How to Reduce Your Drinking Around the Holidays (if That’s Something You Want to Do)

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T’is the season for holiday parties and get-togethers and these social commitments can challenge our social fitness and personal comfort levels. It’s easy to see alcohol as the real MVP, lubricating some of those bumpier social situations for us.

Maybe you’ve been finding, however, that nights and evenings spent drinking this year have left you a little more worse for the wear? I must have tried every possible way I can think of to include even a little booze in my life from time to time, but finally reached the conclusion that this substance just does not jive with my system or my goals (ugh, old). This holiday season will mark a year since I’ve had a drink, and over this time, I’ve road-tested some strategies to smoothing over that conversation with loved ones, and other curiously concerned drunk people.

Offer to be the Designated Driver: Simple. Elegant. Remind any folks who are concerned about you “not having enough fun” that you are able to drive them home! Or to their next location! Fun!

Cite your budget, or your health: Drinking is an expensive pastime – a truth universally acknowledged. We are all living hand-to-mouth here (we are? I am.) and so, it’s entirely probable that there just isn’t any extra bill in the budget this month to throw at the bartender. As well, many folks are exploring food sensitivities and fitness goals where temporary abstinence from alcohol is required. You could easily be one of those people!

Taking the month off “for the cause”: There are always plenty of social media driven events supporting doing activities – ice buckets, moustaches, running– for some notable cause. If anyone asks where your beer is, tell them you’re doing No-Drink December to support Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) or another great foundation. Taking a month off the drink is no less peculiar than growing a moustache for a month. NO LESS PECULIAR.

Set a limit, and play within it: If you want to have just three beers, only drink three beers. Setting a personal limit is also a good test to see if some other emotion (other than wanting to have a jolly good time) is motivating you to reach for the next beer, and the next level of intoxication. Ask yourself: Are you currently uncomfortable and need a “dose” of the dancing juice? Do you just want to keep the current level of intoxication and are reaching for extra unnecessarily? Do you feel pressured to take shots (and other quick-dosing) from peer pressure or obligation, or politeness? Would you have bought the shot for yourself? Peer pressure doesn’t die in high school like it should have, and you are under no obligation to say yes to that gift. It’s your body, night, and next morning.

Mix in a water – creatively: My friend introduced me to this little trick of refilling her husband’s empty beer bottle with water (with his explicit consent, of course). If he noticed at all (sometimes he did, and sometimes he didn’t) he remained holding the beer without levelling up his intoxication. Having a drink in your hand is a social buffer in itself– any lull in conversation or between topics is smoothed over by taking a sip, or offering to freshen someone’s drink. Social interactions, particularly acquaintance-heavy ones, sometimes require ways to fill silences and drinking can serve this purpose. Find ways to make this social tool work with your goal of reducing your intake. My personal favourite was “club soda, short glass” because I could run with the vodka soda crowd, no problem.

If none of this works? Lie: One of the many, MANY beautiful things about drunk people progressively getting drunker is that they forget things, have limited access to their senses like vision, and generally have different priorities for their night than making sure you’re good and liquored up. Someone catches you without a beer in hand? You’re just heading to get another – catch you later.

Or…tell the truth: If you can, be honest with your loved ones about the kind of nights and next mornings you are having when you over-indulge, and how drinking has not been serving you lately. Unless you have bullies for friends, this answer should be enough.

We forget that folks are incredibly self-absorbed with short attention spans. Your abstinence from alcohol may not even register with most people. For the ones who seem particularly concerned for you, it might be that your reasons for dialing it back may hit too close to home for them. People may behave as though you are judging them for drinking, regardless of your actual reasons, and you can’t control if they project that attitude unto you. Ultimately, you don’t need to drink to make someone else feel better about their own drinking. If they are self-conscious about their habits, that’s a them-thing, not a you-thing.

At the same time, you are not a martyr for choosing not to drink. If you’re miserable to be around sober at a party, that’s something that may require some internal exploration as to what’s keeping you from having fun in these social settings. If you think you “just hate being around drunk people”, again, maybe explore where the distaste is coming from: are people not able to enjoy drinking just because you’re not included? These aren’t easy things to face the mirror about, but try not to judge yourself too harshly – we are all just figuring it out.

With plenty of good reasons for cutting down on the drink, from budget to health, it’s still not always easy to actually go without when it’s so commonplace in social situations. Remind yourself that you don’t owe anyone an explanation if it’s something you are doing for yourself. Let me know how it goes this season!

