Take Good Care of Your Self Esteem

What happens to so many people in our society as they grow from children to adults and in the process gradually shed their self-belief and confidence? Between the ages of 13 and 35 I slipped into an alcohol dependency that became so deeply embedded in who I thought I was that the revelation of the real me who came to light after becoming teetotal came as a huge surprise.

As a child I was brimming with self-confidence, a little bit stubborn, a high achiever and natural leader. I threw myself gung-ho into whatever activity I was doing and thought I would reach nothing less than amazing and dizzy heights of success in whatever field I chose to venture into – post Oxbridge, of course.

Oh how reality bites – by age 14 I was drinking regularly, smoking, obsessed with boys, rather less obsessed with school work and venturing ever near to the brink of an eating disorder which fully took hold a few months later. Over the course of the next 5 years, my self-belief nosedived and by the time I was 20 I was living with an ex-con, drinking like a fish and struggling to get through my degree course. I hardly ate, smoked 20 a day and had no desire to do anything with my time other than get absolutely out of my head.

I don’t really have any definitive answers for the puzzle of how that happened. I came from a happy and secure family, I wasn’t bullied at school, there were no major traumas of which I bore deep mental scars. The only constants in the trajectory of my youth, twenties and early thirties were alcohol and cigarettes.

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As I spend my life now without the crutch of alcohol, or of any other addiction (excluding coffee and chocolate, but they constitute small-fry in comparison to previous vices) for that matter, it seems entirely probable that the somewhat skewed path that my life took prior to quitting alcohol 2 years ago was as a direct result of too much booze. I was permanently depressed as a consequence of all that wine, I neglected to eat properly owing to a huge lack of self-esteem and some misguided belief that if I was super thin I would be super happy, and not eating caused me to suffer terrible mood swings; I self-medicated these with more wine, and the alcohol was also responsible for many of the poor choices of partner that I made over the years – many of whom I would never have been within 10 yards of had I been sober.

I see my 14 year old daughter now caught like a rabbit in the headlights, choosing whether to believe in something good for herself, or throwing it all to one side and getting on with the business of self-contempt. It seems that, especially for women, developing a sense of low self-worth is perceived as interesting at best, romantic at worse. As a teenager I fell for it hook, line and sinker, filling my head with sexy notions of messed up women, the idea that falling into a state of vulnerability and despair would somehow enhance my attractiveness; a Betty Blue for Sheffield.

Today, as a strong, positive and determined woman of 37, I see nothing to shy away from in the idea of a woman being together and able to take care of herself and her family without the need for a crutch of any sort (apart from the chocolate and the coffee – see above).

It is now my mission to pass this ideal on to my wonderful, intelligent, capable and strong teenage daughter.

Believe in the Power of Fear

I am a big believer in doing what you are scared of. As I watch my 12-month-old crawl around the house with absolutely no sense of fear, it strikes me as obvious that this is how human beings grow and develop awareness of their surroundings – because she isn’t scared of attempting the monumental flight of stairs that rise up before her, or knows not to make the descent off the end of the bed head first, Lily gets on with things and learns valuable lessons, such as balance, concentration, focus and so on. If she was paralysed by fear she would never attempt anything new and would stagnate at the toddler stage of development forever.

As we mature, life delivers a series of (often harsh) lessons that alter the course of our behaviour. We experience something horrible, a memory is created and the next time something similar arises we are naturally cautious. This, together with an increasing sense of mortality, can bring us to a point where we fail to try anything new or remotely scary.

Over the last few years, the events that have frightened me the most are as follows; childbirth, skydiving, flying (particularly taking off and landing) and stopping drinking.

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I think you can see where I am going with this – every one of these situations ultimately brought me nothing but immense joy and satisfaction, together with a huge step forward in my personal development. I have only ever known true fear when facing what turned out to be the highlights of my life.

As both my pregnancies approached their natural conclusions I was overwhelmed with a morbid sense of terror regarding the perceived pain and potential medical complications. As the tiny Cessna aircraft climbed to the 10,000 feet drop point, I thought I would literally die with fright – I was utterly petrified and the only reason I actually managed to make the jump was because I was strapped to a man who was clearly going to ignore any protestations on my part about falling two miles to the ground in a matter of minutes.

