When I Said

Ashes to ashes

I intended to go from Summer Solstice 2019 to Autumn Equinox 2020 without consuming alcohol. I believed I could do this on will alone. Perhaps will is sufficient for quitting a habit – but will is not inexhaustible. I wake up and enter the morning and each day is different when it comes to how much available will I seem to have. Each day holds its surprises for how you will be taxed. I cunningly plan out my will allotment across the day’s known challenges and then the day sneaks in unexpected curveballs and suddenly it’s 4PM, I’ve already borrowed into tomorrow’s will supply and a friend is saying “Are you sure you wouldn’t like a drink?” and I am no longer sure at all.

My reasons for trying to not drink keep changing. I always know it causes cancer. That is reason enough on the days when I want to live long and prosper and keep this body as healthy as I can for as long as I can. True too though are the days when I might prefer to not live too overly long, and think years of living later for days of pleasure now is a fine trade. I’m keenly aware of my mortality and limited number of days, moments, experiences remaining to me and I don’t want to miss out on anything because I was drunk or hungover. Neither though do I want to be alive but essentially bored for however many moments I have left.

I’m wary of the times I say -to myself or right outloud – “Oh god I need a drink.” Those are the moments when we need to remember our breathing and our lessons from mindfulness and welcome the feeling and acknowledge it and sit with it, and then move past it. Those are the times when we process the feeling, and the underlying feelings and beliefs and perceptions and yearnings and come to a place where we are OK in ourselves just as we are. That is how those moments are best handled. This is not always how the script plays out.

Occasionally a social vignette presents itself where it’s not even a case where “a drink would augment this moment” but more “not having a drink would take away from this moment.” I suspect this is not actually true as I know people who are loving life and enjoying those moments but not drinking, even though they used to drink. I kind of have to surmise that I’m just not there yet.

There is such a dichotomy in drinking socially! It can bring people together when done in moderation, and drive them apart when taken to excess. When people partake in marijuana or harder drugs, there is usually a point in time where they cross an unseen threshold into a world that the not-stoned cannot access. It can make me sad; it’s like they’ve left the room without saying goodbye. But in these weeks of relative sobriety, I’ve learned that the same is true for alcohol. I didn’t notice before because I slid into the tipsy reality with the others, instead of watching them go and being left behind.

In the six weeks there have been 14 social occasions that prominently featured alcohol, as well as a music festival. I’d say that summer is the wrong time to have tried this but each season brings its own temptations. Of the 15 events, I elected to have a drink at 4 despite wanting to drink at all 15. I’d say that’s gotta count for something, but what would that even mean? None of it really matters, either way, in the longest of long runs.

I think it’s an experiment. I’m learning about why and how I drink or don’t. To be honest, I don’t like everything about what I’ve learned about myself. But there’s learning there, too. If I’m going to be a therapist (and I am), there’s no cringing away from this stuff.
I wrote a poem in Kingston recently about wanting a drink after opening the box of my Mother’s ashes. The box had been mailed to me by the crematorium 11 months prior and had sat, unopened, in my storage closet.

When I Said

When I said I wouldn’t drink from Solstice to Equinox (so dramatic)
I meant I wouldn’t apart from when I did.
“So Libra,” laughs Polly, taking a sip from her lipsticked glass.
But it takes me a couple of shots of lilac gin before I can
invite Polly to my bed.
And there are times when cracking a beer
is akin to breaking bread.

And also! And also and also –
I just finally opened the box from the crematorium and in the box was another box with a certificate bearing my mother’s name and in that box was a plastic box and in that there was a plastic bag tied with a twist tie and in that there was my mother.
I tucked the end of the bag back into the box
and out puffed a very small cloud and I thought:
ohmygodthatismymother.
And then I drank some scotch.
I am sorry I didn’t ask first Greg. You know, it was delicious.

Summer Solstice to Autumnal Equinox

I had it in my mind that I would stop drinking on my birthday, for one full year. Not that I drink to any great degree, not that it impedes my living. But my mom did just die from her alcoholism. And it does run down every branch of my family tree.

But it’s more than that. You ever meet people who have heard “the word of god” and they thirst for it, they long for it, they yearn? That’s kind of how I feel about sobriety. I actually really like drinking, though. I don’t like being drunk and I loathe being hungover but otherwise I like everything about drinking. I like smokey scotches and hoppy beers and charcoal porters. I love full bodied red wines and the liquid Christmas tree kiss of gin. I’m into the ceremony of champagne and the ritual of patio beers. I like drinking.

But it is inescapably true that alcohol causes cancer and that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption. It’s a Group One carcinogen – so it’s like saying there is no safe level of asbestos consumption. I mean, obviously. And alcohol robs you of your awareness. It’s also fattening and expensive.

I am loving life so much. I’m having honestly So. Much. Fun. I’m excited for school. I love my job. I’m proud of my kids and am looking forward to watching their adventures. I don’t want to miss a thing. I’m acutely aware of my mortality and of time ticktickticking away. I don’t want to lose anymore time to the fog of drink, or the pain of hangover. And I don’t want to consume something that I know has a proven ability to cause cancer.

