Trust is this invisible thing that holds families and societies together. It allows people to count on each other. When you have it, you don’t think too much about it. But when you lose it, you start questioning everything.
Could we trust these strangers in our house?
Could I believe my husband?
And you: Can you trust me? What if I’m one of those unreliable narrators? What if I’ve conjured up one or more of these characters in my head? I promise you I haven’t, but why should you believe me?
When I was a kid, I thought my life was pretty normal. When you feel safe and solid, you don’t think to yourself, I feel safe. You just feel that way. For seventeen years, it never crossed my mind that I might be standing on a rotting foundation.
Sure, I wished my dad were around more. He stayed late at the office a lot and went on frequent work trips. But he consistently showed up for my school choir concerts. He was the one who encouraged me to try out for solos. When I started acting in musicals, too, he was so proud of me and always brought flowers to my performances.
On the day I was leaving for college, my dad was supposed to be there to say good-bye, but he couldn’t get back in time from a conference. My mom sat down next to me on my bed, packed suitcases and boxes at our feet.
“I hate having to tell you this, but I think it’s time you knew,” she said. “Your dad has been having affairs for years. Whenever he’s late or stuck somewhere, it’s usually another woman. He’s probably with the latest one right now.”
“Wait, what?! You’re kidding, right?”
“I should have left him years ago, but I couldn’t. I kept thinking he would come to his senses and stop. But it’s just who he is.”
“How do you know?”
“Oh, Elise, I’m not going to present you with the evidence. But I could. He knows that I know. We’ve fought about it many times.”
How had I missed all this? I felt so stupid. And betrayed.
She went on: “He won’t deny it if you ask him. I told your brother two years ago before he went to college, and your dad came clean to Matt when he asked.”
“You told Matt two years ago?” Suddenly Matt’s emotional distance since going away made sense.
“I didn’t want to tell you then. You had two years of high school left, and it was so important to you when Dad came to your performances. I couldn’t destroy that.”
“So, you just destroyed it in retrospect,” I hissed. Tears were streaming down my face. I was gasping for air and thought I might pass out.
“We both love you, Elise. Nothing can change that. Your dad is still your dad.”
Mom put her arm around my shoulder, and I threw it off.
“You do know that I have friends coming to pick me up for a three-hour drive, right? Great timing, Mom.”
“I think it’s best this way. Now, if you don’t want to talk to me or your dad for however long, we won’t all be under the same roof.”
On the drive to school, I cried and cried to my two best friends. We all shared a dorm room, and they had to deal with me on many a sad, drunken night. I almost flunked out that first year, but eventually I got my act together.
I never really stopped talking to my parents. I refused to confront my dad about it, and he said nothing, either. I did talk with my brother. Matt told me he had decided to cut them both out of his life entirely. He hated Dad and he couldn’t stand that Mom was putting up with this shit, even after we had both left home.
When I was 21, Matt broke off contact with me. He thought I was still trying to win Dad’s approval. He called me pathetic. It’s been a little over ten years since we’ve spoken.
Mom and Dad still live together, but their marriage is over. It’s just a convenience thing, them sharing the house. It’s a miserable place to visit, so I go for a couple days once a year at most. Mom drinks a lot. She often asks about Matt; she can’t believe he’s not talking to me. Dad, on the other hand, seems light and free. I guess he finally has full permission to do as he pleases.
Sometimes I wonder how many half-siblings I might have out there. Is Jocelyn a child of my dad’s, here to check me out? If so, why go to all this trouble? Why not just send me an email, or knock on the door and say, hi there, I think I’m your sister?
When trust has been yanked away from you so unexpectedly, so completely, it makes you suspicious. Anything becomes possible. Everything is on the table.
“Jocelyn, where are the kids?” Dean asked.
“They’re in the den, watching a movie.”
“I’d like to check on them.”
Dean and Jocelyn looked at each other, and after what could have been years, she went over to the bench and helped him get up. He was limping as they shuffled off to the den.
I grabbed my snow boots from the coat closet next to the bench and put them on as quickly as possible.
“I’m going to clear off the steps,” I announced and dashed out the door.
The snow was falling thick, creating an eerie silence. I looked left and right—where was our damn shovel? I gave up and clomped up the stairs as quick as I could. Up at street level I saw one car, maybe an SUV, parked in the driveway of our weekends-only neighbor. The car had a lot of snow on it. Too much snow on the hood for it to have been opened recently, at least in my estimation. And there was no sign of the mechanic’s vehicle.
I had left Jack alone in the house with those people. What if Dean was faking his injury?
I ran back down the steps, almost falling myself.
Jack and the mechanic were still standing there, and Jocelyn and Dean were just coming back into the foyer.
“Elise, did you go for a little walk?” Jocelyn asked.
“I was going to shovel the stairs,” I said, realizing how ridiculous I looked, covered in snow, with boots on, but no hat, coat, or gloves. “But I changed my mind.”
Jocelyn started to say something, and I cut her off.
“I think it’s time for all of you to go,” I said, shaking from the cold and the adrenaline surging through my body. I was afraid to kick them out, and I was afraid to let them stay one minute longer.
“Look, Elise, I can explain,” Jocelyn said.
“Explain what, Jocelyn?”
This time Jack cut her off: “No need to explain, just leave, please.”
“We can’t do that, Jack.”
Dean growled, “Let’s just go, Jocelyn. You’ve messed around here long enough, and now I’m hurt, and there’s a ton of snow on the ground. Let’s get the kids and go.”
“No!” Jocelyn shook her head and scrunched up her face. “We won’t be leaving until I get what I came for.”
I love analogies and metaphors. By translating abstract concepts into relatable situations, analogies promote understanding. Analogies and metaphors typically work best when they use everyday examples. Like a worn-out couch.
Imagine you have a sofa in your living room that is faded and sagging. It’s uncomfortable to sit on and stuffing is poking out of the arms.
But this couch has sentimental value. You’ve had it for a long time—perhaps it’s the first nice sofa you ever bought, or maybe your grandparents gave it to you.
You know you need to replace this couch, so if you’re anything like me, you do one of two things…
A) After an embarrassing incident when a visiting relative struggled to extricate themselves from your sofa’s caved-in cushions, you banish it to an extra room or the garage. You now have one chair in your living room and a big empty space. You know you need to go buy a new couch, and you realize that if you keep putting off this task, you’ll be tempted to drag that dilapidated old thing back into the living room. Still, you procrastinate.
B) You go furniture shopping and fall in love with a snazzy new sofa. You purchase it, and the salesperson tells you it will be delivered in four weeks. You have plenty of time to make room for the new couch, right? But you put it off, and the next thing you know the furniture store is calling to set up a time to deliver your new sofa tomorrow, and your old one is still sitting right there.
In both cases, your shabby couch may be a reminder of good times, but it’s not doing its job anymore. At the same time, you have a living room with the appropriate amount of space for one couch. Zero couches will only work for so long, and two couches won’t work at all.