The biggie for me was facing my fear of sobriety. For reasons which now appear ridiculous, I was scared to death about living my life free from the grip of addiction; terrified of living with clarity and self-awareness, unsure of whom I would be without the stupidity and boring behaviour brought about by my reckless binge drinking. I had a deep sense of foreboding that my life was on the brink of collapse, and that I was facing the rest of my days bored and ascetic, a shadow of my former self.

Fear is there to be faced and overcome. Nowadays whenever something frightens me and my stomach becomes filled with that familiar knot, I remind myself that only good things have ever been born from my fears. I dig deep for courage and just do it.

And with each episode of terror I conquer, my life only gets better.

Lifesaver

The sun comes up, the traffic begins to build as workers set out for the day, I put on my trainers and lead the dog out onto the pavement for our morning run. It’s just another day. There is a chill in the air but the icy breath of winter has been superseded by a more tolerable spring breeze. Buses roll past me, undertaking the static cars powerless to move faster in the morning rush hour jam. It’s just another day.

Back at the house I check my phone and notice the date, 26th April. It’s a friend’s birthday.

He’s much more than a friend actually. He’s my lifesaver.

Approximately 725 days ago the friend who’s birthday it is found me unconscious in the dark, alone and drunk and vomiting. He called an ambulance, rode in it with me, sat by my bedside for hours in the stark glare of the hospital ward, told me it was ok when I woke up, looked at me with sadness, held my hand, helped me discharge myself and took me home in a taxi. He put me to bed, made me a cup of tea, told me it would be ok, told me I would be ok, didn’t leave until I had stopped crying.

I never really thought I had been within touching distance of my own death until that morning. The weeks that followed were the darkest I’ve ever known. But eventually the sun came out again, and I moved forward.

The friend who saved my life gave me so much to be grateful for; the chance to live free of the shackles of alcohol, room to grow as a person, all the days I’ve spent since with my two children, fiancé and my family, a deep appreciation of everything I have in my life, my health and happiness, a real awareness of the fragility of life and with that, a passion for so much that the world has to offer, developing a realisation of the things that matter, and the things that don’t, my future hopes and dreams, becoming who I was meant to be, my life.

I sent him a text. It read ‘Happy birthday Lifesaver. Lots of love, always.’ And I meant it.

Learning To Like Blueberries

It’s easy to throw in the teetotal towel in the early days of alcohol-free living because it takes a while to adjust to a new way of being. Human beings are incredibly adaptable but we do need a bit of time to get used to a different pace of life. Binge drinking tends to bring with it a chaotic existence and despite the alcohol-induced dramas being destructive and upsetting and something most people are desperate to leave behind, ‘normal’ life can seem a little slow in comparison when you finally put down the bottle.

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This picture is of my 11-month-old, Lily Jean. She is just learning to eat finger foods and is not (how shall I put this?) approaching the new meal format with enthusiasm. It would be hasty and somewhat ridiculous of me to assume that on the basis of how she handled her fruit selection today (alternating between throwing it at the dog whilst giggling maniacally and staring at it as though I had scraped it off my shoe prior to serving it up) she will never enjoy eating finger foods.

However, after years of heavy drinking, it can feel as though we will never adjust to a new, sober and non-dramatic lifestyle and many of us decide to return to old (and problematic) habits before we have given ourselves a real chance to change.

If you have recently become a non-drinker, try to ride those tempting storms of alcohol cravings and remind yourself that you will eventually adapt to, and enjoy, life without alcohol. It might just take a while longer than you had initially hoped…

We’re Going To The Zoo

Yesterday I visited London Zoo with my two daughters, fiancé and his sister. We sauntered about in the sunshine, taking in the tigers, lions, penguins, monkeys and other animals before catching the tube back to my almost-sister-in-law’s house amongst tired marathon runners wrapped in aluminium foil.

I was reminded that having a day out is a fantastic way to remove yourself from the stresses that we all feel subjected to in our daily lives to some degree, the perfect way to avoid over-thinking a problem or flinging yourself between a multitude of household chores, weighted down with an inability to relax.

