100 Days

Well, would you look at that. After years and years of struggling to achieve three days of sobriety (“I did two in a row, and then only had a couple of glasses on the third night. I don’t have a problem after all! Where’s the corkscrew?’) I’m at one hundred days. Just over three months. 100 days of not picking up a glass of wine, 100 sober mornings, 100 afternoons enjoyed for themselves and not for the countdown to oblivion that they represent.

My last drink was on a warm evening; the ice cubes in my glass melted as I sipped, I averted my eyes from the way my upper arms looked in a sleeveless dress. Tonight the windows are fogged with condensation from the contrast between the near-zero temperature outside and the heater inside. I have a huge bowl of lentil soup waiting patiently for me to stop writing and eat it. The seasons have changed, and so have I.

Before I say anything else, I do want to make it clear that I am under no illusion that I’ve cracked sobriety. I know there’s a debate out there between the AA mindset that you are always perilously near your next drink, and the mindset that if you count days and stay mired in the alcoholic world, you aren’t truly free. I don’t know enough to have a position on this. All I know is that the idea of having an alcoholic drink is so repugnant to me right now that I will do everything I can, for as long as I can, to avoid having one ever again. So everything else I say should be tempered with the caveat that this is only the beginning of a lifetime journey.

However. This is my valedictory speech, damn it, and I’m delivering it.

You guys. YOU GUYS. I am so happy. It turns out I’m a pretty decent person! I am a nice wife, I am a good friend, I am a (mostly) conscientious employee. I am a fucking fantastic mother.

That last one has blown me away. I mean, I thought I was pretty decent before, but mostly – as I have come to realise, thanks very largely to some awesome commenters, of which more later – because I was compensating madly for my shame and guilt and deceits. Every time I found myself counting down the hours until the first glass of wine, which was every day, I would do a mental check of how well I was doing as a parent, so as to reassure myself that I wasn’t hopelessly failing my children. Had they had more than their allotted half hour of television? Had we been to the park or at least outside that day? Was their dinner home cooked from scratch, using wholesome ingredients, or was it more instant? Was it alright that they’d had more television but also a lot of park if I cut corners on dinner? How many stories should I read at bedtime? Did 2T + O/2 + 3B – 1FP = Decent Parent, or not, and if it did, surely I could have that glass of wine before they were in bed?

I no longer make those calculations. Some days I just let them watch TV all afternoon, some days we do three times the writing practise because Big Girl wants to, some days we just all sprawl about in a happy tangle of notcaring and wallow in one another’s company. And it’s all fine, because I love them and I trust myself that that’s enough.

It should be enough. Because the actual love is so, so much more. It bubbles over, it spills out. I have gone from a prickly parent, one who jealously guards her space and pries sticky fingers off her legs, to one whose children swat away with an irritable ‘Not KISS me ‘gain, Mama’. I am astonished by this. It is revelatory; so this is what other people mean when they talk about all encompassing love! I always loved them, I always adored them, but I loved them through a glass darkly. Now we are face to face, and known.

I’m not saying that they don’t irritate me. Or that I don’t long for their bedtime so I can pick up my book in peace. And not all of this change is directly attributable to the lack of alcohol; some of it is them getting older, and a lot of it is a secondary sobriety effect, in that I am much, much better at guarding my space now. But when we’ve recharged and come back together, it is superlative. It is beyond everything, and if this were the only thing that I had gained, it would be enough.

But it is not, of course. It is only one thing of many. I have gained sleep; gorgeous, voluptuous, sleep. Sleep as rich as heavy cream, as sensuous as silk, sleep like the sleep that overwhelms my children, sleep that, it turns out, was never reserved for them. I have gained my looks back; I took a photo the other day, to show somebody my new haircut, and my eyes shine like sapphires against glowing new skin. I have gained confidence, and energy, although I will never be one of you mad 5.30am people. Not with sleep like mine. No contest.

I have gained this blog. This blog has been huge for me. This is the first time since my teens that I have written this consistently, and the first time I have ever had an audience. And it is life-altering. It won’t ever be anything except this, in and of itself, but it has shown me that this is what I want to do, I want to write. And for the first time in forever (oh, goddamnit, now I have that song in my head) (and so do you, I expect. Apologies) I have the confidence that I can write. I can sit down, day after day, and make time to do the thing that makes me happiest in the world, and I won’t sabotage that. Augusten Burroughs says – find something you want to do more than you want to drink. This. This is what I want to do. Forever.

