What’s It Like?

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Now that a full month has passed, it’s time to give some thought to the question people are asking me over and over again: What’s it like to drink again after a year without alcohol?

Once I got over being proud of myself for making it through my dry year, I was petrified. This was particularly true the first week, when I worried about the potential side effects of resuming drinking following a relatively long period of abstinence. I also feared that I’d fall right back into the old patterns that had led me to embark on my resolution to begin with. Not knowing what to expect, I initially made a conscious attempt to be very moderate in my consumption.

Alcohol Tolerance

Believe it or not, I detected no difference in the actual effect of alcohol on me while I was drinking it. I hadn’t become the “lightweight” that many of my friends and family thought I’d become. Perhaps because I took it easy the first week or so, I haven’t detected a difference in my general tolerance for alcohol.

That’s not to say that I didn’t experience adverse physical symptoms. In fact, I did, especially in the first two weeks. On more than one occasion, I felt sick from dehydration the day after having a few glasses of wine the previous night. Once I even thought I was coming down with the flu, until I figured it out the true cause. Physically, however, the most disappointing side effect of drinking again is the diminished quality of sleep.

How I Feel

In many ways, I feel the same as before my dry year. When I get home from work, I enjoy having a glass of wine. Even more, I like joining friends and family for a drink or two at dinner parties.

It’s also true that absence has made my heart grow fonder. I catch myself savoring the feeling when wine or champagne starts to take effect, the way the warmth of the buzz follows the liquid through my system and spreads throughout my body. This feeling is really the whole point of drinking to begin with, isn’t it? It’s like gaining temporary happiness from a bottle.

This heightened awareness of alcohol is the main difference in how I feel. I’m simply more aware of alcohol and how it impacts not only me, but also other people. As we all know, these impacts are both positive and negative.

Diet & Exercise

My chronicling of the diet and exercise accomplishments I attained in my dry year has inspired many women I know to give up alcohol for one month or more. Top of mind for these followers is how I am faring now that I’ve added alcohol back into the mix.

I’m happy to report that I’ve maintained my weight loss. I weigh exactly the same today as I weighed on January 1. And, this is the same weight that I achieved in late May last year. I have successfully lost 30 pounds and kept it off!  The winning formula to weight maintenance is exactly the same as it was to lose the weight: Weigh yourself often, keep track of everything you consume using MyFitnessPal, and add exercise to the mix as needed to reach (or stay at) your goal weight.

It became clear in the first two weeks that I needed to make two significant adjustments to maintain my weight: one to my diet and one to my exercise planning. In order to accommodate the calories from alcohol, I started by foregoing “real” lunches and opting instead for protein bars and diet bars. The second change was much more difficult. I needed to rearrange my workout schedule, since it became very hard to continue working out at night. During the workweek, I now get up earlier and workout in my home gym before going to work. I’m trying to make this a regular work day habit.

Other Impacts

My drinking habits may be forever changed by my heightened awareness of the expense of alcohol. I’m surprised that I’m not going out for drinks and dinner as much as I did before. And, whether at home or out, I’m making it count. Having a drink has to be enjoyable and of good quality. If I taste something and I don’t like it, I just dump it out and try something different, or just switch to a glass of water. In the past, I would have suffered through it and changed to something else after finishing it.

Although I’ll be reporting on it less frequently, I promise to keep you informed from time to time as I move beyond my dry year.

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RESOLUTION, RENEWAL & CHANGE

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I did it! I faithfully kept my 2014 New Year’s resolution to abstain from alcohol for the entire year. To be honest, it surprised me that I stuck with it, especially considering the major lifestyle changes it required and the fact that I had failed at much simpler resolutions in years past. As you might have guessed, I won’t dwell on those failures here. Rather, this post is about the role resolutions have played in motivating me to succeed, by enabling a much-needed renewal of some aspects of my life, including personal development and enrichment.

