Thirty-something

It was my birthday a couple of days ago; thirty-nine, the final one of my thirties. The decade began with a party at my old house; a little terraced two up, two down, that I bought upon the end of my short-lived marriage. My thirtieth birthday bash was a fancy dress do, the theme being ‘1970s debauchery’. At the start of the evening there was a power cut and my then six-year-old daughter shone a torch on my face in a blackened bedroom as I applied my make-up and set in place a sleek, bright pink wig. An hour later, fairy lights twinkled in celebration of the electricity supply returning, the music grew louder and the booze began to flow. By midnight I was lying in my bed, a bucket strategically positioned adjacent to my head to capture a seemingly never-ending stream of vomit as my guests continued to party hard downstairs without me.

Birthdays that followed have disappeared amongst the broken memory bank of my drinking days. When I look back on the first half of my thirties, I see a fractured person struggling to keep afloat in a world she didn’t understand, seeking comfort in things that could only ever bring about further damage. I see a woman who had no sense of direction beyond the shortest route to the local pub. I see someone who dragged around a heavy burden of secrecy and shame, who thought she was the only one to fall in between the two polar opposites of ‘responsible drinker’ and ‘alcoholic’.

I see a person emotionally frozen in her teens, whose self-awareness was non-existent, and who could not enter into a social situation without an unbending desire to drink and get drunk entering into her consciousness.

Of all the hopes and dreams I played around with in my early thirties, the one thing I never considered was that I might become a non-drinker. My goals were set far beyond what I was ever going to realistically achieve; I spent too much time existing in a fantasy world with my head buried deep in the sand, wildly in denial about the fact that I was, in fact, addicted to alcohol. The decade that began with an extravagant excuse for a monumental piss up, slipped and slurred its way along in a fog of drunkenness and hangovers, and all the while I was enveloped in a very real belief that I was enjoying myself.

Underneath the façade, however, I knew that all was not well. There were countless moments of blackness, when I was drowning in suicidal thoughts and feelings of wanting to depart from the person I had grown into. I hated residing in my own skin, couldn’t bear the knowledge that I really and truly wanted to be someone else.

Midway through my thirties was the pivotal point in my life when I accepted that I could not, and most likely would never be able to, moderate my alcohol consumption. Realisation of this fact has altered the course of my life forever, turning me into a completely different person to the one I was.

It’s meant that I can have a beautiful relationship with both of my daughters, and has allowed me to explore who I am and where I want to end up in life. Recognising how damaging my dependency upon alcohol was has meant that I have finally worked through issues that had been bottled up for years, bringing emotions to the surface that had never previously been felt.

Understanding and fully taking on board that I cannot drink alcohol and be safe has, ultimately, saved my life.

My thirty-ninth birthday then was a very different affair to my thirtieth. With none of the wild raucous partying of my younger years (not that this is no longer an option because I don’t drink, but it simply wasn’t what I wanted this time around), I found happiness and quiet celebration in the notion that I am now in control of my world. I am a regular person nowadays, with normal emotions and the ability to perceive life accurately and respond to events appropriately. The people in my life are there of my choosing, and I hope they all know how deeply I love them and how indebted I am to them for standing by me during my booze-filled days. They must have seen a glimmer of what lay beneath the mess and destruction left in the wake of all the wine I was drinking, and hung around in the hope that I might one day see it too.

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So now I am at the very start of the final year of my thirties, a time I will never be able to revisit. I intend to fill it full of very happy memories, ones that I can hang on to and smile when I recall them. And always to remember how, despite the first half of the decade representing nothing more than wasted money and an over-worked liver, the second, alcohol-free half has brought me nothing but happiness.

Life is a series of lessons, big and small

We can’t always be perfect but we can always try to do our best – not just in what we do but in how we do it. Striving to reach goals and aiming high for outward signs of success is all well and good, but I have become far more interested in just striving to be the best version of me that I can. I’ve noticed that there’s a small fraction of a difference between less than ideal, and terrible, between average and fantastic. It’s the details that count.

