Not so long ago I found myself in my mid 30s, a wife of 6 years, a mother of 3 years, and a drinker of 10 years. I had developed a drinking habit 10 years prior while working in the restaurant industry. It steadily grew as I entered graduate school, and there the pleasant pastime became a constant presence and need in my life. Drinking was how I made friends, avoided loneliness, and numbed the pain of being in a terribly stressful program in a new city without any friends or family around. My fiance was across the country. At times it felt like all I had was alcohol. After graduate school I entered my career slowly and painfully. I had to build a whole new social life and learn to live with my fiance who I had never shared a home with. Everything was new and hard. Drinking was how I connected with my fiance, my new friends, and how I numbed the struggle of finding meaningful work after years of trying to begin my career.
5 years later I was back in my home-town with my now-husband. We owned my childhood home, had a beautiful baby boy. I was successful in my career as a social worker and therapist, but at the same time feeling stuck and ready for change. Only 5 months before this change I had started seeing a therapist for the first time in my life. While I had been a therapist myself, I had never until this time been in such a need for guidance and support. My emotions were getting out of control. I was more short tempered than I ever had been, and most of that ire was directed toward my son. There were a few incidents where I got so angry with him that my reaction actually scared and shocked both of us. I was afraid I was going to hurt him – either physically or emotionally. I suspected that I had some untreated post-partum anxiety and depression. All I knew was I felt miserable about it and could no longer see a way out of my painful feelings and behaviors – and I was terrified that I was going to ruin my chances of having a close and loving relationship with my son.
Despite all this, I was not in a place that I could see alcohol for what it was doing in my life. On many days it was the only thing that I looked forward to anymore: nightly glasses of wine after work, boozy friday night dates with my husband, day drinking on weekends with friends at the million microbreweries and wineries in and around town. There were other signs besides my emotions that were pointing to the fact that alcohol had become a problem. I was still suffering from insomnia, which I could no longer blame on my son who was finally sleeping through the night. I was always so so tired. And most concerning was my abnormal heart palpitations. My heart felt like it was about to explode at the most random times. Even when I was sitting peacefully, my heart would start accelerating, pounding in my chest like an animal trying to escape a cage. It scared me. I had always felt like a very healthy, active person who shouldn’t ever have heart trouble. But this was undeniable. I went to see a doctor, who sent me to a specialist. She suggested that before we attempted any tests, I should try something for a month: drink less alcohol, and meditate and exercise more. I walked away pretty put-off. I felt affronted. But deep down I knew she was right and I knew it was a message I needed to listen to. But I didn’t know how.
I felt like I had done everything right in life and yet my body and mind seemed to be falling apart for no apparent reason.
This heart doctor was the first person who had ever directly told me to drink less. She never even asked how much I drank, but she knew it was likely the cause of my heart issue. My first reaction was “yeah right.” Not because I didn’t think she was right, but because I had NO idea how to cut out alcohol from my life. She had given me great advice but no tools by which to make the change. I began to try to cut out drinking little by little. I thought I was genius when I added “No Alcohol” days to my Google calendar: two days of the week I would set aside for no drinking. Ha. I don’t think it worked more than one or two times, because every time I abstained, I felt terribly deprived, angry about that, and therefore more eager for a drink. I literally had no idea how to not drink every night. I would find myself pouring the wine bottle in my mind long before I actually did it. And then when I went to actually pour my first glass of wine it was as though the decision had already been made for me. I also knew I was to the point that I wasn’t even enjoying my nightly drinking, I just needed it. Despite the exhaustion, lack of sleep, acne, and scary heart condition developing, I couldn’t believe my own brain telling me it was the alcohol that was the issue.
Around the same time I met with the doctor, one of my closest friends (and a long time drinking buddy) told me that she was just reading this book called The Alcohol Experiment. She wasn’t going to drink for 30 days. “Wow, cool, good luck!” I told her. I dismissed it because the idea scared me. I could never do that. A couple weeks later we met at a brewery, her family and mine. She and her husband weren’t drinking. It was absolutely beyond me that she could sit there in the brewery and have NO interest in having a beer. As we sat and drank, she told us about how she just didn’t even have the desire anymore. She could take it or leave it. I thought it was pure magic, and I was intrigued, despite my brain screaming at me to back away slowly and bring my drink with me. My husband said, “Cash could never do that. She could never go 30 days without alcohol.” And I thought (after a couple of ungracious thoughts about him), “challenge accepted.”
