Thursday 31 October 2013

Black and white thinking, and the A-word(s).

When I started writing this blog, I wrote about the implicit pressure to say some things and not others, and I wanted to resist that. But resistance is hard. On the one hand, we value people speaking their minds. On the other, some kinds of conversation feel unwelcome in this blog-world. I don't think I get it right, and then I don't want to. I grew up in a closed religion, and as an adult I am wary of things that can't be discussed openly. I know self-censorship is the enemy of real conversation, but I know we all do it. It troubles me.

A couple of years ago, I went on a paleo-inspired diet, and completely changed the way I ate. I lost some weight, felt more energetic, learned a whole lot of new things to cook, ate less crap, and so on. In doing this, I didn't eat wheat for over a year. That was a big deal to me. I had been bread-obsessed my whole life. I used to wake up in the night and think fondly of the buttered toast I would have in the morning. Giving that up was hard. What I ate changed as I paid attention to what worked and what didn't, but for the most part I've stuck with the changes, and they work for me.

Early in this process, sometimes people would get really irritated at me for not eating bread. Friends, acquaintances, the guy who runs the restaurant across the street, they all reacted as if it were an inhuman deprivation. Usually, I would answer with, "It's just bread, and there's more for you if I don't eat it. What's your problem?" But their reactions rankled. On the other hand, the (mostly online) paleo community was down on bread. It was addictive, it was bad for you, you shouldn't really be eating this crap to begin with, and if you are, you are just being suckered by a society that values quick good-time taste over real food. After a while I thought: it's just bread. Why the fanaticism?

I can fall into black and white thinking, and it doesn't serve me well. But one thing I am pretty good at these days is spotting it, and delving in to see what's really going on. When I started seeing a counsellor this summer, we talked about this all or nothing tendency I can go to in my life, and how I might try practicing mindfulness when it crops up.

I was drinking too much. That's for sure. I had some other stresses and some emotional stuff, and it was all tangled up in a knot, and I decided to stop drinking and get a handle on some of it. I wrote about this before. First I decided a week, then a month, and then 100 days. It's been good for me in many ways, and I'm really glad I did it. I feel a lot better not downing a bottle or two of wine every night. I can't imagine how I had the time or money or energy to waste doing that. It seems like a nightmare now, and I am never, ever, ever going back to that. (As I type, my partner just handed me a sparkling water with a dash of bitter. It's my new favourite drink!) I don't crave alcohol these days, and it doesn't take up a lot of my thoughts.

But there are some things about problems with alcohol that are always accepted as givens, and I'm not so sure about them. The argument seems to be this: if you have a problem with drinking you are an alcoholic. If you are an alcoholic, you must stop drinking and never drink again. If you could moderate, you would have done it already, and since you couldn't, you can't. Any questioning of this accepted wisdom is attributed to a wolf, or a wine witch, or some other demon that is separate from the good person you are, and that must be opposed at all costs. (It's just sneaky and wants you to drink. You are smarter than that, and so you won't think about it. One up for you, the good person, one loss for evil demon-wolf-witch. Until the next round.)

But isn't it good to question things? On the one hand, many of us are doing this online, and not through AA, because we want to avoid a dogmatic one-size-fits-all solution. I know I do. I would love for there to be a magic answer, but I have to take me as I come, and I come with questions that I will have to answer for myself.

So what if it's not a black and white problem with black and white answers? Can there be a problem with alcohol that gets resolved so a person can enjoy the rituals and flavours without falling into a big pit of messiness all over again? I think change is possible. Yes, alcohol is a problem that abstinence does solve, in part. But many people who are abstinent don't sound comfortable with it. People still seem to long for it sometimes. And that longing engenders a fear of alcohol, as though the demon-wolf-witch could come get you when you're not vigilant. I've felt this fear myself.

Fear doesn't work well for me as a motivating force. I used to be so anxious that I feared everything almost equally. Now when I'm afraid of something, I think about how to get rid of the fear, rather than how to avoid the thing I'm afraid of. Usually it means heading straight for the scary thing, not finding new ways to get away from it.

After a year away, I decided to start eating bread again. Despite the predictions, my life didn't change. I didn't die, or get fat. I don't eat toast for breakfast, and I don't eat very much bread. Really good bread with butter is a pleasure. Sure I can live without it, but sometimes it's nice to have. The change in habit worked for me. Fear might well be just another kind of obsession, and a healthy relationship with eating avoids both extremes.

