How I Used Mindful Drinking to Start Saying “Yes” instead of “No”

This post might seem like a contradiction. Drinking alcohol is an inherently unmindful activity. Drinking is the activity we turn to after a long day of work, trying to unwind and check-out of life’s assorted stresses. Mindful drinking sounds like a paradox, an oxymoron. Drinking is the supposedly fun reward of the weekend. Yet, mindful drinking is completely possible route to take into sobriety.

And that’s great. Drinking can represent leisure and relaxation, or festivities. Yet what happens when drinking stops being those things, when drinking begins to take hold of our lives in a more insidious and toxic way? What if we aren’t even noticing it is happening, because the frequency of drinking has gotten to such a degree of normalcy?

My Relationship with Alcohol

I’ve had a long history of difficulty with alcohol. Between my depression and anxiety, alcohol and I are often a terrible combo. In my teenage years, I would drink too much, but I was “having fun”. I kept returning to alcohol because that seemed like the thing to do. Alcohol was fun; I was more fun because I could bond, and my social anxiety was eased. I knew that alcoholism ran in my family, so I was particularly wary of its effects, but I didn’t see the harm in trying it out—everyone was doing it, so I should too, right?

Then, around age 18, I decided bartending would be my golden ticket. I saw how much money people were making in the restaurant industry, and believed that being a part of it would get me into exactly the right kind of financial and social position I so desperately craved. Plus, I’m pretty, right? Everyone I talked to about bartending said I would make tons of money, blah blah blah. Everyone said it was easy, fun, and highly lucrative. I thought that was exactly the kind of job I wanted for myself. Age 18, fresh out of high school, ready to take on the world—yes, bartending would be perfect!

A Dream Deferred

I couldn’t get into the bartending game from age 18-20. Between college classes and a lack of experience, I was either un-hirable or too busy with school to aim for a bartending gig.

Fast-forward to age 21, right as I’d given up on my golden-ticket dream, when I finally landed a bartending job. From there, I moved through several different bartending jobs, and continued to bartend up until about 4 months ago. In the beginning of my Fall semester 2018, I was working 3 or 4 shifts a week between college courses. Then after graduation, I was picking up as many shifts as I could. I was hungry for money and addicted to working.

After graduating, the bar I spent most of my shift-time at was a little restaurant right by mine and Devin’s house. It was chaotic, under-staffed, poorly managed, and always dirty. I spent my shifts cleaning, working, and, most importantly, drinking at the end of the night. I felt that I deserved it. After all, everyone else was enjoying themselves and unwinding after a long day, so why couldn’t I join in? I was making great money, but coming home depleted, feeling sad and uninspired the next day. Getting home, pledging to slow down, to stop covering other people’s shifts as much, and to STOP DRINKING, and going to bed, only to do it all over again, usually the very next day. I was surfing, writing, and enjoying life less and less.

Getting Sick of Hangovers

So, within the last several months, I knew I was sick of the hangovers. Sick of missing out on swells because I was too drained from a late night to paddle out. I was dismayed, unhappy, and completely addicted to the work-drink-repeat cycle. Every time I thought about quitting, or simply trying to stop drinking but continue working, I was pulled back in by an especially busy shift, a life-frustration, or the shiny promise of fun and enjoyment that alcohol made me, only to let me down the next day with whopping hangovers and serotonin-drop-induced depressive episodes. I convinced myself that money was money, and that the drinking that went along with making money would eventually be worth it.

I knew I was sick of being hungover, so I couldn’t understand why I kept going. Surely, if I knew the result, yet continued, there was something more going on, right?

Hamster-Wheel

And there was. I still wanted the lifestyle and benefits I associated with drinking: the camaraderie with my customers, the emotional lightness I could get from being drunk, and the particularly addictive anxiety-erasing quality of drunkenness. I hated being hungover, but I still loved drinking as much as the next person. My depressive thoughts, often intrusive when I was sober, either went completely silent or became mega-amplified, worse than when I was sober.

Some people would call it quits on 50/50 odds like that, yet for some reason, I kept gambling on that risk, hoping something would change, or that I would muscle through it.

I couldn’t stop then because I believed that what I was gaining emotionally and socially from drinking was still greater than what I was losing from it. The positives I associated with it were still greater than the negatives, so even though the hangovers got worse and worse, I still thought they were far less than the pleasure derived from unwinding with alcohol.

