ancient history, part 1 (# 7)

I got married (for the first time) when I was 27. The first husband was not right for me in multiple crucial ways. The marriage lasted about 12 years, nonetheless.

Deep in my gut, I knew one deal-breaking thing from practically day one, though this detail did not stop me from moving forward: I was not sexually attracted to him. I liked his face very much, but not his body.

The morning after we first had sex, I remember looking at down at him objectively from a third-floor balcony as he was walking shirtless across the grass in the yard below. I remember feeling detached and somewhere between neutral about and turned off by his body.

The other deal-breaking detail I did not identify until we were practically divorced: He is a very black-and-white thinker. Once he has formed and pronounced his opinion on something, he is utterly done discussing the topic. I am a very flexible thinker. A devil’s advocate. A cartographer of gray areas. Every thought or idea remains subject to revision, or at least refinement.

I thought this relationship stood a chance despite the attraction gap because the man was growth and goal oriented. He had overcome some challenges in life and that impressed me. He had also traveled and lived in another culture, which had broadened his experience and world view. I sensed he would be a good father, which he has indeed turned out to be. He was 9 years older; the same age difference between my own parents. He was diligent in pursuing what he wanted. Which happened to be me, in this particular case.

I expressed to him one morning very early on that I was not really in a place for a relationship just then. Things were chaotic and I just had to figure my stuff out. Perhaps I needed the day to myself. He told me, “I think I should just stay and hang out. I like being around you, and it seems like you like being around me. No big deal, let’s just keep hanging out today and see what happens.” Now this proposition strikes me as a little creepy and invasive, but then it struck me as perfectly reasonable. I think I was even  flattered by his interest. It did not even occur to me to say, “Um, no. Actually, I would really like you to go home now.” So we just kept hanging out.

Oops.

Finally learned that I don’t have to keep hanging out with anyone if I don’t really want to. Fifteen-plus years later. After lots of dating.

Not long before my wedding, one of my oldest and best friends had a frank conversation with me. “Are you sure about him? she asked. “I don’t think he’s intellectual enough for you. You two just don’t seem to have enough in common. I’m having a hard time seeing you two together.” I recited all of his good points. I said that I was confident he would work on the relationship to any extent needed. I said he was fun to be with. I said I was sick of intellectuals and it was good  for me to be with someone who was practical and grounded. My friend was not really convinced by my justifications, but she did not press the issue then or ever again.

The reality of the situation was that I had gotten together with him on the heels of a major heartbreak. My whole marriage arose from a rebound situation. I was too young and too naive to believe I could–and should–take more time to figure who I was and what I truly needed from life and from a life partner. Being wanted was what I wanted, at that point.

When I met my first husband, I had moved to my city 18 months before. I relocated there to continue a relationship with someone I had met in a master’s program overseas who was from that state originally and was about to start a doctoral program there. I loved that person intensely. He was intellectual, we shared many interests, we had a great erotic life. But, 13 months after I arrived, he broke up with me suddenly. There had been no warning of his discontentment whatsoever. We were already living in the same building and we were actively looking for a new apartment to live in together.

I was crushed. I planned to move back home to my parents, but at the last minute I decided not to leave that city. I had a good job and I thought I would become even more depressed if I gave it up to live with them.

The heartbreaker and I resumed an intermittent sexual relationship after a few months, once it became clear that I was not leaving town.  The pressure about living together was gone. I don’t know. Perhaps not the smartest move on my part, but as much as I cared for him, I did feel 100-percent clear about the romantic relationship being over since I knew could never truly trust someone who was capable of hiding his feelings so completely and blind-siding me like that.

I had a few sessions with a therapist at the time. She commented, “Is it possible that this break up is a good thing? After all, a person like this could just as easily have packed a suitcase and left you without a word 10 years from now when the two of you were married and parents of two little children.” She was totally correct.

The long and short: I was still occasionally having sex with the heartbreaker while also dating a couple of new people at the time I met my first husband.

In a bar.

