Archive for March, 2013

My right:

Sunday, March 17th, 2013

Click here to listen to AUDIO version of this article.

(03/18/13)

“I reserve the right to drink again if I ever choose to.” Now to some people this sounds like a dangerous line of thought, but let me explain the psychological reactance which this statement eliminates for me.

But first, what is psychological reactance you ask? Psychological reactance is a common behavior among people. Simply put: When our freedom to have something becomes limited or something is taken away from us, we want it more. Having something taken away or a freedom impinged upon doesn’t make the freedom, person or product any better than it may have been in the first place when we freely had access to it, but we want or desire something even more so when we are told we can’t have. It becomes more valuable in our eyes. We have a psychological reaction towards wanting it. Many laboratory studies have been done on this but let me give you some real life examples.

Any of you who have children know that at a certain age a child becomes unreasonably demanding. Tell the child they can’t have a certain toy—it doesn’t matter what the toy is—they want it. Try to pick them up and they run. Try to put them down and they want to be held. Whenever you say “No” they want it even more no matter what it is. This happens again as they reach teenage years. Tell your teenager not to smoke and they do. Tell them to stay away from someone and they hang out with them more. Tell them that their romantic interest isn’t good for them and they desire the person even more. Also consider clothes, hairstyles and music. I’m sure that when your parents told you, “stop listening to that crazy Rock & Roll,” you immediately turned it off. And when they said “don’t drink or do drugs” you did exactly what they told you right? I’m sure you’re getting my point.

These outright rebellious behaviors tend to become more subdued as we mature but the thoughts of psychological reactance are still present within us as adults. Maybe I should instead say that the rebellious behavior morphs and manifests itself in a more reserved way when we mature. Think about your own life. Haven’t you ever been told that you can’t afford something or that it was in scarce quantity and the next thing you know, that’s all you can think of and possibly even became obsessed with acquiring it. A new TV, a new car, a bigger house, some gadget, gizmo, clothing or even a new hairstyle. As adults, we’re not any less impetuous than a teenager is, we’re just a bit more reserved about it, and of course we as mature adults can rationally explain to others and ourselves why we must have our desire. Add alcohol into the mix and our minds get us to pursue or buy all sorts of stupid shit.

I’m not ridiculing you. I’ve been guilty of this myself. And even as a sober person I still find myself desiring and thinking about plenty of things that I can’t have. But my sober clarity of mind helps me understand my desires better and I don’t impulsively react as much as I used to. I don’t hide from the fact that my desires exist. I mentally acknowledge them and do my best to consider how important they are to me. I weigh out all the consequences and try to make the best decision. I have to slow my mind down. But in some situations there isn’t time to slow my mind down and think. That’s when I use my default response of, “No, not right now. Maybe later.” I may miss out on some things, but I find I’m safer when I say, “No, not right now. Maybe later.”

So let’s look at a few other adult situations of psychological reactance: How well did prohibition work? How successful has the “war on drugs” been? How effective has smoking bans in bars, restaurants and the workplace been to stop people from smoking? Making these “vices” illegal doesn’t stop people from doing them. It may stop some, but it amps up the excitement level within others to want to do it. Let me give you examples of nondestructive vices that affect psychological reactance. How do you feel when you can’t get a cell signal on your phone, even if you don’t need to make a call? Or no internet connection when all you want to do is check your Facebook or Twitter page? Let’s say you head to the grocery store and they’re out of your favorite brand of cookie, what do you do? Or you have a craving for a certain flavor or dish but you don’t have the ingredients or the store doesn’t have what you want? You can get pretty agitated by these situations, even obsessed over it.

You’ll live if you don’t get your cookies, and a peanut butter sandwich will suffice if all you need is something in your stomach—but the desire for your original want is still there. Very often we want something even more, especially when we don’t have it or can’t have it. And when we finally do get it we may go completely overboard on it or find that it isn’t as gratifying or rewarding as we thought it would be. Just because we can’t have something doesn’t always make it any better when we finally do get it.

I have the “right” to drink, smoke dope, do cocaine, eat cookies, eat ice-cream straight out of the carton, have random sex, sleep all day, whatever I want. But just because I have a “right” doesn’t mean I need to take action on it or become mentally obsessed with it. In fact I can be mentally comforted knowing that I can do any of these things. This acknowledgment doesn’t make the desire disappear but it eliminates much of the mental obsession (or power) that it can have over me.