Sleep is for the Wise

Sleepy-bulldog-falls-asleep.gifWe become sleep-deprived without even noticing. A couple late nights on the weekend at my age and I will surely still feel cranky on Monday. Stay up too late spiraling down a Youtube documentary rabbit hole and I’ll need to schedule a recovery nap. The sleep debt creeps in slowly but eventually, enacts harsh consequences on my body and mind.

I used to be such a good sleeper! My mom brags that I grew easily from an idyllic, snoozy, baby to a teenage bookworm who read my book every night before drifting into peaceful sleep. I didn’t think about sleep or being tired – THAT’S how rested I was.

So, wtf happened.

As much as I am tempted to blame my induction into the world of poor sleep habits on the unnamed ex-boyfriend who required the sound of 80s sitcoms to fall asleep every night, the fact that I’ve been dependent on background noise to sleep for the remainder of my 20s…? Well, that’s on me. Oh…and anxiety.

The big bummer about using distraction techniques to manage anxious thoughts and feelings throughout the day is that when there are no more distractions, anxiety pounces on the opportunity to be heard. And I’ll tell you, that background noise is loud and does not soothe us into a restful slumber. Perhaps for the mind, bedtime is the equivalent of flinging your bra off at the end of the day and slipping into your apartment pants, and I can hardly hold THAT against my brain. But I am interested in improving my sleep habits to be less dependent on these modern sleep aids.

Many of us become dependent on that glass of wine, the melatonin, the medicinal toke, or perhaps even a more formal sedative agent to fall and stay asleep. And we do this because being tired is the pits. It affects our daily functioning, memory, mood – the side effects are endless. When sleep-deprived, our poor bodies look for energy sources wherever they can: sugary, sweet treats during the day, that mid-afternoon latte that gets us to 5pm*, the after-work nap. We are less able to resist the donut holes in the staff room not only because we are tired and need a boost, but our ability to reason and resist impulse has been compromised and we gravitate towards the quick fixes and easy comforts.

NEEDLESS TO SAY, subscribing to the modern “sleep is for the weak” ideology has had some very real consequences for both my mental health and my party thighs. For all the parents of small children reading this, you have my reverence. Chronic sleep-deprivation represents your sacrifice and you manage to keep your child alive and get to work**. I know only a sliver of your struggle.

Much like a poor diet can impact on your overall health, underestimating your need for sleep long enough and you’ll guarantee yourself a bad time. Your body may forgive you and adapt for a measure of time, but even the strongest and smartest need to refuel the tank.

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** I’ll save my thoughts about the pitiful and frankly, offensive, maternity leave policies I’ve become aware of for another day

All Queued Up

I’m a little late on my February picks, but it’s not because I haven’t been diving headfirst into all of the rabbit holes below. Note to self: DO NOT start re-watching Breaking Bad at 9pm on a Sunday – it WILL make for a sleep-deprived few weeks.

On My Nightstand:

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My Netflix Queue:

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In my Ears:

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Web Travels:

 

An Open Letter to Weight Watchers

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An open letter to Weight Watchers, in light of offering free memberships to teenagers

Dear Weight Watchers,

Your program is a rite of passage. Both my mother and grandma were on Weight Watchers in the 90s, at a time where cigarettes and Slimfast were also popular diet aids. They used to attend meetings together, and who can’t get behind female solidarity? Women coming together to talk about their struggles, finding strength in the collective?! I should really get myself to the nearest Weight Watchers meeting if the whole premise didn’t reek of bullshit.

No matter how you dress this up as “wellness” or “health”, your program is only one thing: A brilliant and manipulative business plan.

As the popular flavour of the day changes, (Cindy’s legs, Britney’s abs, Kim’s gravity defiance) the world tells women we are not quite good enough. But fear not! We can be the “best versions of themselves” by simply ignoring our body’s signals and hunger cues and obsessively tracking calories. Sorry, not calories…Points. And it will work! At first…

A hopeful woman will look at the Before and After photos and be inspired, take out her credit card, drink the sugar-free Koolaid, and agree to beat her body into taking up less space. And she will lose weight, because calories-in and calories-out is simple math. But the best part? The minute she stops tracking every morsel, loosens the reigns…She’ll be back. The revolving door of yoyo dieting all but guarantees you have a customer for life, as long as you keep telling women there is something wrong with their bodies. Like I said, brilliant business plan.

But why bring the children into it?

