There’s No Such Thing As Superhuman

I’m sure I’ve written about this topic before. In fact, I know I have, several times. But I’m going to write about it again, and it goes along these lines: You Are Stronger Than You Think.

I was a tough kid. Nothing fazed me. I was the leader in my gang and the one who defied convention and rules without a second thought. But as I grew older and progressed from my teens to my twenties, I developed serious self-doubt and consequently spent many years trapped in a cycle of alcohol-induced Dutch courage followed swiftly by deep regret and the desire to crawl under a rock. Low self-esteem artificially, and temporarily, corrected by the fake crutch of a bottle of Pinot.

And then I quit drinking. This was the first of several hurdles in my sober life that I initially suspected I would not be able to manage successfully. How could I, the woman whose kitchen was rarely seen without a bottle or two of wine casually positioned on the side as if they’d been bought almost as an after thought, for whom a night out was not complete without drinking to the point of blacking out, possibly switch to a life that was completely alcohol-free? But I did it. It took many months of experiencing emotional pain and excruciating shyness and fear over exposing myself as a ‘problem drinker’, and what felt like an eternity of wanting to run away from myself, but in the end, I did it. And it made me feel proud.

When I returned to university aged thirty-four to study law, I was so crippled by my lack of self-confidence that I found it close to impossible to stand before my twenty classmates to deliver presentations. I clearly remember sweating and clasping my clammy hands together nervously before shuffling to the front of the room for ‘my turn’. Since I launched Soberistas just two and a half years ago, I have spoken to hundreds of people at conferences and been on live TV several times, talking in front of millions. In the beginning I was scared. The sweaty palms and fast-beating heart lassoed my self-belief and almost got the better of me. But over time, I’ve managed to rein in the irrational fear and these days my pulse barely quickens.

Recently I went away abroad for a couple of days, unintentionally by myself. This was originally meant to be a break for a friend and me, but the friend was unable, at the eleventh hour, to come along. So I decided to go it alone. I’ve learnt the value in jumping headfirst into a situation that might terrify you if you were to consider it for long enough. I didn’t ponder my predicament as a result, and only really wondered if it was going to be OK as I buckled my seatbelt on the aeroplane.

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I ate on my own, hiked on my own, slept on my own, barely spoke to another human being for three days, explored on my own, worked out my travel arrangements all by myself (not easy when I was staying in a remote place in the middle of the mountains and I don’t speak the language), and sat with my feet dangling in the Mediterranean Sea on my own.

And it was fine. In fact, it was better than fine. It was brilliant: an opportunity to prove to myself what I am capable of. A chance to spend some time with me, and to filter out all the external influences that we are bombarded with every day, and which make it so difficult to just exist. A time free from worrying much at all, apart from over things like, ‘Where does this path lead?’ and ‘Have I brought enough water on this hike?’ and ‘How shall I spend the next few hours?’

Bliss.

I wouldn’t have taken that trip a few years ago. I’d have been petrified by the very thought of it, stricken with irrational fears over what might happen and all the things that could, and no doubt would, go wrong. I’d have bottled it and stayed at home drinking instead, a frightened woman with no idea of her own strength.

The thing is, is that human beings are inordinately good at adaptation. It’s what we do best – throw us into any new situation and once the early discomfort has been dealt with we get on beautifully with the revised status quo. Nothing is as scary as our wild imaginations would have us believe – including living without booze. It’s the anticipation that fixes our feet in wet concrete, rendering us too terrified to venture into unchartered waters. But if we can leap over the vacuum of not knowing, springboard ourselves with a blind and total faith that everything will work out fine, then, inevitably, it does. And we grow stronger for facing our fears.

When we push ourselves, we galvanise our sense of exactly how much we are capable of. If we don’t try, we’ll never know.

To conclude, if I ever do feel the fear, I remind myself that there is no such thing as superhuman – we are all one and the same. If one person can do something, then I damn well can as well. This philosophy is a good one to adopt if you ever find yourself struggling to taste the unknown…

Why is the drink-driving message not getting through to women?

The recent revelation that while the overall figure for drink-driving casualties and accidents has been steadily falling since 1979 the number of female convictions has not decreased in line with the male rate, came as no great surprise to me. The Police Federation maintains that the drink-driving message is not getting through to women, a statement borne out by a Social Research Associates study published last year which highlighted a 9% increase in drink-driving convictions involving women (up from 1998 when the figure stood at just 8%).

