Many of us humans spend an inordinate amount of time bellyaching over small decisions. We also spend a lot of time making the same mistakes over and over, having to spiral back to the same lessons repeatedly until we learn them. Allow me to free you from at least one issue tied up in both of these problems: Buy the damn concert tickets.
Just buy them.
This topic is a bit of a departure from my other posts, I know, and I'm sure you are all just dying to read part two of my skin picking story, but indulge me here. Because the universe is whispering "Buy the damn concert tickets" into my ear every day lately, even louder than it usually does. And so I'd like you, dear readers, to also benefit from that lesson.
Why should you buy the concert tickets? (Or gather around the street musician, or bring the guitar or the karaoke machine out onto your stoop, or go to the free outdoor show, or go to the sing-along musical at the movie theater, or go to the dance party at the festival, or go to the bar where your friend is spinning records).
Yesterday on my bike ride to work, I was listening to social worker and researcher Brené Brown's new book, Braving the Wilderness, which is basically a fiercely honest roadmap of the only way we might be able to dig humanity out of the mess of divisiveness we're in. I highly recommend it. I was listening with thoughts still lingering in my mind of my weekend of two amazing live shows- one of which culminated in the audience standing and singing We Shall Not Be Moved and Gracias a La Vida with Joan Baez and Lila Downs. (Not lying. I couldn't make that shit up.) It was a purely magical experience. I'd been thinking all weekend about how amazingly alive and connected I feel at shows. So much so that I was inspired on Sunday to commit a lot of money and travel a lot of miles to go with my friends to see Tori Amos play in Oregon in November. So I was riding my bike on Monday, and Brené's talking in my ear about the importance of connecting with strangers, now more than ever. The bridges that we can build with simple but emotional experiences. Then, like she's reading my mind, she begins talking about concerts. About all the studies indicating that experiencing music with others is one of the fastest, most powerful ways to build those connections. Music is so immediately visceral, it's no wonder it's one of the best and easiest ways to connect with strangers. To name and unearth our pain, and to experience joy. This information rings so true, because our hearts have always known it. Emotionally connecting with ourselves and each other is why humans make and share music in the first place, isn't it?
Soon after I arrived at work, I learned of Tom Petty's death. I thought of my brother and my friend who both saw him in concert recently, realizing a dream they'd long had. Of my friend's initial hemming and hawing over the price of the ticket, and how glad she was that she'd decided to buy it. (Even before he'd passed, but now more than ever.) I thought again of how I felt when Prince died, but mostly, of how I felt when he lived. Because he was truly alive. And he helped me and everyone around me to truly be alive.
And it was not lost on me that the Las Vegas tragedy was during a concert. The horror of it all. Was it made better or worse for people because they had experienced a heightened sense of love and connection with strangers, right before the violent hatred? Only the survivors can tell us. My hope is that their belief in humanity is kept afloat partly by some of the beautiful experiences they had, even immediately before they had one of the worst experiences imaginable.
I know that my own belief in humanity involves- requires, actually- dancing and singing and smiling and embracing. And all of that comes much more naturally when there is music.
So, buy the damn concert tickets. Buy them to support artists. Buy them because watching You Tube alone at home shouldn't be the only way you experience music. Buy them because it's called live music for a reason. Buy them because having something on the calendar to anticipate will immediately spike your happiness. Buy the tickets to the show because it is in line with your values of spending on experiences over material goods. Buy them because, of all the things you regret spending money on, going to a concert has never been one of them.
So, just buy the damn concert tickets.
Literally, for humans' sakes, buy them.
Me at 14. Before being affected by mental illness. Or hair dye.
I don't remember when I first picked my skin, but I bet I liked it. I think for most primates, picking clogged pores, tugging at scabs, and extracting foreign objects from the skin can feel pretty satisfying, and sometimes even necessary. For most humans, it probably begins at a young age, and so it was likely the same for me. I don't remember. I do, however, remember when I really noticed my picking- when it began to feel out of control. I was fifteen. A few months prior, we had moved out of my childhood home, and I'd started high school: a private, Catholic, all-girls school after my years of public coed. All big changes for my yet small life. It was the first time I didn't have to share a bathroom with my entire family. The new house was smaller, but my parents had their own bathroom. My brother and I could share the other bathroom to get ready for school in the morning and for bed at night. It was tiny, though, and he was a senior in high school now. Gone were the days of standing in front of the mirror together, making faces while we brushed our teeth. Of him pulling his T-shirt onto his head and doing Beevis and Butthead's "Cornholio" bit, or sneaking in to pour ice cold water over the shower curtain while I was in there. Being kids and being close felt kind of... over. Most of the time my brother was playing guitar in his room or was out driving around with friends. And my parents were trusting me to get ready and get myself to bed at a decent hour, because I was old enough to do so, and exhausted from school and swim practice and homework anyway. And because it was 1994 and there was no Internet or TV or phone in my room. So everyone was just being reasonable and age-appropriate, it seemed. Everyone but me.
