Catboy and upcakes

Thank you very much to those who knew I celebrated two years of sobriety last week and left comments. It meant a lot and helped to make the occasion very special. I said I was going to close out my two years with a post about the many gifts of sobriety, but then the time came and I couldn’t. I lost my dear sweet cat of 18 1/2 years a few weeks ago and, I don’t know, life happened and I just couldn’t bring myself to feel, let alone write about gratitude.

The cat was very, very old. The above picture, taken days before we had him put down, doesn’t show that he’d shrunk to 5 pounds and how his hip bones jutted out like matted fur and he was so wobbly he could barely stand. His death wasn’t a surprise and, in fact, we’d joked for years that we would have him stuffed when he died because he’d seemed such a permanent fixture in our lives. Instead we had him cremated and now he sits on our mantle in a small wooden box with his name on it. I guess we became those people.

And by those people, I guess I mean people doing normal life things, ready or not. In the week following the cat’s death, I was mostly fine but then I’d be putting laundry away and notice the giant hole in my heart. Honestly, I was mourning the loss of a life I haven’t known in years as much I was missing my sweet catboy. What I noticed was how much grief over one thing stirred up grief and fear and even resentment over other, seemingly unrelated things. Nothing new had happened in my life other than the cat dying, but here I was trapped in old patterns of feeling afraid and hopeless.

I have to keep an eye on this kind of feeling because I’ve been depressed before and taken medication for it. I’m trying not to right now, though I am taking supplements and definitely exercise. I’m trying to be kinder to my monkey mind (thanks, Christy) and so I just sit with it and listen to the chatter and occasionally feed it cupcakes, like the one I had at lunch the day I hit 2 years sober.

Not my photo because I ate mine before I thought to take one.

I met my sober friend Lisa for lunch. She is behind me in sobriety by not quite a month, and marking the occasion with her felt right. The place we went to has these things called upcakes, which are basically upside down cupcakes with the top cut off and icing all over. The description doesn’t do justice to how amazing these things taste. It must be the homemade icing.

For awhile there, I worried I might have to ditch dessert…again. I was hitting sugar hard and had picked up a few pounds and was feeling pretty miserable about it. This was even before my cat died and work got more stressful and old issues flared up. Then I sort of prayed on it in a half-assed, totally non-religious way — more like a “I don’t think I can do this anymore” whine thrown into the ether. And it seemed to work and I am grateful because it means I get to keep occasional upcakes and Rita’s gelatis, which are usually followed by 3 mile runs the next morning because I’m not fucking magical.

It’s ego and vanity, but running makes me feel good about myself. I’ve lost weight and so far kept it off and I can run longer and faster and it’s hard to explain how good that feels and how that keeps me going during the tougher moments. Oh, I also think I’m going to hit a meeting in the near future. I have no intention of attending regularly again, but I miss that sameness and feeling of comfort that comes from sitting in a room with a bunch of stranger-drunks.

We also plan to adopt two new kitties. The kids have never known a pet that sees children as anything other than a threat or competition, so I think this will be good for all of us.

I guess I did get around, in a round about way, to writing about the gifts of sobriety. I had the loss and felt it and didn’t run from it and cause it to mutate and multiply. Life isn’t easy sober, but it’s easier than I ever made it out to be.

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I’m trying to remember when life consistently got easier in sobriety, as in Mrs. D’s point-on description:

Living sober means having an overall underlying state of calm.. interrupted by phases of emotion that are annoying but manageable.

Living sober means realising that phases of negative, tricky or uncomfortable emotion come along and are annoying.. but that they pass…they come.. and they go..

Since I hit 2 years sober later this month, I thought I’d write about the following each week until I get there.

  1. The overall process of the last 2 years
  2. Why I stopped drinking in the first place
  3. The many gifts of sobriety

This post is #1.

Months 1- 5

Meetings and vietnamese iced coffee

I remember going to a lot of meetings my first sober summer, though in reality it was only 2-3 a week. Each night I went, I slid into a metal  folding chair, still dressed in work clothes, and inhaled the smell of floor polish and stale books and felt like I’d come home. Mostly I just sat and listened to the stories of other people’s lives – their abuse and recovery, their promises. My real home had people who would never let me stare into space for an hour without demanding snacks or a story or some decision, so this is where I caught the pink cloud and coasted for about 5 months on pure relief plus also smoking too much and iced coffees with heaping tablespoons of sweetened condensed milk, aka crack.

Image

Months 5-12

Unleashing the kraken and realizing he only looked 50 times bigger than a pink elephant

Most people report the first 90 days of sobriety are the hardest, but did I mention I’d been on a beautifully numbing antidepressant during that time? Maybe that’s considered cheating, but hey, it worked for me. Around 5 months sober, I decided to switch to another because frankly it was making me fat and killing my sex drive. I remember the doctor asking “Are you sure you want to switch right before the holidays?” I did it anyway.

The antidepressant I stopped taking is well known for its SSRI discontinuation syndrome and the new one I started taking was not at all numbing. I got those pesky feelings back and got angry over everything and cried in my car a lot. Overall this was a tough time for me, but still it was nothing compared to the overwhelming feelings of isolation and hopelessness I’d had at the end of my drinking.

