Sober tools: what helps, and what doesn’t

originally published on Medium

Sober tools: what helps, and what doesn’t

(Stop fucking around with houses built out of straw)

M (day 1 sober) writes: Belle, I keep trying all these things to help me be sober and nothing works. I just spent $100 on vitamins. I’ve been to the one-day, quit-drinking workshop. I signed up for a French class. You see, I’ve always wanted to go to Paris and with all the money I’m not spending on booze, I could buy a plane ticket.

You can hear M’s thinking, you can totally see what she’s saying, and it seems logical, doesn’t it. And my reply would be: “If you are continuously sober, then yes, whatever you’re doing is working. Keep doing it.”

But if you are not continuously sober — and I mean if you reset after 2 days, or 20 days, or 200 days — then what you’re doing isn’t quite enough to keep you sober. So you add in more sober tools.

Argh, I’m on Day 1 again. I’m enrolled in French class. Why isn’t that enough?

French class is something you can hang in the space that booze used to occupy. But taking a French class is not a sober tool.

Sober tools are things that help you to be sober.

Imagine this. You’re one of the three little piggies who is building a sober house, and wolfie comes to blow your sober house down.

You build your sober house out of straw or sticks or tarps or wood, and wolfie blows it over. Maybe not right away, maybe not tomorrow, but as soon as there’s a strong wind, as soon as there’s a death or a celebration or a runaway teenager or Sheila in accounting pulls her shit again and refuses to do the cheque run before end of day on Friday.

Doesn’t take much, then wolfie is at the door. Blowing. Sober house falls down.

But let’s be real, wolfie only has to knock on the door of your house made of straw to knock it over. To the house of wood, he’ll knock, and when that doesn’t work, he’ll add in lung full of hot air and a bit of whining. Doesn’t take long.

(And really, you built a sober house out of straw? You were wishi. You’re were hoping you could do the minimum. You knew it wasn’t going to be enough.)

To the house of stone, though, the house built out of sober stones set careful on a sober cement foundation — yeah, that house — well, wolfie will knock on your door. And when that doesn’t work, he’ll try to blow you over with convincing arguments as to why you need to Drink Right Now. You’ll add in a bit more cement and wave to him through the window. He’ll look for cracks, but you’ve got double-paned glass and a bug screen.

Now this sober stone house, this is your life.

Your life is worth more than the minimum. It’s worth more than straw and tarps.

The soul of you, the essence of you, the real you that isn’t anesthetized, the real you that is empathetic and helpful and has good boundaries — that you gets deserves to be guarded in a solid stone structure.

What helps to build a wolfie-proof, stone sober house?

Advice from an architect. Talking to the girl at Home Depot about the length of the nails and what’s worked on similar projects.

Pouring a cement foundation. Going as slowly as required to not have to pour the foundation, dig it up, pour it again, and dig it up again. What a waste of time that is. Do the sober foundation, yes, but if you do it too quickly, do it too rashly, try to do it with inadequate cement, or do it while doing too many other things at the same time — well, you know what happens.

You can see this example clearly when we’re talking about cement.

The colour of the paint, and the carefully selected tri-season-blooming flowers, the stony garden walks, and the breeding fruit trees do not build a strong house.

The French classes and spin classes and yoga classes and pottery classes and vitamins don’t help you change your behaviour. They’re wonderful (and necessary and lovely) things to add to your life. They are.

But they’re not sober tools.

A sober tool is something that helps you to be sober. Not paint colour.

You want to paint the room, but you haven’t built the room. You want to choose the light fixture, but the wiring isn’t in yet. You want to focus on the details all around THE THING.

The thing you want is to be sober. And so you’re online spending hours choosing the right French class?

You just spent $100 on multivitamins because that should help you be sober?

What if you’d spent that time and that $100 on actual sober supports. You don’t though, because wolfie is a sly fucker, taunting perfectly nice people with bullshit logic like vitamins and French classes.

OK. So sober tools. They’re things that help you be sober. That would include anything that directly makes it more likely that you (a) remember that being sober is a good idea, (b) soothes irritation, (c) helps you be accountable, (d) checks in on you, (e) reminds you what you’re doing when you forget, (f) reinforces the idea of the sober foundation and why you need it because you forgot again, (g) makes it possible for you to not drink.

