Saturday, 19 March 2016

Round 3, Day 185: More thoughts about finding my own (sober) voice

The other day I read a great article by neuroscientist and addiction memoirist Marc Lewis about the effects of alcohol on the brain. (It's on the Guardian website, if you want to read it yourself.) The article got me thinking, and I wanted to work out some of that thinking here.

One of the main effects that alcohol has on the brain, according to Lewis, is that is the prefrontal cortex is inhibited, which means, "your ability to see things from any perspective other than your own approaches nil." One of my interests in psychology is the central role of perspective-taking in being a person. It's interesting to realize that, when you're drinking, what looks like clear thinking is more like the inability to take in other points of view. We live in a world that prizes certainty and clarity, and having the illusion of that would be a great comfort, so it makes sense that that's some of the appeal of alcohol. But being able to take in multiple perspectives is essential, even if it's not always the straight road to crystal clarity of thought. Other perspectives enrich your thinking, and continuing to encounter new perspectives keeps you open to new approaches to important issues in life. At the same time, knowing that there may well be other perspectives still unknown to you or that you don't fully understand gives you the understanding that when you make a decision, even when it's a good decision, you're usually making working with limited knowledge of the world. You could always be wrong. But you do your best, and you accept that everyone is in the same situation, always working with partial knowledge, and so you throw in your lot with humanity, and that's as good as anyone can do. (That last bit is a very poor translation of some of the ideas of philosopher Richard Rorty, but it's good enough for where I'm going here.)

After reading the Marc Lewis article, I got to thinking about an implication that he doesn't get to in his piece but that might be important for people who are quitting drinking: Once you give up alcohol, you will lose access to an easy way to temporarily shut out other perspectives. That means if you are someone who is highly susceptible to other people's perspectives (as I am), you might have to build some silence into your life. Otherwise you may lose the ability to temporarily shut out other perspectives and therefore become unable to find your own voice.

To me, this matters. Since I started this blog, I've struggled to balance two sides of getting sober: taking up the advice of other people about how to get sober, and finding what works best for me. (There are plenty of people who say that your own thinking was what got you into having a drink problem, so you need to give up your own thinking and be obedient to what others say when you decide to get sober. I see that that works for some people, but it was never going to work for me. I wonder now whether that advice may work best for people who have trouble hearing other perspectives at all, rather than people who have trouble locating their own.)

I'm not a mother, but I have read so many blogs with stories about mothers who drank to shut out the world (mainly the kids) temporarily. Later they often felt badly about having done that. Yet anyone can see that having to take up other people's needs all the time is a surefire way to drown your own needs, or even the ability to know you have needs. Once you're doing that, drinking to quiet them all down almost makes sense. Women, whether we're mothers or not, are socialized into this way of being hyper-attentive to others. Finding a way out occasionally seems crucial.

Now, I am absolutely NOT making a case for drinking here. Not at all! What I'm trying to do is understand a little more about being drawn back into drinking many times, despite the misery that heavy drinking always brings me. And what I'm coming to, helped along by the informative bit of brain chemistry that Lewis so clearly explains, is that, having quit drinking, I need to cultivate a space of silence within which I can learn to hear my own voice.

I have been doing that in various ways--sometimes by cycling, running, or walking; sometimes via meditation and prayer; often by reading; definitely by writing this blog. And I can see that the whole "treat" phenomenon, which has usually eluded me, might be partly about this, finding a way to make a space for your own wants in the middle of the hectic world. For me, the "treat" talk has always left me cold, as it seems to be just swapping one indulgence for another, and that just leads me back to my primary indulgence, booze. I needed a more wholesale life change than that. But if Lewis is right (and I've no reason to think he isn't) then I can see that treats may have something in common with something that's been important to me, and maybe to many people who get sober, and that's making a space for myself that temporarily keeps out the cacophony of the world so that I can find my own voice in all the noise. It's temporary, of course. Once you find your voice, you have to go back to the world and take up the other voices and see how your own holds up in the larger conversation. And you have to accept that you might be wrong--just because it's your voice, doesn't mean it knows what's right, or even what's right for you. I think, for me, starting to be able to hear that voice has been a big part of getting sober. Now that I have an easier time discerning my own thoughts and feelings ( and I have to say, I'm still slow on this at times) learning how to think and feel my way through balancing my voice with the voices of the world is a big next step.