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In both my role as editor of Soberistas.com, an online forum aimed at women with concerns about their alcohol consumption, and as a result of my personal experiences as a busy working mum of two, I have witnessed countless examples of women who are drinking excessively.

So why are women drinking so much? I was a heavy and frequent binge drinker for twenty years before I quit four years ago following a particularly excessive boozy session. I know why I used to drink too much, and I suspect it’s the same for the majority of women out there who are hitting the wine a little too hard in the evenings.

Firstly, I fell hook, line and sinker for the dominant cultural message in our society that suggests wine is nothing more than a treat, an indulgence that’s rightfully ours after a hard day spent looking after the kids, working, cooking and cleaning. What could be better than a sophisticated bottle of red that has the power to eliminate stress and seamlessly demarcate the humdrum domestic daytime hours from fun and sexy evenings?

Secondly, I remained firmly in denial that my one-bottle-a-night wine habit was indicative of an alcohol dependency and constituted a level of consumption that was frighteningly damaging to both my physical and mental health. I repeatedly told myself that everyone drank as I did, and therefore I need not worry.

Thirdly, I came of age in the era of the ‘ladette culture’ of the 1990s, a social phenomenon that ensured women everywhere were provided with carte blanche to drink in the same quantities as men with none of the stigma of days gone by. When I got married a few years later and had my first child, I merely swapped the pints of beer for bottles of wine and merrily got on with the business of heavy drinking – a misguided notion of feminism resulting in a dogged refusal to accept the undeniable truth, that women cannot drink in the same measures as men without causing themselves more physical harm.

A person drinking a 14% bottle of wine or three 250ml glasses (a large pub measure) of wine and finishing drinking at 11pm would need to wait until 10.30am the following day before he or she was safe to drive. This poses an issue for anyone who is drinking on a nightly basis and then doing the school run, driving to work or dropping the kids off at a weekend sports club the next day. When we have responsibilities that we don’t want to shirk, we can easily reassure ourselves that actually, we are fine to drive; that the last glass we drank at midnight will long since have left our bodies because we’ve downed a strong cup of coffee and had a nibble on some toast; that a £10 bottle of Chablis doesn’t really count as evidence of a drink problem because it was imbibed in the privacy of the home and no outward damage occurred as a result. That kind of drinking is fine, we tell ourselves, because it’s not representative of how ‘alcoholics’ drink – and they are the ones with the real drink problem.

Public health campaigns warning against driving when over the legal limit have traditionally featured groups of men sinking a few pints in the pub. We have yet to see a campaign that targets women, and specifically the type of woman who is consuming wine on an almost daily basis, at hazardous amounts, and who is then driving the following morning.

The female body does not process alcohol as efficiently as its male counterpart. In addition, I know of many women (myself included) who have routinely skipped meals in order to accommodate the extra calories they are taking in via wine. Drinking on an empty stomach means alcohol travels straight to the bloodstream and quickly reaches the brain, resulting in a heightened loss of control.

A hectic schedule that invariably involves frequent use of the car, a physical form less able to cope with excessive alcohol consumption, a common denial of an alcohol dependency existing at all, and a desire to be perceived as a perfectly functioning modern woman, can (and often does) easily amount to jumping behind the wheel of a car with fingers crossed and a too-high blood-alcohol level.

The only surprise to me with regards to this story is that anyone is surprised at all.

The Perfect Storm

I love the rare occasions in my life when I get to think and filter out all the crap that seems to bombard me from all angles, day in, day out. There are the endless emails attempting to sell me things I don’t want or need, the multitasking that’s required to manage the lives of my daughters and me, and the shopping, cleaning and dog-walking. There are the efforts to keep up with the news, and the organisation of work and a social life. All of these things amount to a very busy schedule with few opportunities for peace and calm.

In the fast-paced existence of the modern world, it can be virtually impossible to find adequate space and time in which to put the brakes on, cogitate, assess and evaluate: to recover a precious few moments for processing the vast quantities of information that are entering our heads on a daily basis.

Writing has always helped me to achieve this goal – as a means of finding clarity and making decisions in my life, it’s unbeatable. When I initially stopped drinking, writing this blog became my soul support mechanism. I looked to my laptop as my friend and confidante, I poured out all of my thoughts and feelings surrounding alcohol and why I had drunk so much, how it had made me feel, and how I was coping with my new sober life. I opened up in my writing in a way I never could have done via speaking; blogging became a kind of semi-anonymous, safe, confessional obsession for me, a way to bare all emotionally and understand myself better. It seemed to fast track the process of acceptance with regards to my alcohol misuse and the switch to a happier, booze-free life.

