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Very happy to have been reviewed by Kirkus Indie:

 

“Hollenstein (Understanding Dietary Supplements, 2007) makes it clear from the start that her book has none of the drama of typical addiction memoirs. She has no harrowing, cinematic rock-bottom moment to report, for example; instead, she focuses on her slow realization that “[a]lcohol numbed both [her] pain and [her] joy.” This quiet process of introspection, however, proves to be just as engaging as any tale of alcohol-induced havoc. Hollenstein writes eloquently of the complex role that alcohol once played in her life, and her insights into drinking’s cultural currency are especially sharp. Of alcohol’s transformative power, for example, she writes: “Champagne with oysters transported me to Paris….I drank whiskey to express my saltier side.””

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I’m very excited to announce the publication of the Drinking to Distraction book!

This short memoir is a collection of my thoughts and experiences, from the days when I wondered (sometimes aloud, but mostly to myself) whether or not I was an alcoholic, to my decision to quit and those awkward early days, and finally to my discovery of meditation and learning to become more comfortable with discomfort.

It was important for me to write and publish this book mostly because it is the one I looked for all those years, when I read every alcoholism memoir I could find, hoping to find some glimpse of myself, some instruction manual to tell me what to do. I never found the book I was looking for; instead I found dramatic tales that ended with the author hitting bottom and going to rehab, which made me think I was alone in my experience as a grey-area drinker.

After starting the Drinking to Distraction blog more than 3 years ago, however, I realized I was never alone. There are many of us who chose to stop drinking, not necessarily because alcohol had caused us to lose control over our lives, but because it took away from our lives in more subtle ways, ways we couldn’t totally appreciate until after we made that fearful decision to leave it behind. And there are many, many more of us still struggling with this decision; I’ve received countless emails from readers and I can feel their pain, confusion, and anticipation. Writing about my experience and connecting with all of you has been essential to my recovery. Bringing this important conversation out in the open seems to me the only way to help ourselves and others.

I invite you to check out Drinking to Distraction here. Right now it’s only available through Lulu.com in paperback but soon it will be available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and iBookstore both electronically and in hard copy.

As always, thank you for reading!

 

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I will set my alarm each morning to awaken me with this:

I will leave no trick un-exploited in my efforts to finish this book

  • I will use the laundry trick (that’s 34 minutes to wash-write, and 28 minutes to dry-write)
  • The captive audience trick (any time I’m in a waiting room; why else do I have a MacBook Air?)
  • The just-5-minutes trick (what do I have to lose?)
  • The muted Law & Order trick (I know I’ll turn it off to concentrate)
  • The change of scenery trick again and again and again (the living room, the dining room, the guest room, the bedroom, the courtyard, the Starbucks, the other Starbucks)

I will resist watching this:

And this:

And especially this:

 

Every time I hear myself say any of the following:

You’re not a writer, you know

That sentence totally sucks

Um, wait, I think you missed a chance to gaze at your navel

No one wants to read this shizzle but your mom

I will drop and give myself 20

 

BECAUSE THIS IS IMPORTANT, DAMMIT, AND I’M THE ONE WHO HAS TO WRITE IT!

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Recently, as part of Susan Piver’s Open Heart Project, we learned about the lojong slogan “3 objects, 3 poisons, 3 seeds of virtue.” The three objects are things we want, things we don’t want, and things we ignore; the three poisons passion, aggression, and ignorance; and the three seeds of virtue freedom from passion, aggression, and ignorance.

In delving deeper into this slogan, contemplating it and reading Chogyam Trungpa’s and Pema Chodron’s thoughts on the topic, I recognize how my drinking covered all of these bases. I used drinking to hold on to pleasurable experiences way past their expiration date; I never wanted the party to end and I thought it couldn’t end as long as I kept drinking. Other times I used alcohol to try to change the way things were, to counteract feelings of anxiety and fear, to replace them with the joviality and good times I thought were to be found in the bottle. Last, my drinking allowed me to zone out, to disconnect from issues that needed attention – a relationship that was hurtful, an unsatisfying career.

This is not to say that alcohol is inherently poisonous; but the way I used it was problematic for me. That kind of self-awareness has helped me to see how I engage with the different aspects of my life. It’s also shown me that while all three poisons are present at different times, I tend toward one in particular: aggression, or as I think of it, resistance.