Getting Sick of Drinking

It took several more weeks for me to get sick of drinking, rather than being sick of being hungover. One evening, after a week free of alcohol thanks to working less and white-knuckling it through a couple of shifts, I noticed the first whisper of my dissatisfaction with the act of drinking. After taking one shot at the end of a shift, I didn’t feel the same as I usually did. I felt more anxious; I felt fuzzy and off my game. Rather than feeling happy and lightened, I felt pulled down and depressed from a single ounce.

via GIPHY

I had to start noticing how much drinking was affecting me, and become tired of that in order to stop drinking. No amount of bad hangovers was going to prove to me that drinking was a problem—there would always be a solution to those—until I became conscious of how the real-time experience of drinking was affecting me.

Trying it Out

While mindful drinking sounds like an oxymoron, there are ways to make certain aspects of drinking more mindful, to learn more about our patterns, behaviors, impulses to drink, and how to change the outcomes. There are also tons of people who have tried this before me, so I figured I could give it a chance.

First, Becoming Mindful of the Urge

In the beginning of trying this out, I started to ask myself why I wanted to drink before starting. I tried to honestly answer what was driving my impulse to drink/ get drunk:

am I stressed? do I feel like celebrating someone? is it a holiday, so I feel permission or pressure to drink? is drinking going to satisfy a need? am I tired/ hungry/ anxious/ angry?”

When I began asking myself why I wanted to drink, whether or not I followed through afterwards, I could start to see patterns in my behavior, as well as my mind-set, around drinking. By asking these questions, I could see what I associated with drinking, what I believed drinking would accomplish. Basically, I could start to assess what kind of power over my life I was associating with drinking (which, for me is AKA getting drunk). I started to see that oftentimes the impulse did not match the solution.

Some Examples

Say I wanted to drink because I just got in a fight with my boyfriend. Does that solve the argument I just had? Certainly not.

Or, I was frustrated and exhausted at work, so I wanted to drink. Really, what I needed was rest and to pick up fewer shifts, not to further drain my body with alcohol’s toxic influence.

Or, I wanted to fit in with my co-workers, who were drinking. Yet, really, was this the true social connection I was craving? Wasn’t I really looking for genuine social connection, not some facsimile of it through a round of shots taken together? Or, I felt anxious about something, anything, and wanted a drink. The anxiety would go away for a while, but come back even stronger the next day. Really, what would getting drunk accomplish except to exacerbate a negative emotion even further?

I began seeing that I was mostly amplifying the initial need, negative emotion, or discomfort, rather than creating a genuine and sustainable solution to the initial need.

via GIPHY

Becoming Mindful of the Drinking

After finding out the answer to why I wanted to drink, I sometimes would choose not to. On the occasions I felt the answer was valid, I would have my first drink.

The next step in creating mindfulness was to look at how I was drinking. After my first drink, I would check-in with my body, emotions, and thoughts seeing how each felt. Had they improved? Worsened? Did I like how I was feeling after the first one? Sometimes I would have another, or several more, doing my best to continuously check in with my mental and physical state of being.

Gaining Insight

Each time I tried this, I found new answers. Sometimes I truly was feeling good with a few drinks, sometimes, because my system was already imbalanced, the exact opposite of what I wanted would happen. As most of us with depression and anxiety know, drinking often seems like the answer, but isn’t. More and more often, I was seeing how asking myself these questions lead me to a greater understanding of the negative affect of alcohol on my system.

I continued to drink to excess, even when I knew it wasn’t benefitting me. I kept returning to drinking, even knowing how much hard it was doing to my mind and body. But I also knew that I was slowly but surely collecting information for myself, learning more about what my connection to alcohol was about. I had yet to make the change, even though I was digging deeper.

Next, Becoming Mindful of the Consequences

quote about making better choices that affirms my decision about mindful drinking
it took consequences to change my choices; practical-personal-development-advice.com

I was getting there. Asking questions, connecting the dots between my stress levels and desire to drink, understanding more and more about alcohol’s effect on me while I was drinking. Part of this process was about alleviating the shame around drinking, to avoid the shame-spiral-drink-more pattern I’d also been in. One reason I would return to drinking was because I felt embarrassed or ashamed of myself for “failing” to stay sober the night before. It became an all-or-nothing I’m not having any or I’m having it all mentality. Turning this process into a mindfulness experiment, rather than a self-punishing agenda, seemed to help too.

Mindfulness Afterwards

Practicing mindfulness after drinking was critical for learning more about what my body and mind were going through and how they were being negatively affected by alcohol. When I paid closer attention to my self-talk after drinking, I realized how mean, critical, and judgmental of my surfing, body, and self that I was.

