Tuesday, December 10, 2013

30 Day Challenge #3, Part 2: Errrr, I mean the 22 Day Challenge...

When I set out to complete the 30 Day Challenge of No Alcohol, I knew it would be the most difficult 30 Day challenge I have embarked upon so far. Despite this difficulty, I was determined to complete it to the very end.

Until a few days before Thanksgiving...

I really believed I had already thought this one through. I knew the holiday season was not the ideal time for such a challenge, and that this would definitely put a damper on one of my favorite holidays. I weighed all the options and decided to initiate the Challenge anyway, and I had specific reasons for doing so.

But as Thanksgiving approached and I was preparing all the meals and developing my plans... my decision didn't seem quite as wise as it did a few weeks before. So I re-evaluated. I weighed the costs and benefits of completing the challenge, and ultimately decided to end it early.

So... was I successful? Technically, I didn't complete the challenge. But when you consider that 30 Days is a completely arbitrary number, and 22 days is still a pretty substantial one, you realize that success and failure are not so black and white. When I decided to end the challenge, I knew I had already got a lot out of it, which was really the point to begin with. Sure, I could have got more out of it... I could ponder about what could have been and feel disappointed in myself, but I'd rather focus on the learning opportunities! After all it's the journey, not the destination, that matters most.

So what did I learn?

1) I crave stimulation, activity and interaction on the weekends. I have realized that one of the main reasons I pursue alcohol-centered activities is that they tend to be highly correlated with these attributes. Even in the past when I have had a very busy, stimulating, or stressful work week, I always sought out exciting environments as a way to decompress and/or recharge. I'm not someone who enjoys sitting around watching a movie at the end of the week, or laying by a pool when I'm on vacation. These are the types of activities I'd rather reserve for the weekdays or on Sundays as I transition back to the week.

On one particular evening of this challenge I was wanting to do something fun or interactive and I asked the friends in my living room to play a game. The energy in the room was low, and my energy was...apparently unconvincing. Everyone proceeded to watch TV on a Friday night and I felt pretty sad about this. I decided to go to the gym at midnight where I was able to listen to music and read on a stationary bike, which was actually quite fun.  I have since realized this is a much better activity for a Friday night than joining a circle of silent TV zombies. Life is short, optimize it...like you would a burrito! (And if you have no idea what I'm talking about, you and I need to have a conversation about burritos).

2) Alcohol breath is a lot more noticeable and potent than I realized (if you haven't been drinking). Even after one drink, alcohol breath is pretty noticeable! And apparently if you are also drinking, you don't notice how significant your alcohol breath actually is. This realization will definitely encourage me to be more conscious of my breath and to carry gum around with me while I'm drinking.

3) I have some really awesome supportive friends. It was cool to see how many people were supportive and respectful of this challenge. No one tried to peer pressure me into drinking or trivialize my goals. I even had one friend who decided to do the challenge along with me and would send me texts about his parallel experience going to parties where others were drinking. When I was out with other friends who were drinking, I could sense that they were worried that I wasn't having a good time...but I was! It was nice to know that others were aware how challenging this was for me and were able to offer their concern. However it does make me question whether I was behaving much differently than usual, or if it was just other's altered perception of me. I got the impression people didn't find me all that much fun completely sober!

4) Generating presence and energy takes even more conscious effort without alcohol. The good news is, I was able to have a lot of fun in a variety of situations where others were drinking, and didn't feel tempted to break my challenge during any of these times. However, I was more keenly aware of how energetic or "fun" I was, and a lot of the time I did feel significantly more introverted. I was able to be mindful of my experience and make more observations of my physical surroundings, but it was more difficult to connect with others and to have conversations with people that I didn't already have a deep relationship with.

5) It is very possible to have a good time with, or without alcohol! Its really your attitude that makes the biggest difference. If you go into a situation with the mentality that you are going to have a good time, most likely you are going to have a good time. If you go into a situation with the mentality that it's going to be a shitty time, most likely you are going to have a shitty time. Alcohol may make it easier for you to transition from one state of mind into another, but it is not a necessity and does not outweigh the importance of your attitude.