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doubling back (# 6)

Since resuming not-drinking after one boozy evening about a week ago, and then setting the day counter back to zero, I feel like I’ve been in a holding pattern. Like I am waiting for my life to pick up again once I get past day # 32. I think this must be a very common experience for the newly sober who restart the clock.

The first 32 days were full of discoveries. I was watching my moods with curiosity, feeling better and brighter. I still feel good, but not so shiny and reborn. I want to skip ahead to day # 33 and beyond, to all the epiphanies that may await once I enter new territory instead of doubling back.

But here I am slogging into summer heat and my boring job, meanwhile fending off various and sundry annoyances. I am having to “establish boundaries” on several fronts, with several people. With time, I have gotten better–by which I mean more efficient–at the mechanics of doing that, but the process of boundary enforcing still provokes internal anxiety and turmoil. I’m stressed and somewhat joyless.

The boundary between me and alcohol remains clear and secure, and there is relief in that, at least. I suspect there is a worthwhile lesson here in redoing these days of early sobriety.

looking forward (# 3)

On alcohol-free day 32, having completed my 30-day experiment, I decided to drink. My reunion with alcohol was enjoyable, in some ways, but it affirmed for me that not drinking is the best road for me, for the foreseeable future.

It was interesting to see the psychological effect participating in a 30-day not-drinking experiment had on me. I loved the 30 days, mostly. Felt great. Only rarely missed drinking. Had fun in a few alcohol-heavy situations without drinking myself. But thinking of the period as a finite 30 days followed by an option either to renew or to resume drinking definitely set me up to drink again. Just to see.

When I had the first Guinness while enjoying an outdoor concert on the evening of on day 32, it didn’t really affect me. I started feeling effects after half another. Then I was off to the races, and of course I did not stop there. I had several pours of bourbon, then made a conscious, but impaired choice to stop with the bourbon and have one more beer. I would have happily split yet one more beer with my husband but he graciously declined that offer. I went to sleep around 11:00 p.m. Woke at 5:00 a.m. with a headache. Oh . . . now I remember how much this sucks. . . . Took ibuprofen and went back to sleep until 7:30. Felt . . . not great, but could have been worse.

It was our last morning of vacation, and we had to pack the place up. That all went fine, until I realized I could not find my glasses. Got a bit frantic searching high and low and began to beat myself up for getting drunk enough to lose my glasses. Despite my lack of glasses, I could see quite keenly that all of this  chaos was a direct consequence of me drinking.

My glasses eventually materialized, nestled among some rocks on our little beach. Of course they did.

Practically speaking, I do not think there was anything wrong with drinking on one night of my vacation. No one (but  me) was harmed. Everything was fine, relatively speaking. That said, I could see how quickly my thirst flared up. How excited and determined I was to get drunk. It was unnecessary. I’ve been there and done that, and there are no surprises about any of it. I don’t feel sorry about my choice a few nights ago–it was clarifying–but I don’t want to repeat that choice again either.

I now know would have had just as much fun sober and not (almost) lost my glasses or had to pack up and drive home with a mild morning-after hangover.

______________

That same night, after arriving home, my husband and I went out to see Langhorne Slim play. Drinking was not on the menu. It would have been easy to say, “You already blew it, so why not have another few drinks at the gig and start over later.” But that didn’t feel like the right choice for me. For one, thing I did not, in fact, “blow it.” There was no earthly reason for me to get all rebellious, devil may care, and headstrong about anything. No reason to keep on drinking.

I prefer this frame instead: I made a rational choice to experiment with drinking after a time-limited experiment with not drinking. The results of the two experiments were conclusive. Success!

I reached a clear conclusion that I want to start over, but not as a 30-day experiment this time. I am making a firm choice to live free from alcohol and find out what else can unfold if I live my life that way, no longer under the shadow of booze. Basically, I am choosing not to make choices about alcohol anymore. These choices are exhausting traps.

I did not know this until after the show, but Langhorne Slim is sober and has been for several years. One of his songs, Changes, was a sober anthem of sorts. Part of it goes like this:

There’s many reasons we are what we become
I’m going through changes, ripping out pages
I’m going through changes now.

