Sober Holiday Strategy: What If You Had To?

As Thanksgiving comes waddling at us, I have to say I am very much looking forward to another booze-free holiday season. I also realize that two years ago, the thought of enduring the stress of the holidays without booze would have filled me with gut-churning anxiety (please note that holidays are a lot less stressful without booze in the first place, but I digress). For those of you who are pondering an alcohol-free holiday season, or have committed to staying dry but are dreading it, here’s a thought: what if you had to?

What if you had to be sober? What if you were on antibiotics or pregnant or had some other medical or religious or spiritual or physical reason that took booze off your holiday table?

If there were a hard and fast rule, more than a well-intentioned whim or sheer willpower, that kept you from imbibing, would that make you approach the holidays differently? Instead of seeing not drinking as the mother of all bummers, would you perhaps instead be open to this new sober holiday experience, and maybe even be interested in seeing how you could make the most of it?

I first encountered this “what if you had to” mindset on my Peloton bike during a ride with the incredible Christine D’Ercole. On the bike, these words help me push myself beyond what I believe I can do. What if I were really cycling up a hill, and my kid was at the top, and I had to make it up to her as fast as I could? I would effing haul ass.

These five words are versatile and applicable beyond the bike that goes nowhere. For a rule follower like me, these words hold a lot of power, too. Yes, you have to surrender to your imagination. (For those of y’all who aren’t down with that, I have another mindset you may find helpful – stay tuned for an upcoming post.) But once you do, you can explore the feeling you create. Try it on, see how it feels.

See how it feels to imagine that you cannot consume alcohol over the holidays for some steadfast, set-in-stone reason. You don’t have to decide whether or not to drink, or how much to drink. Drinking is not an option, so there is no decision to be made. No draining of your well of willpower. No brainpower spent debating with the wine witch. That might feel pretty good, right?

Spoiler alert: it does. It really, really does.

Boxing Over Boozing

I went back to my MMA gym today for my 3rd kickboxing class of the week, and I’ll be back again tomorrow – a new record for myself! I have never done more than three kickboxing classes in a week. But this week’s schedule (or lack thereof) has allowed me to get over there a bunch, and I’m loving it.

To think, I almost never tried kickboxing because of a hangover.

My kids had been doing karate at this gym for several months when the manager approached me one afternoon and said I should try the adult class. This was October 2017, and I was stuck in what I did not realize was the nadir of my #winemom drinking days. I admitted to him that I had always wanted to try kickboxing, but used my Peloton as an excuse. “I don’t know if I can justify spending any more money on fitness,” I said.

“Well, here’s a coupon for one week of free classes. Let me know when you want to come in,” he replied, ignoring my lame excuse as any good salesperson would.

The coupon was set to expire on November 1. I procrastinated all of October. Also, FYI, the night before November 1 is Halloween. And I couldn’t accompany my kids trick-or-treating without my Tervis full of wine, obviously. So November 1 rolled around, and my coupon expired because of my Halloween hangover.

I showed up to the gym a couple days later to take my kids to their class. The manager asked me where I had been and why I didn’t start my trial week yet. I made some joke about drinking too much on Halloween, shame singeing my insides as I said it.

“So when did you say you’re going to start?” He asked.

“Umm… next week?”

“Ok. I’ll extend your offer for one more week.”

I can’t remember if I drank the night before my first class. If I did, I’m sure I used Herculean willpower to limit myself to one or two glasses of wine so that I could be in good enough shape to make it through. I don’t remember exactly what drills we did, or how many people were in the class with me. I do remember my hamstrings seizing up as they attempted to squat for the first time in months (years?). I remember hating how out of shape I felt. And I remember how much I freaking loved kicking and punching the crap out of that red heavy bag, despite having no clue what I was doing.

My passion for kickboxing ignited that day, in that very first class, and it continues to grow.

