I have just passed the three week mark in my 30-Day Alcohol Free Experiment. Still going strong. As in, staying alcohol free and craving sugar just as badly as the first week. The ice cream thing has frankly gotten a little out of hand. Since my last post I’ve made fast friends with Skinny Cow’s Salty Caramel Pretzel ice cream bars and just as quickly kicked her skinny ass out of my house when she seemed to be threatening to take over all sane judgment I’m currently left in possession of. It’s not much, but I have to hold onto what thread of dignity I have left. It was not a pretty picture, me ending each evening with chocolate at the corners of my mouth.
To that end, this week I have decided to up the ante in testing my mettle. That means I’m going ‘white-free’ this last week. As in no ice cream of any kind, full fat or skinny variety, no rice, potatoes, white bread, or any bread if I can help it. I need to divest myself of all sugar to see what it actually feels like to not depend on it. I’m beginning to think sugar might be the worst scourge of all here. Screw it - bring back the red wine! Let’s toast resveratrol and all its glorious antioxidant abilities!
But seriously, dear reader, I have been trying to realistically assess where I’m at with this non-drinking thing. How much do I really miss it? As summer kicks in I really do missing sitting out on the deck, waiting for the grill to heat up, while watching the sun glint off that chilled and sweating glass of French Rose. But weighed against my glorious sleep of late, the fantasy and romanticism of the act of drinking, though it is very social, may wane by comparison. Plus, it really is nice to have energy to actually do things like writing in the evenings. I feel much more productive than I was before, even if it’s sometimes just re-organizing my office and attacking that stack of old bills and receipts that have needed filing for about 11 months.
I’ll never forget, a few years ago while I was the Assistant Director of the Antioch Writers’ Workshop, I heard Donald Pollack, who wrote the acclaimed collection of gritty short stories about growing up in Appalachia, Knockemstiff, give the keynote speech at that summer’s conference. He was humble, mild mannered, with a drop dead dry sense of humor. He talked about the many years he’d spent working in the meatpacking industry -- up until his 40’s -- when he decided it was about time he quit drinking. He said, “All of a sudden, I had time on my hands.” At which point, he decided to try doing some writing, with all this new-found time. One thing led to another, and he ended up in the MFA writing program at Ohio State where he graduated with his masters at a fairly advanced age, and Knockemstiff was his thesis book. It just goes to show what you can accomplish with a little alcohol free time on your hands.
Of course, the list is long of famous writers who drank copiously, including Tennessee Williams, Ernest Hemingway (that didn’t end so well), Jack Kerouac, and Dylan Thomas (come to think of it, none of them did!). But here are a few who weren’t alcoholics: Willa Cather, Saul Bellow, Mark Twain, and Tom Wolfe. List courtesy of a great essay on writing and drinking by Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn.
All this is to say, while I’m looking forward to having a summery glass of wine again in about a week’s time, I really, most definitely, do not want to go back to being a two-glasses a night kind of gal. So I’m hoping this re-set works. If for some reason I’m tempted to slide back, at least I know I can en-act another embargo -- a permanent one if necessary.
It’s been seven days and going (somewhat) strong. I have been craving sugar. I mean bad. If the ice cream truck drove by my house every day I’d be chasing after it and mugging the driver for every scoop of ice cream he was worth. I’m not even an ice cream junkie. Until now. This is dangerous territory. Whatever loss in calorie intake I was going to gain by not drinking, is precariously close to being lost to nightly bowls of ice cream. I do not need to be a blimp by the end of this project. That would not define success for me. It would simply be replacing one treat with another.
I did some research and sure enough, this is a real thing. Zillions of pages of the Internet are devoted to the perils of replacing alcohol with copious sugar consumption. “Research suggests there may be a biological connection between having a sweet tooth and an alcohol abuse problem. For example, a study of more than 300 children found that those with a heightened preference for sugary foods and beverages were more likely to have a family history of alcoholism.” I don’t have any immediate family who were alcoholics but I do have an uncle and some cousins who have struggled with it. They say it’s in the genes. I’m not sure if this can be proven 100%, I would think it would be part behavioral, part genetic. But then I’m no expert on the subject.
Nevertheless, the cravings should come as no surprise to me. There is a lot of sugar in alcohol (.75g in one glass of Cabernet - it could be worse!) and sugar releases dopamine into brain, whether it takes the form of a glass of red wine or a chocolate brownie. Dopamine is of course Pleasure Central and makes you feel all nice, warm and wobbly. Serotonin levels increase too when you drink, which also is a mood enhancer.
