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.

No Day But Today: Day One of My OYAF*

*One Year Alcohol-Free

I woke this morning with a dry mouth and puffy face, the result of two margaritas and a few sips of wine: my last alco-hurrah before embarking on my 52-week experiment in sobriety. I had planned to drink one last glass of Sauvignon Blanc to say farewell to my drinking days. But by the time I got to it I already felt queasy from the margaritas and zillion tortilla chips (because ‘Merica) so I could only manage a few measly sips.

It was a good ending note, actually. I could have done without the nausea but it was reassuring (in an albeit unpleasant way). I had planned to have a few drinks, to celebrate Independence Day and my own impending independence from alcohol. But my body didn’t want ’em. There will be less to miss, I think, now that I know I’m no longer capable of “having a few drinks” the way I used to “have a few drinks…” every night.

I have had Sauvignon Blanc, my shining beacon of fabulosity, on a pedestal for the last several years. She has been my savior, my salve, my BFF. She has comforted me, chilled me out, lifted me up.

Except she’s a devil in disguise. A fraud broad. A knockoff handbag sold out of a trash bag on Broadway. At least that’s how she has been revealed to me. Everybody is different. But my body is onto her, even if my still-smitten brain wants to give her another chance. And another.

For the next 365 days, that won’t be an option. I’m locking the door to my mental trophy room and letting the key fall into the bottomless pit of my mom bag, to rest among the half-crayons, Hot Wheels, and used tissues.

Why am I doing this now?

My gut has announced that now is the time. I have a year before my son starts kindergarten. So, a year to figure my shit out so that I don’t feel completely gutted when he struts onto the school bus. That same September, in 2019, I’ll be celebrating my 10th wedding anniversary. I’m still a couple of years away from turning 40, but I want to lay the groundwork now to feel amazing by then.

I am closer than I have ever been to my best body ever. And I have been doing Weight Watchers for long enough now to know that I can’t effectively address my eating issues (read: battle the sugar-and-salt monster) with the shadow of alcohol looming over me. Willpower is a finite resource, after all.

As the phase of early motherhood comes to an end for me, I need to be able to think clearly and creatively about where I’m heading. I know I can’t do that if I continue to be seduced by Sauv B. Those days are over. For now. Maybe forever. But definitely for now. And I have a feeling that if I ever chose to open that door again, I’ll find Sauv B’s pedestal has crumbled to dust.

My First Session with The Food Therapist

You can’t make better, more consciously driven food decisions that are in line with what you really want for yourself and ultimately reach your health and bod goals if you don’t examine the roots of this vital relationship. – Shira Lenchewski, MS, RD

I finally started reading The Food Therapist today, and there is already so much to digest (pun intended)! Through a quiz that is included in Chapter One, I’ve identified that I have three main food-related hang-ups:

  1. Trust Issues – I feel like I have no willpower and I don’t trust myself with certain foods (and booze). I feel like I can’t keep certain foods in the house for fear that I will eat them in one go. I often eat things I shouldn’t, and/or eat too much.
  2. A Craving for Control – I am a rule-follower, so I get mad at myself when I overeat and follow that with a heaping serving of guilt. When I do stick to my food rules (i.e. staying within my daily and weekly Weight Watchers points), I feel like I’m winning. When I don’t, I feel ashamed, guilty, and depressed.
  3. A Dependence Issue – I “treat” myself with food in both good times and bad. I eat when I procrastinate. And in all of these moments, I tend to overeat which of course makes me feel worse than I did to begin with (or makes me feel bad when I had been feeling great).

The goal is to accept that I have these tendencies, dig deeper to understand them, and then figure out how to manage them. Hmm. Ok, I’ll play.

Shira provides a neat little Venn diagram to show the forces behind our behavior around food. According to her diagram, my food issues (trust, control, and dependence) are both emotionally-driven and mistrust- and negativity-driven. All true! I have used food to self-soothe ever since I can remember. I was never taught about proper nutrition and had a crappy diet as a kid, so I have basically never felt nutritionally empowered or in control of food. And I am also a veteran negative self-talker. So there you have it: 37 years of food issues, summarized in one short paragraph! Am I done? Am I cured of my food woes? No?

“… these forces will always be there, so it’s up to you to get better at anticipating them and identifying your personal vulnerabilities in order to start making conscious eating choices that are in sync with your ultimate goals.” – Shira Lenchewski

Ah, ok. So this is gonna take awhile.

