Not Drinking Is A (Great) Way Of Life

Alcohol is a strange old business. Ostensibly it’s just another beverage, but we all know it’s so much more than that. Drinking can often become a person’s defining characteristic. It’s the stuff they are made from: the rebel, the sex goddess, the sympathetic friend, the party animal, the sophisticated hostess. It turns the ordinary into the extraordinary – or so we like to imagine. Wrapped up in booze is a massive array of interwoven emotions and hardwired associations – a glass of chilled white wine on a summer day, a pint of real ale in a country pub at the end of a bracing walk, a cold beer on a Friday evening after work. The connections we make between alcoholic drinks and life are tenacious. It takes a lot of work to undo them.

I think I constructed my old persona as one that was intrinsically linked to alcohol because it was a means of avoiding how ashamed I was of the amount I was consuming – I wore my binge-drinking like a badge of honour, at least on the outside, and this helped me to push the negativity to the back of my mind. Waking up in bed next to someone who I could barely remember speaking to the night before? This was something to be laughed off with bravado, a funny thing to do after yet another night of hard partying – except I wasn’t laughing on the inside. I was filled with self-loathing (not that anyone would have ever known).

In the years since I stopped drinking, I’ve fully embraced life as a Soberista. Of fundamental importance in staying alcohol-free is learning to love sobriety, not resenting the fact that alcohol is no more a part of life but loving that it isn’t. I never thought I’d be able to do that. In the initial sober months I hated how I couldn’t drink alcohol without becoming falling-over drunk. I hated how other people seemed to have an off-switch and I didn’t. I hated beer gardens on hot summer evenings, filled with people laughing and drinking. I hated everything about being sober.

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I had to find a way of turning not drinking into something that worked for me. A new element of me that fitted with my personality, rather than this alien lifestyle choice that I had been forced to adopt (or, at least, that’s how it felt). Gradually, being a non-drinker became something that I was proud of. I stopped feeling so apologetic for it. I started to feel like I was a part of a new wave of people, a mini-revolution that had sprung up out of a widespread disaffection for wasted weekends, poor health and too many heartfelt regrets.

The things that mattered to me as a drinker still matter to me. The stuff that I was ashamed of, the less-than-perfect parts of my life have been resolved, dealt with, closed. The good bits have grown better. The crap has disappeared. I genuinely believe that kicking booze out your life is a very cool thing to do. Living free from the fog of alcohol, experiencing true clarity, knowing yourself inside and out, feeling intuition and being able to trust yourself to act upon it, loving and caring for yourself, feeling passionate about stuff other than drinking, knowing that you are doing your best in life – this is what being sober means to me. And I’m very happy to be feeling it all, right now, today – it’s a very good place to be.

Feelings

Feelings. I didn’t like them once upon a time. I remember the stomach-churning fear, the excitement that bubbled inside of me and which I instinctively wanted to quash, the sadness of heartaches or bereavement that gnawed away at my insides and which I always felt compelled to numb with alcohol, just to restore a sense of calm and order.

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I was frightened to feel anything. I operated as an automaton – a woman with two settings: functioning and partying. Emotions that interrupted the status quo had to be dealt with, and there was only one reliable method I knew of by which to do that: drinking.

Without a shadow of a doubt, the most difficult thing in becoming a non-drinker has been learning to ‘feel’ emotions, not running from how I feel but accepting, understanding, and responding – appropriately. How bizarre it is to actually sit with emotions in the early weeks and months, to endure anger and bitterness, grief, happiness and excitement. How uncomfortable to have nowhere to turn in order to escape and seek solace from the raging storm inside the mind.

On my favourite running route, there’s a big hill. It winds through fields filled with sheep and cows, and as it climbs higher it offers a beautiful view of the west side of Sheffield where I live. As I reach the top, I often find that I have tears in my eyes. It’s a combination of listening to music (The War on Drugs currently, highly recommend it), immersing myself in the countryside away from anyone or anything apart from grass and trees and animals, the meditative property of running which affords me sufficient space for reflection. It’s probably something to do with the endorphin rush that comes from exercising too. The tears aren’t exactly related to being sad – they’re just tears. It’s an outlet for my emotions, which I need because, for the most part, I spend my life bombing around, spinning plates and keeping everyone happy – or trying to – as so many of us do.

