Tired of starting over

Day Eleven of my Dry January. I started a few days late. But I still plan to go through to February 3. As usual, I am not experiencing anything remarkable to encourage me to think beyond then. Earlier this week, I did fancy I felt a bit happier and less anxious — and wondered if a week without wine had helped. But yesterday and today, I woke up back in the dark place, wishing I had not (woken up, that is.)

The weather is rather pleasant lately. Dry and mild with periods of sunshine and light winds — a nice change from the winter storms that have been slamming Seattle for weeks. So I have revised my midday walking route to take in a stairway for some climbing exercise. And I have started doing an early evening exercise routine after finishing work for the day. Some light aerobics. I have been enjoying it and want to get some light hand weights to make it a little more work. I am much more likely to stick with exercise than not drinking — that I am pretty sure of.

Work has been a little dispiriting. My job involves a lot of brain work. Usually I enjoy it, because it is interesting. But lately I have had too many days with little to show for my efforts at the end of the day, because one idea after another has not yielded results. My boss understands and he certainly has plenty of days (and even weeks or months) that go that way for him. But it gets me down. My brain could use a short-term change of scenery. I would love to spend a couple of weeks doing something relatively easy so that I could plow through a pile of work and feel good at the end of the day. I had a Teams meeting with my boss today — and I do not feel good about it. I tried to explain to him how traumatized I have been by cybersecurity fears over the last few months and how that has been consuming so much of my energy — but I did not do a good job with that. And I feel bad because he has been carrying most of the security load since our cyberattack last summer. He has his own nightmares. But there is really no one else I can talk to about it.

Once I get into a bad groove, I find it very hard to get out of — no matter how good my intentions or how hard I try. In the past, I have only been able to resolve situations by getting out them altogether. Quitting jobs. Moving. But I do not want to have to do that yet another time. I am tired of starting over.

Now that I know I am autistic, I need to find another way.

Talking with myself

One thing I mean to pay attention to as I go through Dry January is my overall level of anxiety. I am told that alcohol makes it worse — although I have never noticed it to make any difference. But perhaps I have not been paying enough attention.

When asked what I am anxious about, I would say, “What have you got? You name it!” I have angst about anything and everything. Some of my anxiety could be described as existential, concerning hypothetical future scenarios that may or may not come to pass. But much of it is about real stuff happening in the world right now— even when it does not directly affect me — and especially when it does directly affect me.

Last summer, my workplace was hit by a ransomware attack. We were able to restore everything from backup and did not pay the ransom, but the fallout has been very traumatic. I was already paranoid about cybersecurity, but since the attack I have been in a permanent state of fear. And it dominates my fears to a degree that it unfortunately relegates Covid-19, global warming, refugee crises and threats to democracy far down the list of things I worry about (although I do find time for them every now and then.)

Truth be told, I am always anxious about something — and find it hard to stop. Exercise does not help. I can go for a long, energetic walk involving hills and stairs and come home feeling worse — because while I was out I was able to ruminate on my fears. The only way to interrupt the fearful thoughts is to count to ten over and over again — but that is really hard to keep up. Mindfulness presents the same problem — it ends up amplifying the fearful thoughts. The practice is not aggressive enough to shut them off.

Something that DOES help is talking out loud. There is something about the physical process of using my voice that seems comforting. But I have no one to talk to. So, I walk around my living room talking with myself. (I really hope the neighbors never hear me.) It really helps if I keep the conversation on worry-free topics — but sometimes I am able to talk myself through something I fear and reassure myself I can handle it. Perhaps it is the very action of talking that calms me down — and after a while I am able to start telling myself more helpful things — and then my inner dialog is healthier.

Writing can be helpful — but that might be because I get up in between paragraphs and pace around as I decide what to write next, sometimes thinking out loud, i.e., talking.

This morning I had to talk myself down from my latest crisis. And I think I am OK now. There is a break in the weather today (Seattle has really been slammed lately) so I am going to enjoy walking out to do grocery shopping.

Perhaps I can get through this weekend without finding something else to be obsessively anxious about.

Less FOMO

My favorite pub has suspended in-bar service and will be only doing to-go sales until further notice. This does not surprise me. Several weeks ago I overhead a bartender telling a customer that they had been having difficulty getting/keeping staff. I suspect Omicron quarantines have made another dent. Oh well. This makes my Dry January attempt somewhat easier because I know I am not missing out on anything. Usually I really enjoy visiting this pub in January because it is less crowded: some people are doing Dry January and others are paying off Christmas bills and do not have the money to spare.