That’s about where I am at. Going through changes. And looking forward.

cleaning up (# 31)

Neat freak I am not. I have never been the sort of person who tidies up as I go. When I cook, the kitchen looks like a hurricane hit it, with cabinet doors blasted open and detritus strewn across all available flat surfaces. I am apparently incapable of processing my clothes after I wear them. This should not be too complicated: fold or rehang those I will wear again before washing and toss dirty stuff into a basket. But no, there is always a large limbo pile on the floor. I suppose it takes too much energy for me to decide which items go where. The simple system simply breaks down.

Here in my little vacation cabin, though, I am taking pleasure in spending the small amount of effort it takes to keep the place neat. I do dishes as we use them. I sweep the floor daily. I make the bed because the tiny bedroom looks so awful if I leave it messy. I straighten the blanket draped over the couch on the screen porch. Everything in its proper place. These tasks seem less overwhelming here, with the apparatus of daily life stripped down to the essentials. But maybe it is also because I am alcohol free. I have more time in my day for chores. I feel less put upon.

In the past, when I have been drinking in the evening I either do all the dishes and all the picking up in one buzzed swoop at the end of the night, riding a drunken illusion of productive energy egged on by the hope that I will go to bed a tad more sober and the morning will go a bit more smoothly. More often, however, I do the minimum–by which I mean brushing my teeth–so I can slither into bed and deal with the mess some other time.

When I return home from this vacation, I hope I can bring back some of this contentment I have been finding in cleaning up as I go. It is a much more peaceful way to live. Cleaning up as you go is the practical thing to do, but it’s also–practically–a philosophy . . . or, at least, a good way to think about sobriety.

clouds drifting across the sky (# 29)

Not too surprisingly, yesterday changed, and I shifted with it. The sun came out. The afternoon turned lovely and warm. My husband, younger daughter, and I went exploring. We climbed a look-out tower, wandered through a mysterious inland marsh, and sat on a sandy beach for a while, peacefully idle. I made guacamole. I ran three miles. I watched the sunset with family and friends.  It was by far the most glorious sunset since we got here. I tried roasting pineapple instead of marshmallows with merely modest success. I fell asleep snuggled against my husband feeling relaxed and happy.

Today I woke up a little cold, but cheerful. My husband and I biked to a coffee shop (I used my daughter’s bike). I read, I came back to the cabin and napped. Yes, there will be running later. I will likely create something out of potatoes and fennel. There may or may not be a game or a sunset or star-gazing. There will not be drinking, and that is all I need to know for now.

I am observing the subtle shifts in my mood as I watch the clouds drifting across the sky. I am not attaching greater significance to any single moment than to any another. I am not required to do anything more than I am doing (very little). I am not being tested in any way I can’t pass.

I find my feelings are fleeting and my mind is mostly empty. This was not true a month ago. My mind was often full with variations on the same two thoughts: (1) I might be happier if I stopped drinking, and (2) I am not sure whether I can stop drinking. Wishful thinking unrelieved by action.

For the first time in a long time I am content to exist without wishing things were different somehow. If things stay the way they are right this second (which they won’t), I will be OK. If they change with my next breath, I will be OK. Either way, like drifting clouds, I will be the same mixture of water and air. Pure, mutable, and free.

vacation (# 28)

I am on vacation with my family in a remote location. There is not a lot to do here. This is relaxing, but it’s also hard because I am very much a planner and a doer. On the upside, at least I am not planning what and when to drink.

While vacation ecstasy eludes me today, I feel peace knowing that even if I am at times bored and lethargic, I am fully present with my boredom and lethargy. I am owning it. I am not turning a slight hangover into my lame excuse and justification for boredom and lethargy. I am lying here in this bed at 2:00 p.m. on a misty Monday, because I damn well feel like it. No other reason.

