Treats & Rewards by @suek
I thought writing a post about treats and rewards would be quick and easy. But as I mulled it over, and started to write, I kept running into this weird paradox: treats and rewards are often very weirdly entangled with patterns of harm and abuse. How often do we reward or treat ourselves by eating, drinking, or doing something to ourselves that’s actually not good for us? I realised that I do this quite often. I realised that it’s a pattern that started when I was a kid. And after talking to a few friends about it, I realised that it’s common.
Let’s dig in a bit deeper.
When I was a kid, a treat was pretty much always something sweet. Lollies, ice blocks, cake, fizzy drinks. Or a spoon of honey or jam if I was at Nana’s place. Mostly sugar. A reward was more likely to be money – payment for doing jobs around the house, coins under the pillow for losing a tooth. That money was always earmarked for lollies. Sometimes a reward was a privilege like being allowed to watch an extra TV show, or getting to stay up late. Rewards were definitely something I felt I earned. Treats were just random happy moments. But they were both administered and controlled by the adults, and they almost always involved sugar, television or getting less sleep! Sure, these things felt good at the time, but were they really good for me?
Later, when I was adult enough to control my own treats and rewards, I completely simplified the process to one thing: Booze.
A glass of wine with lunch was a nice treat. A trip to a winery. A stop at the brew pub on the way home from work. A more expensive bottle of wine for dinner. An extra bottle of wine. A case of wine for the pantry. A little something to calm the nerves. A girly cocktail. A nightcap. A double. One for the road.
That was how I treated myself back then, and it is perfectly obvious that I was treating myself very badly indeed!
What happened with treats and rewards when I quit drinking? Basically, I reverted to childhood.
I went back to sweet things. My consumption of chocolate, cake, sweet non-alcoholic drinks, lollies, dried fruit absolutely skyrocketed when I first took booze out of the picture. My body was addicted to the sugars in alcohol I suppose, so it was simply looking for a replacement. I fully accept that for me, this new kind of sugar was preferable to alcohol, but was it any less abusive to my body?
What other ways do we treat and reward ourselves that are bordering on abuse? Fatty, salty foods and other “comfort” foods. TV bingeing. Mindless internet scrolling or playing phone games. Endless texting and online interacting. Compulsive shopping. Gambling. I’m sure there are more.
This seems totally backwards to me, now that I’m aware of it. What can we do to turn it around? How can we evolve our thinking around treating and rewarding ourselves, to make sure we are actually caring for ourselves in HEALTHY WAYS?
Here is a process I use when I want to shift a habit or behaviour: Awareness, Attention, Intention.
As an example, Iˋll take you with me through my journey from replacing wine with sticky sweet dehydrating “treat” drinks, to being an enthusiastic and happy drinker of water.
I always think that changing any habit or behaviour starts with being aware of it—getting out of autopilot is another way to look at it. When I first quit drinking, I spent a huge amount of time and money researching and testing non-alcoholic drinks that looked like wine, and sort of tasted like wine. (I would sometimes add a few drops of vinegar to a drink to make it more wine-like!) I drank these drinks in wine glasses. The only drinks that really “worked” for me were thick sweet grape juices. They were horribly sugary. They left me feeling dehydrated, manic, and kind of sad. But I wasnˋt drinking booze! And it still looks like I’m drinking wine! The bottle even looks like wine!!
At some point, I became aware of how ridiculous this all was. I saw that I was clinging onto my wine glass like a life raft, guzzling a different kind of poison. It was kind of humiliating to realize this. But at least I was aware of it. That was the first step. Once you know, you can do something about it.
Once we’re aware, we can start to pay attention to the issue. Why am I doing this? When do I do it? How does it make me feel? What options do I have? What will it take for me to do something different?
For me, the attention phase is the most humbling. When it came to my drinking substitutes, I had to realize that I was still drinking compulsively. I was still relying on old habits of stopping at the supermarket on the way home from work for “a bottle of something”. I was now pretending to drink wine, rather than actually drinking it. Why? What was so important about the appearance of drinking wine, even at home alone? It was tricky, and confusing, but it really helped me untangle this whole story of feeling that drinking was part of my identity (my family pattern, my extended family pattern, society as I knew it.) Also the story that drinking in itself was a reward, a treat, and a right.
