I quit drinking 40 days ago, though at the time I didn’t know it. A month or so earlier, I had started to see a counselor, not because of the drinking, but because I was feeling crazy. I didn't think I could go on as I was. While I was at it--more or less in the spirit of expecting a medal for my honesty--I mentioned that I was drinking too much, and that I should probably try to get a handle on that. No mention of quitting there. Just needing some help, that's all. But after a few weeks talking to the new counsellor, I was getting decidedly uncomfortable. I was talking about the same things, having the same problems, making no changes. Simply by telling this woman what was going on, I could see it differently. I needed to make a change.
Even though I didn’t think booze was my biggest problem, I decided to give it up for a week, which extended to a month, then 100 days, and finally for good. It's still only 40 days, but I am not really looking at end times anymore. I don't want to go back. Ever. But because I was going to meet my counsellor again today, after a long break, I thought about what had changed over the 40 days.
One big thing is perspective. (I mentioned before that I'm studying psychology, and I'm especially interested in theoretical work dealing with the dialogical self and perspective exchange. If anyone wants academic refs, ask and I'll send them along. I won’t use them here, and I'll do my best to stay away from the academic jargon.)
Stepping outside the immediate moment and seeing yourself from a different point of view is one of the keys to human agency. Being able to see things from multiple perspectives allows people to think about things--problems, ideas, habits, whatever--from more than one angle. Integrating those perspectives into new thinking is part of how we form identity. Whether we are aware of that happening or not, it’s how we become who we are. You become you by integrating the voices of the surrounding culture--parents, teachers, friends, ads, the whole kit. That’s the theory.
Part of the work that needs doing is to be aware, to really hear those voices, separate them out from each other, and question each one. As in, is what I’m thinking is what I really think, or is just something I’ve accepted unthinkingly because that’s what we do as people? And that’s what I’ve been doing.
The first thing I noticed was that I looked forward to drinking a lot more than I enjoyed drinking. That was a revelation! I might spend a good part of the day really keen on the wine I planned to have that evening, but almost all the pleasure was in the anticipation, and the rest was in that first few minutes. (No use denying that there was some. There was.) I didn’t know what to do with that right away, but I noticed it.
Second thing was, I actually enjoyed the no-booze drinks I was making more than I enjoyed wine. It’s true! I tried lots of different things, usually with sparkling water in there somewhere, and they really did taste better. Also, I felt better.
I read lots and thought lots, and before too long I started to wonder, what if I was wrong about wine? What if it’s overrated? Now that’s not a familiar line of thinking for me. It was a point of view I’d never considered, I guess. After a while, there was no mistaking it. I didn’t miss drinking all that much. I liked the rituals of eating, and drinking something special along with that, but I still had all that. Mostly, I missed looking forward to drinking. Is that messed up or what? It was like the old Tom Waits line:
“the obsession’s in the chasing,
not the apprehending,
the pursuit, you see, and never the arrest.”
OK, where am I going here? Perspective. Stepping outside the moment to see what is going on behind the scenes. I used to think mindfulness meant paying endless attention to myself, gazing fondly at my navel, if I could find it in the soft folds of belly. That never seemed like it was going to solve anything, and I’m far too curious about the world for my belly fat to hold my attention for all that much time. But now I see it differently. Mindfulness is about perspective. Living in the moment, yes, but also questioning that moment. Stepping outside the moment to try and see what cultural or family scripts I’m acting out. Then asking, do they even make sense anymore?
Sometimes I’m wary of the way our culture talks about the self. Introspection can go badly wrong if it doesn’t include a healthy dose of getting outside the self and bringing some new stuff in, seeing if that works any better than the old stuff. There must be some me in all this, but I think it’s probably not some isolated, inner self trying to get away from the world. Maybe the self is more like an active process, living and breathing and taking up stories and casting off others, saying yes to this and no to that and seeing how things go, then changing what’s not working. I’m not sure about any of this. I’m just thinking here.
Anyway, that’s what I’ve been up to for 40 days. So far so good. I feel a lot less like a messy pile of confusion and more like a whole person. I’m a work in progress, like everyone else. But I’m working on it.