Easy Butternut Squash Mac and Cheese Recipe

Easy Butternut Squash Mac and Cheese Recipe

Easy Butternut Squash Mac and Cheese Recipe

Once the butternut squash is baked, this meal takes 10 minutes--almost as fast and WAY healthier than the store-bought box of crap. Add a bag of frozen peas and top with Italian bread crumbs for a plant-based meal that qualifies as traditional comfort food.
Prep Time 10 mins
Cook Time 45 mins
Total Time 55 mins
Servings 6 people

Ingredients
  

  • 1 butternut squash, whole baked
  • 12 ounces pasta (macaroni shapes) look for high protein and fiber varieties
  • 1/4 onion red, yellow or sweet, substitute 2 tsp. powder
  • 1 garlic clove substitute 1 tsp. powder
  • 1 cup nuts, raw cashews, walnuts or almonds
  • 1/2 cup nutritional yeast flakes optional
  • 2 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar substitute any vinegar or lemon juice
  • 1 tsp sea salt

Instructions
 

  • In advance, place a whole butternut squash on a baking sheet. Bake at 400 degrees for ~45 minutes. Remove from oven once it starts to brown on top and a knife penetrates easily. Set aside and allow it to cool. Store in the refrigerator until ready to use.
  • Prepare pasta according to package directions. Drain and rinse in cold water. [Cook tip: Add ~1 Tbsp. salt to boiling water with pasta to add flavor.]
  • Cut open squash. Use a spoon to remove the seeds. Using a spoon or a peeling knife, strip the squash away from the skin and add to the blender. Do not spend excessive time peeling away every last bit of skin. It's edible and adds fiber. Remove as much as you can and let the blender take care of the rest.
  • Add the remaining ingredients to the blender to make the cheese sauce. Mix on high until creamy and smooth.
  • Pour cheese sauce over the pasta. Mix well and serve.

Notes

My kids love this dish even more when I add a package of frozen peas and top with Italian flavored bread crumbs or croutons.
Sticky Blender Solution: Did you know that your blender will wash itself? Yep. Just fill it 2/3 water and a drop of dish soap. Blend until clean.
Pasta preparation tip: Add ~1 Tbsp. salt to boiling water with pasta to add flavor. Don’t worry—the salt dissolves in the entire pot of water, and the pasta absorbs only a small amount. No chance of salt overload as you drain the majority of it off.
Why We Drink and Why it’s So Hard to Stop

Why We Drink and Why it’s So Hard to Stop

Why We Drink and Why It’s So Hard to Stop

I have a master’s degree in health coaching with a concentration in applied nutrition. And I had no idea that I was addicted to alcohol until after I stopped drinking. My addiction hid behind 1) my ability to function (things to do, places to go and people to see) and 2) the multitude of health-hacks (exercise and supplements) that I used to offset my consumption. The only clear warning light on the proverbial dashboard was that I was drinking more than seven drinks per week, which put me in the “heavy drinker” category. But that felt arbitrary. We were in the middle of a pandemic–the world was on lockdown. I was more concerned with staying sane than I was my alcohol consumption. Acting like I was okay and pretending to care was getting harder every day. Alcohol was a life-preserver that beaconed me to happy hour every night.

But then one day–as I purchased 2 bottles of Grey Goose vodka at a COVID-safe curbside liquor store/tent–my reality cracked. I had just “stocked up” last week. This wasn’t for a party. I wasn’t buying two because of a sale. The vodka would be hidden in my closet–in my secret stash. I’d drink it all. Alone.

That realization briefly tipped the scales toward common sense. I was motivated to change my trajectory. On impulse, I called AA and asked for a temporary sponsor. I bought “quit-lit” books, subscribed to podcasts, followed support groups on social media and immersed myself in the topic of sobriety. I was all-in. The withdrawal symptoms lingered for ten days. They weren’t bad. I could have pretended they weren’t there. Or that my hormones were to blame. Instead, I allowed the evidence of addiction to both mortify and motivate. As I lay awake each night, drenched in a puddle of sweat, I felt grateful that the poison was leaving my body. I wasn’t giving up alcohol, I was throwing it out. Managing the discomfort felt like an accomplishment. Sobriety is an upward spiral–you going somewhere new and fun and happy. Drinking is a downward spiral. You’re sinking and stuck and it will only get worse.

After nearly a year of sobriety, I’ve challenged most if not all of my underlying beliefs that alcohol is somehow necessary and/or beneficial. I now understand why we drink and why it is so hard to stop. It’s because we believe things about alcohol that aren’t true and ignore experiences to the contrary.

Here’s a list of my top delusions:

Lie #1: Alcohol makes you happy. Actually, just the opposite is true. The more we drink (in both a single sitting and over time), the less we are able to feel pleasure. It’s true there is an intial high. In fact, that first drink can stimulate two to ten times more dopamine than natural activities such as eating, social connection and even sex. The problem occurs over time when everyday activities feel less fulfilling by comparison. What’s more, artificially inflated levels of dopamine threaten our well-being (think: “let’s get married right now!” “take this job and shove it” or “I believe I can fly”). The brain compensates by releasing a neurotransmitter called dynorphin, which anesthetizes our perception of not only pleasure, but any emotion. As we build a tolerance to alcohol, we’re also building a tolerance to feelings of happiness, satisfaction and empathy. Research shows that our mood is lower after a drinking session than before we started. Next time you drink, see for yourself. It’s easy to observe.