If you haven’t already guessed, the decrepit sofa in my story is a stand-in for any counter-productive behavior that is taking up space in your life. Like, say, social media scrolling, maxing out your credit cards, or gossiping. You may be well aware that you need to scale back or quit this habit entirely. But if you give it up without a plan for how to reallocate all the time and energy it’s been sucking up, you might find yourself right back where you started, like the couch-banisher in scenario A.
Or maybe you do have something you’ve been dreaming about—traveling the world, learning how to play the guitar, or starting a small business. Like the couch-shopper in scenario B, you have to make space in your life for this passion, otherwise where will you put it?
A little over three years ago I realized I was living in scenario B. My writing had been pushed aside while I drank wine and watched TV. I finally had to ditch alcohol and reduce my media consumption to make time for my writing and all the other things I wanted to do.
If you can relate to situation A or B, I’m pretty sure there’s an amazing new couch waiting for you. But you have to do the work of finding it and clearing the way.
A couple weeks ago I woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t get back to sleep. I grabbed my Kindle from the nightstand and opened the book I had started a couple days earlier. I looked in the bottom left corner and saw I was at 24% complete. Ugh, I needed to pick up my pace and read about 20% per day if I wanted to finish the book by the middle of January.
My long-form reading has been pretty unimpressive of late. To be honest, I’ve only read a handful of books each year since the late 1990s.
So, I promised myself that in 2020 I would try to read two books a month. Goals like this bring out my insecurities and compulsive tendencies. There I was, huddled under my covers with the soft glow of the Kindle in front of me, obsessing about my reading progress rather than enjoying the book itself.
Anything you can count or weigh or otherwise quantify has the potential to make me anxious. Last fall I read Twyla Tharp’s “The Creative Habit” (ummm, most of it). In the book, Tharp recommends taking a break for one week from looking at anything that involves numbers, like checking the time or monitoring your bank balance. When I read that, I was aghast—how in the heck would I do that for even half a day let alone a week.
Here are just a few examples of how tracking and measuring infect my daily life:
– If I have to be somewhere at a certain time, I will write out the tasks I have to do before leaving the house, scheduling them down to the minute—I’m talking showering, eating, getting dressed, and so forth. Veering off the timeline makes my jittery.
– I often review my personal growth, recounting the month and year when I quit smoking, the month and year when I started eating healthier, the month and year I originated my blog, and on and on. This might lead me to congratulate myself, but it can also trigger thoughts that I’m not moving fast enough. What exactly have I done for me lately?
– My brain is frequently in the process of making a deal with itself. I may look normal on the outside, but on the inside, I am calculating how many cookies I’m allowed to eat based on whether I had dessert last night. Or assessing my recent expenses and promising to do better. Or thinking about all the chores I need to do and bargaining for some free time with the hard-nosed project manager living in my head.
– I step on the scale every morning. I might weigh myself three or four times until I finally accept the best number. In the app linked with my scale, I often delete numbers I don’t like, so long as the overall trend isn’t compromised. The line chart that displays my weight over the past couple years is a frequent source of consternation.
– When I divide up the lunches that my husband and I make for the week, I weigh each container of food (in grams, of course, because it’s more precise) to make sure they are as close as possible to being equal (his portions weighing more than mine but equal to each other). I’ve gotten better about not doing this, but I haven’t completely abandoned the habit just yet.
This kind of thinking and activity has kept me in an almost constant state of agitation for ages. I set lofty (or even reasonable) goals and then make myself queasy because I’m afraid I’ll come up short. Then I distract myself from the steps necessary to achieve such goals, thus fulfilling my fear of failure.
But…I’m breaking this cycle, which I acknowledge will be a lifelong undertaking. For example: My previous blog post before this one was July of last year. What?! When I realized this fact in December, my heart sank. I should hurry and get a piece posted before the end of 2019, I told myself. When that didn’t happen, I decided I should definitely get a piece posted during the first week of January. All of this negotiating with myself had my stomach in knots.
I took a deep breath and conceded, “I’ll get to it when I get to it.” Why set unnecessary deadlines for myself? Life has plenty of time limits that we have little to no control over. Why create more of them?
Balance is key here. On the one hand, I spent many years procrastinating and not following my dreams—it’s good that I’m expanding my horizons and trying new things. On the other hand, I have to be patient with myself and ease up on the internal pressure.
My plan to start a kombucha business is fertile testing ground for promoting this kind of harmony in my life. Recently, I gave myself permission to back off from the original launch date I set for the business. I’m still proceeding with the numerous tasks that need to be checked off to get up and running. But I’m moving at a pace that suits me right now. I’m not going to worry about all the other people who launch businesses in less time or how old I’m getting (aargh, another number!) or any other measurements that suggest I’m not a “winner.”
When I was a kid, my mother was often running late, which meant I was often late to school events, dates with friends, etc. I remember feeling panicked and humiliated at keeping other people waiting or being the last person to walk into a room. This dread followed me into adulthood.
These days, I tell my 80-year-old mom not to hurry. No sense in putting her safety at risk by rushing around. People can wait. Being a little late is not the end of the world.
I’m taking my own advice and finding a way to advance without all the angst. Rather than dashing toward some contrived finish line in my mind, I’m focusing on being calm, living in the moment, and savoring every step.
As Laura McKowen says in the book that I did finish this month at my own speed: “The process has been the gift.”
My unfurling is at its best when I slow down and stop counting.
Have you ever seen a movie that takes place over the course of one long and eventful day? And did you notice that the main character does more in that single day than you typically do in a whole week?
You may have rolled your eyes at movies like this, as I did, scoffing at the likelihood of accomplishing so much in 24 hours or less.
I used to experience “movie days” maybe once a year, proudly completing a ridiculous number of tasks and visiting numerous locations. Now I have them all the time. Well, maybe not all the time, but far more frequently.
What kind of Hollywood magic caused this shift to happen?
I gave alcohol the boot. Showed it the door and waved bye-bye.
A Quick Flashback Montage
Two years ago, I quit drinking because I wanted more from my life. And I got it! My life has opened up, expanded, and wandered onto strange new paths. Clearing alcohol out of my life created time, space, and energy I didn’t know I had.
For the record: Starting in the fall of 2017, I took an intensive six-month writing workshop that helped me develop a book proposal and encouraged me to start using my Instagram account as a mini blog. I followed that up with some freelance writing on sobriety for which I got paid.
About a year ago, I left my full-time job and am currently exploring a new chapter in my career, working at a local fitness studio. My husband and I just started our own communications business, and we hope to launch our own kombucha brand in 2020. Over the last two years, I’ve managed several large home improvement projects at our house, with another one just about to start.
Pilates, yoga, and meditation are now regular practices in my life, and I’ve tried all sorts of new activities, including indoor rock climbing, zip lining, flotation therapy, tai chi, and indoor skydiving.