There were many good days in here. I started eating way too much sugar in the absence of any real coping skills, but I also took up running. I lost weight. I quit smoking. I started making better decisions. Baby steps to progress, but slowly life started to feel more manageable.

Months 12-16 

The clouds part for longer than 5 minutes at a time

My least favorite kind of beach day is the kind where you can tell the sun wants to poke through the clouds, but it can’t seem to for any longer than a few seconds at a time. To add insult to injury, these tend to be the days where the biting flies are out and you can still get a sunburn.

Some time around the transition from summer to fall of 2012, the clouds parted and I experienced a real breakthrough.

I remember a facebook post that made light of binge drinking and I remember feeling really sorry for myself that I couldn’t drink anymore and that no one seemed to know how hard that was. I told my husband how crazy annoyed that made me and he said something like “why do you care what other people do?” Although it wasn’t what I wanted to hear at the time, it was exactly what I needed to hear. It’s strange to connect and harder to explain, but that time of longing and self-pity was immediately followed by the removal of my obsession with drinking. The realization that I didn’t need to worry what others thought about drinking or not drinking was very liberating.

Months 16-23 

The second act

People warned me that the second year sober is hard, but in a different way than the first. The good news is the second half of my second year got a lot easier! By now, I’ve learned that the rough spots still come, but they pass quickly if I do what I know works to get through them (see above, re: Mrs. D). Sometimes that means eating ice cream and going to bed early. Still not convinced there’s anything wrong with this approach, though long term this does not seem a sustainable coping mechanism.

My moods leveled out more in this time. I went off the second antidepressant. I kept running, literally, but not as much figuratively. I started journaling and writing more. I gave up sugar and then went back on sugar and now I’m cutting back again. Sugar is a little fucker!

I don’t know that my process is anything like others’. I think I’m a late bloomer in many respects, so I probably hit my rough patch later than most. Just want to stress again that even during the hard times, everything about being sober is better than anything while I was still drinking.

I’m just as grateful to be off the sauce as I was at Day 2 because let’s face it, Day 1 I was pretty sure I was going to die. I’ll write a little about that next week.

Today is the day I could grab one of those double chocolate donuts that have been giving me the stink eye for the last few days because they’re pretty sure I think I’m too good for them. It’s not that, donuts. It’s a lot more complicated.

January is over, which means I am no longer under contractual obligation to drink my coffee black or skip dessert or drink almond milk instead of what is disturbingly referred to as “dairy milk” on a carton of almond milk. How does one milk an almond anyway? Are they all stoic like a cow or do they squirm around a lot or even scream?

About midway through January I had the saddest epiphany in some time, which is that my 30 day sugar quit mirrors January 2011, when I quit drinking for 30 days to “reset my tolerance”. If you’re in recovery, you no doubt lol’d a little because you know it doesn’t work. I couldn’t undo a biochemical, emotional addiction two decades in the making in 30 days.  In fact, I never could because within months I was drinking so much I hit my lowest bottom (not to be confused with the worst thing I did), which involves a sad story about the worst road trip of my life and having what must have been a panic attack while driving me and my kids across this really long bridge after I had inadvertently started to detox.

Fortunately, this bottom was the beginning of the end for me, and I made the decision to abstain from alcohol within several months.

This January, I realized I probably need to take a similar line with sugar, though as I said to the donuts, it’s complicated.

If I give up sugar indefinitely, that means no birthday cake or ice cream cones or pumpkin pie that normal people eat when they get together. The difference, of course, being that normal people don’t eat all the Christmas cupcakes in the span of several days, savoring and/or devouring each one in a way that just ain’t natural.

Honestly, I’m somewhere in between deciding to abstain from dessert permanently and allowing myself a cheat day once a week (month?) where I’d get to have one thing from the forbidden list. I know deep in my heart that I am not ready for a cheat day, though I may make an exception and have a small piece of cake for my daughter’s birthday this month.

On to the good stuff though. Scaling back sugar intake was the best thing I’ve done for myself in some time. It really wasn’t a true quit because I still had plenty of sugar in my diet from fresh fruit. After awhile, grapes seemed a perfectly fine substitute for those tiny peanut butter cups that are sitting in my pantry right now, the adorable fuckers.

(Thanks for this, Christy!)
Stick with it, Cookie. You’ll come around. (Thanks for this, Christy!)

In the last month I saw the cravings overall decline, though they still hit regularly and sharply. I lost weight. My energy levels returned after about three weeks and yesterday I had the best run I’ve had in months…possibly ever. I felt stronger and lighter and like my body was running on good fuel.

I even came around on almond milk, though I will probably bump the self-imposed sugar gram limit to 12g in processed foods and welcome “dairy milk” back into my life. If a recipe calls for a small amount of sugar, I will use the real thing instead of an artificial sweetener. I may bring agave nectar back into my morning coffee. I still miss it.

So that’s that. My journey into no-sugar ended the same way as my 30 day abstain from alcohol two years ago. I did it – I pretty much knew I would from the start because my monkey brain knew it was just temporary. The difference between then and now is now I accept that I have a problem with sugar and I know firsthand from sobriety that abstinence brings its own rewards.