SCF last drink (cropped)  SCF 2015 NYE

Above: Me last New Year’s Eve (left) and this year (right). I hope that my 2014 resolution to drink no alcohol will lead to a lifetime of moderation and better health and fitness.

As I revealed a year ago when I launched this blog, I’ve had a lifelong habit of carefully considering (and then announcing) my annual resolutions, and had mixed success in keeping them. The way I see it, the end of one year and the start of another presents a great opportunity to take stock of everything, from relationships, to health and happiness, and to the state of personal finances.

Considering the stats on resolutions and that only 8% of resolution makers are successful in keeping them, my track record, frankly, is pretty darn good. In two recent years, for example, I was able to use this annual exercise to focus on different challenges and interests that contributed to lasting change—change  that has greatly enhanced my overall happiness and sense of well-being.

In 2009, I resolved to get a diary and to write “every single day.” This was important to me, because I had been an avid journal keeper in the past and wanted to get back in the habit. Although it proved impossible for me to actually write on the day itself every single day for that entire year, I did conscientiously write and fill every page in that diary. I just started my new one for 2015…

Journals (landscape)

Above: My 2009 New Year’s resolution has led to a lasting habit of maintaining a diary.

The following year (2010), I resolved to “read more” and got that vow off on the right foot by joining not one, but two different book clubs. One of those clubs turned out to be very serious about the actual reading and discussion of books and this has helped me tremendously. My husband and I joined this club together and we both greatly look forward to each session. It’s always a wonderful gathering of great friends and reading and discussion, not to mention the excellent food and wine.

After the discussion section concludes, before we head in for lunch or dinner, the same question is answered by each member in turn: “What are you reading now?” It’s brilliant, because that compels many of us to keep reading other books, above and beyond the actual assignments.

Books

Above: My 2010 New Year’s resolution helped me to rekindle my life-long love of reading.

This has been, perhaps, a round-a-bout way of getting to what I’ve been thinking about this past week. Rather than rehash my already well-documented learnings from and achievements of my dry year (if you missed them or want a refresher, please read this post or this one), I’ve been considering what the lasting impact might be of my 2014 New Year’s resolution to abstain from drinking.

First and foremost, I hope that I will be a life-long moderate drinker. I want to be able to enjoy a glass of wine or some bubbly without fear that I’ll over-indulge. Along similar lines, I hope that I will be able to maintain my weight loss for many years to come. Getting back to this weight feels great and I don’t want to go back. I’d even like to further improve my fitness level by adding more diverse workouts to my routine, and cut more time off my marathon PR (personal record). And I hope that I will remain committed to this blog and keep on writing in it regularly.

For those of you who tuned in thinking that I would reveal my resolutions for 2015, I apologize. Of course, I have more than a few resolutions up my sleeve that are already in full-swing. Please tune in next time to read about some of them. And, please leave a comment on this post with your resolutions big and small for 2015.

So Close, I Can Taste It

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Just before I left the office last night, a rush of emotion came over me when I realized that today would be New Year’s Eve and 2014 would soon be a distant memory. Envisioning myself at midnight tonight, I became determined to have a bottle of Dom Perignon to celebrate the successful conclusion of my dry year. Surely, if ever there would be a time to enjoy a bottle of what is widely considered one of the world’s best champagnes, the anniversary of a full year without alcohol would be it.

So, I did a bit of online searching, made several phone calls, and managed to track down the only bottle of Dom Perignon within a 20-mile radius. Luckily, I was able to reserve it and pick it up along my commute home. It turns out that the bottle is from 2003 and is in a gorgeous commemorative box, bringing, perhaps, a bit more value to the $175 price tag that I paid for the bottle. Yes, I know that it’s sort of crazy to spend that much money on one bottle of consumable liquid. However, I deserve it, don’t I?

Dom Perignon

(I was happy to find this bottle of “Dom” on short notice.)

It might be hard for someone to believe me when I say that having this special bottle to celebrate with tonight actually has nothing to do with wanting to drink alcohol again.  Recently, I very happily celebrated Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas, and my step-daughter’s engagement party and never once thought that these milestone family gatherings would have been enhanced one iota by my drinking alcohol along with everyone else.

