Wednesday 29 January 2014

Minding the soft animal

Mary Oliver said, "poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry." Her book, Dream Work, got me through some difficult times in the past, and, though I don't read it a lot these days, I know many of its poems by heart, and sometimes bits of it come back in strange ways.

The other day, not quite three weeks after stopping drinking this time around, I was feeling pretty darn low. After I had spent far too much time staring alternately at the wall and the computer, in the kind of low spell that overtakes many of us otherwise sane people, I googled "depression after quitting drinking." (Well, who doesn't do that sort of thing? How else did you find the sober blogs, anyway?) On the first google page, I came across a study that showed, "In mice that voluntarily drank alcohol for 28 days, depression-like behavior was evident 14 days after termination of alcohol drinking. This suggests that people who stop drinking may experience negative mood states days or weeks after the alcohol has cleared their systems." To determine how depressed the mice were, the scientists needed a measure, because we know how much scientists love numbers. The mice were put in a beaker of water and given a chance to swim, something mice usually appear to love doing. Researchers found that "the amount of time they spend immobile (floating and not swimming) is measured as an index of despair or depression-like behavior. The more time a mouse spends immobile, the more 'depressed' it is thought to be." An index of mouse despair. Who are these people, who can look at those sad mice and tot up their morose moments of immobility?

I have to say, I felt quite akin with those sad mice, floating listlessly, all that booze taken away and no joy to be found even in swimming. I cried a little bit, for me and for them, and then I really had to give myself a shake. Because I know from my psychology studies, there are a lot of questions about how mouse studies relate to people. Yes, some of the brain parts and how they work have similarities. But lab mice live in impoverished environments, and they have very few options when it comes to changing their lot in life. The study is interpreted as evidence that quitting moderate drinking can lead to mental health problems, but of course that's a reductionist reading of a complex situation. Anyway, I have more options than those sad mice, so I pulled on my boots and went for a walk.

This week, when I have't been staring at walls, I have been researching motivation, which I know is ironic when mine is at a severe ebb. The thesis I'm writing critiques one particular theory of motivation, and I'm putting together some ideas from current philosophy and neuroscience in order to at least sketch an alternative. Jaak Panksepp, an animal researcher, has some interesting theories about emotion and motivation, based on his work with animals and the similarities among animal and human brain systems. His work accounts for the role of culture and interpretation in humans, so don't worry, he's not reducing us all to measures of mouse despair. (If you want to see some really lovely evidence that animals and people are surprisingly alike, watch this very short clip, in which Panksepp records the sounds of rats laughing!) Panksepp does say that our pleasure and pain systems are evolutionarily ancient, and in our day to day lives, we don't (can't?) understand how our motivation is tied to this less than conscious part of ourselves. But it is.

Reading Panksepp's work on the deep mammalian brain and emotion, I was reminded of some lines from Mary Oliver's poem, Wild Geese:

      "You only have to let the soft animal of your body
      love what it loves.
      Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine."

And I wondered, what am I doing about that? Do I need to reconnect with that soft animal in order to want anything at all? For me, not wanting anything--maybe like those immobile mice-- is the hallmark of depression, and I know I need to gently find my way back to real wanting if I am going to be well. I thought about the border collie I took care of for a few years, and figured I could do what animals like doing, and see how that went. When I did, it worked. I slept, and ate good food, and spent time with my partner, and I walked and walked and walked. (I didn't bark or chase sticks, so one up for keeping my sanity in check somewhat.) The walking has been more restorative than I can explain. Every day, I walk around to the local park for an hour or more. As soon as I get there, my breathing changes. A few deep breaths of that damp, earthy air and I start to relax. There are lots of paths and hills, and a couple of flower gardens that are mostly dormant now, waiting for the spring. I find these comforting. One of my favourite places is a little falls, about 15 feet high. Every day this week, I've stood next to it and, for a few minutes, just looked and listened. Here's a picture I took of it yesterday, when the last bit of daylight was catching the water and the mossy hill alongside.

