How to Avoid Drinking Traps During Dry January (and beyond)

the anonymous mommy

Dry January

“You’re pregnant, aren’t you?”  The first time I was asked this was two weeks after I quit drinking.  It took me completely by surprise because 1) I was at a work event and 2) these people didn’t really know how much I liked my wine because it was a relatively new job.  All they knew was I was in my 30s and had just asked for seltzer rather than gulping the free Pinot Grigio like the other two women who had managed to make it into the room.

I really didn’t want people thinking I was pregnant, and going ahead and having a drink would dispel that pretty quickly.  But I also knew I’d be mad at myself if that was the reason I drank after going two weeks without. I think my reaction at the time was “Uh, no…” with a deer-in-headlights stare. Smooth.

deer in headlights
A deer who thinks you’re an asshole…

Now you may not be planning on staying alcohol-free past January and that’s fine.  For me, I knew I wanted to make it a longer-term commitment, but either way, discussing your drinking habits at a work event is not the best move, professionally.

Deciding to give up alcohol, whether for a period of time or forever is both easier and harder you think it will be.  For most people, it’s physically not that bad and you get over the cravings pretty quickly.  But it is so ingrained in our culture that it can be tricky to learn how to go about life without it.  Slipping up tends to make us beat ourselves up, when the reality is, we just needed to be better prepared.  Here are my favorite ways to be prepared for the tricky drinking pressures that can arise.

The Pregnant Pause

This one is so common I don’t even have the energy to get mad about it anymore.  While I still believe it’s really strange to inquire about the status of another person’s uterus, I’ve come to the conclusion over time that people just get excited about the prospect of babies and aren’t actually trying to ruin my career or “out” me as sober.

colleagues
I swear to God Tim if you don’t stop trying to look at my uterus…

So, in a work situation, I tend to say something like, “Nah, it’s a work event.  I want to be at the top of my game.”  Generally, that will make them insecure enough that they back off, but if they point out that you’ve drank at these things in the past, just say you know that, but you’ve recently realized that you can make these events more useful to your career if you stay sharp.

If it’s someone in your social circle, you can say you are doing Dry January if you want, or you can always just say you are on antibiotics, have to be up early, or just plain, “I don’t feel like it tonight.”  In either situation, if people persist in saying you are pregnant, just shrug and say “Wait nine months.  You’ll see.”  That usually bursts their bubble.

The Party

Who the hell throws a party in January?  Don’t they know everyone is attempting to deprive themselves in some way???  Assholes.

But they do happen.  People still have birthdays and baby showers and engagement parties etc.  Not drinking is no reason to stop celebrating happy moments in the lives of those you love.  Parties are a really neat way to experience a couple of the unexpectedly cool things that happen when you stop drinking:

cupcakes
Plus, there’s always the possibility of cupcakes.

You enjoy people more – I know that sounds really weird, especially as someone with social anxiety I didn’t really believe it at first.  But drinking really took my focus away from the people I loved.  I was busy thinking about drinking.  Thinking about what I would drink, and when I would get the next one. Was I keeping pace with those around me? Could I have as much as I wanted?  How much was weird?  When should I go home?  Etc.

When I took that off the table, I just focused on those around me.  I was able to listen to their stories and keep in the spirit of the thing we were celebrating, whatever it was.

You can catch a buzz off other people – I noticed this after the second party I went to sober.  While laughing and telling stories with some friends who were definitely tipsy, I realized, “I feel a little drunk.  I’m acting a little drunk.”  But not in a bad way.  I was telling stories a little more loudly and laughing a lot.  That was one of my favorite things about drinking.  That feeling of silly reveling.  But that never happened when I did it at home alone.  It turns out it wasn’t the alcohol at all giving me that feeling.  It was people I loved.  Cheesy, yes but a very exciting discovery.

The Friend in Need

So, you’ve been rocking the alcohol-free thing for a week or so and are feeling pretty good, when all of a sudden your best friend texts that she is having a crisis and she is on her way with a couple of bottles of wine.  This is a tough one because you really do want to be supportive, and the last thing you want to do in the midst of her pain is to make her feel guilty for drinking.

I get it, and this may be one of those situations where you feel like you MUST get a pass here right?  Not necessarily.  As someone who has been sober for almost four years, I can tell you that there is no situation that actually requires you to drink.  Your drinking will not make her situation any better.  Your words will.  Your friendship and encouragement will.

friends
Actually, you might not want to send that text…

This is a boundaries thing. It is not selfish to say you don’t want a drink.  I do like to have some good dark chocolate or ice cream around so I can offer that if they don’t want to drink around me but do want to indulge.  Or hell if it makes me feel better to have some Godiva while they drink their wine, so I don’t feel deprived, so be it.  (Sugar, though it’s another devil, can be a useful thing in the early stages of quitting drinking.  It lessens the cravings for alcohol.)