The best way to describe my desire to make tonight a once-in-a-lifetime celebration is to say that I am proud of myself. I can’t believe I did it. I launched my resolution and my blog exactly one year ago today, and went from enjoying a few glasses of wine every night and being a fixture at local wine-and-food-paired dinners to going an entire year without drinking alcohol.

Along the way, I lost well over 20 pounds, cut 23 minutes off my best marathon time, and, more importantly, learned a lot about the power of alcohol in our society and about myself. As added bonuses, I took an unforgettable trip to Laos to celebrate my journey and started writing regularly about my parents’ nearly four decades in the Vermont inn-keeping business.

Tonight, I’ll observe the end of a truly incredible 2014 and the promise of the New Year with family and friends over a bottle of something extra special. What happens after that is anyone’s guess. You can be sure, however, that I’ll let you know in future blog posts. Thanks for following – and, Happy 2015!

No Good Reason

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I woke up early the other day thinking about my blog and tried to come up with one good reason why I haven’t posted anything lately. (Can you believe I wrote my last post about this survey of American alcohol consumption habits six weeks ago?) It turns out there isn’t a good reason. All the things that might have caused me to put it aside—like being so close to the end of my resolution that it just seems too boring to acknowledge again; or that winter meant the end of my running season and also the need for training updates; or even the fact I just started a new job, but still had to finish up a few things for my old one—just add up to pure and simple procrastination.

It certainly wasn’t due to a lack of material. Believe it or not, the blog folder on my computer has a file for each of the five weeks I missed. The week of November 16th, I conducted several interviews and started and re-started a piece for the “Vermont Inn-trigue” thread of this blog about the inn’s most loyal guests, a group of hunters who’ve stayed at the inn each and every hunting season for the past 37 years. I interviewed the leader of this group, Tony, multiple times, heard many of his jokes and stories, and took a look at the scrapbook of his group’s many memorable times at the inn.

Tony has stayed at the Combes Family Inn each and every year over its 37 years of operation.

Tony has stayed at the Combes Family Inn each and every year during its 37 years of operation.

Just a few of the snapshot from decades of visits to Vermont and the Combes Family Inn.

Just a few snapshots from the mementos complied over decades of visits to Vermont and the Combes Family Inn.

Tony saw this flyer in 1968 and decided it would be fun to scare up a group to go hunting in Vermont. The farm became the Combes Family Inn in 1978.

Tony saw this flyer in 1968 and decided it would be fun to scare up a group to go hunting in Vermont. The farm became the Combes Family Inn in 1978.

My first interview with the group was over dinner. When one of them asked “What’s for dinner?” my dad replied, “We’re not changing the menu unless you guys change your jokes.”

“You have a better chance of getting hit by lightning,” Tony replied. That evening, with the barbs and jibes getting lobbied back and forth, was not all that different from my first such dinner with them, when I was just 10 years old.

The night before the hunters left, we all watched the Patriots game and I had a chance to ask Tony if it surprised him that he’s been coming to the inn for 37 years in a row. “No it doesn’t,” he answered. “We’re comfortable coming here. When we leave, we’re already looking forward to coming again the next year. God willing, we’ll be coming for many more years.”

Before I knew it, the hunters were gone and I never turned that great material into a coherent article. The following week, I wondered if I should be concerned about my high levels of caffeine consumption. I vowed to research the pros and cons of caffeine and explain why people who stop drinking alcohol often become chronic coffee drinkers. This post would have been like my article about Crystal Light back in January. I found several articles about caffeine consumption, including this general overview, this one about the role coffee may play in helping people abstain from drinking alcohol, and this one citing 10 reasons to quit drinking coffee. I didn’t get very far in my research. However, I did resolve to figure out eventually which was worse, alcohol consumption or caffeine consumption. I’ll let you know when I figure that out.

