Dealing with drinking in these times

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Photo by Thomas Martinsen on Unsplash

This article is cross-posted from my weekly newsletter, The Sunday Soother, a newsletter about clarity, intention, and useful tips for creating more meaning in your life that goes out every Sunday morning. Subscribe here. I am also a coach who teaches you mindfulness and thoughtful self-reflection so you can stop second-guessing yourself, make decisions confidently and live the life you’ve always dreamed of. You can learn more about working with me here.

Back in simpler times — aka on March 1 — I wrote a newsletter about my reflections on taking a 30-day break from booze. This is what I mused about at the time:

I learned a lot of things about myself and my relationship to booze during these short 33 or so days: When I’m alone, the urge to drink is usually to distract me from something — primarily loneliness or boredom. When I’m with others, the urge to drink comes from a sense to connect more deeply, or conditioning from the atmosphere, if we’re in a bar, restaurant or at a dinner party. Not drinking has made my anxiety MUCH better, but also made my emotions MUCH more all over the place — since the alcohol was being used as a tool to suppress emotions, that makes sense that they might come strongly to the forefront after a month of no booze. It’s really easy to ask for non-alcoholic drinks wherever you are. I got went to bars and got mocktails; I went to dinner parties and brought seltzer; I hosted a dinner party where I did not provide wine but welcomed people to bring their own, and it was fine to watch them drink but not have any of my own. And now that I’m through with Dry February, I… have no idea what my relationship to alcohol is, should be, or why or when I’ll drink again. I believe I will continue to drink on occasion, but the question on my lips is now… when? What will the parameters around that look like? Since I was drinking as much as I felt like all the dang time beforehand, by default — happy hours; parties; while cooking; out to dinner; watching Netflix — now that I’ve become more conscious about it, the question for me doesn’t seem to be “How fast can I go back to that state of near-daily drinking?” but instead “What are the situations in which I would actually WANT to have a drink? Where having a drink would actually INCREASE my joy, connection, presence of the moment?”

After that email and before mid-March, a.k.a. when it was clear I was not leaving my home for a long time, I had drinks twice, both very mindful occasions. “This is my new normal,” I thought smugly. “Alcohol doesn’t hold its buffering or distracting powers over ME any longer!”

What’s the saying? When you make a plan not to drink, gin laughs? Yeah. You can bet your prettiest coupe glass that as the triggers for my drinking in the past shot up — boredom, loneliness, anxiety — I found myself making an excuse to have a cocktail or more pretty much every single night.

Now, if the making of a cocktail for you brings you joy, and you don’t feel as if it’s doing you harm, do you. I personally know that for me, when I’m drinking unconsciously — that is, just grabbing booze on a daily or near-daily basis to help shove some feelings down — it turns into an unhelpful coping mechanism for me, not a joy or a delightful ritual.

Things got better when my boyfriend came down about a month ago to stay with me, simply because he only drinks once a week, and also, I was less bored, less lonely, less anxious with him around. I’m hanging out at about having a drink 3 nights out of the week currently, but with the rising anxiety and fear and endless hours, I hold on to the promise of that first glass of wine each week real hard. A lot harder than I would like.

But I’m also trying to give myself grace during this time. I became mindful about my drinking before; I can do it again. I’m also letting myself indulge in my two biggest other buffering tactics — nail-biting and over-caffeination — simply because, if they help, but aren’t helpful in the long-term… well, at least now, they help. And that’s okay. Shaming myself around these habits has never once worked in my life, despite what you might believe, so I’m finding the compassion for things I’m doing now that I would rather not be doing in an ideal scenario. Because now ain’t ideal.

Off of my last email, a lot of Soother readers wrote in about how their relationships to drinking were also becoming more mindful or changing, and I’ll share a few excerpts below. How’s drinking, or not drinking, or thinking about drinking, going for you these days? I’d love to hear. I know there’s a lot of thinking going on about this gray area of drinking these days — not sober, but a lot more mindful about when you’re imbibing — and it helps me personally to hear how other folks are thinking about it.

Onto the reader excerpts (PS which were all sent to me pre-COVID)!

