Category Archives: Health and wellness

Becoming a non-drinker in a drinking world

Imagine that you’re a successful, middle-aged career person who has contracted late-onset diabetes.

Your new dietary regimen requires you to quit eating cake, formerly your favorite way to unwind after a long day at the office (with more frequent indulgences on weekends and vacations). You work hard to give up cake. You examine your character and compulsions, and you seek support from other diabetics to rid yourself of this once-satisfying habit that you recognize now as a fatal disease.

And yet, everywhere you turn — whether at Target or Cub Foods, at company parties or celebrations — cake is available. Cake is glorified. At work, cake is pressed on you as a key to networking, getting ahead and building relationships.

Welcome to the world of the high-functioning alcoholic — or problem drinker, if you prefer. Except that cake is a vodka gimlet and a glass or three of Chardonnay. Cake is the monthly “happy hour” your employer sponsors for exempt staff, the event you skip because you don’t want to feel removed or resentful. Cake is the predictable reward and the requisite joke (“man, do I need a big piece of cake”) after a project is completed, a deadline has been met.

Every adult eats cake. It is assumed. It is a given.

Shaken and stirred

For those of us who have chosen to quit drinking at middle age — due to addiction, long-term health or other reasons — the linkage of alcohol with work success and socializing can be daunting on the bad days, and merely tiresome on the best.

How do I explain my irregular attendance at the aptly named “Afterglow,” a convivial gathering at various local watering holes after the daylong meetings of Leadership Saint Paul? Billed as “a unique opportunity to connect with other leaders,” LSP is a competitive and prestigious program sponsored  by the Saint Paul Chamber of Commerce whose value can be traced as much to informal relationships as to the formal curriculum.

Informal business relationships often are constructed around alcohol’s power as a social lubricant. I get it. I remember how freeing it used to feel to drink with colleagues after work, to laugh and share our stories. Drinking was a lot of fun until it ceased to be fun, until it became a solitary escape from the pressures and perfectionism I placed upon myself.

Now, after six hard-won years of sobriety, I have less tolerance for the artificial connections and amped-up conversations that alcohol inspires. I don’t want to be the square, sipping a club soda or Diet Coke while others soften their edges with beer and wine. Neither do I want to seem standoffish or disapproving. So, with rare exception, I stay away from alcohol-infused business functions — or I make a token appearance and slip out.

Sometimes I contemplate a return to that bubble of instant warmth where walls melt and insecurities wash away. But the temptation is a siren song. I can’t go back there. I can’t have my cake and eat it, too.

Shaken and stirred

That chemical dependency runs in my family, and that I reached a point in middle age where my drinking scared me — those facts are my story, my reality and my problem. “I understood that it was not the world’s job to understand my disease,” one of the venerable recovery books says. “Rather it was my job to . . . not drink, no matter what.”

Few ordinary abstainers or normal drinkers realize, however, how much practice and commitment sobriety really takes.

This journey began for me at age 43 and consumed a lot of mental energy throughout my 40s. Finally, at 52, I conceded. I gave up and began the halting process of starting to define myself as a nondrinker.

It’s easy enough to stay away from bars (though I miss going out to hear music), and I enter liquor stores only when I want to buy a special gift. What’s harder to avoid are reminders of drinking in a society where alcohol is both romanticized and ubiquitous.

  • On Facebook: “Opened a bottle of wine and a can of Pringles,” writes a former colleague about her Memorial Day weekend at the lake. “If I am not careful they will both be gone in one sitting. Loving the day at the cabin!”
  • At my yoga studio: Two of my teachers at CorePower Yoga are recovering alcoholics. All of my instructors tout the physical and emotional benefits of yoga. Yet, no one sees the contradiction in the “Yoga & Wine” events that the studio markets to women, especially, as a way to pamper themselves and get away from it all. I thought yoga was about the discipline of being present.
  • In the media: The Star Tribune recently featured a collaboration between a yoga studio and a craft brewery with a headline claiming that “studies” confirm “exercise and drinking go together.” The journalist quoted no fitness experts and cited no academic evidence. Instead, she interviewed the young participants whose bodies still can take abuse and dressed it up as medical research. “Research suggests,” she wrote (emphasis mine), “that both activities can give people a feel-good buzz that gets stronger when they do them in succession.” Like hitting your head with a hammer after sex?

A better path

I recognized the weight of navigating a booze-soaked culture when I encountered an alcohol-free bar at the recent Great River Gathering in downtown St. Paul and breathed a sigh of joy and pure relief. “To promote a more inclusive environment this year, we’ve established a dry bar,” the program read. “No alcohol will be available at this location. Soda, coffee, and water will be available for purchase.”