During this “unfurling” (as I like to call it), I’ve accumulated many insights. Two big ones keep reverberating in my head, my heart, and my bones, and I’d like to share them in honor of my second anniversary of sobriety.
One: You don’t have to be on the brink of disaster to quit drinking.
For decades, I drank the way lots of people drink—to unwind, to celebrate, to connect. I loved the warm space that alcohol created inside and around me. It was a place where I felt safe and accepted. Where I knew the terrain.
I turned to alcohol for fun, escape, and relaxation. But it made my life repetitious and hazy. Like driving home from work only to realize that you barely recall the drive because you’ve done it so many times.
Abandoning an action that I knew so well, that I relied on, was going to be difficult. Not because I was physically addicted, but because I was emotionally addicted. Since I was a teen, alcohol had provided me with a go-to set of emotions, like a special box of crayons with colors more vivid and muted at the same time.
All those years my life was pretty darn good: I loved, and I laughed, and I did some awesome stuff. But the drinking, oddly enough, was like a cork on my very essence—keeping my spirit bottled up.
With the cork removed, so much more energy, so much more life flows out. I want to explore and try and dare. I’m doing it, but I’m still fearful sometimes. In sudden moments, my jittery, exposed nerves cry out for the dull plug of alcohol.
I imagine what it would be like to once again sit down in a comfortable bar with good friends and down glass after glass of white wine. To let the minutes and hours slip away. To blur the edges. To collapse into myself.
The urge usually goes away pretty quickly, and I’m left wondering if this feeling will keep popping up out of nowhere for the rest of my life.
If it does, it’s a small price to pay for the life I’m living now.
In our society, people don’t typically quit drinking unless alcohol consumption is really messing with their lives. If your livelihood, health, or life is on the line, it’s acceptable and even expected that you do whatever it takes to sober up.
But we don’t talk much about choosing to give up booze the same way you might decide to join a gym, take vitamins, study a new language, or start traveling more—as a way to get healthier and expand your horizons.
Well, I’m here to tell you that it can be an amazing decision that you make for yourself without having to teeter on the edge first.
But to get the most out of the experience, you do have to “do the work” as they say. Which brings me to the second important lesson I’ve learned…
Two: It’s not really about alcohol.
Since I was a girl, I’ve had a basket full of personal issues. None of them ever exploded into full-blown disorders or addictions or whatever you want to call them. But they all worked together to keep me consistently distracted from the self-doubt and anxiety that haunted me.
When you eliminate alcohol, you’ll likely discover, as I did, that there are lots of other bad habits waiting in the wings ready and willing to take the place of drinking. You must be willing to uncover and interrogate the thoughts and emotions behind these behaviors.
Getting sober is about so much more than gritting your teeth as you pass by the liquor store. It’s an opportunity, and I would argue a privilege, to get to know yourself better. To figure out how to live a different kind of life—a more mindful and intentional life.
I should note that I did not go to Alcoholics Anonymous or any other program (I attended exactly one Refuge Recovery meeting). Each one of us should find the support system that works best for us. I did turn to a number of websites, blogs, podcasts, and books to help me with my journey, and I still read and listen to a number of them. The sober community on Instagram also offers great encouragement.
Here are just a few of the additional obstacles that I’ve been addressing:
Television was my first true love before drinking came along. Someone else’s life was always more funny, glamorous, or admirable than my own. Then the internet, social media, and smartphones came along to gobble up even more of my attention. I’ve made huge strides in this area recently because I’ve finally accepted that if I want to achieve my goals, the screens must fade into the background.
Body image, food, and weight also dominated my mind from an early age. My weight has gone up and down, up and down—and it has the power to bring me to tears. I’ve finally found a way of eating and a form of exercise that together keep me healthy. But I still step on the scale religiously every morning and fret about going over some completely arbitrary number.
Shopping because I’m bored or I need a quick hit of gratification is a deep-rooted habit. Then, after spending too much money, I obsess about the financial ruin I’m certain is right around the corner. This issue requires firm boundaries and tight policing and will probably always be a struggle.
There’s more. So much more. Apparently, I spent the first 50 years of my life accumulating a lengthy list of short-term coping mechanisms and unhealthy attachments. Now, I plan to spend the rest of my years keeping ineffective diversions at bay while focusing on long-term, constructive answers to my angst.
Leading a sober life doesn’t have to be a punishment or an ending. If you see it as a beginning, as just the first step in an amazing journey, so much can unfold.
These days, I’m not just having “movie days.” The overall plot of my life is going through a welcome reboot. Directed by me, not alcohol.
Saturation Point – My first post about sobriety; includes links to lots of great resources
My mother fell about a month ago. I was there by her side, but I didn’t have a good grasp of her hand, and suddenly she was falling, and there was nothing I could do.
She hit her head hard, so we called 911, and the paramedics took her to the hospital. Everything checked out okay, but a day later her face looked like she went 12 rounds in a boxing ring.
For the past four weeks now, when we go to one of her doctor’s appointments, I make sure our fingers are intertwined as we walk to and from the car. The intimacy of this hand-holding is almost unbearable—it exposes a vulnerability I’d rather not acknowledge. And it harkens back to childhood and innocence, before our roles were reversed.
Last summer my mom’s kidney doctor began preparing us for the fact that she would need to start dialysis treatments in about six months’ time.
Anyone caring for an aging parent or seriously ill family member knows the feeling that comes with this moment. Life is about to change, and your control over it is precarious.
My entire body clenched, and I was immediately transported back 10 years, to when my mother still lived hundreds of miles away.
“My doctor says I’m going to need dialysis soon,” she told me on the phone in 2008. When she was a young girl, an appendix operation had revealed that one of my mom’s kidneys was not functioning and would need to be removed. I was aware that my mother’s single kidney would eventually wear out, but I was hoping it would be much later in life.
She added: “I’m not going on dialysis. My friend Carol told me terrible things about it, and I won’t do it.”
“So, you’re just going to let yourself die?” I asked. No answer.
I realized that I would need to make a swift and assured transformation from apprehensive daughter to protective parent figure.
I went to visit Mom in Georgia, so we could see her nephrologist together. I had previously tried to communicate with this doctor via phone and email about the status of my mother’s condition, but all I got was an envelope in the mail containing a printed page about kidney disease that I could have Googled myself.
In person, the doctor assured me that dialysis was not yet on the horizon. My mother had misinterpreted or imagined the whole thing. Relieved as I was, I did not see this misunderstanding as an encouraging sign.
I went back to Maryland and tried to put my concerns out of mind. There was no health emergency to speak of, and I hoped that I could continue to monitor the situation long distance.
A year later my mother confessed on a call that she had not left her apartment in over a week, and no one in the senior living facility had noticed. No friends or family in the area had called to check on her. When I was in my teens, my mother had suffered a severe depression, and I feared that she could be on the brink of another major episode.