I now recognize feelings of isolation, and stress from transitions, and all kinds of other triggers that make me more likely to pick. I didn't then. In fact, from the time I was fifteen until age thirty or so, I think I still firmly believed that the only trigger for my picking was the actual physical presence of some imperfection on my face. And therefore I alternated between gratefulness that I didn't have truly severe acne (because surely if the blemishes were thirty or forty instead of a handful, I'd pick myself into hospitalization or death, right?), and extreme guilt and shame that my "gift" of fairly clear skin was squandered on me, a person who ruined it and managed to make that skin look repulsive.
And that's most certainly how I've often felt. Repulsive. Wholly convinced that I'm the most unsightly being in the world, or in the whole school cafeteria, which everyone knows is essentially the same thing when you're a teenager. Even when my teen years were over and I was a bit more aware of the existence and plights of others- that some people had serious scarring on their faces due to severe acne or car accidents or acid burns, for instance- I could still convince myself that I was actually doing harm to others when they looked at my face. That I had an ethical duty to spare them, to look down as they spoke to me or to stay at home and avoid interaction ("grounding" myself did double duty because I could both spare others and punish me). Even now, when an episode of picking has ended- especially one that was several hours long- the irrational thinking continues on. That's the power of the ego, I suppose. And if you don't believe me about the power of relatively rational and functional humans to create their own reality, well then I fear you haven't been paying attention to the local evening news. Or to family conversations at holiday mealtime. Or to history class. Or to your own thoughts.
But I think most of you do believe me. I think that most folks reading a health blog are likely aware and reflective enough to know that it is the power of our own thoughts and perceptions that shape nearly everything. And that we are usually our own worst enemies. And that our negative ruminations are often the quicksand that captures us in this life.
My journey to find an effective treatment plan began with my parents discovering me at age sixteen at 3AM on a school night in front of the bathroom mirror with a bloodied face, five or so hours into a picking session. And that journey was much longer, more arduous, and more costly than it ever should be in a country with so much wealth. But I'm here. Alive. And am incredibly grateful to them for taking me to a psychiatrist then, despite their own humble upbringings and limited experiences, and the messages they'd undoubtedly received that said shrinks were only for people who are rich or crazy or both. It is the reason I'm here and alive, and the reason that I didn't self medicate and develop a substance abuse problem as a teenager. I was fortunate. (Others in my family with mental illness were not so fortunate, and the consequences were dire). Maybe my parents had read something in the Akron Beacon Journal. Maybe my mom saw something on Oprah or Donahue. (In which case, thanks Oprah/Phil!). In any case, Mom and Dad drove me to my appointments-and paid for them, talked to me, bought me a book. My dad stayed up late at night sitting on my bed, monitoring me while I washed my face in the bathroom, over and over. I will never forget him crying softly one of those nights. (The only other time I'd seen him cry was the single tear he'd shed at my great grandfather's funeral. Both times broke my heart.) This late night, I'd probably said something about how I hated myself, and wanted the pain to end. Through his tears, he told me how much he loved me and saw in me, and how much he wished I could see that much in myself. His plea was a common one from a parent to a self-hatred riddled teen, I suppose. The ache I felt was one of guilt for the pain I caused him and the self-pity I dared to have while others were suffering more. It was also an ache of complete helplessness. Whatever mountain I had to climb in order to feel good about myself was insurmountable, I was certain. I was confused at how he could even think such a thing- that I might love myself like he loved me. It was a completely unreachable goal, self love. I didn't even want it, didn't believe I deserved it. I felt desperate to stop my dad from crying, to keep from causing him pain, though. This desperation to stop hurting others- my mom, my dad, and later my husband- with my disorder is what drove me to battle it. But of course, as much as I didn't want the cliché to be true, it ended up that I had to learn to strive for myself and love myself, before I could make any real headway.
As I feared might happen, the pressure to always write a blog post in a structured way that attempts to be somewhat all-encompassing of complicated topics, has lately proven to be too daunting. And too daunting equals not writing. A whole crapload of nothingness. So here's my promise for this blog post: it will be better than nothing.
(Which, if you think about it for a minute, is a much higher standard for writing than it sounds like. Because, nothing is really just fine. The world will be ok without another blog post from an introspective white girl. So don't think about it for a minute, ok?...
How does she do this, you say?? Simple instructions on how to rapidly spiral into debilitating negative self-talk are available upon request... Ok wait, maybe lets not bury mental health issues in jokes. Today, at least. I'll change the subject to my dog instead).
This is a photo of my dog, along with some other adorable dogs. Her name is Kita and she's almost 11 and is the softest and fluffiest mutt you can imagine. Seriously, if your fingertips aren't currently tingling just imagining touching her fur, than you aren't thinking soft enough. She goes out with a dog pack on Fridays called Active Dog Adventure Club (I shit you not) and suddenly they now have amazing cameras, and their dog wrangler extraordinaire, Emily, is required to be a skilled photographer on top of everything else because what is a business these days without a kick-ass Instagram account? In this particular gorgeous shot, my Kita is leading the pack while squinting in the sun and happily sporting a mud-encrusted neck, because Emily never tells Kita to stop rolling on the ground like her uptight mother does. This photo has nothing to do with this post other than I need to include visuals so you'll come back, and because cute animal photos and videos help immensely on mental health days- especially if they are starring my perfect angel. May they help you too.
