When Lent comes round, I like to challenge myself with a new practice. This year, touched by Russell Brand’s book, “Recovery: Freedom from Our Addictions”, I decided to look at my relationship with alcohol. Russell really drilled into my head that everyone has some kind of addictive behaviour, whether it be with our phones, sugar, alcohol…. And if I’m really honest with myself (and with you), as well just enjoying the taste of good alcohol, I sometimes notice myself using it in a compulsive way.
I started drinking in my teens and I don’t know a dinner party, a family lunch or a wedding without alcohol. I come from a family of brewers and wine-makers, and alcohol has always been a part of the way we socialise. I don’t drink everyday and I’m not excessive when I do drink – but I have noticed that I tend to drink more when I am in situations that make me uncomfortable.
If I walk into a party and there’s a lot of people, the first thing I want is a drink. Now, you might think, “So what? You’re at a party.” And sure, I get you. What is a party without a couple of drinks? But why do I want the drink?
I’ve always been quite shy. I put myself out there much more than I used to, but sometimes, it’s still difficult for me… especially when it comes to speaking about myself. When I walk into a crowded space, I typically feel awkward and anxious. And the thing that I grab to soothe that unpleasant experience is alcohol. Alcohol works by decreasing the noise in our minds, so we perceive and feel less. Therefore, with alcohol, I’m not so aware of the anxiety and I feel less self-conscious.
Being able to see this compulsive behaviour, I decided that this year, I would give up alcohol completely for 40 days (and nights!).
“What happens when you don’t follow the compulsion? What is on the other side of my need […]? The only way to find out is to not do it, and that is a novel act of faith.”
As I told people about my challenge, my commitment to it grew. People knew – I had witnesses – if I gave up now, I’d be held accountable! The beginning of the 40 Days were surprisingly easy. I didn’t experience cravings and I was proud of my ability to shift my mindset so quickly just by committing to it.
Like I anticipated, the really challenging moments were the parties where I didn’t know too many people and everyone had a drink in their hand, but me. Remember the cartoons where a little devil and a little angel would pop up on the protagonist’s shoulders and argue? Parties were the moments where I felt like I had a little cartoon devil whispering into my ear. One time, I began to convince myself that it would be okay if I drank a beer because I don’t even like beer, and Lent is about giving up stuff you like, right?! But, what’s the more compulsive behaviour: drinking what you enjoy, or drinking what you don’t like so you can still get buzzed? I laughed at my rationale and chose not to give into this child-like plea of mine.
At another party, just a few days before Easter Sunday, I began negotiating with myself that since I actually gave up drinking about 4 days before Lent began, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if I quit Lent a few days early? The only reason I was thinking this was because I was feeling awkward and anxious, and I wanted some soothing! Dull out, so I wouldn’t have to feel the unpleasant emotions! Aware of what I was doing, I didn’t allow myself to quit when the going got tough.
Not having the option to dull my unpleasant emotions forced me to use my other resources. I chose to be present with the emotion and to allow people I trust to see when I was not in a perfect, happy space. I didn’t ask for them to fix it or to save me from it, I just let them know, “I totally forgot I’d ever met that woman even though we’ve known each other for years. I feel like such an dumbass!” or, “God, alcohol makes mingling easier when you don’t know anyone, doesn’t it?!”
What I found was that my experience was acknowledged, and sometimes served as an entry-point for sharing between us. People responded with, “Oh God, I forget people all the time too, it’s so embarrassing!” or “Yep, alcohol helps…you sure you don’t want a drink?” This sharing led to conversation and laughter, and with it, the unpleasant emotions metabolised into something enjoyable; they were replaced by connection and warmth.
“The opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety. It’s connection.”
Now that the 40 Days are over, I totally agree with Russell that addiction exists on a continuum and that most of us have some kind of addictive behaviour, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. Not allowing myself to dull anxious feelings with alcohol for a significant period of time allowed me to process the anxiety and try a new way of being. I was able to grow through the anxiety, instead of continue to repeat the same pattern.
It’s kind of beautiful to me that by not dulling out the anxiety that arises from a fear of not belonging, I was able to recognise I belong in a more real way.
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