monkey off my back

One guy's experiences as he quits drinking


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Less anxiety = less self-medicating

In my last post I rambled about recent health results and how I used to use alcohol to deal with stress and anxiety. I also wrote about the importance of running and exercise – because it’s “proven to be as clinically effective as anti-depressants or counselling for mood-related issues”.

One of the reasons I’ve been able to quit alcohol is that I started getting on top of my anxiety in the past few years. That meant that alcohol no longer served as much of a purpose – it had actually just become a self-perpetuating routine, going through the motions without a reason.

In addition to exercise there have also been a bunch of internal changes which I’ve slowly made to manage anxiety. They’re nebulous and harder to pin down – more like an attitude than a thing I did. I think they include:

Just accepting that I’m a highly strung sorta guy. During an awful panic attack period in my early 30s I struggled to change myself to be more ‘normal’, calm and confident. All that effort inevitably made things worse – I just fixated on my anxiety and twitchiness. At one point I just said to myself “I’m just a bit highly strung and that’s OK”. It’s part of what makes me ME – if I lost all my anxiety I’d probably be less thoughtful, aware of others, analytical, smart or creative.

Not speaking to myself like a sociopath. I like the rule of thumb that “If it’s not helpful to say it to a friend, then it’s not helpful to say it to myself”. Like seriously, if a friend was nervous before a major presentation I would never say things like “OMG – you’re soo nervous! What if you stuff it up? Everyone’s going to notice. You’re going to look stupid! Maybe your voice will do that annoying voice crack thing?”. When I notice myself doing shit like that, I remind myself that it’s just not useful.

What would I say to a friend in real life? I’d probably tell them that “you’ll be fine, you’ve done it lots of times before, getting a bit nervous is completely normal, it’ll be over and done with soon, it doesn’t have to be perfect”.

A bit of physical relaxation. As corny as deep breathing sounds, when I go through stress patches I try and relax my body. When I’m stressed I usually have a tense forehead, clenched jaw, shallow breathing and tight shoulders. I purposefully relax all those muscle parts and try to breath more slowly and deeply. It doesn’t get rid of anxiety – but it makes me more clear headed and takes the edge off.

4 by 6 breathing. If I find myself really unable to switch off my brainchatter I do a little counting/breathing routine. I breath in slowly while counting to 4 (in my head), then I pause for a second, and then breath out counting slowly to 6. I usually do it with my eyes shut if I’m not in public ( you know… because  that would be kinda weird). The counting slows down my breathing AND it’s hard to count and think at the same time. It temporarily interrupts all the chatter in my head. After a few minutes I open my eyes and I feel a bit slower & more able to focus on what I have to do. That’s about as close as I get to meditation. Don’t get me wrong, lots of people love it – but it’s just not my thing.

I’ve learnt to trust myself. By my late 30s I’ve been through big stuff like job restructures, health crises, family health crises, accidents – as well as mundane everyday stresses like presentations which didn’t go well, missing trains, driving around lost etc. I’ve learnt to trust my ability to cope and to make the best decision at the time. I still plan and put thought into the future but I don’t have to think of every possible thing which could go wrong and make contingency plans and counter-contingency plans. I’ll cross that when I get to it.

Perfectionism. What I just wrote about has a name – perfectionism. I used to tie myself into knots trying to get things perfect or second guessing what someone was thinking so I could have the perfect answer. I don’t have to get things perfect – near enough is good enough (OK I’m lying – I still like things pretty well done but I’m not as bad as I used to be).

But apart from that list: I exercise my body; reduce my (high) caffeine levels during shitty patches; don’t overcommit to social obligations; don’t say yes to everything; and don’t waste energy on unhealthy relationships. This may sound ruthless but I’ve cut some people out of my life who cause more stress than they give back. I don’t do it lightly & I don’t do it if someone is just going through a rough time. BUT if you’ve lurched from crisis to crisis for most of the time I’ve known you & you repeatedly call me up crying, asking for my opinion and then doing the complete opposite… Have fun with that – by yourself.

Oh yeah – and recently I quit drinking which got rid of even more stress and made me even less anxious. It is sort of perverse that the thing which used to self-medicate my anxiety ended up becoming a major cause of it.

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Not good or bad – just ugly!

Pop culture is littered with characters which are neither good or bad – they’re just ugly.  Catwoman is a classic example – she’s not on Batman’s side (good) or the Joker’s (bad). She’s doing her own thing & is motivated by self-interest and revenge for the wrongs which were done to her. ‘Ugly’ characters throw chaos into predictable good/bad story lines & you never know which way they’ll swing.

Well that’s like my oncology results yesterday. I expected bad news but was hoping for good (especially since I’ve made all these major life/health changes).  But instead, life threw me a curve ball.  I got Catwomaned.

I sometimes have weird antibodies in my system which make the cancer tests unreliable and meaningless. At first glance the cancer results looked the same as 4 months ago – BUT – at second glance we saw that I had very high levels of those pesky antibodies. The Doctor may as well have shrugged her shoulders and grunted “Ummm – I dunno!”. Damn you Catwoman – damn you!

