Love Being You

People pleasing. Not wanting to miss out on the fun. Restlessness. Overthinking. Scared to be me in company. Scared to be me alone. Frightened of offending someone. Feeling on the periphery of everything.

For these and many other reasons, I found alcohol to be a convenient and acceptable drug. I used it to soften the abject awkwardness I experienced in certain social situations, and to feel less lonely during evenings at home when I couldn’t face human company but struggled to feel content in my own skin.

There have always been aspects of the world that I don’t understand and that have resulted in me perceiving myself as different, slightly askew from the norm. I have, through trial and error, worked out that I am not what you might call ‘mainstream’. Somebody recently described me as ‘eccentric’ – a label that I would never have used but one that triggered a light bulb moment. It dawned on me that others might see me in this way too, and perhaps the perennial doubt I had always had about fitting in wasn’t just in my head after all. I was silently relieved.

For a very long time, too long a time, I tried desperately to squeeze my metaphorical foot into the glass slipper – a round peg in a square hole, moulding my personality to suit the requirements of others. But I never found it very easy unless I was drinking; booze is a highly effective leveller. And so subsequently, when I stopped drinking four years ago, I discovered that all the characteristics I’d taken for granted as being inherent – social butterfly, chatterbox, party animal – simply vanished like a puff of smoke.

I write this because last night I went to see Future Islands, a band I am madly in love with, at Plug in Sheffield where I live. I sat on the bar, elevated above the heaving crowds because I’m not the tallest person in the world and couldn’t see much from the floor apart from the head of the man in front of me. And I loved it. I loved being with all those people, listening to that music, watching the singer, Samuel T. Herring, who is simultaneously slightly bonkers, incredibly passionate and wonderfully talented. I didn’t need anything else other than just sitting there with my friend, listening and breathing in the atmosphere, soaking up the music.

Samuel T. Herring of Future Islands

Samuel T. Herring of Future Islands

Afterwards, I reflected on all the things I’ve done throughout my life that haven’t really been me, and the many nights out I have endured with people I had nothing in common with and who I didn’t, truth be known, actually want to spend time with. I thought of what I really love to do, the stuff that makes me feel like me and fills me up with excitement and reassurance that I fit in somewhere – stuff that I need to seek out instead of just waiting for it to land on my doorstep.

It dawned on me that there is a way to experience contentment and happiness on a fairly constant basis; it requires having one’s ‘shit filter’ turned up to the maximum setting. Don’t subject yourself to rubbish that annoys you or makes you feel uncomfortable. Do subject yourself to stuff that you love, that makes you feel amazing, that draws you close to like-minded people who reflect your own values. Be selective: the world has far too much to offer for any one person to experience it all, so don’t try to. Just pick out the best bits – for you.

Love Is All You Need

Drinking alcohol affords a person a temporary escape route from life, a means of adjournment from a humdrum day-to-day existence. When I drank, I never looked further than about 7pm, when I knew the wine would be brought out of the fridge and my routine departure from the real world could begin.

For many people, faith provides a very real comfort from the harsh truths of our existence, and more specifically, our certain mortality.

I am neither religious nor a drinker, and it has become clear to me that here lies a real challenge in life. There is no escape route, no security blanket, no gentle dissipation of the absolute fact that I will, one day, die. And, worse still, that the time I spend on the planet will essentially amount to nothing – the Universe will one day cease to exist, and everything in it will be reduced to nothing more than a black space in time, forever more.

Is this why many people drink? Is this why I drank – because the truth is too unbearable to contemplate? I have pondered these questions over and over again since I quit drinking four years ago, desperately seeking a sense of purpose and a meaning to life that would result in alcohol, religion or any other cushioning from reality not being required, or even contemplated.

Occasionally when I look at myself in the mirror I am reminded of how old I am, how fast time is ticking away, how close I am to reaching the beginning of nothingness. At other times I think I still look young, I feel young. I’m glad I stopped drinking and smoking, and that my lifestyle choices are now reflected in my outlook on life and in my appearance. Sometimes I desperately want to wind the clock back, have another chance – do it all differently. I wish I had known myself at twenty like I know myself now. I’m often bothered by a desire to understand the purpose of it all, the meaning of life, and sometimes crushed by a sneaking suspicion that there isn’t one.

The things that I thought were important in my youth are not important at all anymore. The only constants for me are music, and love. Love seems to me to be the thing that matters the most because it allows us to leave a lasting, meaningful impression on the earth after we have departed it forever.

sunset in heart hands

We can affect other people, bring them happiness, care for them, make them feel worthwhile, nurture them, help them understand that they are not alone. We can change a person’s existence for the better, even if it is only while they are here, alive, caught in the present. The experience of living is heightened when we are loved, and in love. And yet, being selfless and loving is often difficult to achieve – we are, as human beings, prone to self-serving behaviour. It is our survival strategy, to take care of number one. Striking the balance is not always easy.