It’s those few words which are spoken or that decision to be there for someone when you really need to be elsewhere. It’s the seemingly slight changes we make to our diet which either contribute to a feeling of self-confidence or self-loathing – emotions which then often lead to us making further good or bad choices and entering into corresponding cycles of positivity or negativity.

Sometimes it’s the colossal events and momentous decisions that we take throughout the course of our lives that trickle downwards and affect all that is to follow – the partner we choose to marry, the children we plan to have (and which may or may not then materialise), the relocation we decide to accept. Such roads might lead us to a happier place, or not, an easier state of mind, or not, a fulfilling lifestyle, or not. We never know where those big choices will throw us out along life’s path, but we do know that we can try to be the best we can no matter where we end up.

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The lessons we learn as we mature can, and should, be utilised to help us achieve a goal of bettering ourselves. We can, if we examine our histories, recognise patterns of behaviour that have not worked in our favour. We might identify upon close retrospection what triggers certain, less-than-perfect actions. The time we spend alive can be perceived as a series of tutorials, a lifelong system of education, where each year is filled with mistakes that we can employ for creating a brighter future.

We probably won’t get everything in life that we set out to get. There’s bound to be disappointments and pain and suffering around the various corners we turn. What we dream of as children is likely never to come to fruition – at least, not all of it – but we can appreciate the bad stuff for teaching us where we went wrong.

If we begin our journeys through life as though we are a malleable ball of putty, then every knock and let-down, every exciting and happy occasion, each moment of pride and self-satisfaction that we travel through, shapes us further, until, in our old age we represent a lifetime of moulding, of experiences; a sum total of the human experience. Of our own personal human experience.

Life Is A Journey – Make It Your Own

Life is a journey.

This is a maxim that we often hear, and maybe we like to imagine we spend our time on earth just enjoying being in the moment, soaking up all manner of different experiences, and learning more about other people and about ourselves. But deep down, how many of us are fixated on goals, on the life stages we are desperate to reach in order to tick them off on a mental check-list of all that we must achieve before we die? How many of us waste vast amounts of our time worrying about reaching a place, a position, a status?

There is a lot to be said for aiming for things – it keeps us motivated, and helps boost our self-esteem when we are successful in achieving what we set out to. But there are some goals that are not so important, and it’s these that prevent us from living in the moment.

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When I got divorced ten years ago I threw myself headlong into finding a replacement husband. I wanted the company, I needed the constant reassurance that I was attractive/nice/funny/desirable, but more than that, I simply wanted to feel normal. I hated how I felt consigned to the ‘no good’ rubbish heap of the unwanted, that I must be somehow flawed in ways that my friends were not – after all, they were still married and I was not. During that period of my life I did not consider myself to be partway along a journey; the aim of remarrying stood loud and bright like a beacon, impossible to ignore, a fixed end to my struggles, a place that I must reach before I could live again. The days, weeks, months and years before I was to settle down again were ones in which I was not living in the present. All I could focus on was the future, reaching that destination and reclaiming what I felt was rightfully mine.

Looking back, I was far too concerned with society’s expectations of how we should live our lives, and not mindful enough of the things that would make me happy and fulfilled. Sometimes it’s difficult to remain true to yourself, in and amongst the bombardment of ideals and aspirational lifestyles that we are surrounded by every day. It takes true strength of character to turn inwards and tune into exactly what will make you content, what will give your life meaning and how you wish to live it.

A big part of quitting drinking and the problems encountered in doing so, is that the world we inhabit expects us to consume alcohol. There is an assumption that you just do, and when you don’t, a sense of being strange, an oddity and of sticking out like a sore thumb can conspire to lure you back to the bottle. Listening to the real you – the one who resides quietly inside, beneath the various outward layers of character that are presented to others – takes real effort. Acting upon that genuine, undiluted element of who you are, takes courage and strength.