This week was unproductive if hours worked are the measure. But it was productive in terms of reaching milestones. I have a sandbox demo of a new database ready to turn over to a team at work next week. Testing it was very tedious, and there is a lot of automation to test. Some of the users access the database from smartphones so I had to do two sets of tests. And I had to write some documentation — SOMETHING I DETEST DOING! So I took a lot longer over all of this than I really needed to. And my boss ignored me all week, so I decided to ignore him in return.

Anyway, I am a bit irritated tonight. And it is the first Friday night without wine since May. But it feels like the right kind of irritation — the kind that motivates you instead of dragging you down. And when I am irritated and cranky I have less time to be anxious.

I think I am actually looking forward to this weekend! 🙂

Late to the party

Dry January is not usually a thing with me. I try to do an alcohol-free month at least once a year — but it usually does not align with an actual calendar month. Once I get the idea, I like to get on with it before I change my mind.

I had some wine and cider over the New Years weekend. Nothing excessive. But by the time I finished the cider on Monday I felt a bit jaded from the taste of it. I had bought something a bit too sweet for my taste. Dry January kept being mentioned on the radio (I have BBC Radio 4 on all day) — and suddenly it seemed like a good idea, even though it was already three days in. But I will just have to stick with it a few days into February.

My drinking habit is more than my doctor would recommend. I have a can of wine (equivalent to half bottle) 3-4 nights a week. Occasionally I can polish off a whole bottle and I’ve been doing that a bit more often in the last six months, which is another reason I decided to jump on Dry January while I feel motivated.

Truth be told, I do not know why I am so hesitant to just give it up permanently. I am not addicted and do not undergo any trauma when I am not drinking. I have no regular social life and rarely get invited anywhere. And going out to a pub is still not a normal experience. But I really enjoy my evenings with a can of wine and streaming one of my favorite TV shows. I can enjoy the experience without the wine — but the wine is the icing on the cake that I really miss when I have to enjoy the cake undecorated.

Part of the trouble is that after a month of not drinking, I am not experiencing any obvious improvements that motivate me to keep going. I do not lose weight, because the calories I save from wine (which are hardly excessive anyway) are usually offset by consuming calories in other things. I do not save money, because instead of spending $5 on a can of wine I spend $5 on soft drinks (although in winter I am happy with hot tea, which does help.) I do not notice that I sleep better or have more energy. I do not look or feel healthier. And my anxiety is still every bit as bad!

The other problem is that, except for the occasional pint at a pub, my drinking takes place in the safety of my own home, and rarely enough to involve a hangover. The morning after a can of wine, I feel exactly the same as I do the morning after drinking herbal tea. So it is not noticeably disrupting my life.

For much of my forties, I drank around 2 bottles of wine a day — which DOES disrupt your life. When I cut back to only drinking Friday-Sunday I quickly saw a huge improvement in quality of life. After a few months I was encouraged to stop for a month, after which the daily 2-bottle habit was pretty much dead. Then my habit became around 2 bottles a week — something made much easier with the advent of wine in a can!

Given my history of excessive drinking (going back to my early twenties), I probably should not be drinking at all. But I am very torn. Most mornings I wake up wishing I had not. I am not suicidal — but I am rather ambivalent about living a long lifespan. The future terrifies me and I really find nothing to hope for or look forward to. So I often question the wisdom of forgoing something I enjoy in order save myself from early death.

But I am annoyed and miserable and despondent enough right now to give this a go. Going without alcohol might just take my mind off things!

Early grave

My workplace has seen several crises in the last few months, all of which directly affect me. One of them was particularly bad, but I am unable to discuss with anyone outside the organization until the lawyers are done drafting the official statement to go public with.

I went in to the office today, to better deal with one of the other less serious problems that I discovered yesterday. I vented with my boss a bit — and then felt bad, because his load is much worse than mine, and I am unable to help him much, because he does not share much with me. Although I know he appreciates me as an employee, I suspect he does not actually like me personally and tries to avoid dealing with me as much as possible. So our relationship is very tense right now.

My bus home from downtown Seattle was almost empty and I was able to enjoy a podcast. I got off near a waterfront pub for an impromptu pint of cider. The pub is nice and quiet inside but there is plenty to see outside. A nice overcast day over Puget Sound.