A major part of the human experience lies in having emotions: we are grounded and guided by them. Living through them helps to heal us when we are wounded. We are strengthened by the tough times and find peace when we emerge out of the other side.

These days, I like feelings. I’m not scared of them. Feelings mean I am alive. Feelings mean I’m a human being. Feelings mean I no longer drink. I am aware. I am alive. I am present.

Drinking, Shame And Not Beating Yourself Up

I generally write about how good life is as a non-drinker, how much happier and brighter the world appears now that I’m not looking at it through a fogged up lens. I’m incredibly passionate about living a clean existence – more so because I can still recall (with great clarity) the polar opposite: the hangovers, the awful sense of shame on particular mornings, and the secrecy, the double life I seemed to be leading sometimes. I especially remember the kernel of dread that I’d wake up with, a knot of fear in my stomach that I desperately wanted rid of but which routinely took days or even weeks to leave me.

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I often read on Soberistas (frequently on Monday mornings) blogs that describe feelings of shame. The people who write them have typically picked up a drink over the weekend, truly believing that they will be able to stop after just a couple (haven’t we all done that?), but who have then gone on to have a major blowout. This, in turn, leads to a variety of catastrophic consequences – an angry argument, a regrettable sexual encounter, passing out in front of the kids – many of which aren’t unfamiliar to me.

I often think when I read these confessional posts, at what stage should we start to blame ourselves? Is it correct to feel shame over something we’ve done when absolutely out of it? With what or whom does the blame lie, when we have acted inappropriately or embarrassingly because of the amount of alcohol in our bodies?

Here’s the truth: if a person who cannot moderate comes to recognise the fact that if he or she has A drink it will inevitably lead to LOTS of drinks, then things become a whole lot easier. When that time arises, happy days – it becomes less of a struggle to stay away from booze, knowing that the stuff is likely to bring about the eruption of a sequence of disastrous events (as Robert Downey Junior once said, “I don’t drink these days. I am allergic to alcohol and narcotics. I break out in handcuffs”). The problem comes about before this epiphany occurs, when a little voice is perpetually whispering, ‘one won’t hurt’ and ‘everyone has a few too many at some point or another’.

A desire to drink in moderation is simply not enough for some people to actually be able to drink in moderation. And for those people, once the first drink goes down, all self-control is lost. At that stage, a person is stripped of the ability to exercise caution or good sense in whatever it is they are doing. It becomes a lottery situation, a Russian roulette of life – how bad things end up is just a matter of potluck. This is how it always was with me, never knowing where the drink would take me, almost crossing my fingers at the beginning of a night out as I prayed things wouldn’t descend too low.

Until you genuinely recognise that you don’t have an off-switch (and you’re not alone if you don’t – see this recent article in The Independent, which reveals one in ten people in the UK are unable to stop drinking alcohol once they have started) and subsequently make the decision to become teetotal, then try to exercise some self-compassion the morning after. We should not be speaking of feeling ‘shame’ when we have attempted to impose restrictions regarding our alcohol intake, restrictions that failed to work. We should be talking about alcohol dependency, and understanding that when you’re in the thick of a problematic relationship with booze, it isn’t as black and white as just saying, ‘OK, that’s me done. No more drinking’. Sometimes (usually) it takes a long time to establish a concrete acceptance of an inability to control intake.

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A good starting point for reaching this point of acceptance is to talk to others who have also experienced difficulties when drinking. Whether this is at a real-life meeting or with an online group such as Soberistas.com, airing your thoughts and feelings about your drinking habits is a really helpful thing to do for contextualising, understanding and, finally, for beginning to resolve an alcohol dependency.

Why I Won’t Be Drinking A Pint To Celebrate National Beer Day

Today in the UK it is National Beer Day. This is not an age-old, traditional celebration as you may well have been imagining, but a brand-new invention of which 2015 signifies the inaugural year. I first became aware of National Beer Day as a result of an ironic turn of events involving the lovely people of IOGT International, an email, and a pub in London’s King’s Cross known as The Parcel Yard. Here’s what happened.

Last Thursday I visited London to meet Maik and Kristina (see below – I’m the short one in the middle) of IOGT International (Swedish based temperance movement). I booked us a table in the Parcel Yard and we ate a very nice lunch, drank sparkling water, discussed alcohol policy and how good life is without alcohol, and generally had a productive and enjoyable couple of hours together.

