A Precious Life

Most people won’t recall the first day of primary school. A sea of new faces, new rules, new routines and new information, all racing through the immature brain at a hundred miles an hour, little of it sticking with any permanence – at least not for the first few weeks. Most people won’t remember to whom they spoke on the first day at school; whether it was a child who was to grow into a friend or just one of many faceless classmates who would eventually drift off into the far reaches of the school experience. Perhaps there will be, for some, a glimmer of a memory of a tearful, wretched goodbye to a parent at the school gates, the very first real separation marking the beginning of a series of many.

Most children readily absorb school life; they relish the learning opportunities presented. That first day becomes the first week, and then a month, a year. Our infant education whizzes by and suddenly we are moving rapidly into the junior years and beyond. Friendships are cemented, the shared background of metamorphosis from child to teenager makes for deep bonds, the like of which are rarely repeated in later life. The innocence and freshness of youth sparks dreams of what might be waiting for us around the corner as adults, a place none of us know but most, in their teens, would claim to be familiar with. Clutching at a medley of half-formed views and childish interpretations of the world, we are united in youth by a lack of real life knowledge and, simultaneously, a belief that we are more than capable of going it alone.

I do remember the very first person I spoke to at primary school. Her name was Fiona and she was a one-off; a live wire, filled with intelligence and passion, topped off with an unruly mop of brown curls. We became best friends, and remained so throughout much of primary school. Once in secondary education we slowly disconnected, each of us becoming welded to new groups of friends but always retaining the close, unmistakeable childhood bond we had sealed on our very first day at school all those years earlier.

When she was aged seventeen, Fiona was murdered, very brutally. Her death has haunted me almost every day since I became aware of it, when I recognised her face on the front page of the local paper, a patchy look-alike created by a police artist. It was the week before Christmas, December 18th, in 1993.

Today I went for a run, up through the parks and close to the border of the Peak District. It is twenty-one years exactly since Fiona was killed – years that I have been lucky enough to live, and she has not. As I stopped to take in the view at the top of a hill, I took note of my health, my vitality, my age; that I have made it to thirty-nine, am fortunate enough to have two beautiful daughters, and have friends and family who I love. So many things that have shaped me over the last twenty-one years ran through my mind; the music I have listened to, nights out I’ve had, holidays I’ve enjoyed, sunrises I have witnessed, snow I have played in, seas I have swum in, books I have read, people I have met, films I have seen, laughter I have shared, love I have known, goals I have reached, tears I have cried.

And for a few moments, I categorically understood just how precious this one life is with which we are granted. How fast it goes, how easily it can be snatched away and how, once it has gone, it has done so forever. It’s so important that we make every day count, that we don’t wait until tomorrow before we make the changes that will get things moving in the direction we want. Too many people never have the chance to see their dreams realised – those of us who do should try our very best to make sure they happen.

I have always known that Fiona’s chance to shine was just waiting for her, if only she had made it just that bit further in her life. At eighteen I didn’t fully grasp the monstrosity that her death amounted to, the tragedy that losing someone at such a young age is. As I have grown older, I have felt it acutely, year on year. And the only sense I have come to make of it is that her death should serve as a reminder of what a gift life actually is.

Finding Out Who You Really Are; Life After Booze

One of the major things I have learnt about myself since stopping drinking in April 2011 is that I am a strong person. This is not something I say lightly, as prior to becoming alcohol-free I was of the mind-set that I was emotionally weak, vulnerable and scared. In a perverse way, I almost enjoyed the knowledge that I was perpetually ‘in need’ of being protected; I actively emphasised it in relationships, and frequently fell back on it as an excuse for everything that was wrong with my life. I suppose I was attempting to retain a child-like state, too frightened to fully spread my wings as an independent adult.

Before I became a dependent drinker, I experienced years of living with an eating disorder. When I regained my sanity in that respect and began to eat healthily again upon the discovery of my first pregnancy aged twenty-two, I mistakenly believed that the underlying unhappiness that had led to anorexia had been eradicated. It hadn’t – it merely shifted its guise and several years later was manifested in my destructive drinking habits.

