Saturday, January 31, 2015

A Private Struggle

No one ever pats me on the back. No one says "good job!" Except for my wife. Because no one knows.

In the community center where I work, it is the time of year for resolutions. Biggest loser contests are in full swing. Facebook is crammed with weight-loss resolutions, and get fit resolutions, and get-to-the-gym resolutions. People have support. This is who they are. This is the nature of their resolution.

I'm on my own. This is who I am. This is the nature of my resolution – private.

I made a list in December. A handful of things to work on this year. Some are simple check-off items – plan more nights out with my wife, commit to running Bucks Ridge Burn Half Marathon. And a few are game-changers. The first one I've attacked is my alcohol intake. A game-changer. No one has called me an alcoholic, a problem drinker. At least not for twenty years. I'm never drunk, never hung over. Alcohol doesn't disrupt my life. But it is a problem. It has a hold on me in a way that nothing else does. By lunch-time, I'm often anticipating the two or three glasses of wine I'll settle down with in the late evening, after dinner, with a book.

Pfft. A common response to my consumption. Two glasses of wine doesn't make a problem drinker. True. But anticipating the drinks for eight hours? Probably. Sixteen days into this resolution. It's a roller-coaster. I've established my rules. Seemingly arbitrary, but the point is to break a habit. No alcohol except on Friday and Saturday night. Primarily with meals or at social functions, no more than two. I trying to take away the anticipation of alcohol, my familiarity with alcohol.

Some days, it's good, uplifting. Pride of addressing a long-standing problem and actually doing something about it. Other days, I feel like a trapped animal. Last Tuesday was one of the bad ones. Hump-day, or really the basement-day. Three days from my last drink, three days until my next.

When I started this, this abstinence, my biggest concern was that without alcohol, my life would feel empty. Going through the motions, but without the one thing that makes it all feel right. This is absurd, I know. I have an awesome family, a decent job, rewarding hobbies, health, intelligence, curiosity, capability. But this is the exact feeling I've had many nights over the last few weeks.

Yesterday I planned a get-away. My wife is gearing up for a meditation retreat. Two nights and two days of meditation and Dharma. No talking, no eye contact with the other retreaters. No music, no reading. 48 hours in her head. This is fun, or at least positively challenging for her. I commented that I wish there was a retreat for runner/writers. I would go to that. She suggested that I create my own. So I did.

I booked a cabin at a camp-ground that abuts the Appalachian Trail. Two days. Two long runs, two long sessions of uninterrupted writing. This is heaven for me. No people, no responsibilities, no schedule. Grilled meat, a chance to watch a stupid action movie when I'm taking a break. So what do I think? I think about not drinking. I think that this will be a depressing trip because I plan to leave the wine at home.

I'm not sleeping that well. I'm up several times during the night. I have to pee. This is because instead of drinking 12 ounces of wine each night, I'm drinking 44 ounces of herbal tea. This is a coping mechanism. An oral fixation. A distraction. Something else to sip in place of the Malbec, the Pinot Noir, the Zinfandel. And I'm up early. Before my alarm, which is set for 4:30. I'm going to bed too early. Another coping mechanism. If I can't drink, I should just pack it in for the night.

I'm starting to feel like an invalid. Like I've got an ailment that takes everything out of me and sends me to bed early. I used to worry that my kids would think I'm an alcoholic. Now I'm worried that they think I have cancer. "You're going to bed? Now? It's 8:30!" It is too early. I lie in bed for fifteen or twenty minutes. Sometimes much more. I haven't shut down yet. For the past twenty years, shutting down has included reading a book and drinking wine.

It's a huge life change. At least as big as dropping some weight in a contest. And so far, no one knows. Just my wife. My co-workers simply see me as more irritable than normal. My kids see me as lame. My friends see me... actually, no friends have seen me since this started. I haven't gone out and socialized since I quit. I haven't been ready. And I haven't made a public proclamation about not drinking, because I'm not really certain what I'm doing, what my end goal is. And I'm definitely not certain that I can keep it up, that I will want to keep it up.

My co-worker, Jeanie. She is one of the biggest losers in the contest. She's doing pretty well. She has a lot of support. Her husband, her adult children, all of her co-workers. We're all checking in with her. Asking her how she's doing. She has nine teammates and twenty-seven competitors on three other teams. Everyone is routing for her. Including me. Her results are posted on the wall of the gym.

Me: "Hey Jeanie, you look 3.65% smaller than you did a couple of weeks ago."
Jeanie, aghast: "More like 3.654%"
Me: "Sorry, I was rounding down."

Plus, presumably, if she is successful, she will finish with the weight-loss that has been eluding her for so long. A very outward reward that will be seen by everyone she comes in contact for the rest of her life.

What will I get if I'm successful? Well, sure, health, happiness and an extra hundred or so dollars per month that I'm not sucking down at the rate of five dollars per night. But I will live my life with the title of a Teetotaler – a word I've always viewed with suspicion and disdain. A word that makes me think of puritans, holy-rollers, judgement, Or perhaps the title of Alcoholic – implying illness, lack of control, time spent at the bottom. Either or both, this isn't how I think of myself.

My wife reads this and says: "JEE-SUS! So much judgement." Of myself, of others. She says my problem has nothing to do with alcohol, but the inability to be kind to myself. My critical eye, always searching for a crack, an imperfection that proves I'm as flawed as I always assume I am. She's happy with my decision to dramatically cut back on wine. Not because she thinks it is a problem, but because it's problematic and distressing to me.

It's been three weeks. In this time I've had five glasses of wine and three beers. On paper, this seems like an appropriate amount. When I was a teenager in college, this is what I viewed as adult drinking. Better wine, an occasional beer after yard-work. Obviously not drinking to get drunk. Or even drinking to take the edge off. Having a drink as a reward. Like eating an ice cream cone or taking a nap after a long run. A bit of pampering. But while my limited consumption seems like the right amount, it feels restrictive. It feels unfair. While Jeanie loses weight and gets patted on the back, I look in the mirror and think "the rest of my life is a very long time."

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