Sold! How hard was that? Did my ability to get a club soda without staring at glistening bottles of wine impede the rights of drinkers lined up at the three other bars?

I’m not pushing for Prohibition. I don’t need you not to drink. In fact, I still serve beer and wine to guests in my home. I am simply asking you to acknowledge that not drinking, for me, takes effort — that a work-sanctioned “happy hour” is work.

So, join me in a soft drink, as my friend and colleague did at a financial-planning event for women, generously claiming that she was counting calories. Understand why I leave the party early or sometimes don’t show up at all.

Please don’t pity me. I’m not suffering. “I want to see life at its own speed,” NBA great Bill Russell once said about his refusal to use drugs. It’s an accurate explanation for my late-in-life sobriety; and life has never had so much clarity, or felt so good.

Note: Journalist and author Andy Steiner published a follow-up story in MinnPost about this blog post on June 15, 2016.

#30DaysofExercise . . . and Live to Tell

Like half of all Americans, I live less than five miles from where I work.

So, no excuses during National Bike to Work Week — except for Thursday, when I have to dress up for a volunteer recognition lunch and attend a fancier work function in the evening.MayisBikeMonth

Exercise-challenge programs such as National Bike to Work Day on May 15 or Run 2,015 in 2015 (whoops, too late now!) are effective motivators — except when they’re inconvenient. I learned that the hard way during the 30 Days of Biking challenge in April.

On the face of it, my mere seven days of biking during the cold, rainy month were a failure compared with the hard-cores who rode their bicycles to bakeries and tweeted throughout the month or posted grinning, thumbs-up photos on Instagram.

What I did instead is what I do every day, every month, every year: I exercised. The particular daily movement that I chose — biking, running, fitness yoga, walking — depended on the weather, on my schedule or on my mood.

The #30daysofbiking challenge did inspire me to log the experience. I kept a daily record of my exercise, and that’s proven to be fruitful now that warm weather is here and I really want to up my cycling miles and train to run another half-marathon.

My daily logs are both instructive and inspiring. I note the excuses, but I see also that I managed to move every day. The journal entries reinforce my midlife exercise mantra: Something is better than nothing. Any exercise counts.

30 Days #2

EXCUSES ARE EASY to come by. It’s harder to sidestep #30DaysofExercise, however, than daily cycling because it allows you to be more a generalist than a specialist.

On April days when it was too windy and cold to bike, I could easily walk the 1.2 miles to work. Likewise, on a day after my running partner had pushed me to run farther than I would have on my own, I could stretch my aching quadriceps and hamstrings in a yoga class.

But the exercise log’s purpose was to record, specifically, whether I had biked. And it revealed more than anything why I failed to get my seat on the saddle for 23 of the month’s 30 days.

  • April 1: Blew it on the first day of the bike challenge! Warm but really windy and then had horrendous rainstorm this evening. Oh, well.
  • April 9: Pouring rain today, 40 degrees. Going to Core Power at noon.
  • April 17: Went for a run with Lou Anne. No energy for more exercise today.
  • April 21: It snowed today. Enough said.

30 Days #4

WITH MY LONG LEGS and short trunk, I seem built to ride a bike. It’s an effortless exercise.

And so it’s easy for me to combine biking with errands, which feels more healthful — and less stressful — than other forms of multitasking.

Movement has more meaning, my cycling log has taught me, when there’s purpose behind it.

  • April 12: Rode to Rainbow Chinese and back to meet friends. As we get more serious about becoming a one-vehicle family, it will become essential to bike.
  • April 16: Still not feeling well so working from home. But I felt well enough to bike to work for meetings. Nobody seemed to mind that I was wearing spandex bike shorts, with bad hair and carrying a helmet.
  • April 26: Rode around the neighborhood and then went to Mom’s. I like combining biking with appointments. It’s a twofer, the equivalent of walking to work.

30 Days #3

CYCLING MAKES ME SMILE in a way that running never has. I love the sweep of scenery, the sense of being one with the natural world.

“You can’t buy happiness, but you can buy a bike,” I read on a cyclist’s T-shirt one sunny Sunday when I was biking home on Midtown Greenway.

Discovering the joy in the simple act of riding was an impetus behind the founding of 30 Days of Biking by Twin Citian Patrick Stephenson, whose idea has gone viral and international. He describes the practice of daily cycling as “transformative.”

  •  April 4: Wore my runner’s mask to bike this morning. Legs and fingers froze. No wind, gliding through the streets. Hills felt good after sculpt class yesterday.
  • April 14: Woke up with sore throat and sniffles. Hunkered down and got tasks done at my desk. Rode the six-mile loop along the River Road after work: 60 degrees, sunny, little wind. I felt better afterward.
  • April 28: Thirty-minute ride at 7 p.m. through the neighborhood. Not enough but it was something. Like any exercise or art or behavior at which I want to get better, biking has to be a practice.