Now I am trying the same thing with wine. I realized I was starting to be afraid of it. It's everywhere. What if I caved some day, like people say will happen, and then it's all over for me? So I decided to face that square on, and have some. It was OK. The glass felt nice, and it tasted good, not poisonous. Before I did that, I talked with my partner about it, and said I would see how this goes. Since then, we had wine with dinner one night. It was nice. I didn't want more and more and more. I didn't want any the next day. I wasn't conniving how I could get back to it again, like I had feared. I just enjoyed it, and then I had a cup of tea and went to bed and read. Next morning I felt good as usual. The next night I wanted sparkling water with my dinner, because that's what I now like to have with my dinner.

I'm not obsessed with alcohol these days, and it's a relief that now I'm not afraid of it either. Accidentally having a glass won't send me unwilling into a hellish pit of addiction and despair. I don't plan to be drunk, and I don't plan to drink very often. I will not use wine as an escape or a regular stress release, and that's an enormous change from what I was doing before.  But I am going to have some once in a while, and see if I can make it a small but pleasurable part of my life, like I've done with the bread. This will be a process, and I'll see how it goes. It might work easily, or I might have to make some changes as I go.

OK, if you've read this far, thanks. I'm doing well, and will keep writing as I keep on figuring this out. Black and white thinking won't work for me, and there is no one word that describes all of our problems, or no one route to solving them. I value real conversation, back and forth dialogue that really tries to get at what's going on, and that's what I'm trying to do here. The one thing we do all have in common is that we're trying to figure it out.

Peace and love to you all.

Wednesday 23 October 2013

"Sea, light, and vertigo": more thoughts on wonder

On the wall next to my desk, I have a few favourite poems and quotes. I used to be able to see them while I was on my computer, but a year or so ago I switched to a stand-up desk, so now they are kind of over my right shoulder, and I sometimes forget they are there. This morning, I read a blog post about the passions that sustain our lives, and I was reminded to read a Wallace Stevens poem that's been on my wall for a while. Right under that, I have a line from Jose Saramago's masterful novel, The Stone Raft:

"happiness exists, said the unknown voice, and perhaps that's all it is, sea, light, and vertigo."

I love that line. I don't always know why I do, but I do. Today it's been speaking to me in a different way, and I'm going to try to talk about that.

I live in Canada, and I think many of us agree that North American culture (Western culture? Global culture?) can be pretty darn shallow at times. People feel buffeted by pressures to perform and produce, and find solace in consuming. (That's way oversimplifying, I know, so please don't jump on me too much, if anyone is even reading here!) For people who have decided that excessive drinking has been causing a big problem in their lives, the consumption part of this equation starts to become obvious, and obviously out of whack. So stopping the drink becomes a priority. At that point, sometimes the world seems like a big boozy carnival, one that's dangerous to step into but dull and lonely to be left outside of.

There is so much emphasis on happiness, but it's often equated with pleasure or comfort, so that when faced with the disconcerting fact of not knowing how to live, we are (bizarrely, to me) advised to eat cake, or that we all 'deserve a break,' though what that break is from, I'm not really sure. I like my sweets, and a little distraction can be healthy when you're wound too tight, but I don't see this focus on consumption as ultimately sustaining. I know about hangovers and liver health and all that, but really, this essentially doesn't seem all that different from drinking too much. It won't work for me, anyway.

And then there's another thread in our culture, linked to the humanistic psychology of the 1960s, and hippie counterculture and the self-help movement, that links back to Rousseau. Here it is understood that the world is craven and shallow, and true happiness comes from within. It makes sense that, if you are now critical of the surrounding consumption-oriented culture, you might turn away from it. There is a whole lot of emphasis on turning inward in the sober world.

But some interesting writers have raised the question that the inner world as we think of it might simply not have the resources we need to deal with the questions we are going to face. What if the person I am is made up of my engagement with the world? What if meaning is really something we share in the world, whether we even understand that or not, and it's not something I should go spelunking for in the hidden cave of myself? What if I can only find meaning through ongoing participation in the world?

Sometimes, when I have been thinking like this, I am reminded of being a bored and cranky child, admonished by an equally cranky adult to "go outdoors and play." I used to hate that! Yet these days, that's more likely what I tell myself. I ride my bike. Have dinner with my partner. Read. Go hear some music. (Another great show last night. Steve Reich drumming! Wow wow wow!) I'm not saying I don't exist, or there is no self, no me to engage with the world or be moved by people banging on drums or by Trout Lake in the morning mist. I exist. But more and more I have been wondering whether that existence is made up out of the interactions I have in the world. 