I still have to pay attention to my thinking before it gets carried away. My thinking can quickly tip over the edge and become focused on reasons and justifications on why I should do something. There’s a big difference between can and should. Just because I can do something doesn’t mean I should do it. At those dicey moments I remind myself, “Yes Mark, you can drink if you want to, but you know that you shouldn’t—so don’t.”

Alcohol hasn’t been taken away from me—I just choose to not drink it. I have every legal right to drink alcohol and even a moral right to drink. Society doesn’t look down on social drinkers, in fact advertisers and much of society glamorizes drinking. It’s acceptable. However, I know that if I do drink again nothing good will come of it. I will be letting myself down and I will be disappointing a lot of other people as well. And besides, I don’t want to give anyone that thinks I can’t stay sober the pleasure of ever seeing me fail.

So to help me avoid psychological reactance or feel like I’m being left out of the party, I tell myself, “I reserve the right to drink again if I ever choose to.” But I happen to recognize that no good will come of it if I do. Maybe this line of thinking will help you feel that you’re not being left out of the party either? We have every right, we just choose not to drink.

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A strange point in sobriety:

Sunday, March 17th, 2013

Click here to listen to AUDIO version of this article.

(03/17/13)

I feel that I am in a very interesting and strange point within my sober evolution. I am far enough into sobriety (over 7 years 5 months at this writing), where being a non-drinker is a normal way of life for me. Yet I am still close enough to remember the early difficulties, confusion and struggles I had. Fortunately for me, my desire to drink rears its ugly head every so often. I am reminded of my desire at the least expected moments. What helps at those unwanted moments is that I am also witnessing the long-term payoffs of my sober thinking and actions.

I want to go over these various conditions that I feel and expand on them. I’m going to talk about my own experiences but my intention is to get you thinking about your own life and this may help you embrace your life as a non-drinker.

Let me get started by saying that life is not a bowl of cherries just because I don’t drink, but it’s a lot better than when I was drinking.

I was under the belief that everything would change and everything would go my way when I stopped drinking. Many things did change, many things have gone my way but a lot of things have also fallen apart and haven’t worked out as well as I hoped. That’s the biggest lesson I have learned about being a non-drinker—the good and bad in life still continue when you’re sober—but your chances of reaching the good are vastly improved when you’re sober than when you’re drunk, and the bad events can be dealt with intelligently. So there has been a lot of unexpected good that has come as a result of my sobriety and a lot of bad has been avoided simply by not drinking.

I think it’s important to point out that sobriety in and of itself didn’t do any of this for me—I did it—however, as a result of being sober I have been able to take more control and live a better life. I know that it sounds really arrogant when I say, “I did it” so let me give some examples of what I did as a result of my sobriety.

If I were still drinking I’m quite certain that my health would have progressively declined bringing all kinds of medical bills and physical limitations to me. Instead, my health has improved. I eat well, I pay much closer attention to my health and I exercise regularly. I am actually much stronger and agile than when I was a drinker. I feel better about my body and this boosts genuine self-esteem and self-confidence.

If I was still drinking I’m certain that I would have pushed my luck again and probably would’ve gotten another DWI, or worse, needlessly harmed someone else in a drunken car accident. Instead, my auto insurance rates have gone down dramatically since my first DWI and continue to drop as long as I stay accident free.

I’m certain that had I kept drinking I would have pushed away most of my high quality friends and estranged myself from my immediate family. Instead, I have strengthened my quality friendships, have made many more friends and have become much closer with my family.

I have also eliminated unwanted and unnecessary drama. I’m not the recipient of drunken phone calls and silly bullshit that I as a drunk brought on to my family and friends; I don’t cause as much drama for other people. I don’t have to go into detail because I’m sure that you have tales of drunken drama which you’ve been the recipient of and the orchestrator of. It’s nice that I don’t have to deal with that bullshit anymore and people don’t have to deal with my drunken bullshit anymore.

I’m not involved in volatile drunken relationships. I don’t want to have a drunken girlfriend or end up married to a drunken spouse. This can be difficult if you’re single and sober because the easiest place to meet a new romantic flame is at a bar or a nightclub. But this can be dangerous. You can easily fall back into drinking especially if your new flame is a drinker. Instead, I’ve had to become more outgoing and creative. I’ve had to become more talkative and curious about people. I must introduce myself without gallons of liquid courage in my stomach and I must risk rejection. But as a result of all this I’ve built my self-confidence and I’ve gotten to know a lot of wonderful people; I’m not afraid of people. I may not have a lover or potential spouse but I’ve developed a lot of good friendships.