The forces will always be there, she says. I will always have emotions. I will have triumphant days and garbage days and I will feel feelings about all of that. Will the mistrust and negativity always be there? Ugh, I hope not. But realistically, and certainly for the foreseeable, yes. It will take a long time to build trust in my relationship with food. And negative thoughts will inevitably creep in.

I’m feeling hopeful, though. This is going to take a LOT of work – this is only Chapter One! – but I am worth it. I don’t want my kids growing up with food hang-ups like mine. Tonight at dinner my son asked me what I was eating – spiralized butternut squash – and my daughter said, “That’s so healthy. Mama always eats healthy stuff.” Eureka! There is hope! For me and for my kids (and maybe even for my husband)! And maybe one of these days some of those squash spirals will end up on my son’s plate without an epic battle ensuing. A mom can dream. And in the meantime, get herself sorted.

A Lower-Stakes Slump

… and I can’t even blame it on Royal Wedding withdrawal. Though that’s not helping.

For the last few days I have been slumping HARD y’all. Eating crap, not logging enough hours of sleep, not hydrating, feeling junky and filling my body with junk in an unhealthy cycle. Granted, this used to be a lot worse when alcohol was in the mix; but it’s still no bueno and I need to get a handle on it.

I weigh in tomorrow and I will have gained weight, I’m sure. I have about two months until I fly back to London for my MBA class reunion and I want to feel just as fab, if not better, than I felt for my high school reunion a few weeks ago. Starting tomorrow (fresh week, fresh points) I am re-committing to staying within my points until my reunion. I’m also going to start reading The Food Therapist by Shira Lenchewski, hoping that this book will help me get to the root of my eating issues.

Help me, Shira!

I’m frustrated. Because at this point, I have tools. I have knowledge and awareness that I did not have before starting Weight Watchers last year. I have also conquered my alcohol cravings, a feat which I believed impossible until I achieved it. But now sugar has assumed the role previously played by alcohol in the rom-mom-com that is my life. And I know I have to dig deeper.

Willpower is a finite resource. My willpower is running out routinely right now – just like all those days I would wake up and promise myself I wouldn’t drink, only to open a bottle of wine during witching hour desperation. Every day I wake up and start tracking my points, determined to stay within my daily and weekly limits. But by the afternoon, my cravings take control and there I am, scouring my pantry for anything chocolate-y enough to appease. This doesn’t happen every day, but it happened too many days this week (and this month, and this spring) and here I am on Sunday afternoon, feeling bloated and exhausted and sugar-hungover and weak.

I was able to ditch my dependence on alcohol by educating myself and using the tools that Annie Grace gives us through This Naked Mind and The Alcohol Experiment. So many of these tools seem applicable to food cravings as well – yet I find myself balking at the commitment to using them in that way. I could make a list of non-negotiables (e.g. “I will not enter my pantry between 1 and 5pm” or “I won’t eat chocolate alone”) but, frankly, that just seems silly. And the stakes aren’t nearly as high. I’m not going to crash my car if I drive under the influence of chocolate.

This is not an emergency situation. While I’d like to lose a little more weight, I am still hovering within a few pounds of my original goal. Right now I’m just a girl, looking at a bar of chocolate, trying not to put it in my shopping cart. But just as I hit the wall with my relationship with alcohol, so too have I reached that point with sugar. Something has to change. I am tired of overeating sweets and feeling like I have no control over my cravings. It’s time to put in the work.

So this week I will start reading The Food Therapist. I’ll write about it too, because writing gives structure to my soul-searching. I will also get more sleep, continue to slay my exercise goals (the one thing I nailed this past week!), and give myself grace. I deserve to feel my best and not beat myself up if I stumble along the way. It’s time to turn this slump right-side up.

Me at Sixty (Days Alcohol-Free)

Today has felt like a normal day. A bit better than average, perhaps, what with my Peloton PR this morning, beautiful weather, and kids who ate their veggies without starting World War III. 

And then I remember that today is Day 60. I have not had a sip of alcohol in sixty days. I absorb that. I do a silly little mental dance that is a celebration of both the milestone and the normalcy. 

I am not at the end of a marathon. I am at the beginning of a new era in my life. An era of self-kindness, self-love, self-care. An era of energy, creativity, curiosity, gratitude. An era of joy and contentment. A time when not every moment will be happy, and no moment will be perfect, but every moment will be beautiful in its clarity.