So I'm telling myself, don't fall into this introspection trap. Enough with the looking in. Look out!  Up or down or wherever, but out there somewhere. And go out into it! 

I think wonder is going to save us. And I think we encounter the wonder--sometimes in little sideways glances, sometimes head-on--when we're interacting in the world, doing things we love (or sometimes just stuff that has to get done) not when we're looking inside ourselves. Sea, light, and vertigo. If that's where the magic elixir of happiness is, we will have to step out into it. I will, anyway.

OK, that's what I'm thinking about these days. Now I have to go participate in my schoolwork! Peace and love to you all. And a little bit of wonder.

Thursday 17 October 2013

An ecstatic post about being sober, music, night-time bike-rides, and chatting with strangers, in case I forget about it later

I love never, ever being drunk. Love it! Not even a wee bit tipsy. That realization hit me last night, and I'm still a bit gob-smacked, to tell the truth. Here's how it went:

After dinner, my partner and I were cycling to a music show. It was a clear night, the moon almost full and promising to get even fuller. We'd been looking forward to the show: small ensembles playing contemporary music, with a fantastic bass clarinet player in from Montreal, sounds ranging from quiet moody percussion to glorious cello, finishing off with a bass clarinet and bagpipe duet that shook the room. I know this is not everyone's cup of tea, but it is mine, and it was wonderful.

But first: on the ride there, I mentioned to my partner that I was happy to not be drinking wine with dinner, because the ride was so much better feeling clear enough to enjoy the crisp night. Same at the show: the music blew me away, made me cry and laugh all at once. Thank God and the world and musicians and composers and volunteers and ticket-sellers and parents who pay for music lessons and everyone who helps bring us live music. And my partner for getting me a ticket. I love you all.

At the intermission, I ended up chatting with the man seated next to us, something to do with some seats having been reserved and whether we were allowed where we were. (He said had removed a bunch of pointless "Reserved" signs just before we arrived, so we had rock star seats, despite nearly being late, and as it happened, he was someone vaguely important and could get away with that sort of thing.) After the show, my partner and I walked to our bikes with guy we didn't know, a musician who had been a the show, whose bike was locked up with ours.

None of this sounds anything but normal. Which is the whole point! I am so, so used to doubting myself after those conversations, wondering whether I was too friendly or too loud or whether I said something I shouldn't have or made the person uncomfortable by saying hello or by laughing at the wrong time or whatever. As far back as I can remember, I have had that sort of wringing doubt after social events. And last night I didn't. Simple as that. I felt at home in my own skin, delighted to have heard such wonderful music and happy to share that with my partner and some people I didn't know. As far as the conversations went, the people I spoke with were as happy as I was to be there, and as happy to share that with someone in a bit of conversation.

Riding home, the moon was still out, the night still clear and crisp but not outright cold. Part of the ride is across a concrete viaduct (outing myself as a Vancouverite here). It's a monstrosity and it's going to be torn down one day, but it's got its beauty too. Riding on it in the night time means riding above the Skytrain and the low brick buildings, way up in the middle of the lit-up skyrises and the weird round ball of lights that is Science World, the whole lit-up city spread out all around. It's like a 1960s sci-fi scene come to life!

A few years ago, when the Olympics were here and the city was awash in cultural events, I quit drinking for a month. I remember one night attending a great literary reading, where the bartender had scrounged a kettle and made me a peppermint tea while everyone, it seemed like, everyone else drank beer. I was alone that night, and pretty lonely, fighting the edge of what I feared was another round of being depressed, but the reading was grand. Heading home afterwards, I rode my bike along a waterside pathway, admiring the lights of the city across the way in the cool night air, and I thought, This is everything I want in the world, right here, and right now.

Somehow I had forgotten that moment. At the time, I never connected it so much with not drinking, just with a great show and a beautiful night ride. Last night, revelling in the post-show glow and beautiful ride,  I remembered the magic of that earlier sober night. It felt the same. And I realized, I love never ever being drunk anymore. Love it love it love it!!!

It's not like every moment is so crack-me-on-the-head magical. (That might hurt!) But I am deeply grateful to be awake and present so that when those moments happen, I am there, too. I never have to suck the moment dry by losing myself in neurotic second-guessing whether I was too something-or-other because of drinking. I am open to the magic that there is, as long as I can keep my mind open and live it.