I didn’t decide consciously to stop drinking it at that moment, but the seed was planted. And a couple days later I asked her for the book details and I went out and bought it. Strangely, I felt a deep level of peace about starting the process. I wasn’t scared, anxious, sad (those feelings would come soon though). I had some trepidation as to whether I could actually do it, but I didn’t think much more about it. So, I started the book and the online experiment at the same time, and didn’t tell anyone that I was doing it except for my friend and my husband. I didn’t know how to talk about it, because I didn’t really know how I felt about it yet. I just knew it was something I was doing for myself, I was excited, and so relieved. I felt like I was finally able to put down the huge weight I had been carrying around with me, the one that didn’t let me put it down. Didn’t let me stop thinking about it. Had seduced me and trapped me before I knew what had happened.
Within a few days literally all of the ailments I had been worried about had diminished and nearly or completely gone away. I was sleeping for the first time in years. My skin was looking more even. And most amazing of all, my heart felt normal. No more palpitations or pain. No more middle of the night chest explosions waking me up. No more sweating and insomnia. I couldn’t believe it. Soon, I noticed my workouts were better, my heart felt stronger, and there was nothing better than waking up on a Saturday morning without a hangover. Truly nothing. Though I counted the days through that first month (really the first three months), the more time that passed, the stronger and more capable I felt. The urges were real, but each day they were tangibly weaker. The change in lifestyle was awkward and date nights were a little different, but the more I went out, the easier and more natural it became. I just gave my all into Annie’s book, the journaling, the exercises. I woke early with more time in the day, which gave me time to do my “homework” then meditate, which I hadn’t done in years. I had an energy that seemed to come from the heavens. I couldn’t account for it. I believe this is what they call the pink cloud. Whatever it was, I was thriving off of it. It kept me moving, kept me excited, gave me hope. So I rode that wave for as long as I could.
I haven’t gone back to drinking, with a few exceptions where I made the intentional decision to enjoy a drink. However, there have been many times, especially in the early days, when the cravings and urges were strong. Old thoughts and fears would arise telling me that I couldn’t live without alcohol, that I couldn’t have as much fun, that I was missing out or ruining my dinner. I can say now that those voices became more and more quiet, and eventually they disappeared all together. Each time I ignored a craving and dismissed an urge, I could feel the old habits breaking, and new pathways in my brain being formed.
It feels like a candle light slowly extinguishing itself. Soon that flame will be completely gone. While I have never told myself I will never drink again, I have never looked back.
I liken this change to the feeling of the loss of a childhood friend. Despite becoming different people and having very little in common, and despite her making you feel bad all the time, they just stayed your “friend.” Once I gained the courage and space to end the relationship with this friend, I could so clearly see how toxic she was in my life. There are days I think back to “the good times” when our relationship didn’t feel complicated or painful. It’s easy to remember those days and think I miss her. But really, the relationship was unhealthy from the very start and that hole in my life where she used to be isn’t a dark place. Rather, it is becoming filled with all of the things that there was no room for when she was in my life: more presence with my child, a more authentic connection with my husband, a new way to express my passion for counseling and guiding other people. I can now truly feel my feelings, be at peace in my heart and soul with my life and decisions. I have a new hope for the future. So, whenever I think about that old friend, instead of missing her, I am filled with gratitude for all that replaced her.
While it hasn’t been long since I made this change, it feels like a different lifetime. I so greatly underestimated what could come from simply making alcohol small in my life. Alcohol was so BIG to me then, it was such a huge part of my life. If I could talk to myself back then, I would tell myself that once alcohol became small, I would discover whole new depths within myself that I couldn’t even imagine. I would tell myself that I only needed to take the first step and that it would be completely different than I imagined. That my husband would rally behind me and that it would change HIS life too! That my friends would lift me up and I would develop even deeper relationships with people whom I love. I would remind myself that life is so big, so deep, so beautiful and raw, so real now. And the truly greatest thing that I never could have imagined is that by taking alcohol out of my life, I was making room for the Divine within me. That I would regain that relationship with myself and with the source of all life.
This decision, which began as a trepidacious month-long experiment has taken me down a path of self-discovery and growth. Since breaking my drinking habit, I have become a certified coach and am now working directly with people who are also trying to make alcohol small and insignificant in their lives. I invite you to explore my site, see what I can offer you as a coach, and take a look at my blog posts where I will share my ongoing learning and experiences on this new path.
With a Clear Heart,
The Clear Heart Coach