I don't take great pictures, but it's just a reminder I can keep on my phone for when I can't get to that falls but need to recapture that feeling. Breathe. Look and listen. I think Mary Oliver's insights are being borne out by contemporary neuroscience. I used to take a lot of time for that sort of thing--I was all about nature walks and poetry--but the past few years, I have been very busy, and I'm a little burnt. If I am going to figure out how to live without numbing off the parts I don't want to feel--and that's becoming a lot of parts--I need to pay attention to the soft animal, see what it loves, and rest in that. I think it's working, at least a little bit. I'm nowhere near getting done the things I have to do, but I'm finding how to be at home in the world, which is kind of the bare minimum if I'm going to do anything else.

It's been grey out all day, but the sun had just cracked through and I can even see patches of blue up there. It's already mid-afternoon. I'm going to head out and walk while it's still light. I'll take care of the soft animal that is me, and see how it all works out.

If you're still reading, many thanks. I hope you have some giggling rats moments today! Peace and joy.

Sunday 26 January 2014

A bit bleak, but I'm getting through it

I always try to shape-shift what I'm feeling into something better than it really is before I can talk about it, or I try to see the good in it. But it's been a tough few days for me. (If you prefer to read upbeat cheery stuff, there's probably not much use reading along here. It gets better by the end, so if you like you can just skip ahead to the poem. I won't know, and even if I did, I wouldn't mind.)

That said, I am feeling a lot better today. Fragile, but hopeful. I have had a number of crippling depressions in my life. I've lost a few years to that, and I really thought I wouldn't have to sit under the weight of that feeling ever again. (Why would a person who had coped with massive depression many times run the risk of developing a hard-core drink problem, right? I know. I do know.) Now, a few days is not the same thing as months and months straight slogging through it. But I'm not all clear just because the morning was better than the past few have been. And I'm a little bit, no, I will tell the truth: I am very much afraid it will all come back again.

So what's going on? All week, I felt ill. I couldn't get enough sleep, and my head felt like it was exploding, and I could hardly move myself around. I thought I was getting a flu, but this is just as much mental as physical. Worse than the fatigue, I felt sad and low, unable to enjoy the things I enjoy, and for a while it dipped into that old standby of depression, the feeling that life was simply not worth living. I've hardly been able to get a full breath, and much of the time, when I notice, I find myself twisted into pretzel-like contortions, even when I'm just sitting having a glass of water. Tight and tense and heavy and sad, that's been me all week

And I feel dumb. Because I warded this off last summer when I quit drinking, and by late last summer, and September and October, I was feeling really great. I wasn't drinking, and I'd got over the tough part of quitting so much so that I'd forgotten that it had been tough. Earlier in the summer, when I was hardly able to do more than stare at the wall some days, I didn't talk much about it, and so once it passed, I forgot about it. And when I felt great, I was happy to record that so I would remember how good it felt to have quit drinking. But I don't think I did myself any favours by glossing over how bloody awful I felt at the time. I was working on a deadline then, too, and though I did finish the project and I got a good mark anyway, I was operating under some killer banks of brain fog, much like I have been this week. But because I'm me, which involves a large dose of being a difficult person, by October I was starting to react to a lot of what I was hearing in the world of getting sober. I need to stay sober. I think I can admit that. But I rail against a lot of the received wisdom about the single best way to do that. So here I'm going to have a bit of a tantrum about some of the things that rankled me then, and still do now: (This part is a bit of a rant, so feel free to skip to the end of the post, where things will lighten up a bit, I promise.)