Thinking this through has been a help to me. It may or may not help anyone else. The case I'm making, if I'm making one at all, is that one important part of getting sober might be to find a way to set aside the noise of the world once in a while. That might be an important service that alcohol was providing, and even if the drink wasn't working anymore, being able to sometimes shut out the noise might be an important part of knowing what you think and feel yourself. Seems to be true for me, anyway.

As an aside, if you read this blog at times and have followed my big crisis of school applications and thinking about visas and so on, that whole drama has died down for now. I'm in conversation with people about longer term plans, but nothing is happening any time soon, and I feel pretty good about that. Anyway lately the sun has been shining and the cherry blossoms and magnolias are out, and that always makes me feel like I live in a world made of love!

If you're still here, thanks for keeping me company. Hope all is well!


  1. It's hard isn't it, the constant search for "why"? and the fear that if we don't figure that out, we might not be able to navigate around all the stumbling blocks that send us tumbling down the drinking hole. I have not got an answer for my own "why", but I KNOW that carving out my own space and time, however "selfish" that may appear (or seems to be, in my own head) is crucial to my wellbeing, and therefore to my sobriety. Establishing boundaries is simultaneously difficult and imperative. For example, this morning, my sister-in-law wanted to visit with her two year old granddaughter - assuming (wrongly) that I find two year olds adorable - I said "No", I have plans today. A year ago, I would either have agreed (and resented my SIL) or made up an excuse, and kept saying sorry. Whatever space and silence you need - take it, relish it, don't apologize for it, and don't give it up xxx

    1. Thanks, Jackie. Yes, it's important for me to try to understand this stuff. I know I've felt settled into being sober before and then radically, suddenly changed my mind. For me trying to understand some of the "why" behind it all can help me think it through better. I agree with you about carving out space and time. For me, part of this is carving out, "How do I live in the world?" and "How do I think my own thoughts?" and even "What do I think?" I don't find those to be straight-forward questions at all. I'm reading a lot of feminist scholarship now so incorporating some of those voices can only help. Saying no to the toddler visit is a great thing to be able to do! I'm glad you're finding this is important and you're finding how to do it, too. Thanks for being here xo

  2. Drinking Anne was self possessed and unable to see the world except as it impacted her. She was always trying to keep up the facade of perfection and being ok. Everything created anxiety and the worry, what do they think of me?

    Sober Anne is ok with herself. She cares about what's happening around her. She hopes others find their own freedom. Because it is so relieving.

    Anyway, I hear you. My word for the year is faith. Faith in myself, to know what is best for me. To stop trying to prove myself wrong.

    And to ask for help when needed.

    1. Hi Anne. My experience is so different! I had no more (or less) sense of trying to be perfect when I was drinking. But I can sometimes get swallowed up in the myriad ways of thinking about things and sometimes it was only when I was drinking that I had the relief of narrowing down my thinking. Without that chemical relief, I see that I probably need other ways to get away from the multi-vocal world. It sounds obvious when I put it that way, but somehow this really was a big realization for me. I do hope you find a way to stop proving yourself wrong. That sounds tough. We're all struggling with some of the same things and then some things that are so different one to the next. But I'm very glad you're here xo

  3. such an interesting post, thank really helped me clarify some things in my own mind about what I was doing when I was drinking.

    one thing I read very early on in sobriety was that we use alcohol to relax, reward and escape. and I think that for me 'escape' is the simplified version of what I understand you to be saying here about cultivating a space in which you can hear your own voice.

    except when I did that, because it was also a way of self-harming (Bea once memorably described alcohol as both a reward and a stick to beat oneself with) I became less and less able to inhabit that space I was attempting to make for myself. it was like building a panic room and then strewing the floor with broken glass.

    these days I am more and more comfortable with spending time inside my own head. I recently found a day's outing to somewhere I'd like to visit, and after asking a friend whether they'd like to accompany me and she couldn't, found myself thinking - oh, a day on my own - HEAVEN! and I will go, and have a smashing time.

    noticing and naming my own thoughts and feelings has been a vital part of this process for me, too. meditation has really helped me in that.

    so good to have you here talking this stuff through, and I'm glad you are having some light bulb moments! I just adore those! Prim xx

    1. Hello Prim! Sorry I am so slow to respond. Blogger wouldn't let me comment for a few days and then I forgot I hadn't done so. Oops! I agree with what you say about escape. But for some reason, putting it that way always sounded like a moral judgement to me. As in, "Drinking wine is just an escape and it's better to be present and live life full on," that kind of thing. And I kind of agree with even that. But sometimes I crumble when I try to stand in the full force of life. The drinking as escape harmed me, too. And there have been things I realized I needed to face, which I had been escaping. But it's also true that narrowing down the noise of the world so that I could hear my own voice is part of what I think I was doing, and part of what I am learning to do differently these days. Maybe another way of saying this is that drinking was in part a kind of escape to being myself, rather than an escape from being myself.

