Self-forgiveness on alcoholic days

In my last post, I used a term a friend of mine didn’t recognize: “an alcoholic day.” Is that a day where you drink a lot - like St. Patty’s, or a long weekend, or a Thursday? Is it a day that you really want to drink? If you're already an alcoholic, can that be more true on certain days than others?

On the contrary: an alcoholic day isn't even necessarily for alcoholics. It's simply a day where the same, human traits which trigger your own personal flavor of maladaptive coping to begin with - traits like being anxious, self-conscious, dramatic, insecure, compulsive, controlling, and inpatient - are all out in full-force.

When I feel this way, my first impulse is to stifle it, to try to stuff it down. Unfortunately, ever since getting sober, the most powerful sedative at my disposal is melatonin -- and getting briefly, naturally sleepy doesn't pack a powerful punch.

On days like these, I feel the need to warn people I love: I’m having an alcoholic day. Just let me play this out like a bad movie. If you want to demand a refund or leave in the middle, I’ll understand. I felt the same way about La La Land.

Last Thursday was an alcoholic day. I woke up feeling resentful of the fact that I had things to do at all. This was followed by an interaction that I didn’t much like. I spent the rest of the day mentally testing iterations of how it could and should have gone, if the world were perfect and/or I were in charge (same thing, right?). By 3pm, it was going to take more than melatonin to slow my roll.

To my credit, I took a few positive actions: I went to the gym, talk to a trusted friend, and attended a recovery meeting. I felt my bad mood affecting my boyfriend, and apologized soon after. And yet, I spent the rest of the evening with an anxious stomach and the knowledge that, the second I stopped distracting myself, my alcoholic thinking would come back in full force.

(In therapy, a client once told me that she dreaded the moments in between putting her phone down and falling asleep. As a counselor, I was afraid of losing legitimacy if I agreed too strongly - but boy, did I know what she meant.)

What can we do about alcoholic days? When I began writing this post, I wanted to provide you with a list. Lists are very blog, you know. However, after I wrote #1, I realized I had only two things to say.

1. Follow your intuition.

If alcoholic days are a bad movie, my intuition is the annoying friend who keeps suggesting we watch something else, or maybe even nothing at all. She tries hopelessly to drum up excitement for going on a walk or grabbing a coffee or wandering around TJ Maxx for a while. "Any takers?!"

Here's the truth: I knew Thursday was an alcoholic day before I even rolled out of bed. My intuition told me I needed to take a mental health day. My all-or-nothing alcoholic brain told me that mental health days aren’t sick days, and if I’m not puking I should go to work. Only later did I realize that listening to my intuition would have spared me a lot of grief. Sometimes staying at home is the most loving thing you can do for yourself (and others).

Self-love is a tricky thing to explain. As a therapist, I would tell my clients to imagine instead how they might care for a friend, partner, or daughter. Most people find that showing love to another person is natural, intuitive - fun, even. The same actions often feel foreign, undeserved, and indulgent when directed inward. But the same actions are self-love.

When I was 14 and struggling with an eating disorder, I was often pulled out of school for doctor’s appointments. One of the kindest things my mom ever did - and here I’ll take a hyphen break to start crying - is let me stay home from school when I left the doctor’s office. Mental health days, she called them. Once after a particularly hard visit, we skipped school and went to a buffet instead. She didn't comment on how much I was eating (which was a lot, because every part of my being was hungry). I finished up the day feeling sad, but held.

I was having an alcoholic day. Hell, I was having an alcoholic year. Mom showed me how to give myself a mental health day. The humanist psychotherapist Carl Rogers noted that, if we're lucky, our parents are the first people to show us unconditional positive regard. We later learn (or fail to learn) how to direct that same regard towards ourselves.

2. Forgive yourself.

Ugh. I can't believe I let my anxiety/impatience/ego/fear run the show again.

It can be hard to forgive yourself in the aftermath of an alcoholic day. I often feel ashamed or paranoid of the damage I caused, or think I caused, to the people I love and respect. I worry about my competence: is life just too much for me?

Whether or not you are able to follow your intuition - to care for yourself, as you would others - self-forgiveness is the next step. Perhaps it's: I forgive you for needing a break on your bad day. Or maybe it's, I forgive you for needing a break - and not taking it. We'll do better next time.

Here's the truth: an alcoholic day is not that powerful. It doesn’t have to be the thing between us and putting down our phone - or book, or laptop - and braving the quiet. It doesn't have to come between us and the people we love. It doesn’t have to stand between us and a brand-new day tomorrow. It can be a single, messy moment in time -- as perfectly imperfect as we can ever hope to be.