Experiments in Happiness: No Alcohol, One Month

Recap: My New Year’s resolution is to stop externalizing my happiness. This year, I’m focusing on my own behaviors and thought processes and experimenting with altering them—one per month—in order to become a more self-aware, self-assured person. You can also access my Huffington Post archive here for past installments.

January: No alcohol, one month.

When we woke up last Tuesday morning, my boyfriend confidently declared: “The tide is turning! The tide. Is. Turning.”

This has turned out to be mostly true since then, but even the weekend before that brought fresh joys indignities. (For a full summary of our week of indignities, which includes losing jobs, gaining medical bills, and getting bed bugs and food poisoning, read my last post.) During snow-diva Jonas, there was some kind of pipe issue in upper Manhattan that left a lot of Washington Heights (and us) with brown tap water all weekend. After I reported it, 311 told me it was “safe to drink,” which I declined to verify, because screw you, I’ve already been felled by foodborne illness this week and I know how irony works.

The final little blow came last Friday night when the boyf and I found ourselves on the floor—literally—after our air mattress deflated. The cause? What appeared to be (read: definitely were) claw-holes from our highly agitated cats who had chased down and dismembered a roach earlier, scrambling all over the furniture and, presumably, the mattress. We found half the roach under the deflated mattress, and we CSI’d our way to that sophisticated conclusion. Even on their best days, our cats are not so much like normal housecats but more like temperate weasels, so really, the fact that it took them a whole eight days to puncture our air mattress is somewhat of a miracle. That night, we slept in a nest of blankets and sadness on the floor, and the next day we abandoned our apartment to its hostile menagerie and stayed with friends for the next three days until Tuesday, when the exterminator finally came. This means that we’re officially sleeping in our bed again after nearly two weeks, but the ordeal is far from over.

Can I tell you guys a few things about having bed bugs? Everything that you own and everything around it has to be vacuumed every day. Everything that isn’t technically furniture has to be washed and dried on high heat, and everything that can only be washed or dried has to at least be one or the other and then sealed in a garbage bag. For everything that can’t go in a washer/dryer, you have to wipe it down, put it in a garbage bag that you then seal, and then put that bag on a rocket and shoot it into orbit while solving a riddle from a really pissy troll. And then you have to live exactly like that—with a mountain of anonymous, sealed black trash bags staring at you, judging your life—for three weeks while your apartment gets weekly chemical treatments.

For as common as bed bugs are in New York City, I found very few answers in online forums to the pressing questions I had about the process. Questions like: “How do I not be twenty-four-sev naked while all my clothes are in trash prison?” or “How do I rationally explain to below-average cats that they have to be packed up and taken to the basement three weeks in a row?” and “What kinds of creative genetic disorders will my children have after I roll around in pesticides for 21 days?”

Really, it’s all the fun of packing to move across the country and unpacking once you get there but with 100% more futility and bugs that eat your blood.

But all of that is completely beside the point, because I am happy to report that I have not had a single drop to drink! Seriously. I watched significant chunks of my life catch fire and burn around me, and I did not kick back and enjoy the flames with a glass of wine. And I feel like I should be proud of myself for saying that I wasn’t going to do something that I a) like doing and b) is highly integrated into my social life, and then actually managing not to do it. I should be proud of that. But mostly I’m just irritated that sometimes there was really tasty-looking beer around and I didn’t try it. Life’s short, and I love porters.

Honestly, this month’s experiment was contaminated by the rest of my life being decidedly not business-as-usual. So to assess how not drinking did or did not make me feel according to the metrics I laid out previously feels a little pointless; I couldn’t control the variables. I felt terrible for most of the month, and basically none of that had anything to do with my relationship to alcohol. So no, I did not cry about my problems over a beer with friends—I just cried. And it kinda would have been nice to have a beer.

So I’m scrapping the metrics for this post—my petri dish got mold in it. In lieu of the full rundown, here’s a quick portrait of my state of being:

I ate a bunch of consolation cookies the past two weeks and I haven’t been to the gym because my sports bras are MIA in the trash bag city and also I super duper majorly didn’t feel like it. I’m worried about a whole slew of things that have to do with careers and money and health, and I’m honestly scared of celebrating anything for my birthday next month because I’m convinced that something will go wrong.

But on Tuesday night, we got to sleep in our bed again. The tide is turning. The tide. Is. Turning.

So cheers, January. You sucked.

February’s experiment: Meditation.

See you soon.

Experiments in Happiness: No alcohol, week two

Recap: My New Year’s resolution is to stop externalizing my happiness. This year, I’m focusing on my own behaviors and thought processes and experimenting with altering them—one per month—in order to become a more self-aware, self-assured person. You can also access my Huffington Post archive here for past installments.

January: No alcohol, week two.

Guys, I need a drink. Like if there were ever a week when I just wanted to come home, crack open a beer and chill the eff out, it was this one.

Let me back up and say this: Not drinking for two weeks hasn’t been super hard. After week one, I was like, “I’m nailing this!”—as if not drinking was actually something to be proud of instead of just a thing that millions of people do every day.

