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 [email protected] for a free consulatation. 

    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 PAWS (Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome)?

    What is PAWS (Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome)?

    What is PAWS (Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome)?

    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. I mean, 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 (See? 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. I had 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? [See also: What is PAWS (Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome)?]

    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? Do the math. Even if nothing gets worse (which it would—that’s how alcoholism works), the best-case scenario is that I’m currently four years away from the life I want. At this point, I’m eight months closer. 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 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—Day 30. Maybe it will help adjust your expectations—both good and bad.

    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. 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 have this 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’s just a rerun episode of Groundhog Day. I relax, do my best and try to 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.

    What is PAWS (Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome)?

    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

    New sobriety is analogous to 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. It will probably suck for a while. But you do what you have to do to clear the debt. The process is the same with PAWS.

    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 support 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. (The book links go directly to Amazon. The author links take you to their websites so you can learn more.)

    When I quit drinking, my diet was already about as clean as it gets. I take vitamin D and B12. Regardless, I 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. I also started taking 5-HTP, tyrosine, DLPA 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!

    Are you struggling with PAWS? 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 that exacerbate PAWS. If you need support, email me at [email protected] to schedule a free consultation.

    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 [email protected] to schedule a free consultation. 

    What is an Alcoholic?

    What is an Alcoholic?

    What is an Alcoholic?

    Despite our society’s belief that most people are normal drinkers and only assholes become alcoholics, alcoholism is more of a journey than a destination. It’s true that some people are predisposed to travel faster due to genetic and biochemical factors such as the way the body metabolizes alcohol and the feeling that alcohol produces in the brain. (If you have a high tolerance or experience euphoric relief, you’re moving faster.) Lifestyle factors can slow the process. A person with a job that has no room for sub-par performance is highly motivated to abstain from drinking during the work week. Someone who lives in an alcohol-free home will naturally drink less than a person who keeps a loaded bar. Put those same people in a different life (or on vacation. or in quarantine) where regular drinking is acceptable, normalized and even expected, and addiction accelerates (alcoholism is a progressive disease).

    The cross-over from normal drinking to problem drinking occurs when a drinker learns that alcohol (temporarily) solves the problems created by alcohol. This can happen quickly or over a lifetime, consciously or unconsciously. Have you ever gone to a weekend wedding? Many people over-do it on Friday night (I used to call that a rookie mistake). The women separate from the boys on Saturday morning when the “normal” drinkers sleep it off and the “professionals” grab a hair-of-the-dog and literally jog past the struggle bus to the party. Alcohol anesthetizes pain.

    People who drink to relieve stress are especially prone to developing alcoholism. The more you drink on a regular basis, the more anxiety, depression and mood problems linger below the surface. These symptoms of alcohol withdrawal are attributed to external stressors (finances, spouse, kids, Karen, dinner time, trains, roadblocks, elections, things that break, and days that end in “y,”– all problems that are never your fault), and can be quickly relieved by more alcohol. It’s a cycle that ensnares many of us and accelerates as slowly or quickly as our circumstances allow.

    Looking at my own decent into the disease, I’ll use an analogy (that I made up–all credit or criticism goes to me). Every person is given a limited, unknown and random number of free drink tickets for the bar of life. The quicker we use them, the sooner the tab starts. Eventually, the bill comes due. My life allowed me to drink more than I might have in a parallel universe. I don’t have to work long shifts or a second job. I didn’t have to choose between alcohol and other necessities. I could buy my gluten-free, vegan cake and drink too. In my mind (held hostage by alcohol), I didn’t have enough reasons to not drink. I felt privileged and entitled to live the good life, and was brainwashed to believe that the good life included fine wine and pricey liquor. I was a normal drinker for many years, abstaining through my pregnancies and moderating as life demanded. But I was always a drinker, and thus was marching at a steady pace into addiction.

    But I didn’t know that. Because for a long time, I qualified as a “normal.” The red flags were few and far between. I was as healthy and happy as I thought I could be–stoically dealing with the ever-growing symptoms of alcoholism disguised as WTF Day #389). There were people around me who drank far more than I did. Their existence kept me safe and secure in my own habits. I wasn’t like them! I was good. I was better. At the very least, I was normal. And it’s easy to see how I suffered such delusions. In our society, you are either an alcoholic or you are not. I was high functioning, and therefore had plenty of evidence that I wasn’t an alcoholic. I knew I needed to cut back and I wasn’t happy that it seemed difficult. But I believed that the problem was a lack of willpower. Motivation. Energy. The problem was me (and everyone else’s bullshit)–not the drinking. Every day, I tried really hard to stop what was happening to me and internalized the guilt and shame of perpetual failure. What I couldn’t swallow I blamed on other people. And every night, alcohol both relieved the pain and fueled the flames.