More concretely though – because back in my drinking days I never could have imagined what it would feel like to go for 60 days without booze: 

How do I feel, having gone for 60 days without booze?

I feel lighter, both physically and mentally. I am still about the same weight that I have been, plus or minus 5lbs, for the past year. But I am less puffy and bloated. Mentally, I feel like a weight has been lifted as my willpower has not been drained on a daily basis with the to-drink-or-not-to-drink quandary. 

I feel stronger, both physically and mentally. Physically, I am stronger because I have been very dedicated to my spinning and kickboxing workouts. It’s a lot easier to exercise when I’m not feeling like crap! Go figure. But I am also mentally stronger. I have been building brainpower, breaking down my former beliefs about booze, and forging new neural pathways. I have been educating myself, and reinforcing this new knowledge by writing and applying these new tools in my everyday life.  

I feel more energized – and beyond that, I have more endurance – both physically and mentally. I marvel at how I am able to get through the day with a constant stream of energy. I no longer feel broken by the time I’m putting my kids to bed. I honestly didn’t know life could be like this! Mentally, I have regained the creative energy that I thought I’d lost due to #momlife (spoiler alert: it was actually due to #winelife). My brain is hungry, y’all. Hungry to learn and do and try and be.

I feel less anxious. That’s not to say I don’t still feel anxious sometimes, but my formerly crippling anxiety is now minimal and manageable.

I feel healthier on every level of my being. From my non-existent seasonal allergies and my clear skin to my clear head and my clear conscience. With all of that comes a new level of kindness and grace that I now give myself on a daily basis. The positive self-talk is actually happening now. I’m even buying more organic foods and health and beauty products. Which may seem like a silly thing, except it means that I now see myself as a worthwhile investment.

I now see myself as a worthwhile investment. 

I needed to type that again. Because it’s true. And it’s wonderful.

Alcohol’s role in my life has diminished from a controlling, willpower-draining force to a wisp of its former self, a mere passing thought that is (usually, though not always) easily dismissed. 

And oh, have I filled this void. There have been times where I’ve filled it with sugar and salt and carbs. But mostly I’ve filled it with good-for-me-goodness: positive self-talk; healthy foods; exercise; an authentic conversation with a friend or family member; reading and writing; play and snuggles with my kids. 

Needless to say, I don’t miss drinking much.

Am I going to stay alcohol-free? No. I am going to have a pomegranate margarita when I go out to lunch for Mother’s Day with my mom this weekend. Do I hope it’s not as good as I remember? Yes. Either way, will it derail me? No.

Because I have come too far to tumble back down to where I was. I am still on a journey. I am not committing to “forever.” I am committing to my non-negotiables, hoping that these lines in the sand will continue to guide me to my best life. I am committing to more reading and writing and learning. I am committing to loving myself and loving my life every day as much as I do today – if not more. And that is enough, for now.

My Alcohol-Free High School Reunion was Not Torture

On Saturday morning I woke at the buttcrack of dawn to walk my dog and squeeze in a Peloton spin class (burn, calories, burn!) before driving to suburban Philly for my 20th high school reunion.

I have vowed to take a 60-day booze break. Saturday was Day 55. I may not have done a lot of math since high school, but I was able to discern that this would be an alcohol-free reunion for me. My first ever alcohol-free reunion, in fact. Yikes. But ok. I can do this.

So I did. And it didn’t suck! At all!

How did it not suck being sober at my high school reunion? Let me count the ways:

WILLPOWER

I made the decision before going that I was not going to break my 60-day commitment. I also had one of my non-negotiables to guide and support me: “I will not drink when I have to drive, or if I am traveling alone.” So I had a full tank of willpower that I could put towards other decisions, keeping me on track (almost) the entire day. No booze or junk food boost-and-crash roller coaster for me!

ENERGY

It was a long day, from the driving to touring around the school and a picnic lunch, to the class party that night. Lots of schmoozing. I needed all the energy I could muster and I knew if I drank my energy level would plummet. Instead I felt a constant stream of energy the entire day. And that was much more refreshing and long-lasting than a drink would have been.

AUTHENTICITY

I am so happy to have reconnected with old friends and former teachers with an authenticity that is inherent in not having a fuzzy, boozy brain. I felt confident. I felt sure of myself. I felt 100% present. I felt content to be there just as I am. And that is incredible to me.

