusiasm for drinking that they would like to temper as they mature. They aren’t interested in becoming teetotalers forever, but they’d like help and support while they learn to rewire their relationship to alcohol.

Many people fear that by openly admitting to having bad habits and complicated feelings about alcohol, that others will wrongly perceive them as being addicted, diseased and completely lacking control over their behavior. (See the next point for my own experience with this.) This seems to be such a big secret that everybody is keeping from everybody else that I will pass your notes back and forth and let you know that you aren’t alone! I know it’s not everybody who struggles and it’s not everyone who is afraid to talk about it. But I’ve discovered that you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting somebody who wants to change, who wants more for their life, who isn’t just an armchair critic of what changes other people are trying to make. Speaking of armchair critics…

2. When it comes to boozing, excessive skepticism surrounds habit change.

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My article was featured on the Yahoo! home page, and I would say the majority of the comments there were centered on doubts about my ability to change my relationship with alcohol and to moderate my consumption. Some expressed their opinion that I’m a candidate for AA or rehab, which is incompatible with my self-perception. These commenters operate within the confines of black and white thinking: either you have an enormous, insurmountable alcohol problem, or you don’t have a problem at all. Black and white thinking is what psychologists would call a cognitive distortion. When it comes to alcohol, like everything else in life, shades of grey exist: having a challenging habit is not the same thing as having an out-of-control addiction that requires lifelong abstinence.

There’s a huge difference between A) someone who feels overwhelmingly compelled to get blackout drunk and B) your average suburban mom who unwinds with two glasses of wine rather than the one glass her doctor recommends. For the mom, we all know how hard it can be to give up your pacifier. We’re allowed to admit that it’s difficult — breaking any habit is difficult! Automatically being branded as an alcoholic, with the accompanying implication that one is powerless to overcome cravings, might be unnecessarily discouraging for some. (Although I personally roll my eyes at the eagerness of people to speed directly to the "alcoholic" conclusion.)

3. It’s ridiculously easy to replace one bad habit with another if you aren’t careful.

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In the first few days and weeks that I gave up drinking, one of the techniques I used to become mindful of my habits and behaviors was to become hyperaware of dopamine surges. When the brain identifies the potential for reward, the neurotransmitter dopamine is released, which makes you feel entranced. You might recognize this feeling as the brain seeking pleasure. Think of how you feel while enjoying a Facebook session, when you lust after a particularly juicy window display while shopping at the mall, or your mouth waters at the sight of a decadent, gooey something-or-other when a junkfood commercial airs on TV.

The problem with dopamine is that people frequently mistake giving in to the urges it creates with happiness, even though we may be fully aware on an intellectual level that fleeting pleasures do not equal deep and lasting life satisfaction, and in fact frequently detract from it.

Now that I’m not drinking, my brain is still wired to seek pleasure just like everyone else’s – whether that’s from television or Facebook or French fries. I’ve noticed lately that I like to surf the internet and Facebook on my phone more often than I used to. The good news is that I am fairly capable these days of spotting bad habits and working to ferret them out. It’s never easy, but it’s always possible.

4. I’m surprised by alcohol cravings.

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Despite everything I just wrote, I’m surprised by two paradoxical thoughts about my alcohol cravings: both the lack of them, and of the occasional sudden appearance of them. By a lack of cravings for alcohol, I mean that I’m surprised that leaving wine behind has been so easy for me. I’ve gone stretches of time without the foggiest inclination of what I found so attractive about it.

Then this week, my daughter came down with a nasty cold. I began to feel quite unwell myself. Taking care of her neediness while I was feeling quite needy myself was difficult. Then…pink eye! Painful, oozy, disgusting, temporary-vision-impairing, contagious pink eye. I think my daughter had it for five minutes and it resolved itself, while I was left looking like I’d rubbed my face in manure. NOT AWESOME. As a freelance writer, I find a helpful skill to have is being able to see out of my eye holes. It occurred to me briefly, amidst all the whining (both my daughter’s and mine) that a glass of wine to go with my whine would make this all so much easier to endure. And that really shocked me! Perhaps it was naïve to think I wouldn’t have cravings, but because I hadn’t had any in a while, this one seemed very much out of left field.

Gretchen Rubin tweeted: “Secret of Adulthood: Don't believe everything you think.” So brief, yet so profound. When my brain tempts me with cravings or urges, I don’t need to buy in. I can sit them out if I choose to. So the craving passed as quickly as it came.

5. What I had considered a single habit change has reverberated into more profound, life-altering changes.

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These days, now that I don’t spend any energy debating with myself over ounces of wine I might drink, I am able to pour that dynamism into my dream lifestyle. I have a vision for myself as a devoted mother who also controls her schedule and her income by running her own business, who cares for her physical fitness and health, and who cares for her clients by helping them live big, beautiful lives. I’m knee-deep in the process of making all of this come true for me. I’m learning to fit the pieces together and to make all of this happen as the year unfolds.

Back when I was indulging in wine, I was robbing myself of making these dreams my reality, yet I still thought that I would feel deprived when I gave up drinking. My mind is incredibly different from where it was two months ago. I’m happier and more motivated to make deeper lifestyle changes; I have no desire to put my life back to where it was. Even though all of the work I’m doing is difficult, I find myself in flow and feeling in harmony with my purpose more often than not.

Even though to make the magic happen means sacrificing mornings, evenings, and time on the weekends, it’s not something I’m willing to trade for a glass of fermented grapes at the end of a long day. I’m not going to lie – even though I still have stinkin’ pink eye – life feels pretty awesome.

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