It has been one of those days when I really question the wisdom of living a healthy lifestyle. An early grave seems like a pretty good idea, if you ask me.

Hence the cider. Cheers!

Incomparable treat

After several weeks of abstaining from wine, I have discovered some kombucha drinks that are an acceptable substitute. The best is fermented from lemongrass, ginger and cane sugar. It has none of the usual vinegary sharpness, despite having much less added sugar; and it has a nice delicate carbonation, more like a sparkling wine than soda pop. And I have found a few others that I like.

This is nice, because I was not looking to stop drinking altogether — at least not yet. But I did want to break the habit of drinking wine three to four nights a week. A can of wine on Friday is something nice to look forward to at the end of the work week — but I really do not need to be having it on other days.

I do not know why I can be so stubborn with alcohol. I have no chemical dependency, so experience no withdrawal. I have no social life to navigate without alcohol. I am not a sports fan and so never face the pressure of watching a big game at a party where the beer is flowing. And even though pubs have reopened where I live, visiting one is hardly a relaxed matter. Social distancing and capacity limits have resulted in seating being concentrated on tables for four people. The perches that once accommodated loners (stools along ledges, window nooks, to say nothing of the bar itself) have not yet returned. Even before the pandemic closures, I often had disappointing experiences at pubs and wondered why I insisted on going.

But I do think that alcohol has been a convenient way to get a break from myself for a few hours — whether that be a break from my autistic self, my depressed self, my anxious self, or any other part of myself I am not too fond of at the moment. And it worked very well when I was younger and my life was simpler.

I do love the taste and texture of wine. And I do miss it when I give it up. As a treat, nothing else compares!! But drinking it several nights a week makes it much less of a treat — which is why I wanted to break this habit.

The thing about medication

A while ago I wrote about my reluctance to take anti-depressant medication. I do not doubt that the right medication, properly managed, can make a positive difference in one’s life. But these medications do not always work; or they work for a while and then you need to switch to something else; or, in what I hope are uncommon cases, they actually make the problem worse (thoughts of suicide are sometimes mentioned as a rare side effect). Even if it does work out, then you are locked into a long-term relationship with the healthcare system, which can get very expensive in the United States.

I will admit that I have medicated with myself with alcohol at times. It is certainly more convenient in that you do not need a prescription. It all works pretty much the same way: a pint of beer or glass of wine or shot of whisky. The effect is immediate: you do not have to take it daily for several weeks to feel different. You do not need to take it daily at all. In fact, it works better if you do not take it daily. And if you lose your job and can no longer afford it, it is possible to be fully functional without it unless you are dependent on it (which is a completely different story).

My aunt died yesterday from a stroke. The cause of the stroke was an overdose of anti-depressant medication. It is not clear if this was a suicide attempt — but she does have a history of overdoses and one definite suicide attempt by other means. I have not seen her in more than thirty years and we were never close, so this is not a major source of grief, although I always remember her as my favorite person when I was a little girl. She was quite a bit younger than my mother, still in high school and living at home with my grandparents. When I went to visit, I slept in her room and she did not seem to mind at all having her little niece around. I enjoyed watching her get ready for school in the morning — she spent a lot of time on her hair and makeup and I found it fascinating.

Anyway, I was struck by something I had not considered before. When you are on medication of any kind, your prescription generally fills a thirty-day supply. And if you get your prescriptions by mail order, as many people do in the United States, you can save money by getting a ninety-day supply.

I do not think I have ever had a thirty-day supply of alcohol in my house. Even if I did have a thirty-day supply of alcohol in my house, I very much doubt I could drink it all at one go.

There is such a thing as alcohol poisoning, when you consume enough alcohol in a short enough period of time to raise your blood alcohol content to a lethal level. This happens all too often amongst college students — but it takes a concerted effort, almost always with the assistance of other people (e.g. someone to hold the funnel while someone else props you up) to physically get that much alcohol into you before you pass out. If I were alone at home with a case of wine, I would pass out somewhere in the middle of the second bottle — and it would have taken me many hours to get there. In theory, I could choke on vomit in my sleep, but in all likelihood I would wake up feeling like crap rather than ending up dead.