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George Orwell wrote in his 1946 essay, Why I Write, of the “pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story”. I love the way words fit together, and how we can select from such a sweeping, comprehensive vocabulary. We can form precise meaning by the words we use and the order we put them in. We can express ourselves and record our experiences through writing. And we can share ideas and thoughts openly with countless other people, most of whom we have never met.

This last point is a powerful phenomenon to me – the notion that we can communicate honestly and without barriers with people from all over the world who might be looking for reassurance, confirmation that they are not alone in their particular struggles. How else can we achieve this other than through writing? The idea of Soberistas.com, a social network site for people with problematic drinking patterns, came about primarily because a) I had a booze problem and b) I loved writing. I recognised the restorative and therapeutic nature of blogging, and how it had helped me to work through my own drinking issues.

It doesn’t matter whether a person is a brilliant wordsmith or not. To me, the best blogs are the ones that evoke honesty and that other people can relate to. It’s the bridging of multiple minds brought about by the words of one that is behind my love of writing. When I read through the blogs on Soberistas, I see that other people are similarly seeking to resolve their various problems with alcohol by writing about them. A community of people brought together through a shared struggle and a compulsion to express and pool their thoughts. This formula works, in that writing on a public forum appears, for many, to be an effective method of eliminating the negativity that stems from a long time spent drinking too much.

For me, it’s the perfect storm.

The World Does Not Revolve Around Me

When I drank, my ego was blown out of all proportion. Yes, I was routinely annihilated by the shame and self-disgust which arose out of countless boozy incidents, but I was simultaneously affected by the indulgence that walks alongside heavy drinking, the way I prioritised alcohol over the rest of my life. In a perverse way, my addiction fuelled an over-exaggerated sense of my own importance, despite the constant chip chipping away at my self-esteem as a result of silly drunken escapades. Having chronically low self-worth and an inflated ego are not mutually exclusive concepts I have come to realise.

Drinking upon our every feeling means we become frozen in our emotional development. Although it often feels like a soothing lotion applied to our inner pain, alcohol is, in reality, a numbing agent that stunts our personal growth. When I stopped drinking I had the emotional maturity of a teenager – impetuous, petulant, self-centred, paranoid and angry. It took a long time to get my head out of my backside and to realise that no, the world does not revolve around me. The old me would throw a tantrum if I didn’t get my own way. I would manipulate where I failed to see a desirable outcome emerging otherwise. But once sober, it dawned on me that if a person disagrees with me it’s not because they hate me. If someone fails to pay me attention, it’s more than likely because they’re caught up in the storyline of their own life, not because they don’t care about me.

One of the greatest lessons I have learnt since becoming sober is one of humility. That, whilst I understand and value my place in the world, I no longer allow myself to think I am more than I am. Nature and immersing one’s self in it is, for me, the best way to reinforce a humble attitude, to cement the notion that none of us is more than a brief hint of an impression on the world. Walking amongst towering mountains that have stretched high above the land for an eternity; breathing in the salty sea air and listening to the rolling waves of the ocean; acknowledging the bright splash of colour in a flower that grows amidst rocks; hearing the sound of nothingness in a place untainted by mass human inhabitancy. Submerging my soul in the natural world is like medicine. It strengthens my emotional core and keeps me fully grounded.

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Not drinking has taught me that, ultimately, we are all the same: nothing and everything, simple and complex, brilliant and ordinary, memorable and forgettable. I used to crave a life in which I stood out head and shoulders above everyone else, in which I was admired and desired in equal measures. And alcohol fuelled this yearning just as much as it kept me thinking I might be achieving my aim. As a non-drinker, I value highly my equality with the rest of the world. Our environment is everything and we, just like the other animals and plants we share it with, must live harmoniously with our surroundings and ourselves. The moment we imagine we are greater than any other person, or that we have more of a right to anything than anyone else, we knock everything out of kilter. Sobriety has made me see this. And I’m a much better – and happier – person for it.