If this is your best friend or a close friend, hopefully, you can feel comfortable telling them you aren’t drinking right now.  Sometimes we don’t’ want to tell our closest people because we don’t want to be embarrassed if we fail.  But these are the people who are rooting for you to win.  They won’t judge you.  They will try to help you.  Let them.

Tell them you are 100% here for them and to come in and tell you all about what happened to them.  When they indicate the wine, that’s your cue to say, “I’m taking a little break from drinking right now.  It’s just a month but it’s important to me.  I think it will make me feel better.  You go ahead though!”  Then shift the focus back to them.  Your support and camaraderie will be the same as if you were drinking.  It’s like what I said above about catching a buzz.  You will act that way out of habit.  But maybe a little bit less sloppy.  A little bit less selfish.

90% of the time this will be enough.  Unfortunately, if you happen to be someone who is only friends with other heavy drinkers, sometimes they will fight you a little bit on it.  This says more about them than it does about you.  People who are concerned about their own drinking may start pressuring you or justifying their drinking.  For those people, I always just said, “Oh you should do whatever works for you!  For me, this is what feels best right now.”  If they can see that you are not judging them, they will usually relax.  (Note – for this to work, you sincerely need to be NOT judging them.   Keep your eyes on your own paper, so to speak.)

The shitacular day

But what about when you are the one in crisis?  Sometimes you just have one of those days where you step in a slush puddle on your way to work and everything goes downhill from there.  Every tiny thing goes wrong and your children are being less than magical to boot.  You finally get them to bed with the ease of bathing a feral cat and you feel like you just fucking deserve a drink.

I get it.  I really do.  Your nerves feel fried and you just want to soften the edges of everything.  Or maybe black it out altogether and start again tomorrow.

This is where you need to know what else makes you feel better.  Sometimes that involves trying some new things.  I personally think you can’t go wrong with a bath and a call or text to your best friend.  But it’s also really helpful to have someone who knows you aren’t drinking and who can support you in that.  If you don’t feel comfortable telling your friends and family, there are so many amazing resources online.  Instagram has actually become a surprise favorite of mine.  Look up hashtags like #sobermom #soberissexy #sobriety #wearetheluckiest  #sobercurious You can also find me on there @theanonymousmommmy and check out some of the people I follow.

Get a little encouragement and it can get you through the day.

Why it’s worth it

Drinking has a cumulative effect on the brain.  You are pouring a depressive on it every time you do it, and over time, drinkers experience higher levels of depression and anxiety.  Beyond the repairs happening in your liver, your limbic system, etc., you just start feeling a whole lot happier.  Like, ridiculously happy.  You may not be able to stop talking about it.

Do you remember how as a kid you had a ton of energy and used to get randomly excited about small things?  That comes back.  And you start doing more.  You go to places other than bars.  You do silly things like bowling or mini-golfing, or beautiful things like going to a botanical garden or a museum.

Child laughing

Or just hanging at home with your kids starts to become really enjoyable.  Because you aren’t watching the clock, waiting for them to go to bed so you can drink.  You aren’t waiting for the fun and relaxation because they are the fun and relaxation.

This may all sound ridiculous and exhausting right now, but it’s right around the corner.  I hope I’ve made it a little easier for you to get there.  I have three more posts coming to take you through the rest of the month (and maybe beyond?) so be sure to subscribe below so you don’t miss out!

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The nice girl’s guide to setting boundaries

the anonymous mommy

setting boundaries

Setting boundaries has never been my strong suit. If someone needed help with something, I was always first to volunteer. If someone asked me a favor, of course I was going to help them out. That’s just being a nice person, isn’t it?

If I felt constantly overwhelmed, well didn’t all women feel that way? If I don’t feel that way, I must not be doing my share.

doormat

What held me back the most was the rationale that I wasn’t being nice if I said no to something. So I would take on whatever people heaped on me with a smile, all the time getting more and more pissed off.   I just didn’t want to be mean. The key to learning to set boundaries for me was figuring out that it could be done kindly.

For clarification, a boundary needs to be set when you have been doing one or both of these:

  • Tolerating behavior that you don’t like, and
  • Taking on tasks that are not your responsibility

Too many of us are falling into this trap. I have only in the last few years learned to say no, and it’s something that saves my health and my sanity on a regular basis.

