But something felt off in my relationship with Chardonnay, especially as I grew older and my hormones changed. My sleep patterns had fallen apart years before and even though I didn’t sleep any better during the nights when I drank wine in the evening and the nights when I didn’t, I wondered if my sleep would get better if I stopped drinking altogether. The amount of white wine that I drank increased, too. Only one glass became two, and sometimes even three, over the course of an evening. A few years ago, I had to let go of my friendships with Pinot Noir, Cabernet, and Merlot because of the headaches that would invariably come later in the evening after spending time in their company. But I really didn’t miss my red friends. Chardonnay was there for me.
Last summer, a life coach who had a podcast I often listened to while out for my weekend walks started a program to help people stop over-drinking. Her program appealed to me because I didn’t want to stop drinking forever and ever; I wanted to be in charge of how much Chardonnay I had in my life, rather than feeling like it was the other way around.
I learned a lot in the program, like how alcohol stimulates the dopamine response in your brain, so that you get a powerful reward when you drink, increasing the likelihood that your brain will want more. I learned that if your brain has a choice between what you think is best and what you crave, the cravings will always win – unless you have a compelling reason why you’re not drinking (or not drinking more than you want) and a plan to manage how much alcohol you’re consuming.
I followed the coach’s steps and immediately cut down on how much Chardonnay I was consuming and then cut back even more a few weeks later. I developed a drinking protocol and a plan to follow, which meant I decided what and how much I would drink 24 hours in advance. The program was working, but I was exhausted. I was thinking about drinking even more often than before.
In late October, I decided that Chardonnay and I were no longer in step and I broke up with her completely.
Drinking Chardonnay had always felt like turning on my favorite Pandora station to help make the unpleasantness of my life less unpleasant. Like listening to a soundtrack that livened up my predicable routine, bolstered my discomfort, and soothed my anxiety. Drinking alcohol was like following the beat of the bass drum in the band.
I didn’t notice how much something outside of me had determined the rhythm of my life until it was gone.
In the quiet, what I heard, after I stopped drinking and that rhythm stopped, was this: You can't do this without Chardonnay.
THIS could be anything, like getting through a noisy nighttime routine with the family after a long day of work; attending a social event with people I don't know well (or do); sitting through an excruciatingly boring obligation; or going out with girlfriends when I felt tired, depressed, and dull without Chardonnay to liven things/me up.
You can't do this without Chardonnay.
On the one hand (the one without a wine glass in it), I knew this statement wasn't true. I have accomplished so much without a drink in my hand or alcohol in my bloodstream – early motherhood with both of my kids, for example. Alcohol barely made an appearance while I was trying to get pregnant, was pregnant, while breastfeeding and then going through the process again with my second son. My second child nursed until he self-weaned at 20 months old, so there were years that I didn't drink.
But the voice was persuasive. With Chardonnay, I could do pretty much anything. I didn’t have to wonder if I could do this without alcohol because – after 5:00 p.m. on most nights when I wasn't working – I didn’t have to.
Once I broke up with Chardonnay, the voice became determined and loud. I heard You can’t do this without Chardonnay when the election didn’t go the way that I hoped and I started worrying about what potential changes to the Affordable Care Act would do to the availability of health insurance for my family. When the other adults around the Thanksgiving table were drinking and getting merrier by the minute and I sat there, feeling stupid and dull. When an indoor snowball fight was launched at the dinner table on Christmas Eve and my sober self brought the vulnerable glassware to the sink and blew out the lit candles on the table instead of joining in. When it was time to take down the Christmas decorations, because it felt like a big, boring project and I really wanted to be doing something, anything else. When it was time to celebrate the New Year with friends at our traditional dinner on New Year’s Day and sparkling cider didn’t feel celebratory enough.
I didn’t fight the voice. That was one thing I learned in the stop over-drinking program is that the more you argue with the urges, the stronger they get. Instead, when I heard the familiar rhythm of the desire to drink, I chose not to dance along.
Instead, I sat still, asking myself in the kindest voice possible, the one I reserve for clients, friends, and children: What’s going on, sweetie? Why do you want to drink right now?
The answers were varied: I’m bored, I’m nervous, I’m tired, I’m hungry, I’m worried, I’m overwhelmed, I’m uncomfortable …
Instead of blotting out the feelings, I let them be. Interestingly enough, the discomfort didn’t get bigger. It stayed a while, happy to be listened to, and then it left.
Last week, I counted how many weeks it’s been since Chardonnay and I have been together and it’s been nearly 11 weeks now. I wish I could say that my sleep is amazing and wonderful and deep and restorative. It’s not and that’s not really a surprise.
What’s different for me is even better than sleep (which is a surprise because what’s better than sleep?) – I’ve learned that I’m stronger than I thought. Every time I choose to not listen to the voice that tells me I need Chardonnay to go to a party, spend time with people, get through a rough patch, or help me to feel better about my life, I grow stronger. I made it through all of the stress and social functions during the holidays without any wine. I welcomed in the New Year with sparkling grape juice shared with my family. I did hard, boring, uncomfortable things – and plan to do many more in the year to come – without Chardonnay by my side. I’m learning to like the sober me, the one who listens, marches, and sometimes dances to the rhythm of my own music.
This is the soundtrack I choose to play.
Happy New Year to you all.
P.S. Sometimes, someone else's perspective, ideas, and support is just what we need to get to a new place where we feel stronger and happier. Let me know if I can create that support for you.