My bike broke the first time I tried to ride it, which leaves one less thing to do. The remaining options: reading, running, cooking, walking, playing a game with kids (somehow I am resisting this one), napping, or sweeping the grit off the cabin floor. Eventually I will rise from my bed and engage in one of those activities.

I was worried about this vacation. Would I enjoy it without whiskey by the campfire, beer on a hot afternoon? Should I make exceptions for vacation purposes?  But I don’t really miss those things. I feel ok with the way things are. Alcohol free. This experiment is holding my interest. I really do not know what will happen next. The usual vacation routines and rituals have been thrown out the window.

So, today, I am giving in to the gray skies and my gray mood. Tomorrow remains a mystery, and I will simply wait to see what the sun does, what else happens, and how to feel when the time comes.

body: a history (# 25)

This post brings you the story of the 45-years-long relationship between food and my body. This accounting is more for me than for you, but I share in case it resonates.

I was a very skinny kid and remained so until college. I did a lot of ballet until I was 12, and it left a lasting imprint on my body, particularly my leg muscles. It was the grunge era when I was in high school in the late eighties. Everything was pretty baggy and loose and I wasn’t overly concerned about looking traditionally feminine or sexy. Nor was I particularly athletic. I pretty much thought of myself as a brain on a stick. My body was not a matter of great concern or interest to me. Except for one thing: my stomach. No matter how thin I was, I always had bit of a potbelly. This bugged me.

In college I may or may not have put on the freshman 15. Probably not that much, but I matured physically then, and went from being a scrawny kid to someone with boobs and hips. I dabbled in different forms of exercise intermittently: dance, swimming, gym workouts. I never really stuck with anything and never had a plan. I ate a lot of cheese and bread. I danced a lot, drank a bit.

My weight fluctuated within a 10 pound range from about 118-128 (I am 5’6”). Again, I didn’t think much about it. Among my friends, I was one of the thinner ones, so it would have been bad form to discuss body image issues honestly with my friends (who would have said, “but you’re so skinny!”).

Secretly I thought of myself as the fattest thin person in the world, because I knew I was not in the best shape. I guess I was what people now call “skinny fat.” I still disliked my poochy stomach and envied my heavier friends who were athletically or genetically blessed with sexy flat stomachs. Also, I had a major hang-up because my mother was extremely overweight throughout my childhood. Sometimes I was embarrassed by the looks people gave her. Other times, I worried about her health when I heard her huffing and puffing her way up the stairs. In any case, I deeply, deeply did not want to grow up to be just like my mother. I was pretty paranoid about that.

After graduating from college I moved to N.Y.C. I belonged to a gym that I went to intermittently, but mostly I just walked everywhere. I was in good shape. Same thing in Dublin, where I lived next. As long as I was walking everywhere, it didn’t much matter how much bread and cheese I ate or how much Guinness I drank.

Eventually I returned to the U.S. and started living with my boyfriend. I was not walking so much, and over the course of a year, I began to put on weight. I went from size 6/8 to 10/12. I don’t remember my highest weight, but it was probably about 140. When we broke up, I was very depressed and I rapidly shed about 20 pounds. Partly, I went to the gym a lot. Also, I really didn’t feel like eating, so I adopted what I now refer to as “the apple diet.” Basically, when I felt hungry, I would eat an apple until I felt better (or just bored with it). Then, I would throw the rest of the apple away and grab a new one when  hunger pangs hit. Occasionally I supplemented the apples with bread and cheese.

Eventually I got over it, started eating normally again, and got a new boyfriend. I continued to exercise semi-regularly. When I got married I weighed about 125 and probably gained about 5 pounds over the next 3 years. Then I got pregnant. The whole thing was a science experiment run amok. “Let’s just see what happens if I . . . ”

I ate pretty healthily most of the time, but I also ate whatever treats I wanted, which tended to be sandwiches with a lot of mayonnaise or, oddly, Stouffer’s macaroni and cheese. I gained 50 pounds and a TON of stretch marks.  After the birth (a C-section) my stomach, which had always been a sore spot for me, was completely and totally trashed. It was as loose and flabby as bread dough. Adding insult, I never really shed the last 10-15 pounds, which put me at around 145 for the next five years. I was exercising some, but I was also eating a lot of carbs. I looked kind of puffy. Not horrible, but not good.