Today I want to focus on three holy truths:
Truth 1 is a focus today because it must be said over and over again that if you have- for instance- bipolar disorder, you are no less legitimately sick than someone who has breast cancer. And also because it is somehow still news that even if you don't have bipolar disorder, you must attend to nurturing your mental health. Just like every single person must attend to their physical health, even if they don't have breast cancer. Is it not obvious that we should have classes on stress reduction techniques, for instance, starting in elementary school, just like we have P.E.?!
Truths 2 and 3 are focal points (like, "foci"? really?? ew) because so many people are so singularly hell- bent on having more money and more power, that it's clear that they've forgotten that having the health and freedom to spend your life how you want is supposed to be the ultimate goal of all of that money and control anyway. On the other end of the spectrum, of course, there are those who cannot possibly make the mistake of always focusing on having "more more more", because they must always focus on striving just to have enough. On providing for the most basic needs of themselves and others. Which means that they may feel like holy truths 2 and 3 don't apply to them. Which doesn't make 2 and 3 any less true, but it does mean that those of us who are privileged enough to have enough, better recognize it. We'd better help others less fortunate, and quit our endless pursuits of an immeasurable quantity of material goods, leading to a disappearing quantity of empathy. (Seriously, just quit that shit. It's not making anyone happy anyway).
So I am home from work right now, even though I love my job and I wanted to go and I didn't even have any shitty meetings or legal paperwork on my to do list today. And even though I do not have a cold or the flu or a family emergency or an appointment. I am home from work because of my mental health disorders. Or my mental illnesses. Or because I need a mental health day. Whatever are the acceptable words of the moment. And though I haven't had a cold or the flu in a year- more in future posts on how I've helped my body achieve that- and I have an educator's schedule (summers off, two weeks off in the winter, one week for spring break, government holidays, etc.), I will generally use every one of the ten sick and personal days I get each year. And some years even a few more than my allotted days, which will cost me a bit of money, but thanks to my union and my contract, will not cost me my job. So when the previous night's or the early morning's combo of anxiety/panic attacks/depression/bloody BFRB (more on that below) has been overly debilitating, you're unlikely to find me at work.
I'd be lying if I said that I have completely let go of all guilt about missing days. If I said that I don't sometimes, on these days, still avoid telling friends and family who call that I'm not at work (guilty of that ten minutes ago, in fact. Sorry, Justin!). I'd be lying if I said I don't find it at all necessary to righteously and defensively tell you that it's ok, don't judge me, because as a classroom teacher I did thousands of unpaid hours. And that my salary is pretty shitty anyway- we're notoriously underpaid. And that my work is in service to others every day, which means even if I work fewer hours than people in some other jobs, I'm still contributing more to this world and the people in it. And that because I'm such an engaged-multi-tasking-flow-state kinda person, when I am at work, I'm usually three times more productive than the average worker.
But even though all those things are true, if they weren't, you probably still wouldn't see me at work when things were horrendous. Because working isn't always possible. Everyone should be able to stay at home when they are ill. But that's not the case- especially for poor folks, folks of color and LGBTQ folks- which is one of the many reasons the US has loads of misery and reduced productivity and early death and poverty and unemployment and folks on disability. Loads that are way disproportionate to our GDP.
If you have a mental illness:
The truth about sick days- mental or physical (aren't they all BOTH?)- is that some of those days you can concentrate on all kinds of healthy and healing practices, that will help get you back to the other things you want to do in life. And others of those days you spend lying on the bathroom floor in convulsions, wishing it would swallow you up. And many of those days are in-between. If you have mental health disorders like me, you sometimes have to carefully evaluate your decision on how to spend your days off. Maybe you can't see people, yet too much isolation will plummet your depressed heart even lower. Maybe seeing your therapist or psychiatrist is necessary and helpful, or maybe the traffic on the way there will just crush you, so you may need to just call them from the cocoon in your closet, or use half the money that an extra session would cost to order in some food, because you can't possibly cook right now. And on slightly better days, sometimes even going to work or to school or that other thing you need to do can absolutely be the best thing, and you just need someone to help motivate you or even literally prop you up to brush your teeth. (I live with mental health disorders EVERY. DAY. If I didn't ever leave the house on the days that I have to deal with my mental health disorders, I would NEVER LEAVE THE HOUSE. And never get a chance to focus on the amazingness of not focusing on myself.)
If you don't have a mental illness:
There's space in many discussions for lists of things to do to help those with mental illnesses. Today I'll make it easier. Here's three things not to do. (Everyone likes lists of three in these things, right?) Even if you don't actively do anything for the cause of mental health, NOT doing these things can help us a lot.
