My approval rating

In any other life, I might be a celebrity or perhaps running for office.  Such is my obsession with my ‘approval rating’.  i.e. the constant need to fit-in and get approval from people.  The funny thing is, this need for approval is an unconscious one.  I do not post on facebook and count the number of friends I have.  In fact, I get edgy and uncomfortable when somebody praises me.

In the past, I hadn’t quite zeroed in on this thirst for approval.  But something interesting happened over the weekend.  I should have been happy – My job situation is working out, I’ve been off the booze for over six weeks now and as a couple, we are making significant strides in getting a handle on our lives.  Instead, I was weighed down by my black dog and that didn’t seem right.  I went out on a long drive tracing back the events of the past couple of days to figure out what was happening and here’s how it all fit in.

I was comparing my career, achievements, financial well being etc., with that of people I knew.  Friends mainly, which makes it even harder – I am jealous that somebody has it better, followed by judgment that they have it easier in some areas of their life.  Not exactly how you win friends and influence people.  It was triggered by a piece of news that an acquaintance found a job in the same firm that I didn’t get recruited into.  Plus it was becoming very clear that we are running out of funds and we would have to be very careful with our spending.  A double whammy – Somebody else won a prize and would do better in their career plus they had more money to boot.  By this time I’am feeling depressed, worried about the future.  I can’t win this race and I’am a loser.

See, I grew up in a poor family and some of my early childhood experiences (more about those later) have been those of scarcity.  The experience of living on the other side of the tracks  have created some non-negotiable (non-negotiable in my mind) decisions about what a dignified and safe life means.  You do not have dignity, safety or respect if you are poor.  If you are poor, the society does not care about you.  You are not important, a human being, somebody who has a voice and feelings and needs.  You could be a doormat for all they care.  My childhood memories have been about trying to get that respect by being smart and well behaved, hoping to secure enough financially to never having to face scarcity again.  Being smart could be the ticket out of the mess.  Being well behaved since I had to continue to receive the support I needed (cash or kind) and had to suppress the sense of indignity that resulted from said support.  Plus, to show them that I will make it in spite of all their negativity towards me and my own lack of resources.  That I would make up for my deficiencies with my smarts and creativity.  Constantly looking for their approval.  Fighting the ‘not good enough’ tag placed on you, but feeling that way nevertheless.

This is my formula for my approval rating:  Am I marching towards gaining their respect  or approval (through my ‘achievements’) and do I have enough money so I’ll never have to experience such poverty again.  I recognize that this reads like a cartoon super hero fantasy story.  Unfortunately, my adult brain is wired exactly like this (or so it seems).  As any number of wise people and their books would say, I’am living somebody else’s life.  Perhaps this explains my identity crisis.  It’s a bad formula really, since both the variables are not under my control – I cant control what others think about me or my past.  And my current mood reflects how bad the formula is.

What worries me is the sense of depression –  Nothing I do seems to get my approval ratings higher.  I’am now getting to a point where I’am giving up the fight, being a victim – i.e. If only I had a better set of circumstances, I would have done better.  Not a fun place to be in.  Towards the end of my drive, I was desperate to come up with a solution for this and here’s what I need to figure out:  Do I still need an approval rating?  Can I be fine without getting everybody’s respect or a ton of money?


What made me stop drinking

As I write this, it’s been two weeks since I last had any alcohol.  In this time, the craving has significantly reduced to a point where I go through a whole day without the urge to drink.  However, the worry exists that I will regress back to my drinking habits, especially if the proverbial shit were to hit the fan.  In some corner of my mind, I still think that I can *manage* my drinking and continue to have a beer or two socially.  For these reasons, I want to catalog my feelings, realizations and state of mind leading me to quit so that I can come back to it in time of need.   The thoughts are somewhat random and it’s surely a long post.  But somehow it makes sense to me.


Firstly, what I was doing to my family.  What hit home was one night when I had one too many a drink, I realized that I would be in no shape to handle an emergency.  I was so wasted that If something were to happen I wouldn’t even be awake.  I remember mornings where I was unsure about safely driving my son to school.  Mornings would be the most chaotic as I’am hungover, kids need attention and I’am simply not able to function.  Evenings wouldn’t be any better since starting around 5PM I would plan on when I can get my next drink.  When taking care of the kids in the evening and up until 10PM, I would be angry, irritated, waiting to sneak out and drink.  And this would continue the next day.  Not a happy household.  The effects were showing off on my son since he started throwing tantrums.  The effects of growing up in conditions where there is alcohol abuse is well documented and I was slowly, but surely, gifting him a not so good future.  I was simply missing in action and putting all the burden on my wife’s shoulders and there was no saying how much more she could take.  What was clear though, was I had hurt her deeply, withdrawn and isolated from her and it was as if we were leading separate lives.  I remembered being wasted the night our second child was born and driving her to the hospital, in a haze.  I had vowed that I wouldn’t ever let that kind of a situation happen, stopped drinking for three months and here I was back at it again, drinking even more than before.  Perhaps it’s a combination of shame, responsibility and my own personal ethic, but I could not let this state of affairs continue.  Because I love my family, I had to stop drinking.