Motherhood

Motherhood both stripped me of the most basic boundaries I had and showed me that I needed to create new ones.  A baby has zero boundaries.  Hell, they take over your whole body and push your organs out of the way!  Once they are born, their needs are not optional.  They are 100% dependent on you to survive, and they have zero fucks to give about what you intended to do today.  Since you cannot tell your baby that this isn’t a convenient time for you, some other people’s needs are going to have to be reprioritized.  No matter how much of a people pleaser you are, you can’t keep saying yes to everything that you did before.  Your energy is a resource and it needs to be rationed.

baby
Ahem.

When is setting boundaries necessary?

There’s a shortcut to figuring out where you need to set a boundary, and that is if you are feeling resentful. This is a clue that you have said yes to something that you really should have said no to. Sometimes this feels ridiculous, like telling a relative that you don’t appreciate them insulting you, but what can I say? Sometimes people are clueless or just don’t think. And they won’t get it until you tell them.

If you haven’t been saying no to being treated this way, you’ve been saying yes. I understand why. Sometimes it feels easier to grit your teeth through it than to turn it into a whole big thing. But it doesn’t have to be a scene. It can be a surprisingly easy conversation.

I have been completely astounded by what I have been able to remove from my plate by doing this:

  • I no longer answer an email the second it comes in. In fact, I close my inbox for large parts of the day. I don’t respond after business hours except in an emergency. (And yes, I have a corporate job. )
  • People have stopped saying hurtful things to me once they realized that what they were saying bothered me
  • I only cook a few days a week. When I feel like it.

And the same people still like me. I even get more respect at work!

What do I say?

Setting a boundary is not the same as snapping. It’s not finally having enough of your colleague’s dumping work on you and screaming, “Screw you and the horse you rode in on!!!”

horse
How did I come into it?

But how do you say no without all of a sudden seeming like you aren’t a team player?

First offense

It’s far easier to set a boundary the first time. Nip that shit in the bud.

spray bottle
Effective perhaps, but not exactly subtle

If someone asks you to do something you don’t want to do, simply say, “I’m sorry, I can’t.” Don’t elaborate. If they press you, just say, “I have too much on my plate right now.” If you add details, they will start trying to offer “helpful suggestions” as to how you might be able to squeeze it in. Don’t give them that window.  Asked and answered.

If it’s someone saying something that bothers you, call it out. This is HARD for me, but I’m learning. Instead of laughing it off, if it’s someone I generally like, I’ll say something like “Ouch. Jeez.” This will usually cause them to backpedal.   If it’s someone I don’t like, I’ll just say, “What do you mean by that?” followed by raised eyebrows and silence. It usually brings the conversation to a screeching halt and makes the person feel awkward as hell.

Ongoing behavior

So that’s all well and good, but what about the things you haven’t nipped in the bud.   Things that are so long-running they have become an expectation? This is a little more work but doesn’t have to be a huge blowout. A good script is:

I know in the past I’ve _____________________________. I’m afraid I just can’t do that anymore. My plate is too full (OR when you say X I feel Y.) I’m not saying it’s your fault because I’ve never said anything about it before. But it’s just something I can’t deal with anymore. I hope you can respect that.

For a while, I would quake in my boots as I said this kind of thing. My heart still races a bit when I do. What if they say no? What if they yell? What if I cry? Or worse, what if I chicken out?

Michelle Obama and the Dalai Lama

I knew that if I tried to do this off the cuff, I would stumble and apologize my way through it. Not terribly effective. So I asked myself, “What would someone who really had their shit together say? Like how would Michelle Obama set a boundary?” Like a goddam queen that’s how. She’d be kind, but dignified and clear. She would expect her boundary to be accepted.

And so sometimes I still pretend I’m her when I have to set a boundary. Yes, it may be somewhat ridiculous, but it gives me the confidence boost to actually do it instead of just imagining scathing conversations putting the person in their place and hoping they figure it out through telepathy.

michelle obama
I’m going to have to pass…

And your nice girl chops can actually help you here. Kindness can be a huge part of setting boundaries that work. Your compassion and empathy are a tool here. It is possible that the person you are setting the boundary with will balk slightly. No one wants to think that they have been making you feel bad, or that they can’t have from you what they always had. They may get defensive.

Don’t take the bait. Have compassion for them. Think Dalai Lama. You are asking them to exert more effort now. Instead of spilling out all the resentment you have had building up, try to see their side.  Be supportive of them.

dalai lama
You need to back off asshole.