  • No one knows what's best for anyone else. I just can't lock myself away from the world, eat a whack of cake and sleep for four months, and if I were to try, I would gain fifteen pounds and allow the kind of depression that plagues me to have at me, no holds barred. I know, because I have tried that before when I found the world too much for me. It gets ugly, fast. It isn't helpful to assume that everyone should do that, even if it does work for some people who really do need the break. 
  • There is no evil monster-demon that lives inside our otherwise perfect selves, rearing up to swallow us when we are weak. There's just some really bad habits that have physical and neurological traces, as all our good and bad habits do, and those habits will take a whole lot of work to break. Drinking too much is, for me, one of those habits. It's a part of the messy person I am, not an alien invasion.
  • I don't have to excavate into some precious inner self to look at my motives for everything I do. Mostly, we don't have motives, we just explain things after the fact according to some cultural system we adopt. I'm not trying to come out the other end of something shining and pure of heart. I don't believe anyone is like that, and anyone who pretends they are, no matter how often they claim to be non-judgemental, needs to get over some serious spiritual egotism. 
  • I do need to find a way to be in the world, to participate full-on in life, with all its messiness and problems, not cocoon myself in a sober bubble until I am somehow, in the miraculous future, better. If anything is going to save me, I'm going to find it in the world, not deep inside myself. I need contact with the woman at the grocery who is kind to me when I look weepy, or the guy at the butcher shop who makes me laugh, but yes, who does always go on about his hangover. I need to read things I have trouble understanding, things that challenge what I've always thought, like the new book I'm part-way through that questions everything we've usually thought about being a self. I need music and poetry, what Adam Zagajewski calls "the beauty created by others." I need to read more Adam Zagajewski. I need projects and deadlines and people who disagree with me, and barking dogs that scare me a little bit, and bratty kids screeching on the bus, and the people who use my doorway as a safe refuge for smokers because it's illegal to smoke on the patio of the coffee shop next door. That's what I need. The whole world, and me in it, sometimes crying and sometimes laughing, maybe even sometimes doing a little dance, learning how to live.

OK, I could go on, but I think that might be enough. I think one of the reasons I felt so awful all week is that I don't allow myself to feel awful around people, so I wait to do it alone. But none of us is going to make it alone. Two good things happened this week, and I'm going to try to build on them. Last night, I told my partner how bad I felt, and how scared I was that the big depression was coming back. And I cried, big ugly loud crying, the kind where my nose goes red and swells up a bit and huge wrenching sobs rip out of me. I really didn't want to put all that on my partner, but I am going to need all the help I can get here, and he is a big part of that help. So I let him in, and he was good with that.

The second thing, and I remembered it while I was talking with my partner, was this moment 'm going to tell you about. All week I have been spending an hour or two outdoors walking. Walking helps me a lot when I'm really low, when not much else can. Two days ago, I meandered through the nearby park, and I walked up and down hills and mingled with kids and dogs and tourists with cameras, and I stood by the tiny waterfall for ten minutes, just listening to it. On the way home, I was walking down the mossy green hill, muck squelching around the bottoms of my boots. The sun was low in the sky, so the moss was that special luminous green, the way it gets in the late afternoon January light. And just for a moment, the world cracked open for me, and the beauty of the sun on the moss filled me up, and for that moment I was a part of the mossy green shining hill and it was a part of me. Not little, twisted pretzel me, but big wide world me. I stood in the sun and felt the life in me and around me, and I smiled, which I have not done a lot lately. It faded after a while, and I walked home and made dinner, but I had that moment, and I still have it. That's what I remembered last night, and I think that's what's going to save me. Moments like that, and being in them 100 per cent.

Thanks for reading. Peace and joy to you.
And just in case that was all a bit heavy, here's the full text of the Adam Zagajewski poem I was quoting from:

In the Beauty Created by Others

Only in the beauty created
by others is there consolation,
in the music of others and in others’ poems.
Only others save us,
even though solitude tastes like
opium. The others are not hell,
if you see them early, with their
foreheads pure, cleansed by dreams.
That is why I wonder what
word should be used, “he” or “you.” Every “he”
is a betrayal of a certain “you” but
in return someone else’s poem
offers the fidelity of a sober dialogue.

(Translated by Renata Gorczynski. Reprinted from Without End, p. 127.)

Friday 24 January 2014

Hello, doubt. So nice to see you again, my old friend. Can I get you a cookie?

Yesterday was somewhat grisly for me. I felt tired and weepy and cranky, a big knot of yuck. I rode my bike, went to class, picked up what I needed from the library, met a couple of friends for a walk and a chat--all things that would usually make for a great day. Still, by the time I came home, I felt like giving up on everything. School, the not-drinking routine, anything I have usually thought of as good just seemed bad. I tried explaining it all to my partner, which ended up with me in a convoluted quagmire of doubt and despair. He held my hand and talked with me for an hour, after which I realized I could cope, though I still wasn't sure what exactly I was coping with. Then I tried to stand up and could barely do it, and I realized I had a headache and a fever and was exhausted. So I had been getting the flu, and I guess that wasn't exactly lifting my damp spirits any.

