Striving to Fill the Emotional Void

I don’t like the labels ‘alcoholic’ and ‘addict’. They don’t resonate with me or my experiences, and more than that, I think they are derogatory, loaded with negative connotations, and have the potential to prevent a person from fulfilling his or her true potential in life once the addiction to a particular substance has been overcome.

In the last few years I’ve thought a lot about addiction; what makes some people become dependent on a drug or bad habit? And of those of us who’ve struggled in this way, what exactly are we looking for? What’s missing in our lives?

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When I first quit drinking alcohol, I considered religion in a way I’ve never done before. I am a devout atheist but was overwhelmed with a desire to fill up my life with a force much greater than I. The booze had obviously been satisfying a deep emotional yearning and without it, a vacuum yawned open leaving me hollow and empty and totally craving something. But what that something was, I don’t know, and I’ve still yet to find out.

I wonder whether this feeling I often have that something is missing is what propels certain people into addiction. There are many factors at play with regards to developing addictive behaviours, such as genetics and childhood experiences, those who we socialise with during the impressionable teenage years, and life events such as bereavement and divorce. But even taking these things into consideration, I have often thought that this emotional emptiness may not be experienced by all of humanity, and that for some reason, there are particular people who are more aware of it than others.

When I was a teenager I suffered from an eating disorder for many years. I smoked and took drugs and tried very hard to satisfy the inner hollowness, without much success. When I grew older, I put an end to those behaviours and concentrated purely on alcohol, continuing apace in my efforts to satisfy myself, to feel complete. It was only when I quit drinking that I became fully aware of just how much of a vacuum there was inside, and it was then that I began considering religion in a desperate attempt to feel what I thought others must feel – completeness, a sense of belonging and of being human.

I couldn’t get behind religion, although there are strands of Buddhism and Taoism that resonate with me and which I have found comfort in. My pragmatic side has tended to focus on fixing all that is wrong with my world in the hope that by living a more fulfilling life, that silent but ever-present emptiness will be eradicated. And for the most part, I’ve been successful.

However, every so often, a familiar sense of something missing arises, leaving me feeling deeply unsatisfied and emotionally hollow. And it’s then that I wonder, is this what it means to be ‘an addict’ (if we are to utilise that term)? Is there a special quality to those of us who have been drawn into substance misuse? Do we feel an emptiness that others don’t? We’ll never know what goes on inside other people’s hearts and souls – we can only surmise by talking and listening, by sharing our stories, and by opening up and being honest about the way that we feel. In that way, we can discover whether our own experience of being human is mirrored in that of others.

There is still the eternal optimist inside me, who believes that once I have happened upon all the correct components of my own personal life jigsaw and put them in the right place, the hollowness will disappear; at that point, I will feel complete. Maybe there is no such thing as the condition of being ‘an addict’ – perhaps it is simply that we are yet to get everything right in our lives, that we have still to work out what our individual recipes for perfection are. And when we get that right, the emptiness will vanish. For the time being, I am still choosing to believe in that.

From A Drunken Parallel Universe To A Life Of Contentment

What’s different about my life now that I am sober for every waking moment of it? The most obvious change is the disappearance of the car crash, relentless unpredictability that ruled my whole existence for twenty years. In a strange way, I was as addicted to that as I was the alcohol, and when I eventually decided to quit drinking I was terrified of the thought of a straight edge life that lacked the exciting drama I was so used to.

It’s taken a while to become accustomed to this new way which might be compared to drifting from stormy, turbulent waters into a warm, calm bay, where the seasons change as they should and nothing out of the ordinary jumps out to shake everything up. And while things are definitely different to the way they once were, I don’t miss my old life at all. I’ve become totally used to living in harmony with the world, which may sound slightly hippy-like but that’s how I see it all now.

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When upsetting or annoying things happen these days, they do so because that’s how things have turned out, naturally. There’s a reason for the way events unfold, a reason that hasn’t been forced and manipulated by excessive alcohol. The way I used to drink was not how those do who often feel the need to defend their drinking habits (i.e. a couple of drinks here and there, without ever becoming drunk and out of control). When I drank, I only ever wanted to lose my mind.

It was escapism I was seeking, and escape I did on a regular basis, flitting between my real life and the parallel universe I inhabited when drinking. My thoughts and actions were not my own, I never knew where an evening would take me; where I’d end up and who with. I always had butterflies in my stomach immediately prior to a night out – I know now that this was because I was terrified of exactly what the pissed version of me would be capable of during the forthcoming evening.