A French class isn’t a sober tool. Just like your drinking husband isn’t a sober support.

What works?

Treats and rewards work for being sober. Accountability works. Actual sober support works. Planning replacement drinks works. Listening to sober audios works. Reaching out works.

(Do you think you can read books about pouring cement foundations and have the book be enough? Is a one-day workshop enough? How about a forum of other people on day 1 of cement pouring? Why are you walking around outside THIS THING acting like you don’t know what to do? You know what to do. You know that if you ask for support from people who can actually support you, you can get this done. You know that if you turn and face the resources and education and accountability that sober support provides, that you’ll learn from people who’ve done it 2,593 times that you’ll save time, feel better, and have your cement poured sooner.)

And don’t get me wrong.

If you’ve built a house out of straw AND IT’S WORKING FOR YOU then keep doing what you’re doing.

But if the wind keeps blowing you over, you’ve gotta look at having some new tools.

And paint isn’t a tool.

Neither is a French class.

it’s not all about me

it’s not all about me.

before i make a list of all the ways he’s changed, i can make my own list. top five things i’ve stopped doing in the last 10 years. shaving my legs twice a week. getting my eyebrows done at the salon. making dinner 5 nights a week. packing his lunch. wearing lingerie.

it’s not all about me.

before i get irritated that nobody told me, i can take stock of the reality. not everyone wants an audience when they’re dying. it might have been sudden(er) than it seems. they weren’t thinking of how to exclude me. i haven’t spoken to them for a year. i’m not as close a friend as i thought i was. maybe they were more important to me than i was to them. maybe they didn’t think about me at all, maybe they were dealing with him dying and didn’t send out invitations for everyone to come visit.

it’s not all about me.

those people with their whining child. my god that child cries all the time. we don’t raise them like that in canada. in france they let their kids cry. a lot. often. for hours. even if the neighbours are disturbed, no one says anything. that child isn’t crying on purpose, intending to drive me crazy. her parents don’t know that i have to get up at 5 a.m. to do the baking. (and then when i do get up to make the sandwiches i’m standing in the spare room, which is above their bedroom, so they hear me, i’m sure. no one says anything.)

it’s not all about me. these things are not being done to me. i have a role to play. i sort out my part – all of it – before i start to wonder what’s up with you (or him, or them).



shitty, tired, what’s next, vacation.

still feeling pretty tired. the first 2 days after the wedding catering, i felt like i had jetlag. like i was in a foreign country, awake when i should be asleep, not even sure what day it was.

monday i went back to work. tuesday i went for a run and was tired of all of the leftover food in my fridge. today i’m back to catering again for 2 days.  this weekend we have another smaller event for 40 guests.

i must say that i’m super very grateful that i have a longer period of sobriety under my belt. cuz this kind of catering-induced fatigue, overwhelm, and ‘when will it ever end’ feeling i’m having about food preparation seems endless.  I know i often feel like this mid-way through something large.  I start to say negative things to myself like “this sucks, i’m never doing this again, i’m quitting right after this job.”

interesting, i never quit in the middle of the job. i know enough to finish before i can contemplate quitting. i seem to be capable of plugging through shitty bits, knowing that later i’ll feel better about everything.

i don’t know when i figured this out, this ability to delay making decisions while feeling shitty.

while feeling shitty, i just keep going. then of course, when it’s over, i say “whoa that was a lot of work, let’s have a vacation. what’s next?”

speaking of which. vacation. london. sunday october 13th. who wants to meet up for tea and cake?

everything is like everything

You know how people say sobriety is like running:  just take it one kilometre at a time, one day at a time.

Or sobriety is like raising small children:  the days are long but the years are short.

Sobriety is also quite a bit like living in Vancouver:  you can walk on the beach in the morning, drive through fog at lunch, and be skiing at suppertime.

Well, I’ve also heard that “how you do one thing is how you do everything.”

How you do dishes, is how you do sobriety.  Begin ONLY when all the dishes have been gathered up from all far reaches of the apartment? Or do you start the dishes with what’s there, and add in more later as they come up?

Let me think of how I do dishes. I start with the water a little bit warm, knowing it’ll cool down as I go along.  And that I can add more hot later. (My husband starts with tepid water and adds lots of hot until the basin overflows. Metaphor much?)