Imagining you all out there, readers, has given me purpose and helped me through this scary and healing work of writing this on my day off. So thank you.
Teaser alert >>>>
Dermatillomania is a real, and awful, and humiliating thing, that is now finally in the DSM-V. It is not OCD, but is like a distant cousin of it. It is not popping a few zits and moving on. It's a destructive BFRB (Body-Focused Repetitive Behavior), often coupled with Body Dysmorphic Disorder, that involves building neural pathways in the brain that associate self-destructive behaviors with triggering soothing feelings, or satisfaction. Those good feelings are what separate it from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder behaviors. The positive feelings are short-lived, however. After the trance-like episode, debilitating anxiety, panic attacks, and even suicidal thoughts can move in. Skin-picking episodes can last several hours, and can end in blood loss that sends folks to the hospital in an ambulance, if veins are reached. I''ll discuss it more in my next post, but I want to reveal now that I have this condition. It' time to rip the Band-Aid off, so to speak. This is a photo I took after an episode in order to share- something I still can't believe I was able to do. But it's other folks sharing about this disorder that has helped me the most, so I want to do the same. I was convinced for many many years before that that I was the only person on Earth who had this problem. I took this selfie in October and it's taken me until now to share it. By no means my worst episode, but it ain't pretty, considering my skin was pretty much clear before it. Maybe a blemish or a couple blackheads. Nothing. Then hours. Then this. And the photo doesn't do the redness and swelling justice, which I'm kind of grateful for (and won't even fully download to complete clarity due to my dumb ass phone, hence the symbol in the corner). I"ve suffered from the disorder since I was 15, and have lost countless hours and days to it. I've done tons of self-work and studying over the years, and the information out there has increased. I understand it now more than ever. I feel I'm maybe close to defeating it. But I've never felt more scared about it than I do right now, because the number of folks who know is about to go from 7 to hundreds. Dayyuum. Truth-telling is difficult stuff...
I might as well start off with disappointing you, dear readers: My experiences with illegal drugs are relatively few, and not very juicy. A few years ago, I tried cocaine for the first time. I tried it again maybe twice after that. I was not a fan. I used marijuana infrequently to semi-regularly for a few years in college, and for some years since college. I was a fan. (Many of the times with pot were legal, actually. Because, well, San Francisco.) That's it.
As far as legal drugs, you can read about my past favorite- alcohol- here. I've also had periods in my life where I was an infrequent social smoker of cigarettes. In periods of stress, it sometimes was as frequent as weekly. I've taken a different prescribed medication off and on (mostly on) since I was 15, for anxiety and depression. And I used caffeine in the form of black or green tea a few times a month, starting when I was a tween. My first year of teaching, I had a brief abusive romance with refined sugar. Usually in the form of donuts (plural) nearly every morning or ice cream most evenings.
I used drugs for the same reasons as many folks. To have fun. To experience an expansive, altered state. (Something that folks all around the world desire as early as childhood. Hence the dizzy bat and choking games). For respite from the ruminating and worrying and heart-racing anxiety. To feel even more connected to those around me. To forget that I didn't really feel safe and connected to those around me. To rebel. To indulge. To reward myself and to take a load off after over-working. To feel cool and fun and part of the group. To stay awake. To fall asleep. Because it seemed like a normal and essential part of celebrating. Because it seemed like a normal and essential part of mourning. Because drunkenness. And because drugs can be delicious.
So, that's my drug past. What about now?
Currently, I take Selegiline each morning, which is an anti-Parkinsons medication, prescribed to me by my psychiatrist, for the off-label use of anxiety prevention and management. I also have a small bottle of Ativan that she prescribed to me to use as-needed in the case of severe panic attacks, but I haven't touched it in about a year. I take a couple herbal supplements (melatonin and a cortisol manager) in the evening. I drink matcha green tea on weekday mornings. Every couple of months or so, I might have an earl grey or black tea. I eat refined sugar in pretty small amounts, and less and less often. That's it. I haven't had a drink or a smoke or an edible for about eight months now. Am I proud? Sure, I am. More than proud, I am HAPPY. Being a teetotaler has been a choice to thrive, not to deprive (™ ).Pride and happiness in this decision for myself does not mean that I think that abstinence is the path to health for everyone. There are all kinds of ways to have healthy relationships with substances. That being said, there are also all kinds of ways to get high in life, and for me right now, I'm finding getting high without substances to be much achievable, fulfilling, and lasting.
As far as the future, I don't have any plans to use substances other than the tea I drink and the prescription and supplements I already swallow each day. Maybe in the future I could see myself being open to considering singular, well-planned experiences with non-habit forming psychedelics like mushrooms or peyote. I don't know. As I mentioned in my post about alcohol, with substances and all things, I've found it's true that it is good to take things one day at a time rather than say "never ever". It is also good to make resolute decisions on what I want to do with my body and mind, and each day right now, I decide again that I want to be sober. It's working wonders for my life.