My creative energy took a massive hit after every drinking session as well. While before I was excited to write and create, I was now pessimistic, despondent, and apathetic. My heart and spirit were not aligned with my passions after drinking; I felt lost; my emotions were significantly more chaotic and uncontrollable. I don’t believe emotions require controlling, but I noticed that I would have more extreme reactions to day-to-day annoyances post-imbibing. My irritability sky-rocketed, my anxiety grew, and my joy in life diminished, which I became more aware of through mindful yet compassionate self-assessment.

Noticing the Effects

There was also a significant impact on my surfing, exercise routine, and overall physical health. Drinking caused digestive problems for me. I would lay in bed, lacking the energy to wake up and surf, or head to the gym. Drinking took away the energy I knew I had, but couldn’t access. Being a bartender when you’re an introvert is challenging enough, but being hungover on top of it was another level of exhaustion.

I began noticing my surfing skills were plateauing, too. It’s hard to improve your surfing when you’re surfing less and drinking more. I was falling more often, distracted, less balanced and focused. I was also more easily frustrated in the water post-bender, which meant that 1 or 2 falls became 5, because every time I fell I would go further into the negative thought-spiral. You have to be present to surf, and you can’t be present when you are speaking cruelly to yourself, and then you surf worse because you’re distracted by your own thoughts—talk about self-defeating! And guess what? I still drank.

Stuck in the Cycle

Drinks after shifts and actively chose to go out at night even when I had the night off. I knew why I was drinking, how it was affecting me, and how it affected me afterward, yet I continued. For me, one of the most difficult aspects of sobriety was remembering that I really did want sobriety, so much more than this vicious cycle I was in. Despite knowing exactly what the consequences would be, I continued to drink. It was so hard to see past what drinking promised me, the fun and community it entailed.

Becoming Mindful of Sobriety

Through the practice of mindful drinking, I realized I had to start growing my muscle memories for sobriety. What I mean by this is I had to start being more mindful when I was sober, too. Not for just an hour, but as much as I possibly could, so that when alcohol beckoned, I had the knowledge of how much more was out there for me if I said No instead of Yes. I had to learn what I was saying Yes to by saying No to drinking.

Listening to My Body

I started at the gym. I gauged the differences between how my body felt during a workout when I was hungover, compared to a couple of days without alcohol. I started noticing how my mornings felt vastly better and more vibrant when I woke up clear-headed and hangover-free. I started noticing how much more clarity I had in the ocean without the blurry edges of the previous night. My digestion was getting back on track, I had fewer aches and pains, and I had significantly more energy throughout the day, sans energy drinks, after several alcohol-free days.

Making Surf Sessions Mindful

Surfing was the single best reminder, for me, of what I was saying Yes to when I said No to alcohol. Out in the ocean, I would tell myself,

this is what I really want; this is how I want to feel all the time; this is so much better, being here, under the hot sun, catching waves and feeling more alive than ever, feeling like MYSELF

smiling and being happy while catching waves is one of the best motivators for me to say no to drinking and yes to living a happier and healthier life
finding my true happiness in the ocean helped me to stay on track; @gseaphoto; processed with VSCO

Surfing was the shiny prize I tied to sobriety to start seeing no as a reward rather than an effort, and to aid in my mindful drinking practice. For me, if you tell me I can’t do something, it’s all I think about doing, whether it’s eating carbs or driving fast or spending too much money. I would be perfectly content with not doing any of those things, but the minute I’m told I can’t, it’s all I can think about (which is why I don’t believe in diets, but that’s for another post). I had to change my mindset from one of deprivation to reward.

Practicing Mindful Drinking

A couple days ago, after 2 weeks of sobriety, I went to a little gathering. It was a large group, mostly of people I didn’t know, and I was more uncomfortable than ever. I decided it had been a while, that I wanted to do an experiment. I tried a hard cider, sipping it and seeing how it felt. At first, I enjoyed the taste. About 30 minutes later, a friend offered shots to us. I wanted to feel more at ease in the situation, so I had a heavily poured shot (one bonus to being a bartender is really knowing how much you’re actually drinking) and let it settle into my body. I felt the light, fuzzy feeling in my skin, and the social discomfort certainly lessened.

Yet, I also noticed my thoughts began racing more, the looseness and disconnection from my body was no longer enjoyable, but strange and foreign. I had another shot, 30 minutes after the first, keeping a curious and open mind toward it. This was not going to be a free-for-all, it was an experiment.

Finding New Awareness

The next one didn’t sit well in my body in the least, and as the alcohol coursed through my body, into my head, making it even blurrier and stranger, I knew that drinking was no longer something I enjoyed. As Devin drove us home, I thought about how completely different my experience of drinking had become, knowing that this was no longer something I wanted for my body or spirit. I’d been craving alcohol for about 5 days, waiting until I felt my emotions were leveled out enough not to go into a full-blown drinking episode, and I could now see that my relationship with alcohol had become tedious. I’d re-wired my brain to dislike the sensations that alcohol creates.

