Day Six: In Which I Finish a Project Early

Well folks, I did it. I am applying for a long-shot writing program and I finished the required 10-page writing sample and the personal statement two days ahead of the submission deadline. This is like college me all over again, people. I like finishing things early. I like having time to rewrite and revise and generally stew over everything I’ve done until the last possible minute.

I know I started this experiment wanting to explore the relationship between alcohol and my own productivity and I think I’m coming to a conclusion that I wasn’t quite expecting. I generally believed that drinking with my decreased tolerance was contributing to a general malaise that didn’t foster any type of creative work. Whew. Got that?

What I’m realizing is a bit more nuanced: it’s not the alcohol that is the problem here but the fact that I’ve been using it for the past year and a half as a stand-in for facing the question of what I’d like to do with my life. It’s a hard question to face. It’s one that I am still struggling with but somehow feels easier to face now that I’m not hiding behind a couple-three glasses of wine a night.

In college, exams would be returned to us in our campus mailbox. The tests would be folded in half and stapled shut so only our name showed which allowed the mail service to route them to our boxes. Upon getting my test, I would rip it open regardless of whether or not I thought I had done well: I just HAD to know what I got. By contrast, I had a friend who would take the tests and tuck them into her bag and sometimes not open them for days. DAYS. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to know but she said she liked that if the test wasn’t open, then the possibility of a perfect outcome still existed. When she explained her rationale, I got it on some level but mostly just thought she was engaging in a form of ritual self-deception since the test score was ON the paper; not opening it didn’t change the fact that there was a score that had been assigned. The mystery of her score, good or bad, had already been solved.

In a lot of ways, I think I’ve been living as that college friend of mine. I claim that I want to write and then I don’t do it because the conditions aren’t perfect: maybe a wall needs painting, or a light fixture needs hanging, or my daughter kept me up the night before, or I’m feeling some sort of gross malaise that I attribute to drinking (which does happen, don’t get me wrong). But generally, what I think has been happening is that I haven’t been ready to face the possibility that I could very well suck at this. By not writing, the possibility of easy success still exists.

In truth, I am realizing that staring at a blank page and creating worlds from scratch, and forcing myself to blog every workday, and generally being accountable to my dreams by sitting down and actually WRITING EVERY DAY may not guarantee success. But it does stop that gnawing feeling that I’ve been hiding behind every night for the past year and a half. With every day that I wake up and do the work of pursuing this dream, I am banishing the demons that had me convinced that a couple glasses of wine and Netflix each night was fine, and that TOMORROW I’d get down to the hard work of writing. Tomorrow, I’d submit my my work knowing that rejection would be the likely response. Tomorrow, I’d write prose so treacly that I wanted to shoot myself for actually committing it to exist. Tomorrow, I’d query that editor. Tomorrow. Tomorrow. Tomorrow.

It’s a lot easier to languish on the couch with a drink, huh?

So I’m slowly learning to face things today. I had a small gin and tonic while I was grilling dinner tonight to celebrate my completed application. Tonight, I am blogging and editing my application and reading a novel that I’m seriously loving.

Tomorrow, I’ll do what I’ve been doing every day for the past week: I’ll get up and work.

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Day Three: Four AM Wake Up

My partner, E and I are trying to teach our daughter to sleep through the night in her own bed but like most things with toddlers, she is superbly resistant to the idea. Most of the time, he puts her down for the night in her bed and then I’ll move her to ours when I go to bed between 12 and 1am. If I don’t move her, she gets up in the early morning hours (usually between 3 and 4am) and wails until we bring her to our bed, where she proceeds to whine and sing and chat until the sun comes up. If she’s been moved in her sleep to our bed, she will stay asleep until 7:30 or 8am every morning without fail.

So. I move her.

In all honesty, part of the reason that I move her is because I’ve noticed that I cannot handle a sleep disturbance in the middle of the night and I’ve long thought this was part of the whole getting-older-and-not-handling-my-liquor-so-well change of life. If I don’t get enough sleep (about 6 or 7 straight hours), I feel sluggish and irritable and unable to express myself clearly at all.

It turns out (spoiler alert) that I was right about my sleep being more affected by liquor now than when I was younger. Last night, E and I left our toddler in her bed and she got up calling for dada at 4am. He got her and then she lay on me wiggling, moved to the bed to kick her legs around, sang “Five Little Ducks” softly, told a story to herself, lay on E for a bit while we whispered, “Shhh,” and “Go to sleep,” to no avail. At 5:30am, E got up to take a shower and he took her downstairs with him when he was done. They had breakfast together and at 6:15am, she came back upstairs and promptly fell asleep next to me until I woke her just before 8am.

I woke up at 7am, exhausted from being up for so long in the middle of the night but the feeling was manageable. I washed my face, got dressed, and checked my email while I let her sleep for a bit longer. By the time I woke her, I was fine.

This realization about alcohol and sleep seems very mundane and almost mind-numbingly obvious and it is. The inherent humor in a former alcohol researcher realizing the extent to which her sleep is affected by alcohol is also not lost on me.