Lie #2: Alcohol helps you sleep. Not really. It can help us fall asleep—but not for long. The brain releases stimulants to counter the sedative effects of the alcohol. Once the buzz/sedation wears off, stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol linger. We often wake up once the alcohol is metabolized, unable to return to deep sleep due to agitation. Even if we stay in bed, we sleep fitfully and restlessly. Our mind races. Worse, the sleep after we “passed out” was altered—too deep. Alcohol inhibits the natural REM cycles, which are critical for mental health and overall well-being. Chronic exhaustion was one of the symptoms that motivated me to give up alcohol. I was so tired and apathetic I didn’t even want to drink anymore! Sad. Also helpful.

Lie #3: A high tolerance is a sign of a healthy liver and/or a genetic advantage. Sadly, for those of us who can drink like “professional rockstars,” tolerance is simply a sign of dependence. It’s a function of compromised brain chemistry, not superior liver function. Tolerance occurs when the brain releases dynorphin before we drink (basic Pavlovian conditioning) to ensure that we don’t get swept away in the currents of incoming alcohol-induced euphoria. We subsequently consume more alcohol because the first drink didn’t get the job done. The more we drink, the more our brain must fight the sedative effects of alcohol with cortisol and adrenaline. So, yes, thanks to high levels of stimulants coursing through the bloodstream, tolerant drinkers can walk without tripping and talk without slurring while less seasoned drinkers fall asleep under the proverbial table (they won’t fool a breathalizer though). But once the buzz wears off, feelings of agitation and anxiety are evidence of the lingering chemical warfare. FYI: periods of abstinence do not reset tolerance for long. The brain’s ability to manage alcohol consumption is learned through repetition. It’s like riding a bike. We don’t forget.

Lie #4: I’ll just have one. Maybe two. Why is moderation so hard for people who are otherwise disciplined? Because brain chemistry is stronger than willpower, especially if you are don’t know there’s a fight. The first drink of alcohol feels relaxing and even a bit euphoric as high levels of dopamine flood our system. Pleasant feelings last for about 20-30 minutes—while our blood alcohol level is rising. However, what goes up must come down. Once our BAC starts to fall and the buzz wears off, we feel agitated from the neurochemicals released to counteract the alcohol. Our subconscious does the math: that half hour of pleasure costs us 60-90 minutes of discomfort. That’s not what we deserve after the day we’ve had (awesome, awful or average—any story works). Our resolve to “just have one” waivers. We keep drinking to avoid the comedown. This explains why I tended to drink until it was time for bed. It was much easier to sleep through the discomfort. This is the crux of addiction. Once dependency is established, we don’t drink (or take any drug) to get “high.” We drink to feel normal (stop the withdrawal). Telling someone to drink less is like telling a sick person to cough less. They might be able to control it for a while. But it’s uncomfortable. It requires a lot of effort and focus. The difficulty of stopping after one is why many people (like me) find it easier to abstain from alcohol than to moderate. An intense battle of competing wills is not the definition of relaxation and/or reward for anyone.

Lie #5: Not having a reason to not drink is a sufficient reason to drink. This dangerous assumption is the double negative that put me into a downward spiral once quarantine hit. Self-imposed limits felt like a joke. I promised myself I wouldn’t drink on weeknights. But Wednesday and wine both start with “w.” That’s a sign from God. I made gin and tonics to cut back on vodka because I don’t like gin. Problem solved. Kids, dogs and Facetime meant I was never drinking alone. Legit loophole. And the suggested two-drink limit drowned in my 36-ounce Yeti. RIP moderation. I felt like a snowball rolling down a hill. WTF happened? I used to be able to have a drink and stop, and/or abstain without issue. How did a headstrong, intelligent and health-conscious person find herself unable (and unwilling) to follow the basic rules?

I now understand that regular alcohol consumption keeps the body flooded with stress hormones (to counteract alcohol’s depressive effects). There are two ways to get rid of these stress hormones: 1) feel uncomfortable as you wait for them to metabolize (which can take a week or more for heavy drinkers) or 2) have another drink. The quickest solution (to have another drink) seems logical because we don’t associate feelings of discomfort with alcohol withdrawal. We’re distracted by the belief that alcohol is relaxing so we attribute our need for another to soemthing (anything) else.

Anyone who’s drank their way through a wedding weekend has experienced the chemistry. You drink your face off on Friday night and ease into Saturday with a hair of the dog. You promise yourself to take it easy, but it’s an open bar and you don’t want to be rude. The hangover is worse on Sunday, so you swear to never drink again after a mimosa or bloody Mary. Because alcohol relieves the pain caused by alcohol. The same process is in play with even moderate drinking. Everyone who drinks on a regular basis will experience withdrawal (mild discomfort and vague uneasiness) when they abstain. This is how “I need a drink” becomes a true story.