As a drinker, I could not relax unless I had a glass of wine in my hand (and the knowledge that a fairly substantial supply was present somewhere in my near vicinity). I would hurtle between jobs at a hundred miles an hour before finally, at a designated and preconceived time (usually 7 pm), plonking down on the settee with a large glass of vino that said obnoxiously to anyone else present, “Ok, this is my time – you can ask but my responses will be limited from this point onwards.”

As a non-drinker I have discovered other ways of relaxing which are far more effective than alcohol ever was. Nowadays when I switch off, I am still present and able to respond to people if they really need me, and most definitely remain in control of my faculties; this self-awareness means that I always listen to my body and act accordingly – drinking excessively always perked me up and ostensibly eradicated all notions of tiredness, making me believe that I was full of beans and that it would be a great idea to stay up until 3am on a school night watching mindless drivel on the TV or listening to my back catalogue of ‘songs from the good old days.’ In reality I was exhausted and the alcohol only served to make me more so.

Having a day out at the zoo not only helped me to unwind during the time I spent there, it has had a lasting effect on my state of mind as I am reminded of the importance of spending quality time with my family, having some fun and living in the present whenever possible.

We spent a while at the giraffe enclosure, observing those beautiful creatures eating the carrots offered to them by some other visitors to the zoo. Their lofty amble across the paddock as they wandered towards the food held out on offer to them was a lesson in insouciant deportment – it was difficult to imagine them ever feeling stressed out over anything.

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Conversely, human beings can be terrific stress bombs overwrought with anxieties and fears, largely over things that most likely will never happen and even if they do, will not be as terrible as previously imagined. It is a worthwhile day out that reminds us of the fact that yesterday has gone and tomorrow is not certain, and that therefore the only time we really have is today.

I like to think that giraffes work on this basis.

Turning the Other Cheek

The devil will, I believe, always be within spitting distance of my mind. I’ll have days when I ponder the notion that perhaps now, after all this time, I could have just one little drink. That sneaky voice, pervasive and persuasive, will once in a while pop up and proposition me with the questions of ‘did you really need to stop for good?’ and ‘how about you simply exercise some alcohol moderation?’ and ‘don’t you know that time heals all?’ I will still, occasionally, feel a tugging on my collar as the demon attempts to lure me back into his den of destruction.

Why can I now resist what I never could during all those drunken years of my past? My sober persistence stems from learning a lesson, accepting the truth and keeping myself firmly on a path that leads in the opposite direction. Being sober and true to myself doesn’t mean that I no longer hear the call – it simply means that now I understand the need to ignore it, and that over time I have gradually developed the tools to silence it.

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Not drinking alcohol for two years does not eradicate the inability to drink ‘sensibly.’ Avoiding booze for a sufficient length of time does not magically dissolve the desire to consume the whole bottle just as soon as you pop the cork and swallow your first mouthful.  But what time without alcohol does provide is enough self-awareness to allow you to recognise your weak spots, your triggers and your instincts.

Living alcohol-free allows you to develop the knowledge that your brain operates on two levels; this is commonly referred to as being ruled by your head or your heart, or having your angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other. Given enough time without alcohol sullying your ability to think clearly, it becomes second nature to spot which is the ‘bad brain’ talking and which is you.

A little like being a child and having a naughty friend who coerces you  into causing trouble with them, and a good, loyal friend who respects you and regards your feelings above their own, understanding which of your two brains to listen to means arriving at the realisation of what’s right for you, and what works best in your happy life.

So when you hear that little voice whispering sweet nothings in your ear and attempting to draw you back to where you ran so desperately from once upon a time, try and regard it as the bad friend – turn the other cheek and seek out what’s right. YOU will thank you for your strength in the morning.

Joie de Vivre

Some people can drink alcohol moderately and manage to maintain a happy, balanced life.

Some people cannot.

Alcohol can make you feel happy, sexy, confident and full of joie de vivre.

Alcohol can make you feel desperately unhappy, full of self-hatred, anxious and sick.

Drinking is a social event, a ‘thing’ that seems to be all around us.

