As I begin this essay, I’m three months free of alcohol. Hooray! I feel proud. It hasn’t been an easy season. At no point did I have to fight off the urge to drink; even when I’m hit with nostalgia for wine at dinner or a mimosa with brunch, I instantly recall the indigestion and poor sleep that made me quit in the first place. The much harder part of this journey has been the dual impact of short-term depression and my inability to numb my mind the way I did before. Unfortunately, it’s become way harder for me to block out some old voices in my head that tell me I’m an asshole.
If you’ve ever experienced the joy of waking up fully refreshed the day after a massive hangover, it might be hard to believe that quitting booze can lead to short-term depression. Well, it turns out if you drink heavily or even just frequently, your brain gets used to pumping out dopamine. It’s that sense of “WOOHOO party!” you might feel when the waiter brings the first round. Then your brain keeps chugging out the dopamine to counteract the depressant, which is the thing that causes you to slur and get sloppy if you keep going. Before I quit I was rarely drinking to excess, but I did imbibe often. When I went cold turkey my brain quit making so much dopamine, which left me feeling incredibly blah. And then when some other troubling stuff happened, both internal (vitamin deficiencies) and external (so long, Roe v Wade!), my sense of ennui turned to despair.
The hardest part of quitting booze is now I must fully deal with myself. I used to feel enormous regret about my past, mainly all the bad, irresponsible choices I made in my twenties. I thought I made peace with all that a while ago by working on my self-compassion and giving myself the same grace I extend to others who struggle as young people on their own. But it turned out that self-critical voice inside me never went away. I just did a better job ignoring it by gettin’ my drink on. Feeling that dopamine rush is frankly way more fun than listening to some harsh biddy who tells me I’m an enormous fuck-up!
The worst moment in this dreadful reunion with my mean inner voice happened in early August, right after my daughter returned home from visiting her grandparents. My husband was out of town for a conference so I was coming off this glorious weekend staycation where I had the house to myself, plus a break from summertime stay-at-home parenting. And then there I was, parenting alone. I was already feeling a little stressed. My daughter and I settled down to watch her new favorite cartoon series when I noticed a familiar name in the opening credits — an old housemate from my college co-op days. This was a woman I always thought was pretty cool, but I got the distinct feeling she found me kind of annoying. Even worse, I felt like she was a cooler, more sophisticated version of me. We shared similar interests in music, movies, and writing. But she was from a big city and went on to live in Europe, whereas I dropped out of college and stayed in the same town until I met my husband. And here we are in the present — she, the head writer of a really great animated program for kids, vs. me, who struggles to care for one well-behaved child while working a part-time data entry gig. All I could think at that moment was UGH YOU ARE SUCH A LOSER, TARA.
Then a worse memory hit me — I had moved into this woman’s room when she graduated college and left the co-op. She asked if I wanted to take over her private phone line. I was like “Sure, I’ll be totally responsible for that!” and then did not pay the bill because I was a total flake with money and due dates. Since that part of my life is a blur of many bad choices, I do not remember if we’d changed the bill out of her name or if/when I paid it off. Oh the shame! Being a loser is one thing, but fucking up someone else’s credit felt even worse.
I shared all this with my therapist. I told her I’m self-aware enough to see I’m giving myself an unreasonably hard time. And yet I struggled to not get swept away in these waves of self-consciousness that convinced me I’m an awful person. So she suggested I start a new type of therapy called EMDR, which stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Basically it’s a technique that uses eye movement to help the brain reprocess past traumatic experiences so they don’t maintain a stranglehold on your wellbeing. The way I understand it is that I’ve got that mean old bitch voice on one side of my brain telling me I suck, and then there’s the rational voice on the other side saying, “Hmm that’s pretty harsh, I think you’re doing your best.” This therapy brings the two voices together so the rational voice can tell the bitch voice to shut the fuck up. And then I can move on. The traumatic memory that fuels the bitch voice doesn’t go away. But maybe it won’t send me into a meltdown.
We’re just getting started with this process but I’m hopeful it’ll help me deal with the internal stew that made me want to numb my brain. In the meantime, I’ve been taking good care of myself in other ways. I meditate, exercise, and drink lots of water every day. My kid’s school started so now I have way more of that solo time I very much need. I’m taking vitamins and feeling my mood shift away from that “meh” withdrawal mindset.
I’ve also been getting lots of laughs from watching the Netflix sketch comedy show I Think You Should Leave. Every ITYSL vignette features a character whose emotional reaction to a situation goes way too far. My favorite sketch stars series creator Tim Robinson as a dude at a party who asks to hold his friend’s newborn baby. When the baby cries in his arms he says to his friend, “Probably doesn’t like me ‘cause I used to be a piece of shit.” When she says the baby’s just fussy, he insists this infant must know about his checkered past. He begins confessing his old douchebag behavior to other partygoers — “Slicked back hair, white bathing suit, sloppy steaks, white couch… You would not have liked me back then!” This situation escalates in ridiculous fashion, which I won’t even attempt to spoil for you — it’s all too hilariously absurd for me to translate. I will say that the sketch ends with a sort of redemption that’s quite funny at first. But upon repeat viewings, I now find it rather profound and beautiful. As the main character keeps insisting, “People can change.” This sketch is a healing reminder that even at my worst, some part of me always wanted to be better.