Lie #6: There are two types of drinkers: normal and alcoholic. Anyone can become dependent on alcohol, just like anyone can become addicted to nicotine, opiates, cocaine—and caffeine and sugar. Alcohol is an addictive drug. The more you use it, the more dependent you become. While a small percentage of alcoholics end up drinking mouthwash out of a paper bag, many are high functioning. They suffer behind closed doors. I didn’t get DUIs, abuse or neglect my kids, or fail to show up for commitments. The belief (perpetuated by AA) that there’s a difference between “normies” and alcoholics prevents all of us “normal” drinkers from recognizing that we are vulnerable to dependency and addiction. The truth is that anyone can qualify for rehab. Alcoholism is an equal opportunity disease.

Lie #7: Quitting drinking means admitting to being an alcoholic. The term “alcoholic” is a cultural term not a medical diagnosis. Regardless, we now live in a create-your-own-lifestyle-brand society. Personally, I don’t consider myself an alcoholic. The label feels overly dramatic. It doesn’t describe me. Why would I start calling myself an alcoholic now that I’ve stopped drinking? That doesn’t make any sense. I’m willing to say I was an alcoholic but technically, there is no such thing. The official lexicon in the DSM 5 is person with “alcohol use disorder” (AUD), which is “characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control use despite negative consequences.” I definitely had alcohol use disorder. In hindsight, I can see how it developed over about ten years—one justified drink at a time. My ability to control my use was definitely impaired (my “shut down” switch was broken). Luckily my ability to ask for help was not impaired. Once I admitted to myself and someone else that I had a problem, the lights came on in the tunnel. The nightmare was immediately over. 

Because I was physically “healthy,” I didn’t think my drinking habits were of much consequence beyond the occasional hangover. I drank more than I cared to admit but I was clueless as to why that was a problem. I didn’t know that I had become dependant, meaning I experienced withdrawal symptoms when I wasn’t drinking. I didn’t know that my body had chronically high levels of cortisol, adrenaline and dynorphin. I just knew that I was sick and tired of feeling sick and tired. Thank God my survival instincts kicked in. By the time I was through the detox, the physical sensations prompting me to drink each night (agitation, anxiety, apathy, etc.) had mostly gone away. There’s still been a lot to work through and it hasn’t been fast or easy. But forward progress of any measure feels better than the downward spiral of addiction. Freedom feels amazing.

If you’re struggling, having someone to talk to makes a huge difference. As a coach, I provide direction, support and accountability for people who want to make changes in their life. Email colleenkachmann@gmail.com for a free consulatation. 

    (Tastes Like) Makota Honey Ginger Dressing

    (Tastes Like) Makota Honey Ginger Dressing

    (Tastes Like) Makota Honey Ginger Dressing

    This homemade Makota Honey Ginger Dressing recipe captures the fresh flavor of the store-bought version with a fraction of the oil. It's perfect for Asian-style salads, tofu marinade and veggie stirfrys.
    Prep Time 5 mins
    Total Time 5 mins
    Course Sauce
    Servings 2.25 cups

    Ingredients
      

    • 1/2 cup rice vinegar
    • 2 Tbsp. Bragg Liquid aminos
    • 1/2 cup red or yellow onion
    • 1 Tbsp. sesame oil
    • 1 Tbsp. honey
    • 1 Ginger Root thumb-size piece

    Instructions
     

    • Combine ingredients in blender or food processor. Blend until smooth.

    Notes

    Store-bought Makota Honey Ginger Dressing has a lot of oil in it. Soybean oil is the second ingredient after onion. Sesame oil is a healthier option, but less is always more with oil. Feel free to add another tablespoon or two if you like. Same thing with the honey. Taste it first and then adjust as desired.

    (Tastes Like) Makota Honey Ginger Dressing

    This homemade Makota Honey Ginger Dressing recipe captures the fresh flavor of the store-bought version with a fraction of the oil. It's perfect for Asian-style salads, tofu marinade and veggie stirfrys.
    Prep Time 5 mins
    Total Time 5 mins
    Course Sauce
    Servings 2.25 cups

    Ingredients
      

    • 1/2 cup rice vinegar
    • 2 Tbsp. Bragg Liquid aminos
    • 1/2 cup red or yellow onion
    • 1 Tbsp. sesame oil
    • 1 Tbsp. honey
    • 1 Ginger Root thumb-size piece

    Instructions
     

    • Combine ingredients in blender or food processor. Blend until smooth.