I no longer have increasing or unmanageable drunken debt. This includes financial debt and interpersonal debt. I’ll go with interpersonal debt first. I don’t have to call people in the morning and apologize for my behavior the night before. I don’t have to wonder why I’m being given the cold shoulder the next time I see someone or wonder why I wasn’t invited to an event or wonder why people have apprehension about inviting me. Instead, I consciously know that I get the cold shoulder or don’t get invited because I’m an asshole, but that’s a behavior that I can address and control as a sober person. And yes I must still apologize to people for something rude that I did or said, but those instances are becoming fewer and fewer. And my apologies are sincere, they are accepted graciously and I’m often forgiven, providing that I don’t act like an asshole again.

My financial situation has greatly improved. I’ve worked on paying off my debt and I think more carefully about purchases and whether I want to take on any new debt. The money that I am no longer spending on booze—and all the other bullshit that goes with drinking—is being put to better uses. I don’t have anywhere near as much financial anxiety as I had when I was a drunk.

I did plenty of drunken blathering about all the grandiose things I was going to do and become, but they were just drunken ramblings and dreams. I did accomplish quite a bit while I was a drunk, but I feel that a lot of it happened by default or through dumb luck while I was simply stumbling along trying to earn a living. I had little to no control over my future. I can reflect and have regrets for wasted time and opportunities—but I can’t change the past. Now I no longer feel hopeless or that my lot in life has already been cast. I hunger for more and new knowledge. I accept that there are limitations to what I can learn and achieve, but expanding my knowledge has opened up a new world of possibilities I had never considered feasible before. What I have now is genuine hope to accomplish and experience some fabulous things in my life. I now have hope as opposed to drunken delusions.

Sobriety is not a cure-all for the elimination of every problem in life. There will always be struggles of one sort or another—but being a non-drinker does lower the frequency of unnecessary problems and you may also see that a lot of problems that occur are not insurmountable especially when you’re sober.

My life is by no means perfect and I still have the occasional desire to drink, but I have learned to enjoy the rewards of being a non-drinker. This helps me control my impulsive desires. I get through it and it passes. So at this stage in my evolution I am very comfortable and confident in my sobriety. Being a non-drinker is just a natural way of life for me now, but I still pay very close attention. The internal and external scars from my time as a drunkard never let me down; they always seem to be there to remind me.

And as far as you’re concerned, my wish is that you find a level of comfort and confidence. For you it may mean moderation, pre-established limits or complete abstinence from drinking. Let the evidence from your own life be your guide; don’t hide from the truth. When you are guided by truth you will know what is best for you. My wish is that you find true hope when you discover what is best for you in the question of sobriety.

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How do you know if you have a problem?

Friday, March 8th, 2013

Click here to listen to audio version of this blog article.

(03/08/13)

A good friend of mine brought something to my attention. If you say things like, “I need to start watching how much I drink” or “I’m going to start moderating how often or how much I drink” then you probably already have a problem. Because if you didn’t have a problem you wouldn’t have to consciously think about moderation. And if you’re one of those people who gets a bottle of medication and follows the instructions exactly without wondering or thinking about it, then you don’t have problem potential with stuff. But if you get a bottle of pain pills or sleep medications and you look at it and think, “Huh, I wonder how many I can take? I wonder how many of these I need to catch a buzz? I wonder what happens if I drink a 12-pack with these?” Then you have problem potential.

I don’t believe that you need to fill out a questionnaire from a therapist or an online survey to determine if you have an alcohol or substance problem. The answer is usually pretty clear. If you’re taking an online survey, you probably already have a problem or you wouldn’t have sought out and taken the survey. What you were most likely trying to do is massage your mind and tweak your answers so you can look at it and say, “See, I don’t have a problem. I just need to moderate a little bit. At least I’m not as bad as (insert name).” Isn’t it interesting that while taking these surveys or talking with a therapist we will often compare our own behavior to someone else that we know.

I’m not implying that you’re a liar, but who wouldn’t talk with a therapist or fill out a survey about themselves and give answers that reflect you in the best possible light? If the answers through the online questionnaire reveal something you don’t like, you go back and change a couple of the answers. We naturally look for and often create an image of the results that we want to see. Again, this doesn’t mean you’re a pathological liar or a full blown nut case. You just want to see yourself reflected in the best possible light.