The malaise is kind of interesting, though. For me, quitting drinking means taking care of myself, and taking care of myself means questioning what I'm doing, asking whether it's really what's good for me or if it's just what I'm doing. That's fine, but too much questioning is paralyzing, and that's just as much of a time suck as drinking too much. No I'm not preparing an elaborate excuse to pick up drinking again. I'm really not doing that, at least for this stretch of time I've set myself. I'm just noticing a pattern, and I think it's down to that old chestnut, the black and white thinking. For me, it's been relatively easy to drink too much in the evenings and then barrel through the days. Yes, I had spells when I felt like living crap, and at times I was pretty darn anxious. But booze really is a helpful way of not thinking about your whole life if what you really want to to is put your head down and just get through things. Now that I don't have that, doubts lead to questions and questions lead to existential paralysis, and really I do have a whole lot to get done in the next few months.

I guess what I'll have to do is learn to balance attending to the doubt with setting it aside. Thich Nhat Hanh has a lovely passage in one of his books, probably Peace is Every Step, where he talks about cultivating patience with anxiety. I just looked through the book to find the passage, and I can't, so maybe it'd in a different book after all. No matter, his sensibility infuses all his books, and I can remember it enough without an exact quote. He recommends, when you start to feel anxious, saying, "Hello, anxiety. Welcome." Sometimes you can sit with the anxiety and pay attention to it. But of you can't because you have to do other things, he says to welcome the anxiety, ask it to sit for you until you are ready, and then carry on with what you are doing until you can be more attentive. I have done this on and off for years, and I find it remarkably helpful. (Sometimes I get carried away, and I offer it a cookie and a comfy chair, and then I start to wonder why I am being so nice to my anxiety when I have to get on with things rather than sit in a comfy chair eating a cookie. But that's just a distraction, a little sibling rivalry with my old friend anxiety, and it passes.)

Anyway. I realize this is a helpful practice, and I need to do the same thing with other uncomfortable, disruptive emotions. I need to be hospitable, offer a them warm welcome, whatever they are. But I don't need to put down what I'm doing and engage in a marathon wrestling match with that emotion. No need to spend days and days in the grip of doubt, examining every aspect of my life thats uncertain. Some things are uncertain, and they will stay that way for a while at least. I'm not always sure about school, but I like a lot of it, and I have to finish writing a thesis, which takes time and concentration. I'm not sure about my plan once that's done, but I have sent my application and now there's little point thinking anything through unless I have a concrete offer to evaluate. I probably won't be able to keep working the same job a whole lot longer, as I know I find it too draining, but I don't have to solve that today, and deciding about that will likely be taken care of once I figure out what I'm doing with school next year. I am happy with my partner, my apartment, my city, and a whole lot of things about my life. I know deciding to quit drinking is a good decision for me, even though I'm not sure about it all the time. I'm not sure what to make of this whole discipline of psychology that I'm studying, and I won't be able to figure out my role in it any time soon. OK, that's some certainty, and a lot of doubt. So when the doubt comes, as it has this week, I am trying to take Thich Nhat Hanh's advice, and say, hello doubt. Welcome back. No time for wrestling now, I'm busy, but I promise I'll go for a walk with you later. First I have to do some schoolwork. And then, having settled my friend doubt comfortably in my favourite chair, maybe even with a cookie in her hand to keep her occupied, I can get back to work. Because paying attention to emotions doesn't mean letting them run the show all the time. Sometimes, you just have to get things done.

That's what I'm trying, anyway. I've been sleeping lots and taking slow walks every day, trying to keep myself calm in the face of this. I suppose I do need to get back to doing real meditation practice. But for now, I'll set the doubt aside, have some hot tea and get back to work.

If you're still reading, many thanks. Peace and joy to you. And a cookie for your own fears and doubts.


Monday 20 January 2014

Round 2, Day 14: Peace and calm

I've been busy with school, and will be for a few weeks at least, but I want to try to keep up on posting to remind myself what's going on with me. So here goes:

Since I made the commitment to stop drinking for a new stretch of time, I feel so much better. Some days I feel so calm, it's like I've been drugged, but I think this might be natural, and the crazy up and down of my normal days are the drugged state. Now the hundreds of mice running wheels in my mind seem to be sleeping and eating and doing whatever it is mice do when they're feeling all right. They deserve the break, poor critters.