But now, if a friendship gradually peters out it happens because we no longer have anything in common. If I argue with my partner it’s because there is a real underlying issue that needs resolving. If I feel guilty about something, it’s because I need to alter my behaviour in some way – MY behaviour, the real me, not the artificial extension of me that wine created. Days have a predictability to them; I’m up at the same time, I follow the same rules, I don’t lurch from one impetuous thought to another, or spend hours of my time scraping up the aftermath of yet another drunken disaster.

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If you are considering an alcohol-free life, you should be prepared for a quieter and calmer life – but one that will be quiet and calm for all the right reasons. And when you feel the need to shake things up a bit, you can, on your terms and in control. That’s not boring; that’s contentment.

What’s The Deal-Breaker in Your Relationship With Alcohol?

Remember that song that went like this – ‘I’m a bitch, I’m a mother, I’m a child, I’m a lover, I’m a sinner, I’m a saint, I do not feel ashamed’?

I was reminded of it earlier when I was thinking of all the different roles we play in our lives and how our minds frequently jump about like grasshoppers, lurching from one thought to the next. One minute we can be so fixed on a particular goal – ‘I will definitely stop eating sugary foods, that’s it, I’m on it!’ – and then a couple of hours later we’re standing in Costa faced with a piece of Rocky Road and all those good intentions waft out of the window like a puff of smoke.

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Alcohol is a bitch for exacerbating this mental swapping and changing. Which of our personas is the real one? Is it the sensible one who knows we really do have to get this drinking business under control, or is it the life and soul of the party version who persuades us (usually as the weekend approaches) that one little glass won’t do any harm and that life without booze would be a dreary existence not worth living?

And when we wake up after a heavy night, filled with remorse and bursting with solid intentions of never touching the evil stuff ever again, we cannot conceive of those thoughts and feelings disappearing; it seems impossible that in just a few hours we will be throwing caution to the wind and deciding that perhaps, after all, we don’t have a ‘drink problem’. But for me, once upon a time, and for countless others, this is exactly what happens and it’s why it can take decades to crack an alcohol dependency.

Through all our alternative identities and with the never-ending stream of ideas and desires that float about our minds every day, it’s essential to latch on to one very good reason why you should stop drinking – and one that will survive your fluctuating mind sets as each day passes. That reason needs to be the deal-breaker with regards to your relationship with alcohol. There are many negative consequences of heavy drinking, and if you’ve ever written a list to help motivate you to quit you may have included things like weight loss, clearer skin, less depression and saving money.

But when your mood alters, it’s easy to ignore these positive benefits of an alcohol-free life and choose to listen to the devil on your shoulder. That’s why it’s important to find your deal-breaker; for me, it was that alcohol eventually put me in A&E and I thought I would probably die if I carried on pursuing my wine habit. But there are many, many others – if you’re a parent it may be that you don’t want to let your kids down. If you have fallen into money troubles then it could be that you want to escape a spiral of debt. If you have had a worrying liver function test, it might be that you are terrified of developing cirrhosis.

Whatever that deal-breaker is, it must be able to stand up to the whispering Wine Witch. No matter how tempted you are, or how harmless one small Prosecco might appear at a given moment, that reason must be able to hold its own. It has to silence the internal booze chatter. It needs to be non-negotiable. Seek out that reason, and use it to help you fight the cravings – no matter which role in your life you are playing.

Seven Pounds Lighter & Bags More Energy!

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog post entitled Letting Go of the Fight which described how I had woken up to the fact that yes, there was room for improvement in my diet and fitness levels, and no, simply because I’m almost 39 years old there’s no need to give up and accept my increasingly worrying chocolate habit and associated muffin top as the status quo.

I decided to embark on, not a radical overhaul of my life but a few tweaks here and there that were manageable but would nevertheless have an impact and would help me to reach my physical goals. I wanted to lose about half a stone and increase my fitness in order to be able to run further and faster. I also wanted to tone up.

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Since the 23rd July I have lost seven pounds and it’s not been that hard. The mental shift I experienced which means I now put my body first as opposed to my head has enabled me to cut out all the crap from my diet and replace it with good stuff – and to feel happy about it. I’ve switched normal potatoes for sweet ones, embraced courgette spaghetti (julienned courgette fried in coconut oil as a replacement for the regular pasta variety – just don’t attempt making this after you’ve had a manicure!), and Medjool dates have become my new evening treat instead of Cadbury’s Fruit & Nut supersize chocolate bars. Breakfast is porridge with coconut milk, snacks are either almond nuts or an apple, and lunch is usually rye bread with humus or salad and an oily fish variety or chicken. And I drink a lot more water than I used to.