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As a result of this lunch reservation (which I made online) I received an email this morning from the Parcel Yard, which informed me that today is the very first National Beer Day, and to help me celebrate I am entitled to a free pint of Oliver’s Island (never heard of it!) at the pub. Here’s what the email said:

“Hi Lucy

Ale is important. Really important. So important in fact, the British pint was defined for the first time in the Magna Carta on this day 800 years ago! To celebrate this, we’re supporting #BeerDayBritain and want you to join us for a tasty pint of Oliver’s Island. Pay us a visit before the end of the week, show us the code below to get your free pint, and if you’re on Twitter, tweet a photo of you and your friends with your pint and the hashtag #CheersBDB.”

The Magna Carta, the landmark charter of liberties, celebrates its 800th anniversary today. The beer industry has clearly chosen to capitalize on this as a way of boosting sales. Community Pubs minister Marcus Jones got involved in the proceedings which aim to raise the profile of the British beer and pubs industry, and promised to take part in a nationwide toast at 12.15pm today, joining thousands of community pub patrons and beer lovers across the country. This is something campaigners wanted people to capture on social media – using the #CheersBDB hashtag – by posting photographs of themselves with a pint of British beer.

In linking beer with the Magna Carta, the beer industry has been rather clever. Intent on planting an association in the national psyche of beer and what it means to be British, they are hoping for a deep surge of national pride inextricably linked with that wonderful traditional pastime of ours, boozing. And no doubt they will be successful to a degree.

On the National Beer Day website, it states that, “Today beer and pubs are still central to the social health of the nation and in economic terms they contribute £22 billion annually to Britain’s GDP.” There is no mention of the cost of alcohol to UK society, which currently stands at approximately £21 billion per year. It doesn’t take a maths whizz to see that these two figures almost cancel each other out.

I recognise that not everyone who drinks alcohol has a problem with it. I know that for some, drinking can be a pleasurable social activity that does not bring about any real negative consequences. But I also know that as a country, the UK hardly needs any encouragement to drink more; that the number of people under the age of thirty who develop alcohol-related liver disease has doubled in the past twenty years; that liver disease is the only major disease against which we are not making meaningful progress; that the number of alcohol-related hospital admissions each year is 1.2 million; that alcohol costs £11 billion each year in criminal justice costs.

Alcohol is big business. The government continually refuses to either acknowledge or attempt to improve the situation by reassessing its alcohol policies (namely, introducing minimum unit pricing, placing tougher restrictions on alcohol advertising, and raising awareness of the strong links between excessive alcohol consumption and a vast array of diseases and conditions, of which liver disease is only one). David Cameron has made it eminently clear that profits come before public health.

National Beer Day (and other money-motivated alcohol-related events like it) is nothing more than a mercenary, calculated effort to flog even more of a product that causes vast amounts of harm.

Finding Happy

I would describe myself as a busy person: driven, proactive and slightly obsessive (especially in terms of tidiness). I don’t find it especially easy to relax (hence my erstwhile tendency to down a bottle or two of wine most evenings) and I’m not a great one for indulging in lie-ins, although this is largely due to the fact that I have a three-year-old who leaps out of bed with gusto at approximately 6am most days.

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However, this morning I found myself lying in bed enjoying the rare phenomenon that is a ‘lie-in’, minus the aforementioned toddler leaping on me and thrusting various soft toys in my direction whilst barking instructions like, ‘Put Boris’s dress on!’ and ‘Clopper needs this hairclip on his ear!’ and ‘Put Molly Dolly’s nappy back on!’ – instructions which I dutifully obey as I attempt to awake fully from a deep slumber. A lie-in is a lovely thing, particularly when it is also an infrequent thing. And lying there in my bed, drinking tea and listening to the world gradually coming to life outside, I began to think how important it is to listen to our bodies and minds and to act accordingly, to behave in a way that’s in tune with our physical and mental needs.

As people with busy lives and a ton of responsibility, how many of us successfully manage to demarcate ‘me time’ in order to create a small window of opportunity for recharging our batteries? I am guilty, even when I actually do have free time, of not using that space to relax but instead going for a run or squeezing in a bit of work, or catching up on texts and emails. But this morning as I returned to bed with a cup of tea, I could feel how exhausted I was, how tired my legs were, and I wholeheartedly relinquished any notions of doing anything, choosing instead to do nothing.

