A Three-Part Conversation About Alcohol with My Seven-Year-Old Daughter

Part I: The other day in the car

My daughter and son were singing made-up songs (one of their favorite pastimes). My daughter said, “Listen to this one!” She proceeded to sing two lines of a silly song, and the final word of the rhyming couplet was “beer.” I stopped her and asked why she was singing about beer. She answered that she was repeating a song she had heard at school.

“Beer is a grown-up drink and it’s not appropriate for kids to sing or joke about it,” I said.

“Why?”

“Well, because beer is not something kids can have. And if a grown-up drinks too much of it, he or she can get sick.”

We left it at that, my daughter and son jumping back into their silly songs; and me reeling, trying to replay the conversation and figure out if I needed to say anything else, wondering who was singing about beer at school, and, admittedly, judging the kid and his or her parents.

Part II: Bedtime, Super Bowl Sunday

Perhaps spurred on by seeing beer commercials during the Super Bowl, my daughter asked, “Mommy, what’s alcohol?”

“Alcohol is a drink for grown-ups. Beer and wine are types of alcohol.”

“Oh right. And if you drink too much of it you get sick, right?”

“Yes.”

“Then why would a grown-up drink it?”

“Well, some grown-ups like the taste of it. And if you drink a small amount, you don’t get sick.”

“Do you drink alcohol?”

“Actually, right now I am not drinking alcohol. I used to drink wine, but I decided I didn’t like how it made me feel. So I stopped. I am not drinking alcohol for a whole year to see how healthy and good I can feel without it.”

“Are you ever going to drink alcohol again?”

Before I could stop these cowardly words, out they came:

“I don’t know. I might. But it would only be for special occasions, like if Daddy and I go out for a nice dinner or maybe at Christmas-”

Pause here. As these words came out of my mouth, they felt like a betrayal. To my daughter and to myself. After all, I was just telling her I don’t like how alcohol makes me feel, and then there I was telling her that I was going to go back to drinking it. And I used Christmas as an example! UGH. This past Christmas was so much more wonderful without wine. And yet there I was, admitting to my daughter that because it is a “special occasion” that that meant I would choose to drink. In that moment I enforced a subconscious neural pathway in her mind that grown-ups need to drink alcohol to celebrate and enjoy holidays. F.

I could see the confusion on her face. “But why would you drink it if it makes you feel sick?” She rightfully asked.

“Well, in small amounts it doesn’t make you feel sick.” UGH WHY ARE YOU MAKING EXCUSES FOR POISON AND REINFORCING PRO-ALCOHOL MESSAGING WITH YOUR OWN CHILD?! STOP!

“Does Daddy drink alcohol?”

“Yes, he drinks something called hard cider which is like apple cider but with alcohol in it. He likes the way it tastes so that is why he drinks it. He drinks maybe one or two every month, which is not a lot at all.”

“Well I am never going to drink alcohol.”

“I think that is a great choice and a strong choice and I’m very proud of you.” [And kicking myself for how I just handled this critical exchange.]

Part III: The next evening, while out for a walk with dogs and scooters

“Take my hand, Mama,” she said.

As we held hands and walked with her scooter I said, “I wanted to talk to you about something. Yesterday, when you asked me if I would start drinking alcohol again and I told you I might drink at Christmas, it bothered me that I said that. Because last Christmas was, like, the funnest ever, and I didn’t have any wine then, so why would I want to have any on any other Christmas? That would be silly! I don’t want you to think that when you’re a grown-up you have to have alcohol to enjoy a holiday or any other special day.”

“I know. That’s why I’m never going to drink alcohol. I hope that your friends make good choices like you, Mama.”

* * *

In my daughter’s mind, it’s simple: if alcohol can make you feel sick, why on Earth would you ever drink it?

It was that simple for all of us, once. And I’m starting to believe that it can be that simple again. If that is the neural pathway I choose to traverse, back and forth, over and over, it will become smooth as a silk carpet. I believe I can get there. And I hope when I do my daughter is still there, standing tall and strong in the glow of her simple yet profound wisdom.

From Plateau to Progress

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My Monday kickboxing class is different from Wednesday and Friday. The latter days are super fast paced, calorie-torching, muscle-scorching. My Monday instructor focuses more on technique, which makes for a great balance. His combos are also more dynamic and technically difficult, so even though the pace is slower I always end up sore after his class.