One of the reasons I picked no alcohol to kick off my year of experiments was because I noticed drinking more in December than at any other point in my life. I couldn’t go more than a day or two at a time without some kind of holiday party, happy hour, show, or night out. Even when I was home for the holidays, I visited a new brewery with friends and my family even did a BYOB painting event. I wasn’t repeatedly drinking to excess, mind you, but having one or two drinks almost every day really adds up. I gained some weight in December and felt a little doughy and lethargic returning home to New York.

What I didn’t know is that “dry January” is actually somewhat of a thing, especially in the UK—it just seemed like a natural way to start out. And I didn’t find it that hard to say no to drinks, and explaining why was actually a good conversation starter.

But then this past Tuesday happened. And this past Tuesday, my boyfriend (whom I live with) got a call that his temp job, which was supposed to last another four months, was being cut short—like, tomorrow-is-your-last-day short. Then he opened the mail to find a $500 medical bill, which we thought really sucked until the very next day, when there was a second $500 medical bill and we reevaluated the meaning of the word. Which brings us to Thursday night, when the sporadic bug bites the boyf had been getting every few days were revealed to be caused by bed bugs. BED BUGS. I know—I just can’t even, too.

I’ve joked that I’m not a real New Yorker because I’ve never been mugged and I’ve never had bed bugs, and now having had them, I can say that was a stupid, irresponsible joke and I’m very, very sorry. The boyf and I stayed up until 2:30am vacuuming our mattress, bagging up our sheets and bed skirt, and disinfecting our entire bedframe, which appeared to be the bugs’ stronghold. We’ve been sleeping on our air mattress in the living room. On Friday, I went to work like a zombie and the boyf did about $30 of laundry, which will remain bagged up all over our small apartment until the exterminator comes, which is supposed to be soon, but given our landlord’s track record, who actually knows when? Until then, we’re camping in our living room with a majority of our cloth possessions wrapped in plastic.

(PSA: A significant percentage of the population doesn’t react when bitten by bed bugs. If only one person in your household is seeing bites, don’t assume it can’t be bed bugs until it is undeniably bed bugs. Don’t make our mistakes! Save yourselves!)

To cap off the long holiday weekend, I got food poisoning, confirming that the only place less comfortable to sleep than the air mattress is my bathroom floor.

So now I hope you can appreciate why the only thing I wanted to do this weekend was cry into a beer or four. Not saying I would have otherwise drank myself into oblivion, but I needed to do a fair bit of de-stressing and venting, and both of those things feel more cathartic with a beer in my hand—though not after the food poisoning. With our finances now devastated and our domestic life exploded for the near future, I feel pretty confident saying that things can only get better from here, and if they don’t then someone has died. (Probably me.)

As far as the actual effects of not drinking for two weeks, I’ll run through the relevant criteria I outlined in my last post. Like I said, not every category will apply.

Body

Energy: I do feel like I’ve been sleeping through the night more consistently, perhaps owing to the “drunkard’s dawn” effect of drinking and not having to get up and go to the bathroom as my kidneys work overtime from two glasses of wine. Consequently, I’ve felt better rested this month than last. This could also be a result of having fewer evening/holiday engagements.

Weight: When I came home from the holidays, I weighted about 148 lbs—not terribly overweight for being just under 5’7″, but also about 8 lbs over what I’d ideally like to weigh from a “my clothes look good on me” standpoint. Since teetotaling, I’ve dropped about 2 lbs without changing really anything else about how I was eating or exercising.

Unfortunately, I do find that I’m eating more sweets and drinking more soda, neither of which makes me happy. Normally, meeting up with friends or at my office’s weekly Friday happy hour, I’ll drink. Now, because I can’t have a rum and Coke, I feel compelled to still have a Coke while I hang out. Out at bar with friends means that I’m ordering a dessert instead of beer so I’m not just sitting there guzzling free water and pissing off the bartender.

Mind

Stress: I’m going to go ahead and say that I can’t accurately assess whether my stress level has been affected by not drinking, given all the crap that’s been happening lately. In fact, I might even go as far as to say that if I could have decompressed with some drinks, I might feel a little better about the general downward chaos I’ve been in recently.

Savings: It’s pretty safe to say that dessert and soda cost less than alcohol, so in the money-saving department, I feel pretty good. I had a $7 chocolate cake the other night instead of one or two $8 beers. (If an $8 beer sounds outrageous to you, recall that I live in New York City.)

A lot of the alcohol that I encounter in my daily life is free, though—office happy hour, friends hosting a brunch party—so this has maybe less of an effect on my bottom line than it otherwise might.

Contentment: Yeah, no. (See everything above.)

Presence: Pretty much in a 24-7 worry spiral recently, so I’m not succeeding in the “being present” department. Another case where some alcohol might actually help, actually.

Creative

Production: I’m happy to report that I’ve been working as a dramaturg on a show that will be workshopped at the Cleveland Public in March, but that has nothing to do with alcohol. My writing partner and I have also been submitting for artist residencies and workshops, and the only difference there is that we’re not drinking beer while we type up our artist statements.

