Tuesday 24 June 2014

Reading old stories, living a new one.

Last Sunday afternoon, when I was walking through one of those lovely summer festivals, with lots of people milling about eating street food and listening to music and picking up little bits of crafty goodness, I wanted so much to join the people on the outdoor patios and have a drink. I had no intention of doing that, but I hadn't felt that strong pull to drink in a while, and it was a powerful reminder of how small things can bring it on again, and how strong that pull can be once it sets in. For a little while, I felt pretty darn sorry for myself that I couldn't just join in on that part of the summer fun.

But a couple of days later, I found the old drinking journal I had been looking for. (The upside of having to crate everything in the apartment in preparation for the exterminators was finding a few misplaced items. A wee but welcome little bright side for sure.) So on Tuesday afternoon, I sat in the midst of piles of crates and boxes and read my own alternately sad and hopeful words, written over the span of a year or so, about trying to deal with what I was starting to realize was a big problem, my drinking. I have to do that sometimes, because it's impossible for me to remember how unhappy I was about how bad the drinking had got, and how hard I was trying to fix it.

Some of the things I did to control the amount I was drinking are a little bit funny, even though they're deeply sad. I remember thinking that it was completely daft to have any more than two drinks and, fully convinced that it would help me, I wrote myself a note that said, "Don't be daft!" and put it on the fridge. The note had absolutely zero effect on how much I drank, of course, but I think it did help me see that, once I started drinking, I saw no problem in being daft after all. I also had various notes and charts to help me count how many drinks I would have but I only ever kept them going for a week or so, because it's really quite dreary to write, day after day, "Planned drinks: 2; Actual drinks: somewhere around seven but I lost count."

More heartbreaking to me was the lists of problems I knew drinking was causing me--my hands hurt, my head hurt, my thinking was blurry too much of the day, I was achey and bloatey, my eyes were looking pink, and I was falling into some nasty dark spells. It was tough, reading my own words, telling myself how I was going to solve this problem because it didn't make sense to feel this awful. As soon as I felt better, I always started to think it was OK now, and then I would write that I had had one glass (or two) at some event or with dinner and that it had been really lovely and now I was planning to be super careful because I didn't want to run into the old problem again. And then the journal peters out until a few months later, when I was in the middle of the problem again, and was once again drinking way too much and trying to get a grip on it.

At one point, I had written, "What's so great about wine, anyway?" Reading it now, the question startles me. It's the right question to ask, and I think it was asking it that helped me start making the decision to really quit drinking. When I asked the question, I didn't quit right away, but I couldn't come up with a good answer. I still can't. There isn't anything all that great about wine. I had cultivated a taste for it, and though I currently don't even like the smell, I know it's a powerful drug and I could develop a taste for it again if I wanted to, but I can't really argue that taste is the reason for drinking. (As far as taste goes, I actually prefer the homemade sparkling water, lemon and bitters concoctions I rely on these days. And they go equally well with food.) I don't actually like the fuzzy feeling of being drunk. Once I started trying to have spells of not drinking for a week or month at a time, I  realized I enjoyed being social more when I wasn't worrying about whether I could have another drink yet or whether anyone knew I was getting drunk. I found I am often at ease with people, which is something I never knew because I thought I needed a drink to relax and be sociable.

I think there isn't a logical answer to my question, "What's so great about wine?" because the wine story isn't based on logic. There's an enormous cultural narrative around drinking and relaxing and the adult way to have fun, and culture works on the level of story, not on logic. It's all about symbol and image and feeling, not about what makes sense. So there is a strong pull to sit on a patio on a sunny Sunday and drink with laughing friends, except I can do that without putting wine in my glass. A pretty drink in a pretty glass is a symbol of relaxation, and it can be just as strong a symbol if there's no booze in the glass. I've been working on this: taking a look at what the cultural myths are around drinking, and seeing if I can re-imagine those same stories and symbols without the alcohol. And I think I'm getting somewhere. So I can sit on a sunny patio and drink, except I'm drinking sparkling water. I can enjoy a fancy dinner in a French restaurant with San Pellegrino or Badoit instead of wine, and experience the meal as a real pleasure. I don't think it's helpful for me to pretend that this strong cultural ideal isn't there, and it doesn't get rid of it just to say, "It's a myth." We live in culture, so we live our lives through myths all the time. But culture changes, and I think this is how we change it: by seeing what the story is--the relaxing evening, or the summer festival, or the summer picnic--and reworking it to include me, or you, a person who wants to live a good life in the world we're in and who is doing that without drinking alcohol but 100% engaging in the big ongoing world. There isn't anything great about wine. It's just a powerful symbol of a whole lot of good things, and we need to rework our symbols so we can participate in life and not miss the wine one bit.

