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.


  1. First and foremost, I have no answers. I do have thoughts, so here goes. There are some people who can have an occasional drink after going AF, there are others who just can't, they really can't and shouldn't. There are people who are comfortable saying they're alcoholics, some even though they clearly are don't like the label. I say fine.

    I do think conversation is healthy, too. Thanks for bringing up this topic.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment. I don't have answers either, and I'm really not sure what will work for me. I do know some people can't drink at all, and that's partly why I was reticent to talk about this. But it's important for me to figure it out for myself, and not to pretend to believe something just because that works for someone else. I can't tell you how much I appreciate the moral support! Take care.

  2. I think you have to be really honest with yourself and nip it in the bud if it starts to become a problem. Otherwise, why not? Some people go through phases of using alcohol in an unhealthy way and can then act healthier about their choices. I personally, know that I cannot, but I would do it if I could. I think people avoid the topic because it is pretty rare that it can be done and sustained. You have to do what is right for you! -Jen

    1. Thanks, Jen. You're absolutely right about the honesty. One reason I wanted to keep blogging is to keep myself honest. Here I can be aware and talk about what I'm doing, and see if it works. A genuine switch to moderation--and I mean real honest-to-God moderate moderation, not just a return to old ways--might be rare, but it's often talked about as though it's not even an option, so it feels odd to talk about it.Thanks so much for reading and commenting. It's good to see you doing so well these days!

  3. (left a comment already and lost it..?! will try again...)
    This is such a great, thought provoking post and thanks so much for sharing honestly with us here. I found my own reaction while reading it really interesting..I was totally going along with you and your well articulated argument/explanation and I can see exactly why you have decided to try moderation and all power to you.. look forward to seeing how it goes and I hope it works! But for me by the time I got to the end of your post I realised that even if someone told me I could drink moderately so I should just 'go for it' I still wouldn't. Not because I'm scared of alcohol (although I suppose there is that 'what if' thought of whether I'd go back to that awful boozy nightmare of a life that made me so miserable) but because I just don't want alcohol in my life. I don't miss the taste, don't need the feeling, don't see what it could offer me that I don't already have, don't want it, don't need it. I also seem to have this weird, crazy (deluded) belief now that being sober is actually really 'cool' and that it's a great, interesting, healthy, lovely way to live. Am I crazy? I just love it! My life is just so much better. But that's just me... anyway.. once again thanks for posting this and all the best. xxxx

    1. Thanks so much for your comment, Mrs D. I really do need to work this out myself, but I worried that if I talked about it here, people would just be put out with me and shun me. I appreciate this thoughtful community of people, all working out this problem of having problems with alcohol and how to live with that. I sure don't think you're crazy for not wanting to drink anymore, or that you're motivated by fear. You and many others are genuinely happy with what you are doing, and I find that inspiring. I just thought--well, what I said already. I don't know how it will go, but I want to explore it and see. I'll keep writing, so I will let you know how I'm doing. (Also, I love your analysis of your thinking while reading. I find logic is like that: it doesn't matter whether something makes sense in the end, you need some sort of feeling to carry you across. It's a part of psychology I'm really interested in, and it's neat to see a good example of that close to home.) Thanks for reading and for your kind words. xoxo

  4. The choice to drink or not to drink- for me, personally I know, deep deep deep down that I can't. I really don't miss it, and didn't miss it from very early on. I did miss the escape. A lot.

    I've found that I feel uncomfortable labeling myself as an alcoholic because that label has such negative vibes. I am one, I could not go back to one glass at dinner once a week- in no time I'd be drunk on the back porch chain smoking again. I'm scared to go back, my freedom took a damn long time to win. The name "alcoholic" should mean something stronger, and better- it should also be synonymous with "hero" or "braveheart". Instead it just means things like "fuck-up" and "loser".

    One reason I haven't been to AA is that I don't like the feel of a one-size-fits-all solution. And I don't want to sit and revel in my past drinking struggles- but I don't think that what meetings are *all* about. I haven't been- only to one when I was about 23, so I can't have a firm opinion that I can stand behind yet.

    This post is so timely for me. I was thinking about eating dessert, and cheese, and bread. I was thinking about how now it's safe for me to have one piece of bread, one slice of pie. A little cheese and crackers. I was thinking about how much I used to love learning about wine, how much I love food. How giving up booze makes sense, but that to learn to be mindful with food could be quite rewarding. "It's OK to have a little," I can tell myself. Then I don't start yet another big plan of "Paleo Whole 30 Gluten Free blah blah blah." Make each eat a choice, not make blanket life choices. But like I said, not drinking again is not a choice for me. It's a gamble I am not willing to take. Ever again.

    Great thought provoking post. I always enjoy what you have to say.

    1. Amy, thanks for your thoughtful comment. I'm really glad you read this and found it thought-provoking. It's the escape vs mindfulness and the "one answer for everything" vs "what's going on now" that I'm working on. For me, that "get me out of here" feeling sends me flying to all my escape hatches, and I'm really paying attention to what is happening then and how to cope with it. So alcohol as escape is off-limits in what I'm trying here. (And I know that won't work for everyone. I'm sure not advocating that, and I respect that many people won't drink again, many can't, many just don't want to. There's got to be room for all kinds of ways of dealing with that.)

      I worry about the renouncing that happens with food. I know booze really doesn't work for some people, and some people really can't eat wheat, and so on. But there is a thread within our culture that says "renounce and be better" that's as influential as the thread that says "you can have everything you want all the time." For me, learning to be moderate with food was really hard, but it's been worth it. I still eat too much dark chocolate sometimes, so I don't always get it right. Actually, not having to get it right all the time is kind of the whole point. I think trying to be attentive and make good choices in the glorious messy world is harder, but it's good. Now I'll see if I can do that with wine. I think I can, but it will take some work.

      Thanks for the support. We'll see how this all goes here! xoxo

  5. Hi :)

    Personally I think you need to do what you feel is right for you. I find I say to myself "no vodka and red bull or chips or choc or takeaway" I'm like "I 'm gagging for a drink etc" Whereas if I say "Have a drink or a burger if you like" sometimes I like sometimes I don't want to. Forbidden Fruit is Temptation. In my book no food or beverage is forbidden.

    1. Thanks very much for the moral support! I'm learning what suits me, which will take a little work. But so far it's going well, and to me it's worth it. I like your take on it. Forbidden fruit is temptation. Wasn't it also the fruit of the tree of knowledge?