My mom begins the dishes, makes piles, does the first load, has big plans, and then lets the soapy greasy water just sit there. Walks away to do something else. Comes back and the water is cold. Has to start again from scratch nearly.

My friend Pat puts her dirty dishes in the sink covered with a towel until it’s time to do the dishes, because then the counters look nice and tidy even though there’s work to be done.  Me, I set the dishes beside the sink, so that the sink is free for other things. Yes it’s not as pleasing to the eye, but it’s efficient.

The reason i’m even thinking like this today is because … well, just because.

I went out for dinner with friends on Tuesday night and the chick across from me is also a runner.  We were talking about my upcoming wedding catering next weekend (she’s one of the volunteers coming to help me here next week with the food prep). Anyway, she said that catering a wedding was like running a marathon:  you do as much prep as you can in advance, but most of it can’t be done until the day of the event. You will cry at some point, and then when it’s finished you’ll be glad you did it … but perhaps you’ll only try to do one or two marathons (weddings) per year …

I realized she was right, and I’ve felt more relaxed about the catering since then. I know that it will all work out. And that i’m doing this the way i do everything: I think about it a lot to start, then I make a chart and a plan. Then i do half of the first day’s plan.  Then I memorize and internalize the plan.  Then after I get going a bit i don’t even need to look at the plan anymore, and that half of the things i thought about in advance i didn’t even need. I will finish on time, but without much extra time to spare. I will be hugely relieved when it’s over.  I’ll wonder what all the fuss was about. I’ll realize that anticipatory anxiety is more than 85% of my problem.

Sound like sobriety? We stalk and read and lurk on blogs for a long time before we begin. We worry about imaginary future events (like: i can’t quit drinking now because next weekend i’m going to blah blah … what if my boss asks me why i’m not socializing with clients? I couldn’t possibly just say “i’m not drinking this week” so instead I better wait to quit next month).

We worry about things that don’t actually occur. We avoid beginning our sober car trip because we don’t know what to expect. (Worry: I better not quit now until I have 1000 tools in my sober toolbox … Versus: I can quit now, see what I need to add to my toolbox as I go along BASED ON HOW I FEEL and how successful I am).

Is how you approach sobriety the same way you do the dishes?

If how you do the dishes isn’t working for you, and you can never get caught up, and you don’t even know where to start … maybe it’s time to consider Plan B.  Maybe it’s time for you to have a clean counter and have the dishes done.  And you get there any way you like. I truly believe there is no right way to get the dishes done (to get sober). However you get there, just get there. Maybe you need a dishwasher, disposable plates, or to hire someone to help you.  But to just accept that your life is full of dirty dishes, and when the counters get full of dishes you transfer them to the floor, or to plastic bins, and you put them on the floor and keep on making more dirty dishes — with no plan on what to do next — well, this sounds like a special kind of hell to me.  And if you’re living the dirty dishes / drinking more than you want to kind of hell (and you’re living it bravely I must say), then you know what kind of hell it is.

Now, look up for just a second. Moving house is not the solution. Divorce is not the solution to dirty dishes. A dishwasher is the solution to dirty dishes. A tool that can help you and that you use. (You may need a divorce, too, but we’re dealing with your dishes here!)  Call someone to walk you through it while you’re doing the dishes, and who can cheerlead you while you’re in progress, tell you what to expect, which parts are hard and which parts are easy. Then do the dishes. Be accountable to someone as you do the dishes.  Find some solutions 🙂 (I hear Dawn liquid soup is good on cutting grease!)

And here’s the part where it’s me talking to me:  Belle, if how you do everything is how you do everything, then do more in advance, so that you have a bit of extra time at the end. While adrenaline is exhilarating, the adrenal fatigue is dangerous for a boozer. Slow and steady is a better approach for me.  There is no finish line. There is ‘getting it done’ with energy and time and good humour to spare.  Figure out how to do THAT.

From my inbox:

Bizi (day 32): “I read 1/3 of cosmopolitan magazine, have not done that in a very long time!”

