The ‘hell no’ limit

November 11, 2016

Louis CK has a skit on gaining weight where he talks about stepping on the scale and reaches a point where he finally has a reaction. After noticing his pants getting tight, and being vaguely aware of eating until he hates himself, he calls it the ‘hell no’ weight. Right up until you reach that point, can somehow be okay with the slow progression of habits you don’t really like, until there’s some kind of breaking point that you didn’t know existed, but there it is – emotionally and mentally you can’t deny things anymore. So… this applies to drinking, right?One of the tricks of trying to moderate after spending some time overdrinking is that you’ve both blown past any sane limits to drinking that you might have had in your previous life, before you began drinking way too much. And now you’re trying to return from the other side of that. You had to keep going beyond discomfort, beyond loss, confusion and despair and turn yourself around.

So now you’re heading back, you’re trying to drink in a healthier way. You read the MM guidelines. You make some rules. You might start slowly and just taper your drinking, or maybe you do a 30 days sober and then take a deep breath and tentatively decide to start again. Whichever approach you take, you will find yourself constantly testing and reconsidering your rules and limits. You might struggle to follow them, or perhaps avoid them with fear.

The problem that you’ll run into is that you aren’t sure where your ‘hell no’ limit is. If you’re anything like me, you probably passed a few of these crisis points and yet kept on going. How did that happen? You didn’t think you would, but you did. Knowing that kind of thing about yourself changes you as a human being. It wasn’t until the last time, the most recent time, and hopefully the hardest and most eye-opening time that you’ve felt this way and now you want to make it stick. Drinking at all can feel tentative and shaky. Will I ever be a normal drinker again?

I want to help you feel less afraid, without letting you get too overconfident. I’ve got two perspectives that I hope will help.

  1. Drinking does not lead to overdrinking. The urge to escape your feelings is what made you drink too much.
  2. It’s going to be a process of partial victories and failures, and it really helps if you don’t disasterize any one thing too much.

So let’s talk about feelings. Alcohol makes you clumsy and unable to do much higher reasoning, but what it’s really good for is not feeling anything and not caring any more. That’s why people drink too much. No one becomes an alcoholic due to the love of an excellent Chardonnay. Addictions are not brought on by the sense of ‘hey, this is fun.’ They show up much later than that, when the fun is long gone and you’ve already figured out how to great drunk on the cheapest booze you can find. But sure, maybe you began with innocent but excessive habits and you’re not sure that you won’t repeat the cycle.

My thoughts on this are that you will never let your fall into bad habits so innocent again. You’re not an innocent at this. Yes, bad habits can be compelling, but if your eyes aren’t open then it’s because you’re holding them shut on purpose. That willful ignorance can happen during a long, slow slide from moderation into overdrinking, or it can snap in a single night when you ‘fall off the wagon’ and jump from abstinence back into binging.

What will protect you from this self-deceit is the work you’ve done re-learning how to feel, to sit uncomfortably with the things that frighten and shame you and your work to deal with your emotions with healthy coping tools. Meditation, exercise, social support, planning and tracking your drinking are all components of learning to moderate your drinking. When you have reasons not to drink, you will drink less. When alcohol serves fewer purposes, you will drink less. The bulk of the work you need to do is emotional, even if it just seems like a bunch of counting and tracking plans at the time.

The second aspect is an awareness that this is a process. I remember being shocked when I first added up all my drinking. If someone had told me a few years earlier that I’d ever drink that much, I would have laughed at them. As it was, I was both surprised and somehow calmed by an understanding of why I felt so awful so much of the time. I was slowly poisoning myself. Having gone to that point, I now have to re-set my limits. Yes, there’s the MM guidelines and the studies on safe drinking, but what I want to know is my ‘hell no’ limit. Has it re-set too? Has it come down from the stratosphere to a place I can trust?

Drinking too much has taught me that trust is a gradual thing. In every relationship there are things we can trust, and not trust, about a person. That’s just human nature. We’re a mix of strengths and weaknesses.

When we’ve damaged our ability to trust ourselves, it’s a tricky thing to re-learn. The stakes are high – if we fail, we feel that we’ll end up overdrinking again, and maybe this time it’ll be permanent.

As with any relationship, we build trust slowly. Can I be in a bar without buying a drink? Can I have one drink and stop? Can I make a plan and stick to it? Can I  keep alcohol in the house? Test yourself in many small ways. Building that connection and faith in yourself is very reassuring, and helps you love yourself a little bit more. That love, in the long run, will help immunize you against overdrinking.

I do Dryuary every year, and for the month of December I also stop planning my drinks. I know that, whatever I do, I’m going to snap back out of it in January, that’s my safety net. But I want to get comfortable with my instincts. This process isn’t for everyone, I should add. And it’s not the kind of thing  to do out of the gate. It was the final frontier of learning that I could find my stop button, and do it every time. The first year, I barely drank anything. I was too nervous, I think. I was grateful that I instinctively respected that fear and stayed away. Last December went well except for one week where I drank every night. I had party after party and on the one night off, well… I drank that night too.I’m not even sure of that weekly total, except that it averaged 3-5 drinks per night.

I felt physically awful by the end, and my ‘hell no’ moment arrived by the Sunday morning right on cue. “I hate this” I thought, “I used to do this every damn week? I need a break.” I was honestly relieved that my response was emotional and genuine. I wasn’t trying to push my limit or overdrink on purpose, but I admit it felt good that my normal instincts came through for me. It means a lot more than knowing I’ve stayed within externally imposed tracking and totals. I learned 2 things about myself that week: that without any guidelines I do still have a tendency to overdrink, but that I’m also healthy enough to want to stop. I want to live now. I want to be healthy. I’ve healed a lot and I won’t stop. There’s a beautiful moment when you realize you’ve changed as a person and you can never go back. I know I’m not bulletproof  – I still have the history with drinking I have and still managed to take it too far – but trusting myself has been part of my journey to change myself relationship with myself, and I’m grateful.

I’m looking forward to a (moderate) December AND a sober Dryuary again this year.



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