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!

Hello, Nourished Life

I’m in the process of saying goodbye to somebody. Unlike most goodbyes, that we want to avoid because they are sad, this is a goodbye I happily walk toward. I’m saying goodbye to this girl:


She looks happy right? She seems nice, confident, smiling. This is where she fools you.

Although I was 20-years old when this photo was taken, when I look at this, all I see now is a sick little girl with her collarbones and neck tendons jutting out, thinning hair, and no boobs to hold her dress up. A girl who ate only salads, who tried to literally outrun self-esteem issues at a rate of 15km per day. A girl who was scared of food and scared to miss a workout. A girl who lost her period for months due to restrictive eating and over-exercise. A girl whose problematic body behaviours went unnoticed because her BMI was still “within range,” even when her body was screaming that this weight wasn’t sustainable. A girl who regularly received reinforcement in the form of compliments that she looked great and to “keep it up.”

Imagine how much I could have accomplished had I directed even a quarter of the brain power I had put toward taking up less space in the world, towards my schooling and future career… I like to think I’d be backing up the Brinks truck into the driveway of my summer home.

I won’t say it’s not hard to look back on these photos and know that I was much thinner then than I am now. When these images pop up unexpectedly (Facebook, you’re the worst), I give myself a moment to float around in those feelings of inadequacy – if only I had appreciated my body then, and had not been so self-conscious with it, etc, etc, ad nauseam. There is a part of me who still looks for this girl when I see photos of myself now, and when I don’t see her, the same part of me wants to look away and avoid acknowledging the reality of my actual, real, nourished body.

Soon enough however, in my back of my brain I hear the voice of my best friend Kim chanting, “No! More! Skeletor!” and I’m rushed back to the truth: That girl had a lot to learn. I’m smarter than that girl. I’m kinder. I’m a better listener, a better friend. I love myself more. My hair doesn’t fall out, but grows in long and shiny. I have a butt and boobs (both of which took a notable leave of absence during the time this photo was taken). I have hobbies other than obsessing over food labels and tracking burned calories.

I don’t miss her. Being obsessed with controlling my body and what went into it left little room to think about other people, and for the life of me, I can’t recall many instances during this time where I helped someone or threw myself into a project that wasn’t all about me. Disordered eating and exercise habits are an isolating and all-consuming endeavour in themselves, in addition to the effort put forth to avoid detection from others. This was a lonely, lonely life.

My life now nourishes me. I make a concerted effort to fill my world with good things – good people, good food, good movement, good thoughts – instead of trying to deprive my body and mind of what it wants. I consciously include things in my life that make me feel whole and allow autonomy over my life, something I was always pursuing but never achieved while restricting.

Of course there are moments where I wish I didn’t worry about what my body looks like, and I fool myself into thinking that women thinner than me could not begin to understand how I feel. Of course I deflate a little inside if someone makes a comment about how thin (and blond) I was back then. But I know these feelings are leftover from when I truly believed that my body size determined my worth, and I know better now. Media and society tell us that thinner is better, more attractive, the only kind of beautiful that matters, and we must have either reached that ideal or be punishing ourselves towards it. But at what cost? I will tell you for free that it is not worth everything I gave up in the pursuit of making myself smaller.

Along with a few LBs, I’ve gained self-awareness, true friendship, a passionate career, and a lifetime worth of belly-laughs. If gaining all this means adjusting my ideals of thinness and worthiness and saying goodbye to the sick little person featured above, then girl, bye.

Seeking: Woman with Mental Illness

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Dating is difficult enough with its uncertainties and vulnerabilities, without throwing the challenges of mental health into the mix, however, trying to build a relationship when one or both parties has a mental illness requires, I would argue, even more care and consideration.

Dating in this modern day is, in a word, uninspiring.

With dating apps promoting “drive-thru” dating that promises another potential mate with the next swipe of a finger if you don’t like the one in front of you, it’s no surprise that we have grown accustomed to a “grass is greener” mentality towards relationship-building. If we are underwhelmed by our newest match at first impression, there are five more equally attractive folks within a 2km radius. And while many may find the casual culture of dating fun and free from pressure, this environment can become a confusing game for an individual with a mental illness.

As always, I speak only from my experience, but considering I’ve passed the crest of a decade of membership in the romantic dating realm, I feel confident that I’ve collected at least some nuggets of wisdom.

The biggest struggle I’ve found is how to incorporate a conversation about mental health into the dating equation with someone you’re interested in. While this can come up more organically when meeting people through friends and connections, broaching the subject of my mental illness remains one of the biggest hesitations in my dating life, regardless of how we meet. I’ve become more comfortable with identifying with depression in recent years, however, it is not necessarily a topic that comes up authentically and comfortably on a first date at East Side Marios.