For all of my adult life up until the age of thirty-five I was convinced that being weak and vulnerable as a woman were attractive qualities; that I was, in some way, quite tragic in a romantic sense.

But then I stopped drinking.

The bravery did not begin the second I put down my last glass of wine. For several months, perhaps a year, I was caught up in a turbulent period of emotions; guilt, self-doubt, wishing I was ‘normal’, regret, boredom, self-hatred, learning about the person I was, managing life without the convenient crutch of booze-induced numbness.

Gradually, however, I noticed that I was becoming emotionally self-sufficient, that certain situations no longer fazed me as they had once done. My desire to be protected from life was slowly diminishing, replaced by a strong sense of wanting to take on the world, of getting out there and making my mark on it. Over time, I stopped perceiving myself as someone who was, in some way, less than others, and recognised that we are all equal, with corresponding ability and potential to achieve whatever we want to, if only we choose to apply ourselves.

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After several years without alcohol, I have come to regard myself as a ‘normal’ person – normal in the sense that I am no longer frightened by such innocuous situations as speaking to a stranger when stone cold sober, or talking in front of a group of people or being proactive in chasing my dreams without being held back by an innate belief that I am not good enough. I just get on with things, and I know that I can do so without heavy reliance upon other people. We all need someone from time to time for a shoulder to cry on or to provide us with an objective viewpoint, but when you have no self-belief it’s all too easy to grip too tightly onto other people, using them like a lifeboat, convinced you will sink without them holding you above water.

I was wrong to think I was weak, but I would never have known otherwise had I not stopped drinking. For me, the subsequent journey of self-discovery has been monumental, changing the course of my life completely. We never know who we are capable of being until we quit drinking – this is something I genuinely believe to be true, for anyone who drinks compulsively like I once did.

Alcohol-Free Life; A Better, Brighter Place

I used to be so frightened of not drinking, not nearly so scared of all the associated horrors of downing excessive amounts of wine on a regular basis – the nights when I couldn’t remember getting home, waking up to discover horrific bruises in bizarre places, and the endless, all-consuming feelings of guilt, shame and self-hatred that would linger for days after each terrible binge.

I’m fascinated by this phenomenon now, as with several years of sobriety behind me I can’t believe I was ever scared of becoming alcohol-free. I love my life today, and there isn’t a single thing about booze that I miss or wish still featured in my daily existence. Much has been written (on Soberistas and elsewhere on the internet) about the obvious positives that stem from sober living; weight loss, brighter eyes, more money, heightened self-esteem, increased productivity at work and so on. But what about the real, under the skin benefits of alcohol-free life? What does it do to you as a person, not drinking? How much changes, and what, if anything, remains the same when you turn your back on booze?

For me, the number one benefit of an alcohol-free life is that I now have clarity and emotional intelligence. I know myself inside and out, understand when my ego is getting in the way of the important stuff, recognise my insecurities and weaknesses, have developed strategies that work and help me to cope with life’s challenges, and I realise when I need to take a step back from a given situation and rethink my position on it. I am fully in control of my life, and of my human instincts – I trust myself.

I no longer feel ashamed of who I am. These days, everything has a reason behind it, validity and a purpose. There are no knee-jerk reactions and over-emotional tantrums; no more hours spent crying into a pillow, too filled with shame to leave the house. There are no moments of terror in public places when I see someone and cannot remember if I said anything or acted in a particular way in front of them that should now be causing me embarrassment. When I apologise to people nowadays, it is without the heavy weight of disgrace dragging my heart down to the ground. I can look in the mirror and feel proud of who I am.

I have drive and ambition. My thoughts have the freedom to go beyond wishing I hadn’t drunk so much, or wondering when I can next have a drink. My days aren’t wasted lying around, saturated with self-pity. Things get done. I am organised. My life works.