It was not long after I started kickboxing regularly that I realized my new passion for martial arts was in direct conflict with my passion for sauvignon blanc. If I drank the night before a class, it was a slog and I felt disgusting. If I didn’t drink, it was a blast and I felt powerful.

I have no doubt that my passion for kickboxing helped nudge me toward my commitment to Dry January that December. I didn’t know it at the time, but Dry January was the start of my alcohol-free journey that has led me here, to Day 345 of 365 (and beyond). I’m not sure I would be where I am if that gym manager hadn’t encouraged me. And even if he only did it to make a buck, I am still grateful to him for scratching out 11/1 and writing a new expiry date on that coupon.

A Grenade, Not a Balm

The day started delightfully enough. Eight hours of sleep, and then my son woke at 7 and I snuggled him back to sleep for an hour. Alas, by 2pm I was hiding in the pantry eating Bark Thins that I could only half-taste because my congestion has worsened again. Ugh.

What sent me into my pantry was a big wave of life malaise that unexpectedly engulfed me this morning. My kickboxing class was cancelled, and my allergies blew up as I ran errands in lieu of working out. As I was driving around town, I was consumed by an overwhelming, sinking brain fog: I don’t want to be home, I don’t want to live in New York, I don’t want to see anyone, I don’t even know where to start getting back on top of things. It was intense and uncharacteristic and scary.

Here’s what I did: I finished my errands, came home to relieve my babysitter, and let my kids watch TV so I could do a Peloton ride. I was hoping for an endorphin boost but the ride didn’t do it for me. So I resorted to chocolate.

But here’s what I didn’t do: I didn’t use this as an excuse to start drinking early. I refuse to dive into a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc to distract myself from the discomfort of feeling these disturbing and depressed feelings. Yes, I fed my foggy melancholy with chocolate. But for me that is a much better choice than booze.

I finished the bag of Bark Thins while my kids played remarkably nicely. And then I started to get myself together a bit. I made an appointment with my PCP and also with an allergist. I got through a bunch of emails and updated our family calendar. I drank some water and took my vitamins. And I started to feel a bit better. My allergies also calmed down after spending a few hours inside.

The day improved from there. I made things easier for myself by taking kids out to dinner so I didn’t have to cook. I’m planning to go to bed with a book as soon as I post this. This day is definitely ending on more solid footing than I found myself this morning.

As unnerving as it was, I’m proud of myself for staying present with my sad state. I didn’t deny it, didn’t try to run from it. Bark Thins notwithstanding, I allowed my mood to just be, and I took the steps I could take to help it pass.

For years, I turned to wine in times like this. And that is how I lost myself. I thought wine was the solution to melancholy and anxiety. I thought wine was a balm to soothe my stress-induced cracks. To fill my life’s fissures until they healed.

But instead of putting me back together, wine broke me apart. Wine was a grenade, not a balm. Alcohol broke me into so many fragments it got too hard to piece myself back together every morning. So I stopped trying. And started living as an incomplete version of myself.

I could not operate at my full potential because I was not full. Pieces of me were cracked, broken, misplaced. Some pieces of the puzzle that was me were jammed into the wrong spot, warping the overall image and making it impossible to complete.

No one really saw this, I don’t think. But I knew it. Wine shattered me. I’d pick up enough pieces to get through the day, only to be reshattered again that night.

I have spent the last thirteen months painstakingly – but joyously – gathering and repairing and rediscovering the whole picture of me. It’s hard work, but besides carrying my two babies it’s the most important work I’ve ever done.

Today, the picture I see is someone who has color back in her cheeks but is nonetheless run down, anxious about my upcoming leg procedure, and tired of not feeling my best. I let my fatigue, anxiety, and frustration get the better of me for awhile. But I trust in my ability to come back from all this and I know I’m finding more of my pieces along the way.

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.

