The power of awareness.

Drinking is a relatively new thing for me. I hardly drank at all the five years I was married, really only picking up the habit last fall when my now ex-husband started really getting nasty. Well, I know that drinking is not a healthy coping mechanism so I worked with my therapist to develop other more creative ways of dealing with feelings related to my ex-husband. (See my blog post “When you can’t go off, get off.”)

For a few months I hardly thought about alcohol at all. Then out of the blue a few weeks ago the desire to drink re-surfaced. I was perplexed as to why because my stress-level is down, my persistently antagonistic ex has little effect on me these days, and I have the single-mom thing routine to a science. In other words, there were no obvious reasons for the sudden reappearance.

I was spinning my mental wheels until this exceptionally insightful book about money that I’m reading clued me in. This will make more sense if I explain that the book is actually about my relationship with money. Specifically, how my current unhealthy relationship with money is just an expression of unresolved issues from my past.

The book promises that by understanding – and resolving – these issues, I can free myself to achieve my full financial potential. Sign me up! I thought. There’s never been a better time to get empowered myself about money, because now I have a two-year-old depending on me to provide for him and watching my every move.

In order to make the connection between money and alcohol I need to tell you about one of my two primary money disorders – overspending – and why I’ve learned I do it. (The other disorder is avoidance, for what that’s worth.)

Overspending is something I do to cope with feelings of loneliness and isolation. Let me explain. I don’t just shop – I “shop-shop”, to borrow the expression from The Wonder Years. I only buy from the hippest new stores in town where the items are way out of both my price range and my social league. But this is the whole point.

I’ve wanted to be cool my whole life. There’s something magical about being cool, like this status will automatically expand my social circle and quality of life. When I see cool people at these stores they look happier than I am – their bodies are tighter, their boyfriends are handsomer, and I’m sure they have a posse of cool friends. If I buy clothes from a store where the cool people shop – I’ll pass as cool too, right?

It was this explanation for overspending that finally clued me in to the primary reason alcohol has such an appeal to me these days – if I thought that married with a baby and a big house in the ‘burbs was uncool, being a thirty-five year old divorced mom of a two-year-old with perpetual bags under eyes and schmutz on the shoulder of her work shirt makes my old life look downright glamorous.

I drink to feel cool, but the underlying issue is that I feel isolated and separated from my peers. After my son falls asleep for the night, sitting on my balcony with a view of the city and a beer in my hand lets me pretend that I’m part of it – a hipster out on the town (okay, on a balcony above the town) drinking a microbrew like everybody else.

I’m going to talk about this cool thing – and ideas for addressing feelings of isolation and loneliness – with my therapist when I see her this afternoon, but just understanding that there is a reason underneath my desire to drink – that’s not weak moral character – is empowering.

I want you to feel more empowered in your relationships, too. It could be your relationship with money, with food or alcohol, or with a friend. Pick one that’s been on your mind a lot lately – we’ll work on it together to bring some awareness to the underlying issues. The only criteria is that it’s a relationship you want to improve.

Have one in mind? Let’s get started.

What is one dysfunctional thing about this relationship? If it’s your relationship with food, do you overeat? If it’s with money, do you overspend? If it’s with a person, do you overgive? Note – your response must include the word “over.” Kidding.

Got it? Good work. The second step in this awareness exercise is understanding what this dysfunction does for you. Do you overeat to soothe anxiety? Do you overspend for the adrenaline rush? Do you overgive to feel secure in your relationship?

The last step in this awareness exercise is to identify what underling need you’re trying to meet by continuing to do the thing you wish you didn’t. Do you have anxiety because you’re afraid your marriage is in trouble? Do you need the adrenaline rush because your long period of unemployment is depressing? Do you feel insecure in your relationship because you don’t feel worth your spouse?

This last step is the most challenging one, and might take a few days of reflection. If this is the case, periodically revisit the idea throughout your day – you’ll get there.

Okay, so now that you are aware of one of your dysfunctions - why you do it and what it does for you - what now? Nothing. That's the beauty of awareness. Usually simply becoming aware of something is enough to start to change it.