Sarita (84): “Thanks so much Belle. I truly couldn’t have done it without you and your blog and wisdom. There’s just something about knowing your words are always available to read or reread that calms my nerves and temptations.  I’ve even started to DESIRE exercise in all this. Imagine that!!! It’s been AGES since I actually CRAVED it. So it’s like my old (new?) self is reemerging. SWEET!”

Penny (12): “Still sober, done with witching hour so tonight should be free & clear.”

JacksterT (13): “After a week of listening to your voice [with the jumpstart class] I felt as though I had finally found a sober friend who has been through it and understands. Being able to speak with you one on one was incredible and gave me such hope and inspiration! Thanks for all you are doing Belle! I’m looking forward to more classes!”

Paul (2): “I guess I am learning that the nagging doubt is *wolfie* and not *me*”

Julz (32): “I thought only I was going through the witching hour. I am so happy knowing I’m not the only one who feels like this, who gets this intense craving at 5 pm and feels like I’m going mad … My main two things that help me over this time (and through the rest of the night) are hot chocolate and baths — I actually spent and hour and a half in the bath last night, I was like a prune but heyho the craving passed.”

Team 100 Update: 250 members, welcome to member 248 Paul (day 2), member 249 Leslie (day 2), and member 250 Alice (day 5).  Happy day 100 today to Designer Rachel! 

It’ll take more than icing …

Bracelet update: So when i put up the bracelet picture yesterday, i didn’t really expect that the 10 available would get scooped up in about 4 hours …  If you’d like an email when there are more available, you can sign up here.  All going well, i should know mid-next-week.  Monday is a holiday in the US so things are moving slowly in anticipation …

i’ve had a weirdly long day, spent hours learning how to frost a birthday cake, with about 30 minutes to spare before the client picked it up.  i made the mistake of telling her the frosting was ‘butter, icing sugar + vanilla’ because that left out a bit of food coloring which would have made putting light frosting on dark cake easier. i also told her no shortening (again, what do you think is in the icing at the grocery store?). yes, i’m doing catering from scratch, with real food. and yes, that means sometimes that my head can nearly fly off when it doesn’t smooth, set, or behave like the store-bought-junk does.

combine frustrated fucking icing with weather that was LITERALLY hailing, a very sore throat which i know equals laryngitis coming up. oh i had a big case of the fuck-its.

so right at the end of the catering job, even before she had picked up the cakes (god, yes, there were two cakes), i toyed with two ideas: (1) having a glass of wine and calling it quits – everything – the blog, the challenge, and the catering.  fuck all of it.  (2) i figured i’d email the cake woman, tell her to come get her cakes no charge, and i’d say to her “i’m never icing another fucking birthday cake again, please get these out of my house.”

Instead. I had a bath. i remembered that my blog post from only DAYS ago, I was writing to me, telling me that when i’m tired/overwhelmed, that i often feel like quitting everything. catering included.

After my bath I got an email from the woman about the cake:

Cake overdose… we loved it! The flavor was wonderful! The cake subtle lemon flavor n the frosting came out very good, bravo coz it was a success. I’ve given my friend n neighbor ur website because she n her kids had some cake too n they will definitely be ordering. She is half English n liked the that you make pies too. Thanks for the fairy dust, i’ll put some on the larger cake tmrw!! :)) Thank you again… So happy to find someone close by for homemade treats. the last lady who made cakes for me moved to TX. So it’s good to know you are here and not moving anytime soon 🙂

and i wrote this to colleen the day before yesterday, and it seems perfect now:

let me tell you
it’s like
my new
and this looks like
a poem
it’s not.

and now it’s 11:34 pm and i’m going to sleep. Let it save me from myself 🙂  let me wake up with a better attitude, good hair, and frosting that covers dark layers. let it fucking be sunny, or else.

oh, i can’t go to sleep before I do this:

Team 100 update: 89 members, welcome to Zenmeg (4), Mel (4), and Cam (15).  Celebrations for: Lilly (20), Emily (22), Victoria (62), Grace (11), Lawyer Anne (45), Lauren (60), Roxanne (30), Debbie (10), Erin (32), LilyUK (20), JG (20), Colleen (21), Em (15), and Jenna (12).  Me, i’m on day 327. and tomorrow i’ll be on day 328.  It’ll take more than icing to make me get out of my sober car …

I am not special. I am not terminally unique

Cleo posted a comment on my last post about how it was good to see that i wasn’t superhuman after all 🙂 I started to write an answer to her in the comments, but have now copied it into a separate post here so that it doesn’t get lost.