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When people ask me if I ever miss alcohol, I consistently, honestly and with a great deal of passion, tell them no. For me, living soberly is the source of a great deal of pride. I love being a Soberista. I love sobriety far more deeply than I ever did alcohol, although I could not have known that as a drinker. As a drinker, I did not possess the emotional intelligence to understand how far from happiness I was, and therefore had no idea about what I was missing out on in life.

Every day spent as a non-drinker is magical; better, brighter. Life has taken on an exciting quality again, as I remember it from my childhood. Everything is there for the taking and there are no barriers anymore preventing me from enjoying it. There really is nothing to fear from embarking on an alcohol-free life, and much to gain. It is so worth taking the leap.

Happy 2nd Birthday Soberistas!

Two years ago today, Soberistas.com was launched. Originating in thoughts and feelings borne out one of the worst moments of my life, the website has grown bigger than I ever imagined it would. What began as a pondering, an internal dissatisfaction with the way society viewed alcohol dependency and the available help that was on offer at the time, took on a life of its own and became an entity.

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Because Soberistas.com is a public forum, those who use the site have moulded it. Its character and inherent appeal (its non-judgmental and friendly, supportive nature) stem from the thousands of blogs, comments and discussions that have been posted during the last twenty-four months. None of that was foreseeable, as pre-launch I had no idea who would be logging onto the site to share their thoughts on drinking and sobriety – or even if anyone would bother to log on at all. All I was aware of back in the summer of 2011, when I first began to toy with the idea of setting up a social network site for those with alcohol-dependency issues, was that I was certain there were lots of people out there who felt the same way I did. I just hoped they would find a site like Soberistas a helpful way of dealing with their booze-related issues.

I remember a few years ago when, during the space of one week and at the height of my most destructive drinking behaviour, I toppled into an empty bath at three o’clock in the morning whilst brushing my teeth (always striving to prove I wasn’t that drunk by sticking to my bedtime routine!), banging my head hard and waking up my boyfriend who had long since marched off to bed, irritated by my unwillingness to call it a night. A couple of days later, I awoke early to the unmistakeable stench of vomit, and quickly understood that I had thrown up whilst asleep all over the floor next to my side of the bed. The same boyfriend had been on his hands and knees mopping away as I’d coughed and spluttered and teetered on the brink of choking, and had then manipulated me into the recovery position so that I didn’t die during the night.

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These occurrences did not register with me, as they should have. I did not seek medical advice, look up an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting to attend, or even decide to temporarily quit drinking.

I now recognise the most important quality of Soberistas as being the provision of a yardstick, a means of contextualising a drink problem. If I had logged onto Soberistas during that period of my life, I would have recognised instantly that the problems I was experiencing with regards to alcohol were not mine alone or something to laugh off with bravado, and the sheer fact that others were in the same boat and seeking to change would more than likely have prompted me to do the same.

As it was, I spoke to nobody, brushed it under the carpet (again) and decided that the answer was simply to learn the art of moderation. Which, of course, never happened.

My life has completely changed since quitting alcohol, and I stand firm in my belief that anyone who has repeatedly demonstrated that they do not posses an off switch would be far happier if they stopped trying to locate one. Stopping drinking for such people equates to the beginning of self-love, contentment and living a full life. Freeing the mind by calling it a day on the fight with alcohol is a true gift.

And the real value in Soberistas lies in its ability to help anyone who has crossed the line into dependent drinking take on board the notion that they do have a problem with alcohol, and that simply because the wheels have not yet fallen off entirely, there is still a real need for addressing the issue – sooner rather than later. Interacting with others who truly understand how you feel about the consequences of out-of-control drinking is a remedy in itself as far as I am concerned. Even better, to witness like-minded people who have admitted they have a problem controlling their alcohol consumption and who have then gone on to quit and feel happy about doing so, is a huge motivator for anyone at the very beginning of their sober journey.

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Looking For A Challenge? It’s Soberistas31 Time Again!

By the time I hit my teens, alcohol and rebellion were inextricably linked in my mind. Without a shadow of a doubt, I held fast to the notion that there was no better way to express my desire to shirk convention and rebuff authority than to drink excessive amounts as frequently as possible. This mental link between booze and my rebellious nature was to stay with me right up until my mid-thirties when, despite being a mother and living in a nice, respectable part of town where I quaffed expensive bottles of wine, I still regarded myself as possessing an insubordinate streak.