I had an epiphany one night when I was out at a restaurant for dinner. I ordered sparkling water in a wine glass with no ice. I watched the waiter walk from the bar across the room, with two lovely tall wine glasses balanced on a silver tray over his shoulder. It really looked like he was bringing wine or champagne to our table. For a moment this made me feel happy. And then I had this flash of something (from who-knows-where), what if there is another sober person in this restaurant, feeling miserable that they canˋt drink, and they see my wine glass being delivered, and feel triggered or double-miserable? Holy shit. Since that day, I’ve stopped using wine glasses, and accept my water in a tumbler — in solidarity with all the other non-booze drinkers out there. We are together in this! Thereˋs no need to pretend we drink alcohol!
The next phase is adding in the intention to make a change. Saying it, writing it, getting a t-shirt made... whatever. With intention, we commit to change, and I believe the whole cosmos gets behind us when we do it!
My intention was to stop pretending that I was drinking like everyone else, and normalize not drinking alcohol. I intended to be an authentic non-drinker.
After setting this intention, some interesting things started to happen. I reframed the concept of liquid consumption, seeing it not as drinking as I’d always known it, but as hydrating my body. When this happened, any time I ordered a drink or got one for myself, I was approaching it as, What would be the best thing to hydrate my body right now? What would all my cells enjoy right now? What would make my whole body feel good?
The honest answer is almost always water. Occasionally with ice. Sometimes with a tea bag. Sometimes with a sprig of mint or a slice of cucumber. Sometimes just plain water from the tap. This became my way to treat my body well, when I was out, when I was at home. It was so right for me.
Another memory from this journey: out somewhere, someone looking askance as I asked for a glass of water, no ice. “Just water? Are you sure?” “Absolutely sure! I’m a strict aquatarian!”
I didnˋt know where that word came from, but it felt good, and it made the person laugh. I use it all the time now, and it feels totally normalizing. Perhaps Iˋll get a t-shirt made.
Food treats are still a fatty, salty, sugary affair for me, and definitely due for an upgrade. So is my digital content consumption.
Do you have treat and reward habits youˋd like to upgrade? Do you have any advice to share about how you treat and reward yourself in healthy ways? Let us know in the comments.
I use sunrises and sunsets quite deliberately. They are immensly calming and a great way to start and/or end the day.
Thatˋs a really interesting idea — using the natural daily event of sunrise and sunset as a calming reward. Iˋm going to try it.
This is excellent @suek, really thoughtful. I am feeling the same way about NA beer I might order one for the taste which I enjoyed with seafood in the summer but otherwise it doesn’t interest me. I love spaarkling water and have a little carbonation pump that puts it in there and it feels like it might be a new addiction for the last few years but I let go worrying for now. Once in awhile I have a sweet treat something I never allowed myself, (But I would drink my calories no problem) like a pastry. I hope this phase passes too. I see it fading. Your Intention thoughts have always been my absolute goal. To just normalize and be comfortable in my skin as a non drinker. Nothing to see here but if you ask I have no problem telling you I just don’t drink alcohol. I like iced tea homemade from Earl Grey, and cucumber water and Perrier from the cold glass bottle. So I do drink just not alcohol. Thats the goal. Thank you for such a thoughtful essay and I’m glad you opened up about your own journey with it, so helpful to see where you went and how you grew over time. Thnks so much Sue!
Thanks @reena, I have never thought to make iced Earl Grey, but I am going to make some Right Now… sounds like a great treat. XX
Love it, and am going to use it: aquatarian! Great post.. I notice how my body feels after eating sugar – not great, sort of wrecks my evening, sending me to bed way too early, similar to booze! Everything is possible, except for that now. Thinking about it, my treat is time lounging on my bed, looking at the gorgeous lake view, with pup sleeping nearby. Thanks Sue and Mrs. D. : )
That sounds like the perfect treat! I got into the chocolate raisins yesterday after weeks of not eating them and I immediately felt like crap. I am way better off just doing something nice for myself that doesn’t involve eating sweet stuff.
In the first six months or so my after dinner treat was icecreams – magnums and trumpets mostly. One of the best pieces of advice from this community was not to worry about taking on too much – get fit, lose weight etc etc – just focus on kicking the booze and doing whatever made you feel good until you have broken the drinking habit. A year further on I still enjoy an ice cream but maybe one a week ‘- after all I do have high cholesterol to keep on top of. My treats nowadays are things I enjoy doing – whether that be going for a bike ride, soaking in a hot pool, reading a book in the garden, making time to spend with my family. However I think the secret sauce is not to think in terms of treats but to fill up each and every day full of things that fill you with joy. Being mindful of those little things that make life worth living. Bringing a smile to someone else’s face being one of the best things of all.
Totally agree with you about the start of sobriety being all about “just don’t drink”. Trying to knock all our addictive habits on the head is a lifelong project.