It hasn’t cost the earth, this new way of eating, and I haven’t once felt deprived because I can’t eat a great big slice of chocolate cake. My clothes all fit better, I have lost the bloated feeling I always used to have, and my hair looks and feels in better condition. But, more than any of these benefits, it is the fact that I feel so much more energised that’s the main motivator; that I no longer suffer the mid-afternoon slump where I just want to crawl into bed and sleep through until the following morning. I’ve been far more inclined to exercise and have therefore noticeably toned up. This has mainly been down to the weights programme I’ve been following (a combination of gym classes with handheld weights, and a little regime I do by myself at home, also with dumbbells).

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After about five weeks, this way of life feels entirely normal and I wouldn’t eat a piece of chocolate tiffin if you paid me. I have struggled forever to be my ideal weight and to lose the love handles, and, although dropping a few pounds hasn’t been quite the challenge it was when I was knocking back a bottle of vino a night, it still hasn’t been a walk in the park as a non-drinker – not until I altered my way of thinking and just decided to treat my body as though I living in more primal times.

No processed food, as few toxins as possible, home-cooked, healthy, vegetable-rich meals that don’t contain the wrong type of fats, and which, surprise, surprise, make me feel a million times better and more alive than any of the man-made, overly-salted, processed, nutrient-free junk that I used to eat.

So, if you are a person who has stopped drinking but who has slipped into bad eating habits, be assured that it is totally possible to get on top of things and NOT feel as though all your treats have been taken away. Eating well makes you feel better, physically and mentally, and once you get into the swing of things it becomes simple. Just as is the case with alcohol, with the right mind set, this shouldn’t be about gritted teeth and marking off the days on your wall; it’s about breaking free from addiction and making bad choices, and celebrating a better life.

The Blue Dot We Call Home

When I drank, I did not worry too much about my place in the cosmos, or about how we, as humans, frequently live out our lives with grandiose ideas of our own importance, when in reality all we amount to is a minuscule speck within a vast, black expanse of time and space. But, with far more thinking time on my hands and less mental cloudiness these days, I find myself contemplating such things rather a lot. I’ve realised that I am now caught up in a virtuous circle; without alcohol fogging my thoughts, I have finally acknowledged just how precious life is and this serves only to reinforce why I never wish to drink again. As a drinker, I simply never noticed those things, or was too drunk or hungover to properly consider them – thus wasting my life drunk did not strike me as anything to worry about.

Here are a few thoughts on the specialness of human life, and on the blue dot we call Home.

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Last weekend, I was spending time with my sister who has a far greater knowledge than I regarding physics and astronomy. As we sat beneath the stars late at night, she told me that the Milky Way contains at least 100 billion planets, and between 200 and 400 billion stars; that the observable universe is approximately 46 billion light years in radius. She described how our solar system is moving at about 500 thousand miles per hour as it orbits the centre of the Milky Way galaxy, a speed which results in a cosmic year (the time it takes us to orbit the centre of the galaxy) lasting between 225 and 250 million years.

We are tiny, unbelievably small creatures, living out our lives in an unimaginably vast cosmic arena. The time which has gone before us and which lies ahead serves to limit our individual lifespans to mere flecks of nothingness, grains of sand, gone in the blink of an eye. As a species, we are here today, gone tomorrow.

When I think of these colossal truths and consider my insignificance within the universe, I don’t feel disheartened. What we have in our hands is a wonderful opportunity to experience life in the middle of an expanse of time and space incomprehensibly huge. Somehow, knowing that our planet is just one of billions and billions makes me love it all the more. We are so special, so precious and so rare.

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The life we possess amounts to a fragment of curiosity, a flurry of exploration, a singular chance to better ourselves and grow our collective knowledge. Our lives are so minute, but worth all the more because of it. This isn’t some slapdash, dole-it-out-to-everyone-and-just-keep-on-coming-back-for-more type bash – our experience of life as a species is incredibly short-lived and finite for certain.

In 1990, space probe Voyager 1 took a photograph of Earth from a record distance of 3.7 billion miles. Earth shows as a fraction of a pixel, lost in an immense sea of space. This image makes me feel in awe of humankind and so grateful to have a life which is born out of the laws of physics and chemistry but which is nonetheless so rich, complex and gratifying. It makes me want to grab on to every single day and make it count, to experience as much and to travel as widely as I possibly can, to meet different people and know foreign cultures, to maximise my time in the brief window of opportunity which is life.

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The Voyager 1 photograph serves to draw my attention to the things of substance in the world, that which matters, and to disregard all the superfluous nonsense that we can waste so much energy on. Our dot of a world, which travels at a frightening rate, holds our intricate yet humble existences.