And when I decided to stop drinking altogether, a major quandary that arose was how I would manage to cling onto my wayward, headstrong personality minus the very obvious method of evidencing it that was drinking too much. It occurred to me that much of the way I expressed myself had always come in the shape of a bottle or glass, and I stalled for a while in knowing how I should act without such props.

Gradually, I began to really take on board how many people drink alcohol to excess; what a massive element of almost everyone’s life booze is, to some degree or another. Maybe they weren’t all getting hammered to the point of blacking out as I once was, but most were certainly unable to conceive of experiencing birthdays, Christmases, weddings, Friday nights, Saturday nights and holidays without the booze flowing fairly freely. As a non-drinker, I saw this excessive consumption with a heightened awareness and developed a growing understanding of the manipulative strength of the alcohol industry – an industry that spends millions trying to coax us all to drink yet more booze each year.

As time has gone on, I have rediscovered my ‘inner rebel’ as I now recognise that by not drinking, I am acting in an unconventional manner with far greater magnitude than I did previously. As a drinker, I was merely yet another person who regularly numbed her senses with alcohol. Now I stand out, I am different.

In a few days, the onslaught of Christmas parties will begin. For a whole month, people all over the Western world will drink huge amounts of booze in the name of ‘fun’ and will embarrass themselves, spend more money than they had hoped to, and wake up on January 1st a few pounds heavier and looking somewhat the worse for wear.

But there will be a small but significant minority who won’t engage in such behaviour.

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Those who don’t drink will focus on things other than booze during the Christmas period; family, good food, enjoying a rest from work, a little extra time to indulge in some of the things they love doing. They won’t be struggling to cope with debilitating hangovers at 5 am on Christmas Day whilst trying to stay upbeat for the kids. They won’t be desperately trying to recall the horrors they may have been involved in at a party, one that they have no memory of due to a blackout striking mid-evening. And when January rolls around, they won’t be committing to a restrictive detox diet in a bid to shed the extra weight they have gained through drinking too much wine over the festive period.

I take a lot of comfort from the knowledge that I am, in my mind at least, a little unconventional. It helped me enormously during the earlier days of my not drinking, providing me with an extra dose of motivation whenever a craving hit. And now when I see people loading their excessive booze purchases onto the supermarket conveyer belts, I ponder over what better things they could be spending their hard-earned money on than lining the pockets of the fat cats of the alcohol industry – the corporate giants who are simply rubbing their hands with glee, especially at this time of year.

If you would like to challenge the norm this year, why not commit to Soberistas31 (see the details here) and opt to NOT drink alcohol for the month of December? Donate the money you would have spent on booze to the very deserving charity Rainbow Trust on January 1st via our JustGiving page (details will be provided on Soberistas towards the end of December) and know that this year you will have spent your money wisely, looked after yourself, and given Christmas 2014 your all.

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Walk the Line

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Listening to Johnny Cash’s ‘Hurt’ this morning, I was reminded of the terribly low opinion I once held about myself. His line, ‘Everyone I know goes away in the end’, used to ring horribly true when I drank. In a bizarre way, I sought comfort in the fact that I was, apparently, stuck fast on a predestined road to misery. I was so accustomed to disaster and disappointments that it hardly occurred to me that life did not, in actual fact, need to be that way at all.

The thing about heavy drinking is that it results in a loss of control over one’s emotions, sensibilities, intuition, honour, pride, dignity and integrity. It slams shut the door on personal growth and emotional maturity. It consistently prevents an optimistic outlook from emerging, and instead encourages a warped, negative default position in response to life.

I would routinely push away the people who were close to me, the ones who tried to break through the defensive barriers I’d built. I didn’t believe that I deserved to be happy and so I sought a bleak existence, one that was filled with reinforcements of my poor self-image. And when my behaviour was rewarded with the loss of yet another relationship, I would retreat into my comfortable world once more – one inhabited by just me, alcohol, and self-pity.