From the moment I wake up to the moment I fall asleep, my mind is constantly resisting the way things are. “I should have done this…or that,” “I shouldn’t feel this way,” “I wish I were more…,” “I wish…,” “If only…,” these are a constant refrain, like elevator muzak that has been playing in the background so long you almost don’t notice it anymore. Sometimes I even hope that things will turn out differently in a movie I’ve already seen or one in which I know the ending; I spent the majority of the film Titanic hoping there would be some twist that saved everyone.

In Start Where You Are, Pema Chodron writes “resistance to unwanted circumstances has the power to keep those circumstances alive and well for a very long time.” She also writes about how the 3 poisons provide fertile ground for change, a rich source from which we can pull self-awareness and gentleness, and can open up to the much wider possibilities life has to offer.

As I write this post, I feel immense confusion as to what to do with my life. My severance period is about to end, I’m completing a small business course that I took with the hope of starting my own nutrition counseling and writing business, I’m about two-thirds of the way through writing the Drinking to Distraction book, and I have the outline of another book I would like to write when the first is completed. I feel at once exhilarated, overwhelmed, frightened, capable, and bereft of the stamina needed to take the next step. My tendency toward aggression makes me resist this confusion; I have a strong drive to exorcise it, oust it, banish it, even if that means making a decision that I haven’t completely considered, or reverting back to a professional plan that seems more of a sure thing.

My challenge, if Piver, and Chodron, and Trungpa are right (and I know they are), is to hang out in that confusion long enough to really experience it. To drop the story about how my life will end up in the shitter if I made the wrong decision. And to feel my way toward the next step, and the next, and the next, knowing I can change course at any point. First, I must give up the fight against reality. This is the way it is, for now. Resistance is futile.

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When I was younger, so much younger than today

I never needed anybody’s help in any way

But now these days are gone, I’m not so self-assured

Now I find I’ve changed my mind and opened up the doors

~”Help” by The Beatles

Have you ever noticed something, seemingly for the first time, and then you hear or see it everywhere? You finally learn the definition of “the canary in the coal mine,” and then three friends use it in separate conversations.

Lately, I’ve been hearing and reading the suggestion to allow people to help me:

Sooner or later we admit that we cannot do it all, that whatever our contribution, the story is much larger and longer than our own, and we are all in the gift of older stories that we are only now joining. Whatever our success at work, in the financial markets, or in the virtual worlds now being born, we are all in the gift of much older work, we are all looked after by other eyes, and we are only preparing ourselves for an invitation to join something larger.

  • In “Intuitive Eating,” the authors write about the common tendency to eat when what we really need is support and/or nurturing, something that we can often easily receive if we only ask for it:

When you find yourself reaching for food when there is no biological hunger, take a time-out to find out what you are feeling…Call a friend and talk about the feelings…Talk to a counselor or a psychotherapist.

  • In my Kaufman FastTrac NYC small business course, we discuss establishing a personal network of individuals who can broaden our perspectives, provide information and feedback, and be objective.

The ubiquity of the advice to ask for help caught me by surprise. (Sort of like that ‘w’ in the word answer. Really? Was that always there?) Why does asking for help seem counterintuitive? Why is it so difficult? I can only surmise that my resistance stems from my fear of appearing foolish, a wish to have my proverbial shit together (or at least seem to), and my striving for perfection.

When the shoe is on the other foot, however, and I am asked for help, I am more than happy to oblige. I feel a sense of purpose and connection with that person, as if I’m growing and nurturing not only that relationship but contributing to a bigger picture in which we are all interdependent. Why not extend such an opportunity to others by allowing them to help me?

In “Ocean of Dharma,” Chogyam Trungpa writes:

We can afford to open ourselves and join the rest of the world with a sense of tremendous generosity, tremendous goodness, and tremendous richness. The more we give, the more we gain – although what we gain should not particularly be our reason for giving. Rather, the more we give, the more we are inspired to give constantly. And the gaining process happens naturally, automatically, always.

I spent this past weekend with my parents, my sister, and her family, including my 4.5- and 2.5-year old nieces. The girls reminded me of that instinctive drive to “do it myself,” and how that seems to be the very definition of growing up and becoming independent. At the same time I found myself asking my mother for help: I always find it difficult to maintain my meditation practice whenever I am away from home, but by asking my mom to sit and practice with me, we both benefited. This simple act of asking for help strengthened our connection and broadened our perspective.

Perhaps the definition of growing up is not the ability to be completely self-reliant but rather knowing when, how, and who to ask for help. Allow me to be your canary in the coal mine: Have you been helped yet?