    The truth is that alcohol is a carcinogenic, mind and mood altering, addictive, psychoactive neurotoxin. The truth is the problem isn’t any of us. Occassionally, you meet an ex-drinker who is still an asshole. But as a general rule, recovering alcoholics are emotionally intelligent (maybe more so than the general population as overcoming addiction takes a great deal of courage, reflection and humility). The mental illness associated with alcoholism is a side effect of drinking the poison. I know that to be true because with the poison out of my system, that broken and pathetic version of myself is healing. My integrity, joy, productivity and compassion have returned. I’m not pretending to be okay anymore. I am ok. Placing blame on those of us that succumb to alcoholism only offers immunity to the $1.5 trillion-dollar industry that profits from disease. Transferring blame to people instead of the product prevents the “normal” drinkers from seeing the danger.

    I quit drinking in April, 2020 because I was miserable. So many things were out of my control (Covid-19 and the subsequent quarantine, financial distress, e-learning for my kids, isolation, etc.—not to mention the amount of alcohol I was consuming). While I have always believed that alcohol reduces stress, and is therefore therapeutic, my daily experience was not aligning with that belief. My stress had become physically and mentally overwhelming. I was so desperate that I made the only change I really could, and did something that I hadn’t imagined was possible (or pleasurable).

    I stopped drinking.

    Seven months later, I can report that sobriety feels amazing. Even bad days sober are better than good days drinking. Now, I’m trying to figure out what this means. Am I an alcoholic? What do you think?

    Evaluating whether or not you should quit drinking (for a while or for good) using the question, “Am I an alcoholic?” may be irrelevant. It doesn’t really matter. Let’s assume the self-assessment you take on a random website says, “No.” Then what? Do you keep drinking and hope things getter better? [Spoiler Alert: Hope is not a strategy.]

    The real question should be, “Is my use of alcohol enhancing my body, mind, life and relationships?” Even the answer, “I don’t know,” is a call to action. There’s only one way to find out.

    P.S. When I decided to quit drinking, I did something very uncharacteristic. I acknowledged that I needed help. That was the best thing I ever did. Within an hour, I had a temporary sponsor and attended a support meeting. I could not have made it without the help of people who have gone through it. There is so much support out there. Contact me at [email protected], call your local A.A. hotline, find groups online. Find REAL people as soon as you can. Ex-drinkers that are active in support communities get it. They fucking care. They will be there for you for as little or long as you like. You are not alone.

    Is Alcoholism a Mental Illness?

    Is Alcoholism a Mental Illness?

    Is Alcoholism a Mental Illness?

    In the first few weeks of sobriety, I attended A.A. meetings. I had no problem believing that I’d become powerless over alcohol or placing my faith in a higher power. If submission was the prerequisite for freedom, I was ready to hand over my keys. Whatever it takes. I’m done. But when I read that problem drinkers must “endure the suggestion that they are in fact mentally ill,” I bristled with denial. Nope. No can do.

    The stigma around mental illness is strong, despite the increased awareness surrounding mental health. Physical ailments are less complicated. Fighting cancer makes you a hero. Reversing diabetes is badass. Conquering alcoholism warrants props too–but simply battling it?–not so much. Mental illness, however, translates to crazy–not in touch with reality–a few pieces short of a puzzle. Granted, I drank too much. But I can stop drinking. The cure for crazy isn’t as clear.

    I’m not really into labels, but I’ll use one for the purpose of keeping it simple: I was a high functioning alcoholic. To all outward appearances, I was a productive, positive person. I looked and acted healthy. My kids were taken care of, my dog was walked, and dinner was on the table. I was helpful, reliable and kind. Drama was something I avoided. I wasn’t sick on the outside. But inside, my mental health was deteriorating.

    Every morning, the shrill voice of an unrelenting inner critic pierced my consciousness before I even opened my eyes. Some days, I’d cover my ears and beg, “Can I get a cup of coffee before we start the beat-down?” The voice did not have a sense of humor and the request was usually denied. I knew deep down that my efforts to balance my alcohol intake with a whole food plant-based diet, daily exercise, and copious amounts of water and supplements weren’t enough. What I didn’t realize (until after I quit) was that my bad habit wasn’t even a habit anymore. It was a full-blown addiction.