And you guys! Who knew you were all out there? Talking, and listening, and writing, and sharing, and wrapping your sober arms around the troubled world. You all say such amazing things. In the early weeks, I read hours and hours of sober blogs, entire archives, story after story, and there wasn’t one post, ever, that didn’t help. I read and I thought – oh she’s right, I never thought of it that way! Or I thought – oh, thank Christ it’s not just me. Or sometimes, in wry recognition of my own failures, I would feel sympathetic and determined and warier than ever of the traps. And when I complained that my life wasn’t transformed at three weeks sober, you didn’t laugh, or you kept the laughter to yourself, and instead you reassured.

I am not angry that I can’t drink. I am not sad. I am glad that I can’t drink, and that in finding that out, I have found so much more. I have been given gifts beyond my reckoning. Mostly, I guess, I have been given myself. And it turns out, I think I’m pretty fucking amazing.

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Wine is just a vehicle

It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon; the last weekend of autumn but somehow warm enough that I’m sitting outside a cafe in half sleeves, light pants and ballet flats. There’s a busker somewhere nearby, and my hand trolley is full of fresh ingredients, biding their time until the children are in bed later and I shut myself in the kitchen with my CD player and cook a week’s worth of meals. Chickpea, cauliflower and eggplant curry; pea and ham soup; roast pork with all the trimmings; lentil soup, apricot muffins for the school lunch grind. LH is at home with the girls, constructing fairy wings out of old stockings, coat hangers and glitter.

Yes, you could indeed guess that I’m happy in this moment.

Approaching three months, I’m happy most of the time. I miss wine in the abstract, sometimes; the idea that LH and I can’t just flop on the sofa together after a hard day with the girls, crack open a bottle of red and settle back into easy conversation seems very unfair when I think about it. But I rarely miss drinking in the here-and-now any more.

When people talk about strengthening their emotional muscles as the sober days tick past, I always took them to mean that they grew better at resisting cravings. As if those muscles act only in reaction, pushing back against the force of the craving to end in deadlock. Talk about sitting with the cravings, distractions, avoiding the vulnerable times, gave me the impression that the point was to get better at saying no, and that it ended there.

But what I’m realising is that it’s more than saying no to a craving. It’s about saying yes – honouring the real need behind that craving and finding better ways to meet it. As time goes by, I meet those needs more and more with other things first, without going through the step of saying no to wine. Do you remember my friend, who said the same thing, about ringing the Solutions Desk in your head? ‘After a while, you stop asking for alcohol. Alcohol doesn’t work here anymore’.

So what did I want to feel yesterday, at my party? Pepped up, cheerful, energetic, bright; Diet Coke it was, and talking, and volunteering to lead the children in a chasing game outdoors. After everyone had gone, I wanted to feel relaxed, indulgent, sleepy. A peppermint chamomile blend in my pretty mug* and the Enigma Variations in my earbuds. Tonight I’ll find the space and solitude I need at the end of a busy weekend by shutting myself in my kitchen, a literal door doing what wine used to try and achieve metaphorically.

Because wine is just a vehicle It’s not a destination. And once you know where you’re trying to be, you can use other vehicles to get there just as well. Better, in fact, because wine has a habit of detouring through Drunkville, but now this metaphor is in danger of going off its own tracks, so let me get back to the point. Alcohol is just a thing that gets you to a place, and it turns out that despite its promise, it doesn’t have exclusive rights to utilise that road.

Hop in your sober car instead. The music is better and the scenery stays crisp. It’s quite the ride.

*You GUYS. I meant to tell you. My mother-in-law, on her first evening here, asked for a cup of tea and took down MY MUG to drink it from! A whole cupboard of matching crockery and she reaches for what is literally the only drinking vessel that isn’t part of the set. I was, you will be glad to read, very restrained about it.

