With proper instruction, the thinking goes, one can be taught to drink responsibly. To me, the idea that a budding alcoholic can learn to drink moderately sounds like a contradiction in terms. (I rarely, if ever, drank moderately, even at the beginning.) It also seems to ignore the more deeply-rooted, compulsive pulls a drinker feels toward alcohol; these are needs that don’t respond well to the concept of moderation.”
— Caroline Knapp, “Drinking: A Love Story”
I quit drinking and discovered some fun new things to do with my hands, such as tapping out each week’s stream of consciousness here on this blog. Or, stuffing my mouth with gum, popping piece after piece in the old pie hole like Homer Simpson in Donut Hell. The trash can near my desk at work looks like the undercarriage of a high school cafeteria table. I find myself picking up a new supply of sugar-free anxiety-easers (tooth-crackers, probably, given my luck) every morning at the Wawa, and finding all of it gone shortly after lunch.
A two-packs-a-day — and escalating — Orbit habit. Well, shoot. That figures.
I’ve been a glutton all my life. A bottomless pit. Whatever shut-off valve exists in other people that engages when they reach satiety, mine’s either defective or I didn’t get one. And this charming biological deficiency came out to play, long before I discovered alcohol.
It didn’t matter if it was fresh bagels from the deli after church, frozen Market Day pizza on a Friday after school, a box of Golden Grahams during Saturday morning cartoons, a half gallon of egg nog at Christmas or Grandma’s homemade cheesecake on my birthday. Even as a kid, I saw zero point in stopping at “just one,” or using a knife; my serving size was “all of it.” I ate as much as I could get until somebody stopped me or, God forbid, barged in and wanted to, like, have some too.
I clearly wasn’t one of those kids who didn’t clean her plate or had to be tricked or threatened by adults to “just take a bite.” I was one of those kids you wondered, how does she not weigh as much as a school bus?
Answer: genetics and athletics. In other words, I was just lucky.
It doesn’t seem very funny, now that we know where this infinite emptiness and curious compulsion to overdo everything ultimately led (eating disorders and addictions! Shocking!) But I do remember being good for a laugh in my late teens, when waitresses at restaurants started bringing entire pitchers of Diet Coke to my seat so they could stop refilling my glass every couple minutes.
No, is the answer, if you were going to ask if I poured some for anyone else at the table.
I don’t mean to beat my younger self to a pulp here. The reason I’m bringing up Baby’s First Binge-y Behavior is to set the stage for a discussion of moderation.
Such a maddening topic! You can probably speak more eloquently on the subject than I can (test question: are you able to eat one or two slices of pizza and get on with your life? Yes? You pass). Moderation is kind of the White Whale of my adulthood. The only thing I know for sure about it — and this was a recent revelation despite heaps of evidence collected over many years — is that I am completely incapable of practicing it when it comes to alcohol. For a natural all-or-noner like me, one drink invariably leads to all the drinks, which leads to disaster, which means I MUST have none.
I am powerless over alcohol, as we say in recovery. It’s such a simple admission, and yet, at 97 days sober, I’m starting to hear those sinister whispers in my brain that say, “You’ve come this far! You might be able to handle your shit now!”
Alcoholics hear this stuff, at varying volumes, all the time. The great sobersphere icon Belle Robertson calls that insidious voice “Wolfie,” which of course makes me think of another Simpsons gag (look left; LOL), but anyway, Wolfie is the voice that pipes up out of nowhere, uninvited, and tells folks that they’ve grown enough and learned enough by abstaining for X number of days/years and now, they might be OK being a “moderate drinker.” And you’re supposed to not listen, because you know exactly what happened every single other time in your life after you picked up that first drink.
Here’s a sample of what a Wolfie exchange might sound like.
Wolfie: You’ve got 90 days sober and you’re doing great…except for that squirrel-in-traffic anxiety you feel all the time! What if you went out to this dinner with the in-laws and had just one drink to calm yourself down? You would feel so much better!
Me: What the 🤬 is the point in having just one anything?!?
I know now why my past “Sober October” experiments backfired. My goal, thinking back, was to learn moderation by abstaining from alcohol for a month. I had no intention of quitting completely; I simply hoped to come out on the other side having undergone some kind of intellectual transformation.
The thing is, a Type-A, self-motivated former athlete like me can do a 30-day habit-change challenge in her sleep. What happens upon waking, though? The answer, as I discovered, was that without going deeper than intellect and discovering a true sense of purpose, without asking serious questions — like, why have we been reaching for something our entire life to distract from or numb out our feelings and thoughts? — or doing meaningful work on myself or even acknowledging the true nature of the problem, I emerged from the 30 Days…a few pounds lighter. And I picked up a bottle of Tequila on Day 31.
Yada yada yada, I ended up a worse drinker than I was before.
In short, Caroline Knapp was absolutely right. The idea of a “moderate alcoholic” is completely oxymoronic.
The speaker says that he loved to drink. Why wouldn’t he? It was like that song, where falling feels like flying just for a little while?
The room murmurs in appreciation.
I write it down on a piece of paper: Falling feels like flying.
I think that I could tattoo this somewhere. I want to remember it forever. I want it to be etched into me, stay in my skin. I want it to protect me.
But nothing can protect me. From me. Not even me. ”
— Jowita Bydlowska, “Drunk Mom”
“So, what’s with all the bingeing?” I ask myself as I sit here drinking my fifth cup of coffee of the day. Recovery has gifted me with an alarming amount of clarity about my personal issues, if not yet any actual solutions for them. I think it’s clear there was/is something very intoxicating to me about losing control, saying 🤬 it to the perfectionist soundtrack running through my head about all this stuff I was supposed to do and be, and not do and not be, and giving in to the euphoric freedom of diving into a pizza or a bottomless bottle.
In this book I just finished reading (“Drunk Mom” was 💪🏼,) the author quotes someone saying, “Falling feels like flying,” and I think that sums it all up in a spookily perfect way.
It’s also crystal clear that I never learned or worked on healthy ways to manage my emotions or my thoughts, which is the very heart of so much addictive behavior. My lack of moderation in external matters has always reflected my internal extremes, and I chalked it all up to “being genuine” and “not caring what others thought.”
It’s great to be your own person, until that person wakes up at 41 with the emotional maturity of a 19-year-old.
Recovery, as it turns out, is absolutely about learning moderation. But that has nothing to do with solving the Rubik’s cube of booze. 🤬 that!
I know I am never going to drink responsibly. But I am responsible for finally handling all my other shit so I can live a better life. I don’t really know what that means right now or what lies ahead, but getting to work is exciting. And scary.
You have to fall, though, don’t you? Before you see if you can fly?
1 thought on “Moderation”
Thanks Jen. Good stuff, as always.