Teenagers, children, who are supposed to be absorbing the world and trying things, making connections, learning how to talk to people, and discovering who they are and what they stand for – Why the fuck should a kid know how many Points a bagel is? Where are the points for intelligence? Kindness? Creativity? Where does your program nourish those parts of their beings?

Growing brains and bodies are trying to figure out how to navigate this world, so I guess my question is, why are you distracting and limiting the children by suggesting they need to count and measure, pinch and resist?

The world will inevitably convince them that they aren’t meeting expectations, that there is always something to improve. Why are you throwing children into the hellscape of diet culture before the brain knows which way is up?

You’ll be happy to know that I went on my first diet when I was 6-years old, after a little girl in my class told me my thighs looked big in my bicycle shorts. Most years, I blew out the candles on my birthday cake with an earnest wish to be skinny. Thankfully, and hilariously, my wish was often followed by digging into a sweet slice. But there have been too many times where I’ve vowed to be “good” and deprived myself of experiences that threatened to break my diet. I’ve avoided swimming lessons, shorts in the summer, spaghetti straps, all while I followed the rules of dieting and waited for my better (ie: smaller) body.

Once, while on a similar diet (what I came to know as an eating disorder) I reached my goal weight! I had starved and crunched and punished my body into the number in my head that I had been told was “right”. And guess what? I maintained my goal weight for 12 whole hours. After eating my breakfast of apple, the ounces on the scale crept up and I was failing once more.

I did just as you asked, Weight Watchers, engaged in discussion about “temptations” and labelled food as “good” and “bad”, ate the pre-portioned snacks promising to “stave off hunger”. I counted and tallied, and juggled and budgeted my precious Points so I could have a slice of pizza with my girlfriends.

Just like my mother, and her mother before her, I paid good money and followed the rules, waiting for the day I would be good enough so I wouldn’t have to count anymore. That day never came. But you already knew that.

Aiming diet culture at children is heartless and greedy, no matter how it’s branded. Whatever it is you’re doing, do not try to sell it to children as “health”.

Be better,

Victoria Bain

All Queued Up

All Queued Up is a monthly run-down of what I’m reading, listening to, and watching, as well as the funny, heart-breaking, or interesting things I come across in my travels. I love knowing what other people are giving their attention and allowing into their minds, and I encourage you to share the the nuggets of wisdom, annoyances, or ideally, the peace you glean from the content you mull over. More importantly, I’d love to know what you think about what your consuming – does it ring true for you, is it insightful, or is it a flaming ball of fresh trash? I’ll start by sharing what I’m currently surrounding myself with.

My Nightstand: 

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My Netflix Queue: 

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Drug Lords

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In my ears: 

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Particularly this and this. 

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New Season of my creepiest/guiltiest pleasure

Web Travels: 

This Is Not a Sex Panic

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Every single day, the world gives us a reason to be blood-red mad. I hope that by educating myself and listening and looking for the good out there, that I can contribute to the healthy, constructive conversation, and maintain my sanity.

Until next month’s All Queued Up!

Battle of the Blues

Sad-SnowmanIt’s been a minute since my last article. As is the cyclical nature of mental health, December brought a dip that zapped my motivation to write, but more accurately, a dip that made me feel too self-conscious and vulnerable to share with “the world”. Adding to the mental health conversation is normally a source of confidence for me, however, when I don’t have a firm grasp on my symptoms or a plan of attack, my voice falters. Which makes it all the more important to keep sharing when I’m able to again.

The winter blues, or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a special brand of depression that will often coincide with the change in seasons, particularly as it related to drops in serotonin levels (a mood regulating hormone) and melatonin levels (your sleep hormone) and decreased exposure to sunlight in the winter months. This can be a common, yearly condition for the average person, and an especially bitter cocktail of symptoms to add to someone with existing mental health diagnoses.

I’ve been tracking the symptoms since November. Maybe you’ve noticed them too – The chronic fatigue, the irritability, the mental fogginess, the scant motivation, the sudden cravings for potato-based foods…

I’ve compiled a list of things I’ve tried to combat the winter blues, and I continue to add to it as the winter continues to stretch out before me.

Leaning into Winter: Perhaps I’m more of an indoor girl when it comes down to it, but I have always been a staunch “winter denier”, never fully facing the reality of the temperature outside or being prepared with the appropriate attire and can-do attitude. Winter will prevail. Acquiring hats, scarves, boots etc that I like and will wear has reduced my discomfort and improved my attitude. Not revolutionary, I get it. But for someone who always used to claim that I “always lose my gloves”, I now utilize mittens-on-a-string.