My husband and I had a long talk that night. I was in my early 40s at the time, which seemed too young to be taking in a not-quite-elderly parent. My husband and I had been married less than two years. We had just bought our first house together, and we were enjoying being homeowners. Together, alone.
I was anxious at the prospect of my physically and emotionally demanding mother coming to live with us. Would it be a disaster from the start? Would I fall apart? Would my spouse slowly grow to resent me over the years?
My husband and I will never know if we made the “right” decision. To this day, eight years later, I occasionally review the pros and cons. And on most days, I conclude that the choice we made makes the most sense. But sometimes, when Mom calls upstairs at midnight to ask if we have an extra roll of toilet paper, I entertain second thoughts.
Acting as my mother’s health advocate, which is akin to a part-time job, is certainly easier with her under our roof. I manage her medications and go with her on all doctor’s appointments, taking detailed notes. Fitting her care into my work schedule is challenging and requires an understanding employer.
My mother has had three long hospital and rehabilitation stays and numerous out-patient procedures since she came to live with us. Both of her knees have been replaced (at the same time!), and a few years later she fell and broke a hip.
My heart goes out to every caregiver who has ever stalked the hospital halls looking for a nurse who has time to listen, who has worried about how many painkillers their parent is taking, or questioned if they should call the doctor’s answering service yet again.
When dealing with a family member with long-term health issues, self-care is critical. Caregivers must be proactive about their own health and well-being.
In addition to making sure I don’t put off my check-ups, I try to exercise, meditate, and spend time outdoors regularly. Writing and other forms of creative expression are real sanity savers. And sometimes, I simply need to be alone, even if it’s just to go shopping by myself.
My husband has been patient, and I am grateful that he is so supportive. But I can’t take his kindness for granted—I must prioritize partner-care alongside self-care. Is our relationship strong enough to weather any condition? We’re about to find out, because the storm is a comin’.
This time my mother’s kidney really is failing, and she has agreed to go on dialysis. Mom and I have attended a class, and she has been through multiple procedures to prepare for the upcoming treatments.
I will soon explore support groups for caregivers, and I have committed to start putting “me time” on the calendar so I remember to relax, reflect, and recharge.
At the top of my list is boundaries. I have never been very good at drawing and patrolling a proper perimeter between the two of us. Much like our hands when we walk to the car, our lives have become unavoidably entangled.
But as every good caregiver should, I will now strive to steady my mom while keeping my own feet firmly on the ground.
Recently a friend shared a clip on Facebook about the secret to living longer. In the TED Talks video, Susan Pinker claims that social integration is the top factor associated with a long life. She describes this practice as “how much you interact with people as you move through your day . . . not just the people you’re really close to who mean a lot to you, but do you talk to the guy who everyday makes you your coffee, do you talk to the postman, do you talk to the woman who walks by your house everyday with her dog…?”
My first thought was, OMG my mom is going to live forever. You see, my mother talks to strangers. All the time. Sometimes this practice is charming, and sometimes it’s not.
Whenever we go to one of our favorite pizza places, mom stops the manager as we are leaving to compliment their hard-working wait staff. Sweet, right?
Then there’s the time we were on a road trip and stopped to use a public restroom. A woman close to my mother’s age was brushing her hair, and as she stepped away from the mirror, my mom said, “You look beautiful.” The woman laughed at the unexpected compliment and said thank you.
If the scene had ended there, it would have been a nice moment between two 70-something women. But as the other woman turned to exit, my mom added, “Now you’re supposed to say the same to me.” Ugh.
Most of us start out adult life confident that we will never turn into our mother or father. Most of us—possibly all of us—are proven wrong eventually. If you are vehemently disagreeing with me right now, let that resistance go.
Maybe you won’t actually become one or both of your parents. But one day you will hear that goofy expression of your dad’s come out of your mouth. Or you will catch yourself doing that thing with the paper towels that your mom always does.
I was close with my mom when I was growing up, a closeness that sometimes felt more like a straightjacket than a hug. There was no dad or significant other to act as a buffer, and her emotional state was loosely knitted together. I loved her, but I was eager to wriggle out of the grasp she had on my life. As soon as I graduated college, I moved a thousand miles away in an effort to build an identity separate from her.
From most angles, it appears that I’ve succeeded. Our lives have been quite different, and our personalities even more so. When my mother first moved in with me and my husband seven years ago, I became assured that I was thoroughly unlike her.
Mom arrived in our state with a driver’s license and Social Security card that had different last names on them. It took us at least five trips to the department of motor vehicles, plus a trip to the Social Security office, before she finally got her new driver’s license. About a month later, mom informed me that she had lost this license. The birth certificate we had to order online was also missing the next time we needed it.
I, on the other hand, work hard to stay organized and feel itchy at the thought of not being able to find something.
Not long ago, my mother was out with a friend shopping and, on impulse, she purchased a mattress and box spring. She did not need them, nor did she have the money for them. She opened a credit card at the store, even though she knew that she wasn’t supposed to apply for any new credit cards. It took me endless calls and tweets to get the order canceled.
Meanwhile, I grow sweaty upon making major purchases and avoid going into debt at all costs.
My mom has been banned from watching football with my husband because she mostly reads magazines and then looks up and asks what just happened—repeatedly.
She talks over doctors and nurses as if she knows what they are going to say. She doesn’t really listen to them, which is why I always go along to take notes.
My mother also has a “creative memory.” In one such case, she has a completely different recollection of the days after my grandmother died—a memory of what might have been rather than what actually happened.
Despite all these differences (and there are many more, I promise you), my husband can attest that I do share a few traits with my mother—like our tendency to tell long stories full of unnecessary details, our inclination to overreact to minor frustrations, and our penchant for commenting on how poorly certain celebrities are aging.
And I hear her in the passive-aggressive way I talk to my stepson sometimes. Suddenly I am transported back to my own childhood, hearing my mom’s frustration with me hidden behind a manipulative question or a sarcastic comment.
However, as the days and years go by, I realize how important it is to focus on the positive, to be grateful for the attributes that I don’t mind sharing with my mom: her love of music and dancing, her fondness for laughter, and her genuine interest in people of all kinds.
Whether we like it or not, aspects of our parents’ personalities—good, bad, and complicated—are bound to show up in our own. Maybe it was always meant to be, that an echo of those who raised us would ultimately reverberate in our own bones.
Perhaps this recognition is an invitation to forgive and accept our mothers and fathers as fellow human beings. Rather than be embarrassed or in denial about the qualities we have in common with our parents, we can choose to see this as an opportunity to embrace them in all their tender messiness. And to love ourselves at the same time.
One day the two of us were walking out of a sandwich shop, and my mother stopped at the table of a young woman who was sitting alone. During lunch mom had noticed that this woman looked sad. So, she went over and put her hand on the woman’s shoulder and said something encouraging to her. I don’t know what my mother said because I was getting the heck out of there.