Finally I committed to working out much more seriously than I ever had before. (This was about 10 years ago now—and since then I have worked out 3-6 times a week. Every. Single. Week.) I walked and ran on the treadmill, lifted weights and got down to about 135. I felt really good for the first time in years. And then . . . pregnant again!

This time, I was much more careful. I had worked so hard to turn things around, and I didn’t want to lose that. I kept exercising and ate much better (lots of organic farm-raised meat and veggies). I gained a reasonable 25-30 pounds and lost most of it quite easily soon after the birth. Although I had another C-section, I began walking a lot right away and resumed running the day I got the ok from my doctor. By the time my baby was 9 months old, I ran my first half marathon. When she was 1, I started graduate school full-time. It was stressful, and to cope with the stress I continued to make exercise a priority. My weight was about 132.

Partway through grad school my marriage broke up. Eating was not a high priority for me at that time. I also made a conscious decision to stop eating bread, pasta, and sweets . . . and to stop eating leftover anything off the kids’ plates.

In my family, I had always done most of the cooking, which I enjoyed very much. My family also enjoyed it, however they mostly refused to eat leftovers. That meant I ate leftovers for lunch until they were gone. When the marriage ended I vowed to only eat what I wanted to eat. I was no longer going suffer eating through ALL the leftovers just because nobody else would eat them.

So. without following any particular plan, I adopted a relatively low carb diet. I still ate a lot of cheese. In my new single life, with the kids around only half the time, I tended to eat less at meals, I ate mostly fruit, salad, cheese, and chicken. Simply easy things. I skipped meals a lot also. This way of eating agreed with me and without trying at all, except for keeping up with the regular, ongoing exercise, my weight dropped to 120 for the first time in many years. Effortlessly, it stayed there for almost 5 years.

But then . . .a couple of things happened. My wine and alcohol intake crept up over time. Back when I was in grad school, I barely drank. After I graduated, I definitely counteracted the stress of my job with alcohol. Without thinking about it, I was adding hundreds of calories to my diet weekly. Also, I met someone, got married again and my eating habits shifted a bit for the worse. Although we both eat low-carb meals, I began snacking more. I ate tortilla chips more.

About a year ago my weight jumped from 124 to 130 seemingly overnight. Seriously. I remember the exact week when it happened. I couldn’t figure it out! At first I thought it might be the effect of more rigorous strength training I was doing at the time—more muscle, maybe. But the trend continued.

It took a while for the weight gain to be apparent with my clothes. All my clothes mostly still fit. Gradually, though, I realized that I was no longer choosing to wear my skinny jeans because they weren’t so comfortable anymore (I used to need to wear them with a belt!). The bodily changes accumulated—thicker thighs, the return of the potbelly–and I could not deny the unwelcome changes seemed to be here to stay, instead of being the product of temporary fluctuation. Perhaps the changes are partly due to my age, but deep down I also knew that I had been doing things wrong  . . . wrong for me. Before I blame my age, I want to course-correct the habits I know are wrong for me.

Being honest with myself, I was feeling much less happy with my body, and negative thoughts were beginning to overwhelm me. Particularly before I stopped drinking, I felt like I was flailing, looking for solutions while mourning my lost willpower and moderation, especially as to snacking and alcohol. Obsessive and negative thoughts were draining my energy and compounding my inability to do right by my body  for more than a day or two at a time.

I had, of course, hoped that a few pounds would just melt away once I stopped drinking. Here at almost four weeks, that has not happened for me. I don’t think I have lost a pound! That said, I do feel good, and my negative funk has begun to dissipate. I can now see that the gloom about my body was actually displaced negativity rooted in my feeling like I was drinking too much and spiraling slowly to a worse place. I was uncomfortable with myself, and my discomfort was manifesting physically.