Even though I had a crappy night of sleep thanks to my Frenchie who was up throughout the night, and a hectic morning due to my mutt who had an early vet appointment (if it’s not the kids, it’s the dogs!), I made it to class today. I felt fresher than anticipated, and as the class progressed I felt strong and agile.

I felt strong. I am strong. I can do real push-ups now, with proper form and all. I can throw a Superman punch and I can kick someone in the head (you know, if I ever needed to). I am learning more, and feeling more natural doing these moves and combos, each week.

Each week I see progress. I am continually building physical and mental strength. I am becoming more confident as I progress not just in fitness, but in other areas of my life too. Parenting. Marriage-ing. Writing. Cooking. Volunteering. Connecting.

When I was drinking, I was not progressing. I was plateauing. Yes, life went on around me and I went with it. My babies grew into kids. We moved houses. I exercised with sporadic dedication. I took on various volunteer gigs. I did things.

I did things, yes. I had a wonderful life and I felt happy and lucky and all that. But I was only going to get so far with booze by my side. And the plateau that had held me for so many years was starting to crumble.

No one around me saw it. Or at least no one ever said anything. But I saw it in the mirror every morning. And I felt it, from my toes to my heart to my brain, every hour of every day.

At first, that plateau had felt like a slinky, sexy dance floor. But years later, it felt like a dance floor at dawn – sticky and suffocating. Still, I stayed. Because I didn’t know where else to go. I didn’t know what lay beyond the confines of this dance floor that was once shiny and exciting but now disgusted me.

One hangover too many, and the edges of that dance floor began to crumble into quicksand. I jumped. Before I could be swallowed. I jumped with no confidence of my ability to escape the quicksand, but I knew I had to try.

From soft rock bottom to rock solid ground. No more dance floors for me (at least not metaphorical ones). No more plateaus, only progress.

Out of the Gray

I was a gray area drinker. A wine mom who sought comfort and validation in kitsch and memes that enshrined alcohol as a Swiss Army knife to survive the wilderness of motherhood: easy to use, and appropriate for any and every situation that may arise.

I drank in good times and in bad, in celebration and stress and sadness. Sometimes I got drunk, but mostly I didn’t – except on Friday nights, when an entire bottle of sauvignon blanc was my “treat” for “surviving” the week.

As time passed, the buzz I sought on a near-nightly basis was found deeper and deeper down the bottle. Slowly but surely I became more reliant on wine and less in control of my consumption. Thinking about drinking took up more and more time and space in my day and in my brain.

#winemomlife was exhausting in all the wrong ways. So much wasted time and energy and money. So many calories. All to feed a habit from which I received no benefit beyond the wee hit of dopamine as I poured my first crisp, cold glass. It was all downhill from there; and yet I’d wake up and do it all again the next day.

This was my gray area: a sour, inescapable fog that I thought was the price to pay for the fun and privilege of drinking. Except as more time passed, I realized that I had stopped having fun and drinking now felt like a burden, not a privilege. I had fallen to what was, for me, soft rock bottom. Michael Bolton, not Ozzy Osborne. I was addicted but not completely powerless. I did not need professional help but I needed to boss up and help myself.

I am so grateful that I did not ignore my instincts. I listened to the voice inside that told me, “Enough. Enough now.” She may have just been quoting “Love Actually” but I heard her and I trusted her.

It has taken a long time to get to day 202. A lot longer than 202 days, to get here. I have tread water, waded through denial, been bombarded by guilt and shame, and stopped and started more than a few times. But by simply listening, and trusting myself, I saved myself from rock bottom. I saved my family from profound pain and strife. I saved my kids from lifelong scars. Even though my life was not in imminent danger, I saved it anyway.

I will never know how many drinks away from rock bottom I was. But wherever I was, it was too close for comfort.

I hesitate to give advice in this space. I’m here to record and share my journey, and if I inspire others along the way, well that is pretty awesome. But I’m not going to tell anyone what to do or how to do it. Because everyone’s relationship with alcohol is different. And everyone’s relationship with one’s family, friends, and self is different.

But please allow me one moment to ascend a soapbox and say this, because here’s the thing:

If your inner voice pipes up and demands change, please listen. You don’t have to know how to do it. And it doesn’t have to happen overnight. But listen. Trust that you will figure it out. And know that you are worth it.

Two Hundred Days

Two hundred days since I’ve had alcohol. And two days since I’ve taken a shower. But I wanted to post a selfie today, because this is a milestone after all.

Two hundred days ago, on July 5, I felt relieved and excited to commence this one-year journey. One hundred days ago, I landed in London for my first-ever solo sober international trip. Today, I endeavored to spend as much of this snowy day on the couch as possible. Less momentous, but delightful nonetheless.]