In the car, I was about to tell her what a terrible idea it was to physically touch a stranger these days, to presume to intrude on their personal space and pain. But I bit my tongue and said nothing. My mother meant well. And she did something not many people would do—she reached out to someone even though it would have been far easier to just walk by. It won’t be the end of the world if one day I find myself doing the same. Minus the touching, of course.
Time magazine named “The Silence Breakers” (known online as #MeToo) as its Person of the Year for 2017. While many women and men were thrilled to see Time honor those who spoke out against sexual harassment and assault, more than a few people’s second thought was, “What the heck is Taylor Swift doing on the cover?”
While it’s true Swift sued a radio DJ for groping her and stood up to him admirably in court this summer, the singer is one of the biggest stars on the planet, and her inclusion on the cover comes across as crass.
Swift, like Lena Dunham and Gwyneth Paltrow among others, is one of those celebrities whose self-promotion often hits a sour note. Let’s face it, successful people make it almost too easy—and so satisfying—to pass judgment on them. Not only do the rich and famous appear to lead charmed lives, but they have the privilege of a vast platform from which to lecture the rest of us. It only seems fair to take them down a peg or two on occasion.
A couple decades ago reality television came along to capitalize on the human instinct to gape at attention-seeking people with a combination of envy and distaste. We might secretly wish to possess the good luck of these TV personalities, but we also revel in the fact that they are far more messed up than us unknown folk.
My favorite guilty pleasure in this arena is CBS’s long-running Survivor. I both admire and resent the contestants for having the guts to follow their dreams, the great fortune to make it onto the show, and the toned bodies that only get leaner as the season progresses. When a strong competitor grows too confident about their control in the game, it feels so gratifying to see them get blindsided.
More recently, social media has risen to both fuel and fulfill our desire to shake our heads at people who dare to be too perfect, too desperate, or too clueless. And this time around, anyone with an internet connection is invited to broadcast their persona to the world.
This penchant we have for making people famous only to rip them apart often involves women as both the targets and perpetrators. This is understandable, of course. Women grow up with the knowledge that they are being compared to each other and rated on their attractiveness, femininity, clothes, likeability, home decor, marital status, and mothering skills. In addition to mastering these attributes, many women are also expected to be crushing it at the workplace and involved in our community, church, or political party.
This sense of constantly being under the microscope can make women frustrated, tired, and resentful. A quick hit of disapproval aimed at another woman is so tempting. And what do you know, now we can log on to Facebook or Instagram and tsk-tsk at the moms who think their kids are perfect angels. We can sigh at yet another update from the woman with the life that looks like a Vanity Fair spread. And we can scoff at all the women who humble brag about their busy jobs, their killer workouts, and their cooking masterpieces.
Whether you’re talking about celebrities, reality stars, or social media users, they all choose to put themselves out there, so it’s ok to give their lives the side eye, right? At the same time, most of us realize that critiquing others is usually a sign that our own ego needs some boosting. The thing about looking down on others is that it doesn’t build any kid of permanent confidence. You must continually practice the art of the snicker if you want the cheap payoff of fleeting superiority.
While social media increases the opportunity to flex our internal bitch, the inclination can surface at any time or place. Recently my husband and I went out to dinner, and we ate at the restaurant’s bar. At one end, a woman sat alone with a glass of wine. She had a flower above one ear, a stiff smile, and a far-off look in her eyes. She reminded me of a character that Kristen Wiig might play—I could picture her suddenly grasping the bar with both hands and yelling “We’re all going to die!”
I texted a friend who shares my sense of humor to relay my observation. She asked for photographic evidence, so I took a photo of the woman while pretending to snap a selfie of myself and my husband. I followed this up by taking a picture of a second woman sitting directly across from us who was wearing a red and black lingerie-like top. I nicknamed her Moulin MILF, high on my own supply of cleverness.
When I got home, I felt mortified about my behavior. I deleted the pics and the texts and asked myself what inspired me to take photos of these strangers and then forward them on for my and my friend’s amusement.
To be honest, I think I was jealous of the woman in the slip top. She had long straight hair, which I’ve always coveted, and she had skinny, defined arms and shoulders, another thing with which I am not blessed. I was struck by the “green-eyed monster,” as my mom used to say. I can’t tell you why I was so preoccupied with the Kristen Wiig character-like woman. I don’t know if I was envious, but the delight I took in her certainly had an air of condescension.
I don’t want to admit that I am shallow or judgmental. But clearly there is a strain of petty viciousness running through me. This strain runs through all humans, I believe, but some of us are better at rejecting it than others.
So, how do I quiet my inner mean girl? And why, as we are honoring the #MeToo movement, is it important to take time to focus on women being cruel toward other women?
I believe that I can be a far better ally to women if I can refrain from sizing them up, looking for flaws. If I’m going to support my sisters, I need to stop seeing them as competition. I’ve come up with a five-point plan to help guide me:
One: Reflect on my behavior, explore my motives, and create accountability by documenting my thoughts. Check!
Two: When I catch myself thinking or saying something unkind, try to turn it around right away. Replace bad thoughts with positive or at least more forgiving thoughts. So, instead of “Jeez, doesn’t Taylor Swift get enough publicity as it is?” I can change it to, “Taylor Swift has a ton of young fans—it’s great that they will be exposed to #MeToo because of her inclusion.”
Three: Reduce my social media consumption. Unless I’m looking for news or posting something creative, I will limit myself to two 15-minute sessions per day of random scrolling and clicking. I know from trying this before that limiting my social media time means I spend those minutes more wisely.
Four: Focus on building my own confidence in as many ways as possible. This will not only decrease my need to feel better-than-she, but it will keep me too busy to engage in pointless snark and gossip.
Five: Celebrate the awesome women in the world who deserve to have a little more light shed on their efforts, like Tarana Burke, who started Me Too 10 years ago.
That insecure girl inside of me is on notice, and I’m sure Taylor Swift will rest easier.
This post is a follow-up to Saturation Point, which introduced the subject of my relatively new sobriety. You may want to read that piece first, if you haven’t already (but you certainly don’t have to).
A couple years ago I started writing about my drinking. Scraps of paper, abandoned journals, and unfinished computer files contain those first attempts at documenting my relationship with alcohol. That was back when I wasn’t sure if quitting drinking was in my future.
One exercise I created at the time was a series of five questions designed to nudge me toward making a decision. What would it be: Ditch the booze altogether or try harder at moderation?
During this period, I completed several Whole30s — a program focused on eliminating certain food groups from your diet for a month, including alcohol. Thanks to Whole30, I discovered that I felt much better when I didn’t drink. Yet I couldn’t wait to pour that first glass of Pinot Grigio every time I crossed the 30-day finish line.
I contemplated my answers to those five questions over and over again in my head, but I never got very far writing them out. Now that I’m five months sober, I’m finally going to answer them, as a promise I’ve made to myself to continue exploring the path I’ve taken and to shore up where I’ve landed.