      Getting comfortable with time on your own is just gorgeous! You day out sounds just wonderful to me.

      Thinking about all this and having people to talk with is such a great thing. Thanks for being here. xo

  4. Hi Thirsty, great post. Thank you. It got me thinking a bit about my own drinking. I haven't really worked out why I drank. I know the obvious things; I was addicted, no off switch etc, but I haven't delved too deeply into my mind about why. I know the answers are there, but I haven't been ready to really go there yet. Hopefully soon though.

    1. Thanks, Angie. As I just said to Prim, sorry for slow reply--I had tech trouble! We're all different, so what I think might not even relate to what some others do. For me, the questions I'm trying to answer here is not so much why I drank (as in "what were the reasons that brought me to drinking?") as it is what are some things (or mental states) that drinking really did for me that I might actually need and might need to find other ways toward. It's great o see you doing so well, whatever you find out about your own reasons and motivations and all that! xo

  5. Hi Thirsty!
    This article was good!
    I know I drank to relax from the stress of teaching, to have fun, to get excited, to lower inhibitions, in short, everything the article mentioned!
    Good grief!
    I still struggle finding my voice. I have no idea who I am. I don't know if that's from drinking, not drinking, or retirement. Or something different. I know I always listened to everyone's point of view when I was teaching and I still do.
    I tend to zone out with books or get noise from (unfortunately) political and reality television shows.
    I do love walking outside, reading, yoga.
    And I love meeting friends.
    (This comment is rather disjointed!)
    Have a great Monday!

    1. Hi Wendy! I'm glad you liked the article. I probably drank for a whole lot of reasons, too. I hear you about finding who we are. I don't think there's some inner essence to find. It's more that we keep on becoming who we are, and that changes, and we have some say over who we become but we don't have all the say. I don't find your comment disjointed! I totally get it. And as you know, I'm a zoner, too! I just saw that you're on vacation. Hope it's a good mix of fun with the right amount of zoning out! xo

  6. So many points in this blog that I want to address, but I'll limit myself to two.
    I am in your camp with the need to find my own way to sobriety, but I also realize that is not the right way for some people. The world is made up of such a variety of us beings, to think that what works for one will work for others is ludicrous. Yes, there are people that are going to do best with following rules 1.2.3. and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. But that will strain under a recovery program like that, it is better that they be able to direct themselves. I don't believe that just because we're alcoholics means we can't direct our recovery. It's interesting that the people that feel they need more control over their recovery can recognize and accept that others need to turn the control over to someone else, but those who turn the control over to someone else, don't seem to want to recognize that others cannot recover under that discipline.

    Did I just make any sense?

    The other note is finding your own voice. So many years alcohol did just the opposite for me, it drowned out my voice, it let to many other perspectives in. Now, I can finally hear myself and, man, am I being like a bossy two year old these days. "No, I will not do that. I do not have to if I don't want to."

    Such a time of discovery, isn't it.?

    1. Hi Kary May! You make so much sense to me. I agree, we're all different and different things work for different people. I never know what to urge people to do. I know that the more rigid program suits some people really well, and others resist it, and yes maybe some of those others (me!) could have been sober earlier with the more rigid program, except I know for me I would have thrown the whole thing aside at some point if I couldn't see the way as my own. I know that some people who have found programs that work for them have a hard time accepting that there are other ways, and I wish there was more openness regarding what works for people.

      The alcohol and voice thing I'm talking about here is tricky. I worry it sounds like I'm saying I need alcohol to help me find my voice, and that's not true. I think it just helped me turn off the world sometimes, and now I know i need to find better ways to do that. And eventually, once I got drinking, there wasn't a lot of me left, just alcohol. I love the image of you as a bossy toddler! It's like you're learning all that all over again! I feel I am, too. I am much less swallowed up by what the world wants from me these days, and much more able to separate what I want to do from what I feel is pressure from the world of others, even if they are the invisible Other of cultural expectations. The whole process of discovery is amazing! It's hard to believe I used to think I needed to drink to be myself. Now I see how much it just got in the way. And it's so good to see how other amazing women are dealing with the same things. Thanks for being here! xo