Apart from my own use, another factor in my relationship with substances is my family and friends' use. (And regarding family and friend substance use, I must admit that though I easily can say that addiction is a medical issue and not a crime, and that I have great compassion for addicts, it is much harder to concentrate on that compassion when someone is right in front of your face, screaming obscenities at you, or throwing up in your car, or stealing from your grandpa.) Most of my friends use alcohol, and most use pot, at least sometimes. I haven't had many friends that I know of who use harder stuff, other than once a year or once every two years using mushrooms, LSD, or ecstasy at a concert or when traveling in the wilderness. So while I've had to deal with quite a few drunken incidents with my friends (no more than they had to deal with with me), I haven't really had to deal with friends having bad trips or life-threatening overdoses.
However, family is a different story. Drug abuse has greatly affected my small family. I won't go into depth on the details, because, though my family members are more open about it now that the remaining members are in recovery (as of the summer of 2016! what a relief!), those are their stories to tell. I will say a few words about it to illustrate a bit of its effect on me. My family- other than my parents and brother- was pretty much my grandparents, my mom's two sisters, my uncles by marriage, and my five first cousins. Of those folks, three of my five cousins, both of my aunts, and one of my uncles have had severe addictions to various substances, including heroin, cocaine, crack, crystal meth, and pain pills like Percocet and Oxycontin. (The other uncle is a recovering alcoholic). My family all still live in Ohio, and if you've been paying attention at all to the news of the past few years, you know that these problems are all too common there. In my small family, there have been accidents. Life threatening incidents. Long, scary hospital stays. Fights. Lies. Harassment and severe stress on my grandparents. Arrests and prison terms for possession, sale, burglary, check fraud, and probation violation. Multiple rounds of rehab. Years of estrangement. And just a few years ago, my uncle died of complications of drug use. Not long after that, my aunt- my mom's youngest sister- died of an overdose of Fentanyl. Though in many ways I felt I'd lost my aunt long before that, it was still something utterly painful. Even harder on my mom and my other aunt. Harder on my aunt's two children. Hardest, of course, on my grandmother. All of the family drug issues, in fact, weighed hardest on my grandma, the stoic and selfless matriarch of our family, who always took on the problems of all of us as her own. Before I lost my dear grandma this past November, I can say that I think she did find some healing in the fact that the latest rounds of rehab for my family members (coupled with the tragic lessons of death, and a few better programs for those with addiction problems in Ohio) seem to be finally having a lasting effect.
This is the part where I tell you what drugs you should and should not use if you want to be happy and healthy for a long time…Siiiiiiike! (Checks "use 'sike' in a blog post" off bucket list). I don't know the first thing about your life and what relationship you have to substances, nor what health conditions you have. I do have some universal "shoulds", though, that are much more general. In fact, the list below is true about most topics, not just drugs. (Some of these ideas are from the Weil and Rosen book that I mention below).
I wrote a little bit about the importance of truth and openness in my post about alcohol. That applies here as well, of course. We know now that however tempting and well-intentioned lies and scare tactics may be, they DO NOT WORK. Louis C.K. has a great discussion with Terry Gross on Fresh Air about what are good and bad ideas for preventing your kids from doing drugs. At one point, he talks about the danger of telling your kids that only mean losers are drug dealers. Basically, the first time someone who is cool and kind and who makes them feel safe and talks to them like a real person tries to sell them drugs, they'll realize you were lying. And they'll throw everything else you said about drugs- true or not- out the window. Same goes if you are a teacher and tell a bunch of teens that pot is a gateway drug that will lead to harder drugs, and they later find out that virtually everyone they know has smoked marijuana, and almost none of those folks does crack or heroin.
For teachers, I recommend checking out some documents I developed to help folks with framing their drug curriculum and about how to make the prospect of sharing middle and high school classroom circle discussions about drugs and harm reduction, less frightening. For parents and caregivers, don't miss the amazing publications like Safety First from Dr. Marsha Rosenbaum and the other folks at Drug Policy Alliance, that help you with the topic you dread most when talking with your kiddos, behind the birds and the bees (more on that one soon!). And remember, young people WILL hear about these topics from friends, in the media, and in the street long before you feel ready and excited to talk to them about it. So, you know. Get on it.
Take care, all.
Yeah, I know, I look pretty good in both of these photos. They're from weddings- professional photographers, hair, and makeup. Don't worry, there'll be some real shit shows in upcoming posts. Revealing oneself takes baby steps, alright?
I suppose alcohol is as good a topic to begin with as any. It starts with an "a", the country is obsessed with it (many folks probably felt they needed quite a bit of it on Election Day), and giving it up is the single biggest habit change I've made in getting healthy- and the habit change that made all the other habit changes SOOOO much easier to make. Also, starting with a post about alcohol means I can pull the Band Aid off when it comes to letting some skeletons out of the closet on this blog. (Did you catch that? Two for one clichés. You're welcome.)