Motivation/Discipline: I’ve had rehearsals and deadlines recently, so it’s much easier to feel disciplined and motivated with hard stops looming. So though I’ve noticed an uptick of “doing things” it’s been more externally motivated than anything.

 

So that’s it for (a little over) two weeks down. I’ll check back at the end of the month to report any more “results” and to announce my February experiment!

Experiments in Happiness: The Setup

Recap: My New Year’s resolution is to stop externalizing my happiness. This year, I’m focusing on my own behaviors and thought processes and experimenting with altering them—one per month—in order to become a more self-aware, self-assured person. You can also access my Huffington Post archive here for past installments.

January: No alcohol.

Yes, yes—it’s been less than two weeks, but I’ve been thinking more about the parameters of my yearlong project and decided further explanation was in order before diving into any “results.”

I realize that I can’t really have an experiment without qualifying or quantifying certain factors—specifically, the factors I’m looking to strengthen or change. And while it’s hard to make definitive assessments of, say, self-esteem, there are some correlating, more easily evaluated indicators.

I anticipate that anything I’ll be attempting will affect one of three categories—Body, Mind, and Creative—and within those categories, the needle will move on certain benchmark factors. Some experiments won’t apply to some or even most of these criteria, but it’s a handy way to visualize and track progress—or regress.

Body

The classic—and safe—New Year’s resolution category. The little black dress of self-improvement. Any changes I make to my body, diet, or exercise—including teetotaling for January—falls into this category. I predict experiments that affect this category will primarily make changes to my:

-Energy: Can I wake up in the mornings without punching someone? Can I stay awake without someone punching me? How many cups of free office coffee is too many cups of free office coffee?

-Activity: How often am I exercising? How does it make me feel? (Spoiler alert: The answers are “not enough” and “mad and sweaty.”)

-Health: How well am I staving off the fourteen kazillion germs I encounter every day on the New York City public transit system? Is the dry patch on my mouth that appears in the same spot every winter actually lip cancer like I’ve secretly suspected for years?

-Weight: Pretty sure I will regret tracking this. Look: This is not now and will not ever be a weight loss blog. I’m plagued by the same crippling body image issues that torture every healthy American woman who’s not in utero, but I’m not publishing my weight for the ever-compassionate citizens of the internet so that I can get snatched. I’m keeping track of it, and sharing it, because it’s a tangible way to measure changes in my body from month to month.

Mind

 

All the “self-”s: Self-esteem, self-worth, self-actualization, self-loathing, selfies. I’ll also lump all sorts of fears, anxieties, and resentments together here as well. Changes made in the Body category may very well also affect the factors below. Each month I’ll evaluate my:

-Stress: How anxious and afraid do I generally feel? How long does it take me to fall asleep at night because I didn’t start contributing to a 401(k) until 6 months ago and I’m pretty sure that means I’ll die penniless?

-Savings: How much money am I able to save each month? Ok, so I understand that money is not an imaginary concept in my head, though if you looked at my bank account, it might as well be! Har har har! (Shoot me.) I’m including saving money here in the “mind” category because how much money I make/save has the most direct effect on my mental state, which is to say, usually deleterious.

-Contentment: I feel evaluating my happiness on a monthly basis would lead to existential meltdown, so I’ve knocked it down to contentment. How satisfied/dissatisfied with my general situation do I feel? How much do I want to change something about my circumstances that I feel like I can’t?

-Presence: Hoo boy, do I struggle with this. I permanently live six months to a year in the future unless I forcibly restrain myself, and it contributes to a whole lot of frustration and anxiety in my life. A big motivation for me to do this project was the necessity of examining my “State of the Union” in the present rather than rabidly preparing for the future.

Creative

Anything that Oprah or bloggers with all-white living rooms would call “feeding your soul.” I’m a sucker for arts and crafts, and I can easily fall into a Pinterest black hole looking at DIY projects and never doing them. I also work on theater projects as a dramaturg and writer. So basically anything I end up making or writing affects the following:

-Fulfillment: How artistically fulfilled do I feel? A broad question, to be sure, but definitely something that fluctuates. How satisfied am I with what I’m creating and how much time I have available to create it?

-Production: Feelings are one thing, but what am I actually making or doing? Did I write a new song with my writing partner? Did I work on a show? Did I make a coat rack out of toilet paper tubes? Did I submit to a playwriting contest? Basically, what are the tangible fruits of my creativity?

-Doubt: If you don’t know the song “Die, Vampire, Die!” from the musical [title of show], go listen to it, and then you’ll understand exactly what this category is about.

-Motivation/Discipline: How regimented and self-motivated am I being each month, and what’s getting in my way? Also a big one for me. I have so many ideas and I’m so bad at getting them started. And I’m even worse at finishing them. I am a lazy, lazy artist.

 

So all in all, that’s 12 different “inputs” that I’ll look at each month to try to determine how a given experiment is affecting me—or not affecting me. And if there are other, more significant happenings that contribute, I’ll be sure to write about those as well.

Hopefully, this structure makes sense and will frame the rest of my posts, and if it doesn’t, well… At least we wasted this time together.

I’ll check in at the end of the week on my first two weeks of sobriety!