    Notes

    Store-bought Makota Honey Ginger Dressing has a lot of oil in it. Soybean oil is the second ingredient after onion. Sesame oil is a healthier option, but less is always more with oil. Feel free to add another tablespoon or two if you like. Same thing with the honey. Taste it first and then adjust as desired.
    Buffalo Chickpea Salad

    Buffalo Chickpea Salad

    Buffalo Chickpea Salad

    Quick and easy, delicious, plant-based, whole food dish, high in fiber and protein. Perfect substitute for tuna, egg, or ham salad. Serve on a sandwich, as a side or over a bed of greens as the main course.
    Prep Time 10 mins
    Total Time 10 mins
    Course Main Dish, Sides and Snacks
    Servings 8 servings

    Ingredients
      

    • 15 ounce canned chickpeas (garbanzo beans)
    • 14 ounces tofu, extra firm drained
    • 1/3 cup mayonnaise plant-based, substitute plain yogurt or preferred salad dressing
    • 1/3 cup buffalo sauce (or preferred pepper sauce)
    • 1/4 cup nutritional yeast flakes
    • 1 Tbsp. onion powder
    • 1 Tbsp. garlic powder
    • 1/2 tsp. sea salt
    • 1/2 cup celery diced (optional), substitute bell pepper or other crunchy veggie
    • 1/2 red onion finely chopped; substitute green onions

    Instructions
     

    • Drain the chick peas and the tofu. In a large bowl, use an immersion blend to mash (use a food processor or hand press with a fork if you don't have a stick blender).
    • Stir in the rest of the ingredients.

    Notes

    Want a chickpea salad with a little less spice? Try this!

    Buffalo Chickpea Salad

    Quick and easy, delicious, plant-based, whole food dish, high in fiber and protein. Perfect substitute for tuna, egg, or ham salad. Serve on a sandwich, as a side or over a bed of greens as the main course.
    Prep Time 10 mins
    Total Time 10 mins
    Course Main Dish, Sides and Snacks
    Servings 8 servings

    Ingredients
      

    • 15 ounce canned chickpeas (garbanzo beans)
    • 14 ounces tofu, extra firm drained
    • 1/3 cup mayonnaise plant-based, substitute plain yogurt or preferred salad dressing
    • 1/3 cup buffalo sauce (or preferred pepper sauce)
    • 1/4 cup nutritional yeast flakes
    • 1 Tbsp. onion powder
    • 1 Tbsp. garlic powder
    • 1/2 tsp. sea salt
    • 1/2 cup celery diced (optional), substitute bell pepper or other crunchy veggie
    • 1/2 red onion finely chopped; substitute green onions

    Instructions
     

    • Drain the chick peas and the tofu. In a large bowl, use an immersion blend to mash (use a food processor or hand press with a fork if you don't have a stick blender).
    • Stir in the rest of the ingredients.

    Notes

    Want a chickpea salad with a little less spice? Try this!
    Thankfully Sober

    Thankfully Sober

    I just celebrated my first Thanksgiving sober. My parents, three siblings and our 13 children gathered at my brother’s home in the country, where we could social distance and stay outside (in the frigid drizzle around a smoking bonfire—not as cozy as it sounds. Thanks COVID). We told lots of jokes, ate too much food and no one fell off the roof. It was a good day.

    I prepared my dishes in advance and brought fixins for mocktails—kombucha, ginger beer and alcohol-free IPAs—so that I could participate in the ceremonial “pouring of the drinks.” To my pleasant surprise. I felt relieved to skip the alcohol this year. Family events are chaotic. Even when everything goes as planned and everyone is on their best behavior, it’s a marathon. In the past, I’d have started with mimosas, moved to cocktails, opened the first bottle of wine and volunteered to find the whiskey once the dinner dishes were cleared. I’d have titrated my intake like a professional, hydrating to stay above the buzz and accentuating the fun in my dysfunctional. All while serving food, helping with clean up and putting out fires (both real and metaphorical).

    Newly sober people wonder how to make it through the holidays without drinking. Now that I’ve done it, I have to ask—how did I manage all that chaos while intoxicated? That was exhausting! It’s been eight months since I’ve had a drink, and while I intended to keep it that way, I wondered if I’d really enjoy myself. I was delighted to discover there was no desire to escape from the people I’ve been looking forward to seeing, or to get through the day with the “assistance” of alcohol.

    I did need a few time-outs, however. So, I found space on an unoccupied porch, walked around outside and even did some snooping–no dead bodies, porn movies or falsified papers were found, but I do have some follow up questions for my brother that I will save for another time. With so many people in various places, no one missed me for a few minutes here and there. It is possible to carve out alone-time in a crowded place if you don’t count the dogs.

    Throughout the day, whenever I started to feel discombobulated, I acknowledged the sensation in the same way I would the need to use the bathroom. It was a private matter that called for healthy emotional hygiene. Alcohol isn’t a cure —it never was. In hindsight, it was actually a huge source of stress. I only needed to catch my breath, quiet my mind and give myself some room. Staying present was a strange and pleasant, albeit mildly taxing experience (meaning that it required some attention and effort). In comparison, it was far better than the alternative. I had more fun than I’ve had in a long time.

    An opportunity to share this lesson with my 16-year-old daughter presented itself. She was having fun with her cousins. They were playing Minecraft, shooting hoops, one-upping each other’s stories and Lord-only-knows what else. I hadn’t seen her all day when she pulled me aside. The tears in her eyes startled me. “Mom, do you have anything I can take for anxiety? I’m feeling really overwhelmed.”

