I loved what I got from drinking.
Immediate dopamine hit. Raising my blood sugar if I was hungry or tired. A calm that seemed to wash over me within minutes of alcohol entering my blood system.
The scene: I arrive home from a 10-hour mediation, no lunch break. An angry divorcing couple fighting tooth and nail over children, support and assets. Each party thinks I hate them and am their spouse’s new best friend. Attorneys for each side are aggressive. We reach agreement and then spend two hours negotiating details. Very tense the whole time. There are tears and raised voices.
As mediator, I am completely “on” the entire day—pushing everyone beyond their comfort zone while remaining respectful and trying to keep them at the table to get the case resolved. Add an hour commute each way through Atlanta traffic.
Day starts at 6 am. I’d skip breakfast and generally eat almonds for lunch, so I’d be starving and cranky by early evening.
Emails and phone messages arrive at all hours and stack up each day.
One of my teens is usually on their phone on the sofa when I get home, the other likely napping in their room. So I’d begin cooking, eying my favorite chardonnay in the fridge which my thoughtful husband picked up and chilled for me.
Why does it feel hard not to open that bottle?
I’d pour a glass telling myself I’ll just have one. One would turn into two. By bedtime, the bottle would be empty.
Let’s be honest. Drinking feels like a hard-won treat after a long day. A reward for managing difficult and emotionally draining work in a professional and skilled way.
Drinking wasn’t my problem. Drinking felt easy and wonderful.
The consequences were my problem. The terrible night’s sleep that always followed. Feeling groggy, dehydrated and tired most of the next day. Knowing I really didn’t meaningfully interact with my children or husband past the second glass and was likely unpleasant to be around. Beating myself up for doing again what I vowed I wouldn’t.
When I stopped drinking so much so often, I found there were less obvious benefits to drinking: I avoided parts of my life that weren’t working by numbing out.
For years I grinded through stress, too many hours at work, and bad relationships with the assistance of my friend Chardonnay. My 401k says thank you.
Alcohol basically made intolerable parts of my life tolerable. And that was a benefit.
Until it wasn’t.
After I stopped using alcohol to avoid bad parts of my life, I faced not liking a lot of my life.
Instead of reaching for my glass, when there was fighting during dinner, sometimes I cried. At the table. Looking back, this was an improvement over crying because I’d had a stupid fight with my husband because I was drunk.
When I couldn’t meet demands of unrelenting clients that I work all weekend consecutive weekends, I stopped answering emails and calls until Monday.
In some ways, I rebelled against what I had created. I protested the life I’d created and said something has to give. I drew the line, not on drinking, but on what I would tolerate and how I wanted to live.
Slowly, I started coping in more productive ways (hello walks in the woods). I stopped doing things I found depressing and draining (goodbye crazy work hours and abusive divorce clients).
Some of my overdrinking clients drink for entertainment. To relax. As a social lubricant when they’re feeling awkward in a group. But mostly it’s to numb out to whatever is negative in their lives.
We are fearful of change and so we keep doing what we have done in the past until we just can’t anymore.
If you’ve decided to stop or cut back drinking, ask yourself what positive results you’re getting from alcohol. What do you love about it? Tell yourself the truth. No one is judging you here.
Do you drink to calm yourself down? To avoiding conflict with your spouse? To feel part of a group?
When you understand what you’re getting from alcohol, you can begin to figure out why stopping overdrinking has been challenging. Then you’ll have clues how to change your habits.
Consider the top reasons you enjoy drinking. How does alcohol help in the moment?
Tune in for Part 2 of 3 in making your commitment to stop overdrinking in my next post.
—Julie Ernst, CCJD
P.S. Visit www.julieernst.com to take my free course: Stop Overdrinking in 3 Steps.