I'm not quite there yet. Sometimes, like on that sunny Sunday, I did miss wine for a while. But later that evening when I sat with my glass of sparkling water with fresh mint, lime and bitters, it was delicious, and it looked pretty in the glass, and my partner and I raised a toast to the good life we were actually living. And we didn't need wine to do that after all.

It's almost dinnertime, and I'm about to make bouillabaisse: tomato and fennel and chunks of fresh salmon and halibut and yes, a little cooking wine, because I haven't figured out how to cook without wine in some recipes. (Wine actually makes a decent cooking ingredient, so that's one good thing, maybe.) We'll have a relaxing, romantic dinner, with some more of those fresh strawberries that are still in season for dessert along with the cardamom cream we're getting good at making, and maybe then go for a walk in the late evening light. All lovely stuff, and no need to put booze in a glass to make it special. I'm looking forward to it.

Peace and joy to you, and lovely wine-free summer evenings, too (or winter nights if you're in the other hemisphere!) xo

Friday 13 June 2014

Link: Olivia Laing on women writers and alcohol

This is not a real post but I wanted to pass this along: an article by Olivia Laing in today's Guardian about women writers and alcohol. In her fantastic recent book, The Trip to Echo Spring, Laing looks at the link between writing and alcohol among six famous male writers, and she's a strong critic of the myth that drink helps people be creative. It's probably going to irritate some people, but it's sure worth a read.


Thursday 12 June 2014

One year later: 5 months sober, feeling free.

It's taken me a while to write again after my last post. And it may have sounded to some people there that I was questioning whether I had a problem at all. So to be clear: I'm not questioning that. Drinking had become a huge problem for me, and I'm just plain relieved that I stopped. Mostly I experience not drinking as a kind of freedom from a compulsion to do something that I enjoyed but that brought me much grief. It's hard to talk rationally about the wanting that goes along with drinking, and am still sometimes gripped with an overwhelming wanting that I don't associate with booze anymore but that I don't have any other easy panacea for either. But mainly, not drinking is freedom to live, and I'm very happy I made a decision to live that way and have been managing to keep the decision alive and keep living it every day.

What I want to talk about is this: the difference between June 10, 2013, and June 10, 2014. I haven't written much about my darkest days, and I won't do a drunkalogue here, but for me, that day last year was the kind of low I never want to repeat. The previous day had been a Sunday, and my work Sundays are always challenging, and they leave me tired. My answer to that used to be to drink a bottle of wine, and sometimes a good portion of another one. That day there were also some tensions regarding a person with whom I have had serious personal trouble in the past, and who is no longer in my life but is still connected to people I know, and the tendrils of that connection sometimes felt strangling to me. None of this is an excuse. It was just a crappy Sunday that ended in too much wine and not enough sleep. The Monday morning was bad. I wasn't prone to physical hangovers, just the occasional dull head that passed quickly, but I did sometimes have killer psychological hangovers, and this one was brutal. That day, I made a deal with myself. I called in sick to work, and I found a counsellor and made an appointment. I knew I had to sort out this emotional mess, and part of that was sorting out the drinking. Calling in sick due to hangover was well out of my usual normal life. No matter how much I drank, I was always OK to do what I had to do the next day, and that was one of the points of pride that helped me think the drinking was somehow not so bad. But on this particular day, I thought it would probably be better to die, and in part, I wanted to. I have been through a couple of crippling depressions. That stuff scares me. I knew I had to try to find a way to take better care of myself, or I wouldn't be able to live. This sounds melodramatic, maybe. It's hard to express how bad I felt that day. I just knew I couldn't keep living that way, and I didn't know how to change whatever I needed to change.

I didn't quit drinking that day. I can't remember now if I took a day or two off, though that seems unlikely. I probably drank some wine that night at dinner, because I absolutely never went a day without drinking unless I was doing some kind of "quit for a week" or "quit for a month" program. But the day was a turning point. After that, it was the first time I spoke with a stranger about my drinking. I didn't start out talking about wanting to quit. I wanted to drink like a reasonable person, and get a handle on my emotional life. But I remember a moment of clarity I had in an appointment with this counsellor a few weeks later. We were talking about mindfulness, and anticipation, and trying to locate that feeling of looking forward to drinking, trying to slow down and find that and see how much of it had to do with drinking and how much was anticipation. OK, that was fine. And then the counsellor said something about all the good feeling coming in the anticipation and in the first drink, and stopping at the first one, and I felt such a boiling rage I thought I might explode. How dare she stop me like that? All that anticipation wouldn't work if I was just going to have one drink. I thought the counsellor was just crazy, and far too pious for my tastes! I was so angry with her, but I knew that was irrational, so I made another deal with myself. I decided to stop seeing her for a while and think this stuff through on my own, and I also decided to stop drinking altogether for a week while I was thinking. That became a month, then 100 days, and I thought I'd do that forever but I became scared of the fear of drinking/relapse and decided to on purpose see if I could drink again after all, and I could for a while but the old patterns seemed to be coming back which lead to me quitting for a week and that's turned into 5 months and counting by now. (That's a very short version of the back and forth, but it works for what I'm talking about here.)