    Alcoholism produces an internal state of dis-ease that is death by 1000 cuts. Ethanol is a sedative. Your brain counters the depressive effects with stimulants and stress hormones. Once the alcohol wears off, there is a bio-chemical imbalance that lasts well into the next day (or longer), leaving you hypersensitive and anxious. Even if you didn’t drink enough to suffer the standard hangover symptoms, you feel at least mildly annoyed by life in general. Relationships and responsibilities are more pain-in-the-ass than purposeful. Negative thinking permeates your psyche. Moods may be manageable for high functioning folks, but the slogan on the struggle bus is “fake it till you make it.”

    It just so happens that alcohol calms the stress that alcohol creates. A drink will take off the edge left by the last drink. That’s why we call it “happy” hour. Welcome to addiction.

    But Is Alcoholism a Mental Illness?

    Indeed, alcoholism is a mental illness. However, like most chronic disorders, it’s reversible. The anxiety, depression, negative thinking and other psychological symptoms are the effects of heavy alcohol use, not the cause. The good news is that it’s not you. It’s the booze goggles. Alcohol blocks or destroys the natural chemicals that maintain emotional stability. But when you stop drinking, you can regain your mental health if you make the effort. Seven months sober, I am a new and very improved version of myself. I’m not pretending that I’m all good. I am all good—even on the tough days. I trust myself to take care of myself. Don’t misunderstand. I didn’t wake up like this on day one. It’s been a long haul and very hard work. Anyone willing to peel the onion is going to shed some tears. I’ve attended countless recovery meetings, worked with a therapist and a coach, read every single Quit-Lit book I can find, and immersed myself in sobriety podcasts. And I’m not finished. But for the first time in my life, I’m taking responsibility for my own needs. I’m healing. Every day gets better. I’m free. And I’m never going back.

     

    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, dealing with and learning about midlife hormone issues, which make everything more difficult. If you want support, email me at [email protected] to schedule a free consultation. 

     

    Jodi’s Plant-Based Miracle: Life After Stage 4 GBM

    Jodi’s Plant-Based Miracle: Life After Stage 4 GBM

    Jodi’s Plant-Based Miracle: Life After Stage 4 GBM

    In November of 2017, Jodi Gardner, a 50-year-old administrative assistant for Trine University, was sick with what seemed to be a nasty bug. She had an intense headache and had been vomiting for days. Unable to shake it, she went to an urgent care clinic.  She was treated for a sinus infection and sent home to rest.

    By the first week of December, however, Jodi was getting worse instead of better. Her weight was dropping at an alarming rate. Her cheerful and engaging personality turned lackluster and unresponsive. She couldn’t shower—she couldn’t get out of bed. Family members were frightened by her rapid deterioration. They voiced their concerns to her doctor. Jodi was sent to Cameron Hospital for a brain scan.

    The scan revealed a stage 4 Glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), the deadliest form of brain cancer. Jodi’s tumor was the size of a baseball and crossed the midline—which is the worst-case scenario. Without treatment, survival is typically three months. Even advanced medical care only extends life expectancy 12 to 15 months. Jodi was taken for emergency surgery at Lutheran Hospital, and 97 percent of the tumor was removed. But her surgeon, Dr. Jeffrey Kachmann, was candid with Jodi and her family about the prognosis. “With such an aggressive resection and treatment, it is possible to see miracles. But I’ve never seen one. In this case, it’s unlikely.”

     

     

    Dr. Kachmann also offered a directive. He advised the entire family: “Diet is your best weapon. Sugar feeds cancer. Processed foods contain chemicals that cause inflammation and prevent healing. If you want to add years to Jodi’s life, she needs to eat a strict, whole food, plant-based diet.” He gave them a list of his favorite documentaries, books and websites and encouraged them to do more research on their own.

    Hearing a thread of hope, Jodi’s husband took Dr. Kachmann’s advice. Doug, a 49-year-old engineer, watched the films and read several books. By the time Jodi got home from the hospital, the pantry was clear. Jodi’s Mountain Dew, M&Ms and cigarettes were gone. He said, “I got rid of the obvious bad stuff and just did the best I could. I was already used to cooking dinner every night, but we had been a meat and potatoes family. I just started making substitutions—you know beans instead of meat. But Jodi couldn’t eat much after surgery, anyway.”

    The next few months were perilous. Jodi resisted the dietary changes that she felt were being imposed on her. “I was actually mad,” she says. “I loved Mountain Dew. I used to keep a case in my car.” She longed for the foods that were previously a source of comfort; the new rules irritated her. She sometimes referred to Doug as her “truant officer” when he blocked a craving.  And once, at the grocery store, Jodi asked Doug’s sister, Julie, if she was the “food Nazi.” Julie recalls, “I answered honestly. ‘Yes, I guess I am.’ It was okay that she was mad. I’d rather be the bad guy than have an empty seat at the table.”