Does a person I’ve just met require or want this information? Is sharing this part of myself contributing or detracting from my otherwise charming first impression? I guess if I decide to bring it up with someone, their positive or negative reaction would certainly help form my opinion about whether or not they are someone I want in my life. But I also don’t want to misrepresent myself by sharing my mental health struggles when this other person only knows a few things about me, like my cat’s name and where I went to school. With such little information about me, someone else may assume my depression may seem like a much larger part of my identity than it probably is.

However, I’ve certainly made the mistake of hiding my mental illness behind the “cool girl” façade (and if you’ve read or seen the movie Gone Girl, you will know of what I speak) where I found myself initially allowing myself to be strung along going with the flow, and “down for anything” because I was so cool like that. I should have known, being the farthest thing from cool, that my mental illness would eventually rub up uncomfortably against the cool girl disguise, and the discrepancy between how I felt and how I acted would make me miserable. I never felt like I could explain to someone that I liked why I needed to pull away, or how uncertainty made me spiral out, because I wasn’t certain the truth would be accepted. After all, this other person didn’t know me very well.

I also found it difficult to determine how I myself felt about someone else because my anxiety causes me to be very concerned with how I am perceived and accepted by others. I was more worried about being liked than taking the time and energy to decide if I actually liked him – was he kind, patient, mature, funny, and generally my kind of person. Was I 100% myself around him? If not now, could I be?

I’ve taken away a number of lessons and endured a few romantic fumbles that, if I haven’t been able to laugh at by now, I will one day. In the meantime, I’ve left drive-thru dating behind and I’m focusing on relationships that add both comfort and novelty to my life, where I feel at ease being myself.

What to Give a Fuck About

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This winter was brutal. After a long and sunless couple of months, I feel like I am finally waking up. As much as I wish my spirit animal is an enthusiastic teacup pig, I know I embody many more of the qualities of a hibernating brown bear.

I feel better. Between the improved weather, bedtime routine adjustments, and yet another change in medication, I am feeling more myself and better able to adapt to life’s inconveniences. Don’t forget the “soft” changes I’ve made in adding more creative and mindful outlets to my day-to-day, which you may have read about here.

I think the most important adjustment I’ve made involves a change in mindset that I’ve adopted from Mark Manson’s book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life, a book that supports understanding what you value, discovering what is really important and not letting everything else bother you so much.

The book doesn’t pretend that life can exist without problems – life will have problems and that’s all but guaranteed. But Manson asks the reader to determine what problems we wouldn’t mind having. If someone wants to make a ton of money and be highly successful in their career, they may have to deal with the problem of working late and spending most of your time at the office. For one person, working late is a problem they wouldn’t mind having – they love what they do and want to spend lots of time doing it. For someone else, working late means time away from home, which would be a problem they could not happily live with.

Someone who wants kids and who values raising a family will have their own problems – sleepless nights, less free time, hundreds of loads of laundry, and the parents’ own needs and wants taking a back seat initially. These are problems that many parents would gladly choose as they raise their kids.

As I surface from a depressive episode that took me out at the knees, I’ve started identifying what I give a fuck about and what kind of problems I don’t mind having. I give a fuck about showing up for my family and friends, recognizing the big and small wins with them. This means hustling across this great province to do so, which costs money. I don’t mind having money problems in exchange for healthy relationships because my people make me happy. For someone else, they couldn’t live with money problems and would choose to have another problem instead.

Taking the pressure off to care about everything has significantly improved my mental well-being. Being more selective about what I give a fuck about has made room for the things that are really important, and also recognizing that life is not designed to be comfortable at all times. If my expectation is that my life is supposed to be free of hardship, perfectly organized and with gorgeous filtered lighting, I am setting myself up to be sorely disappointed. Instead, I give myself permission to be less than perfectly put together, to choose a few things to care about and work on those, and cut myself a little slack for the rest.

 

A Case of Self-Care

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With the ever-increasing awareness of mental health issues, we’ve likely come across the concept of self-care as it pertains to reducing stress and managing mental illness. If you’ve been encouraged to take a bath on occasion, exercise, or unwind with a glass of wine the evening, it might have been in the name of self-care.

Having worked in a university setting as a student and professional staff, I have been encouraged to engage in self-care practices since I was a teenager. Perhaps in its overuse, self-care has lost its meaning for me, or I’ve convinced myself I don’t have time for it. Either way, until recently, I had considered self-care and its practice to be a touch “froufrou”. Of course taking time for oneself would be nice, however, things need to get done, and quite frankly, I’m tired.

In the past month, however, my therapist and I discussed reframing self-care into a concerted effort to engage in a relationship with self. Another frilly thought, at first glance. But then I thought about the relationships in my life and the effort it takes to maintain and nurture them, and realized that if I was dating myself, I would dump me.