So tomorrow – no, later today – I’m drinking my last drinks, for a year and a quarter at least. I said I wanted to quit on my birthday, but the weekend after my birthday I’m attending an event that is marked by copious amounts of free alcohol (I don’t know about you but honestly, free alcohol seems to be everywhere). If I’m going to do a thing, I like to set myself up for success. By my birthday, I want all the effects of alcohol to be gone, so it’s a truly clean year. I read this book called Sober Curious and I like the idea of being sober curious. Not “sober sober” as she calls it. I mean, I’ll be sober sober until Fall 2020 but then, whatever, it’s my life. I expect though I won’t return.

I miss being just naturally weird, you know? I miss sliding along a natural high, blissing out on the colours of the sunset or perfect harmonies or cool lake water. I’m lucky in that my brain naturally likes to take those routes. If I just let it, my brain goes places that some other people use substances to find. If I give it enough fresh food and sunshine, it piques those peaks with no side effects.

I think it’s going to be an interesting summer.

 

 

Cold Case of Cancer

Maple syrup instead of liquor with a Sunday morning coffee

The following is a speech I wrote for and delivered at my Toastmaster’s Club:

Let’s have a little quiz. I’ll read you a list of facts about alcohol and you raise your hand for each fact that you already knew.
1 Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can cause birth defects.
2 The recommended maximum number of drinks is 2 per day for women and 3 per day for men, with at least 2 non-drinking days per week.
3 Alcohol increases the risk of violence and abuse.
4 Alcohol can cause cancer.
According to a survey in 2018, only 28% of Canadians were aware that alcohol causes cancer.
Each “fact” in my survey is actually a warning label used on alcoholic products – or that have been used. In November 2017, a Health Canada study was launched in the Yukon to study the effect of warning labels on alcoholic beverage purchases. Bright yellow labels were used, one stating that alcohol can cause cancer, and the other speaking to recommended maximums.
Four weeks into the study, the Yukon Liquor Corporation gave in to pressure from the national alcohol brands and stopped affixing the labels to bottles and cans sold in their stores out of fear of expensive lawsuits.
Ten weeks later, the study was allowed to proceed, but with pregnancy risk labels instead of ones mentioning cancer risk.
It would appear that the alcohol lobby was afraid that if more people knew that alcohol causes cancer, fewer people would consume it.

According to Spirits Canada president, Jan Westcott, it wasn’t about fear of reduced sales. When asked about the studies linking excessive drinking with increased risk of some cancers, he said, “We’re not denying any of that. We’re just not sure that putting the word “cancer” on a label is the most effective way to convey that information.”
However, a study commissioned by the Canadian Cancer Society indicates that putting the word cancer on a label is an excellent method of communication. They found that two thirds of Ontarians would likely reduce their consumption if they learned that drinking alcohol increased their risk of cancer.
Another 2018 study, this one from the Global Drug Survey looked at how different health messages would affect people’s drinking behaviour, and found that the message “Drinking less can reduce your risk of 7 different types of cancer” could get almost 40% of drinkers to reduce their consumption.
So if harm reduction can be achieved by knowing the connection between a crisp cold beer and colon cancer, let’s look at some stone cold facts.
The World Health Organization classifies alcohol as a Group 1 carcinogen similar to arsenic and asbestos.
The National Cancer Institute states that 3.5% of cancer deaths are due to the consumption of alcohol. Not “correlated with” but rather “due to”. The causal relationship between alcohol consumption and cancer is known and proven.
8% of breast cancer is caused by drinking – the risk of breast cancer increases even at light levels of consumption, meaning no more than one drink a day.
Moderate drinkers – two drinks a day – are one and a half times as likely as non-drinkers to wind up with colon cancer.
The risk of cancer increases with the amount of alcohol consumed and there is no safe level of alcohol consumption.
Is knowing a laundry list of alarming facts sufficient to decrease alcohol consumption? We can look at our history with public-health-initiated anti-smoking campaigns for an answer.
In 2017 the Centre for Disease Control surveyed five years of mass-reach communication campaigns and found a significant number of smokers decreased the amount they smoked, or quit altogether. When Graphic Warning Labels were introduced for cigarette packages, over 90% of smokers surveyed reported having read and thought about the warnings, over 80% considered them to be personally relevant, and over 40% intended to quit as a result of having thought about the warning labels.
While not everyone – and possibly not even half – the people who read and consider the warnings on harmful products will quit their use of the product, it does appear from anti-smoking efforts that SOME consumers WILL change their behaviours based on warning labels.
What about you? If you do drink alcohol, and didn’t know before today that drinking alcohol causes cancer – will you now opt for soda over scotch? How will the struggle to choose between a glass of merlot now and an increased risk of colon cancer five years from now play out in your life? Are you amongst the two thirds of Ontarians who would consider reducing alcohol consumption?
Knowing might only be half the battle – but hopefully it’s a half you’re now better armed for.

The alcohol version of this is delicious. The non-alcoholic version tastes awful!