I have discovered that loving other people – and I mean truly loving them – is far easier when alcohol is not in my life. I am able to think rationally, empathise and make sacrifices whereas when I regularly drank, I was selfish, thoughtless and impetuous. I engaged in knee-jerk reactionary behaviour and was entirely unable to contemplate the outcome of my actions before setting forth down a particular path.

I’m different now, emotionally more mature. This is a very worthwhile and valuable outcome of sobriety. Finding the inner reserves to love other people fully has allowed me to attach proper meaning to my life, and in times of darkness I am assured that there is a purpose, and there is a point. For me, love is the point. Love is what we are all about. It’s the only real meaning of life that I can find.

Coffee Habit

Bleary-eyed after being up for half the night with a wriggly toddler boasting an excellent starfish impression in my bed, I wandered up to my local Sainsbury’s this morning to buy a few items and a take-away coffee. My heart sank a little when I noticed that the check-out person was the same one who has served me the last few times I’ve called into the shop to purchase a latte, feeling, as I was, somewhat self-conscious about my increasingly frequent habit.

I stood, a few minutes later, waiting to hand over some money for bread, bananas, apples and the aforementioned coffee, and my gaze fell upon the array of bottles of alcoholic drinks lined up on the shelves behind the counter. I remembered with alarming clarity the terrible sensation of shame and guilt that I used to encounter whenever I bought booze during the last few years of my drinking life. I would usually have incorporated the wine or beer into a more innocent selection of items, a casual afterthought that I’d slipped breezily into my basket. But in reality, the entire experience from the walk up to the supermarket from my house, to perusing the bottles in the wine aisle with a faux expert eye, to unloading my shopping onto the conveyer belt, would ensure that I was riddled with self-consciousness and worry.

However, these obvious warning signs that I was not in control of alcohol – or at least, not as in control as I would’ve liked – did little to deter me from routinely making the trip up to the shop under the guise of untold ‘last minute’ shopping trips for imagined necessities: cheese, juice, biscuits and other grocery items that I could always have done without, but nevertheless, would be promoted to great importance as a valid excuse for visiting the supermarket yet again.

costa bananas

And so, back to this morning, and the friendly shop assistant who I fear will, any day now, be ringing in a large latte on her till even before I’ve pressed the buttons on the machine to fill my paper cup. We smiled and said hello, I paid and took my shopping bags and coffee, and reminded myself that I no longer live a life that fills me with shame. I am just me, a person who doesn’t drink, who likes herself sufficiently to deal with living minus the prop of mind-numbing booze.

As the late Steve Jobs once said, “Life is short, so do not waste your time living the life of another person”.

Remind yourself that it is fine to just be you – no alcohol required.

Shouting ‘I’m A Soberista!’ from the Rooftops

Sobriety was once a dirty word to me. Boring do-gooders avoided alcohol. Cool people drank, and drank a lot.

This was probably the biggest challenge for me in terms of deciding to stop drinking. I could not conceive of losing my ‘edge’ and metamorphosing into a quiet dullard who couldn’t let her hair down. I know I’m not alone in thinking these thoughts, and I often read about other people’s experiences with friends and family who are sceptical at best, or scathing and down right rude at worst, with regards to that person’s new non-boozy status.

Magic water, magic nature, beautiful blue effect

What is it about alcohol that prompts people to share their opinion on whether or not we should be partaking in this national pastime? If I sat down for dinner with people I wasn’t overly familiar with and announced that I was a vegetarian, I would more than likely receive a lesser inquisition than if I declared my AF lifestyle and opted for a mineral water amongst the truckload of wine being delivered by the attentive waiter. But why do other people care so much about our drinking habits? Could it be that they don’t wish to draw attention to their own alcohol consumption? Generally, I’ve found that the people who have the least to say about me being a non-drinker are the ones who barely drink themselves, the ones who most definitely have not got any issues with alcohol.

Anyway, the point of the above observations is that society frequently has a tendency to be more accepting of heavy drinkers than those of us who opt for an AF life, and this can be a major obstacle in quitting. Peer pressure and the desire to fit in can contribute massively to ‘wobbles’ and, ultimately, to caving in and having a drink. In order to stay true to the path of sobriety, therefore, it is vital that we believe in the alcohol-free way. And I mean, really believe in it – to find it an aspirational way of life, fall in love with it, want it more than anything, and be proud to tell anyone who listens, “No thanks, I do not drink”.