I do not know what medication my aunt was on or how much she took. It might not have been strong enough to kill even with a freshly refilled thirty-day supply to pop all at one go. But it is something I would worry about for myself. Perhaps if I WERE on a medication that worked for me, I might not wake up each morning wishing I had not. But what if I were still waking up feeling that way? And had a bottle of pills in the house? Who knows where that might take me…

The thing about not drinking

I try to do one dry month a year. Last year I did not get around to it. And I can not face it in January. But April/May is a good time because the lengthening days and first warm weather motivate me to take longer walks in the evening.

A lot of people do Dry January so at the beginning of the year I read numerous articles about all the wonderful things that happen to you when you stop drinking for a month: the money you save; the weight you lose; the way your skin clears up; the better sleep you get; the more energy you have; blah blah blah.

None of those things happen to me. Well, not since the first time I did this.

I went through a few crazy years where I drank a bottle of wine daily (sometimes more than that.) Then during the Great Recession, my hours were cut at work and I just could not afford that habit and cut back to Friday/Saturday/Sunday only. It was not has hard as I expected. I guess I am lucky that I never got physically addicted. Then after a few months, I decided to try to go a whole month without alcohol. And that WAS an interesting month. By the end of the month, I was feeling a whole lot better in many ways. And even though I resumed drinking when the month was over, it was at a reduced level of consumption, because I wanted to continue to feel good.

I probably should quit altogether, because it is very likely that the heavy drinking I did in the past has taken a toll on my health. But I have not been so motivated so far. For the last few years, I have been enjoying the equivalent of two bottles a wine a week: a huge improvement over what I used to do, but as my doctor keeps reminding me, more than a safe level of consumption.

But this is the problem: a half-bottle of wine a few nights a week does not directly impact my life the way a bottle of wine (or two) every night did. So when I give it up, I do not see a noticeable difference in my life — other than I miss having my wine! The money I spend on a can of wine ($5-6) gets spent on a non-alcoholic drink which also offsets the caloric content of the wine. Quite literally, the only upside of not drinking is that I can congratulate myself that I am not inflicting more harm on my body.

I am not in denial. I know that damage from drinking is progressive and can continue even if you do quit. But I am just not quite motivated — not yet.

When I was a teenager, I was rather ambivalent about drinking. In fact, I was often annoyed that my boyfriend insisted on spending so much time at the pub. But when I went away to college, I saw an opportunity to reinvent myself — and drinking was part of that. And even though it really did not help me fit it, it made me feel like I did.

Now that I know I am autistic, I realize what was driving me to drink was the need to fit in: most of the time it worked — or at least I felt that it did. And I realize I have been doing it all my life, into my fifties. Even when I just enjoy a can of wine while watching TV at home, I feel part of the world in a way I never do when not drinking.

Anyway, this is the first dry month I have embarked on since my autism diagnosis. So I am trying to look at it in a different way. Perhaps I need to stop expecting to feel like a new person just because I am not drinking. And perhaps I also need to give myself permission to not feel part of the world.

Not going down the rabbit hole…

About twenty years ago, I had a neuropsychological assessment. This was long before I had any idea of autism. The purpose of the assessment was to identify any signs of psychosis. Happily for me, none were found!

However, I scored very, very highly in two areas: honesty and anxiety. In hindsight, that is obviously due to autism. But back then, it was just an interesting outcome. We did not discuss the honesty finding at great length, but I was warned that if I did not do anything to address the anxiety, I would end up making myself very ill. I was encouraged to ask my doctor about antidepressants.

At the time, I did have health insurance, but I knew it was not going to last much longer. And I did not want to end up taking medication that I would come to need on a daily basis only to suddenly find myself unable to pay for it. Besides, I enjoyed having wine every night.

Yes — medicating oneself with alcohol is generally not advised. But there are some definite advantages with it. First, a prescription is not necessary. Second, when money is tight, there are cheap options. But, and I think this is what makes it so handy, you do not need to take it every day in order for it to be effective. In fact, it works better for you if you DO NOT drink it every day — and save it for when you really want it or really need it.

