Saturday, July 28, 2012


Okay, so, first: blogger has deleted my reading list, for some reason(Edit: No it hasn't. Must have been a temporary glitch). Most of the people I read I found their blogs because they commented here. If you could just make a quick comment with a link to your blog so that I can re-add you, I'd appreciate it.(Edit: don't worry about it, I have all of you. But feel free to comment anyway!) onto my real post, I guess.

I'm not sure if this happens to anyone else, but sometimes I'll be at a party or hanging out with friends, and I will accidently stumble over some words or do something clumsy like spilling my drink or whatever, and I instantly fill with fear and guilt. I'm suddenly afraid that whoever I'm talking with will think that I've fallen off the wagon and that instead of just soda water in my glass, I'm actually imbibing straight vodka and am three sheets to the wind. I get as far as thinking up excuses and preparing to let them try my drink to prove that I'm still sober before I stop and realise that the melodrama is all happening in my head and that in all likelihood the person I'm talking to doesn't even care if I've been drinking a lot.

As uncomfortable as these random moments are, I never really gave them much thought, but when I was trying to fall asleep a few nights ago, I realized that these moments are probably left-over bits from my drinking days when I really was trying to pretend to the world that I wasn't as drunk as maybe I might seem. The brain is lazy, and when it finds a pattern of activity, it likes to start taking shortcuts: this is why we sometimes put meatloaf in the fridge instead of the oven or pick up the phone when the doorbell rings: instead of wasting all that time thinking about every step of meatloaf baking or door answering, our brains select a pre-recorded pattern of actions and sets itself on autopilot so it can focus on more important things, like making to-do lists or remembering our favourite American idol contestant. And sometimes our brain just chooses the wrong pre-recorded pattern and we don't realise it until we check to see if the meatloaf is ready yet (it isn't, because we put it in the fridge!) or can't hear anyone on the phone when we say "Hello?"

When I was a drinker, it was very important for me to never, ever appear as drunk as I actually was. Appearing drunk could get you kicked out of the bar, or cause the beer store clerk to decide not to ring through your order, or else cause everyone else at the party to wonder if you've had a bit too much and maybe it's time for everything to wind down for the night. Even the day after, it's important that no one thinks things got out of hand, if only to avoid the "Marc, let's talk about your drinking...." conversations that never end well because if I can't see a problem, shouldn't everyone else mind their own business?

Addiction hijacks the brain so that we become drug-seeking machines, and so a lot of my thought went toward making sure I would always have as much access to booze as possible. It's a tricky balance: how can one get completely, brain-numbingly, eye-wateringly drunk while still appearing relatively sober to the outside world? The drunker you get, the more difficult it is to do, but the more important it is that you do it, because what if you get cut off before you can pass out? Game over, man. Game over.

Now, the rules have changed. I'm not drunk, ever, so it's actually become staggeringly easy to appear sober. I just act like myself. I now have a whole bunch of neurons and synapses and neural circuits in my brain that have nothing to do. Or, almost nothing: because I'm human, I sometimes stumble over my words, or sometimes spill a drink, or stub my toe, or make a bad joke or non-sequitur.....and when I do, all those neurons and synapses fire up, thinking: "This is our moment, guys! Time to make sure our cover isn't blown!"

In time, my brain will figure out that I don't need those behaviour patterns anymore. As it does, it will gradually co-opt those connections into other patterns and circuits that I do use, and I will get slightly better at, say, remembering episodes of Community or studying for exams or making meatloaf. Because the brain is conservative and doesn't always like changing existing patterns (breaking habits is hard), there may always be a ghost of this obsolete fear of appearing too drunk, haunting the darker corners of my brain....but that's only human. I mean, I still remember most of the words to the theme song of Perfect Strangers and that show hasn't been on TV in over two decades (I also remember part of the Bibby Bobka Ditty....). I can live with that.

Today's post, in case you're wondering, has been brought to you by my psychology textbook, which I have clearly been reading too much of.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Stick

Well, so far this summer is going fine. No real temptations to drink (I get little "micro-temptations" every now and then - a brief, wistful thought, "Boy a beer would be great today!" that is instant banished), in part because, I think, last summer was so horrible. Last summer, booze was king, and booze ruined pretty much every typical summery event there was, either by me skipping the event so I could stay in and drink myself, me skipping the event because I was hungover, or me attending the event and being so drunk that I said and did things I'm not happy with and will carry the shame with me forever.

