Changing the habit of physician drinking

Tuesday, getting ready for work. Standing in the shower, it hit me. I couldn’t remember the last time I wanted a drink.

I almost got a blob of conditioner in my mouth as I snorted out loud.

“Mom, you OK?”

“Yeah, baby, I’m great.”

Incredible, actually.

Like so many, my habit of using external things to feel better was well ingrained. As a kid, I’d sneak ziplock bags of homemade cookies. In residency, stress eating nursing station food was my lifeline. I did cross country, track, swimming, and later mountain biking. A hard workout solved irritability and stress. Now, I fix boredom in the grocery store line and escape social awkwardness just by opening my phone.

In school, often the new kid because of moving, I was quiet, big-hearted, and more nerd than social butterfly. I had a few dear friends but never hung in the cool kids’ club. College and med school ushered in drinking with a work-hard-play-hard mentality. Fast forward to residency, and this same paradigm offset the intensity of training.

Somewhere along the way, work hard-play hard insidiously morphed into a humdrum routine. A drink while making dinner. An after-work drink to wind down. On the way home after a long day, my thoughts were like a soundtrack on repeat: “After the day I’ve had … I just love wine. Just to wind down, take the edge off, relax. I’m a better me- more calm, relaxed, present. My kiddo doesn’t deserve the grumpy version. Bath time is way more fun sipping a drink.”

The problem was, when I noticed the habit and tried to change, it was harder than I expected. I made rules like– only on the weekend or just one glass every other day. Like I did with sweets. I was a rule follower at heart, but the rules revealed me to myself. I could comply, but the reality was, I felt awful doing it.

Now, from the outside, no one would ever guess it plagued me. A doctor, teacher, mom, athlete. No after-school-special drama. No rock-bottom story. Just a habituated routine that left me feeling like a Pavlovian dog when I came home from work.

So I scoured the internet, but nothing resonated. The binary model of alcoholism versus normal social drinkers didn’t address the fact that I just wanted to want it a little less. Meetings and name tags might work for many but were too extreme for me. In the world of “wine o’clock memes” about “mommy’s juice,” I simply wanted to take it or leave it. Drink zero or one, instead of one or two. For the brain chatter on the way home to go away.

I didn’t know how to articulate my concerns or find a solution without fear of career compromise. I deeply believed I was in a no-man’s land. And so, I quietly suffered.

What changed everything for me was reframing my view of the why behind my habit of using a drink, and frankly anything, to change, improve or enhance my experience.

Driving home one day listening to a podcast, I heard the phrases “overdrinking” and “overdesire” and “buffering.” The physician in me rolled my eyes at these made up words but kept listening. “Buffering” in this context referred to using external things to feel better. Food. Alcohol. Shopping. Screens. Even exercise, overworking, and procrastination.

The episode went on to discuss the motivational triad of seeking pleasure, avoiding pain, and doing it effortlessly. How in the modern world beyond cave living, we have a plethora of ever-present sources of pleasure. Think sugary sweets. Bottles of alcohol. Social media. These all stimulate our brains’ reward centers just as warmth and food and sex and inclusion in the tribe once did. The primitive part of us just innocently wants to stay alive and feel good doing it.

The podcast voice elaborated that the rub comes when we develop habits of overeating, overdrinking, overshopping, over screen timing, at the expense of what really matters. Our purpose, values, dreams, well-being. She said that instead of feeling our emotions, we refine the skill of avoiding them and covering them up with external substances, products, and activities that sneakily become an unquestioned backdrop to our existence.

In that light bulb moment, my whole life seemed like one big buffering experience. Stress eating to get through charting; snacking while watching fetal tracings; drinking to wind down or socialize; mindlessly scrolling social media or TV; staying up too late shopping online; pressing snooze instead of following through; procrastinating.

I so clearly remember this moment because I glimpsed the possibility that I might not have to be batted around by stress and urges. So began my work of figuring out a better way.

I learned that my thoughts directly created and shaped my feelings. That my habits weren’t signs that I was broken, but learned approaches I conditioned with repetition. As silly as it sounds, I learned I could feel my feelings. Not just run from them or cover them up. My glimpse turned into a daily overhaul on habits and mindset. Little by little, I unpacked habits that were problematic and made new ones. Went eyes wide open into what I liked and didn’t like in my life. And just as gradually as my buffering became routine, my default became more intentional.

In the shower, grinning despite running late, I realized it wasn’t just my habits that changed.

It was more than just forgetting about the last time I wanted a drink.

I was a new person. My identity had changed. I was now more like the me I used to be and the version I wanted to be.

This was everything.

It’s at the heart of what fuels me every damn day as I work at my real purpose: to set an example of what’s possible.

Kristi H. Angevine is an obstetrician-gynecologist and can be reached at Habits on Purpose for Physicians.

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