So first a note about the structure that my posts may usually take: I'll concentrate on my own experiences and knowledge on a topic in the"Me" section. Then, I'll give some advice and tips for folks who might be helped by something I've learned in a "You" section. (If you are just reading to learn some chisme about my life and don't want any preachy shit, you probably should skip that section). Lastly, I'll put on my health educator hat in the "Health Ed" section and contemplate how I think this topic might be approached if you are a teacher, or have children in your family or friend group that you'd like to guide. I've learned a lot as a student of health in school when I was a kid (much of it miseducation, unfortunately, that's taught me what not to do), in my studies for my teaching and health education credentials, and in my classroom experiences as a teacher- from both my successes and my missteps.
Let's get on with the topic of alcohol.
So, here they are, some of my thoughts on drinking, which are probably fairly common:
It's wonderful, and it's awful.
I'm great at it, and it's not for me.
It was a major contributor to some of the most amazing times I've had in my life, and a major contributor to nearly every regretful thing I've ever done.
I love the taste, the history, the immediate effects on my brain, the rituals, the tools. The art it has inspired. The colors and shapes of the bottles and labels. And, I love nearly every type of it and every concoction that can be made with it.
I'm from blue collar Midwest culture, and so alcohol is very important. Particularly beer. It didn't much matter if the beer was particularly good, because- until my immediate family had better financial circumstances in my late teens- we couldn't afford and didn't know much about more expensive alcohol, other than maybe some wine coolers, Jack Daniels, or Smirnoff on special occasions.
As a kid, I was a voyeur of adult drinkers. A fetcher of beers from the fridge at home, and from the cooler at cookouts. I learned this lesson: Adults drink. Billboards said it, TV and movies said it, my life said it. During the week, finished work days meant beer. On the weekend, finished yard work meant beer. In the summer, outdoor events meant beer. In the winter, they meant a Thermos with liquor diluted with hot water or hot chocolate. Celebrations meant beer. Sad times meant beer. Card games meant beer. Bowling meant beer. Chuck E. Cheese birthday parties, even, meant beer. I spent quite a bit of time in bars (ones that served food, so were able to qualify as restaurants- "Bar and Grill"-and to allow children), playing with neighborhood kids. While our parents drank, we scurried under high-top booths, played with the knobs on cigarette machines, prank-called free 800 numbers from the pay phones. It was a blast. Even with bars and drinking so woven into the fabric of our culture, for the most part, my family didn't overdo it. They were drinkers, but not drunks. Drunkenness of others at an event was received with a chuckle, maybe sometimes a pinch of judgement or a splash of pity.
In my late teens and on, I was a weekly binge drinker. A host of epic drunken parties. A shooter of shots. A strong contender in drinking games. (All the types. I'm good at cards, brain tricks, table games, physical feats- you name it. And winning was VERY important.)
As an adult, after graduating college and moving to San Francisco, I began to learn about wine, craft beer, and liquors I'd never heard of before. I was a bartender. A cocktail party-goer. A bar fly. A brewery tour-er. A wine club member. And perhaps, most of all, a professional, who took Friday happy hour attendance quite seriously. In fact, I organized most of the happy hour events for the staff at the schools where I taught. And I'll admit that those in stressful and helping industries like teaching, social work, and nursing, tend to party fairly hard. Not the cocaine-heavy partying of our lawyer and corporate counterparts, but certainly alcohol-soaked dive bar nights followed by dancing and karaoke, in between more rounds of beers, cocktails, or shots.
And yet, now, I do not drink at all, and I can honestly say that I do not miss it. And that the temptations are very few, and very weak. I've learned (from the help of some of the great work of Gretchen Rubin) that with many things, I'm a much better abstainer than I am a moderator. In fact, the only thing that makes me crave a drink, is a drink. If I don't have one, I don't really want one. And I'm grateful for this, because I know that many people who don't want to drink have a very hard time being around alcohol. That's not the case for me, which means I don't have to give up beautiful glass bottles with shiny colorful labels. It means folks can make me layered concoctions of herbs and fruits and bubbles and pour them in fancy glasses, which I can sip next to drinkers, with the peace of mind that comes with knowing I'm hydrating and nourishing myself toward a glorious morning. It means that I can do one of my favorite things in the world, dance, if not with the help of the lowered inhibitions provided by alcohol, at least under the cloak of the low lights of a club, instead of only under the bright lights of a dance studio or gym. It means I can hang out without a struggle in some of the few places where I still feel a sense of community in our society: dive bars. There, I can hobnob with other misfits and over-sharers. (One of my greatest fears of quitting drinking was giving up the sense of comfort I feel when hanging out with folks in dive bars. I find a lot of people there- especially the drunk ones- whom I feel a kinship with because, like me, they are willing to show emotion more readily than is the norm in many other societal arenas. And I find that they are willing to be outwardly critical and even rejecting of many societal rules and expectations. More on this later).