I got 2/3 of the way through a beautiful book on country home design despite dealing with cabin-fevered kids up here in NH. The kids and I also had a great romp around outside, climbing into the old chicken coop and trudging through a foot of fresh snow to explore a couple of abandoned animal pens alongside the field behind our house that we had never noticed before. A little fresh air and a lot of relaxation.

Spending my 100th day in London was coincidental, but deeply meaningful. That trip proved to me that I can travel to a place that I love, where I have myriad booze-drenched memories (both good and bad) from our years spent living there, and not be triggered to drink. I delighted in experiencing the city with complete clarity and I love it more now than ever.

Spending my 200th day in New Hampshire is coincidental, but deeply meaningful. I have no booze-drenched memories in our 240-year-old farmhouse. I have never had a drink here. There is not a single bottle of wine to be found. I have never been buzzed here, never woken with a hangover. I have experienced our adventures here (both good and bad) with complete clarity and I love it more every time we visit.

While London symbolizes my past, this farmhouse is a symbol of my future. We bought this house to have a place to unplug, relax, indulge in hobbies, and connect with nature and each other. We have always dreamt of renovating an old house like this and making it our own while honoring its history. This sweet house – even with its mice and crumbling plaster walls – is the realization of a dream. And I’m experiencing it in living color.

That’s what happens now, by day 200. Dreams are realized. Goals are attained. Connections are nurtured. And so is the self.

So I may not have showered for this selfie, but I am relishing this milestone. On we go.

Six Months Off the Sauce

Six. Months. Pause. Take a deep breath. Let this accomplishment fill your lungs and your gut and your heart and your brain. For someone who once struggled to make it for one day without drinking, half a year is truly monumental.

All those keywords that have captured various milestones along this journey apply to this one too:

Clarity
Pride
Contentment
Presence
Love
Peace

But what is different now? What have I gained that I didn’t have at one month, at 100 days, at four months?

One word comes to mind: steadiness.

Six months in, I am steady. I am not struggling, I am not wavering, I am owning my choice to be AF.

All those questions that kept me off kilter for so long – Should I drink today? Is it too early to start drinking? How much can I drink? What if I just have one more glass? How about I just finish the bottle so I can start with a clean slate tomorrow? – are gone. In their place is quiet. Space to be creative and curious. An inner calm that I never had when I was drinking.

The wine witch has diminished from Voldemort in The Deathly Hallows to Voldemort in The Sorcerer’s Stone. Almighty force to wimpy wisp. And I am one woke former wine mom who is too happily ensconced in my booze-free zone to ever let her gain power over me again.

Over the past six months I have experienced enough holidays and special occasions to be able to say this: I don’t merely survive them; I delight in the new normal of experiencing them without alcohol. And each and every one of these occasions has been – without exception – better and more enjoyable because I did not drink. I never thought that would be true for me, but, as my kids would say, it SO is.

Will I go back to drinking when this year is up? The million bottle question. My answer remains the same as it was on day one: I want to not want to go back. Yet I still can’t imagine my life without another sip of any type of alcohol, ever. So, when my year is up, I will either drink a bit on special occasions or I won’t. Either way, I will never go back to where I was.

I wish I was ready to say I’m done forever. I dream of writing a book about my journey that can sit on the shelf beside the other amazing “quit lit” I have read over the past year. But I’m not sure if my story has the same ending. If it doesn’t, does that make me weak, or make my journey any less significant? It probably makes me less likely to ever get published, that’s for sure.

Maybe my journey is not merely about answering the question “to drink or not to drink.” Maybe my journey is about unlocking the door to my true self – a door that had been locked for too many years. Ditching booze was the key and an old wine cork is my door stop. Self-acceptance and self-love swirl about in abundance on the other side, and I am never letting that door close again.

I’m only halfway through this year. I don’t know what I’ll be writing in July and that is OK. As long as I continue to move forward with honesty and without judgment I know that I will conclude the story of this year right where I belong.

Pondering an AF Anniversary Vacation

Last night, in a New Year’s fit of overachieving productivity, my husband and I sat down and looked at our calendar for 2019 to schedule some house projects and travel. This September we will celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary, and we are determined to ditch our kids for a week. Our previous record since starting a family seven years ago is two nights away, maybe three, so this is a biggie for us. I clicked to September 2019 in my Google Calendar and saw that I had already blocked out the week of our anniversary with “NAPA!!!!”