It didn’t take me long, once I put down the bottle, to realize that things aren’t really like this, not in the realm of alcohol-free living at least. As soon as you become in control of your life and develop emotional reactions that are appropriate to a given situation, when you begin to understand yourself and learn exactly what it is that will make you happy (and unhappy), and when you start to appreciate that your actions really do influence those around you thus determining the trajectory of your relationships – then life becomes reasonably straightforward.

It becomes possible to clear out all the crap and get started on creating a better, brighter future for yourself. Self-sacrifice is no longer a meaningless concept, forever out of reach because of an overwhelming desire to escape your reality. The booze-fuelled, nightmarish situations melt away and everyday life is simplified, predictable.

There’s nothing magical about this process; it just happens when the brain is no longer being regularly soaked in a mind-altering, toxic substance.

Johnny Cash was married to June Carter for thirty-five happy years, his life transformed for the better by his decision to quit drinking and other drugs. He found true contentment with his best friend and love of his life because he was able to give himself fully to her as opposed to the bottle. He left behind a son who loved him and millions of adoring fans all over the world. He died with his integrity and his dignity intact, and with the knowledge that he’d done his very best to be the best he could be. I am inspired by Johnny Cash.

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The Passage of Time and an Altered Perspective


I was listening to Oasis a couple of days ago, driving through the Peak District with the sun casting shadows over the moorland and my toddler sleeping in the back of the car, her angel face the picture of innocence.

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In my late teens/early twenties I was a huge fan of Oasis. Hearing those songs again that so acutely defined a particular period in my life pulled me into a reverie, and I thought for a long time about the person I was back then, and how the passage of time has dramatically altered my perception on the world.

That noticeably underweight, cocky girl, who thought nothing of walking alone into her favourite pub, ordering a pint of Boddingtons at 2 o’clock on a weekday afternoon, picking up a pool cue and challenging  whoever was loitering at the bar to a game – smoking, drinking, music on the jukebox, a session emerging, boundaries blurred and personalities changed. As the day wore on, the pub would fill slowly with climbers, students and a variety of left-leaning types; alcohol was a broad leveller that drew everyone together, helped get them acquainted.

It seems to me now that I was incredibly naïve back then, even though I was frequently immersed in a dark world where the people I associated with had little self-control and did not operate within the parameters of normal society, the law, or common decency. Many times, neither did I. Instant gratification and a relentless desire to get completely out of it were the order of the day. On the surface we may have appeared to be a group of young people having a good time, but right there beneath the cheerful veneer was a tangled mess of lies, drunkenness and danger.

As time went on, I learnt that people can hurt each other – physically and mentally. I got hurt, and I did my best to handle that. What I didn’t understand in my twenties was quite how ferociously I would come to hurt myself; how low self-esteem and a destructive streak can combine to breed a malignant set of behaviours that feed off each other, nurturing a powerful desire to wipe one’s self out. And as the black thoughts worked away, striving to prevent a better way of life, I failed to recognise that things simply didn’t need to be that bad. For a long time, I just accepted that that was my lot – the hand I’d been dealt.

I am a reasonably private person these days, much quieter, far less cocky. I still enjoy the music of my youth – songs that make me smile when I recall the good times I had listening to them, when a blind faith that everything would work out OK despite my being hell bent on ruining all my chances of happiness, somehow got me through the really shit times.

The major difference in my outlook today is that whereas back then I thought good things would eventually just land on my doorstep, I know now that I control my destiny; every action, word spoken, the care I afford myself, choosing to not drink alcohol or take any other drugs, focusing on positivity, and seeking to discover the good in situations and people, wherever possible, are the things that determine my path. And I worked out that hurtling through life at a million miles an hour, always looking for the easy way out and a good time, is not a recipe for contentment.

I slowed it right down, and concentrated on the positives. I thought more about other people, less about my own insecurities. I worked on my weaknesses. I created a life that would make me happy. And I quit drinking.

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