The fact that I love every type of alcohol has maybe even helped me, in a strange way. Or at least, the fact that I'm not a picky person. Being a lover of many things means I don't miss one when I have another. It's like, if you are eating an amazing piece of pie, are you missing cake? Probably not. Folks ask me how I was able to give up eating meat in 2005ish. Does it gross me out now? Did I stop enjoying it? Am I just insanely willful and stoic? Nope. Giving up meat became easy once I'd broadened my palate and realized I love nearly ALL food. And this has been a key aspect for me in shedding unhealthy habits: not focusing on what I am losing or giving up, but thinking about what I have, and feeling happy that I can focus more time and attention on those things. A mentality of abundance rather than scarcity, some call it.
I don't want to pretend that arriving at this point in my relationship with alcohol was easy. The fears about giving it up were powerful, as was the feeling that drinking was part of my identity, and that to quit meant to create even further separation from my family, my friends, my upbringing. Now I was going to solidify myself as "crazy liberal college grad health nut Cheryl who moved and became an SF coastal elite", or whatever. If I couldn't throw back beers with my brethren and folks of all walks of life, what would be the great equalizer? The thing that brought all commonalities to the surface? Surely I'd be rejected- or at least distanced- from many people I loved. Surely drinking was a road to being more truly and fully myself, to easing my anxiety. How could something that dissolves inhibitions not be?
Yes, I was terrified of the times in my life when I didn't remember what had happened the night before, or I'd made out with someone who I didn't really want to make out with, or I woke up in my own urine. But what about all my friends- and all of pop culture- that proved those to be common and laughable experiences? Yes, my anti-anxiety medication didn't always go well with alcohol, but not in a way that was really unsafe. Yes, the long-term effects of alcohol on the liver and the heart and-most of all- the brain scared me, but no one else seemed to really talk about that, so maybe that was just a symptom of my tendancy to worry too much, to over-analyze, to be too hard on myself. Yes, quiz results in books and magazines indicated that I may abuse it too much, but they also indicated that I was not dependent on it. Yes, it was a depressant in the morning, and thus made my bouts of depression worse, but it sure had the opposite effect during the drinking part. Yes, I felt better when I took breaks from it for a few weeks or a month, but wasn't giving it up entirely something that would foster the "all or nothing" thinking that was sometimes a dangerous habit for me?
This battle went on for a few years. And I am not even entirely sure today why the choice of sobriety won out, or if it always will. (There's a reason that the advice to take everything one day at a time echos in nearly all therapeutic arenas. We have these existences that are gloriously segmented with nature's two live shows a day: sunrise and sunset- and with the wonder of sleep, of course. Taking things a day at a time must be a much better idea that thinking about forever). I can say this, which might not be entirely helpful to others: a big part of it was timing. There just came a time when I was ready to take the plunge to see if some of my fears were overblown, and to really do the cost/benefit analysis for myself of being a non-drinker. I spoke about my process with very few people. Two bad-ass writers and tea totalers, Holly Whitaker and Denise Grollmus, had both assured me via email and text not to rush things or listen to others, that my questioning and seeking growth was enough until it was time to move forward. And in July, after a half a year of deep reflection and a couple of hearty alcohol binges, it became time to move forward. And I'm happy to report that I've gained so much more than I've lost, and I truly feel better than ever. And- the most important thing- more myself than ever. Which eases my anxiety and allows me to connect with others much more than drinking did. I don't think I'd even realized how much anxiety drinking caused me, rather than allieviated. What a relief it is to not worry anymore about what things I might say or how I will get home or how I might feel the next day, or ten years from now. And as far as connecting with others, I am always desperate to do that. I always desire to connect with folks on deeper levels. And now I believe that forced drunken fake romance or giggling/crying /platonic cuddling and proclamations of undying friendship may feel like the stuff we've all been missing, and may even be great for a time, but they don't feel as good as building real connection, engagement, and intimacy with people.
Maybe the most concrete and quickest gain has been time. My Saturday mornings are so deliciously long now, without the physical hangover symptoms, and without the mental/emotional hangover (that, if you have issues with anxiety and depression like me, only need a couple of Friday drinks to show up). Also, I remember so much more. My life almost feels like it's getting longer, or at least that I'm living more of it. In fact, drinking has been an unexpected way to push back against the ruminations on mortality that have become more frequent as I get older.
There is no greater commodity than time, and so this gain alone would probably be enough to keep me off the sauce. But really, there is so much more that I've gained, that I worry folks will think I'm being disengenous if I list everything. Suffice to say that I truly feel better than I've ever felt in my adult life. To be sure, quitting drinking is certainly not an isolated variable; I've made a lot of recent healthy habit changes. But those were habit changes I'd been struggling for years to be consistent with. And- as I said at the beginning of this post- without alcohol having so much power over my weekly schedule and budget, and the way my body and mind feel, it suddenly became infinitely easier to make those habit changes.
I mentioned the heavy prevalence of alcohol in my life environments not to excuse my abuse of it, but because I think it's worth noting that my level and frequency of drinking was by no means uncommon in my circles. And I think this is true in many circles. (I do think it is also important to mention that there are a TON of folks who don't drink at all, and a TON who drink very small amounts and very infrequently. Not drinking seems so radical and rare, but I noticed that it really isn't if you look deeper. Still, alcohol continues to be the most commonly used recreational drug, and the one that drives the most folks each year to seek help for drug dependence).