I needed to write this down, in case I  forget, as I most certainly will once in a while. It really is great to never be drunk. And there's an easy way to do that, right?

OK, that's enough documenting my bliss for one day. Now I really do have to get cracking and study for that research methods midterm.

Peace and thanks to you all. And much love.


Sunday 13 October 2013


It's been 100 days since I drank. For me, that's the longest spell without alcohol since I started drinking at 18, except for about six months during an illness about 20 years ago. So hooray for that! I will try to think up something pithy to say about it sooner or later. Right now I'm just happy to have made it this far. To be honest, despite my questioning last week, I know I'm in this for the long haul. Day 100 is a hell of a lot better than day 0 was, that's for sure!

Thanks to all the readers and commenters and lurkers and fellow sober bloggers who have helped me so much along the way.

Happy (Canadian) thanksgiving! 

Thursday 10 October 2013

97 days: thinking things through

The last week or so was super busy with school deadlines etc, and it still is. But somehow, and I don't know why, I made that even harder for myself. I also had to think my way through this not drinking thing all over again. After three months of doing just fine, thanks very much, I had another round of wondering whether I might be able to drink like a normal person again. It's not clear to me why this was suddenly such a burning issue. I wasn't craving wine, or anything like that. I just, out of nowhere, got extremely irritated with all things to do with being sober. I didn't want to think about it, or talk about it, and I certainly didn't want to pretend it was anything other than a royal pain that I couldn't have a glass of wine if I wanted to, even though I didn't at that point want to. It's convoluted, I know, and also typical. Bog standard.

I didn't drink anything. But I did plan to. About a week ago, I decided that, after 100 days, I would start to have an occasional glass of wine. I would set strict limits, and see how that went, and if it didn't work, I would go back to not drinking. Mainly, I didn't (don't) want to live in fear that one drink will wreck my life, so in response to that, I thought having one would solve that. (Maybe not logical , but it was my way of facing the fear, as they say.) At that point, I decided that in twelve days, at day 100, I would have that one drink. Or split a bottle of wine. And then I'd have none for a month.

But a day or so later, I wondered if I needed to wait a month after that first one. Maybe I could have a drink once a week. Or twice. Anyway not every day. And then I thought if I was going to do that, why wait until day 100? Why not just go ahead? Somehow, in all this, I just sat with the thoughts. Finally I decided I might just buy some wine and cut the suspense, but I didn't really want any. I was riding my bike right past the wine store and thought, nah, maybe tomorrow, but not now.

The next day, I did some careful thinking. It seems to me there are two ways this could go wrong, and one is definitely, way way way worse than the other. One, I could actually be someone who, after a period of not drinking, could have an occasional drink. If that were the case, then I would be depriving myself unnecessarily in the meantime by not doing so. The other thing that could go wrong is that I might not be that person, in which case having a glass of wine would start the whole nasty ball rolling again.

I'm busy these days, and I don't want to have to deal with a crisis, self-imposed or not. At worst, I don't actually mind not drinking, and at best, I prefer the sober me. And it kind of frightened me, how quickly that one glass I might have became wine 3 or 4 times a week, all in my mind. It's just like I've always done when I've quit for a little while and started again: it starts again small and reasonable, but it doesn't stay that way. Even just thinking about it--with no actual alcohol, just the thought of it--I was already scheming for more.

So no wine for me. Not after day 100, and not soon after that. I may think this through again after six months is up, which will be late December. But then I have another school semester. More likely I will finish the academic year first, and by then it will be April, close enough to a year that I might as well quit for a whole year and see where that takes me.

I don't know what happened to my forever idea. Maybe in a way I'm back to it, or almost. Maybe it doesn't matter. I'm not too worried about that for now.  I guess I just have to think my way through things the best way I can, and that might change up once in a while.  Throughout this, though, I was firm on one thing: no surprises. I can plan do do whatever I want, drink or not, but I have to be honest with myself about it. So far, being honest means this: I know it won't work out if I do drink, and I don't have anything to lose by not drinking. It's not rocket science, is it?

The whole process, getting caught in this and thinking my way out, it wasn't any fun. I feel like saying I wish this were easy, but I know I haven't had it so bad mostly, and my tough few days came out just fine. Anyway, here I am, day 97, not drinking and not planning to, and I'm pretty darn happy about that.

I'm glad you're out there, fellow sober folk. I'm pretty sure I couldn't do this without you.

Good night.


(I had to do a slight edit, as it's 97 days today, not 96. Apparently counting isn't my strong suit!)