Finding the Light: One Year into My Journey

One year on this journey of examining – and changing – my relationship with alcohol. A journey that began with a phone, a pounding heart, and trembling, swollen fingers hitting “Post.” The humble, guilt-laden paragraph I composed out of desperation showed up on the Connect social network feed in the Weight Watchers app, and my life would never be the same. Below is my post from a year ago, and my reflection on that post today.

12/29/17
fullsizerenderThis is me a few days before Christmas, wearing a strapless jumpsuit that fit me like a glove and in which I felt fab. I totally fell off the wagon over the holiday and am embarrassed to say I don’t think I’d fit into this same jumpsuit today. So. I’m going to start tracking again on January 1, and am also committing to a dry January. Which scares me. But I’ve become that stay-at-home mom who can’t get through the witching hour without a glass of wine (which inevitably leads to more) and that needs to change. I look forward to tapping into the power of this community to help me through and to help keep me accountable. #sobersisters I’ll take any encouragement you can offer! My heart is pounding at the thought of posting this and appealing for help, but I need it. Thank you everyone and Happy New Year to you all!


12/29/18

178 days of freedom from alcohol.

365 days of gratitude for Connect, Instagram, and The Alcohol Experiment; the books, blogs, and podcasts; for my #sobersisters from Connect; and for the brave and brilliant women who choose to live alcohol-free and write and speak and create such inspiring content that has sustained me these past 12 months.

One year ago today, it was a small but clear voice, deep inside of me, that finally took a stand and said, “Enough. Time for a change.” I didn’t know what that voice was or where it came from, but I heard it and believed it.

And now I know. That small but mighty voice was me. The real me. The me I have rediscovered over the past year. The me I want to be.

And now she is me. And that voice is mine. We are one and we have won.

I have defeated the wine witch. She may never completely disappear, I know. But she is vanquished. She will continue to try to tempt me but she will only continue to waste away.

I am still fighting other foes, and I am still a work in progress. But I have already slain my fiercest enemy. I have already won the war and claimed my prize: self-love.

One year ago today, I was terrified and embarrassed. But I was also honest and vulnerable. I didn’t know it at the time, but therein was my power. By opening myself up to receive support and encouragement from others, I also opened myself up to the possibility of loving myself again.

And I do. I found myself and I love her and I am going to continue to strengthen her and keep her healthy and safe.

#Sobersisters and teetotaler trailblazers, you illuminated the path that led me to rediscover my light this year. Let’s keep shining.

The Wine Witch Returns

I had one of the strongest booze cravings tonight that I’ve had in a very, very long time. I’m happy to report that I surfed the urge like a boss, but it was nevertheless unsettling.

Today was a loooong day. “No-school November,” as we call it around here, is a challenging time. The kids don’t have a full week of school until the last week of the month, so our tenuous fall routine has once again fizzled before my eyes, leaving me with two stir-crazy siblings-turned-frenzied-frenemies.

We managed a few successful diversions today. Kickboxing class for me (brought to you by the iPad, which kept my kids entertained for those precious 45 minutes); play date for my daughter (bless the mom of her friend, who let the girls frolic in a giant leaf pile); and a birthday party for my son (bless those parents who hosted the party at one of those bouncy castle places). But any time they were in our house my kids were either at each other’s throats or just plain rude, to each other and to me. Ugh.

By the time the witching hour finally rolled around, I had a sink full of dirty dishes with which to do battle as I attempted a new recipe which I must have botched because it turned out pretty nasty. I felt defeated by culinary chaos and exhausted from the resolve it took to not just scream my head off at my whiny, ungrateful children all day long.

My frayed nerves must have given the shriveled wine witch newfound life because all of a sudden, there she was. “You know what would make this better? Wine. A cold, crisp glass to help you escape this craziness. To help take the edge off. You deserve-”

Nope. Not happening. Scat! Go back into your hole! Bye, Felicia.

She retreated. And I began to “surf the urge.”

Why was I craving alcohol? A mountain of dirty dishes plus a particularly soul-sucking day of parenting? Welcome to Trigger City, where the streets are lined with sauvignon blanc and tequila grows on trees.