Most of the time, I haven't wanted to drink. I'm being careful to structure my evenings away from booze. As soon as I hit what would have been wine-time, I make myself a lovely drink (cranberry and lime with sparkling water is a new favourite, but I keep trying new ones) and I sit, savouring the taste, and the pretty colour in the glass, and the relaxation after the day that the drink signals. Last time around I stopped doing that as soon as I didn't feel I really needed it. Now I think the sensuous pleasure of a pretty drink and the signal that it's time to relax after the day, all that might be an important part of what I was getting out of drinking. If that's true then I need to include it as a way of taking care of myself while I'm not drinking.

A few nights ago, I did have one of those piercing longings for wine. I came home as my partner was eating a little snack and sipping a glass of wine. It looked like the perfect thing to do, and I wanted one, too. I was tired and hungry (yes, I know they are triggers for everyone) and it had been a busy day, and I had arrived home too late to cook what I had planned for dinner. So a perfect storm of wee disappointment and fatigue. I sat on the couch for a few minutes, thinking, "OK, if you really want to you can just go ahead and have some wine. Is that what you really want?" It isn't. I know it. I have made myself this 13 weeks promise, and I'm not breaking it for a little weepy spell of being tired.

Instead of cooking, we decided to splurge and eat out at a fancy place we've been wanting to try. Before we went I carefully pictured myself sitting in that restaurant ordering some deluxe no-alcohol drink. But that restaurant was full, so we went nearby to one of my regular haunts, the cosy local where I've enjoyed drinking wine and reading a book with dinner for years, long before I even met my partner. The couple at the next table had glasses of red wine, and they twirled and swirled and fondled those glasses like they were in love with that wine. When I looked away, at the menu, I discovered that the restaurant doesn't even have a mocktail list, and their price for sparkling water is truly alarming given the quantities of it I can drink. I wanted to treat myself, but I couldn't figure out how to do that without having wine, which I wasn't going to do. I could feel the evening start to slip away from me. But I really didn't want to be like a spoiled child who can't just enjoy what's on offer because of wanting something that can't be had. So I asked the server if they had decent pomegranate juice (they do) and I made up my own special drink order: a wineglass with a little pomegranate juice topped up with soda water and a wedge of lime, no ice. For a minute I felt like one of those difficult people in restaurants who always makes a big fuss, but I got over it, and when my glass came, it was pretty, and the drink was good. The wineglass twirlers left, and my partner and I enjoyed a lovely meal after all.

That's a frightfully long passage about not having a drink, but I really do want to remember what happens. That awful mix of sadness and longing didn't exactly go poof when I shifted away from it, but it got smaller, and by the time I'd sipped and eaten, I was glad I had kept with my plan. Reminding myself that shifting away from little disappointments is just a bald fact of adult life actually helped me. Mainly, I wanted to enjoy a dinner with my partner, and I knew it was well within my reach to wreck it with my tricky mood, and I did not want to do that to him or to me, or to us.

Lately I am working very hard at practicing a dispassionate kind of mindfulness, noticing, "Oh yes, I see, this is the kind of thing that makes me want to drink. Isn't that interesting." Yesterday, work was a brutal mix of being short-staffed and crazy-busy, with a big dose of coworkers passive-aggressive decisions and reactions to it all. And I just didn't engage. I arranged for my own breaks to get covered and stated clearly that I would work as best I could to cover but I would not work overtime or skip my meal or breaks. I offered critical suggestions for how we could do a better job covering the schedule but didn't get caught up in it when coworkers decided to be heroic or irrational or enraged (or, in one case, all three) at the day. And when I came home afterwards, I noticed that I was foot-sore and mentally exhausted, but I was also pleased that I hadn't got caught in any of it. I made a fizzy drink and read the New Yorker for an hour, and by the time my partner arrived, I was starting to relax. No wine required for that. Just some rest, and time, and some paying attention to how I felt. These little "hoorays" seem so huge to me. I know putting this together over and over is a part of the work I need to do, and doing it reinforces how important it is to keep it up. Hooray indeed!

I started writing about peace and calm, and instead wrote about two wee crises that got stirred up over the past few days. It's true, they happened, but peace and calm feel like the main thing in my days. I am sleeping and eating well and reading lots, not getting as much schoolwork done as I'd like but trying my best. Every time I feel the worry-mice start up, I say, "No. Not that." And I go for a walk, or read something, or make a cup of tea or a fizzy drink instead. I think it's going well.