Once a month I’ll plan to check in and report how I’m doing with sugar. Blogging helped me feel accountable, and that was really helpful. I’m pretty sure I’ll have that piece of birthday cake later on this month. I’m pretty sure it’s not normal to be afraid of birthday cake, but that’s where I am right now: less relieved that I survived January and more afraid of how I’m going to navigate the murkier future where I can have the cake if I really want it. But I also know that life without sugar is still life. It’s no less sweet.

Sugar-free Januar-y

Portrait
World War I Poster

I read so many helpful comments after my last post on sugar binges. You guys are the best – did you know that? I hope so, because these comments helped convert powerlessness into motivation to do something about it. A few blogger friends said they had been thinking about making a change too, so I googled and found a great post on 3 Whole Plates on how to do 30 days Sugar Free. What appealed most was her sensible, common-sense  approach to kicking the sugar habit, so I borrowed heavily and did some minor tweaking to suit my own needs.

Following the same simple 3-rule format, this is what I will shoot for from January 1-31:

1) No refined sugar. No white or brown sugar. This means no desserts or donuts or candy. Because I also hope to recalibrate my taste buds, I’m also going to cut out natural sugar products like honey and blue agave nectar, which I will miss dearly in my morning coffee.

2) No artificial Sweeteners. I’ve heard that artificial sweeteners try to trick the brain into thinking it’s had something sweet, only to find out the brain is smarter than it looks and it looks pretty smart because it’s, uh, a brain. I don’t know if artificial sweeteners satiate my need for something sweet or not, but I do know most are made from hard-to-pronounce chemicals and they don’t taste very good anyway.

3) N0 more than 10g sugar per serving in processed foods. This is any food that comes with one of those little black and white nutritional labels, which is mostly what I’ll be eating unless I get a tiny farm (complete with tiny farmhands) under the tree Christmas morning. I chose 10g because the plain greek yogurt I eat every morning has 9g sugar per serving and I like even numbers.

That’s it. I’ll still have fresh fruit because last spring I tried a low-carb diet with no fruit or grains for 2 weeks and I got a terrible chest cold and a case of the sads, so nuts to that. With processed grains, I’ll stick to the ‘no more than 10g of sugar per serving’ rule.

My main goal here is to reduce cravings and stabilize my mood and energy levels. Sugar used to be a wonderful high, but lately I’ve noticed how run down I feel, especially when I exercise. I believe I can do this for 30 days and hope it will motivate long-term, sustainable changes in what I eat and why. Food is a huge source of pleasure, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. I just hope to change the pleasure from cheap thrills to something ultimately more enjoyable.

I don’t plan to change the focus of this blog to nutrition, but I will check in and report how it’s going. If you want to join in the torture FUN by going sugar-free in January or by following your own plan, yes, yes! As someone wisely said, Power in numbers!

Sugar

When I gave up drinking, I took up sugar and exercise. I traded one addiction for two, though to say I didn’t have a sweet tooth before would be a lie. I just didn’t abuse sugar as hard before. At one of my first recovery meetings, I stood outside smoking and talking to a woman who said she used to carry a bag of Starburst in early recovery. “But you gotta be careful with that,” she said and I nodded, already knowing I was in trouble.

I was one of those oddballs who didn’t lose a single pound when I stopped drinking. And I drank mostly beer, and not light beer either but high alcohol, high calorie IPAs and porters. But when I look at my eating habits since I stopped drinking, I’m not surprised I didn’t lose weight.  I traded booze for Mike and Ikes, jelly beans, cookies, ice cream. I once dipped cookies in caramel and I share that with you because if someone finds me comatose this would be helpful to know. Maybe I need a medical alert bracelet that says ‘sugar freak’ or ‘fatty fatso’ though honestly I’m not fat. That’s where the exercise comes in.

When I run, I feel good. Well, to be more precise, I feel better after I run. When I run, sometimes I feel like I’m going to die and I imagine wolves chasing me so I don’t stop. Then a funny thing happens and I feel really fucking good. That endorphin rush or whatever it is stays with me hours afterwards. It improves my mood and I feel it throughout my body like a low-grade hum. Eating three large handfuls of jelly beans has nothing on a 30 minute walk/run. I don’t even know what I get from sugar except shame.

I quit smoking several months back and sugar is next on the chopping block. It’s going to be a heluva lot harder. The other day I googled sugar addiction which led me to low blood sugar which led me to hypoglyemic diet which led me to south beach diet. It’s kind of nice to know I don’t have to reinvent the wheel. This weekend I’ll go to the library for some cookbooks and see how they look.

The only way to get rid of alcohol cravings is to give up alcohol. The same goes for sugar, which is no shock since alcohol is sugar. Did I drink so much because I’m a sugar junkie or do I eat so much sugar because I’m an alcoholic? Who knows, but once again I find myself unable to imagine a life without sugar. It sounds impossible and decidedly unfun.

But then I think about dunking a fucking cookie in fucking caramel and doing so privately and shamefully and it reminds me so much of my final days of drinking that I find myself thinking maybe I can do it afterall.

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