6) Abstaining from alcohol makes it easier to maintain other healthy behaviors on the weekend. But it doesn't eliminate this challenge. Over the 3 weekends that I didn't drink I was able to maintain a healthier diet and attitude of health than I am typically able to. Over the 22 days I lost 5 lbs. But careful: correlation does not equal causation!! I believe my weight loss was mostly due to my consistency with diet/exercise, which may have been facilitated by the absence of alcohol, but certainly not caused by it. My average calories consumed were 1350/day (with a range of 850-1850), and I exercised almost every day for an average of 1.5 hours/day (with a range of 0-4). In case anyone was wondering, I used MyFitness Pal to track this.

Despite the increased health-focus I achieved on weekends, I noticed that my results during the weekends were still significantly less successful than during the week. My weekend calories were still the highest by about a difference of 500, and my exercise was still the lowest by a difference of about an hour. So I can pretty safely assume that alcohol is not the primary factor. I still found myself slipping into unhealthy eating and finding it difficult to exercise on the weekends.

From this experiment I am aware that I have more work to do when it comes to maintaining healthy diet and exercise over the weekends...alcohol or no alcohol. On some weekends I enjoy being able to "take a break," so to speak, and to explore new restaurants, so this is obviously a complex issue. But in general, I could improve my consistency with this. And that's what it's all about: not perfection...but consistency!! A "perfect" week is not as good as an  imperfect but overall consistent few weeks, when it comes to just about any change.

7) Abstaining from alcohol didn't have nearly the level of positive effects I was anticipating. I actually expected that eliminating alcohol would have had a more profound impact on my weight loss than it did, but it didn't seem to vary much from past experiences where diet/exercise was consistent. I also didn't really notice any major changes in my cognition or motivation. I did notice improvements in my mood, however I believe this was mostly due to my increased consistency with diet/exercise. One argument that you could easily make is that 22 days of sobriety is not enough to experience the positive effects of a life without alcohol, and I would tend to agree with you. But all I have is my limited experience and that is what I am here to report!

8) I missed being on the same wavelength with others, and felt like I was missing out on the full experience. There is something to be said about being on the same wavelength with others. Perhaps an inebriated wavelength is really nothing to aspire to, but it is a shared consciousness nonetheless. When you are in a group of people where everyone has the same mentality to have a good time...or whatever it is, that effect is intensified for all participants. The same goes for when you have one negative person in a group, it can bring everyone down a notch. It doesn't mean anyone is going to have a bad time, it just might mean that you knock a little wind out of their sails. I would hate to think that my experiment caused others to feel like they were having any less of a good time, but I did my best to generate positive energy without alcohol. Plus, no matter who you are, your happiness is your responsibility, not anybody else's.

Overall I think I did a pretty decent job maintaining a positive attitude and generating my own happiness in these circumstances. But I'm going to be honest: it's not the same. If I had to give up alcohol forever at this moment in time, it would be a tremendous loss.

9) Alcohol doesn't always equate to fun and adventure. There were days when I participated in some activities that I would venture to say, were a lot more exciting and interesting than some of the activities that my non-abstaining counterparts were participating in. Once again, this life is all about what you make of it!

10) Music and dance can still be deeply appreciated without alcohol. In fact, I'd say No Alcohol+Mind-Blowing Music > Alcohol+Average Music. On the other hand, alcohol can help to dull the pain of downright horrible music.

11) I genuinely love beer for it's taste! Of all the drinks I missed the most, it was beer. Drinking alcohol is about more than just getting tipsy, it's about the experience of consuming it. I consider drinking alcohol an enjoyable ritual, and this is particularly true with beer, followed by wine. I didn't find myself craving hard liquor really at all.

12) Tea was my best friend! Because I was both restricting my alcohol intake and my food intake, tea became my go-to beverage when I felt a void. Tea is also very pleasant to drink, and can be consumed in a social or ritualistic fashion. I would strongly recommend it for anyone that is trying to avoid engaging in a bad habit! At night time I would have a lot of caffeine-free peppermint tea, so even if you are avoiding caffeine this a viable option.