A contributing reason to my disdain for cold temperatures was that it eliminated some of my favourite fair weather activities like walking, hiking, and general outdoor hang-abouts. Realizing that being prepared for the cold means I could still go for a walk and get that all-important regular physical activity.

Vitamins: Studies suggest that a lack of vitamin D could contribute to SAD symptoms, so, with a why-not disposition, I incorporated a Vitamin D spray into my morning and evening routine.

I’ve been educating myself on the practice of juicing, that is, pulverizing pounds of fruits and vegetables into green juice, which claims to deliver essential vitamins and minerals to your cells in the most efficient way possible. While juicing studies has its critics, I’m open to including more fruits and vegetables into my diet in a way that doesn’t require tucking into an entire head of red cabbage in a one sitting.

Light Therapy: My ever-woke best friend gifted me a HappyLight this Christmas, a light therapy box that claims to provide the natural spectrum light missing from our lives in the winter months. I’ve only just started using it at work and have been making my early observations about its effectiveness, and will report back. Another “why not try it” in the war against SAD.

Hobbying: I used consider hobbying as limited to something creative, such as crafting or knitting or building model airplanes. Things that required a certain amount of skill that I just didn’t have. I didn’t consider that I had plenty of hobbies, as in interests and activities outside of work that bring me pleasure or that I glean value or knowledge from. I’ve come to recognize my passion for mental health as a personal hobby, and I consistently look to increase my knowledge and add to the conversation around this subject matter. My reading habits, podcast interests, even my Netflix queue, very much speak to my desire to absorb and learn more about mental health. If cooking is your thing, educate yourself – read more about it, try new recipes, watch the videos, and talk about it with like-minded individuals. Take an interest in your own interests! It concerns me that social media and mindless television has become a pseudo-hobby of sorts – something we do a lot that seems to give us pleasure. But what and where is the value? A conversation for another day.

Make butterflies: Simply put, it helps to have something to look forward to. If life does not seem to be throwing exciting events and opportunities your way, find a way to create those feel-good “looking forward” butterflies for yourself. Even while on a budget, when trips to sunny destinations are all but off the table, I try to have one or two little things to look forward to – a weekend with girlfriends, a date, a new book, a day of sporting, trying a new recipe – things that evoke what my precious friend calls “excited stomach” – to keep me motivated.

If you are so inclined, let me know what SAD symptoms you’ve noticed in yourself, and things that you might add to this list.

Baby on a Budget

It all started with a letter in September from my auto insurance company that they would not be renewing my coverage for the next year at the current rate I was paying. I hadn’t had to adjust my insurance for several years, and had all but put this expense out of my mind. I’ve never claimed to be good with finances, after all. But as I asked my mom how I should go about finding another provider as a “high-risk driver” (yikes) I have never felt more like a plastic bag blowing in the wind when it came to money.

I started asking people how they kept track of their spending. I think I half-hoped that budgeting required some rare, innate skill that I simply didn’t have, so I could continue to bury my head in the sand about my spending habits. Then, my best friend showed me how her banking app categorized and tracked her spending so that she could make conscious decisions about when she could afford to eat out at a restaurant that week or buy new winter boots this month.

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Breakdown of my bills and expenses during a healthy month

“Sometimes looking at my bank account feels gross,” she said, “but I’d rather know than not know.” The magic words I needed to hear. I needed to face the damage. It was no longer acceptable to make a habit of accumulating ever-more consumer debt. I’m supposed to be a grown-ass woman!

So, I started doing some research. My mom had been encouraging me to use an Excel spreadsheet to budget my spending, however, it felt clunky and unrealistic to type in expenses retroactively and hold on to receipts to ensure accurate numbers. I have enough clutter – there had to be an app for that. And then I found Mint. After connecting my bank accounts to the app, I saw the state of my finances in all its colourful glory, and it was…gross. My spending exploded wildly from month to month, on things I could barely remember buying. I could literally trace the peaks and valleys of my depression by tracking increases in spending on things like take-out, delivery, and fast food, and decreases in gas and travel purchases. Clearly times where I was not leaving the house and seeking comfort. And by the end of every month, I was putting more and more things on my credit card, because I simply had no cash left. The whole exercise was horrifying. But now I knew. I had developed some self-indulgent habits that were extremely costly and I was overspending every single month.