Several other blog topics presented themselves in late November and early December. I briefly considered breaking with my usual M.O. by writing a political piece about the disheartening state of race relations in our country. Although I quickly ruled that out, I will share one comment that I left on Facebook that sums up my feelings about what transpired in Ferguson: “Mike Brown’s fate was sealed the moment Officer Wilson saw him him as a crazed demon that needed to be killed, rather than a troubled teen who needed to be saved.”

Two weeks ago, I almost opted to write about the end of the federal grant that I was directing and my thoughts about how that experience was personally fulfilling and even life-changing. If you get a chance, flip through “Vermont’s Digital Stories,” the final report for the project. I’m proud of the team’s work to improve lives in Vermont’s flood-damaged communities and remain very grateful to have had a meaningful opportunity to give back to others, after my own speedy recovery from Tropical Storm Irene.

Finally, last week, a friend of mine told me that she had heard an interesting radio segment about the different norms and perceptions for alcohol consumption in various countries. The point was that Americans have the lowest national tolerance (so to speak) for alcohol consumption and consume far less alcohol than most other nations. The differences are particularly acute between the U.S. and Europe, especially Italy and France. With such an interesting and relevant topic, I was certain my blog drought was going to be over. Alas, I couldn’t locate the radio piece my friend had heard. And, although I found a lot of articles about similar topics—such as this one, this one, and this one—the weekend came and went without a post.

So, now you’re all caught up on what I’ve been thinking about the past six weeks. Have a very happy holiday season—I promise to write again very soon. There’s no good reason not to.

Take It or Leave It

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Now that I’m within striking distance of the end of my self-imposed year-long ban on drinking alcohol, I want to share my new appreciation for the surprisingly bifurcated nature of alcohol. A few weeks ago, I had quoted that 30% of American adults do not drink at all and another 30% drink less than one alcoholic beverage a week. Given how much time, energy, money, and everything else that the other 40% spend on alcohol (not to mention the negative consequences that result from drinking too much of it), am I the only one who is surprised to learn that for 60% of adult Americans alcohol is essentially a non-factor?

The info-graphic below does an amazing job of presenting the data on weekly alcohol consumption by breaking it into deciles or 10 equal sized groups of survey participants:

Drinking Info-graphic

This is how you read the graph: each group represents 10% of survey respondents, and, by extrapolation, 10% of all adult Americans. Starting on the left side, you have the folks who don’t drink at all – so you see “0 drinks,” meaning that these 10% chunks of Americans have no drinks in a typical week.  As you move to the right of the graph, you see the results for the next 10% of adult Americans, and so on, and so on. Since the first three deciles each report 0 drinks, this means that it is estimated by this survey that a full 30% of adult Americans do not drink at all.

The survey, just like all of the other stats I’ve seen about alcohol, refers to “drinks” according to the suggested serving size or the “standard drink.” That’s 12 ounces of regular beer (usually about 5% alcohol), 5 ounces of wine (typically about 12% alcohol), and 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits (about 40% alcohol).

With that in mind, continue moving to the right of the graph to see the results for Americans who drink, starting with those who drink the least. This reveals that another 30% drink less than one drink per week — 0.02 drinks per week on average, 0.14 drinks per week, and 0.63 drinks. Keep moving right on the graph to discover that people in the 7th decile report drinking only 2 drinks per week and those in the 8th decile a little less than one drink per day.

Now we’ve reached the part where the graph gets very, very interesting. The 9th decile reports drinking slightly more than 15 drinks per week on average. As I reported in January, before my New Year’s resolution, I typically drank two glasses of wine a night with dinner. This means that I certainly fell in the 9th decile of respondents to this survey. To put that another way, 90% of the American adult population drinks less than I used to!

Now look at the results for the last decile on the graph. On average, this group reports drinking 73.85 drinks per week or more than 10 standard drinks per day. That’s more than the equivalent of 2 bottles of wine a day. And, if you do the math, the people in this top decile consume much more than half of all alcohol consumed by everyone. Although that’s extremely scary, I don’t doubt the veracity of the data.  Do you?