Would alcohol make anything better? No way. That’s an easy answer these days. It would have made me impaired, numb, dehydrated, and even more short-tempered than I already was. Most importantly, I would be showing my children that the answer to stress relief is alcohol. I don’t want them to grow up with that message like I did.

What could I do to improve my state of mind instead of boozing? Eat! My kids and I sat down to dinner and even though mine was pretty gross, my son ate his sugar snap peas without whining (!!!) and we ended up having a rather civilized and even – gasp! – enjoyable family meal.

But the dish mountain remained. To ward off the emboldened wine witch – well, first I ate a piece of chocolate in the pantry in the dark by myself (keepin’ it real y’all). Then I asked Echo to play the “Doing the Dishes” playlist – which is full of catchy pop music – and I got down with my dish pile while my kids funneled the last of their crazy energy into a rather adorable dance party.

I quashed the wine witch and I rallied to create something positive out of this slog of a day. And I’m proud of that. My kids are sound asleep and I am heading up to bed as soon as I finish writing. Tomorrow (a new day! Hallelujah!), I’m spinning at 6am and then I have my monthly weigh-in. So this mama needs to recharge her superpowers. That sounds better than getting my beauty rest, doesn’t it?

Either way, I am going to sleep with clean dishes and a clean conscience. Take that, wine witch!

Really, WW Mag? Booze as Your Holiday Cover Girl?

I have never been one to stand on a soapbox, and I have debated all day about whether to write about this. But the more I think about it, the more upset I get. I have to call out WW (that’s the newly rebranded WeightWatchers, y’all) and WW Magazine on their November/December cover. I am disappointed and perplexed as to why a company which has just rebranded itself to encompass the concept of “wellness” and claims to be the provider of “Wellness That Works” would celebrate alcohol as its holiday cover girl; and, further, insinuate that alcohol is the path to “health, joy & connection.”

In reality, a recent study published in the Lancet states that “the safest level of drinking is none.” Alcohol is a leading cause of disease and death world-wide, killing 2.8 million people every year. In the United States, 88,000 lives are lost annually to alcohol, making it the third-leading preventable cause of death. Alcohol is to blame for nearly 1 in 10 deaths of those aged 15-49 – the likely age bracket of the folks shown toasting wine on the new cover of WW Magazine.

How about showing hands toasting with hot chocolate? Or, as someone suggested on Connect, showing some hands toasting with non-alcoholic beverages? How about showing a happy holiday table scene that – gasp! – does NOT include alcohol?

I realize that the vast majority of holiday celebrations – including mine – involve alcohol. I am not standing in judgement of anyone who chooses to imbibe on a holiday or any other day.

But I am also a person for whom “gray area drinking” – that is, not hitting rock bottom but drinking enough to feel a lack of control compounded by guilt and shame – was enough of an issue that I have sworn off the stuff for a year. I have also come to trust in WW as a lifestyle that works better for me than anything else I’ve tried. I lost 23 pounds in 2017 and have kept it off with the help of my trusty tracker. I summoned the courage to take a break from drinking because of the incredible support of my #sobersisters on Connect. I achieved Lifetime two months ago (meaning, for those who are unfamiliar with WW, that as long as I stay within two pounds of my goal weight I have free access to the program) and plan to stick with WW for the foreseeable future.

So I feel let down by this magazine cover. I am not asking WW to take an anti-alcohol stance. But I do ask WW to reconsider its messaging. I believe that a wellness company should not promote alcohol, the most commonly-used addictive substance in the US, as integral to “health, joy & connection.”

Alcohol is not the key to “health, joy & connection.” Alcohol is the fast lane heading in the exact opposite direction.

Sources:

https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(18)31310-2/fulltext

https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2018/08/24/alcohol-death-disease-study-beer-wine/1082443002/

https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-facts-and-statistics

https://www.ncadd.org/about-addiction/alcohol/facts-about-alcohol