I hope that anyone following my blog for a while would see that I often have crises, where I decide I’m going to drink, give myself a week to consider it, and then change my mind.  that seems to be how I’m getting through this.  Postponing tricks my wolfie, and for that I’m thankful.  there’s nothing very superhuman about me at all, I can assure you.  I’m a grumpy wife 2 out of 4 weeks a month. i suck at paperwork and taxes.

but I have decided that if I do ‘fall off the wagon’ that it will be a considered thing, not a “fuck-it” thing, because i don’t want to regret the decision and have to start over again.  This is the thought process that has kept me going to this point.

Today I can say that I don’t see myself ever drinking again, but I know that in a few days, or when I next get a cold, I’ll drag out all of my woe-is-me nonsense and my “fuck-it” threshold will get quite high.  I’ll decide to drink in a week, like I did as recently as valentine’s day, and then the week will pass.

this second, today, I am in a very good place. I’m nearly 9 months sober.  And for today, right this second, I’m good.  I’m terrified of what Paul wrote about on my blog, that there aren’t any happily-ever-after moderation stories.

The other thing about sobriety/recovery, at least for me, is realizing that I am not special. I’m not the one person who’ll succeed at moderation where others have failed.  I am not terminally unique.  Really, I’m like everyone else.  If I wanted to quit drinking in the first place then it’s because my level of alcohol consumption was a problem.  Doesn’t matter how BIG of a problem, it was a problem.  So I’m doing what I need to, to continue to not drink. For me that’s included blogging, and being a sober penpal to a few people.

and i don’t want to start over again cuz it takes a while to feel as good as this.  and so i’m not fucking with it.  maybe i could moderate? Maybe this is true.  But where i am now is *greatness* with no regret and no guilt and no extra weight (i’ve lost 10 pounds so far) and more running and more inspiration and better sleep and a third fun passion job thingy…

i’m certainly not superhuman.  i’ve realized that i can’t learn all the lessons in the world first-hand. i’m willing to take the advice of others.  and baby, that is rocking-good-times easy 🙂 cuz there’s lots and lots of genius out there, and this blogging world brings me in contact with them day after day after day.

love,  me

100 day challenge followup … “It’s like folding in the middle of a bad poker game”

I’ve received lots of emails from people interested in doing the 100 day challenge. It’s a pledge to not drink for 100 days, no matter what.  Even if there’s a zombie apocalypse.  Even if all the kittens on your block get squished the same week.  even if there’s an amputation. No drinking for 100 days. Some people are well on their way, and will be adding 100 days to their current number. Others are just beginning.  Amy is on day 101, Mystery Girl is on day 8. Lilly is 7.  Jenny is 33.

I’m day 260, nearly nine months. Sometime i think i’ll revisit the idea of moderation when i get to my one year soberversary. I’ll be on vacation July 1st.  I can picture it now.

But I recently wrote: “And really, moderation, god, I love the idea of that. I really really do. sometimes I think I’ll try moderation at one year.  but mostly I’m afraid to try.  afraid because of what I read online.  more than afraid, terrified I guess.  I don’t want to fall off and not be able to get back inside again. someone also wrote on my blog something about moderation working for people who don’t really need to moderate…”

for all the times that i half-assed tried to moderate, i was really only white knuckling it. Only drink every second day? OK, let me try to remember, is this an on day or an off day. Only drinking for special events, does today count as special enough? Only drinking twice a week, when does the week start (Sunday or Monday).

It was a lot of noise in my head. and this blog is called “tired of thinking about drinking” because i thought a lot about how much, when, too early, he drank more than i did. Too often.

the truth is, this is easier.  Sobriety is easier. I won’t say that being sober is a gigantic walk in the park.  it has its challenges.  but it is SIGNIFICANTLY easier than trying to manage the consumption of booze.  Why is it so hard to quit drinking, especially the first weeks? Cuz we ain’t equipped to cope with life without our security blanket. Our buffer, our ‘off switch’, our ‘equalizer’. But thankfully after 30 days it gets easier, then at 60 days we stop obsessing about reading sober blogs and books.  Near 90 days the clouds start to life and we feel more like our old selves.