I did not feel this way about not drinking until at least eighteen months into my sobriety. I was ashamed of my problem, angry because I ‘wasn’t allowed to drink’, lonely and full of regret. But eventually, something clicked inside me and all the monumental benefits of being a non-drinker dawned on me. What the hell was I being so negative about? Where is the need to feel demeaned by a choice that will provide me (and my family and friends too) with a far happier and healthier life? Why be secretive about declining to consume an addictive substance that consistently made me fat and act foolishly, which caused me to hurt both myself and those I love, which damaged my mental and physical health and routinely put the brakes on all my hopes and dreams for future happiness?

When you think about it, becoming AF is a lifestyle choice that we should be shouting from the rooftops! These days I am supremely proud of being a non-drinker, to the point of being a bit smug. I like the fact that I am in good shape, that I am the best person I can be in all areas of my life (well, maybe there’s a little room for improvement here and there, but things are eminently better than in boozy days gone by!). I am not apologetic in the slightest about my choice to not drink alcohol, and when people ask me why I am on the mineral water I just tell them the truth: For me, one glass always led to another, and another, and the fall-out from drinking was too much. I’m so much happier being a Soberista.

That Was Then And This Is Now – Sober Reflections

I have experienced a multitude of emotions with regards to alcohol since I last drank the stuff in 2011. At first I missed it dreadfully, and the love and devotion that I initially harboured towards my old friend, wine, eventually led to the idea behind my first book, The Sober Revolution (co-written by Sarah Turner). The book depicts booze as the wayward lover – not to be trusted, although deeply enchanting and difficult to extrapolate one’s self from.

A few months down the sober road, I remember becoming increasingly bitter towards booze, and angry at the alcohol industry for misrepresenting their products. It seemed that everywhere I looked there were adverts featuring glamorous, happy people enjoying a drink and not suffering any of the associated horrors that had become so firmly entrenched in my own experience of alcohol use. Where were the images of people collapsing in the street? The facial features that had drooped with alcoholic drowsiness? Why was nobody being honest about the effects this addictive substance was having upon such a large percentage of the population?

Eventually, I started to feel more positive about living life as a non-drinker. I recognised that not everyone has the same destructive relationship as I did with booze, although a deep mistrust of alcohol and those who sell it has remained with me. This is something which I feel has helped me enormously in staying on the sober road; whilst bitterness and anger are not emotions that we should embrace forever, a certain degree of ‘fighting back’ after years of being manipulated and possessed by alcohol is crucial (in my humble opinion) in building up an emotional resistance to this so-commonly accepted drug.

Me now, minus the internal struggles

Me now, a happy Soberista

In my third year of sobriety, everything settled down and became entirely normal. I no longer missed drinking at all, and had most definitely carved out a new identity for myself based on real things that matter, as opposed to the ghost-like fantasies that heavy alcohol consumption frequently initiates. I could say at that point that I knew myself, was aware of my foibles and strengths, had a healthy level of self-esteem, felt committed to the things in my life that I cared about, and had the confidence to believe in who I was and where I was heading. The self-loathing and regrets had long since fallen by the wayside and I had finally, at the age of thirty-eight, begun to enjoy living in the real world – with all of its challenges, ups and downs, and beauty. That was when I noticed a new sense of optimism in myself, a solid belief in things turning out OK. That in itself was a revelation, as previously I had always assumed everything would go wrong in my life.

And now, with hindsight, I often look back on my drinking years with an intense desire to gently put an arm around myself and whisper, ‘You don’t actually need alcohol to be OK. Your life would be much better without it.’ And then I feel an enormous sense of relief that I came to realise that my relationship with alcohol would never have changed – that off-switch would never have materialised, and my life would most definitely have continued to be characterised by shameful situations, wasted weekends and regrets so huge that they ate away at my soul.

Thank God I saw all of that. Thank God I became a Soberista.

The Best Birthday Present

On Wednesday, my eldest daughter will be sixteen. When I consider her age, I am starkly reminded of the swift passage of time and how much things have changed during the years she has spent on earth.

My eldest daughter, then three, with me and our beloved Mowgli

My eldest daughter, then three, with me aged twenty-six – 2002

I’m taking her away for a few days for her main present but I want to buy her a keepsake too, a special reminder of her first ‘grown-up’ birthday. But no matter what I end up choosing for her gift, I know that she has already received the best one I could ever give to her – a mum who doesn’t drink alcohol, and specifically, this mum who doesn’t drink alcohol.

There are, of course, many mums out there who drink and who can manage their intake of alcohol sufficiently well that it has no detrimental impact upon their children. But I wasn’t one of them.

Although I was never knocking the vodka back at 7 am or staggering up to the school gates at home time with bottles clanking in a plastic bag, I certainly prioritised alcohol fairly highly in my life, and it frequently affected my eldest child in a number of ways.

For a start, I used to rush through her bedtime stories in order to speedily tie up the day’s parenting duties. My desire to do so was, of course, due to the bottles of cold, white wine that would inevitably be resting in the fridge downstairs, the beads of condensation that coated the glass inviting me to dive in.