Reader M.: I read this at work this morning and was just standing there nodding my head and being wowed at how timely this conversation is for me in my own life — in a ‘dry’ period myself after quitting a job I hated, leaving a living situation I hated, moving to a new city for a new job, living alone for the first time, and breaking up with my long-term partner all happened between December and Jan, and I also had the reckoning of how alcohol had become an almost daily coping mechanism, and was a relationship in my life I wanted to reassess (hence the dry period in the midst of the most change I’ve experienced in a short time period in a long time). Which is all to say, I’m so happy to see that others are thinking about this too, because I think there is a ton of shame around talking about this and keeps people from being more open (certainly true for me). So, thanks, and I’m really interested to see what you decide. I also have no idea what I will do once my dry period is up, and so just keep prolonging it because it’s easier for now. But this is so relevant and making me feel better and I’m eager to see how this evolves!

Reader C.: Just wanted to say how much I enjoyed your report on ‘Dry February’ and your feelings throughout … I think many (most?) of us have a complicated relationship with alcohol, so it’s always one to reassess and evaluate. From my side, I’m trying to set myself some basic ground rules in terms of what I can and can’t do. I relate to a lot of the drinking scenarios and situations that you’ve brought up, and those can be hard to avoid, but more than that I also enjoy the taste and the ritual of a good drink. A nice red wine or a well-mixed cocktail can be just as satisfying as a tea ceremony to me … The key is approaching them with the same level of mindfulness rather than it becoming something habitual or that you take for granted. I’m still working on this though, as it’s easy to begin with the right intentions, but get carried away as ‘the hit’ takes hold. Beyond that, I’m trying to set aside certain nights of the week and/or occasions for when it will and won’t happen. Not rules per se, but something close to that, which helps to regulate the flow and provide some advance knowledge of my actions. It’s part of something I’m trying to implement in my life anyway — getting a bit more of a routine happening in certain areas — so it makes sense to apply it here as well. We’ve tried to implement a ‘chill night’ once a week where we make nice classic cocktails and listen to records while doing puzzles or something very old-school like that. The drinks are an accompaniment and a part of the evening that we look forward to as much as the rest … Again, it’s about being more mindful and putting more thought into our consumption. I could also be totally rationalising and spiritualising my drinking — haha — but at the moment it seems to provide a nice balance and some kind of framework in which to proceed. Again, it’s about knowing when to take a step back, and not letting things go too far. That’s fine on occasion — especially with friends having a good night — but if it’s becoming the norm then there’s a problem.

Reader A.: I have been thinking about my relationship to alcohol for a long time. I have a few situations when basically, professionally (I work in the corporate world), I feel I “need to” drink. Often this involves drinking too much (probably 60+% of the time I drink more than I think is fun). In every other sphere of my life, I have either stopped drinking or stopped drinking more than 1 (max 2, on weekends) drinks. There are exceptions to this, and I have (just this week) discovered that the exception is: I drink when I think I am not cool enough for someone, when I am pursuing them (not in a scary way, just like they are not accessible to me for whatever reason), and/or when I do not like them much and therefore project that they also do not like me. So my new plan is to stop doing that. And notice when I’m doing it. Both things, really — the work drinking and the insecurity drinking. What has been magical is that I have been fine either giving up entirely or mostly giving up alcohol. In my opinion, people do well to realize what are the unhealthy reasons they drink, and what are the more-healthy reasons. I drink alone when I am avoiding something, I drink to avoid rejection, I drink to make people like me, and I drink to make things that I don’t want to do bearable. More healthily, I like to enjoy time with friends, for example, or trying/enjoying wine and beer. So my rules are: don’t drink alone, have 2+ days in a row without any alcohol (Monday/Tuesday are great days for this), and alternate drinks with water so you aren’t doing that thing where you don’t remember how much you’re drinking. Also, in college I made up a rule: don’t do something if you have to drink to make it bearable. I’ve cut out a lot of work events as a result, with no negative impact on my career. Good luck coming up with your own rules! I think it’s useful, and sometimes fine to break them :)

Teaching awakening + healing through vulnerability + self-compassion. Finding hope in a messy world. Author of the Sunday Soother.

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