monkey off my back

One guy's experiences as he quits drinking


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Fitter at Forty.

I turned 40 a few weeks ago and I’m feeling great. Earlier this year I set myself a goal of being fitter at 40 than I was at 20 and I think I smashed my goal! I can run further, run faster, lift more, my weight’s the same, my asthma is better, my blood pressure is the same, my cholesterol is perfect… All the body systems I have some control over are running fantastically!

This is not an angsty ‘teeth gnashing’ blog post – although I’m going to write about my experience drinking on my birthday.

I was in a social situation and accepted a glass of champagne. One lead to another – and then a few more. I didn’t drink nearly as much as I used to although it was still quite a lot – it was like when one of my moderate drinking friends has a big night.

So what did I learn from the experience?:
• It reminded of things I don’t like about drinking: holding my breath while snuggling in bed with my partner (so he wouldn’t smell my breath); waking up with a dry, claggy mouth and a blocked nose; having a mild hang-over; feeling lethargic all day. Generally I felt flat and a bit bleurghh.
• I still can’t moderate my drinking – after I started drinking I kept going until I was buzzed. It’s easier to turn the tap on and off than it is to reduce the flow.
• It wasn’t as good as I remembered. I let myself get pretty buzzy – but I stopped earlier than I used to. The warm, disoriented feeling wasn’t as pleasant as I remembered – and I was too aware and focused on observing the experience to actually enjoy it.
• Weirdly my alcohol tolerance was still quite high. I thought that my tolerance would have dropped after 10 months. It still took a similar amount of booze to get me drunk.
• I compartmentalised the incident and ‘got back on the wagon’ quite easily. The following day I just woke up and told myself that it happened because it was my 40th birthday – but  now it was over. I didn’t beat myself up or wallow in ‘I’m such a loser’ self-talk like I used to.

The last point is the nicest one. Sober days used to be a rare abnormality which I squeezed in between amongst my drinking routines.

In my (nearly) 10 months since I decided to stop drinking I’ve done a good job filling in the empty spaces which were left by alcohol. I’ve become really passionate about some things and created new sober routines. A practical example is running: I love feeling light, free and energetic while I’m running and the smug satisfaction afterwards. All my senses get activated – I’m outdoors looking at the world, paying attention to my breathing, feeling the impact in my legs, tuning in to my energy/stamina levels, having time out, thinking about my day…

Now that I’ve built new routines it’s easier to draw a line under an isolated drinking relapse. I used running as a specific example but it’s much broader than that. I generally feel clear-headed, get good night’s sleep, have a full tank of energy, am able to focus and stay in the moment, and I’m not getting that empty/anxious feeling. I also like the spare time which sobriety gives me.

I won’t pretend that it felt fun and a bit naughty to have a few drinks on my fortieth but I don’t have room in my life to keep drinking anymore. I’m just not willing to quit running.

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With head, heart and hands

A lecturer at Uni once asked us to identify whether we identified most with ‘head, heart or hands’. I know it’s a bit wanky but it’s just meant to mean whether your strongest tendency is to trust logic, emotions or action. I identified the most with Head and then second with Hands – thinking/reasoning and then action/doing.

I reckon that when it came to problem drinking, and finally quitting, my emotions were more important than logic.

For years I was stuck in a loop. Logic told me all the reasons why I had to control my drinking. I had pro/con lists, I knew about health implications, I knew about cycles of addiction, I knew heaps of recommended strategies to reduce or quit, I knew it was damaging my relationship… but my hands still did nothing (well – apart from continuing to lift a glass to my mouth).

I sometimes wonder “what the hell was I thinking?” when I remember some of the things I did – things which were really bad for me and completely illogical. Two situations come to mind:

I’d had surgery and was kept in hospital for a month because of surgical complications. I had been on total nil-by-mouth for a few weeks and I was told to ‘gently restart a normal diet’ when I left hospital. What do you think I did on my first night at home? I got drunk! Seriously dumb.

And another time…

I was being admitted to hospital for a procedure – so what did I do the night before I was admitted? Yep – I got drunk. And not my usual drunk – but really damn drunk. I’m pretty sure I was still a bit drunk, or at least very hung-over, when I arrived at the hospital. Smart thing to do in the middle of major medication changes and before a treatment dose.

Brains, logic and rationality have usually worked well in most parts of my life – but in the area of alcohol my brain was useless.

Emotionally I had probably been stuck for a few years in a protracted process of grief and loss about my drinking (see graphic).

IMAGE 3

I moved fairly quickly through shock, anger and denial – but I got stuck trying to bargain with ways to keep alcohol in my life. The continued failure to do that really led to depression. My head realised that I had to stop trying to moderate my drinking and just quit completely.

Eventually my drinking got to a point that the fun emotional experiences (relaxing, excitement, confidence) stopped and I was only left with the shit ones (increased anxiety, depressed, tired, worried, self-hatred). It’s not a dramatic ‘rock bottom’ but it was just a point when drinking purely caused pain and stopped being fun. It was at this point that my heart finally started to listen to what my head was saying.

I think my ‘testing’ period was when I started booking into those ‘Sober Challenge Months’ to raise money. I realised that by the end of the month I was feeling really good – and soon after starting drinking I was back to feeling miserable. The sober challenges also gave me some confidence that if I really wanted to I could stop drinking.

When my head and heart finally stopped saying “I should stop drinking so much” and agreed that “I will quit” – I finally got off my ass and stopped. I guess that’s the main point about ‘head, heart and hands’ – all 3 should be in alignment.