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The yellow reflects reckless spending under “Shopping”, “Uncategorized” and “Food &  Dining” in the months prior to having an organized budget

Mint made it easy to plug in my bills and arrange for pre-authorized payments so that all my bills were paid in cash. (Do I sound like an advertisement yet?) The app categorized my past spending and made suggestions for monthly budgets for what I regularly spent money on – groceries, gas, restaurants, coffee, pharmacy, cat food, etc. It became clear that spending $150 monthly on coffee like I was Beyonce, was living beyond my means, to put it mildly. Starbucks, and its wildly successful Gold Star customer reward program that made me a loyal minion, had no place in my new budget.

The knowledge of the boundaries and limits of my budget has allowed me to create habits that have a positive spillover effect into other parts of my life. Making my own coffee at home in the morning cuts financial costs as well as calories, yet I don’t feel deprived of taste and have created more time for myself in the morning. Meal planning requires a level of preparation and organization, so staying within budget promotes a cleaner kitchen space, something that has always felt elusive to me in the past.

You might be asking what working within a budget has to do with mental health, and before writing this post, I couldn’t put my finger on why managing my finances properly made me feel better. But, like I discussed in my previous post about the burden of keeping secrets, my unaddressed debt and poor financial hygiene weighed heavily on me because I didn’t own it. It was a sore spot that I didn’t want to face, and on some level of my subconscious mind, it bothered me.

The cycle of good habits I’m creating will serve me well when the next depressive low rolls around, because the routine is already in place. This is particularly crucial as winter descends, a season that traditionally does not treat me kindly. In learning to accept my financial reality and face consequences, I’m shedding light on one of my biggest blind spots. There is a sense of peace in lifting the lid on my shortcomings and living transparently.

Secrets Are Bad For You

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At some point in life, secrets are not always so fun. I already know what I’m getting for my birthday, that Santa Claus isn’t real, and I told all my childhood crushes that I was the secret admirer long ago. Sometimes I think there are no more good secrets, because as I reflect on the purpose and consequences of keeping secrets, I see how this can create more harm than joy.

In the wake of the #MeToo Harvey Weinstein explosion, it has become abundantly clear that the combination of power and secrecy have been fuelling abusive and harmful treatment of women for decades. And Hollywood has just taken the spotlight in this moment. To believe that the same dynamics are not at play in corporate settings, technology, labour industries, and government, is evidence of the pervasiveness of secrecy. The power of secrets can be found everywhere.

At its worst, my eating disorder was my best-kept secret. I would lie and sneak around in order to preserve that intoxicating sense of control I felt I had earned by restricting my intake. I felt empowered and superior in exerting willpower over my body, all the while, denying I was actively dieting and chasing the feeling of control. The lying, the secrecy, fuelled the ED because I had nothing to challenge the perspective of the hungry, sick voice in my head. Only when I was finally confronted by my family and my doctor about the obsession with eating (or not eating) and food, did my secret finally spill out and I felt embarrassed and weak. I wasn’t in control at all – my illness had been dictating my every mouthful, social event, and passing thought. It had been controlling me. This secret had imprisoned my mind and harmed my body.

Working as a Probation and Parole Officer, I see countless clients who have endured some form of trauma or abuse that has deeply affected their lives, and without a doubt has contributed to the reasons they are seated across from me in my office. Whether they experienced abuse as children, or experience it present day in a toxic domestic relationship, clients disclose that their abuse was founded upon secrecy. To protect a loved one, an abuser, families and children, fear or threat of life or livelihood– I’ve heard every combination of reasons why a victim would keep their abuse a secret. And therein lies the power, and permits the harm to continue.

While I generally try to navigate my life being as forthcoming as possible (this blog being one of a number of exercises in honesty) at one time, I allowed myself to be swept up in secrecy in my personal life. The effect of keeping the secret was poisonous, and took its toll on my sense of self. I was lying to my friends, my family, and myself– and while I did not have the mental toughness to punish my physical body like I did when I was a teenager, I was in a near-constant state of emotional self-harm. All that negativity had to be directed somewhere, and my self-esteem and confidence were easy targets. Keeping secrets created a toxic discrepancy within me that I could not live comfortably with. I wanted to be a good person, but I was not acting like one.

Freeing myself from secrets felt like shedding a snakeskin, and I felt immediate relief from it’s hold on me. I could honestly believe others when they reminded me that I’m a good friend, that I’m thoughtful and a good listener. I remembered that I can expect from others everything I’m willing to give in relationships, that I don’t have to settle. I had forgotten that being honest with myself and being happy can be achieved at the same time. Who I want to be and who I am are back in alignment, and I can feel good about that. Growing up may mean there are fewer fun secrets left, but that’s okay with me.