Being teetotal can make you feel somewhat left out.

Nobody can make you stop drinking, so if you choose, you can continue to drink until you die.

Nobody can make you continue to drink, so if you choose, you never have to drink alcohol again.

Some people can take or leave alcohol.

Some people can’t seem to stop drinking once they begin.

Some people want to reach self-fulfilment.

Some people are happy to drift along as they are.

Alcohol is marketed in a way which can make it appear to be sophisticated and cool.

Alcohol is the root cause of thousands of deaths every year.

Alcohol can negatively skew your vision of your world.

You possess the ability to choose what works best for you in your life.

You are the master of your own destiny.

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Life Goes On

There was a time when I would never have believed I’d be sitting here writing about how I beat alcohol addiction in my mid-thirties. Wine was such an integral part of my life that imagining my existence without it there on the kitchen side, cork removed, silently breathing, the reassuring tinkling of liquid as it flowed into a large wine glass, hazy nights and regretful mornings never complete without the obligatory pounding head and collection of empties to clear up off the coffee table would have been akin to considering spending a day without air.

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I’m used to not drinking now. I know the feelings of sadness and hurt – I know when I’m angry and happy and bored and frustrated. I understand myself and have felt each and every emotion as it seeps through my entire being and just is – no anaesthetic and no disguises.

Occasionally I feel as though I might burst, the intensity of raw sentiment wells up and the knowledge that I can’t get rid of it, treat it with something, force it out of myself is overwhelming. It takes practice to learn how to deal with those moments.

Every once in a while there’s a blow to the heart that hurts so much it feels like a thousand little punches to the chest. If you resist a drink, the pain won’t instantly disappear – sobriety is not the giver of eternal happiness, silently moving in to mop up the tears and wrap you in comfort. Feeling your emotions without using alcohol to wash them away like driftwood lost to the tide means knowing highs and lows. The lows remind me of grieving elephants, engulfed by their sadness; the highs are paradise on earth, taking me by joyful surprise whenever one comes along.

Being sober means living through emotions, and finding the strength and dignity to cope with the rough and the smooth. It takes time to get it right but it is, in my opinion, well worth the fight. Once in a while I feel so much pain that it catches my breath and I think I might be choking on air. But it passes soon enough, logic and resilience return and I move on. And the next day brings a fresh start – which will forever be preferable to waking up to the legacy of the previous night’s alcohol frenzy.

‘Life goes on’ actually means something when you are sober; it’s a truism.

2 Years to Self-Respect

I stopped drinking two years ago – I don’t remember the actual day but it was April 2011. I have learn a lot in those 24 months about how the body and mind repair themselves after years of being subjected to alcohol, and seen how it is possible to leave behind a very negative persona, full of self-doubt, low confidence and insecurities, and replace her with someone who lives and breathes optimism, self-confidence and contentment.

One of the most difficult obstacles to overcome when attempting to adopt a sober lifestyle is that when first embarking on this new pathway, the newly teetotal person has very low feelings of self-worth, and the powerful and persuasive inner voice that screams out ‘you don’t deserve anything good in life anyway so why try and be happy’ is difficult to ignore.

When I first emerged from that nightmarish tunnel of relentless drinking and all the awful associations that go with it, I hated myself. I found it very hard to hold a conversation with someone and hold their eye contact. I did not believe in my abilities whatsoever, I felt as though I were inferior to everyone. I had no real ambitions because I could not conceive of ever achieving anything worthwhile; I would’ve struggled to come up with a list of 10 things I liked about me.

When you have such a low opinion of yourself, it is a constant battle to stay away from alcohol, because it is all too easy to fall into the trap of believing that you don’t deserve a better life than the one you are trying to escape from.

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Over time – and this is why I am writing this today, for anyone who is fighting the urge to give in to alcohol and all its temptations in the early days of sobriety – your belief in yourself grows. Gradually you begin to think of yourself as a decent human being who is worth more than simply accepting their lot as a muted, sloshed, semi-conscious, unhealthy, foolish, out-of-control, full of shame drunk and you do consider other possibilities. Alternative lifestyle choices begin to spring up around you and surprisingly at first, you take them.