    For several months, Jodi struggled with the dietary limitations. Meanwhile, chemotherapy and radiation were delayed. The incision on her forehead wasn’t healing and she had to undergo plastic surgery. The setbacks proved to be devastating. At a checkup in February of 2018, she was told the tumor had grown back. When Dr. Kachmann delivered the news, he asked Jodi about her diet. She openly admitted to what she felt were minor lapses. He reiterated the importance of completely avoiding sugar and eating plant-based. She decided then and there, no more exceptions. This was life or death.

     

    Jodi’s family stood ready to support her. Doug was at her side round the clock. He continued to cook plant-based, monitor food labels and avoid sugar. He noticed that even the BOOST ® shake recommended for weight gain was high in sugar. He pointed out the problem to Jodi’s mom, Judy, who researched recipes and delivered a high protein plant-based shake every day during the six weeks of Jodi’s chemotherapy and radiation. Judy, who worked as a critical care nurse for over 30 years, knew that Jodi’s odds of beating the tumor were bleak. She said, “I had never considered diet to be an essential factor in healing. But when Dr. Kachmann said she needed to cut the sugar and follow a plant-based diet, we decided to follow his recommendation. At the very least, it gave us a sense of power. We felt there was something we could all do to help.” Jodi cherishes the memory of her loved ones’ efforts. “I became so weak and lost so much muscle. It was a struggle to do anything. All I did was lay in bed twenty-hours a day and eat the vegetables and fruit they brought me. I had to build myself back up,” she said.

    Dr. Kachmann’s advice motivated Jodi and her family to take responsibility for changes within their control. “We watched every documentary on the sheet,” recalls Julie. The family found one documentary to be especially relevant to Jodi’s situation. The C-Word (2015) details neuroscientist Dr. David Sevran-Schreiber’s journey to heal from brain cancer after surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. Diagnosed at age 31 and given months to live, he not only survived, but thrived for another twenty years. Dr. Sevran-Schreiber says in the film, “I realized they were doing everything they could to kill cancer cells, but they weren’t doing anything to help my body resist cancer itself.”

    Doug and Jodi Gardner also purchased Dr. Sevran-Schreiber’s book, Anti-Cancer: A New Way of Life. While the book details a multitude of scientific evidence for the power of nutrition over disease, it does not promote false hope. It doesn’t promise that simply eating kale or celery is a cure. The core message emphasizes the importance of nurturing the body’s innate physical, emotional and spiritual defenses, while also receiving appropriate medical treatment.

    The Gardner family is doing more than playing defense with food. They are grounded in their strong Christian faith. “I was not afraid,” Jodi recalls. “I never stopped praising God. He is good. I knew I would be ok. I knew where I would be, regardless.” The Gardner’s believe in prayer and community; church members intercede daily on Jodi’s behalf. They also believe in the strength of their family unit. Every Sunday, the large and lively clan gathers for a meal. Four generations of parents, children, siblings, spouses and friends exchange stories, talk about their faith and of course, share good food with one another.

    Jodi’s cancer has changed the whole family’s approach to nutrition. Jody said, “We are very grateful to God that our eyes have been opened to see that whole, real foods can help and heal the body. We now actually crave vegetables and fruit and look forward to trying foods we’ve never eaten before.” Doug’s mom, Louise, said, “The more you look into the information about bad food, the easier it is to understand how we get sick. Your body has to fight off all the stuff that isn’t natural. I used to buy candy and pop for my grandkids. I thought I was being a good person. And here I was, buying them poison. The more I learn about what’s in the food, the madder I get.”

    Jodi returned to work five months after being diagnosed with GBM. Her cancer is in remission. She says, “I know the diet helped me, but God healed me. We will be plant-based for the rest of our lives.” Doug knows Jodi’s return to health is a legitimate miracle but respects the call to diligence. “We can’t let our foot off the gas. We need to stay the course. So, we watch the documentaries and revisit the facts” he says. “We wouldn’t have known about plant-based eating if it wasn’t for Dr. Kachmann. That advice meant a lot, coming from a surgeon. If he hadn’t said anything, we would have continued as we were. And God only knows where we’d be.”

    This week, twenty-six months after the GBD diagnosis delivered a death sentence, Jodi received another clean bill of health from Dr. Kachmann. She remains committed to her diet and living a healthy and happy cancer-free life.