    A year ago, I’d have rushed to my bag of supplements, essential oils and placebos. I might have even given her a swig of my wine. I still believed in external remedies for internal discomfort (and also that wine was a God-given panacea designed specifically for family gatherings). But this time, I decided to teach her how to soothe herself. As she has her learner’s permit, I offered to let her take us for a drive and listen to some music. We snuck out and hit the country roads. It worked like a charm. Within 15 minutes, we rejoined the party, both of us feeling refreshed. The bonus for me is an awesome memory of the two of us belting out Lady Gaga at the top of our lungs. We nailed it.

    I am grateful to have a family that I enjoy being around. For those who are not as lucky, however, the same approach to self-care applies. It’s about setting boundaries and respecting your limits. For some, that may require foregoing a booze-filled gathering all together. For others, it may require a smaller time slot, a sober buddy or change in venue. There is no need to negotiate agreement from other people. You do you. Let other grownups take care of themselves. The only priority is staying sober, whatever that takes.

    Sobriety is a gift, not a punishment. Drinking through the holidays is exhausting–brutilizing to both mental and physical health. Alcohol is an addictive substance that requires so much effort to control (only to fail anyway, whether anyone notices or not). This year, I didn’t have to try so hard. I had nothing to hide and no need to second guess what I was thinking, feeling or saying. I enjoyed just being—with the people I love the most—clear-headed, grateful and more energetic than I’ve felt in a long time. I’m thankfully sober . . .

     

     

    Thankfully Sober

    Thankfully Sober

    The question isn’t how to stay sober during the holidays but how we survived them intoxicated.

    What is Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome? (PAWS)

    What is Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome? (PAWS)

    Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS) is Real

    Glossy brochures touting the joys of sobriety fail to mention a few of the not-so-sexy, real life details. I didn’t exactly expect the first few days to be fun. Just kidding. Yes, I did.

    Hello? I quit drinking! I should immediately be vibrant and well-rested, with glowing skin and the stamina of a passionate 22-year-old. Probably I’d get back to running marathons, transform my fledging coaching business into a multi-national beacon of hope and fix all the problems with all the things. If not in the first week, then in the first month (I can be reasonable). I’d listened to enough sober success stories on podcasts to know that beauty, happiness and creativity are side effects of giving up alcohol (provided you accept these gifts with humility and gratitude, of course). In my first few days sober, I dutifully attended support meetings, did some journaling, and waited for Amazon to deliver my superpowers.

    Fast-forward to Day 214. This morning, I barely made it through my workout for middle-aged moms. The instructor advised me to use my knee as a kickstand in side-plank and do low-impact jumping jacks. I swear that class was easier when I was chronically hungover (and motivated to prove to myself that I was triumphant over alcohol). And now, instead of feeling energized after the workout, I’m contemplating a nap—even though I slept 8 hours last night. Also, a deep scrutiny of the mirror shows that time is still marching (or skipping) forward. I probably look better than I did eight months ago, but I’m not a fan of the “b” in subtle. I want the “A” in awesome. And adding insult to injury, I’ve gained a few pounds.

    What the hell is going on? What is Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome? (PAWS)

    Early sobriety was difficult. I suffered from anxiety, insomnia and fatigue. But as bad as the symptoms were, they reinforced that I was doing something right. Had they not been an issue, I could have too easily decided that drinking had also not been an issue. Early sobriety required a lot of self-care, and I made peace with that. I’d been beating myself up for a long time both mentally and physically. But as weeks have turned into months, the initial withdrawal phase faded into kinda-happy-but-mostly-blah phase. I feel good. But I also feel like I’m in recovery.

    My symptoms qualify for what is known as PAWS (post-acute withdrawal syndrome). Various addiction websites say PAWS can last anywhere from a few weeks to two years. This is the bullshit in the fine print that the sobriety commercials fail to mention.  This felt unacceptable to my addictive personality, which is fueled by instant gratification. A month is a long time when you’re taking things day-by-day (or minute-by-minute). Who’s got years to deal with suboptimal performance?

    I can only hope I do. What’s the alternative? To keep drinking? Where does that option put me in two years? Even if nothing gets worse (which it would—that’s how alcohol use disorder works), the best-case scenario is that I’d still be struggling. At this point, I’m eight months closer to the life I want. Time moves fast in a slow and grueling kind of way.

    My former self would have had no tolerance for this recovery process. But the gold nugget hidden in the muck is that I’m not my former self. I had a similar realization after I had a baby (or four). There is no getting back to normal. We adjust our expectations, priorities and goals based on new needs and desires. A new normal is created one day at a time. I now liken recovery to giving birth–to me!–and my new life. For now, I’m breathing through the contractions, sleeping when the baby sleeps, and decorating my vision board with all of the wonderful things to come.

    Everyone experiences sobriety differently. But if you’re new and struggling, here’s an excerpt from my journal—Maybe it will help adjust your expectations—both good and bad.

