November 20, 2018 by Julia
What do you do with the restlessness in your belly?
Our culture is confusing when it comes to alcohol. We are avid supporters of our sober friends, but for the rest of us who do drink, liquor is approached with a particularly American mix of protestant shame and/or excessive glee. We are a country of extremes. A few years ago, I literally dragged the kids into a liquor store. (Maryland doesn’t allow liquor to be sold in grocery stores, which is less convenient, but I assume it helps to support sobriety, so I’m not really complaining).
We’d just been to the playground. The kids were tired and didn’t want to get out of the car, so eight-year-old Fiona was doing her best to guilt me about wanting alcohol in the first place. Jack did the limp-kid routine across the parking lot, and then as soon as we entered the store, yelled his five-year-old version of what Fiona had been arguing in the car: “MAMA, you DRINK too much!!” I had him by the arm, as he was trying to collapse by the entrance. Every single person in line at checkout looked up at us, wide-eyed. It was a total record-scratch moment, like something out of a preview for a comedy about a harried mom.
You may be wondering: Do I drink too much? The most honest answer is: I don’t know, half the time. I’m figuring it out. And I think there are a lot of adults who can relate to this. So, I’m writing about it.
This is where I fall on the alcohol dependency spectrum. (That’s the best way I can think to put it.) Since college, I’ve loved the lack of inhibition that comes with social drinking. I’ve made myself sick by drinking too much – fairly often back then, occasionally now in my late thirties, too – but I don’t “black out,” or forget all the things I’ve done. I don’t think I get mean, but I have put my foot in my mouth or embarrassed myself many times. These episodes of heavy drinking have naturally gotten to be less frequent as I’ve gotten older, and haven’t happened in terribly irresponsible ways, for example around the kids, or before I have to drive. Meanwhile, somehow, I can hardly remember how it began…I started keeping wine, beer or margaritas at home. After the kids were born I gradually slid into a nightly pattern of putting them to bed and then pouring myself a glass. I have never hit a “rock bottom” or “crossed a line” that suddenly made me “wake up” and realize my own need to go sober, but for a long time, I’ve felt uncomfortable with my apparent dependence on alcohol to relax.
When my psychiatrist, a few years ago, suggested that I stop drinking my evening glass(es) of wine because it would essentially cancel out the anti-depressants, I was devastated by the suggestion, which was made flippantly and without a hint of sympathy. I no longer see that psychiatrist, because I felt her manner lacked sympathy about nearly everything else, too. But I was devastated by my clinging to that glass of wine a night, and by the idea that I should do away with it. I stopped for a few days and missed it terribly. Of course, this was during a period of depression, and I decided that I had to hold onto the things that were still giving me pleasure, so I took it up again. No matter that the psychiatrist was probably right in some ways. She just didn’t know how to help me get to the right place.
Where is the line drawn? It must be some combination of where you draw it for yourself, and what the people around you are telling you.
All I know is this: When I go out with friends or family, I often look for my first drink like oxygen, to help me relax into whatever the social situation is – no matter how well I know these friends, or how comfortable, in theory, I should be. Sometimes I feel this need even more when I am especially close to the people I am with – I feel the pressure to make the conversation count, to be guileless with them, and speak of important things, and not betray how tense I feel. The tension is not their fault. It’s just me, and my anxiety. It’s just there, and I don’t want it to ruin things, so I drink.
At home, I am motivated by different fears and desires. It’s an odd thing to realize, but I fear boredom and disappointment possibly even more than I fear social awkwardness. I need to know that when I am working throughout the day, something good is waiting for me in the evening, whether it be Rest and Relaxation, entertainment, communion with someone or something. I fear that the rewards of the evening will not balance out the work of the day, and what then? How can I survive, then? What if I can’t really relax, or my entertainment options never hit the right mark? TV bores me if it’s not sufficiently profound, thrilling, or funny. I often push myself to finish reading books that aren’t enjoyable for me, too, as though it’s a moral issue. It’s hard for me to settle down and enjoy something that accomplishes nothing. There has to a point to every activity. It has to make me better, or the world better. Drinking, of course, helps with this by slowing everything down, by making the boring things more vivid or profound or fun. It also becomes an activity to do while watching or reading, because God forbid, I only do one thing at a time.
This is what I mean by the restlessness in my belly – that unsettled feeling, like you don’t know what to do with yourself. It’s probably what the kids mean when they whine that they’re bored. It’s what Dennis means when he describes something as “just okay.” Mediocre and disappointing, can be somehow, sometimes, be harder to hold than experiences that are indisputably bad.
Wine helps with all of that, but it also pushes away the core issues. I’ve wondered lately what would happen if I just sat with myself in all my fears and boredom and “just okay-ness” in the evenings, without that glass of wine to dull the restlessness. Also, the fact that I’ve been so afraid to tamper with this somewhat deadened, automatic habit gives me a clue that there might be some kind of treasure hidden here. Fear can lead us to the things we care about. Why am I deadening my cares in the evening? What am I so afraid I will find in my downtime, without something dulling my senses? Depending on alcohol has made me feel like a coward, I think. I would like to be braver than that.
So, I decided a few weeks ago to try not drinking three nights a week. It helps me to view difficult changes to my life and habits as mere experiments. I don’t have to commit to anything if it’s clear over time that it’s not working for me…but why not try new things out, especially if my instincts have been pointing in that direction for years?
Because I’m a planner by nature, I kind of look at my week and decide in advance which nights will be the “wine” nights. I decide which nights I will enjoy it most, and try to not worry about the nights when I won’t have it. It’s strange to just sit and be okay on the couch at night without a drink in my hand. It’s not quite as boring as I feared. Some nights are crappy, but that’s going to be true of life either way. The observer in me enjoys looking around and seeing how things feel different without alcohol in certain situations, like during Sunday dinner at my parents’ house with my siblings.
I’ve been surprised to find that I struggle more with not drinking at home than I do in social settings. But: I feel good about this choice. I think I found where my own line is on the alcohol dependency spectrum, and I think I can stick to it. I feel empowered this way, and more in charge of my habits, rather than a slave to them. I feel clearer and more resilient. Because I am facing my fears, essentially, rather than escaping them with a glass of wine. If I can do this, I can do other things. I can survive other mediocrities and awkwardness and uncertainties. And there will still be good things on the other side, whether it’s a “drinking night,” or not.