If this interests you, take a look at the post from the Washington Post Wonkblog where I found the information, the official results from the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism study from which the data originates, the Amazon page for “Paying the Tab,” the 2007 book that shed light on the study, and a review of that book in the New England Journal of Medicine.

And, for the 40% of Americans who have a few drinks (or more) per week and may, like me, have concerns about how that can lead to weight gain, the WP Wokblog also put together this helpful “Guide to Efficient Drinking” that ranks various alcoholic drinks by calories per ounce and calories per serving.

I Am Sisyphus (Again)

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Last week, I reported the good news that I had already lost 20 pounds and returned to my goal weight of 138 pounds.  Sadly, I can already tell that weight maintenance is going to be a battle. And, unfortunately, it looks like one that may last the rest of my life. That 20th and final pound has been lost, gained, and re-claimed four times and it’s only been a few weeks. Huffington Post says I need to get used to this, because “weight maintenance is actually the state of gaining and losing small amounts of weight over and over again.”

This reminds me of the Myth of Sisyphus, about which I wrote this poem in 1997:

And I was Sisyphus again today,
Elated at the top,
Only to fall down under the rock’s
Crushing weight.
Yet I know I will be happy again tomorrow,
Only to slip back down again,
Still happy afterward, as I approach the crest.
Mankind and I, we are so simple in
Both our pleasures and our defeats.

To be successful, the Mayo Clinic suggests that “weight maintenance requires daily exercise, a healthy menu, a long-term commitment, and constant vigilance.” Wait a minute. This sounds suspiciously like dieting. They also say not to worry, because it will get easier after two to 5 years of keeping the weight off. When they said “a long-term commitment,” they weren’t kidding. It’s clear that I’m going to need as many strategies to maintain my weight as I did to lose it the first place.

My first strategy is to continue using the MyFitnessPal app every day. As I have explained in the past, this is my version of keeping a food and exercise journal. According to WebMB, I should be able to maintain my weight while consuming 2,000 calories a day.  This is significantly more than the 1,200 calorie diet I’ve been on. I just can’t bring myself to program this into my settings, so I’m starting with 1,500 and will adjust later, as needed.

My second strategy is to remain committed to exercise. This should be the easy part for me, since I am still training for marathons and have always been active. This article in Women’s Health Magazine suggests that exercise is the single most important factor in keeping weight off. The stat came from The National Weight Control Registry which tracks people who successfully maintained weight loss of 30 pounds or more. It turns out that 90% of these people exercise an average of one hour per day.

This study using data from the Registry confirms that my first two strategies are important to maintaining my weight and also suggests two others. These are monitoring my weight regularly and having a low-fat diet. We have a digital scale in our master bathroom and I use it almost every day, making the weight monitoring no problem. Focusing on lowering fat is another matter. I lost the weight by counting calories and exercising. The only significant diet change I made was cutting out alcohol. Generally speaking, I ate essentially whatever I wanted in lower quantities or I exercised more to burn it off. I’m going to mull over the low-fat focus a bit more…

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(Above: My brother helped pace my half marathon run in Middlebury, VT on May 4, enabling me to finish well under a 9 minute-per-mile pace.) 

What is going to be critical to maintaining my weight is to be vigilant on race weekends. Take this past weekend for example:  I ran a half marathon faster than my goal, in 1 hour and 56 minutes. My average pace of 8:51 per mile is under my marathon pace needed to qualify for the Boston Marathon. I even ranked in the upper 20% of all female runners in their 40s, my “group.” That’s the great news. The bad news is that it’s two days after the race and I’ve gained three pounds. 

Evidently this is common, especially for women, when training for marathons.  A few of the many online articles about this can be found here, here, and here. The main causes of the weight gain include overestimating energy needs, feeling you deserve to eat what you want, and not being active enough outside of the actual training. Originally, I was thinking of not using my app during race weekends as a reward. I’m scratching that idea to make sure I keep the 20 pounds off. If I’m destined to be Sisyphus, I should at least make rolling that stone up the hill easier on myself.

