By: Tess Brigham
Sandy has had the worst day! She had back-to-back meetings that took up most of her day, and her boss yelled at her for something she didn’t even do. On top of that, she skipped lunch and the quick 5 minutes she had to herself were spent reading nasty texts from her roommate.
By 6:00 pm Sandy was more than burned out. She was still angry with her boss, she hated that all of her friends had boyfriends now, she got no sleep last night, and she was starving. Her breakfast and lunch were just protein bars and coffee once again. On top of it all, the last thing she wanted to do was go home, because she knew her roommate would be there and she doesn’t have it in her for yet another argument.
That’s when one of her co-workers swooped in to save her like a knight in shining armor: “Hey Sandy…you coming to happy hour tonight?” Just like that, Sandy knew she could go forget the day she had.
Can you relate to Sandy? I know I can.
When I was in my twenties, drinks after work were a regular part of my life. After a day of being overworked, underpaid, and incredibly unappreciated, it was the only way I knew how to deal with my feelings. It seemed like the only answer at the time. I was surrounded by friends having a good time, and the drinks would numb the feelings of unhappiness and frustration from the day/week.
Dinner was usually a slice of (okay maybe even an entire) pizza on the way home. The rest of the night would be a blur. All of the things I needed to do at home (laundry, pay bills, clean my room, etc.) were forgotten as I collapsed into bed.
The next day, my alarm would go off and rinse, set, repeat.
Now this wasn’t every day for an entire decade. I did manage to hit the gym at times, pay my bills, have clean clothes, call my mother. Yet, at the same time, these innocent happy hours and nights out partying with friends and colleagues were unconsciously reinforcing a bad and destructive pattern of thinking. It went like this…
When life gets hard and when I feel exhausted, lonely, and lost, a good way to cope is to party my feelings away...
I was very lucky because I never struggled with a substance abuse issue.* In reality, my problem wasn’t actually alcohol or drugs, it was simply my reliance on drinking and partying to manage my emotions and solve my problems.
You may have heard that expression, “Alcohol is a short-term solution to a long-term problem.” When you’ve had a rough day or you feel pretty rotten about your relationship status and the first thing you want to do is have a couple of drinks, that’s not the end of the world. Most of us have done this before, more than once. When you're having these problems in life, it's not easy to stop and look inside yourself and ask uncomfortable questions. Questions like, “Is this really the job for me?” “Why do I continue to get into relationships with people that don’t treat me very well?” “Why isn’t my life turning out the way I had planned?” The thing is, alcohol and drugs don’t move you forward. They keep you stuck, or even worse, they bring you down. Unlike other ways of coping with our problems (i.e. exercise, meditation, journaling, therapy, etc.) this “solution” numbs the pain, it doesn’t “solve” the pain.
If this sounds like you, then it’s time to stop using drinking and partying as your Band-Aid to the gushing wound that is your life. Alright…I know that sounds a little dramatic…but I had to get your attention.
This is what I challenge you to start doing, each and every time you feel the pull to go to happy hour or to spend your weekends going from bar to club to party and back to the bar. I want you to ask yourself these 3 (three) questions:
1) “What am I thinking and feeling right now?”
Take a minute and check in with your mind and body. Ask yourself, “What am I thinking about? What am I feeling right now? How does my body feel?”
Don’t just stop and immediately think, “Yeah I’m good.” That’s not the point. You want to take some time to be mindful of your thoughts and feelings. We tend to live in the past or in the future, thinking, worrying, wondering about how we were wronged in the past and/or what we fear may or may not happen in the future.
Most of us make the majority of our decisions not based on what feels right for us today, but on what we fear or what we regret. When we make decisions and choices based on fear or regret – it never turns out very well.
What is going on with you right here, right now.
2) “Is alcohol or drugs what I really need right now?”
Now that you’ve got a good idea of how you’re feeling, it’s time to ask yourself, “Should I be drinking or using drugs?”
Think about it this way. Everything our parents did for us as kids, we need to do for ourselves now that we’re adults. Just like getting enough sleep, eating a balanced diet, and exercising, the choices we make on a daily basis affects every other aspect of our lives. Do you really want the choices you make on a Friday night to negatively affect the rest of your weekend? How nice would it be to instead have a Saturday morning where you wake up feeling refreshed and ready to take on the day?
3) “Is there something else I could use more than a cocktail?”
If you’re like Sandy (tired, unhappy, drained, and hungry) then you need to figure out what it is that you really need (hint: it’s not beer).
There’s a simple tool you can use to help you figure out what you need. It’s something that’s used with people who are early in their recovery – the acronym HALT (Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired).
Ask yourself, “Am I hungry? When did I eat last?” “Am I angry with myself or someone else?” “Am I just feeling lonely and need more connection and going out and partying seems like the only way to be around people?” “Am I tired? Would I feel better if I just got some sleep and started over tomorrow?”
When you ask yourself these questions, you may realize that what your body needs is something more productive than alcohol or drugs. Eat a well-balanced meal for dinner. Write down your thoughts and frustrations in your journal. Ask a friend out for coffee the next morning. Go to sleep, and sleep in.
My hope is you don’t feel like I’ve spent the last ten minutes of your life lecturing you about the dangers of drugs and alcohol. When you’re young and everyone is out partying and having fun, it’s hard to say “no” and head home. I feel you…I’ve been there. My hope instead is you take my words of wisdom and years of experience and make better and more mindful choices so you can live the life you truly deserve.
*If you’re questioning your use, you can take a test today to determine if you meet the diagnostic criteria for Alcohol Abuse or Dependence: https://www.ncadd.org/get-help/take-the-test/am-i-alcoholic-self-test If you’re concerned about your drug and/or alcohol use, please reach out for help.