And when we can live according to the true person we are, life becomes a journey again. We stop striving to conform and no longer contort ourselves into all sorts of predicaments purely to fit in, to be accepted, to reach wherever it is we are told we should be heading. If we can perceive the challenges we face, the idiosyncrasies that make us unique and the alternative ways in which we opt to live our lives as vital components of who we are as individuals, then we can focus on just being us. Different. Interesting. Exciting. Special.

That’s how we can make life into a journey – and one we can enjoy.

My latest book, ‘How to Lead a Happier, Healthier and Alcohol-Free Life’, published by Accent Press, is now available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle.

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http://www.amazon.co.uk/lead-happier-healthier-alcohol-free-life-ebook/dp/B00NSIN986/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&sr=&qid=

Emotional Intelligence & The Importance of Self-Love

We have layers of emotions, and the deeper they run the more challenging they are to catch hold of. This isn’t scientific – it’s just my experience. I thwarted my emotional growth by drinking alcohol too frequently and in too large a quantity thus by the time I reached my early thirties I wasn’t so different mentally to how I was at age fifteen. Not that I was aware of the extent to which my emotional maturity was stunted when I quit drinking aged thirty-five. However, I’ve learnt a few things in the last three years; I have grown and developed my self-awareness, and I now consider myself to be reasonably emotionally intelligent, or at the very least, my emotional maturity is now in line with my age.

I believe we have the immediate response, an instant reaction to an event or situation, and the one that we can draw on should we possess the ability to stand back and think things through a little. The deeper we dig into our emotional reserves, the happier and more content the person we will become. At least, this is how it works for me. The less obvious feelings are sometimes fleeting and I have to really focus on pinning them down, analysing and then utilising them. The surface response might be anger or jealousy and my subsequent actions would be influenced by these immature and ill-thought out emotions, should I choose to tune into them. But if I can step back and search within myself for the more complex, compassionate and difficult-to-reach understanding of the situation, it will almost always result in a happier outcome for everyone involved.

I was utterly unaware of this when I drank alcohol. I didn’t know I had those inner reserves, the ‘better’ person inside who was able to rebuff more negative reactions and replace them with kindness, self-sacrifice and understanding. I didn’t know anyone had that, and assumed we were all the sum total of our instantaneous, knee-jerk reactions.

It takes effort to find more humanitarian solutions to problems. But like the Dalai Lama said, ”I believe all suffering is caused by ignorance. People inflict pain on others in the selfish pursuit of their happiness or satisfaction. Yet true happiness comes from a sense of peace and contentment, which in turn must be achieved through the cultivation of altruism, of love and compassion, and elimination of ignorance, selfishness, and greed.” Often these more commendable qualities do not present themselves immediately. Conversely, it takes effort to draw upon them and, in turn, to demonstrate a more compassionate, less selfish attitude towards the people around us.

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Having the ability to do that means possessing emotional intelligence – not reacting like children do, stamping feet and throwing tantrums, but thinking things through. Not acting in the way that we might initially feel inclined to, but searching within ourselves for the kinder, more mature and more compassionate response.

All of this, of course, applies equally to the way we treat ourselves. We can only change our outward behaviour if we alter the way that we handle internally the situations life throws at us – dealing with things in the same way as we always have will simply provide us with identical results. But drawing on our inner emotional strength, believing that we have the power to change, and to think and act differently to how we have routinely thought and acted in the past, takes huge amounts of courage. It also requires a monumental leap of faith.

It’s worth remembering that compassion begins with each one of us, personally. When we are able to master self-love, we will then naturally begin to exercise a more compassionate response to the people around us. Often, if we have misused mind-altering substances like alcohol for any length of time, the process of learning to love ourselves begins with recognising that we too deserve to feel like real human beings. Saying no to a craving and realising that by doing so we are demonstrating compassion towards ourselves, is the very first step in getting there.

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.