The Subtle Impact of Drinking Too Much

blackand whiteI was never a bottle-of-vodka-at-7am type of boozer. I loved alcohol and, as I transformed from a child to a teenager, I never imagined I wouldn’t become a drinker. And I got started early, aged just thirteen. But I (almost) always managed to restrict my consumption to within the realms of social drinking, regular UK-style binge drinking – ‘fun’ drinking. Of course, there were always the exceptions, and, particularly during the last five years of my boozing life, I occasionally veered into the dark world of lone, secret drinking, and seeking a certain level of self-medication via the wine I was buying increasingly more of.

But the metaphorical wheels never fell off spectacularly. I didn’t lose my job, or invite the attention of the social services due to alcohol-related child neglect. I didn’t even look especially booze ravaged, other than on the odd mornings after very heavy, late night drinking sessions.

In fact, right up until I ended up in A&E one morning as a result of passing out after consuming three bottles of wine, I mostly managed to convince myself that the odd negative consequence of my wine habit was just part and parcel of life as a drinker. Blackouts? Didn’t everyone suffer alcohol-induced amnesia once in a while? Snogging someone who I didn’t really like (never mind be attracted to)? It was merely evidence of my rock n roll approach to life. Wiping out yet another weekend due to a debilitating hangover? Ditto the rock n roll lifestyle – I was living life in the fast lane and enjoying myself. Wasn’t I?

The truth was that there were many bad consequences of my habit but I was so accustomed to them because of the longevity of my alcohol dependency that I failed to recognise them as being the direct outcome of drinking: my snappy, uneven mood that manifested itself in me being an inpatient and unpredictable mum; the deeply entrenched feelings of self-loathing that arose each and every time I engaged in regrettable behaviour when under the influence, and lingered beyond; the fact that I struggled just to make it through the morning at work without my hangovers being noticed, ultimately meaning I never strived to excel in the workplace; the endless small change that dripped into the tills at Tesco in exchange for the odd bottle of wine and the accompanying packet of fags, amounting to somewhere in the region of £300-£400 per month; the frequent panic attacks that often rendered me struggling to breathe and terrified that I was having a heart attack. I accepted all of these as life just being the way it was, the hand I’d been dealt.

The thing is that as soon as a few months of sobriety had passed, all of the above were relegated to my history, and I quickly acknowledged that life wasn’t like that for a person who doesn’t touch alcohol. But as a drinker, I was so immersed in the world of hangovers and boozing and planning to drink, that I couldn’t see the wood for the trees. Or, more accurately, I couldn’t see the clear downsides of excessive drinking from the alcoholic fog that I was permanently inhabiting.

If the outcomes of alcohol misuse are not catastrophic, this does not mean that life cannot be immeasurably improved upon by becoming a non-drinker. I will be eternally grateful that I tried my hand at not drinking; it turned out to be the best decision I have ever made.

FOUR Years of Life as a Soberista

Me at the start of a very boozy night - which ended badly as ever.

In April 2011 I awoke one morning in a hospital bed, my clothes plastered in my own cold, congealed vomit. It was an earth-shatteringly terrible moment in my life but one that led me finally to understand that the game was up – I could no longer fight the fight with my long-standing love, alcohol. I have never touched booze since that night, and I’ve come a very long way in almost all aspects of my life as a result.

Fortunate, and I never forget it. I am a lucky bugger. I woke up to the fact that alcohol was at the root of pretty much all the shit in my life. And when I was only thirty-five. I thank my lucky stars almost every day that I saw the writing on the wall and that I read it, understood it with such profound clarity that I was able to indisputably quit drinking for good. Things could have stayed as they were and I may not have ever come to recognise alcohol for what it actually is – a potentially lethal substance that draws you in repeatedly with promises that this time will be different, this time you will be able to moderate how much of the stuff you drink. I was very fortunate to see all of this. I’m very fortunate to still be here.

Over it. It took a while, and many, many books about stopping drinking (thanks Jason Vale, again), and days and weeks of soul-searching, and hundreds of miles of running, and hours and hours of meditation, and untold glorious moments of appreciation for the small stuff, and the love of friends and family, and the interaction with the fabulous people of Soberistas – but eventually, I got over it. I got over booze. I stopped fretting that my life would be dull without it. I stopped missing it when I went out. I stopped not cooking pasta because I couldn’t eat it without craving a large glass of red. I stopped staying in the house at night because I couldn’t face socialising without being off my head on drink. I got over my dependency. My life moved on.

