Grad school started back up a couple weeks ago, and one of the first assignments I have to tackle (aside, of course, from hundreds of pages of textbook reading) is an “Abstinence Project” for my Foundations of Addictions class.
My whole life has been an abstinence project over the past 3+ years, so I definitely see the educational value in such an undertaking. Throwing down a crutch you thought you needed to walk through life surely will teach you a few things about yourself (not all pretty 😬). It might also shed some light on addiction as a universal human experience, a natural biological urge to seek pleasure over pain, and not just a shameful moral failing or psychological dysfunction reserved for the scum of the Earth.
Or, at the very least, a project like this might help you lose some pesky excess weight, if your diet happens to have gone a little too loosey-goosey and your middle-aged metabolism can’t keep up. 🤷🏼♀️
One of the biggest things I’ve learned since I quit drinking 38 months ago is how easily one can transfer those very human addictive tendencies from one habit to another. Cut off your primary source of dopamine, and before you know it, you’ve found another source to take its place. You start clinging to other comforts as tightly as you did your original “drug.”
Suddenly, you find yourself sitting in a pile of Tootsie Pop wrappers with gooey sticks plastered to your clothes and in your hair, feeling like Bart and Milhouse after an all-syrup Super Squishee. …
The Substitution phenomenon is very real, and to be frank, it’s got me by the balls. I have a list of habits I could stand to give up for the fall semester.
I settled on sugar.
You need only look in my pantry to see why my weight, and pants size, has continued to climb since I got sober. Bless my dear husband; he brings one of these value size bags home from the grocery store nearly every week, and damn me, I’ve never been able to stop at “just one” anything, once I’ve given myself permission to imbibe.
You don’t need a masters degree to connect the dots between gallons of tequila and hard apple cider — basically, liquid sugar — and copious quantities of candy. I mean, I’ve never been a smoker, which seems to be the most prevalent companion vice for drinking or drugging, but it’s also not uncommon for recovering alcoholics to overindulge their sweet tooth.
The “over” part has always been a struggle for me, ever since I was a kid housing two whole Burger King Whoppers after every softball game and entire homemade cheesecakes on every birthday. That’s why, as a recovering addict and aspiring substance use counselor, the most fascinating aspect of our Addictions class curriculum is the concept of “Harm Reduction.”
Embracing moderation, rather than abstinence, as an acceptable treatment goal is so intriguing because it seems so foreign. Helping clients pursue a path of “cutting down” rather than “giving up” would at this point be a classic case of “Do as I say, not as I do.”
I told my professor, it would actually be more meaningful and beneficial if I was asked to practice moderation for three months. Cold turkey is no problem! All-or-nothing is my jam! I’m at home on the poles and lost in the middle ground where all the even-tempered, easy-going unicorns live, peacefully nibbling on their single servings and sipping their… *Googles: “what is moderate alcohol?”* …less than two drinks per day. 🤷🏼♀️
This guy gets it:
I guess the real purpose of this project, for me, should be to get curious about these extremist tendencies. I mean, I could treat it like just another shallow exercise in temporary austerity, like all those Paleo or Zone diet “challenges” I did during my CrossFit phase or the 30-day “Sober October” experiments I toyed with in my mid-30s (but promptly abandoned to resume my journey toward rock bottom). I could view it as another crash diet — which, given my history of eating disorders, I could do in my sleep — and set my sights, once again, on a smaller pants size.
That would have been plenty good enough for the old me, who believed, even as my soul rotted away in a sea of alcohol, that everything was A-OK as long as I was thin. Honestly, there was probably a little bit of autopilot happening when I filled out the class contract, immediately equating “abstinence” with a restrictive diet.
Part of this assignment is writing a weekly journal entry in which we chronicle our experience with trying to refrain, and possibly dealing with relapse. Well, writing this post has given me a revolutionary idea.
I mean, it’s revolutionary for a Type-A rule-follower who’s long been afraid to rock the boat or buck the system. What if I did set my goal at moderation? What if I eschewed total avoidance and tried my hand at “harm reduction” — stopping at one or two servings of candy a day, instead of instinctively tearing through seven or eight? Pure madness! 😱
While that approach would, technically, be violating the contract, it would also push me outside my comfort zone, which we all know is where real growth tends to happen. It’s territory I haven’t explored in sobriety as much as I probably should.
Trying to live in an expansive, unwieldy gray area, rather than retreating to the far black or white corners where everything makes sense and I know what to expect…that scares the crap out of me! And based on past experience, anxiety and fear usually mean I’ve hit on something that’s crucial to my growth. Something I need to do.
This is also something my future clients will need help doing. Moderation is a valuable life skill, whether or not you identify as an addict. Most of our existence is “middle ground” or “in-between times,” and the ability to find peace in those ordinary, everyday “meh” moments when nothing seems to be happening is, I think, the key to finding happiness.
Make no mistake: When it comes to alcohol, that is and always will be an “abstinence project” for me. Personal choice; not saying it’s right for everyone. There are some things we know we just can’t fuck with — as recovery author/podcaster Holly Whitaker brilliantly puts it — and booze is 100% Number 1 on my list.
^ (BTW, Swedish Fish? That is totally a Top 5 “CFW” for me, too!!)
OK, so I realize this might seem like much ado about nothing or blowing shit out of proportion. It’s just a little class project. It’s not life and death; it’s freaking lollipops, for Pete’s sake! And yet, what is recovery if not paying closer attention to detail, drilling down to figure out what “unspools you” so you can keep yourself…um, spooled? What’s the point in giving up a crutch if you immediately look for other ways to avoid standing on your own two feet? How can you go about seeking clarity if you remain obliviously stuck on autopilot?
And how can you guide others into places you have been unwilling, and therefore unable, to go?
Honestly, shooting for moderation instead of abstinence would make this my most challenging grad school assignment yet. So, here goes, what the hell…