We are not the centre of the universe, not by a long shot. But we should be the centre of our own lives and treasure each and every day we get to spend on Earth. We are, after all, here for the briefest of moments.

Click below for a moving description of Earth as the Blue Dot, from astronomer Carl Sagan;

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wupToqz1e2g&feature=player_embedded

It Might Just Be Better On The Other Side…

Soberistas is all about hope and optimism. I’m a bloody-minded bugger at the best of times and when I finally accepted that alcohol and me were never going to amount to a marriage made in heaven, I was damned if I was going to let the stuff beat me any more than it already had.

I was probably a little naïve in the early days of not drinking, not fully aware of how difficult the ride can be when navigating one’s way through the emotional storms and social awkwardness of a new, booze-free life. But still, even as the gravity of early sobriety began to dawn on me, I remained stoically fixed on my original goal; to live happily without alcohol swallowing me up once again.

Just now I was reading on the internet about Robin Williams, and became overwhelmed with sadness as to just quite how a person with so much energy and hilarity and humour can be quietly dying on the inside; how complex we, as human beings are when, with rivers of grief and sorrow reaching every last corner of our insides, we still possess the ability to smile and carry on regardless.

I began to think of the accumulative pain that all the people with whom I’ve come into contact since the inception of Soberistas, have suffered at the hands of alcohol. How many of us have plastered on a smile, faced up to the world after yet another shame-filled and agonising encounter with our common enemy, pretended everything is OK? How many times have we all woken up and thought, I can’t carry on with this any more, the fight is too hard? How many have fallen by the wayside, and continue to do so every day because they are too far down the road of alcohol dependency?

As time has gone on, I’ve been lucky enough to have won my fight with booze, and the associated depression and self-hatred that accompanied my drinking for almost a quarter of a century. But I know I am lucky, and I am immensely grateful that I’ve managed to discover a completely new Me with whom I am happy  – a Me whose shoes fit perfectly, as if they were waiting all along for me to wear them.

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When it’s so very tough to admit to having a problem with alcohol in the first place, the road to recovery can be almost impossible for some people to embark on. But if, with a glimmer of hope and a lot of support along the way, a person can hang on to the notion that life might be better on the other side, there is the possibility of finding happiness. It is possible to start again in life, at any age, and put your old mistakes behind you. The false smiles can become a thing of the past, and happiness can be felt, honestly and truly.

As for Robin Williams and the countless millions who have similarly suffered at the hands of booze and their own personal demons, I hope we can all remember them in order to remind ourselves just how dangerously easy it can be to hide behind a façade, and to work together to try to help anyone who is drowning in the quagmire of depression and substance misuse. Hopefully, in that way, there will be much more optimism and far less destruction of the human spirit.

Feeling the Pain

A few years ago, a friend of mine was spending time with a woman he’d met on a dating website. He told me that she didn’t drink alcohol and that, by her own admittance, this was because she had felt out of control with it. At the time I felt sorry for her, and I briefly wondered about the half-existence it must be to live and never drink.

Right now I am going through a challenging time personally. This is why I am sitting in the kitchen in the early hours while everyone else in the house is fast asleep; with my thoughts churning as I lay in the dark in bed, I thought I may as well be up and trying to make sense of what I’m feeling.

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Before I went to bed last night, I pondered, for only a very brief moment, the notion of drinking alcohol; how it would feel to pour a substance down my throat that would, if only temporarily, prevent me from feeling these unpleasant emotions. What would it be like to ingest a liquid that lightened my mood and made me laugh for a while? The idea of it made me think of a clown’s costume – an artificial, forced and exaggerated adaptation of that which is real. Almost as soon as the idea crept into my thoughts, I shushed it away and realised that, even with emotional pain, I like being a non-drinker. I choose to not alter my mind and that’s how I want to spend the rest of my life.

I thought of the woman my friend used to date, and how wrong I was for feeling sympathetic towards her. Maybe, quite probably, she felt the same blessed relief from not drinking that I do; that in not consuming a substance that impacted so severely on her mental state, she was free to live her life in an honest and controlled manner, that she was aware of her every thought and emotion, good or bad, and that she had an intuition upon which she could rely. Maybe, like me, she enjoyed knowing that the mistakes she would make sober would become constructive components in the story of her life; honest and human, rather than shameful and enacted under the influence of a powerful drug, actions that she would regret for ever.

We will all encounter difficult periods in our lives, whether we drink alcohol or not. For me, processing the associated emotional turbulence is far simpler and easier to navigate without the added confusion and reality-bending that arises out of heavy drinking. I’m choosing to feel the rawness of my life, and, for me, that will always be preferable to the alcohol-fuelled alternative.