So, why is abusing alcohol so common, and so casually depicted in every facet of popular culture? Why do people sit around the table with family of all ages and pound drinks, but ripping bong hits or snorting coke together at dinner is taboo? Is it because snorting cocaine is more unsightly than drinking liquor? Maybe, because, though it can be more dangerous in ways, it's not more expediently deadly. Is it because alcohol is legal? Why is it legal? Within ten minutes, one block, and very little money, I can legally purchase enough alcohol to kill myself quite easily and rapidly. Yet in most states it is illegal to buy marijuana, which won't kill you no matter how much you use. I don't currently use or promote any of these substances, and none are without their risks (I'll discuss them more in future blog posts), but I think it's important to examine the power of money in our laws, and the power of laws in dictating what's deemed acceptable in our cultures, and what's deemed taboo.
When things are common, are "the norm", we don't tend to question them. And while I will never proclaim that what works for me should be adopted by everyone else, or that everyone should quit or even cut back on their drinking, the one thing I will say applies to everyone is this: Question things. Examine your life and your priorities. Often. And remember that your everyday actions and thoughts ARE your life and your priorities.
Another thing that you gotta question is labels. You may fit a classic definition of alcoholic or addict. But you may not. And it should be mentioned that both of these terms have meanings that are still debated by scientists, still influx. There are a myriad of relationships to have with alcohol, and not all are linear or fit into tight boxes or labels. Your own processes and needs that you require for cutting back or quitting alcohol will undoubtedly differ from other people's, just as your relationship with it and your experiences have differed. People are brought together through both the shared and different parts of their experiences, though, so reach out even if you feel that you are unique. Maybe that means AA meetings for you, or maybe that just means chatting with others who are examining and changing their relationships with with bad habits. Maybe it just means, for now, reading stuff like this, and reflecting on it. And what you require now in order to help you break unhealthy habits may change in the future. Checking in with yourself often and staying connected to others will be key throughout.
Maybe you've already examined your life and decided that alcohol isn't contributing to it and to your priorities in a net positive way. Maybe you are just tired of worrying about the mental risks, or the social ones, or the emotional ones, or the physical ones, short or long term. Or your doctor told you you need to cut down or stop. Or your P.O. told you that. Or you are starting on a medication that doesn't mix well with alcohol. Or you converted to a religion that doesn't mix well with alcohol. Or your budget doesn't mix well with alcohol. Or you are pregnant. Whatever your motivation in changing your relationship with alcohol, you are by no means alone, and you have a variety of resources and options. Below are a few of my recommendations.
There's an incredible amount of issues to discuss regarding education to prevent alcohol and other drug abuse, and this post has been long enough, so I'll just mention a couple of things I've learned in my research and experience.
1. D.A.R.E. failed. And anti-drug curricula like it (that's full of lies and scare tactics) are still being used across the US and are still failing. Teach facts.
2. There's evidence that children of non-drinkers have a higher risk of alcohol abuse than children of moderate drinkers (Weil and Rosen, p.76). Not as high a risk of children of alcoholics, but still- those parents who do not drink would be wise to provide opportunities for their children to observe adult friends or family members who are good examples of moderate drinking.
3. Teach critical thinking, and critical consumption of media (beer commercials are a great place to start discussions on this).
I also recommend checking out the most truthful and comprehensive sources I've found: Dr. Andrew Weil and Winifred Rosen's book From Chocolate to Morphine: Everything You Need to Know About Mind-Altering Drugs and the Drug Policy Alliance website. I've learned so much from the DPA's publications for parents and educators, and from my meetings with the founder of their Safety First project, Dr. Marsha Rosenbaum. Their new video collaboration (below) with writer and narrator Shawn Carter (Jay Z) and illustrator Molly Crabapple is a must-watch. It's a great critical thinking discussion-starter with teens. It's also evidence of why laws should not be the sole influencer of decisions on drug use, and of how drug laws disproportionately affect people of color.
I'll return to this topic in future posts about other drugs, but suffice to say, telling the truth is best.
Being honest is hard but usually worth it. Which is what I'll remind myself many times when I'm at this point in blogging... about to click "post".
Photo on left by photographer Cindy Hegger. Photo on right by photographer Anna Zajac.
I love to write, but- no, scratch that- I love to write AND I am deathly afraid to share my writing with others. The fear of revealing my writing to an audience, in fact, trumps the fear of revealing the highly personal content of the stories and photos that I plan to share. Still, I write. For two main reasons:
This nutty, naval-gazing, awesome, attention-seeking, inspiring, isolation-killing, blogging thing.
is a health-seeker and health educator living in the US in San Francisco, California. She is also a former (and maybe future) high school English teacher, and she loves words. Maybe health seeker looks better with a hyphen, or maybe it doesn't. You should just get over it. Even if she cannot.