    Day 30–Sober and Sad

    I have not forgotten the parched brain buzz that greeted me every morning for years. I do not miss feeling intoxicated in the evening or falling asleep in a stupor. The cycle of clawing my way out of a hole each morning only to slide back each evening has been broken. Now, I begin and end each day with gratitude for this perspective. Treating my body with kindness feels like a stay of execution.

    But life is not all rainbows and butterflies. It’s May 21, 2020, and we’re still under lockdown orders. A few days have been sunny and warm, but most days are dark, rainy and cold. I feel more relieved than enthusiastic about my sobriety. My energy is low, and I struggle with motivation. Thanks to my dog, I exercise every morning, but I’m not breaking any training barriers with stadium stair-laps or burpees. Consistency is my only goal. Today, after completing the bare minimum, I crawl back into bed at 1 p.m. I shouldn’t be tired. But I am tired. It feels like depression.

    I realize that it probably is depression. Not likely clinical or serious, but I ponder my history with anti-depressants anyway. They have provided short-lived reprieve in the past, but the side effects quickly outweighed any benefit—especially when combined with alcohol. Now that I’m not drinking, might they help? I’m doing everything I can to feel good—eating a whole food plant-based diet, taking handfuls of supplements, exercising, meditating, and spending time in nature. What else is there? Why do I still feel flat and lethargic?

     For the first time in a month, I consider pouring a drink. I’m home alone. No one would know. I could easily slip into my old routine—grant myself a reprieve—take the night off. I allow myself to consider the possibility—play it through. Thankfully, I have run that experiment countless times and have lots of data to show the hypothesis is false. The only thing that I truly crave is the fraudulent promise—the potential in the pour. I do not actually want to feel drunk. Drinking when I feel low does not produce a high. And it’s way too soon to forget the hangover.

    But I’m still depressed. And bored. I need to do something to fix that. Until. I remember Glennon Doyle’s words in Untamed. She says that all feelings are meant to be felt. We are taught to pursue happiness as though no other emotion has merit. But it’s okay–necessary–to feel all the feelings. She notes that in reality, many of our painful feelings don’t actually hurt worse than a paper cut. I check in with myself. Does this depression hurt as bad as a paper cut?

    I scan my body. The melancholy feels a bit heavy, but my movements are unencumbered. I can still raise my arms above my head, so that’s good. Thoughts of loneliness bring tears to my eyes, but the sting is more like a minor itch and they don’t even fall. Sadness is a pinch of pressure around my heart, but my tennis elbow hurts worse. So, all things considered, the sensations of my depression do not, in fact, hurt worse than a paper cut.

    That’s useful information. I decide that I can handle this feeling of depression. I make a mocktail, grab some dark chocolate and salty pistachios, and flip on Netflix. I turn on the fireplace, burrow under a blanket and invite the dog onto the couch. Turns out, she’s feeling depressed too and misery loves company. She extends the same grace to the two cats who join us in the covers. We all stay that way until 10 p.m. Then, I wipe the crumbs from my shirt, brush the dog and cat fur off the couch and call it a day.

    It wasn’t a great day, but it sure as hell wasn’t a bad day. I could fill several pages in my gratitude journal. I learned (or remembered–I forget) that resisting difficult things is far worse than just leaning in. And feeling depressed under the influence of sobriety is far better than the alternative.

    That was 185 days ago. (Yes, I’m counting)

    The disappointing news for those of you on a sobriety journey is that I still have days like that. The good news is that they are fewer and farther between, with shiny bursts of productivity sprinkled among the doldrums. The lows are getting higher. My life is like a sepia-toned photograph with spots of color being added each day.

    Symptoms of PAWS are cyclical (meaning they come and go in waves). What do the symptoms cycle around and what triggers the symptoms? No one seems to know. It’s not likely female hormones, as men experience post-acute withdrawal syndrome too. Maybe it’s stress? The moon? Karma? Whatever– I’m don’t particularly care. My curiosity tends to coincide with aforementioned doldrums.

    Suffice it to say that when the symptoms come, as they did today, I spend a little time trying to decide which doctor/specialist to call as there must be something seriously wrong with my physical or mental health (or both). Then I realize it could also just be a rerun episode of Groundhog Day. So I try to relax, do my best and focus on my progress. PAWS is a sign that the brain is recalibrating. We can trust the process, even if we don’t understand it. This too shall pass.

    Symptoms of Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS)

    Detoxing from an addictive substance often includes acute symptoms like muscle ache, nausea, headache, increased heart rate, the shakes, agitation, sweating and insomnia. For heavy drinkers, this usually lasts 3-10 days. Severe addicts need medical supervision as detox can trigger seizures, hallucinations and delirium tremens (DTs).

