Maintaining sobriety in captivity

A woman of my acquaintance posted on Instagram the other day about how she has started drinking again after some time off. It makes me wonder how many people are succumbing to the stresses of this moment by reverting to old coping, self-soothing reflexes that don’t serve them.

Count me in that number, if only briefly.

I have cut back on my drinking over the last year, down to nothing by the fall of 2019, and nothing after that – until the virus. I have had a couple of slips, and I have been reminded that I stopped drinking for good reasons; the virus, and the stresses of “quarantine” are still not great reasons to restart doing something that wasn’t any good when life was normal. Why would I think that would change under more trying circumstances?

It hasn’t. I have allowed myself to be reminded of that three times over the last six weeks. The first was on Friday the 13th of March, as I joined a group of seven or eight people nervously chatting around a patio table before social distancing was seriously a thing, everyone drinking too much, smoking cigars and pot. I enjoyed my tonic water, as is now standard when around drinkers, until a moment when something clicked and another bottle of wine came out, and I said, “Yes please.”

I used to say “Yes please” to everything, and I enjoyed it – at least the good parts. I didn’t really notice the bad parts until I stopped saying “yes please” so much. I eventually discovered that stopping saying yes please was one of the most productive, life-enhancing things I’ve ever done. I still say yes to lots of fun things, but not to the “short cuts” I once drifted to. (I’ve had no desire for pot since it became legal. But a glass of wine? What could it hurt?)

The next Saturday night, as things (and some people) around me got worse, and I’d completed my goal of doing my live show, I thought “What the hell?” I said “yes please” again: It was only whiskey, and for toasting my accomplishment, so fine. But the next night, the bottle of  red came out, and my two friends were drinking it, and at a certain point, I just dove in. Two bottles later, we went to bed. I didn’t sleep well, but I also didn’t have a hangover.

But I love my sobriety, it took a long time to get there, and I am not letting it go. I also don’t let a few slips get me down. I’m human. I don’t buy the “it’s 100 percent or you’re broken” attitude, I was never that kind of drinker. But I know how easy it is to slip back into using. And I don’t want to do that.

I write this because I want YOU to know that, too. That black-or-white approach may work for some people; it hasn’t worked for me. If you’re in recovery, however you define it, it’s understandable that you might slip back into old habits during this time. I get it. We all get it.

But if it didn’t work before, not really, it’s not going to work now. Straight up. I just want to remind you of that. And I want you to take heed of something a lot of people are saying right now, something I wholly agree with: It’s time to be kind to each other. KindER. And that goes double with ourselves. And if you slip, in whatever way, the first thing to do is to be kind to yourself, to be as generous to yourself as you would be to a friend who told you the same story. Get some water in you and go back to what you know is best for you. Nothing has been lost. You’ve just gifted yourself with a nice little dose of what used to suck about your life – which doesn’t suck any more.

I say all this because I just had my third slip last night, a glass of celebratory champagne last night. I didn’t think much of it, it was nice to be out with new people, and it went down easy and thoughtlessly. I like to test this from time to time. (Or so I tell myself; the test always returns the same result.)

Then, today, I was surprisingly and inexplicably melancholy. It took me all day, until I stopped to rest, and there it was: Bam. Duh. It was the neurotoxin. The poison. Diluted, sometimes tasty poison, but still…ugh. The test returned the same result. Duh.

So again, just reminding folks who are struggling to keep their sobriety in order during this trying time: It’s OK if you slip. It’s even educational. But be sure to be present, and watch: It doesn’t help. There’s nothing wrong with a stray glass of wine, except this: You know it does you no good. You figured this out, and it remains the truth. It may taste good, it may even feel good (to me, it doesn’t, but whatever). But it’s not what you wanted before, and it’s not what you want now. In that respect, even though “everything has changed,” this truth about you and your body has not.

This is a matter of self-awareness, and of self-love: Do what you like, but do it with awareness. Connect the dots. Don’t turn away from the truth of how you feel. If you feel good, if you’re undaunted by this situation and you’re being creative, if you’re connecting with good friends and helping others through this, if you wake up unafraid, or at least willing to face your fears, do what you like.

But if your moods are swinging, if your energy is uncertain, if your relationships are strained, if you’re judging others or feeling self-righteous…take a closer look. Check in. Understand what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it. That’s all.

International emergency or no, whatever didn’t work for you with alcohol (or whatever your drug of choice) before all of this still doesn’t work. In fact, it may work even less well.

This is a time of potentially great opportunity for those who accept the challenges and stick to their guns. If you can stay clear on what works for you during a time when things aren’t working the way they did, you’re winning. We can all come out of this stronger, if we’re willing to stay clear and true to our hard-earned knowledge.

Full disclosure: I just did the math and must admit I’ve slipped FOUR times…see how that works? It was “only” two glasses of wine, but again, they were two glasses of wine that I didn’t actually enjoy. I just wanted something to change how I was feeling in that moment. And guess what? The change wasn’t for the better. It never is. 

Bottom line: Self-awareness, self-forgiveness and self-care are always key, but right now they are crucial. Anyone struggling with ANY sort of compulsion or unsatisfying habit can keep going back to those three things. Look at what you’re doing, give yourself some love and do what is good for you – even if it’s not what you always did before.

You can do it. I can do it. We are doing it. Just keep going in the right direction, and when your foot goes off the path, laugh it off and set your foot right. Remember the pleasure you get from meeting that challenge – it’s FUN, really. Lighten up, straighten up, and carry on!

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Thank you for checking out my blog - it’s just the tip of the iceberg.  I am working on projects regarding music history, Japanese culture and my songwriting.

- A week-by-week music history website,
- An upcoming book on Japanese culture, Japan from Anime to Zen
- A YouTube channel, featuring random songs and thoughts for the pandemic
- Original music on Spotify, with links to Patreon and Amazon 

David Watts Barton

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