This may seem counterintuitive, but most of the time, if you show people you are really on their side, you will end up with a better relationship because of it. If they see you aren’t blaming them, just asking something different of them, it’s usually a much smoother ride.

This does not need to be a big confrontation.   It’s just a conversation between two people. You are stating what is going on with you. They will state their feeling on it. You will try to figure out how to fit the pieces together better so that you are both heard.

Tricky. Very tricky.

Something came up when I tried to find out what my part was in all this. It was happening repeatedly, so clearly I had something to do with it beyond bad luck. When I dug below the surface a bit, I realized that weak boundaries are really a sneaky manifestation of low self-esteem. Even if you thought you left all that in high school, what greater barometer is there than believing someone else’s wants are more important than your own?

So why did I do things I didn’t want to? I wanted people to like me. I still do. But it turns out that’s not a terribly effective way to get them to like who you really are. I remember trying to make the popular girls like me in sixth grade by giving them candy. It worked for a week. Then they decided it was kind of pathetic. It was a lesson I should have learned then, but if people don’t like you for who you are, giving them things isn’t going to to do either. Sure, they may see you as USEFUL, but who wants to be used?

Think about the people you like. Do you like them because they give you stuff or do things for you? No, you like them because of their great sense of humor or how interesting they are, or maybe they inspire you in some way. You have those qualities too, and your tribe will like you for them. But it’s hard to shine when you are buried under the weight of everyone else’s expectations.

Oh, I’m fine.

Another side of this was that I didn’t tend to ask others for help, and if I did, I felt terrible about it. I would ask for help only in desperate situations and say, “It’s really no big deal if you can’t do it.” I figured they were just like me and would know that if I was saying something, it was serious.  I also assumed they resented the hell out of it.

stuck dog
Only if you’re not busy with something else.

This is not honest. This is not fair. And it is not how I would want others to treat me.

If someone says to me, “Look, I feel like I’m drowning. I really need your help with this. Would you mind?” It actually makes me feel good to help them out, even if it means taking on a bit more work.   Asking in this way shows trust and vulnerability. It calls on friendship, rather than asking someone to be your personal assistant.

Apparently, there are people out there who ask things of others and 100% expect the other person to say no if they don’t want to do it. This was shocking to me. But it also struck me as really reasonable and fair.

Toddlers

So what if you enforce a boundary, and someone breaks it? You need to follow through. If it’s something that they have gotten away with before, you probably will have to show them you mean business. That means NOT caving and saying yes to things you don’t want to do. It means walking away from someone if they say something rude. You don’t need to yell. Just remind them, either with your words or your actions, “We’re not doing that anymore. Remember?” You have to think of them like a toddler.

angry toddler
Actually, I think I’m being quite reasonable about this.

Toddlers are the ultimate litmus test of whether you can hold a boundary. They will test and test and test your limits. I have created a monster at times because I didn’t want to make my son sad, so I failed to follow through on a boundary I set. “Okay if you throw Elmo out of the bed again, I’m not coming back in here to put him back in… ”

Anonymous toddler waits 30 seconds. Throws Elmo. Cries. Very loudly. All I want is to eat some dinner. Hoping it will be the end of it, I go back in and replace the smelly red creature. “I mean it this time. No throw! I’m serious!” But I have now taught my son that I will not follow through. He proceeds to try every trick in the book to avoid going to sleep. If I had just let Elmo sit there and suffered through ten minutes of grief over it, I would have saved myself weeks of headaches.

The lesson? Grit your teeth and follow through.

Start small

This is some advanced level adulting. I don’t pretend it’s easy. It’s not something where you can flip a switch and BOOM! You take no more bullshit! If you’re feeling nervous then start small. Don’t march into your family holiday party ready to tell your mother everything she’s ever done that bothered you. I like to think of it like a video game from the 90s. Slay a few easy bosses. Work your way up to the big ones.

Tell the barista that no, you didn’t order skim milk, and yes, you would like a new one.

latte
Mmm. Tastes like concession.

Actually say what you want for dinner tonight rather than saying, “Whatever you want.”

Every time you stand up for what you want, it’s a win. I’m not saying you should never compromise. I’m saying it shouldn’t be your default setting.

A longer view

I’m not perfect at this by any means. I’m just learning.  But it’s given me a sense of freedom I never had before.  And it’s something I want to keep working on to model for my son. Not only so he learns how to set his own boundaries, but so that he can see in action that women DO say “No” to things, and that “No” must be respected.”

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