Lots more to say, but now I'm going for a walk in the almost sunshine, and then I will write two more pages of my thesis. And that will be an OK kind of Monday for me.

If you're reading this, thanks for the support. Peace and joy to you.


Tuesday 14 January 2014

Books books books! Some thoughts on what I'm reading.

This past week I've been reading like a demon. I'd promised myself to keep reading fiction despite the demands of schoolwork, and at the same time I received a couple of books about drinking that I'd ordered. I didn't mean to read them all so quickly. Four books in just over eight days: does that count as a binge? Maybe, but there are worse ways to binge. In case anyone is looking for a great read, or is just curious, I thought I'd write a note about the books I just read.

First, the fiction: I read two wonderful, superbly written books about family, connection, and love.

Donal Ryan's The Spinning Heart won the Guardian First Book Award for 2013, and the win was well-deserved. The novel is set in post economic-crash Ireland, and it captured the bewilderment and despair of a community of people facing hardship after the brief promise of prosperity. That sounds depressing, but the book is beautiful. Each chapter is written from the point of view of a different person, so the reader feels the accumulation of the intertwined life of the community. These people don't exist in isolation. None of us do, even though our culture tells us otherwise. Ryan's language is simple and beautiful, and even when he's dark, he's often funny. (Of course he is. It's an Irish novel, and the Irish writers I've read sure know how to do dark and funny.) The novel brims with the strength of love and connection, and I can't think of a better recommendation than that.

Elizabeth Strout's The Burgess Boys deals with some similar themes, so I guess that says a bit about what I'm drawn to reading these days. It's about two brothers--the boys are middle aged men, long since moved away from their hometown in Maine, but still shouldering the weight of childhood tragedy and the lies and guilt left in its wake. There's a sister, still home in Maine, unloved and unlovely, deeply unhappy, and her awkward teenage son, Zach, who causes the spot of trouble that gets the plot rolling. That sounds grim, right? But the book is beautiful. Strout is very good at telescoping time, so while the novel is set in the present, segue's into the Burgess siblings' childhood are woven throughout, and they illuminate the story without dragging the reader into too much backstory. As in The Spinning Heart, the novel has it's fair share of despair and life gone wrong, but it is a testament to family love and human connection as the real fabric of life.  All that, plus it's an old-fashioned good story. Hooray for stories!

Along with the novels, I've read two great non-fiction books this week, both centred on the role alcohol plays in contemporary culture: Olivia Laing's The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Writing, and Ann Dowsett Johnston's Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol.

Laing's book investigates the role of alcohol in the lives of six famous American alcoholic writers, all now deceased. Well, they were alcoholic, so of course it played a role, right? Sure. But Laing is a great writer and researcher, and she does a marvellous job of showing their complicated reactions to alcohol. I was especially shaken to read about the multiple attempts to cut down, cut back, switch to different drinks, all to lessen the effects booze had on their writing. All the men at times admitted the problem (except Hemingway, but given his personal mythology of superhuman masculinity, it's hard to imagine Hemingway admitting to any weakness) and all suffered enormously from the drink. At the same time, the book shows the appeal alcohol held for these men, the longing they all had for something to take them out of themselves. Laing shows the appeal, and also the wreckage it left. A key strength of the book is that Laing herself is not an alcoholic, but she has experience with the damage alcoholism does, and she really wants to understand the pull of alcohol as well as the romantic myth of alcohol and creativity. She uses these writers' own words and lives, refusing to oversimplify as she tries to understand the complicated role of alcohol in the lives of these brilliant, self-destructive men. Reading this, I got to thinking how much I have often preferred the fruits of imagination to the reality of day to day life. Creating an alternate reality was important for these writers, but Laing shows at what cost this reality was reached.