Thus the 100 day challenge.  Our old selves + 10 days for good measure.

So will i drink on my one year anniversary? some days it seems pretty darn tempting. But really, what does that even really mean?

Frankly, it further convinces me that even almost 9 months later, the wolfie voice is still in there.  it’s still whispering sweet nothings in my ear.  I’m much better at ignoring wolfie. My life is gigantically improved now that i’m sober.  If i gave wolfie even a glass of wine, wouldn’t he just get up on his hind legs and start SCREAMING at me? Fun? Not.

In an email to Amy this week, i wrote: “I do not plan to drink. I sometimes play games with myself and say ‘in a week’ when I’m feeling crappy and that seems to be enough to move on through.  in a week’s time I’ve forgotten and all is well again.  I seem to be able to withstand anything if I think it’s almost over.  and then the times of ‘needing’ to withstand are now getting further and further apart, thankfully.  so I can say it’s getting easier.  a lot easier.  and I’m fucking proud of myself. There’s plenty of boozing and alcohol abuse in my extended family. I quit before I had any real problems. I got out early, like folding in the middle of a bad poker game. I just cut my losses and got out.”

if you’d like to do the 100 day challenge, you can read more about it here.  Or you can do your own version. Or you can keep playing poker with a loaded deck, cheaters, liars, and phonies… Nah. No time for that shit!

Today I will do what others won’t

In writing to my sober penpal, Amy, last week, i was telling her how i was out for dinner and someone was asking about my not-drinking.  He’s a nice guy, someone who’s told my husband and i that he admires how we’ve constructed our lives… anyway he seemed like just the right place for me to practice telling my sober story differently.

cuz when i first quit, i didn’t want anyone to notice; then once i got my sea legs i was pissed off that no one noticed i wasn’t drinking. Now i seem to be in a new place. I’m not changing the facts, just how I talk about why i’m sober.

I told this nice guy that it started as a 30 day ‘experiment’ for Dry July, but that I found it harder to quit than I thought I would. We agreed that booze is everywhere – in ads/tv/associated with major events, at christmas, at new years, even at the dinner we were attending that very night. It’s assumed everyone will drink.  Everyone drinks.

I told him that the longer I didn’t drink, and the more I got to stand outside of what everyone else does, I could really examine it, and try to figure out what worked best for ME.  Everyone else just drinks (in different amounts, but most people drink) and they do so perhaps without ever really considering if that’s what’s best for them.

i told him that once I had quit, I realized I was better off without it.  I sleep better, I get more done, and it has started a ball of self-improvement rolling  downhill (i didn’t mention my sober car, but you know what i mean).

Now, what’s changed?  All of this story is true. I don’t have to share with anyone, nor is it anyone’s business, as to how much I drank, or how many times i thought about quitting before I actually did.

I’m telling a TRUE story, but I get to decide HOW I tell it.  and frankly, sober girls rock, and I felt GREAT after I framed my story like this … Amy and I agreed it was time for a new bumper sticker: sober girls rock… or … “when’s the last time you did something different from what everyone else was doing?” The great un-lemming-ing.

kinda like: Today I will do what others won’t, so tomorrow I can have a life that others can’t…

stop complaining

I am surprisingly good. I still feel as good as i’ve felt in a long time, maybe forever.  Sleeping enough, hydrated enough, running enough.

maybe i’ve got nothing to say. It’s pouring rain today and it’s sunny in my head. I’m clearing things off my desk in an orderly fashion, not rushed, not irritated. Who is this girl?

I had a seriously hilarious exchange with my husband a few days ago. maybe all boys think like this?

me: can you stop doing that?

him: [looks right at me, smiles, and then does it again harder]

me: really? are you 12 years old? right after i ask you to stop irritating me, you do it again? When we eventually end up at a psychologist’s office, i’m going to tell her “I tell him exactly what I want and he just ignores me. I’m very clear. He doesn’t listen.”

him: and the psychologist will say: “he loves you, he’s going to be with you for the rest of your life. He is going to stay with you forever. Time to stop complaining.”

he does know how to make me laugh.