I am forty in October of this year and it’s taken me reaching this age to accept when I need to rest, and to get on with doing it, free from any guilt or worry over all the things I should be accomplishing instead. Looking after myself is a by-product of stopping drinking. It’s something I never achieved when I was poisoning myself with alcohol. Lie-ins were for recovering from hangovers and free time was for getting drunk. As a drinker, there was no such thing as relaxation time – just mental obliteration followed by periods of self-induced illness.

Happiness is a holistic concept. It is achieved when we take care of all the aspects of our lives, ensuring we maintain balance wherever possible. In a nutshell, my own happiness stems from an active lifestyle, but one that is countered with adequate rest and good sleep; eating nutritious food; employing gratitude for all the things I have in my life whilst simultaneously not dwelling on what I don’t have; interacting with good friends and family in positive and reciprocal relationships; regarding my alcohol-free stance as one of upmost importance and never wavering from it; doing a job that I love and which gives me huge amounts of satisfaction; learning, finally, to like myself.

I guess what this post is about is emphasising the need for balance – and through not drinking alcohol I find balance easier than ever to achieve. For me, this is the key to staying happy, well and sober.

Pep Talk For The Weekend – Reasons To Stay Sober

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The weekend is upon us. It’s when most of the people we know will be drinking alcohol, and it’s when the temptation to join them can become so strong it’s almost impossible to resist. This blog has been written as a pep talk for anyone teetering on the brink of caving in – print it out and stick it on your kitchen cupboard so that you can see it next time you’re considering stepping back onto the slippery slope that is booze…

  • You have the ability to grab life by the balls and start becoming the person you want to be. You have the power to enact change, but only if you do things differently. Every little action or thought that has always led you to drinking in the past needs to be arrested, reconfigured, altered and amended. If meeting your other half in the pub after work means you won’t be able to say no to alcohol, do something else. Go for a bike ride, a swim or to the cinema. Shake things up a bit – change what you do.
  • You’ll never be as young as you are today. OK, so you might have looked in the mirror recently and been pissed off at the wrinkles and tired-looking face peering back at you, but remind yourself that time is only going in one direction. Don’t focus on how old you are; concentrate on how young you are! On how many good years you could still have in front of you, on all the stuff you could enjoy from now on, free from the self-esteem battering effects of booze. Think about how fantastic it would feel to look back on all those happy years that didn’t feature heavy drinking and regrets and terrible hangovers. You could still have that. It could start today.
  • Alcohol is not really all you may think it is. It might bring about an instant sensation of relaxation and make you imagine that you are suddenly more attractive, witty and interesting, but in reality, booze is a bit crap. It makes you fat, prematurely ages you, ruins your teeth and turns the whites of your eyes yellow. It turns you into a repetitive bore. It costs shed loads of money. It gives you a cracking headache and stops you getting off your arse and hitting the gym. It’s a killer on your liver. It encourages you to take stupid risks. It makes you fall over. It makes your breath smell. It prevents you from being particularly productive or achieving your goals. It causes mood swings. It makes you sick. In brief, alcohol is rubbish.
  • The world is changing. People everywhere are waking up to the fact that heavy drinking is (surprise, surprise) bad for you. 21% of UK adults don’t drink alcohol at all, according to the Office for National Statistics’ Adult Drinking Habits in Great Britain report released back in February 2015. Don’t feel as though you stick out like a sore thumb for being teetotal – wear your non-drinking status like the badge of honour it is. Be a part of the group that’s in the know. Embrace your sobriety, because it’s much cooler to be in control, and looking and feeling confident and strong than stumbling about, wrecking your health and wasting your life. Celebrate the fact that you have escaped the booze trap!

Remember that for most of us who have struggled with an alcohol dependency, one drink will always inevitably lead to a second. And a third. And a fourth. There is no ‘just one’ for me, and probably not for you either if you are reading this. This weekend, make yourself a promise that you will start the rest of your life right now – because (contrary to what the booze industry would have you believe) the real way to treat yourself is by sidestepping alcohol completely.

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…