The reason that I’m mentioning this here, in this vaguely public sphere, is to record how easy it is for me to get trapped in a mindless pattern of alcohol use. (I am not talking about dependence here, and I firmly reject the idea that thinking critically about your alcohol intake is a sign of a problem.)  I am thinking instead about the ways we get trapped in cycles of consumption, be it alcohol or food or shopping or going out or whatever. It’s almost easier to keeping doing what you’ve always done than to take a step back and assess whether or not this is really what you want to be doing. Do you really want a drink every night at 5 o’clock? Do you really want that adorable pair of sandals? Do you really want to go out every Friday night?

I think a lot of the reason that it’s difficult for me (and maybe you?) to think critically about these things is because there are almost no examples of how to live mindfully without engaging in acts of deprivation or abstinence. There is a pervasive belief that the simplest way to cut out unnecessary habits or patterns of consumption are to ask yourself if you “need” it. Obviously, you don’t need much of anything. You never need a cookie. You never need a pair of gold shoes. You never need a cocktail. Framing an analysis in this way just sets up failure from the outset, doesn’t it? Here’s how this “all or nothing” approach to analysis usually plays out for me: In order to assess my drinking, I need to CUT IT ALL OUT for a set time period. In order to see whether what I eat is good for me, I need to abstain from everything that is supposed to be bad for me (Whole 30 comes to mind here). If I’m questioning my social life, I need to stay in for a month and see how I feel. Predictably, all that ever happens as a result of deprivation is a pervasive itch to just get back to IT, whatever it may be.

So this experiment in mindful drinking is about my wants. I want to keep drinking wine. I also want to establish a career as a writer. I want to work from home where I’ve created a lovely workspace. I want to learn how to work efficiently. I want to enjoy my time with my family. I want to be productive when I’m working. I definitely want to eat cookies forever.

So at the end of my first half-week of work without nightly drinks, I can say unequivocally that I’ve been more productive during the days, writing and researching and reading more than I have in weeks past. Does this mean I’m NEVER going to drink during the week? Not at all, but it’s nice to know that I should have some work options ready that factor in my decreased creativity the day after consuming alcohol.

Not bad for a first week, right?

Day One: It’s Wine O’Clock

I’ve been a fan of booze for a long time. I like everything from ice cold beers to crisp glasses of white wine and full-mouthed glasses of red to cocktails both creative and mundane (a standard G&T is fine with me). In my professional career, I’ve researched the impacts of alcohol use on towns and communities, and what predisposes people to become violent or prone to addiction, as well as looking deeply at the culture of college drinking in our country.

Through it all, I’ve remained a happy drinker, albeit possibly an overly paranoid one, since so much of my work has focused on identifying patterns of alcohol abuse. “Am I drinking too much?” is a question that is ALWAYS somewhere in my mind, much like my physician husband always imagines the worse diagnoses for himself after a fall or odd muscle ache.

However, ever since I hit my mid-30s and had a kid, I’ve noticed that I’m not as quick the morning after a couple of glasses of wine or cocktails. It’s a muddy feeling, not a hangover in that I want to sit around all day with greasy food and bad TV but more that my mind doesn’t feel as sharp. I left my professional career a year and a half ago to write a book about my research on the health and safety of college students at elite schools, and to be with my child, and do a lot of home renovations on our 1875 fixer-upper. My daughter is now in a part-time daycare and will transition to preschool in the fall and the house has new appliances and light fixtures, fresh paint (every surface including ceilings and moldings),  refinished floors, new windows, new insulation and is a warm and restful place.

It’s time to write both the book I wanted to work on and other projects that are pushing at my conscience.

Through all of the childcare and the physically demanding work of home renovation and especially when I was working, there was no impact that my moderate drinking had on the following day. I could still give presentations or write reports, play all day and care for my child or hang ceiling fans or paint rooms with ease. By contrast, writing the morning after a couple of glasses of wine does not come easily and worse, I struggle to order my day effectively to accomplish creative work and personal tasks. I’m coupling this observation with another that I’ve made of childhood acquaintances of mine who are Mormon: Mormons don’t drink alcohol or caffeine and the Mormon women with whom I grew up have at least four children and (it appears) boundless energy to blog and chauffeur their kids around and make meals for enormous families and run races and refinish furniture and quilt (not all of them all of those things, obviously).

I’m curious enough to try an experiment in my own life. Is this muddy feeling getting in the way of pursuing a creative career? Is it worth it to try and scale back the nightly drinks in order to keep myself as sharp as possible? I have a feeling that (for me) work that requires creative focus is going to require my clearest mind, and that is slowly appearing to be one without alcohol.

I’m not going to go full-on abstinence here (I detest extremes of all types) but I’d like to answer the following question: If I’m pursuing a full-time career as an author, and it appears that alcohol may be hindering my best efforts at creativity, then what happens if I cut back the nightly drinks during the work week?

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