This year, June 10 was a Tuesday. I had the day off work and a bit of schoolwork to do. Instead of lying on the couch in the grip of suicidal despair like I had that day a year earlier, I had planned to take the day as one of quiet celebration, maybe go for a long walk and take myself out for an espresso and a piece of that gluten-free carrot cake that the local bakery makes so very well. (Such yummy cake!) But we ended up with a small domestic crisis on our hands. On the weekend, I found these odd little bites on my hands and arms, and I had some sense of what they might be, and sure enough, on Sunday night we took our bed apart and found that we had the beginnings of a bedbug infestation. I work in the downtown eastside, and I have seem bedbugs. They don't even freak me out anymore. But it's one thing to see one or two in a neutral context. It's quite another to see more than one crawling on your own bedframe. Ick. This is the stuff of nightmares for me. (In case you don't know much about these nasty creatures: they are unpleasant, but lots of what you read about them is made up of myth and urban legend, and they are not caused by slovenly housekeeping or any other moral failings I might have.) Anyway, on the weekend, on Sunday night (the same night I'm usually tired after work) we slowly dismantled our bed and trapped the bugs one by one, and then carefully removed the bed and frame, wrapped in great swaths of plastic, out to the alley so we could take it to the dump later. And we cleaned as best we could. The next day, I spoke with landlord and exterminators, and organized a heat treatment for the apartment next week. Which needs some prep. So Tuesday, instead of lounging in celebration of being sober, as planned, I got up early and spent the day going through notes and papers and throwing out what I could and emptying my desk and generally organizing stuff so that the exterminators will be able to do what they need to do next week. They will have to move every object in the apartment in order to make sure the heat gets into all the cracks and crannies, so I couldn't have towers of books and papers related to projects I'm working on in my study space. The organizing doesn't sound like much, but I had been putting it off and it took most of the day, and then there was still the schoolwork, so I worked from 7AM till midnight and there was no long walk and cake for me that day.

But the point isn't to complain about blood eating critters. It's that, being sober, I didn't treat it as a big crisis. I didn't cry or even complain much, and I didn't lose heart in the face of the massive task. I don't like the feeling of living in a place that probably still has some bugs or eggs that might hatch. We don't have a bed right now so we're sleeping on a very narrow foam mattress. We threw away the pillows and duvet (the heat treatment would probably have saved them but my partner and I agreed that we could never find those objects cosy again) and we don't want to replace any of that until after the exterminators do their work for fear of the critters still being here (some certainly are) and getting into the new bedding, so we're using towels in pillowcases as pillows and an old couch throw as a blanket. It's like camping, but without the smell of pine trees or the sound of crashing waves or the wonder that food always tastes better outdoors. Still, we're fine.

That's a lot of detail about what is really a small crisis. But it matters to me, because I'm learning that these things are so much easier to deal with sober. Tuesday, I was mostly just grateful that I was taking the time to get that stuff done, because I had to sooner or later. Now my study space (aka the living room) is liveable again. And it's still June. We have been eating plenty of summer salads with fresh herbs, and fresh strawberries with cardamom-infused whipping cream (tasty stuff!!) and walking out to enjoy the warm, light evenings. I'm doing the work I need to do in this last week of classes, and then I'm done this degree. Last week I finished a paper and did a conference presentation and spent a few days at a big conference, talking with interesting people about these ideas I care about so much. It was exhausting and fun, and facing a wee critter crisis afterwards didn't take away any of that.

Yesterday, I was reading an interview Foucault gave not long before he died in which he talks about care for the self as a way of practicing freedom, and I felt like he was speaking directly to me. It made me laugh. Like many people, I have often found a lot of philosophy to be completely impenetrable, and I generally use "Foucault" as shorthand to mean, "all that egghead stuff that I don't understand and don't much trust." So it was a bit of a shock to find, in plain English, the clear thoughts of a man who was going to die soon and who knew it, talking about how there is freedom everywhere and how finding a way to care for the self is a way to being free and participating in social relations that support freedom. OK, maybe now I sound like an egghead. I'm not going to try to summarize the interview here, because I can't. I'm just glad I read it, and I'm very happy to be participating in this sober way of living, in which I am finding a freedom I didn't know I was missing.

Despite the bloodsuckers and some little trials these days, I'm really grateful for the way I'm living now. Thanks to all of you here with me figuring out how to keep on living it. Peace and joy to you, and freedom too. And love. xo