That brings me to living with uncertainty and anxiety. Anxiety is the main reason I drank the way I did. It started long before cancer & progressed from being fairly harmless to getting more and more extreme:

  1. social anxiety and ‘loosening up’ at parties and nightclubs – fun!
  2. relaxing with friends on Sunday afternoons and ignoring uni or work – fun!
  3. going through major work stress and anaesthetising my brain with beer to stop thinking about it – it was at this point that perfectionism started to cause problems – not so much fun!
  4. being in a relationship meant that someone began to notice how much I was drinking… but I needed more and more alcohol to anaesthetise my brain – so that’s when I started sneaky drinking to ‘top myself up’ (1 beer in public & then some vodka in private – I always had ‘something’ I needed to do under the house) – awful.
  5. alcohol became a problem within its own right. My inability to reduce or control it scared me and caused anxiety (on top of work, normal life-stress and cancer dramas). Fear of being found out also scared me (and still does). REALLY AWFUL!

Alcohol was part of a vicious cycle which was both a short-term respite at night & a leading cause of anxiety during the day. By the end, I hated the anxiety more than I loved alcohol. Either alcohol or my ability to function had to go.

Since quitting alcohol I’ve had to find new ways of dealing with anxiety. Running and exercise is definitely one of them. While I’m running I feel either:

  • completely ‘in my body’ – just feeling the rhythm of my feet and breathing
  • completely ‘away with the pixies’ – having quiet time by myself to think & debrief. Running is fairly effortless now, sometimes I snap back to real life and literally remember “Oh that’s right – I’m running at the moment”.

Afterwards I also get a feeling of short and long-term satisfaction and achievement.

The internal anxiety management stuff is more nebulous and harder to pin down… it probably requires a separate post.

Today I’m in an OK place. I can live with that pesky Catwoman BUT she is f#%king annoying!

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Dinner and fine whine.

I had a very social weekend and I’m now on a quest to find a ‘grown-up’ non-alcoholic drink for special occasions.

I went out for dinner and ‘drinks’ on both Friday and Saturday night – and it was the first time I’ve felt awkward and out of place since quitting drinking.

It wasn’t anything my friends did (they were all great). It was just the context: pre-dinner drinks at a wine bar & some ‘up-market’ venues where things are meant to be a bit special.

Coke Zero is dependable but not really exciting. I walk around hardware stores in painting shirts on Sunday afternoons sipping a bottle of Coke Zero so it hardly screams “CELEBRATION!” when I’m in my fancy pants at the opening of a new restaurant. To top it off – the bar tender gave me some attitude and said Just another Coke Zero?”.

At one restaurant there wasn’t a single non-alcoholic drink on the drinks menu except for soft drinks & tea/coffee.  So I sipped my table water while everyone chose a bottle of wine to go with the food (there’s only so much Coke Zero a guy can have).

To make matters worse, I’m also a bit fussy with food. I was vegetarian for nearly 20 years and only recently started eating seafood… So Spanish tapas was no good for me. Almost everything we ordered came with meat although the menu didn’t mention it. Octopus… with bacon.  Potato dumplings… on a bed of meat sauce.  I swear I just ate warm olives and marinated vegetables all night.

The whole experience left me feeling like either someone’s conservative old Aunt having her annual outing from the suburbs – or a super-fussy eater who goes to a Pasta restaurant and spends 30 minutes trying to order something paleo, gluten-free, lactose-free and without parsley… because they just hate parsley!

On a positive note, I had no strong temptation to drink, it was lovely to see my friends and to be in a new set of clothes getting lots of comments about how fit I looked!  So now I am on a mission to find a signature drink for special occasions. My requirements are that it is:

  • alcohol free
  • low or zero sugar
  • a bit fancy & something you wouldn’t serve children at a party
  • looks like it could be an alcoholic drink (so I don’t feel out of place)
  • has ingredients which most bars stock
  • doesn’t require complicated instructions to be yelled in a loud bar. What? TO BE YELLED IN A LOUD BAR!

I never realised how blinkered I was by alcohol. I seriously do not know what bars stock except for beer, wine, spirits and Coke (is it common for bars to stock grapefruit juice? Who can say?!).

So does anyone have any ideas for drinks?

PS: The cancer line works a treat! You could almost hear crickets chirping when someone’s friend asked why I wasn’t drinking and I replied with “Umm I quit after I got my last oncology results”… Chirp chirp chirp… Move on to the next topic!


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Life’s a beach.

On Monday I’m seeing my oncologist and I’m interested (and a bit anxious) to hear about my latest cancer blood test results.

My last oncology appointment was 130 days ago and I was really disappointed to hear that my cancer results had gone up. The results shattered my quiet little dream that my last surgery had been super-effective and had finally got rid of ‘it’.

At the time I was drinking every night & was permanently in a state of being either hung-over, detoxing or getting drunk again. After my oncology appointment I felt so low and disappointed that I got even more drunk than usual – drunk enough that I was too hung-over to go to work the next morning (a very rare event).