The sleep is still going well I’m happy to report. I haven’t noticed many other changes physically other than this cloying yen for sugar. But I’m putting methods in place to combat its scourge, I hope. I broke down and bought Skinny Cow lowfat ice cream bars (I am in theory against anything that claims to be ‘low fat’ because I think it’s usually filled with other junk worse than sugar). But in this case, I’ll make an exception because at 150 calories a pop it’s better than 300+ calories for a bowl of Ben & Jerry’s.
I am about to go and work with my trainer. I figure the amount of money I’m saving on bottles of wine can easily be funneled towards healthier pursuits. One of those being getting back into some badass shape. Time to go work on my deadlifts!
I first started this blog 5 years ago to chronicle the travels of my son (aka The Boy) and I through Europe. He was 10 years old at the time and over three years we lived, for varying amounts of time, in Berlin, Northern Italy, and Surrey, southwest of London, England. For the past two years we have called my hometown in the Midwest our stomping ground, attempting to cultivate a life of staying put for a while.
But I always meant for this blog to be about the spirit of journeys, in whatever form they take. So it is with this justification that I introduce a journey of another kind for the moment. Not one that involves red eyes to exotic destinations (hopefully no red eyes at all!), language mishaps, and shocking currency conversion rates, but an inner journey to see what mettle I'm really made of.
Four days ago I decided to give up alcohol completely for 30 days, or longer, if I feel like it. But definitely not less than 30 days. This came about after my boyfriend gently suggested my fondness for nightly rituals of red wine consumption might be making my chronic insomnia worse. And -- let's be frank -- he said he thought that just maybe, possibly, I was drinking too much lately and was self-sabotaging my otherwise healthy lifestyle. I love to exercise and weight train and I eat a whole foods diet.
So I ventured into the world of online alcohol abuse self assessments on sites that seemed to earnestly care about my drinking habits. My score in answer to numerous questions showed "Cause for concern" about my drinking. Time for action.
Of course, I do not think of myself as an alcoholic. It's not necessary these days when so many other options are readily available -- try ‘Alcohol Use Disorder’ -- that’s an available diagnosis. When I told my doctor I quit for 30 days and what my drinking habits had been like the past few months, she politely explained I had an “Alcohol Abuse Episode” and wrote it down in my file.
It was true, after a particularly stressful few months I had found myself staring down 3-4 glasses of Pinot a night in order to fall into a fitful sleep. I work full time and sole parent a teenager so what’s a few glasses of wine a night when it could be so much worse? Or so I always told myself.
Besides, I wasn’t performing badly at work or in my relationships, although I don’t think it had the greatest effect on my parenting, when The Boy (now 15) more than once commented, “Wine again, mom?” I would evenly reply, “It just helps me fall asleep.”
I have been battling chronic insomnia for the past ten years but I knew I’d fallen into a really bad pattern when I would have the wine, even when I didn’t feel like it, because I was so afraid of facing down the Cyclops of insomnia, in my case, not being able to fall asleep for hours, sometimes never.
Of course, the battle against insomnia is an unwinnable war when alcohol is involved. What lulls you to sleep wakes you up at 5am, blinking at the clock like a soul-less zombie, not a trace of drowsiness in sight until 7am, just when there is no option but to get up. So I had to pick my poison. I’d rather get to sleep and wake up, then the other way around.
When I had tried no alcohol for a couple of weeks several months ago during a particularly bad insomnia episode, it made no difference without it. I still couldn’t sleep. So I decided I might as well enjoy myself if I was going to be tired!
Except for the past few months, I have sometimes not drank during the week and saved it for the weekend. But then usually it seemed I would still have too much. Stopping after 2 glasses has never been my strong point. After 4 or 5, yes. But you see, as I have always told people, I lived in England for 8 years of my life where they’re practically born with a wine bottle tucked up next to them in the bassinet. It was de rigueur at every kids birthday party we went to (my son was born there and spent his early childhood growing up British), that 'party treats' for parents involved what amounted to an open bar.
So in England, I always felt like a very light drinker. This is all true. However, comparing yourself to others is never a very good barometer of your own mental health.
So it is Day 4 and I am happy to report that I have been getting to sleep without a problem and really enjoying my sleep while I’m at it. It’s been a long week though, with the usual stresses, then add the stress of quitting alcohol, and it would so be nice to have a glass of red wine tonight to wind down from it all. But the fact that I can’t even remember the last time I spent a weekend without alcohol involved in some way, means it was probably when I was pregnant with The Boy.
It seems like mid-life is a time when you decide to run a marathon, give something up or just give up the ghost completely. So I think it is a really good time to hit reset on my body and mind, and figure out how to make it to a nice, ripe and healthy old age..
Stay tuned as I blog about the effects of ridding myself of alcohol for 30 days and what the results are. My doctor says it takes six weeks to get alcohol out of your system. But 30 days is such a nice even number -- so I'm going with that.
writer-director-actress, author, improviser, mother, traveler, digital nomad