    Long-term recovery begins once the withdrawal process ends (as in, you’re not done, you’re just getting started). Some impairments persist for months and even years. According to Hazelden/Betty Ford, symptoms include:

    • Foggy thinking/trouble remembering/impaired focus
    • Urges and cravings
    • Irritability or hostility
    • Sleep disturbances—insomnia or vivid dreams
    • Fatigue
    • Issues with fine motor coordination
    • Stress sensitivity
    • Anxiety or panic
    • Depression
    • Lack of initiative
    • Mood Swings

    Navigating early sobriety is analogous to paying down credit card debt. The first step towards freedom is to stop charging to the account. Then reduce expenses and pay down the balance. This requires an uncomfortable adjustment in the budget and an honest evaluation of needs versus wants. Expect to alternate between feeling deprived and feeling liberated.  The process is the same with PAWS. When we were drinking, we used alcohol to soothe our discomfort. Developing new coping skills takes time and effort. Moving away from instant gratification is a long-term strategy that requires us to learn how to manage short-term discomfort.

    Instant Gratification undermines post-acute withdrawal syndrome.

    Turning to sugar, caffeine and nicotine is a natural instinct when attempting to manage our mood. Unfortunately, addictive substitutes reinforce the cycle of cravings and ultimately undermine sobriety. The best offense in PAWS is to eat a nutrient-dense diet and avoid junk food. This is way easier said than done in a crisis. There is wisdom in the adage, “quit the addiction that is killing you the fastest.” When faced with a powerful craving, is it better to eat ice cream or smoke a cigarette than to take a drink? Of course.

    However, it’s important to understand what’s happening on a biochemical level. Mood and cravings are a function of brain chemistry. Habitual alcohol consumption causes dysfunction of endorphins, serotonin, dopamine and other “feel good” neurotransmitters. It takes time for the brain to recalibrate. A balanced diet and a variety of supplements will accelerate the process and reduce the symptoms. Most recovery programs do not include nutritional support. Those that do have a 75 percent recovery rate, versus the 25 percent typical of A.A.

    I found two books that explain this missing link, with detailed suggestions for specific symptoms. Check out Seven Weeks to Sobriety: The Proven Program to Fight Alcoholism Through Nutrition by Joan Mathews Larson, PhD., and The Mood Cure by Julia Ross.

    When I quit drinking, my diet was already about as clean as it gets. I take vitamins and supplements. Regardless, I suddently had cravings for sugar and struggled to avoid foods that haven’t been a problem for me in years. After reading Mathews-Larson and Ross’s books, I paused my intermittent fasting regime and started eating a high protein breakfast. That helped. I also started taking 5-HTP, tyrosine, GABA and glutamate twice a day. This decision was based on my symptoms. You need to do your own homework. My general recommendation to anyone would be to take a multivitamin, eat as many fruits and vegetables as possible, and check out those websites and books.

    Nutrition and supplements are no more an overnight cure than recovery meetings. But they are just as essential if you want to thrive in sobriety. PAWS is manageable. The most helpful thing is to remember that the lows get fewer and farther between. Accept them as part of the process and practice self-care. Rinse and repeat, one day at a time. Practice gratitude for bursts of clarity and joy. You will get through this and it is so worth it!

    [I’m adding this addendum at 19 months sober. After getting certified as a professional recovery coach, I started Recovery University — check out the fabulous community of women supporting each other in this process. You don’t have to do this alone! Also, here’s a link to a video I produced about PAWS, and another that addresses the impact of SSRIs and supplements for post-acute withdrawal syndrome.

    Thankfully Sober

    Thankfully Sober

    The question isn’t how to stay sober during the holidays but how we survived them intoxicated.

    There is No “M” in Sober

    There is No “M” in Sober

    My alcohol-free journey is unfolding in beautiful and simple ways, right in the middle of the day-to-day difficulties of life (during a pandemic). I’m moving at an intentionally slow pace. Most days, I don’t feel like I’m accomplishing much. But when I look back over the last eight months, I see how far I’ve come on all fronts. I used to hit the day running, trying to accomplish more before breakfast than other people can in an entire day (intermittent fasting until noon was my cheat). The need to prove myself was harsh and fueled by anxiety–a direct consequence of my alcohol use. Now, I prefer a slow start: checking in with myself; setting intentions for the day; honoring my space; focusing on gratitude and peace and hope.

    Life is so much easier without the chaos in my brain and body—the below-surface chaos I didn’t even realize was there until it was gone. The fact that I no longer need or want to drink still shocks me—into smiling. I don’t ever want to go back there. I’m coming to terms with the fact that I was a full-blown addict, disguised as a busy mom and super-healthy health coach. It snuck up on me. “Did it?” You might ask. “Really? How sneaky was it?” Well, we all know hindsight owns the market in the obvious. But for a long time, I was a naïve little frog in a pot of warm water, enjoying a glass of wine after a rough day. I failed to accept the water had started to boil, the entire bottle was gone (again), and I didn’t have the strength to jump out.

    Why did it take me so long to break free? I don’t shy away from hard things—especially when they are clearly within my ability. Technically speaking, not drinking doesn’t require a specialized skill set. I’ve run marathons (with a hangover), learned to open water SCUBA dive and breastfed a baby while potty training a toddler and functioning on no sleep. Pushing through pain is my thing. What was I so afraid of?