Looking at healthy relationships around me, I see people making an effort to listen and understand their partners, taking on an equal of household responsibilities, cooking healthy meals together, trying new things, and occasionally unplugging from electronics and social media. In short, making their relationships/friends a priority and behaving as such. When is the last time I made my relationship with myself a priority? As my own oldest friend, I admit, I have neglected myself shamefully.

So this past month I have focused on jumping two feet into a relationship with self, reminding myself to take it slow and not rush into things. Wouldn’t want to scare myself off, after all.

This month, I rekindled a creative outlet in crafting and even entertained the idea of learning to crochet. I have had a quiet night in binge-watching Glee. I have taken myself to a movie. I have gone on long bike rides. I got my hair cut and made time to put make-up on in the morning. I unplugged from social media when I maxed out my cell phone data (not my choice). I did my dishes right away, because if I would do that for someone else, why wouldn’t I do that for myself?

I tried to take the pressure off myself in terms of attempting to remove all the negative symptoms associated with my illness, but instead worked to add things to my life that bring me closer to my most authentic self. Why? Because all of the loved ones in my life are in receipt of my generosity, my thoughtfulness and my time, and I need to devote just as much of that energy into my oldest and greatest relationship: the one with myself.

I’m stuck with me for life, so if that relationship is suffering, it’s no one’s responsibility but my own.

In this case, it’s not you, or anyone else.

It’s me.

Eating Disorders as Coping Mechanisms

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For me, there is no talking about mental health without talking about body image. I remember feeling the pervasive desire for thinness, the necessity of dieting, and seeing food as either “bad” or “good” from as young as 6 years old. Blame fat-free food marketing of the 90s, or blame my vast collection of Barbie dolls, but somehow my body has consistently been a target for negativity. On the heels of Canada’s Eating Disorders Awareness Week, I thought it appropriate to share how my relationship with my body and food became my first outlet for my mental health issues.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, and as I’m sure you can relate, we all have our coping mechanisms for managing our mental health, and these strategies sit on a spectrum of things that can be healthy for us, or not so much. You’ll recall that in my early 20s, I used work, my social life and a shocking amount of cocktails to avoid confronting depressive feelings. However, as an adolescent, these coping mechanisms weren’t available to me, and my world was much smaller and contained.

I developed an eating disorder in high school in response to an unstable and stressful home environment. At a time in my household when I had no control over what went on and could never predict what I was walking into on a given day, what I ate and managing my weight became the outlet where I channeled all of my energy, stress and negative emotions. While I was busy obsessively reading food labels and writing lists of calories I had consumed that day, I was distracted from what was going on at home.

Living with this disorder was an exhausting experience, defined by cycles of guilt and joy that were completely dependent on the number on that scale. My unrelenting inner critic kept me laser focused on my goal: to be smaller, to take up less room in the world. Thoughts of how I could require less food consumed my day, so there was not an ounce of room left in my mind to feel the full impact of life at home.

And like many coping mechanisms, it worked for a time. Losing weight and eating very little felt like an accomplishment to me, at a time when my home life was not a source of confidence or security. At the very least, I would think to myself, I had this under control.

Only my oldest childhood friend and boyfriend ever called me out on my bullshit, asking me where my lunch was, or not believing that I had “already eaten”. At the time, I felt attacked – how dare they challenge me? Now I see their confrontations as the sincerest act of love and as much as they could do as teenagers themselves.

As my home life improved and I moved away to university, the pull of the disorder had quieted and I found myself able to loosen the reigns on such restrictive eating patterns. I was happier, and not merely surviving.

Some residual effects of the illness remain, mostly in the form of emotional self-harm. This is how I describe the repeating soundtrack of negativity that I will sometimes allow to play over and over in my mind. This can range from remembering all of my most embarrassing moments in quick and vivid succession, to beating myself up for drinking too much, to finding myself in a social media black hole comparing myself to strangers on the Internet – all of which certainly fall under the “not-so-good-for-you” category.

There is no physical harm, but I have to be careful – emotional self-harm becomes reminiscent of the pervasive thought patterns of my disorder that kept me safe for a time, but nonetheless controlled my thoughts and behaviours for too long.

I also have this weird aversion to bagels. Someone had told me once, at a clearly impressionable time, that bagels have as many calories as 5 pieces of bread. I can imagine that frightened me to no end and thus, I have not eaten a bagel since 2005. There’s a fleet of new flavours at Tim Hortons that I have never tried, and I’m finding myself a little curious…

Avoiding bagels was one of many coping mechanisms that worked for me for a time and so I have to respect them. They served their purpose. Now, I have better tools, stronger relationships, and more love to give myself, so maybe I don’t need that one anymore.