I remember doing this. I can’t remember exactly when it was. Probably a couple of years ago. My husband and I were talking about how, for our tenth anniversary, we would do a real vacation somewhere fabulous and far away. I have been to Napa twice: once for a wedding at a venue just on the edge of the region (read: not Napa prop-a), and once to do the wine train with my husband and his aunt and uncle… whilst 13 weeks pregnant. Both were day trips. So while I have been to Napa, I have never really experienced Napa (read: touring vineyards and drinking my face off).

When my husband and I had that initial tenth anniversary conversation, going to Napa seemed to be the perfect way to celebrate. Wine! Romance! Beautiful scenery! More wine! We both agreed, and I put it in the calendar.

When I saw it there last night, I deleted it, instantly and instinctively. Because going to a wine region is no longer the perfect way for me to celebrate anything.

We talked about Europe. Portugal? France? But those don’t feel right anymore either. A couple travels to Portugal to drink port, and France, like Napa, to drink wine. I don’t know if I will be drinking again in September 2019 – my one year is up this July 4 – but whatever my status, I know I will not feel comfortable basing a romantic trip around a location famed for its booze.

I felt – still feel, kind of – guilty about this. On a world map, I now see big red X’s across some of the world’s most spectacular regions. By not drinking I am limiting the possibilities of travel that my husband and I can do. And we love to travel. We have a long, long list of places we want to see in our lifetime together. But now that list is littered with asterisks: *only if Jen is drinking.

My husband is a take-it-or-leave-it drinker. I am a take-it-and-drink-it-and-drink-some-more drinker. If I decide to remain alcohol-free, it’s unfair to him that my choice to not drink will interfere with our mutual desire to travel together to beautiful places all over the world. Places we both want to see and experience together, and where we would want to be all romantical and stuff. A bunch of them are marred by big red X’s now. And it’s my fault.

This self-inflicted guilt hit me like a punch in the face. And it hurt.

“Well,” my kind and supportive husband said, “we can just turn trips to places like Portugal and France into family trips.”

Family trips: where my not-drinking would be a virtue, not a vibe-crushing bummer. Look, kids, Mama doesn’t need to drink wine in Bordeaux to have fun! I guess that could work.

This morning I still felt like a foreseeable future buzzkill. Reflecting further upon last night’s conversation, I realized that I needed to do a little mental pivot. Instead of this: “We can’t go to Napa because Jen can’t drink or else she’ll plummet back into her gray-area soul-sucking watering hole,” let’s try this: “We aren’t going to Napa because Jen doesn’t like wine.”

I mean, I feel fine saying that I don’t want to go to Aspen because I don’t like to ski, and that Malaysia is not at the top of my travel list because I don’t like extreme humidity. So what if a few of the world’s most beautiful places just dropped down past Malaysia on my travel list. There are a lot of other spectacular spots on this planet that are notable for things other than alcohol. We’ll just prioritize those instead.

We still haven’t decided where we want to go. The space held on the calendar for “NAPA!!!!” is now simply “Anniversary Trip.” But when we do choose a destination, I’ll once again break out the all-caps and exclamation points. This time, with pride that my husband and I found a romantic place that also compliments my healthy lifestyle.

A 180 in 2018

I once used this holiday as an excuse to start drinking early and then I’d spend the rest of the day thinking about my next drink while feeling guilty about the drink in my hand.

Today, however, has felt fresh and delightful. Like so many other milestones this year, this day has been remarkable in its new normalcy and I have enjoyed every moment.

We hosted a Noon Year’s Eve party (nine kids under age seven!), complete with a countdown to 12 o’clock and a balloon drop. I also put an entire basket of laundry away and used my Instant Pot for two different meals. From the momentous to the mundane, today has been a joy. I have reveled in the clarity, lack of grumpiness and guilt, and surplus of energy. Yay.

Today is day 180 of my one year alcohol-free. What a fitting way to end the year, on day 180. Because that’s what this year has been for me: a 180.

On the tightrope that is the spectrum of alcohol use, I was tiptoeing deeper and deeper into dependence. On January 1, I stopped, turned around, and started heading the other way. I looked behind me several times, and took more than a few steps back. But I am now confidently striding in the direction of alcohol-freedom.

2018 has been the best U-turn I’ve ever made.

So here’s to delighting in the mundane and rejoicing in the momentous. To gut hugs galore. To feeling all the feelings. And to life’s U-turns and other spectacular gifts.

Happy 2019.