Johnston's book was somewhat less enjoyable than Laing's, I think because it's more journalistic than poetic, but it's still well worth reading. (Not everything has to be poetry, and anyway there's a great Bukowski poem at the start of the book.) The book is part research about alcohol and women, and part memoir. Johnston herself is a middle aged, successful journalist, and an alcoholic in recovery, and she weaves plenty of research on addiction and women through her own story. The book shows the depth of pain endured even by someone who has a "high bottom." It also looks at the role of trauma in the lives of many (not all) women with drinking problems, and the importance of spirituality in coping with the existential thirst that alcohol never manages to quench. There's lots on the changing role of women in our society, the emphasis on perfectionism (ouch! I feel it!), and the cultural marketing of alcohol. I especially liked how unsparing Johnston is with her personal story, and yet the book is about so much more than her. By the time I finished reading, I wanted to have tea and a long heart to heart with her. Maybe someday.

OK, so that's this week in books. Now I really will have to buckle down with schoolwork, so I won't have nearly so much reading time. But I am loving (love love love!!!) reading in the evenings. Herbal tea and knitting while chatting with my partner, and then I read for two or three hours: it may be a kind of escapism, but if it is, I'll take it.

If you've read (or decide to read) any of these books, I'd love to know what you think. Now I'm off to face the reality of school deadlines. Thanks for reading.


Saturday 11 January 2014

Round 2, Day 5

I just did something I'd been planning to do for a while: I read my old blog posts. And though I shouldn't be, I'm surprised by how happy I was when I wasn't drinking. I also saw how, once I got to be  lot busier with the semester--it was an especially busy semester for me--I stopped paying attention to why I wasn't drinking. So after the 100 days were up and I felt good, I genuinely forgot how bad I felt when I was drinking a lot, and how much better not drinking was.

I guess that's how this drinking thing works. Walk away and you can see the horror of it, but as soon as you're back in it, it's all coming up roses again, or the roses are all you can see, no matter what misery they're hiding.

The other night I was talking to my partner about this. I know he doesn't really get the not being able to stop after a couple of drinks thing. He's always hugely supportive of me, but never critical. Still, I had somehow invented the idea that he wasn't behind this new not-drinking routine I'm on, and I really wanted him to understand. The best I could say was that it was like being one person with two minds, and the two have trouble communicating. It's confusing, because it's hard to know what you think when you think two thoughts that are in exact opposition to each other. I think it must be confusing for him too, sometimes. How do you know who you're talking to: the sensible person who is only going to have a glass of wine, or the persuasive person who is convinced that draining the rose along with the red and maybe having a couple of large shots of brandy is the thing to do? He doesn't have the same problem. But he's seen me be baffled by my own actions enough times that he absolutely supports what I'm doing.

Of course, some of this thinking isn't new. But because I'm realizing things all over again, it seems worth writing again, just in case I need to remind myself again, as I likely will. At the same time, it's not quite like starting from scratch. This time I have all that recent experience behind me, so I know what I'm able to do: just don't drink. And if I use that experience well, I know what minefields to look out for.

In that vein, I've made a few decisions to take better care of myself in the coming few months. One is, I lightened my course-load a little. It's still going to be busy, but I have some breathing room. Another is, I've been reading fiction, and I'm going to keep that going. It's one of my great pleasures, and it's something that gets set aside when school starts. This semester, I'm going to keep reading novels and short stories. Not so much that I ignore school, obviously, but enough that I have an occasional break and enjoy the reading. And the third thing is, I'm going to keep paying attention to this process of stepping away from the drink. Last summer and fall, it helped when I did that. When I didn't, I lost some important perspective on what I was doing and why. I'm not sure what the process involves. Blogging, sure, and reading blogs. I've read some great books (reviews coming soon!) Mainly it's a whole lot of things that are all really one thing, paying attention. If I do that, honestly look at what I'm doing, how I'm feeling, all that uncomfortable stuff, I will know what to do next.

And if I don't know all of what I need to do, I already know one thing: I need to keep on not drinking. It really is better for me. Clear thinking, reading at night, tea and rain and real conversation in the evenings, solid sleep, money not spent on booze: those are just a few of the good things I'm tallying up every day. I'm grateful for all that all over again.

So that's how I'm doing. It's pretty good, all told. If you've read this far, many thanks. I hope you're doing well, too. Peace.

Wednesday 8 January 2014

More than a week, less than forever

A week just won't be enough. I know that. One week away from drinking is just enough to make me feel good, enough to make me feel like it's OK now to have a little. But that little turns into a lot, if not the first day, then a few days later. I know that. The fact that a different outcome might be possible--and I have a good imagination, so I can imagine a different outcome--doesn't seem to help me. The same outcome keeps happening. Too much to drink, more than I plan, more than I really want to be drinking. This is the same story a lot of people tell. I know that. I'm not trying to be original here. It's my story, too.