Seeing Changes with Mindfulness

The next morning was awful. I wondered how I had ever felt good, drinking the way I used to. Our bodies are highly adaptive, so when we repeatedly put toxins into them, they begin to regulate and normalize along with the imbalances we are putting them through. Now, after 14 days alcohol-free, my body had no idea what was going on, and my mind and body did not feel like my own anymore. I knew, without a doubt in my mind, that drinking has lost its appeal.

As I’m writing this, it’s been a little over 1 1/2 weeks since that last drinking episode, and before that it had been about 2 weeks. I’ve been waking up early again, ready for the day. I’ve been able to surf longer and workout more. My body feels like my own again, more than it used to. I feel more positive and optimistic. I’ve gotten off my anti-depressants (more on that in another post someday), which were mainly counter-acting all the neurological imbalances drinking had been creating. Although my emotions are still roller-coaster rides, I accept them now, knowing that they are part of my unique brain chemistry.

All Me!

I know now they are not related to the drugs I am taking, nor the alcohol I am drinking (mindfully or not). They are mine. My brain, body, and spirit belong to me again. Surfing was my key to saying No. Mindfulness was the path I took to discover what it would take to start saying No. I discovered everything in my life I am saying Yes to by using mindful drinking to start saying No.

Take a moment to think about what your key might be.

Mindfulness is Difficult

I will be the first to admit that I am imperfect, that I will probably get drunk again, in my lifetime. I will make mistakes, just like anyone else. What I believe in is using mindful drinking to learn and check-in with ourselves without judgement of when we “give in,” to whatever craving we might have, because giving in does not make us weak, it tells us something new we need to know about ourselves.

There Will Always Be Reasons to Say Yes to Alcohol

I’m not saying it’s easy. It isn’t. A few days ago, Devin and I received the very rough news that we had to move. Again. For the 3rd time. Within 6 months. I was devastated, I was angry, I was anxious, and I was sad. Having a place to call home is something I have craved all my life. My immediate instinct was to drive to our neighborhood bar, order up a margarita, and get completely blasted. For 4 hours, I debated going to get a drink, from 7-11, a bar, or a liquor store. I debated with myself whether to have 1, or go all the way, full-blown binge-drinking style. I wanted to throw my hands in the air, get drunk, and let loose my anger and frustration with the news.

via GIPHY

But I didn’t. We didn’t. Instead of being destructive, we went for a drive. We are so lucky to have each other, and we were able to talk ourselves through it. We called up our friends and told them what had happened, headed over to their house and played a card game. Then we went back home, to our home we knew we would not be in for much longer, and honestly evaluated our situation, the next steps we would need to take.

Breaking the Cycle

We woke up the next morning, sad to have to move again, frustrated by our situation, but unquestionably sober and clear-headed, rather than foggy and upset. Waking up that next morning, we knew what was next. We woke up, and Devin headed into work, while I headed to the gym to clear the negative energy of the terrible news out of my body. There will always be reasons we can come up with to say Yes to alcohol, but for each of those reasons, I believe there will be 100X more reasons why we would want to say No.

Mindful Life Choices

Mindfulness and drinking mindfully has changed the way I see my whole life. It has helped me see that there are myriad choices in life, and that each one has a physically and spiritually manifested outcome that goes along with it. Whether it’s the question of drinking, or surfing, or resting, or closing my laptop at the end of a long day, each time I say Yes, I am more aware of what I am also saying No to, and vice versa.

The questions I was answering, through all this mindful self-assessment, were:

1. Why do I want to choose this?

2. How will that choice affect me in the moment?

3. How will that choice affect me in a day, a week, a year?

4. What I will gain or lose if I do make that choice?

And this is really the synthesis of everything outlined above that I employed mindfulness for in relation to my drinking. Yet, these 4 crucial questions are not limited to the choice to get drunk; these are 4 critical questions we can ask ourselves about so many things in life. Our answers to them come from practice, making mistakes, and most importantly, being as mindful as we possibly can throughout the entire process.

Gaining clarity and true understanding
does not come thorough thinking or studying books.
You have to go inside the book of your own being and merge there.

-Mooji

The next time you’re debating something, big or small in your life, remember to ask yourself this question,

What am I saying Yes to when I say No?

Listen to the answers in your heart. Listen to your own inner wisdom. Listen mindfully, with curiosity.

The answers might surprise you.

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