1. Why did I first start drinking?
As a shy girl who matured late, I missed out on those early years of adolescence when my friends were holding hands with guys and learning how to French kiss. I was short and scrawny with big frizzy hair, so I spent a lot of time watching from the sidelines as my friends flirted and boys circled.
By the time boys started noticing me, I was painfully behind in experience. If I wanted to catch up, I was going to have to jump into the deep end of the pool without ever trying out the shallow side. Alcohol came along at just the right time, when I needed some manufactured courage.
It seemed like almost everyone had started drinking by 16, so despite coming from a very conservative family, I didn’t much question whether to drink or not. I just did. And in addition to lowering my inhibitions and making even the most boring nights seem fun and adventurous, drinking helped me tap into some deep emotions that I had been stuffing down.
Yes, I was that girl — the one who frequently ended the night sobbing in the back seat of someone’s car. Alcohol allowed me to mourn the fact that I didn’t know my father, that my mother suffered from depression, that I didn’t feel normal. The stress of my home life would pour out through my tears, and being drunk meant I didn’t care who witnessed my meltdowns. Obviously this was not the ideal way to address those issues, but it felt good at the time — and thus the pact between me and the drink was written.
2. Why did I continue drinking regularly?
At college, drinking was practically a required subject. The drinking age was not yet 21 — it actually changed from 19 to 21 while I was in college, but for those of us who had already turned 19, the state of Florida graciously grandfathered us into the world of legal drinking.
We had a bar on campus, and alcohol advertising was everywhere. The fraternities and sororities took turns holding weekly campus-wide parties with low cover charges and all-you-can-drink beer.
No one in the dorms cared if you stumbled home late and threw up in the waste basket. No more sneaking out or worrying about your mom catching you. Not much driving was required — everything you needed to get trashed was within a small radius.
In other words, college was like an Olympic training camp for drinking, preparing me for an adulthood of medal-worthy alcohol consumption.
I moved to New York City right after college — a wise move for someone who wanted to be able to go out whenever the mood struck her, but didn’t want to drink and drive.
I loved that city. Among many other fabulous things, I loved the ability to go into a restaurant by myself, sit down at the bar, and within minutes be engrossed in a conversation with the bartender or someone else at the bar. The camaraderie that came with drinking created an instant connection. A warm buzz and a temporary new friendship made this insecure girl feel like the grown-up, sophisticated woman I wanted to be.
As I gained self-confidence, and the need to unearth my sadness diminished, drinking created a new purpose for itself in my life. I don’t think I explicitly used alcohol as a means to numb or escape, nor was I an every-day or an all-day drinker. But somewhere along the line drinking became a reliable release valve for ordinary stress.
After two or three alcohol-free nights, the pressure would build up, and I would need a night of drinking. Work was busy, whatever relationship I was in was complicated, mom was mad because I hadn’t called, the apartment was a mess, you name it. Good thing my friends were standing by to go out for drinks. And if they weren’t, I wasn’t afraid to drink alone. In fact, sometimes I preferred it.
After examining this release valve effect instead of just surrendering to it, I’ve come to realize that the alcohol itself was creating the pressure just as much as the daily stressors in my life. I had developed a dependency that needed to be fed every 72 hours or so. And when it was hungry, it was ravenous.
You know that feeling when you have to pee really bad, and how when you get to the bathroom, it gets infinitely worse? So bad that it feels like you might not get your pants down in time? Well, that’s how I often felt when it had been a while since I had last tied one on, and I was headed to the bar, and I knew that a drink would soon be in my hands. I could physically feel the anticipation welling up inside of me, my heart beating, my breath growing shallow and quick, adrenaline flowing.
This reaction was not unusual to me. My drinking seemed average, or at least in the high range of acceptability. For years I did not question that this hobby-slash-habit played such a prominent role in my life.
3. What are the reasons I should stop drinking or at least take a long break?
Starting from early childhood I was a worrier. As soon as I learned about serious diseases like cancer, I was convinced that I would develop one. So at some point in my early 20s I did worry briefly that I might have a drinking problem. But this concern felt like all my other fears and phobias of getting sick and dying — overblown and not based in reality.
Around the age of 24, I responded to an ad looking for volunteers to take calls for a suicide hotline. Why I thought this was a good idea given my typical level of anxiety is a subject for another time. Anyway, we recruits had to attend two day-long Saturday trainings before we could get on the phones. At the end of the first Saturday, they asked us to attend an AA meeting on our own time during the upcoming week, and then we would talk about our impressions at the next training.
I was excited to go to the AA meeting. Maybe this was what I needed, maybe I would realize I was an alcoholic and just keep going to AA meetings. But the people there sounded nothing like me. They had stolen from work, left children in cars while they scored, set fire to their homes, and been arrested.
I left that meeting feeling elated. I was not an alcoholic. I even bought a six-pack of tall boy Budweisers on my way home to celebrate my non-problem. (A quick aside: I never did complete my training for the suicide hotline. I called them before the next Saturday and chickened out.)
That AA experience sustained me for close to a decade: I was fine. My drinking was commonplace, dull even.
And yet, unpleasant incidents piled up over the years. Fighting with friends, embarassing myself in front of co-workers, public blackouts. Oddly enough, none of these occurrences were sufficiently unsavory to get me to stop indulging for any serious length of time.
What were the reasons that led me to finally say enough? Age, vanity, and the feeling of being stuck in a thick sludge of my own making.
As I reached middle age, I knew that I needed to start taking better care of my health. I quit smoking, started eating better, tried again to find a form of exercise that I could stick with, and began meditating. Alcohol consumption was the next natural target. Not only would quitting drinking improve my health, but it might slow down the visible signs of the aging process. Having looked young all my life, the idea of appearing old was not sitting well with me, and here was something that could help.
Not only that, I wanted to go to sleep with a clear head and wake up with a clear head. Never again did I want to stay up late listening to music in the bathroom, drinking my husband’s beer because I had run out of wine. Never again did I want to wake up in the middle of the night not remembering how I got from being passed out on the couch to being half dressed in bed, not remembering pouring that last drink now sitting on the bedside table.
Still, it was my desire to write more, read more, do more that convinced me I needed a break. I needed to make space in my life to fall in love with myself, and this decades-long habit was getting in the way.
4. Are there reasons I might want to try moderating my drinking instead of quitting?
First, there are the aesthetics. The sound of a wine glass being set down on a cool marble bar. The sight of pale wine poured into the glass, reflecting the light. The feel of the delicate rim of the glass against my lips. The taste of the dry wine after sucking down an oyster. Now and then, it would be nice to have a glass or two in the perfect setting. Why reject this magic dance of mood, color, texture, light, and sound, your sly brain asks.
Then there’s association. For many of us (and, let’s face it, society at large), the consumption of alcohol is tightly woven into many communal events: Weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, holiday parties, watching the Super Bowl, participating in drinking-friendly sports (bowling, pool, darts, poker, cornhole, bocce, etc), the list goes on. How does one celebrate a promotion, a new job, or a retirement without a drink? Why wouldn’t I want to be able to mark a truly special occasion by lifting a glass of an intoxicating beverage, as I did so many times?