    Let me try to articulate my fear.

    I was afraid of cutting off my supply. If I admitted there was a problem, it’s a forgone conclusion that I should stop buying alcohol. Maybe even stop drinking it too. That’s a non-action I didn’t want to be forced into. I was afraid to lose control and in denial of the fact that I had already lost control. Every day, I cycled between the tension-building and honeymoon phases of an abusive relationship. I didn’t want to move forward because I was so focused on going back—back to a time when I could take it or leave it, set limits and act in my own best interest. Back to a time when I could drink and feel happy. Back to a time before it all seemed pointless. Back to a time when I followed my own rules. I wanted to control my drinking, not stop drinking. Cutting off my supply of alcohol would also cut off my identity. I was a drinker, not a quitter. I had to make my relationship with alcohol work.

    I had FOMO—fear of missing out. I was afraid that life wouldn’t be fun anymore—that I wouldn’t be fun anymore. My pronouns are she/her and I identify as a party girl. I believed, as so many of us do, that alcohol eases anxiety and promotes relaxation. Certainly, I felt better after the first sip. Just one sip opened the valve and released the pressure that had been building all day. That first sip had become the highlight of my day. I’ve since learned that alcohol jacks our brains with so much (feel good) dopamine that a counter assault of (feel bad) cortisol and adrenaline is launched in response. This is why regular drinkers have trouble enjoying social functions without their drug of choice. They need a shot of euphoria to balance the drag. (Both of which are a function of brain chemicals and not objective reality.) The process of chasing a buzz forges a connection between drinkers—the conundrum and the cure. I didn’t want to forfeit my sense of belonging with the other problem solvers.

    I was afraid of change. The rut I was in still qualified as a comfort zone. What would be left if I quit drinking? What would I hold in my hands? How would I calm my busy brain? How could I have a pleasant conversation without a bit of a bump? What would I laugh about? What would I focus on? The irony was that life had already changed. My mental and emotional state was chaotic. I wasn’t connecting with people. I hadn’t laughed in a long time. I couldn’t focus on anything but the next drink. Alcohol was once paired with friends, food and fun. Now it was a futile ritual conducted mostly alone. Drinking had sapped all of my energy. The thought of figuring out how to not drink was exhausting. Drinking was easier. Until it wasn’t.

    Quitting required a hard stop. Anyone who has tried knows that attempting to drink less doesn’t usually fix the problem. It’s like people who eat less and lose a bunch of weight, only to end up heavier a year later. Because they are hungry. Maybe thirsty too. Willpower is not an effective strategy if you still want what you can’t have. You’ve got to rewire your brain and learn to want something else. A hard stop induces discomfort—often so much that it proves to be impossible to do alone. It requires an alcoholic to do what an alcoholic stopped doing a long time ago—admit there’s a problem, ask for help, and surrender the supply.

    Teetering on the edge of the decision is brutal. It’s feels as overwhelming as that hiker who must cut off his own arm to free himself. Except it’s not. You just have to put down the drink. You can keep your arm.

    Early sobriety is no picnic either. I tried to experience every symptom of withdrawal and detox as confirmation that quitting was necessary. The charade was over and I was heading home—to myself. When I lay awake at night, soaking my sheets with night sweats, I felt gratitude to have escaped. When I couldn’t focus during the day and was too exhausted to do much of anything, I gave myself permission to rest. I let things go, I called in sick and I didn’t apologize for taking care of myself.

    Honestly, I did beat myself up more than I’m acknowledging. But my primary focus from the beginning was to stop doing that. Self-care is not self-indulgent. When I was drinking, I kept going at all costs, hiding my pain and problems. Admitting them might have implicated the alcohol, and my addiction could not allow for that. I blamed others where I could, but I mostly kept quiet in my suffering because I suspected that alcoholism might be the problem.

    It feels amazing to finally be able to admit that alcoholism was my problem. That took a minute. It started with a silent surrender. And for months, it was at most a whispered agreement. Now it’s a roar. I still feel some shame, but I’m hitting the override button. Courage isn’t the absence of fear. It’s action despite the fear. My aversions to somberness have proven to be unfounded. There’s no “m” in sober. It hasn’t been easy, but it sure beats drinking myself into mental and physical isolation and agitation.

    Sobriety programs usually include making amends. I was eager to make whatever apologies necessary, purging my shit once and for all.  However, I’ve realized that the first apology—my primary amend—would be to me. I have hurt, denied, betrayed, neglected and wronged myself. I own that without shame because it’s my truest story. I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t gone there. Feeling whole and empowered, I can now acknowledge the hurt I’ve caused (myself and others) and take action—which is the only amend that really counts.

    Are you struggling with sobriety? Maybe I can help. I have an MS in health coaching with applied nutrition and a professional recovery coach certification. I’m also 47 years old and dealing with and learning about midlife hormone issues, which make everything more difficult. If you want support, email me at colleenkachmann@gmail.com to schedule a free consultation. 

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