Healthy, holistic success: Be curious, be mindful, be brave

The wheel of life — an exercise designed to help people find true balance among all aspects of their lives — typically has eight areas of focus, from social life to personal growth to career.

Amy Machacek, 46, a high-energy yoga instructor turned entrepreneur, rocked the wheel a bit for her personal and corporate training programs. Her nine categories include “home/environment,” “fun and recreation,” “significant other/romance” and “friends.”Amy Etzell

As the owner of two Northfield, Minnesota–based businesses — HeartWork Yoga and LIFE.REVAMP — Machacek has relied equally on her instincts, her network (including her entrepreneurial father) and her passion for keeping up with industry trends. In addition to her E-RYT 200-hour yoga certification, she has trained in nutrition, meditation and life coaching. She’s also studied with Jack Canfield, co-creator of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series and author of The Success Principles.

Machacek’s liberal arts education at the University of St. Thomas taught her to “be curious” — one of her favorite sayings — and to embrace lifelong learning. “It’s why I have one daughter there now and another starting in the fall,” she says.

On February 6, Machacek will headline UST’s prestigious First Friday Speaker Series in downtown Minneapolis, offering attendees a five-step plan for gaining more energy in all areas of their lives.

On stress reduction: Yoga doesn’t decrease your stress. It doesn’t make your boss nicer or your kids listen to you. But it changes your perception of that stress. I’m helping people process or manage this stuff in a way that is less taxing.”

On the character of an entrepreneur: “I’m not sure whether it takes courage or stupidity! My partner, Dave Shonka, works for a traditional company. He likes the security, but he doesn’t have the freedom. I like the freedom, and I’m OK without having security. Neither is right or wrong, but your choice should match your personality.

“I’m creative, and I really need a creative outlet. Plus, I watched my family do this when I was growing up. It seemed normal to me to put in long hours when you’re building the business and have some flexibility once the business is doing well.”

On growing a business: “If I stay just one step ahead of my growth, I can expand thoughtfully and not have to take on debt. HeartWork initially was yoga classes only, in a small town with 11 other places that offer yoga. We weren’t going to be viable forever if we just did yoga classes.Life Revamp

“Then I created the yoga teacher training school and added personal training to the studio. LIFE.REVAMP was next. I was working on all of my certifications, and I recognized that if I combined nutrition, life coaching and yoga, I could help people gain forward momentum.

“I brought in barre tone classes when I saw them on the coasts. People have short attention spans. If you’re not adding or changing, you’re dying.”

On how fitness fuels success: “Everyone in LIFE.REVAMP is working on their own things, but it all starts with fitness and nutrition. The initial call may come because of career issues, but first people need more energy and clarity about where they are body-wise.

“One of my clients has 750 employees, and his company bought another company this fall. He told me how great he felt standing in front of his expanded team. ‘I knew what I was talking about,’ he told me. ‘I was standing up straight.’ Another middle-aged client who has shed some weight says she’s now ready to focus on being an athlete again.”

On the tyranny of technology: “We have to make some rules for ourselves. At the end of the workday, Ward Cleaver could close his ledger book, turn off the light and go home. And nothing followed him.

“Now, that doesn’t happen — but we don’t have to allow technology into every aspect of our lives. Otherwise, it’s like the spoiled child who demands our attention all the time. We’re losing out on our relationships because of it.”

On positive parenting: “I don’t want to hover over my kids and make every decision for them. I help them slowly make more decisions as they get older, so they’re ready when they go to college. Nowadays, parenting seems to be defined as keeping kids in a sweet, tight grip. My job as a mom is to love my kids and prepare to let them go.”

On beauty and aging: Marcia Wellstone [Markuson] was a classmate of mine at Northfield High. When she died in October 2002, I was 33 years old. I remember it vividly. We’d had a class reunion that summer, and she was this shiny person. She had gotten remarried, she loved her stepkids. I was standing in my bedroom when I heard the news and thought: ‘Who am I to complain about getting older, about being alive?’ Marcia didn’t get this opportunity, and I did.

“I describe it now as my life before that moment and my life after. Honestly, not for one day since then have I complained about aging. I see aging as a gift, and I believe that to the bottom of who I am.”

On the rewards of growing older: “I love the wisdom and experiences that come with age. All the hard stuff and good stuff we’ve been through makes us who we are today.”

On staying curious: “I tell people in my classes every day: ‘Be curious. Don’t act like you know everything.’ Our lives get smaller as we grow older. We don’t get down on the floor. We don’t reach our arms as high. We don’t move as fast, we don’t try new things — but we need to keep reaching in life.”