I'm still not prepared to accept "forever," but I don't want to be working my way through the tangle of this every day. I agree with what Lilly says, that it's the darned going back and forth thinking about whether or not to drink that's exhausting. Once you've decided, it's a lot easier (which is not to say it's easy.) And as much as I find counting days can be irritating, I want a definite stretch of time during which the decision is already made. I know that's not a magic solution, because at the end it all comes back and there are still decisions after all. But I want a break from drinking, and a break from making decisions about it. (And I wouldn't mind feeling great again!)

So it's no booze for me until the end of the semester. That's 91 days. Thirteen weeks. It feels like a relief to take a breather, to get off the chaotic worry-train drink problem. And yes, to the part of me that says it's not that big a problem, OK. But it's not that small a problem, either!  It's a nice, medium-sized problem, and it's mine, and I'm trying to deal with it.

A lot of tips and tricks that seem to really help people leave me cold, or irritated, but yesterday I came across some good advice here. Carrie Armstrong suggests that, rather than figure out the problem, just stop for a while and then take a look at it. Well, probably that's what a lot of people are saying, but somehow what she said and how she said it rang true. I get caught in semantics (alcoholism? drinking problem? disease or habit?) And I get lost in what's the best way to solve it without giving anything up that's good. So just getting off the train for while seems like the best plan.

Sorry if anyone had really, really hoped my plan for moderation would work well and is disappointed that it didn't. (Hey, you and me both!) But I'm not sad I tried. If I do quit drinking altogether, and that is a likely possibility here, I will have tried everything I can do to rein it in first. I think this is the kind of thing that's best learned in the first person. I'm just not good at being told what to do. But then, I don't know anyone who is.

Yesterday I really did enjoy the evening, drinking tea and chatting with my partner, reading after dinner, not drinking wine. Today is my last free day before the semester really kicks in, so I'm off to read and drink sparkling water and listen to the rain for the afternoon. Maybe I'll even go out and walk in it for a bit, get my boots muddy in the park along the way. Sounds like fun, I think.

If you've read this far, many thanks. Peace.

Tuesday 7 January 2014

The first day of something

Something odd happened a few weeks ago, and it got me thinking. I was at work at the library, speaking with a woman I know about what we're each reading, and she told me she used to be an addictions counsellor. As she put it, that was her problem and so she learned a lot about it. I asked if she still did that work, and she laughed at me and said she was almost eighty years old. (She sure doesn't look it!) She's one of those people, you know, that it seems the light shines right out of them, and I thought how amazing it must be to be her, almost eighty and luminous. Right around Christmas, we had another conversation, and she made a wish for me, that "something you want, that no one knows you want, will happen for you this year." I was a bit speechless (which I have to say isn't typical for me!) I thought, what is that thing? Solve the drinking thing? Write something good? I wasn't sure, and I still don't know.

But I made one small decision: I'm starting another spell of not drinking. Might be a week, or 30 days, or 90. I'll take a few days to see how long I think it needs to be.

I wish I could just blink and figure out this drinking thing. I know when I wasn't drinking for my 100+ days, I felt good. But I resist and react badly to the idea that not drinking is so much better. And I do like drinking wine, just not drinking too much of it. Not having any problem at all would definitely be better, but that doesn't seem to be where I am. Dang! It's hard to say what happens when I change course on this. My spa week was also great. I felt good, and I wasn't sure what I would do once it ended, but in the end I decided to drink some wine over Christmas and New Years. Sometimes it was a lot, sometimes not. Mostly I enjoyed it, but I can't exactly call it moderate, and I know it's too much for me. I think it is possible to learn to drink moderately, but I don't feel I have much of a handle on how to do it. So I'm going back to not drinking for a while. Not forever. But for some little stretch of time, so I can clear my head and think about it. Even if I keep doing this on and off, I think I'm learning as I go.

OK, here's to sparkling water and fresh juices, clear thinking and nighttime reading, and trying to not be so bloody conflicted about this booze nonsense. Wish me luck, or whatever it is I need to figure it all out!