In 2016 I fell apart at the seams. I was depressed and I didn’t want to admit to myself why. I didn't want to think about my unhappiness and my pain. I was afraid to turn to the ones I loved for fear they would judge me. I now know that it was an unreasonable fear, but at the time I did what many of us in the hospitality industry do: I numbed my pain and turned off my thoughts with alcohol. I was finally working in a place where I could let my passion about wine shine, working as a sommelier in a prestigious international restaurant. Somehow I had gotten to a point where I didn’t care what you put in the glass in front of me, as long as it had alcohol in it.
At first alcohol worked. It took the edge off. It was fun. It got me dancing. It was a distraction. When painful thoughts or doubts entered my mind, it was an easy response to reach for a glass and turn the volume down. Eventually the side effects began to catch up to me. My tolerance grew. I gained weight. The hangovers grew worse. The thoughts came back. They always came back. I was attempting to self-medicate; treating the symptoms of a deeper problem with the medicine of my choosing. Alcohol was the medicine I was most familiar with. I had spent the better part of ten years studying it, pairing it, mixing it and serving it. I dedicated much of my life to knowing how to better serve and drink it, yet I ended up becoming a mindless consumer.
In 2017 I hit rock bottom. I lost the most challenging job I ever had. I separated from the woman I loved. I ended up back at my parents’ house. I moved to a new city, thinking that a new place would make me happier. I kept my pain, my regret, and my truth locked up inside of me because I didn’t want anyone to see me vulnerable. I was supposed to be strong. I continued to self-medicate, but it still didn’t solve anything. My body kept telling me that something was wrong with the way I was treating it. I didn’t sleep well, I didn’t recover well from exercise or long days at wor. How could I expect my body to keep up when I was fueling it with alcohol? My body was sending me messages that I wasn’t listening to.
I didn’t like waking up exhausted, hurting and suffering a hangover, so I started to drink less. I started to listen to my body. I began to meditate, which involves being present in the body, scanning it to ground the mind and be present in the moment. I didn’t always like what I felt, so I got curious about why. That path of questioning usually led me back to the classic topics of sleep, exercise and diet. I already was doing a lot of exercise, but mostly just to work off the booze I was drinking. I found plenty of research about how sleep is affected by alcohol.
So that left diet. I got a lot of pleasure out of eating and drinking; after all these are the main elements is the profession I chose. I had to make the realization that food and drink is not just for pleasure, it is also the fuel that keeps us moving. Anytime we open our mouth to let something into our body we are making it a part of us. As they say, you are what you eat…and drink.
I attempted moderation by giving myself rules: 2 drinks per day, 12 drinks per week, only drinking with other people, etc. I would measure it on an app to keep track of my progress, but it was too easy to forget to track a drink or underreport the size. I didn’t want to talk about support groups (I wasn’t that bad was I?), I didn’t want to talk about abstinence (that's just for alcoholics!). I just wasn’t getting there. Old habits were keeping me stuck.
Someone gave me some good advice. Don’t focus so much on what you don’t want; focus on what you DO want and work backward to get there. We spend so much time focusing on our failures, or mistakes, our bad decisions and we get stuck. So what would success look like? What do I really want?
I wrote down a long list of goals, and decided to focus on one big one: live fit and strong to age 100 with no physical limitations. Tony Robbins encourages us to ask questions when trying to achieve difficult goals. One he recommends is: ‘If it were possible, how would I achieve it?’
I looked for some advice. I listened to a few talks on the concept of Blue Zones. Author Dan Buettner traveled the world to find locations where higher percentages of people enjoyed longer, happier lives so he could study the similarities. He found a wealth of habits for us to learn from, and one stood out to me: “People in four original Blue Zones areas drink alcohol moderately and regularly.” (Buettner, bluezones.com). This was a great sign! Alcohol could be a contributing factor to my health, instead of just something that made it worse.
So now I had some guidelines and some inspiration. Instead of focusing on my bad habits and punishing myself for drinking, I would focus on the goal that I wanted to achieve: health and vitality. This led me to replace bad habits with good habits. For example I had developed the habit of coming home from work and immediately reaching for a drink, which was not in line with my new focus. I decided to come up with a strategy: when I get home from work, make myself a cup of tea. This gave me a few minutes extra of time to think and a chance to make a better decision. If I was out at a bar and I was feeling the itch of habit pushing me to order another drink, I would order a club soda so I could sip on something and buy myself some time to really think about that decision.
I realized in this journey that much of my social life revolved around drinking. I always encouraged a new friend to call me so we could grab a drink. I worried that if I were to completely cut alcohol out of my life I would kill my social life. Would I be limiting myself to a life of solidarity? So, what’s the strategy? I decided to find other activities to do with potential friends. How about going to the climbing gym? Maybe we could go for a bike ride? What about meeting up for a movie, or a concert or dancing? There are other ways to be social than just sitting at a bar and getting drunk.
After working on setting a new role for alcohol in my life, I found it helpful to have a simple phrase, a mantra, that I could quote whenever I needed to reset my focus. I came up with this: My goal is to drink alcohol in a way that adds to my health and not in a way that detracts from it. I like how vague this phrase is. It is a statement that reinforces my desire to be healthy and to live well. It also keeps it open for spontaneity; sometimes the healthy thing is to have a couple of glasses of wine and dance all night with friends. This focus on health also invites me to take the time to scan my body and listen to what it is telling me. By taking that moment to reflect, I am more likely to notice my fatigue and cut myself off so I can go home and get some rest.
I have identified a lot of strategies to help myself live a better, healthier life, and now the challenge is to continue to make the right decisions regularly. Life, after all, is a journey, not a destination. So far, things are going well. There have, of course, been a few speed bumps, but I feel much more vibrant, much lighter and happier. The decision to prioritize my health has positively contributed to every other part of my life, and these positive changes reinforce my decision to continue on this path.
So here’s to enjoying a new relationship with alcohol, one that will help create health instead of harming it.