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

This post, from ‘There’s more to me than this’, talks about how incredibly useful wine boxes (known as casks here in Australia) are to the problem drinker.  They were so useful to me that I wrote the following comment, which I’m sharing here because even as I typed it, I felt disbelief that this was my life I was describing:

Box wine was my huge signal that there was a problem, as well. The […] thing I liked about it was that it wasn’t just easier to hide the levels from myself, but from my husband. So I’d get to Day 3 or so, realise that it was now noticeably a lot lighter, stay up past his bedtime and finish it – but leave it in the fridge, trusting that he wouldn’t need to pick it up to access something behind it the next morning – and then go and buy a replacement one after work the next day. Sometimes I’d replace it when it was only half empty, so that he’d think the same box was just staying half-empty for longer, and then sub the first box back in. If we emptied one together (one that had been officially in the fridge for three weeks, but was in reality three boxes) I would decide to cook a casserole that called for white wine in the recipe the next day, so I had a decent excuse to go and grab another one.

 

Between that tactic, and the fact that I only ever refilled my glass if he was out of the room, he is STILL convinced that at my worst I drank about two large glasses of wine a night, a bit more on the weekend.

It’s so odd to type it out! It just became such a matter-of-fact thing to do. Like I wasn’t scheming to get wine and HIDING CHEAP CASKS IN MY HOUSE and lying to my husband, I was just…you know. Doing what I needed to do, no big deal, carry on, nothing to see here.

It’s a funny thing, living with a drinking problem.  It requires an awful lot of disassociation to sustain.  I mean, obviously the above is abnormal.  OBVIOUSLY!  And yet, on a day to day basis, I was just getting on with it.  Thinking about when I could replace a cask, because I didn’t like taking the girls through the liquor store but I rarely had the opportunity to go there with the car without them in tow.  Waiting until LH went for a shower, or upstairs to check the girls, and quickly nipping back to the fridge to top my glass up so he didn’t notice I wasn’t making one glass last for two hours.  The first time I read Drunk Mum I was fascinated, horrified, thankful that I wasn’t like that, and also frightened.  The second time I read it, I wondered if it really was possible to sneak a hipflask of vodka into a suitcase and not have your partner notice.  Because things shift, day by day, one lie at a time, and each one feels insignificant. 

Motivational speeches about achievement use analogies like climbing a mountain.  One painful step at a time, concentrating on the next, and it’s only at the end that you look down and realise how high you are.  But not all journeys are the right ones, and steps on a journey you don’t want to take, to somewhere you don’t want to be, happen one at a time too.  The difference is that your mind employs every trick it can to prevent you from noticing where you’re going.  So you concentrate on the step, sure.  But also, you look at the road ahead, and you reassure yourself that it’s very long.  There’s a thousand miles left.  You only took one step.  One step is nothing.  You look at the scenery.  Oh, hey, that’s a pretty flower!  You’re just looking at nature, out here, enjoying the air.  Not going on a journey, not really.  You might turn around and go home soon, once you’ve just seen what’s up this next path.  It’s only a few steps, and the steps don’t matter, what matters is that you’re not ready to stop walking yet.  The less you want to get to your destination, the less you allow yourself to notice the steps you’re taking on the journey.  Is it getting harder to breathe up here, or is it just you being paranoid?

And one day, you stop and you look around and you’re so, so much further down the path than you thought you were.  How did a stroll turn into a hike?  How the hell did you get here? 

How did I get there?  How did I turn into somebody who kept a mental list of which store I’d last bought my cask from, so as not to go back within the month?  How did I tell myself, whilst hiding wine in an ottoman, that I wasn’t that bad, pretty normal really?  I drank wine after my baby was in bed, knowing that the chances were high that she’d wake at least once for milk while there was still alcohol in my system.  I drank alone, past midnight, knowing that the next day I’d be unlikely to finish an important task because of the resulting hangover.  I drank although my weight crept inexorably up, I drank although I was buying clothes from charity shops.  Right near the end, when my daughter started school and I organised my working day to finish in time to pick her up, I drank at 4pm, with my daughter and her friend playing upstairs, and I cleaned my teeth at 5 before the friend’s mother came to collect her.

Step by step, that’s how I got there.  Step by step, looking anywhere but at where I was going, thinking about anything but what I was doing.  

Here’s another thing about climbing a mountain, though.

It’s easier on the way back.