Thursday, December 13, 2012

How to survive family holiday gatherings

(My latest Addiction and Recovery column in the Times-Herald Record.)

By Bob Gaydos
Family get-togethers are popular during the holiday season, but they can be hazardous, even explosive, events when alcohol is involved, as is often the case. Sometimes, in the interests of self-preservation, it may well be best to avoid them.
Still, if one must attend, there are ways to survive a family gathering, for drinkers and non-drinkers alike. The definition of survival, of course, depends on the individual point of view. In some cases, not everyone will be happy with the end result, but if survival is the goal, minor disappointment should be a mere inconvenience.
A lot depends on the makeup of the gathering. There may be “problem” drinkers -- people with all the traits of active alcoholics and the denial to match. They’re the ones who make these occasions memorable for all the wrong reasons. There may be alcoholics in various stages of recovery, trying to have a good time without jeopardizing their sobriety. There may be well-meaning relatives who don’t understand recovery and who insist on encouraging the recovering alcoholic to “have just one.” There may be well-meaning relatives who want to protect the recovering alcoholic by protecting him or her from taking care of him or herself. And there may be people who try to protect the “problem” drinker from him or herself by closely monitoring behavior and the number of drinks -- usually a good way to start an argument.
Success in all these circumstances starts with expectations -- realistic ones. Expecting that things will be different than in the past just because you‘d like them to be is most likely not realistic.
Starting with the problem drinker, expectations of a certain type of behavior need to be spelled out in advance of the gathering, with clear boundaries spelled out. If he or she can’t live up to the ground rules and decides not to attend, that may be in the best interest of all concerned, even though it may be disappointing for some. It may be better to get together at another, less stressful, time. On the other hand, if the drinker is amenable to the ground rules, it may be a good time to get together quietly and discuss the problem. Whatever course of action is taken, it must start with realistic expectations.
For alcoholics in recovery, families often are tentative and over-protective, even to the point of not serving alcohol. This is unnecessary, unfair to other family members, and may even be self-defeating, putting a spotlight on the recovering alcoholic. The safer approach is to avoid serving foods cooked with alcohol (or letting the person in recovery know about them), serving festive, non-alcoholic drinks, not just soda and water, as alternatives to alcohol, and not making a big deal about his or her not drinking.
It is up to the recovering alcoholic to do the rest -- to come with tools to cope with any uncomfortability. That means non-alcoholic drinks, a sober friend, a car, a cell phone with numbers of sober friends, a pre-planned reason to leave early (before the alcohol takes effect on others), and a lack of guilt for using any of them. The person in recovery will also have to be prepared to deal with family members who are uncomfortable around him because he makes them think about their own drinking problem or others who may want to voice a grievance over past behavior by the recovering person. Again, being prepared with tools for an efficient getaway may be the best approach for the recovering alcoholic, especially one new to recovery.
By the way, these tools can also be used by non-drinkers who are not in recovery but can’t stand a house full of drunken relatives.
And finally, for the person in early recovery, the most realistic approach may be to avoid a family holiday gathering this year. There will be others and they will be more enjoyable with more recovery. In this case, it may be more important, and healthier, to spend time with sober friends and to focus on being grateful for the gift of sobriety.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Turns out, you really are what you eat

By Bob Gaydos
I don’t’ eat salt and sugar anymore. Well, I try not to, as much as is possible in America. Also no red meat, French fries or soda. I know, downright un-American.
As I write this, I‘m sitting in Dunkin’ Donuts alone, eating my oatmeal with fruit (fair) and veggie egg white (pretty good) breakfast. Medium coffee, no sugar. Ketchup Bob, who usually joins me, had a previous engagement. We’ll have to talk about that ketchup some other time.
The low-salt/sugar diet started about four months ago, the result of a long-delayed physical checkup and a decision that I wasn‘t ready for the slow-but-steady surrender to couch potato oblivion. Not by a long shot, it turns out to my pleasant surprise.
The doctor said I was too heavy and my blood pressure was too high. Vitamin D was too low. A couple of pills, some exercise and a new diet were prescribed. The pills have the blood pressure down to my former well-within-acceptable range and I have lost about 30 pounds (more to come). I am also walking two-to-three miles per week and have started what I call an exercise regimen, but my coach calls a reclamation project. I say it’s just semantics, but we’re working on it.
It turns out, the diet switch wasn’t nearly as difficult as I thought it would be. There’s a lot of salad in my diet now, more fruit and veggies and a lot of chicken. Also seafood. I have ventured into the previously mysterious world (to me) of vegan cuisine and have eaten sushi for the first time. More to the point, I’m prepared to go back for seconds. I have also relearned the art of using chopsticks (brown rice, please).
I am also happy to report that there are mighty tasty organic cookies (double chocolate) and that chocolate itself, if it’s mostly chocolate, is still good as well as good for you. And there are plenty of healthful salsa and chip varieties to satisfy that other craving. And Greek yogurt with fruit.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not nearly settled in to this new diet. Not even sure what it will eventually turn out to be. I may splurge on an occasional steak or ice cream cone. Fanaticism is not one of my shortcomings. The doctor asked me to read “Wheat Belly,” a best-seller that launched the no-gluten craze. I’m not even sure I had a wheat belly, but I’m reading the book and I’ll have to get back to you on that. At the very least, I know that too much bread isn’t good for me.
The exercise regimen, on the other hand, has turned out to be more challenging. Even walking a half mile was exhausting initially.Weight training (dumbbells, not barbells) was, to be honest, humbling at first. My male ego had to wrestle with seeing the fairer sex easily do repetitions I could not finish. Pushups? Forget it. The only exercise I managed to feel OK doing at first was crunches. (And by the way, they’re paying off.) I’m also doing a lot of stretching and believe me my body needed it and I feel it.
I am happy to report that I am now doing a two-mile walk each week, with a one-mile stroll tossed in most weeks as well. There are also sessions on a stationary bike (soon to be increased, coach) and a general heightened awareness of how I walk (also tossed in for the coach).
So what? you say. Why should you care about what I eat or do with my body? Well, honestly, you don’t have to care. I’m doing this diary entry as a sort of selfish exercise in self-discipline, to remind myself that what I’m doing is working. I feel much healthier, look much healthier and even think in a healthier way than I did before I began this radical change. That’s win-win-win. I’ve had to buy new jeans and they are already too big.
It has always been my belief that it is never too late to do something if you really want to do it. Motivation is key, of course. As well as self-discipline and support and encouragement. Making this change a matter of public record also has the effect of making me stick to it as much as possible because I won’t like being asked whatever happened to your diet, chubby?
And, who knows, maybe it will influence someone else who is slipping into coach potato oblivion to resist and pull him or herself out of the cushions. Life is too short to fritter away. I have a long way to go, but the joy, they say, is in the journey. So I’m going to try to have fun as I go along.  (More stretches? Really coach?) I’ll keep you filled in on the details.
Next week, Bob, the ketchup talk.