How I Lost 20 Pounds

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Month four of my resolution not to drink alcohol has come to an end.  I’m both surprised and proud to report that I have lost 20 pounds and have returned to what I consider to be my “ideal weight.”

Image (My weight loss is most obvious in my face. Above, at 155 pounds. Below, at 138 pounds.)

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More often than not over the past 12 years, my New Year’s resolution was to lose 20 pounds. In all those times, I didn’t even come close, not even during the years when I tried really, really hard. As I mentioned in my blog last week, we all know that trying is not enough on its own. In this blog post, I try my best to answer the inevitable question of “How did I Do It?”

I attribute my successful weight loss this year to these four things:

  1. Quitting drinking
  2. Telling the world about it
  3. Approaching it like a marathon
  4. Using an app to track everything

Quitting Drinking

Not drinking is the single-most important factor in my weight loss.  As I’ve said before, the first 8 pounds I lost was solely due to not drinking. Everyone knows that alcohol has calories. When I was drinking two glasses of wine a night, I was adding approximately 350 calories to my daily calorie intake. This online article has a wealth of information about wine and calories.  It’s hard to stick to a diet of 1,200 calories-a-day if you consume 29% in the form of a liquid with no nutritional value. Studies have also shown that you eat 20% more when you are drinking while you are eating. This recent article talks about that and many more negative effectives of alcohol on weight. In addition to these reasons above, I am now also able to exercise at night, something I never could have done after drinking wine at dinner.

Telling the World

As I mentioned in my inaugural blog post in late December, I improved my chances of sticking to my resolution because I told other people about it and wrote it down. That’s the point of this blog – I’ve made myself accountable not only to my close friends and family, but also to anyone who stumbles across this blog. As of this writing, I have 132 followers and that number increases every week. I don’t think I would have been able to stick to my resolution to quit drinking without the blog. Also, having the blog forces me to think through many issues and ideas associated with drinking, dieting, and exercising. All of this keeps me trying harder and staying more focused. After all, I have to report something interesting back to the blogosphere.

Marathon Approach

I’m aware that it’s a cliché to say that something “is a marathon and not a sprint.” However, since I actually run marathons, I think it’s okay for me to use this phrase.  Also, it’s true. I am approaching my weight loss and fitness goals like I approach a marathon, both literally and figuratively. Literally, I am actually training for a marathon, and that means I exercise six days every single week, culminating in both a strenuous race pace run every Saturday and a long run every Sunday. Figuratively, I have chunked out my goals into smaller goals and am taking a long view.  I am not following a fad diet or eating different things than I normally would in order to lose weight quickly. With the one exception of cutting out alcohol, I am eating pretty much as I did before. However, when I realize I need to change my diet in order to be more successful at losing weight, I change one thing at a time, so that the change is gradual.

To me, a marathon approach also means that it’s okay to screw up. During a marathon, you’re going to have slow miles and fast miles. The slow miles are not bits of failure, they are just a part of the process. The goal for the marathon runner is the average pace run over the full distance. There can be many points of exhaustion along the way, so even walking is okay. A successful diet is much the same.

Using A Fitness App

Once the easy weight from quitting drinking was gone, it was all about my commitment to use the app. I have a daily goal of 1,200 calories that I track using a free fitness Web application called MyFitnessPal. I lost between 1-1.5 pounds per week without fail by inputting everything I ate into the app. When I exercised, I also input that into that app and earned more calories for that day. If I ate too much, I exercised more.  It was that simple; but it was not magic.  It takes focus and commitment to leverage this tool in order to lose weight.

The thread that pulls through all of these contributors to my success in losing 20 pounds — quitting drinking, telling the world, having a marathon approach, and using a fitness app – is commitment. In the end, that’s the most important thing.