Unrecognisable. In some respects I am unrecognisable from the person I was when I drank. In a lot of ways I am totally changed; I’m fitter, I’m calmer, I don’t live a calamitous life that throws me uncaringly from bad situation to worse situation, I look younger, my priorities are in the correct order, I am in control of my world. In other regards I am the same – stubborn, a bit silly, prone to the odd moment of impetuous behaviour just to get a thrill. But essentially the negative components of my existence have all but disappeared and I am fairly content with how things now look on the landscape of my life. Things have changed a lot, for the better.

Right. Stopping drinking was the right thing for me to do. I never needed it. I didn’t need to quieten my mind, or boost my confidence in social situations, or wipe out emotional pain that would have healed faster if only I had allowed myself to feel it as it occurred. There was no need for me to cover up my personality with that of a loudmouth party girl. I was fine as I was. I didn’t need to force myself to fit into situations that I didn’t feel comfortable in, or to blend in with people with whom I had nothing in common. I would never have been able to moderate my alcohol consumption therefore becoming a Soberista was my only choice if I was to enjoy a happy and fulfilling life, and to do my best to provide the same for my gorgeous girls. I was right to forge ahead with my belief that living completely alcohol-free was a good choice for me. It was the best decision I have ever made.

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Pizza, Wine and Big Fat Profits

I am not a new wave temperance movement believer. I recognise that the factors inherent in a person developing a problematic relationship with alcohol are vast and wide-ranging, and not all those who drink do so to excess. That being said, I am also of the opinion that we live in a heavily alco-centric culture, in which the alcohol industry is granted an extraordinarily free rein when it comes to advertising and marketing its products (which, let’s face it, amount to mere variations of a highly addictive, toxic substance, wrapped up attractively in a variety of innocent looking bottles).

There are many people who have crossed the line into alcohol dependence but who remain in denial with regards to their habit, believing it to be one borne entirely out of choice. Lots of people will grab onto a multitude of convenient excuses in order to maintain a mild (and for some, not so mild) addiction to alcohol; it’s a sunny day, it’s Christmas, it’s a cosy night in with a DVD, it’s a wild night out with the girls/boys. And adding weight to these excuses are the purveyors of alcoholic beverages, who are only involved because of the profits to be had in flogging the stuff – especially the supermarkets.

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Last night as I unwrapped my pizza from its packaging, my eyes fell upon the ‘Serving Suggestion’ provided on the corner of the box. Tesco were advising me of suitable accompaniments for my Finest Wood Fired 12″ Ham Mushroom And Mascarpone Pizza: a simple green salad and a glass of my favourite white wine. Really? Is there any need to consume an alcoholic drink with one’s pizza in order to bring out the taste? Is a pizza less of a pizza if it is washed down with a glass of water? In providing such a serving suggestion, Tesco are interested only in selling a lifestyle – the sophisticated Italian wine drinker, enjoying an ‘authentic’ pizza with a simple green salad whilst sitting in a piazza somewhere, a setting sun and the tinkling of an ancient fountain in the background. Tesco are keen to ‘sell up’ their pizza with this marketing twaddle because it is a highly effective means of getting the consumer to dig a little deeper into his or her pocket. Go on, buy the wine, buy the salad – make like an Italian for the evening (and forget the fact that, actually, you are sitting in a house in Sheffield, watching crap on the TV and listening to the howling wind and rain lashing against the front door).

As I watched the above-mentioned crap TV whilst munching on my pizza (and not feeling at all bereft by way of not enjoying a glass of my favourite white wine to accompany it) I suddenly found myself watching Aldi’s latest advert, in which the song ‘Favourite Things’ plays in soft, girly tones as a variety of wine bottles are displayed against a pretty pink backdrop. I felt incensed by Aldi’s blatant feminisation and glamorising of wine in such a manner, the way in which the supermarket has produced a couple of minutes of television that portrays wine as entirely innocent, almost childlike; a happy little beverage that goes hand-in-hand with fun-filled summer days and gay abandon.

There are people who drink in moderation, who consume alcohol ‘responsibly’. But there are an awful lot of people out there who do not and who are seeking out any excuse to down more of the stuff without facing up to the fact that they are, in reality, dependent upon it and regularly drinking at hazardous levels. While ever the supermarkets are allowed to market alcoholic beverages as innocuous products that bring only light and happiness to peoples’ lives as opposed to containing an addictive substance that should be treated with caution and which is detrimental to health in a major way unless consumed in very small quantities, alcohol and binge drinking will continue to be trivialised. And the health of a massive percentage of the population will remain compromised as a result.