The job situation.  For the first time, I felt that drinking caused me to lose my job, an excellent opportunity that I had come upon.  Many people at the AA talk about the bottom and this felt like one.  I started at this company a number of months ago and pretty much drank my way through the first five months I was employed there.  At best I would show up tired and hungover and at worst I would simply call in sick.  Sure enough my performance suffered and in a startup it’s very easily noticed.  I was offering excuses for not having finished some task or the other, missing deadlines, work piling up and the situation was getting out of hand.  Leading to even more drinking, more dissatisfaction with my own performance, lack of confidence (the thinking was “maybe I’am not capable of doing this job”), more blame on the job itself.  It got to a point where I told my manager I was quitting.  It’s a miracle that I had still managed to get some good work done and was able to communicate that I was dealing with some personal problems.  I’am grateful that my employer allowed me to continue working part-time with the understanding that I would resolve said issues and start back full-time after five to six months.  This didn’t happen however, since there were some changes in the company’s planning for the new year and my position was closed.  I would soon be un-employed.  End result, I lost my job due to my drinking.

The next on the list is the depression, mental and physical fatigue due to alcohol leading to even more of the same.  I was now working part-time to create time and space to figure out what was going wrong, where the wiring in my brain was messed up and to put in place new habits and behaviors for a better future.  This decision came at a pretty big financial cost to the family, since we were now living on half a salary and a bank balance that was being depleted very very fast.  A colleague would often quote this: “The road to hell is littered with good intentions” and I was living it.  My plan was to continue my therapy, reflect, meditate, get healthy during my part-time work arrangement.  Big decisions had been made, steps taken, but nothing had changed with my drinking.  I would reach for the alcohol with gusto in the night, drinking 8-10 beers, and the days would be a hungover blur.  It was a weird state of mind.  The clock’s ticking, my days and weeks of part-time work are coming to an end and I’am no better off than when I started.  On the one hand there is the pressure to get better mentally and physically, to start focussing on work since money is running out.  On the other, I’am continuing to drink, feeling depressed, losing my confidence and self respect, feeling even more hopeless.  This state of mind was all real and I knew I was losing it.  I was reading the “The Easy Way to Stop Drinking” where the author says that a positive outlook was necessary to quit alcohol (or cigarettes for that matter) and my outlook to life was anything but positive.  I remember telling my wife that I was looking at life and the future as a problem instead of looking forward to living it.  I had forgotten the last time I had woken up feeling energetic or eager to do something interesting or nice during the day.  This was a tiring way to live.  I think this was an important insight that pushed me towards quitting, since the root cause was the alcohol.


Finally, a number of other things happened.  Call it changes in mindset, insights or whatever.

My counsellor talked about stress and how alcohol addiction could be a way to handle stress.  Actually, a means to dull away the stress.  He suggested that perhaps my self-created goals of getting a huge salary was perhaps adding to the stress.  This was something that I hadn’t discussed with my wife and did so based on his advice.  Simply opening up and talking about it seemed to relieve some of the stress.  The links in the chain were:  a) I was building up a mountain of stress about the gap between what I wanted to accomplish and my own take on what I had actually accomplished , often discounted by my depression b) Had to run away and escape from this burden on my mind.  Sometimes this burden was almost physical.  Fatigue, a sensation of pressure in my head and clenched jaws.  c) Couldn’t do anything to relieve this stress.  Being with family was stressful since I was not able to do productive work on the todo list.  Being at work was stressful since I wasn’t doing well at work.  Being with friends was stressful since I was comparing how well they had managed their lives and seemed to be having a good time.  Kicking back and relaxing was not an option since I would be wasting time doing so when I could go back to the todo list.  d) The only easy option since none of these other activities would soothe me was alcohol.  I could simply postpone everything that had to be done, drink, calm down, drink some more and lose myself in whatever I was doing and finally drink myself to sleep.  e) Wake up the next day, barely able to manage and conduct myself, the pressure mounts since things that should have been done yesterday (work, bills, whatever) and the day before got added to the mountain.  Rinse, repeat.


I have also been reading quite a bit (perhaps not as much as I would have liked to – blame it on the lack of energy) and there were some threads that started making sense.  My lack of patience was something that stands out.  Changing behavior and habit takes time, building a career takes time and trying to force the issue on my own unrealistic time schedule doesn’t work.  An honest self-assessment as to where I stand, both the positive and the negative was helpful.  While I was not addiction free and not a 100% on the family front, I had made some progress on these fronts.  While  I was not a rock star when it came to work and still had to hone some skills, especially as it relates to being confident and dealing with unknowns, I had done some good work and had some skills that were valuable.