I’m going to give you a few examples of some surveys because I think this is fun stuff:

Take a clinical Psychopathy test sometime. I would be so bold to guess that if you were to take the PCL-R (Psychopathy Checklist-Revised), and providing that you answered the questions honestly, you would “qualify” as a psychopath based on certain behaviors and emotions that you at one time or another exhibited in the past. (I would be considered a psychopath—at least by my former wife and most of my former girlfriends.)

What are some of the “signs” of being a psychopath or sociopath?

  • Egocentricity
  • Callousness
  • Manipulative
  • Impulsive
  • Thrill-seeking
  • Sexually promiscuous
  • Unfaithful
  • Irresponsible
  • Deceptive
  • Secretive
  • Grandiose
  • Lack of concern for the suffering of others

(This could all sound like a fun weekend or a bad date depending on your point of view.)

Who hasn’t, at one time or another, while drunk or not, exhibited some of these traits? Fortunately, 99% of us do not continue with all of these behaviors simultaneously raging at full speed. Unless you hear voices in your head (other than your own), you’re not a clinical psychopath. But based on your “interview answers,” you could be viewed as one.

Now let’s ask some questions about whether a person is an alcoholic.

The traditional “alcoholic” questionnaire will query you about blackouts, memory loss, sexual promiscuity, missing responsibilities, volatility of relationships, frequency and amount of drinking, isolating, etc. The majority of adults could answer “Yes” to most of these questions. You say, “Aw, no way!” Well, have you ever forgotten to pay a bill or paid only the minimum amount? Have you ever argued with a friend or family member? Ever seen someone or been around someone that got you sexually aroused? Ever forget someone’s name or misremember facts?  It happens all the time to people who don’t even drink.

Now to the questions of frequency and amount you drink:

What if grandma drinks a glass of port wine every night at dinner and another glass before bed? She says it helps her sleep and has been doing this routine for 20 years. Is SHE an alcoholic? She drinks 7 days a week! On paper she sounds like an alcoholic. But would you do an intervention and send grandma off to a 12-step program? Unless grandmas going out to bars wearing a leather miniskirt and tearin’ it up as a geriatric Superfreak, you’d probably leave her be.

Here’s a more relevant example. What if you drink every day, alone, at home and never argue with anyone, always pay your bills on time, get to work on time and perform your job well. The only criteria that you match as, “An alcoholic” is that you drink every day. But what if you don’t do that every day? What if you are so controlled and under a routine that you only do it on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday night? You pay your bills, you’re responsible and you don’t go out and get into fights. However, on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday night you sit on your couch and drink until you fall asleep in front of the TV. Do you need an intervention or to go into a program? Are you an alcoholic?

I feel that it comes down to whether YOU are happy with your behavior. Do you really need clinical confirmation or exoneration to determine whether excessive drinking is causing problems or not? Who gives a shit whether you hold the official title of alcoholic or not?

When you go to outside sources or services about substance abuse, you often aren’t searching for confirmation that you ARE an alcoholic or an addict. You’re trying to massage your own mind to tell yourself that you AREN’T an alcoholic and may even use your “test results” as a way to defend yourself when others observe, suggest or outright accuse you of being an alcoholic or addict. Chances are good that if you perform a questionnaire about your drinking habits you won’t say, “Wow! Am I glad I took that test. I had no fucking idea that I drink too much. This must be my lucky day.”

All jokes and kidding aside, there is value in taking online questionnaires or talking with a therapist. Not necessarily because of the results it may show you, but because YOU are showing concern; somewhere inside of you something is bothering you about this. Being curious and recognizing that you have a substance overuse problem can be your first stage of getting your life under control.

Here’s my point. You don’t need to take all kinds of online quizzes or see a therapist to decide if YOU have an alcohol overuse problem. That decision is YOURS and the evidence is probably right in front of you. Look around your house or your car. If your garbage or recycle bin is filled with empty beer cans, booze and wine bottles the evidence is right there. (As a side exercise, take all those bottles and cans out and add them up. See how much money you spent on the creation of piss. Not a fun exercise is it, when you see the truth in numbers.) Yes, you might want to get outside confirmation from some other source, but what would that “confirmation” change? Your doctor, therapist, minister, boss, spouse or friend could all tell you, “Yes John, you have a drinking problem,” and you can still massage your own mind by saying, “Well I still have my job. I haven’t lost my home. And I’m certainly not as bad as (insert name).”