13) It's a little easier to wake up early on the weekends and leave the house if you haven't been drinking the night before. I didn't find this to be 100% the case, but there were some days where it seemed the day got started earlier than usual. For me, alcohol use doesn't have a huge impact on my energy the next day, unless its on one of the rare occasions I experience a hangover. But you can never fully predict this! So I would say this effect is still worth paying attention to, despite it's inconsistency.

Personally I don't think alcohol has to be barrier to other activities, but I may be in the minority here. I have noticed if you have the right planning and intentionality set in place...you can have the best of both worlds!! Just make sure you go to bed at a semi-decent hour, drink lots of water, and then you can still wake up in the morning and go hiking at 10AM! (You've also just slept in a bit too).

14) Abstinence is easier than moderation. For me it's easier to have an all-or-nothing kind of approach, and this challenge reinforced that. When I set out not to drink, it was surprisingly easy to not drink. It's really when you make your intentions unclear and undefined that things become tricky, and moderation extends into this territory. It's also a big part of why recovery (from addiction) calls for complete sobriety rather than "cutting back." Unfortunately some things really are a slippery slope. Once you've had one beer or one bite of cake, it becomes a lot easier to go for another.

15) Life is a balance between increasing wellness and enjoying life to the fullest. Although these two goals are not mutually exclusive, they often oppose each other. Going on a hike would be an example of something that is both extremely enjoyable to me and also very healthy; a beautiful instance of when wellness and adventure coincide. But most things that are enjoyable come at some sort of a cost. And drinking alcohol is no exception. Even if I have a lot of fun while drinking: socializing, decompressing, expressing, building friendships...dancing (things that increase wellness), it still comes at a cost (harm to my body, perhaps less time/energy for other things).

One thing I have continued to affirm about myself is that optimizing health to it's absolute fullest is not my major concern. You could be the healthiest person in the world, but never truly live! There is so much to experience on this earth, and I can't imagine shutting myself off to certain possibilities just so I can live a healthier life. This doesn't mean that I don't think health is important, it truly is, because if you don't have your health you really have nothing. But there needs to be a sustainable balance, paired with frequent check-ins with yourself about whether you are currently optimizing that balance. Then you can make adjustments to your lifestyle as you see fit. I consider myself to be someone moving towards more health and wellness, but in a gradual way, and one that is rooted in achieving an ideal balance between (sometimes) opposing forces.

One thing this experience has taught me is to be more conscious about what I am doing, and to really look towards my underlying values and motivations. If I decide one night I want to go out drinking I want to define for myself what I hope to gain from the experience, and to make sure that I stay connected to those intentions. This type of questioning came up a lot during this challenge, as I would frequently ask myself: "Why am I doing this? What am I getting out of this?" Too often we become more consumed with the goal, than what's actually behind it, and I think this is a good reminder of that.

16) Alcohol helps me be more talkative and outspoken. This could be seen as either a positive or a negative, depending on the situation. One thing I know about myself is that I feel best, and most in my element, when I am expressing freely and energetically! And I did feel a loss of this during my challenge. On the other hand, there were definitely situations where I was talking to people who I connected well with, and I was able to generate this same kind of energy and engagement. It just took a little more effort.

What this translates to is: alcohol is by no means necessary for ideal social interaction, but it is a significant facilitator. Could something else become a facilitator for me at some point in the future? Absolutely! This is merely an observation of what I am noticing right now. And something I plan to explore further.
As for this experiment and my resulting assertions, I know there is even more to process than I can process here. I think if I was to do this experiment again I would write more along the way, rather than try to reflect back on it all at the end. But just because the challenge is over, doesn't mean my exploration is. I will continue to ask myself questions, gain insights, and experiment with new ways of being related to alcohol consumption.

Some of the questions currently bouncing around my skull are: What has it been like to return to drinking? Has anything changed? What insights can I apply to my current habits to make them more healthy, conscious and beneficial? What motivates me to continue drinking? And more!

I have a lot more to learn and explore in this life...that's for sure. But we all do!! So keep exploring and optimizing your existence!

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