Finally, there’s the social aspect. Drinking binds people together, almost immediately and with little effort (a sign, I believe, that the affinity is partly an illusion).
When others are drinking, and you’re not, something is lost. You feel separate. The laughter is slightly different on each side. And as the evening progresses, the difference grows. The experience of being the only teetotaler (or one of the few) is not the end of the world, but it is an adjustment. What a relief it would be to grab a drink and join the crowd. To sigh, to loosen your shoulders, to succumb, and see what happens.
This is going to sound pathetic to some, but it has actually saddened me to admit to myself that I will never again sit in a smelly pub and drink all day with my friends because we decided that the street festival wasn’t nearly as interesting as boozing and talking. I won’t squint at the daylight as someone opens the bar door. There won’t be that moment when we all decide to order yet another. No more tipsily moving onto our next haunt, then finding that drunk second wind back at someone’s place and staying up late, telling those same old stories one more time. I can’t lie, drinking is one of the easiest hobbies you’ll ever cling to, and it has its charms.
5. Why would it be preferable to quit drinking entirely?
My husband thinks that I’m not an alcoholic, and therefore he doesn’t understand why I would choose the sober life. Why would I deny myself the joys of drinking when I don’t have a serious problem?
Now that I’ve seen the other side, I don’t know how I could choose otherwise. I feel ike someone turned the music on inside of me. Not all the time, of course. Life is still stressful and frustrating, and I don’t always react the best possible way when challenging stuff happens. I reserve the right (and ability) to disappoint myself — that doesn’t go away.
I’ve never experienced a serious depression, but my mother has. I live with the sense that there is a seed of darkness inside of me. I have long worried that the abyss could swallow me one day. The idea of letting go and sinking into the darkness is tempting — to let it take you over so you no longer have to fear it.
But that’s not who I am. That’s not who most of us are. Sometimes it takes a long time to get the message that we’re drowning, and sometimes we have to go under very deep. But we all have it inside us to pull ourselves into the light.
At first it was hard, making the adjustment to being a non-drinker. I reminded myself that I was doing this so I could have more time to develop new hobbies, new interests. I had given alcohol decades of my precious attention. I owed it to myself to find some more productive, fulfilling pastimes.
As the days and weeks went on, it got easier. Around the 90 day mark I got a surge of energy and satisfaction. It happened again at 120 days. Maybe that feeling is physiological — my cells coming back to life. Or maybe it’s my ego developing some swagger. Either way, it feels a lot like a wicked crush. Wooing yourself is far underrated.
I no longer spend time thinking about when the next drink is coming, contemplating whether or not I should have another, or bemoaning the fact that I drank too much last night. My brain, my body, and my soul are unburdened.
Why would I trade that for a drink?
Next time: Drinking as a feminist issue.
A new resource I’ve been devouring lately:
Take a Break from Drinking – Rachel Hart has a very different way of looking at drinking, which some may find controversial. Her podcast is full of lots of helpful advice, even if you don’t fully sign onto her philosophy. I do recommend going back to the beginning and listening to the first couple episodes before jumping around. Other key episodes include 7, 11, 13-19, 25, 28, and 32.
In honor of the one-year anniversary of the launch of this blog, I am posting something very much out of my comfort zone. Publishing this piece is terrifying, but here goes…
One hundred and five days days ago I stopped drinking. If you’ve ever knocked back more than a few with me, I forgive you for suspecting that a messy, humiliating event must have precipitated such a decision.
Did I roll down a hill in my underwear at a company picnic? Perhaps I got lost coming home one night and woke up in a neighbor’s yard. Or maybe I got in a screaming match with a stranger at a party and threw a glass across the room.
I can’t deny I’ve spent a substantial part of my adult life weaving down the fine line between goofy buzzed chick and reckless wasted woman. Even I’m surprised that the end was not more explosive.
Mostly I grew weary of how alcohol saturated so much of my free time. My last post was about watching too much TV, and drinking is the twin bad habit that has consumed me. Together, TV and alcohol made my life not so much tragic as repetitive and dormant. For a person who has always fancied herself creative and interesting, my life looked pretty dull and routine on the outside. And my inner life was twisted in knots — when it wasn’t glazed over with booze and binge watching.
Alcohol can serve as a handy tool for avoidance, a means to stay put. It allowed me to do nothing without feeling too awfully bad about it. Drinking gave me permission to fritter away hour after hour, and it provided the illusion of being engaged in an activity while it dampened my will to do anything else.
Eight years ago I was out drinking with a group of co-workers. I had noticed around that time that my body chemistry was changing, and I could no longer predict how quickly I might go from tipsy to trashed. That night the switch flipped fast (I was only on my third beer!), and a friend took my car keys away from me. By the time I arrived home in a cab it was late, and my sleeping husband could not hear me banging on the front door. I hadn’t called to ask him to leave the door unlocked because I was in a blackout on the metro ride home and wasn’t fully aware I didn’t have my keys until I got to the parking garage.
I wonder sometimes if I would have driven my car home from the train station that night if my keys hadn’t been confiscated. Would I have had the presence of mind to take a cab if the option to drive was available? I prefer to assert that I would not have gotten behind the wheel, but I can’t be 100 percent sure.
Back at my house, I ended up using a tall ladder that was in the backyard to climb onto our high deck (there were no stairs on that stupid deck for some reason). Then, I had to throw pieces of used charcoal from the grill up against the bedroom window to wake up my husband. When he finally came to the sliding glass door to let me in, looking half asleep and exasperated, I felt small and pathetic. The next morning I had the honor of cleaning up the charcoal scattered all over the deck and then calling the most likely suspect to ascertain if she had my keys. I’ve only felt that crappy a handful of other times, and I’m pretty sure they all involve drinking.
So, I guess I lied earlier because right there is an embarrassing event that affected my drinking and might have been the first major milepost on my path to sobriety. Starting in 2010, not long after that incident, I cut back my alcohol intake significantly, and I set a limit of two drinks for when I was out and solely responsible for getting myself home (the only drinking rule I ever set and actually kept). My reduced consumption was probably still considerable to a non-drinker, and it did creep up again over subsequent years–though never back to my highest level. Just enough to keep me treading water.
In 2014, I read Ann Dowsett Johnston’s “Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol,” and for the first time I began contemplating that quitting entirely might be in my future. I’m not talking about the thoughts that go through your head during a particularly hellacious hangover, but a real dawning that giving up drinking could be a positive, proactive choice. Maybe I didn’t need to hit rock bottom in order to take action on behalf of my life.
Earlier this year, my husband and I were looking at our photos on the computer. Suddenly I was staring at an image of myself curled up on the kitchen floor late one night. For a while we had been in the habit of drinking, talking, and listening to music in the kitchen for hours after dinner. He must have snapped this shot on his cell, and it went into the cloud without me knowing.