After a sufficient amount of time has passed, it becomes an incongruous idea that you might pick up a glass of toxic liquid, and drink it with the full knowledge that it will transform you into a different person. Your heart will beat faster, your words will begin to slur, you will spout nonsense, you’ll lose your sense of who you are, you will embarrass yourself by saying or doing something silly, you’ll wake up feeling dehydrated and ill, you will berate yourself for how you acted, you’ll snap at your kids, your performance at work will be below par, you won’t like yourself, you will look awful.

And with time comes such self-awareness and a feeling of actually liking yourself, that presented with the chance of having an alcoholic drink, you genuinely come to think ‘Urrgh, why would I ever do that to myself?’

At least, that’s how it has turned out for me.

St. Elmo’s Fire

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the ties between drinking and low self-esteem, the inextricable link that connects excessive alcohol consumption (known to depress the central nervous system and cause serious chemical imbalances within the brain, resulting in depression and anxiety) and feelings of low self-worth and reduced confidence.

We live in a world that presents us with a multitude of false ideals and unrealistic goals, prizes that are laid just out of reach but always close enough to keep us desperately working to possess them.

The dangerously unrealistic media ideal of who each of us is, whether a teenager, a mum, a grandparent, a husband, a wife, a man or a woman, is plastered onto the adverts, films and TV programmes, magazines and newspapers which circulate our daily lives and infiltrate our comprehension of ‘normal’ at every turn. It can be an inordinately difficult task to reject such societal norms and rest comfortably in our own skin, safe in the knowledge that we do our best each day and are happy with our lot – modest though it may be.

For someone who has the added vulnerability of poor self-esteem, for those who spend their days struggling to feel up to scratch, unworthy of anybody else’s respect and simply unable to measure up to what they believe is expected of them, this unattainable illusion of perfection serves to grind them down, deeper and deeper into the mire of insignificance.

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Alcohol provides an obvious respite from such self-loathing – its immediate (albeit temporary) effect of false confidence and its canny function of ameliorating the day’s worries and concerns make it an easy remedy for the pain of feeling not good enough. Knowing that alcohol is so readily available adds to its perennial charm, it’s inviting and reassuring calling from the shop up the road all too easy to hear as the day draws to a close.

The trouble is, as I discovered to my detriment, alcohol very quickly undergoes a character transformation when you drink too much of it; from confidence-booster to kicking you whilst you are down, shoulder to cry on to slap around the face. The things you do when you’re under the influence, and the things that you don’t do when you are under the influence, very slowly build up and induce feelings of self-hatred. Too much alcohol makes lazy underachievers out of us, preventing us from pursuing anything worthwhile, as we are more often than not drunk or hungover. And the unattainable versions of whom we think we should be, the pictures in the magazines and the people on the big screen, they become further and further away from who we are, rendering us lost, drowning in a sticky mess of negativity and hopelessness.

And when self-confidence is then so reduced, it becomes increasingly difficult to hold onto any sense of what is real and what’s not; the line between truth and make-believe is blurred and without ever really noticing, we slide into a dangerous game of drawing unfavourable comparisons between who we think we are and what ‘everyone else’ is. Except they aren’t that, they aren’t what we think they are – they are just not suffering from chronically low self-esteem and terrible anxiety attacks. The short bursts of false confidence that arise after a drink provide confusing snapshots of who we think we are; the fun-loving party animal, the vivacious, flirtatious sex bomb, the deep and interesting conversationalist who holds everyone in raptures as she talks confidently about all sorts…where is she in the morning?

She is nowhere to be found – as real as a ghost, a puff of smoke escaping through an open window.

With a clear head and a healthy, balanced mind, the differences between alcohol-befuddlement and a normally functioning brain are sharp and vast – the world is suddenly viewed through a sparklingly clean window, rather than a tainted lens coloured by smears of dirt. Without alcohol, the world is still a place in which we can sometimes be made to feel slightly below par, but it is one in which we have a fighting chance of retaining our sense of self, of forging emotional wellbeing and personal growth. When we are no longer poisoning our minds, we allow ourselves to be who we are meant to be – we cease to fight against nature.