Secondly, I would frequently plan my spare time around drinking. This might have meant organising a little dinner party for friends (read, major piss-up), or a get-together in the local pub beer garden – somewhere where the kids could play, obviously, whilst the adults grew steadily more inebriated and less responsible. Sometimes it meant calling on the help of a babysitter so that I could indulge in my wish to achieve total mental obliteration via alcohol consumption.

Thirdly, the after effects of my drinking were apparent to anyone in my company, including my child. The lethargy and bad moods were almost certainly picked up on regularly by my daughter, although she probably had no idea why I was snapping at her for no good reason or why I had no energy to do anything other than lie around watching TV.

There were no major catastrophes, thank God. No medical emergencies where I was too out of it to respond quickly and appropriately. No occasions where I didn’t manage to drag myself out of bed to take her to school or collect her in the afternoons. I never lost my job or was threatened with losing my child to the care of the social services because I was deemed incapable of looking after her.

But there was a catalogue of alcohol-induced depressive episodes, unpredictable moods, of silly and irresponsible life choices that affected my daughter’s upbringing, of money spent on fags and booze that could have gone towards things of benefit to the two of us. And there was the relentless display of how a grown woman acts – an example that I set, week in and week out, that revolved around escaping my reality and living recklessly.

And so, the best gift I could ever have given my lovely daughter is the one I gave her almost four years ago, and which is the opposite of all of the above; a mum who is present and engaged with her children, a mum who is fit, healthy and cooks nutritious meals, encouraging an interest in a healthy lifestyle in both her children; a mum who displays a level mood, who doesn’t bite her children’s heads off for no reason, a mum who is up at 6 am most days taking care of running the house and providing a secure upbringing for her family, a mum who can be relied upon not to embarrass her children by being out of it; a mum who doesn’t drink alcohol.

‘Abstinence Is Bad For You’ -Thoughts On Irresponsible Health Claims

When I woke up this morning I saw that someone had posted an article on the Soberistas Facebook page which was all about a body of medical ‘evidence’ pointing towards abstinence being bad for a person’s health. Hmm, helpful I thought. And promptly deleted it. I’m all for free speech and it’s nice that someone had thought of Soberistas and wanted to contribute a little something to our Facebook page, but these types of articles are just not helpful to those of us who cannot moderate.

As a drinker, if you had shown me literature of this nature I would have seen it as a green light to continue necking wine as though it was water and I had been lying stranded in a desert for days on end. I must not stop drinking – there it is in black and white! I am far healthier if I down booze than not, no matter what sort of scrapes I find myself in as a result, and no matter how much damage I wield upon my poor, alcohol-soaked body!

It is possible to produce findings that support any theory if one restricts their study to a small enough group (for instance, the ninety-year-old man who has smoked fifty fags a day since he was twelve). But there is a wealth of evidence that demonstrates that alcohol consumption which exceeds government guidelines (14 units for a woman and 21 units for a man) is highly detrimental to a person’s health, and is a causal factor in over 200 different conditions and diseases (see WHO Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health 2014).

Well then, let’s just restrict our drinking to recommended limits and maintain a strict ‘three days off the booze’ policy each week, one could argue.

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OK, let’s get real for a moment. Firstly, how many people do you know who drink alcohol and who consistently stick to government guidelines? I can think of a couple. Secondly, there are many, many individuals who have no off switch. Despite the best of intentions, these people (me included) do not have the capability to stop at one or two glasses but, once started, go on to drink way more than ‘safe’ amounts and subsequently end up in any number of dangerous situations. Alcohol for me (and others in the same boat) is poison – plain and simple. It is a devilish substance that perpetually leads us to a place of shame, embarrassment, debilitating hangovers, irresponsible parenting, thoughtlessness, selfishness, carelessness, and low self-esteem. It is a drug which, when consumed in excess, sometimes results in unintended sexual encounters, unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, depression, altered personalities, domestic violence and occasionally, suicide. Alcohol, for those of us who cannot control the amount we consume once we start drinking, is the stuff of nightmares – for us, and all of the people in our lives.

For anyone with an off switch nicely intact, these consequences to boozing are more than likely challenging to comprehend. Some of these people may find it amusing to post articles about abstinence being bad for one’s health on the Soberistas Facebook page (and other online, open forums which have been established for the use of people who struggle with alcohol dependencies and not for those who have no problem in moderating). Should such contributors ever find themselves crossing the invisible line into alcohol addiction or should they become closely entangled with someone else who has a problematic relationship with booze, they probably would not find things quite so amusing or trivial. Until then, I am happy to delete their postings should I consider them unhelpful to those of us who are bravely managing a dependency upon alcohol – that substance which is so prevalent, so unregulated, and so bloody damaging to so many people.