Seeing a photo of yourself that you didn’t know was taken is so weird: It can feel disorienting and invasive. But most of all, I realized that I didn’t want to be the woman passed out on the kitchen floor anymore.
Right around the same time, a Facebook friend shared Laura McKowen’s blog post “Am I an Alcoholic?” Reading it, I felt a stirring in my core: Wake up! This was meant for you!
“This Naked Mind” by Annie Grace delivered the final shove. On May 12, just six days after buying the book, I started what is now my longest run of non-drinking since the age of 16.
Right before I quit, in an attempt to establish a solid foundation, I decided to treat this effort like a work project. First, I set a clear goal of what I wanted to achieve, and then I spelled out my strategy for getting there. The goal itself is simple: Don’t get drunk. Period. At this point in my life, the return on investment of getting plastered is pretty nil. The motivation, the rationale has evaporated.
The tactics at hand to achieve this goal basically are limited to either removing the risk entirely or trying to moderate a deeply embedded habit. If you’ve ever tried it, policing your drinking can be exhausting. You start out imagining a civilized montage that includes the occasional glass of wine at a nice restaurant, a beer or two on a camping trip, a festive cocktail on vacation with your sweetie. But those earnest intentions usually end up right back on the kitchen floor.
Instead, I decided I would eliminate the ability to overindulge altogether. No opportunity, no worries. Surprisingly, it seems to suit me. I feel clearheaded and calm, awake and relieved, as if a long haze has lifted.
During the last 15 weeks, I’ve stood up to some minor temptations. But bigger ones are up ahead. If I do cave in (maybe even incite that final ugly event to seal the deal), I will forgive myself and get back to business. I know what’s on the other side now, and it’s so much better for my state of mind, not to mention my body and soul. After decades of telling myself I deserve a drink, I can say at last: I deserve sobriety.
Next time:Why did I start drinking? What kept me coming back? What are the advantages of sobriety? What might cause me to abandon the dry life?
And then: It’s not just about me! Drinking as a feminist issue.
The television in my childhood home rarely went dark. We had a TV that sat on a stand with wheels so we could swivel it around from the living room to face the dining table during meals and then back again.
As I got ready for school, we turned on Channel 13’s morning show, and I would often stop to watch Ernie Lee play the guitar and sing “You picked a fine time to leave me Lucile” or “I wish I was a Teddy Bear.” In the afternoons, I logged countless hours watching The Brady Bunch, Gilligan’s Island, The Merv Griffin Show, and Guiding Light.
After dinner, you could find my family viewing Charlie’s Angels, Fantasy Island, Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, Welcome Back Kotter, the movie of the week…the list goes on. Sunday evenings meant The Wonderful World of Disney, The Lawrence Welk Show, or possibly 60 Minutes. I started watching The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and Saturday Night Live at a young age, often staying up late by myself.
My love affair with television burned long and strong for decades. Once, in my early 30s, I tried a “summer without TV”–but certain exceptions had to be made for Grand Slam tennis tournaments and other “special” events, and the whole thing fell apart rather quickly.
My husband and I first discovered binge watching way back in 2002 when we consumed the entire first season of 24 on DVD in about four days. Cable, VCRs, TiVo, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime–these have all been both a blessing and a curse to my kind.
As I started to write this piece, I asked myself: What is it about TV that has so captivated me over the years? As a writer, I appreciate great storytelling and compelling characters. The aesthetically inclined side of me confesses to being seduced by well-composed shots, the artful use of music, and gorgeous settings, clothes, and people.
But, the great Marshall McLuhan might suggest that I look deeper than the content, that I examine my habit and its impact on my life because “the medium is the message.”
In January of this year, I attempted to go a month without television. Giving up my morning dose of The Today Show would be easy: After decades of dedication, I had been hate watching the show for several years (at least), so it wasn’t much of a loss. Fortunately I had already scaled back on mindless channel surfing–you know, the kind that results in watching the Home Shopping Network, marathons of Tiny House Hunters, or old Match Games.
All my “primetime shows” (oh, what a quaint term) did not have to be viewed in real time, so I could get back to them starting in February if I so desired. On the other hand, just saying no to The Daily Show before falling to sleep was going to be more difficult.
The objective of this experiment was to open up time to write and read and work on other more productive projects. I had recently heard more than one successful blogger-turned-author reveal on a podcast that they simply had to give up TV to make any progress toward their goals. As a bonus, I was also hoping to sleep better without any screen time before bed.
Social media was not exempt from this exercise. I decided to limit myself to two 15-minute sessions per day. I would set the timer on my phone before jumping on Facebook or Instagram, and I had to stop when the alarm went off. Unless I was in the middle of reading a particularly enlightening article (yes, my life is full of loopholes).
Most likely, my experiment would be deemed a failure by any reputable scientist. I did not last very long before allowing myself to watch one hour of television in the evening with my husband. I did not write very much. I did not post on this blog at all between Dec. 31 and May 1. My one accomplishment was to give up TV in the mornings completely and permanently.
Maybe I’m selling the month short. I did learn a lot about myself, particularly through the social media restriction, which I am proud to say I maintained for all 31 days. With limited time for Facebooking, I tried to make the most of those minutes, which included refusing to take part in pointless political arguments. And I tried not to go on Instagram unless I had something to share that I thought people would genuinely like.
So, what did I learn during my January experiment and the months since?
Well, I’m battling against years of conditioning. I watch TV out of habit and often without much thought. Patterns have been set through decades of practice, deep grooves worn in my brain.
The idea that I won’t watch at least some television every single day seems downright unnatural. And why shouldn’t I grab my phone a hundred times a day to check, um, whatever?
My brain hungrily awaits stimulation. It wants to be fed. I have trained my mind to be passive, cluttered, and consumptive. Even while researching this piece I found myself watching the “pivot” couch scene from Friends–a scene I have seen close to a million times. The internet is a dangerous place for people like me!
It’s going to be an ongoing project to whittle down my media diet. As it went with smoking, I won’t be able to go cold turkey. I will need lots of time to ease myself into no longer being a TV addict.
When I reach a plateau, I must press on. Morning TV and channel surfing are gone. Reality TV, except for a few respectable hold-outs, is a thing of the past. Weekend TV and sports have been mostly excised. Next for uprooting is watching late night shows in bed. And then the big challenge, my evening fix of well-crafted dramas and the increasingly rare comedy.
I can’t say for sure that I will not make room for any TV in my life. What would life be without shows like Friday Night Lights, Breaking Bad, or The OA? And what about Full Frontal with Samantha Bee and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver?
Maybe I can get my habit down to five hours a week. Would that be so bad?
My goal is to shape my life into something more varied and creative. If I can find a way to combine TV with the life I want to lead, then good for me. But if I can’t, I know now which one has to go.