02/04/2013 08:06 am ET Updated Apr 06, 2013

The Tip Of The Midlife Viceberg

Last week I wrote about the iceberg as a metaphor for wellness, with the tip representing our body as the small part of us that shows, and the much bigger part of the iceberg representing the unseen part of us that is hidden below our bodily surface.

I know a great deal about fitness. I also know a great deal about vices. More specifically, I know a great deal about fitness and drinking. It's a love story. The two go together like ebony and ivory.

And as a middle-aged woman standing between the two grand pillars of loneliness, one called empty nest and the other called divorce, I am also hyper-aware of the potential for trouble when we find ourselves sliding down the slippery slope of the iceberg of vices.

Not that I've slipped too far -- yet. (Somebody please tell me if I do.) But my point is that no one ever really knows that they've slipped down the slippery slope of over-drinking until after the sliding has been slipped.

In the upper ranks of the viceberg, drinking makes us feel like we are gliding a few feet above all of our cares and worries. Time recalibrates.

One day drinking is an option, something we might or might not do, but then again very well might be in the mood to do; a purely social, enjoyable and totally relaxing thing to do that makes us better, brighter! more fun and less-stressed, more like the person we were meant to be! Until it doesn't. A few decades pass by and before we know it, our entire circle of friends and family are, unbeknownst to us, orchestrating an intervention before we kill ourselves.

There are many levels of drunk. My friends and I jokingly have a scale that we call the Drunk Ranker, which is sort of the alcohol version of the viceberg. It starts at the tip with being tipsy drunk, then not that drunk, then happy drunk followed by fun drunk, which includes dancing. The next level is where things get slippery.

Here is where we have horny drunk, along with crazy drunk and everything-is-funny drunk. Next there's fast-food-drive- thru drunk and I-want-to-kick-someone's-ass drunk. Slipping on down the slope, we have passed-out drunk, can't-walk-let-alone-drive drunk, heart-broken drunk, crying-and/or-angry drunk, and who can forget throwing-up drunk.

The final most dreaded drunk is defcon 2.

On this level, when faced with a difficult decision of, say, either stopping drinking or losing your family. You immediately pour yourself a double Stoli and commit to spending the next 30 years alone getting hammered.

Whatever your vice is, whether it is my favorite and also the crown prince of all vices, drinking, or drinking's consort, smoking, or if it's cheating on your mate or overeating Mallomars or gambling your kid's college tuition away or shopping too much or shooting heroin, they all are attempts to either quiet the chattering monkeys in our mind or to escape from what I like to call "the monotony of being me."

In the book, "Willpower; Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength," the authors John Tierny and Roy F. Baumeister speak of willpower as one of the two most elusive character strengths. The first strength is intelligence. The other trait equated with a more satisfying life is willpower. It is one of the traits strongly associated with positive outcomes in life, which means that using your self-control is the surest way to a happier life.

While science has not figured out a way to raise our IQ (yet), researchers have discovered many ways to improve our self-control.

Willpower is a muscle. When we are stressed, our willpower is depleted, making us more likely to lose self-control. The mental energy used when we are stressed is fueled by glucose from the body's bloodstream.

So just like with muscles, our willpower becomes fatigued from overuse. The good news is that just like a regular exerciser, our willpower can also be strengthened over the long term through the mental exercise of discipline.

Just like in fitness, strengthening your willpower muscle takes dogged perseverance and the ability to just do it even when and especially when we don't want to. You have to stay focused on one baby step at a time as well as have a big, bodacious connection to the Universe, like an over-arching desire to do the things in life you were called to do. AA calls it a Higher Power. I call it Grace, which sometimes requires getting down on your knees and asking for it.

Establishing healthy patterns of behavior when you are feeling stressed and depleted is the catch. Future benefits a thousand years from now seem trivial compared to immediate pleasure. Unplanned babies come to mind. They are born every day because there was no condom within reach. Temptation is suffering mixed with desire.

C.S. Lewis said that "suffering produces perseverance, perseverance produces character, and character produces hope." And hope is a beautiful thing.

So if you can put one strong day in front of the other, then each one that passes, you get a tiny bit stronger and before you know it, a few thousand days will go by and all of a sudden, you'll be entering a triathlon or celebrating your 30th wedding anniversary with those beloved interventionists, along with all your grandchildren on a beach resort in the Bahamas.

YES is a hard word to say to exercise and NO is an extremely hard word to say when you want one more drink or maybe seven.

Maintaining our health is very similar to managing our vices in that you get results from, like Nike says, JUST DOING IT.

Dr. Phil says "you don't have to like it, you just have to do it" and when you commit to that, it does get easier. I think it helps to imagine thoughts that pass through your mind as just neurotransmitters locking onto receptor sights. They will pass by as easily as they arrive, unbidden and random. You just grit your teeth and maybe ask for help and simply accumulate one more day, then one more day and so on. My old friend used to say "bored again at night and born again the next morning." And that's true.

So keep your head above the surface of the viceberg by being honest with yourself about where you are on the slippery slope. Maybe ask someone you trust, someone who loves you, for their opinion of your present relationship to your vices. It's honest information that some part of you already knows. An open conversation about your secret vices can bring your situation into a manageable acknowledgement.

Not only will you live longer but you will be happier and healthier. You will find a simple, clear joy in the oddest and smallest places. If you've slipped down the slope too far, you will have saved yourself! Your kids will tell their kids about how your decision to do this changed their lives for the better. We have all heard adult kids say it about their alcoholic parents in many different ways but it is always the same refrain. They talk about "The Day" their lives got better.

Don't underestimate the value of waking up and remembering how you got from the driveway to the bed. Consider that you haven't missed the chemically unaltered version of yourself because you didn't even know you were gone.

Earlier on Huff/Post50:

8 Things That Make Or Break Your Happiness: AARP Survey