For many years, I had no health insurance and I was very glad I had not got myself into a medication obligation. For the last few years, I have had health insurance again — and am still dodging the medication. When I signed on with a new doctor two years ago, I was asked to complete a form about my mental/emotional health. And I was honest with it! I told the doctor all about waking up each morning wishing I had not; and that I felt as though nothing good would happen ever again. The doctor asked me if I had ever thought about going on antidepressant medication. I said I did not want to become dependent on medication. She said there are antidepressants that are non-addictive. I said I did not want to get comfortable taking medication that I would not be able to afford if I lost my insurance. She said there are affordable options. Then I happened to see some Twitter posts from a comedian I had started to follow when I was listening to a podcast about depression that featured comedians. She was no longer able to pay the $5000/month for the antidepressant medication that she had come to rely on and she was falling apart. I told the doctor I would try therapy instead — and it was a good move, because it led me to my autism assessment!

And then I immediately found myself working from home in Covid-19 lockdown. My anxiety suddenly bothered me a whole lot less — perhaps because I now had something concrete to worry about. Besides, I will bet many people wake up every morning full of dread and feeling like nothing good will every happen again. It no longer seems like a symptom of depression — just an unfortunate assessment of the current reality. That is what I told the doctor when I went back for a physical in the fall — and we left it at that.

This is not to say that I disapprove of medication. I know it can make a colossal difference — like night versus day — when someone is prescribed a medication that works well for them. And if you access to sane healthcare where prescriptions do not cost an arm and a leg, then it is probably worth exploring. But in the United States, I think it can take you down a rabbit hole.

Today was very busy and frustrating with work. But I stuffed myself with a really good and healthy dinner. And I will find myself something good to watch on TV until bedtime, when I will curl up in bed with a few episodes of M*A*S*H. And then tomorrow, I will wake up wishing I had not — but by the time I am logged in a work and answering my first annoying email over my first cup of coffee, I am pretty sure I will be feeling a whole lot better.

My Autistic Experience: Alcohol

Alcohol was not a big part of life in the family I grew up in. But with the exception of my maternal grandparents, who actually signed the pledge, it was more to do with lack of money than opposition to drinking. My own parents enjoyed the occasional visit to the pub — and they always welcomed a gift of a bottle at Christmas — but they did not drink on a regular basis because they could not afford it.

However, the overall culture I grew up in (in England) did feature alcohol as part of daily living; and once I was old enough, I discovered that it served me purpose — for a few hours, I actually felt like I fit in. And it became a bad habit through my twenties and thirties. Drinking allowed me to take a break from myself — although I confined most of it to the weekends.

Then there was the five years of working in retail stores when I drank for a different reason. Every day, I came home feeling literally gutted — and I drank to medicate myself. A bottle of wine each day — sometimes more. To this day, I still do not know how anyone can work retail and not drink!! But then I got a different job in a warehouse, and after a few months I was able to cut my consumption; I no longer drank every day, and on the days I did, I drank less.

Since then, I have continued to reduce my consumption (the introduction of wine in a can has been a godsend), and I do a dry month every now and then. The last time I did that was May 2019 — and I learned something new that had never struck me before. But now that I know I am autistic, it makes sense.

For the last few years, I have been active in several tech user groups. And before Covid-19, happy hours were a regular feature of meetups. In the middle of my dry May 2019, the biggest group announced a happy hour at a bar near where I work. I almost thought about not going — because it was not exactly a sober-friendly venue. And I worried I would cave and order a real drink. But I ended up going and just ignored the bartender when he scowled at my order of a club soda with lime.

This was my first experience in a very long time of being sober while the people are around me are drinking. And I was surprised to find that I still felt like I fit in — even though I was not drinking. And then it dawned on me — PERHAPS IT’S BECAUSE THE OTHER PEOPLE ARE DRINKING!! Something is different about them! Whatever it is about me that people find off-putting must not be registering with them once they are under the influence of alcohol! I DO NOT NEED TO BE DRINKING! As long as they are drinking. And I realized this is probably why I am not comfortable in alcohol-free settings; it is not just because I am not drinking — but because no one else is either.

My favorite taproom serves kombucha and CBD-based beverages, so I started ordering those every now and then — and I found I enjoyed my visit every bit as much. It helps that these alcohol-free (or close to) beverages are served in pint glasses and have the same appearance as many of the beers that are served — so you still feel part of the crowd.

I have not been able to bring myself to give up alcohol completely (I know my doctor would prefer that I did.) I still enjoy a can of wine at home three nights a week — when I line up something good to watch on TV — and it is definitely about escapism. And every now and then, I do indulge in a whole bottle of wine — and then wish I had not.

But it is no longer about fitting in.