Instead of filling out a survey, talking with a therapist or attending a meeting out of curiosity, just try living completely alcohol free for 30 days. See how you feel, behave and react to life during those 30 days. (I also suggest that you stash $10 away every day during that period.) At the end of 30 days you will have a better idea if you have a drinking problem (and YOU will also be $300 richer). And if you’re already sober, maybe stop calling yourself an alcoholic. How can you be an alcoholic if you don’t drink? I’m just sayin’…

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YOU are not awful just because you drink or were a drunk:

Tuesday, March 5th, 2013

Click here to listen to audio of this blog article.

(03/05/13)

I realize that this is a bold statement for me to make. I don’t know YOU personally, so maybe you are an awful person even if you’re sober? And how do I know? Maybe some of the things that you’ve done while drunk may have been quite awful? But I have found that most alcohol abusers are NOT awful people, they just drink too much.

Let me be very clear here. This doesn’t mean that you get a free pass on any of the things you are responsible for doing or causing. My point is that if you keep telling yourself and thinking that you’re rotten, it will take longer to begin being a decent sober person. You may not enjoy your own sobriety and others may not be able to enjoy your sobriety with you if you live under the belief that you are weak, powerless, flawed, awful and rotten.

Your behavior and actions—NOW—will show what you are.

YOU are not awful just because you drink or were a drunk. True, your behavior while drunk may have been reprehensible (and may require restitution), but in a sober state YOU probably would not behave that way. Again, this doesn’t mean that drunken behavior can just be forgiven or overlooked as “drunken behavior,” even if it’s past behavior. The person committing such behavior is responsible for getting drunk in the first place. Alcohol will alter someone’s mental processing, which is why they do stupid drunken shit. So not until the perpetrator has stopped drinking can (or should) forgiveness begin.

One can answer a question (or challenge) in both principle and in practice. However, it’s far easier to answer a question in principle than it is in practice. For instance, I know right from wrong, but whether I do right from wrong is another matter. Most of us instinctively know right from wrong—so deep inside we are good people—but we must apply what we know to show that we are good people.

Alcohol can be the catalyst that brings out the worst in you. If past evidence shows you that you become belligerent or behave in ways you don’t like when you’re drunk, then you know what the right thing to do is. Stopping your destructive drinking is the way to show that you are not an awful person. This may not be easy or fun, but doing the right thing isn’t always easy.

Sobriety in itself will not automatically make you a wonderful person. You may do fewer bad or dumb things as a result of sobriety, but just stopping alcohol consumption will not qualify you for sainthood. Sober people can be just as awful and reprehensible as a drunk. A sober person can lie on their taxes, steal, say hurtful things, get into fights, have affairs and drive like a maniac. They may not drink alcohol but they still have problems with impulse control.

Impulse control is the base of doing right or wrong, for yourself and for others. Lack of impulse control is most likely what got the majority of us drinking or doing drugs in the first place. There may have been outside factors which sparked our “reasons” to self-medicate or to enhance our social behavior with drinking or drugs, but not controlling our impulse to “party like everyone else” is what probably got us started and is the most likely basis behind relapses. So our biggest problem is impulse control, not that we’re rotten.

I believe that the majority of people instinctively know what is right and what is wrong. Many people are influenced by outside sources. Friends, family, advertising, academia and even our government can influence what we believe as right from wrong. Many people will turn to religious teachings to support their belief or give them confirmation on what they feel is right or wrong. For example, Mosaic Law in the Old Testament says, “An eye for an eye.” Whereas Jesus in the New Testament says, “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Instinctively, most of us realize that Moses is referring to judicial law (a crime should be punished), but Jesus is referring to moral and social law (forgive those who may unintentionally or senselessly hurt you). A lot of times, people will adjust and adapt scripture to serve and suite their own purposes. But you know what’s right from wrong. Regardless of what source of reference you use to help guide you, I believe that most of us instinctively know what is right and what is wrong.

And as far as you thinking that you’re an awful person because you were at one time a drunk is a self-imposed prison sentence. It is my belief—and through my own personal experience—that by retaining feelings that you are weak, powerless, flawed, awful, etc., only holds you back from rebuilding your self-esteem and living genuine amends towards the people you care about. You are not awful—you are human and fallible and you will make mistakes—but you are not a flawed and rotten person. Remind yourself of that and behave today like the good, caring and healthy person that you instinctively know you are.

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