So this summer, I have the handy crutch of - when I go to a BBQ, say, or next month when I go to a friend's cottage - knowing that if I choose to drink, I have a recent, horrific example to compare consequences with.

I'm a little bit nervous about the cottage, actually. Not because of the possibility I might drink, but because of knowing what I did last year. On the second-to-last night there, after everyone else had tired of the camp fire and gone inside to bed, I stayed up and drank. Hard-core. And it was a BAD drunk, where I worked myself up into a rage about something. I sobbed and fumed. Thank goodness I didn't yell or shout (that I remember....), it was a quiet rage. But when I ran out of logs for the fire, I crept over to other peoples' cottages and stole firewood from their property and probably (I can't remember) engaged in some "minor vandalism" - like tipping over garbage cans and the like (but I can't remember if I did this....I just have that deep feeling in my gut that I did things I don't remember that I would be ashamed of).

So far as I know, no one really noticed, and I was invited back this year. But what happened last year CAN NOT HAPPEN.

There are positive reasons to stay sober, like my health and getting shit done, and there are reasons that come from a negative place, a place of embarrassment and shame. The carrot and the stick model of motivation, I suppose. In the end, I'll take whatever works.

Sunday, July 8, 2012


There's a lot of stuff I'm never doing to be able to do. I'll never be a brain surgeon. I won't be an astronaut. I'll never run track in the Olympics.

There are also plenty of reasonable things that I'll never be able to do. Have a clean house, for example. I'm naturally messy*, and any place that I've been for longer than a day or two slowly fills up with loose papers, scattered books, etc. Since quitting the booze, I've gotten better...the dishes are done almost daily, same for laundry. I usually clean (with the bf) the bathroom and kitchen at least twice a month. No one will ever put a picture of our apartment on a magazine cover (unless it's a "before" shot for some magic organizational system), but we have the comfort in knowing that we are not a hospitable place for bugs and germs.

When I was drinking, those simple chores didn't get done. I'm embarrassed to think about the conditions I lived in, especially during the lowest points. Years ago, just before I became a homeless vagabond, I left a large stain of some red vermouth or something on the floor for a month. I never cleaned it up: I was evicted before I could. If I'd just taken a cloth and wiped at it as soon as I spilled it, there would have been no problem, but for some reason that seemed like too much for me.

One of the challenges a lot of ex-alcoholics seem to have is fighting boredom, and I'm one of them. If anything, booze and pot are great time-fillers. They're so good at filling time that they crowd out everything else. And when you take them away it's like suddenly living in an apartment with no furniture, just a big empty room with nothing to do.

But that's an illusion.

One of the things I'm learning is that there is always something to do. Those somethings have always been there, but I was blissfully ignoring them. Dishes, laundry, studying, tidying....but not just the tedious stuff. I love to read, and now I have all this time for books. I can watch movies (and remember them!). I go to the gym, sometimes just to fill up time, and I always feel better afterward. I play with the bf (he says he hates being tickled, but he's a giggler and sometimes he's just asking for it!), I write emails to my parents, I walk through my neighbourhood, or to the local inner city farm, or one of the dozens of parks nearby.

And all of these things that I do to "fill up time" are constructive. At the end of them, I've got a cleaner house, or I've learned something interesting from a book, or I'm in better shape, or my relationships are stronger.

I heard somewhere once that if you're bored, you're not paying attention, and I'm trying to live like that. It's really difficult sometimes, but I'm learning to read my boredom as a signal. If I'm bored, then maybe I should do something? I've got dozens of choices, inside or outside, and all of them make my life a little bit better.

So maybe I've been wrong to think of boredom as the enemy. Boredom is my brain reminding me that I've got one life, and I better spend it by living.