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When I was writing a nutrition book several years ago, I spent a lot of time not writing. I cleaned, napped, drank, anything to avoid what I knew I had to do (and actually really wanted to do!). I thought I was an expert procrastinator until I completed a questionnaire at the end of Robert Boice’s book Professors As Writers, entitled The Blocking Questionnaire. The Blocking Questionnaire is sort of a Myers & Briggs test for your writing personality. Based on your answers to multiple questions regarding overt, cognitive/emotional, and social signs of blocking (as in writer’s block), you are scored in several areas, including work apprehension, procrastination, writing apprehension, dysphoria, impatience, perfectionism, and rules. While all of these things are likely to affect writers to some degree, typically one quality predominates.

Based on my results, I found that what I thought of as procrastination was firmly rooted in perfectionism. I was finally able to complete my book once I heeded Boice’s advice: “perfectionists learn to laugh at their perfectionism and to put it in its proper place – toward the end of the writing process. They do so, at least in the short run, by confronting their internal critic and by writing around him or her.”

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post called Practicing Imperfection. At that time, I had reached a tipping point regarding the unrealistic standards I hold myself to. In drafting my declaration of imperfection, I seem to have touched a nerve, with myself and several others. And, as often happens with me, it wasn’t until after I had written it that I realized just how true, important, and poignant this issue is.

I find that much of my internal monologue is about perfection, how I should be able to achieve it, yet how incapable I am of it. Case in point: for the past several years I have dreamed of writing a book about my experiences quitting drinking, beginning meditation, and learning to lean into my real (though messy, unpredictable, and often uncomfortable) life. While I have every logical reason to believe I am capable of this (past book writing experience, basic ability to string together sentences, an encouraging and supportive network), I have delayed the actual writing of the book.

My inner perfectionist doesn’t think it’s worth writing if it’s not a best-seller, if it doesn’t land of me on the present day equivalent of the Oprah Winfrey show, and if basically everyone doesn’t love me for writing it. Again, I spend much of my time and energy not writing this book. Instead, I do research so that I won’t omit any important information when I do finally commit to writing, I play with shifting the focus of the book proposal this way and that, and I furtively scan recently published book titles assuming one day I’ll find someone has beat me to it.

Who could live with these expectations? I would never place such pressure on someone I love…isn’t that a mouthful? While I can’t say that I will no longer be a perfectionist, I am committing to making imperfection a practice, much like meditation. What this leads to remains to be seen.

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“The bad news is you’re falling through the air, nothing to hang on to, no parachute. The good news is there’s no ground.” ~Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

 

It’s been two months since my job ended. Since then I have tried to bring the structure of my working life into the vast abyss of my unemployment. Somehow I fill my days with errands and small tasks that must have gone uncompleted when I was working. That and I watch a lot of bad TV. I’ve become mildly obsessed with doing everything right – working out 5 times a week, cooking a variety of nutritious meals, using up all the produce in the fridge before it goes bad, getting the best price on bananas. At the end of the day I’m often not sure what happened. But I feel exhausted.

By filling in the time, I haven’t really been dealing with the fact that I’m confused and uncertain and scared. I guess I have felt this way for much of my life. Like a lot of people, I want to understand the meaning of life, the meaning of my life. To find a way to live that makes me relatively happy and also makes the world a little better when I leave it. I have tried on different personas to see how they fit. One of those personas involved drinking – the wine-savvy dietitian, the friend who was always ready for a cocktail. Before I quit drinking more than 5 years ago, it seemed that alcohol had become so intertwined with my very personality, I wasn’t sure what would remain in its absence. As it turned out, that wasn’t who I was at all.

Since then, and especially since I began to practice meditation, the question of who I am has become all the more poignant, scary, and unclear. As I unraveled the layers of behaviors and habits, there seemed to be less and less there. And yet I have felt more and more myself.

The other day I was standing on the corner of 60th and Lex waiting to go down into the subway. It was raining and I was on the phone with my meditation instructor, who was telling me not to be afraid of my confusion and lack of ground. As often happens when I hear something that feels purely true, I had tears in my eyes.

During the next few days, I realized that the things I’ve done in my life that have felt the most important – falling in love, working on myself in therapy, rebuilding a once-shaky relationship with my parents, quitting drinking, even writing this blog – I’ve done from a place of utter vulnerability. In each instance, I felt I had bottomed out, in a good way. That I was out of rationalizations, that I could only listen to my heart, take a risk, drop expectations, and see what came of it. I never knew how these things would turn out. It’s only in retrospect that each feels momentous.

So perhaps my confusion now is not something to shake or beat into submission. Perhaps, if I allow myself to feel its full weight, its bottomless-seeming depth, it will allow me to see what I need to see.

 

 

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