That was also the last time I had any alcohol (129 days today). It was my ‘rock bottom’ – and while it wasn’t a dramatic incident, I finally felt so low that I was willing to stop drinking instead of failed attempts trying to reduce my drinking.

Anyway, fast forwarding to now…  I’m reminding myself that quitting alcohol has fixed many parts of my life – but it doesn’t fix everything.  My type of cancer isn’t caused or affected by alcohol so it will do whatever it wants – whether I’m sober or not.

I admit that part of me has imagined going to the appointment and having my Doctor tell me that “WOW – it’s completely undetectable. Whatever you’re doing – keep doing it!”. But logically, the most likely thing to expect is that my cancer results will be slightly higher again – and they’ll recommend more ‘watchful waiting’ (that’s a really annoying medical term for “we’ll keep an eye on you and wait & see”).

Whatever!  I’m quite satisfied that I am now doing everything as perfectly as possible and whatever happens it isn’t ‘my fault’.

I exercise most days;  I eat a predominantly plant based diet with whole grains, beans/legumes and seafood with low saturated-fat and sugar;  I don’t drink;  I am in the middle of the healthy weight range;  I don’t smoke;  I take my medications on time everyday, I go to all my medical appointments;  I do self-checks for new lumps;  I manage my finances carefully so we always have reserves if I need them…

There’s nothing more that I can do about ‘It’. The best advantage of being sober is that it’s easier to surf the waves that life sends in my direction.


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There is none so pious as the recently converted.

In my last post I wrote about being nervous that I was visiting family. I was worried because my brother and Dad are both big drinkers & I’d have to tell them I’m not drinking anymore…

Complete non-issue!

When I told them that I hadn’t had a drink since November they both just said ‘Oh OK’ and that was it.  I could just as easily have told them that I hadn’t been to the movies since November.  No questions, no major expression of interest. My brother even had a chest infection and couldn’t drink anyway because he was on antibiotics.

They had more to say about the weight I’d lost or the distances I can run now. It’s nice to be pleasantly surprised by your own family – although comments like the ones they (and many other people) have made are getting tiresome.

I am just amazed by the double standards which surround alcohol. Sure alcohol is a known Grade 1 Carcinogen and a leading cause of liver and cardiovascular disease – but when you tell most people that you got really drunk on the weekend you’ll usually just get macho encouragement and joking comments.

But… if you talk about running or someone notices that you’ve lost weight – get ready for the health advice!

  • That can really damage your knees and joints
  • You’re fading away
  • Be careful with traffic
  • You’re starting to look gaunt
  • Some guy had a heart attack in a marathon last year
  • You’re just skin and bones
  • Aren’t you asthmatic?
  • All those car fumes can’t be good for you
  • I saw an interview with a guy with anorexia last week
  • Don’t overdo it
  • Don’t injure yourself
  • Drink lots of water
  • Are you eating enough?
  • It’s hot – watch out for heat stroke
  • Don’t lose too much more
  • Should I be getting worried about you?
  • Make sure you give yourself some recovery days

I’m a bit fed up with people giving me health advice while they’re sitting on the couch, gulping back some wine and sucking on a cigarette. My weight is in the middle of the healthy weight range for my height – and I’ve built up my running distances slowly and sensibly.  Stop giving me advice and go look in a mirror!

OH GOSH – I just realised. If I’m not careful – I might enter the phase of being a zealous recent convert. I’ve been finding myself getting a bit less tolerant and more judgemental about other people’s health behaviours lately.  Hmmm – there’s something for me to be aware of.


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It takes two to tango

I’ve got a challenge ahead of me this weekend.  I’m travelling 2000km to inland, regional Australia see my Dad and Brother for both of their birthdays.  It’s a rough, hard-drinking part of the world – a bit like a modern day Wild West… and then there’s also my family!

I’ll have to ‘come out’ as sober this weekend because both of them drink like fish. My Dad is an argumentative old man (even when he was younger) so I’m expecting a “Pah – that’s stupid. Why would you do that?” response.  Even if I deflect it with my “It’s because of the cancer” routine, he’ll still try & push boundaries & argue that a couple won’t hurt.

My brother will be easier – he’ll probably say “Uhhh OK” with a confused ‘does not compute’ expression. The only issue will be that we don’t get to talk (beyond surface stuff) and bond unless he’s a little bit lubricated with alcohol. He’s had some rough stuff going on lately, which has been made worse by alcohol, and I can no longer rely on a drinking session to get him to open up. This time I’ll have to rely on charm and panache!

Both my Dad’s and Brother’s social routines are limited to activities involving alcohol.  I’m completely confident that I won’t drink but I’m imagining scenarios like going out for dinner & sitting at a bar with them as they slowly get drunk… while I sip on my Coke Zero feeling like a prudish third wheel.

I’m aware that my Dad is getting older and is quite unwell for his age – so I want to have a warm, quality, enjoyable time…

Actually forget most of what I just wrote:

  • I’ve been more unwell than both of them
  • I’ve been ‘going through stuff’ as well
  • I’m travelling 2000km & spending hundreds of dollars to see them

I don’t have to take responsibility for bonding with them. It takes two to tango – and I’m doing my bit. How they respond is up to them.