*There is a distinction between "messy" and "dirty" that probably only slobs like me can distinguish.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Fit for life

I'm sober 9 months as of today. Since I quit booze (after a few months where I replaced it with chocolate and poutine), I've lost 6-7 inches on my hips and 5 inches on my gut. My chest, the one my mom tells me I inherrited from my "barrel-chested" great grandfather, remains unchanged, but that's fine by me. I weighed in at my dietitician's office last week at 244lbs, which means I've also lost about 15-20 pounds.

It's not just the booze. I've been excercising more often (which I can only do because I'm not hungover half the days of the week), and I'm starting to kick it up a notch. As I mentioned, I saw a dietician last week (her big message: "Eat more vegetables!!"), and I'm making a commitment to get 30 minutes of cardio 5 days a week in addition to lifting weights.

All of this is really important to me. I just turned 35, and all my life I've felt like the "fat kid". More than that, I've always wanted to be muscular. I'm embarassed to talk about that, but I see bodybuilders and strength athletes and I'm always in awe, I always want to look like that. At least a little bit. I've been going to gyms and lifting weights since I was 15, but never consistently: I'll work out for 2 weeks and then stop for months, go back for a day but then be back to eating burgers and gravy-laden fries for a season or a year.

Weightlifting and bodybuilding are more like marathons than sprints, you need to make small good choices one after another for the long term, and I was nowhere near mentally able to handle a marathon. I would read articles and websites about fitness, I knew what I needed to do and what I needed to eat....I just never did it. Last year, when I was deep in the thick of realizing how shitty I felt and that I needed to change, my physical condition was one of my biggest regrets.

The other big regret (and bear with me for what seems like a subject change) is my education. In junior high, I scored the highest in the school on the provincial achievement test. In high school, I was tied for 13th highest GPA. I got accepted into the neursocience program at Dalhousie (a great university in Atlantic Canada) and planned to become a brain surgeon. In my first year, I got an A in the core psych course for my major.

Two years after that, I dropped out of university, probably weeks before I got kicked out for not maintaining my GPA. I was skipping classes, failing exams, not attending labs. But while I wasn't showing up for classes, you could count on me showing up at the liquor store every payday. The apartment I shared with my brother before I moved in with my then-boyfriend, had an entire wall dedicated to my empties: cases of beer piled atop each other, King Sized bottles of vodka and whiskey filling a recycling bin. And piles of pizza boxes so high they could crush a small child if they toppled over.

There are probably a few reasons why I failed at university, but the absolute biggest one was the booze. And ever since, I've been this really smart, really intelligent guy (I'm owning this, because it's true, dammit!) working at customer service jobs and feeling like a failure. Without the booze, would I be a brain surgeon right now? Would I be working in a lab somewhere doing research, or operating on people with cancer? I try not to think about this alternate me, because it's a fool's game. No one's gonna take me back in time and fix all that.

Every now and then I would try the school thing again. My CV is littered with half-completed community college programs. I've done creative writing, I've done editing, and I've done Human Resources....but I haven't finished any of those certificates. I just completed one or two classes and dropped out. Because, like fitness, higher education is a marathon, not a sprint. (Aha! I told you I was going somewhere!)

This week I submitted an application for a student loan. If I can somehow work it out, I am going to return to school full time. I'm already registered at a distance education university and am partway through a class where I scored a 90% on the first quiz. I want to get my degree, this time in psychology. I feel like I can do this, and more than that I feel like I HAVE to do this. I need to take control of my life, something I haven't had in the twenty years since I started drinking.

My fitness goals and my education goals will take a lot of hard work, and dedication, and focus. But I'm ready for that. When I first gave up alcohol, I wasn't sure if it was going to be for a month or a year or forever. I know that it has to be forever, I don't have any choice. I worried and hesitated about that...give up booze FOREVER? But where I am now, I see just how much space alcohol was taking in my life, space that should have gone towards other things, like school, like my health, like my relationships and my interests. Where I was once worried about how to deal with the void that alcohol was going to leave, I see all of these other things, these great and wonderful and fulfilling things, rushing in to fill the hole.

The longer I'm sober, the more I see all that I have to gain. Maybe I don't always feel this way, but I'm working on it. Because life, just like school and fitness and a hell of a lot of other stuff worth doing, is a marathon. And this time I'm ready.