I was able to tell my French teacher that he was the greatest teacher I have ever had and when he bashfully rejected the compliment, I said, “I used to be bad at taking compliments too but I’m trying to get better at it. Here’s all you have to do. Say ‘Thank you.’ Now let’s try this again.” We did, we laughed, he said “Thank you,” and it felt amazing to have put that goodness out into the world and into his heart.

FIERCENESS

Apologies if this sounds a little vain, but my skin and body looked GOOD. I CAN’T BELIEVE I JUST TYPED THAT. But I’m not going to let myself delete it, because this is important. It has taken a long time and a LOT of work to get myself here: I am happy in my life and proud of how I look.

On Saturday night I fit into a dress that I haven’t worn since my mini-moon, right after my wedding in 2009. I’ve held onto it all this time for sentimental reasons. I thought I would pass it on to my daughter. I never thought I would be able to wear it again and I think it fits me better now than it did 8.5 years ago.

My high school friends knew me as a fairly athletic but never thin girl with a cute face that was unfortunately riddled with acne. I am thrilled that I was able to show up feeling fit and pretty. What I look like on the outside, I think, also reflects how I have evolved on the inside. I did not need alcohol to give me superficial jolt of dopamine masquerading as confidence, as I have in the past. How freeing that was!

FUN

Y’all, I just had a great time. And being fully present only made it better. Snooping around the school and reliving the laughs and drama of our high school days. Marveling at how technology has evolved. Appreciating what a great education I received and reflecting on how my years there shaped my life. Catching up with everyone I could, from acquaintances to very dear friends.

And I was there. I was 100% there.

My only misstep in what was otherwise a wonderful day was eating a brownie with ice cream at 10pm, after the class party. I couldn’t fall asleep until 2am because of the sugar! Oops. But I’m trying to be kind to myself and see this as a lesson learned. I’m still adjusting to how much more sensitive my body has become to sugar since I’ve been alcohol-free. And I’ll take fatigue over a raging hangover any day!

Alcohol-free high school reunion achievement unlocked. Next stop: Day 60!

My Alcohol Experiment: Day 12

Day 12 of The Alcohol Experiment: WILLPOWER!

Willpower is a finite and exhaustible resource.

I cannot stress enough what a revelation that was to me when I first read it in This Naked Mind. Willpower is a FINITE and EXHAUSTIBLE RESOURCE. Running out of willpower does not mean you are weak. OMG! I am not a weenie! I am not a weakling! I just have a zillion decisions, big and small, to make on a daily basis and by the time I get to the end of the day my willpower well runneth dry.

What a relief, what a weight lifted, to know that there is scientific evidence proving that willpower does not offer free refills.

Is this a major lightbulb for anybody else?

So if I let a glass of wine be an option, as firmly resolved as I may be at the beginning of the day, by the time the witching hour strikes and I am worn down from #sahmlife, that glass that was so easy to say no to earlier in the day becomes truly, completely irresistible. I literally cannot resist it, ‘cause Mama ain’t got nothin’ left y’all.

Before Dry January, before This Naked Mind, any time I tried to lay off the booze I did it with sheer willpower and white knuckles. It was exhausting and irritating, doing it that way. If I made it to the end of a day without wine, I would feel an ounce of pride and about twelve thousand pounds of misery. It. Weighed. Me. Down.

My willpower still gives out way more often than I’d like. I have had a lot of trouble with sugar cravings since cutting out booze, especially in times of extra stress. During my dad and stepmom’s recent visit, I would routinely retreat into my pantry and stuff my face with any salty or chocolatey treats I could find – and then I was sidelined for four days with vomiting and extreme fatigue. I think this was part legit stomach bug, part stress and angst, and also my body’s reaction to a multi-day junk food onslaught (but at least I didn’t drink!). Dealing with my parents took so much out of me that I had NO control over my food cravings and made myself sick.

So, yeah, willpower gives out. And I personally need to work on how to cope in a healthier way when that happens.

But it’s not our fault. And that can be so empowering if you let yourself believe it.

Also in this lesson: don’t drink because you’re bored. Let yourself be bored. In boredom lies creativity and maybe even genius. How great is that?!

[The Alcohol Experiment is a free, interactive 30-day program designed by Annie Grace, author of This Naked Mind. For more information: www.alcoholexperiment.com.]