Some simple math for the percentage of days I had been drinking was eye-opening.  I was hard pressed to come up with a *single* day of not drinking in the last couple of months.  In the last year (I started drinking in january after going cold turkey when our second child was born) I must have had something to drink 90% of the days.  This was a sobering thought.  What they say about alcohol sneaking up on you was absolutely true.

I was losing my mental facilities.  I couldn’t remember very well and the effects were showing up at work.  In the past, I would never have to write down things and had them all in my mind (what to do, names of companies, whom to talk to, names of peoples etc.) but now I was forgetting things.  I could talk about system architecture and design with engineers and remember what was discussed after a single conversation.  Now, I was having trouble concentrating on these details and forgot them after multiple discussions.  What surprises me is how rapid the changes were.  This was in direct contrast to the law of diminishing returns.  This was exponential decay in my abilities.  That was scary.  The same could be said about my physical abilities, stamina for one.  As recently as 2011 I was able to go for long stretches of days with little sleep.  Fast forward a year and I simply couldn’t keep up anymore.  I blame my drinking for this.

Perhaps this is what happens to your body if you feed it with a diet of c2h5oh instead of enriching nutrients and water.  The brain probably thinks alcohol is the new normal.  I would plan on whether I would drink (which was mostly affirmative – Yes, it’s ok to have a couple of beers, no problem) and when and how I would do so, by about 4PM in the afternoon.  From that point on, I was like a man possessed till I got the first gulp of beer into my system.  I had simply lost any sense of control over the alcohol  –  My life’s on a fast track to fall apart and the only thing I can think about is the next drink.  Damn the family, responsibilities, dangers, promises, tasks to be done, finances, friends, whatever.  I just needed that one drink.  And it wouldn’t stop at that one drink and I was good friends with the 7-11 and the booze shop guys.  I have lost count of the number of days I’ve gone out at 1AM to get that six pack (after the last six pack was over) since wouldn’t one more be just perfect?  And the lying, covering up, the sorry face in the morning, telling my wife it that the drinking last night was not too bad and that I would be able to control it, hiding the booze out of her sight so she wouldn’t get pissed off.  I was a stranger in my own house, leading a double life.  One that was the normal me, the other the alcoholic.  Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  Do this day in and day out and it’s tiring.

For the first time, I acknowledged that I was feeling depressed.  I always thought I would be immune to depression – There might be periods of moodiness but I would bounce back.  But looking at the last few years, I think I was constantly depressed.  I say this because I remember the last time I was really looking forward to something was a family trip we made in the summer of 2009.  Since then, everything has been a burden, a task to deal with.  That’s four years of being depressed, however mild or harsh it might have been.  I was probably good at masking it, shoving it under the carpet with work, studies and of course, the drinking.  My uptick with alcohol consumption also coincides with this timeline.  I started drinking a whole lot more in 2007/2008, right about the same time that the green card scare showed up.  I remember staying late at the office and drinking there.  Surely alcohol was contributing to the general state of “going through the motions without any kind of satisfaction” I am in.

I have been talking and spending a whole lot more time with my wife.  Sometimes it’s planning the next day or week (which I should detest in the past and still resist to some extent), or simply talking about what we are feeling and thinking.  This has been rejuvenating.  I feel more connected to her, and after a very long time, we are getting to be playful with one another at times.  I was taking a “I know what to do I’ll handle things” approach and truth be told that hasn’t worked very well.  Now, I’am a lot more open with her about my fears, shortcomings, whatever and I think this reduces the percentage of time when I’ve to pretend or be something that I’am really not.  Great.  Drinking clearly comes in the way of having these small interactions (given that we barely have any time between jobs, school, kids).  Need to keep this in mind.

The last post that I wrote triggered something deeper in me.  My thoughts were on the following lines:  I’am sitting around and complaining about how bad it is.  There are so many things that are good with my life and it could have been worse.  Let me give something back instead of always receiving and complaining about how little I’ve received.  Not sure what this did to me, but the post that I wrote was somehow liberating.  Though nobody might have read it, I had a sense of freedom by saying “here’s my life, nothing hidden, however imperfect and hope my story can be helpful to somebody out there that’s going through the same stuff I’am going through”.  I had the last drink two days after I wrote that post.  So something good is happening!

I feel the need to be connected to people and to contribute in some meaningful way.  Drinking gets in the way of being connected, since I have over the years become more isolated.  Maybe it’s the secrecy associated with drinking too much (my family and some friends will protest when I’am drinking too much, so it’s easier to drink by myself), the shame with not being able to stop drinking (so I kind of withdraw and drink some more), the advice you get from people that you would rather avoid (Hey, you should not be drinking so much, what’s wrong with you, c’mon your life’s not too bad and you can do it.  Well I actually can’t, so let me not hang out with you).

I have been told a number of times that change is not linear and it sometimes takes a few smaller changes to start a cascade effect.  Perhaps this is what happened as well and led me to take the decision to simply stop drinking.  Some of the hard work has been done and now on to keeping it this way.