Where I Once Was…

My journey began two and a half years ago in the most scandalous place; a curtained-off corner of a hospital ward in Accident and Emergency. My clothes were drenched with congealed vomit, my memory was utterly ineffective in recalling how I had landed myself in that detestable, shameful bed.

The person who had taken me to the hospital was sitting on a plastic chair next to me. He had been driving past my house at 10:30pm the previous night. I was lying on the pavement, throwing up, unconscious, drunk out of my mind. He did what any responsible person would have done, so he informed me – he called an ambulance and then travelled in it with me to the hospital.

I can still feel the sense of shame now if I transport myself to that bed, concealed by the flimsy green curtain. A grown woman, a mother, so inebriated that she had been taken to hospital in an ambulance where she proceeded to lie unconscious for hours on end, before finally coming to and facing the truth; alcohol controlled me and I had to escape its grasp before it killed me.

And so my journey of sobriety began. Baby steps; avoid pubs, off licences, friends who drink (ok, all friends), stop smoking – the two things were always inextricably linked – and be kind to yourself. Pamper yourself with beauty products, have a manicure, read books, have restful nights, watch films, spend time being sober with your family.

And then the internal scrutiny, my behaviour and all of those demons. Twenty years’ worth of binge drinking to unravel takes time and patience. Weeks become months, moments of panic are slowly lost to the past, downing wine is replaced by other coping strategies; running, yoga, a warm bath, self-help books (lots of those). Begin to socialise again, but now it is different and more to do with the company than the drinking.

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The journey is on-going and will last for the remainder of my life, but I know I’ll never drink again. The differences are palpable – no anxiety, no panic attacks, no depression, no mood swings, more energy, creativity abounds, passion for everything – small (jogging in the park early in the morning, just me, the dog and a rising sun) and large (my wonderful family) – and love for other people, a sense of community.

My journey began in April 2011. Taking the first step on a path to happiness was initiated by taking that final step on a road through hell.

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7 Very Useful Everyday Expressions

I grew up hearing so many old expressions and commonly-spouted phrases that had been handed down through multiple generations, never really holding them in particularly high regard. As I have grown older, however, these snippets of wisdom have really begun to mean something to me. Just as is the case with the nursery rhymes we sing to our children to help them sleep or to keep them entertained, reassuringly familiar sayings have a comforting purposefulness about them, and should never be dismissed as merely phatic utterances.

Here are my 7 favourite everyday proverbs together with the reasons why I find them so helpful;

This too shall passI have lost count of the number of times this has been of comfort to me. In the darkest of hours, I have always reassured myself that absolutely everything eases with sufficient time – hanging onto that thought steered me out of some truly desperate moments.

There’s always someone worse off than youWhereby you should never reduce your own serious issues to nothing but trivialities, it is important to retain some perspective when one is up the proverbial creek minus a paddle. Personal difficulties can become magnified under the weighty pressure of whatever it is that has gone wrong, but when you remind yourself of what other people have to deal with, it really can help reduce the size of your problem.

An apple a day keeps the doctor awayBeing busy, pre-occupied or simply caught up in a carb-craving frenzy can occasionally make me forget to eat healthily. When I turn my back on the green stuff and opt instead for pizzas, cakes or biscuits, I notice a marked reduction in my energy levels and general sense of wellbeing, and a lack of desire to do any exercise. Conversely, when I eat well, I feel good.

A problem shared is a problem halvedSitting alone, mulling over a problem, the world can feel like a cold and unfeeling place. Those feelings vanish instantly the second we open up and talk over our troubles with a sympathetic and caring listener.

Every cloud has a silver liningThere has been a positive aspect to every single bad life event I have experienced, whether it was my divorce (taught me independence, forced me to grow up, eventually led me to where I am now), or failing to get a job that I had my heart set on (other opportunities opened up instead which turned out to be a much better fit for me, and which evolved into even greater and more exciting things than I could ever have imagined originally). Seek out the silver lining wherever possible; it will help you to appreciate EVERY part of your life.

As you make your bed, so you must lie upon itPersonal responsibility is so important for emotional development. We have to accept things are of our own making (when they are) in order to be able to learn from our mistakes and grow into better people. Blaming others results in bitterness and a narrow mind – it takes strength and dignity to accept responsibility when things go wrong.  

Carpe DiemAlways remember the brevity of life. You never know when your time will be up and it will be too late to do the things you always dreamt of. Make the moment count, never waste a day, and always try to be grateful for having the opportunity to live.

Live Life to the Full

It’s my birthday tomorrow. I’ll be 38. Creeping up on me over the last few years has been the dawning realisation that eventually (drum roll please), I am going to die.

I have always known this to be the case since I was a little girl, but back then it was the kind of acceptance where mentally you exclude yourself from the situation, i.e. no acceptance at all. We are born, we grow old, we die, but apart from that, I’ll be here forever – gross delusion, one might call it.

Sometime around the age of 30, that all changed. I became deeply aware of my own mortality, a cognition which provided, in part, the motivation I needed to stop drinking. Now, a couple of years of sobriety later, this acknowledgement of my own ultimate demise is never too far from my consciousness. I consider it often and occasionally feel fairly overwhelmed by the force it. The world will keep on spinning, the sun will continue to rise and set, people will go about their business and build things and have children and go on holiday and buy stuff and take out mortgages and attend school and visit the dentist and the hairdresser, and I won’t be here – ever again.

One thing I have realised as an ex-drinker is that regularly quaffing booze acts as something of a barrier to these thoughts. Especially when you drink on a daily basis, the addiction process operates sufficiently well in limiting how far one thinks – the major concern is to make it through to the next drink, thus reducing the scope of one’s thoughts, and once that next glass has been filled the mind-numbing process begins all over again. Mornings are adequately taken care of thanks to the low-level but all-too-noticeable hangovers, and onwards the little cycle proceeds. What an alcohol dependency initiates in us is a shrinking of the reaches of our minds.

And I often wonder, is this (at least in part) the reason why we, as human beings, have been attracted to mind-altering substances for so many thousands of years? Why so many of us seem utterly compelled to escape our reality, that reality being that we all, one day, will be no more?539

Other animals are in the dark with regards to their limited life span. They are not weighted down with the knowledge that their very existence will, one day, be of no relevance at all.

That is, for me, an epic and startlingly difficult concept to grasp.

Without excessive amounts of alcohol numbing and fogging and confusing my headspace, I am a far more profound thinker than I ever was before. And despite the lack of booze resulting in a greater awareness of my own mortality, I believe I am living a richer life, and am filled with a deeper level of gratitude, than would ever have been possible as a boozer.

When I hit the ripe old age of 38 tomorrow, these thoughts will be prevalent in my mind; I am alive and healthy, I have my freedom, I am surrounded by people I love, I understand myself, I know where I want to be and who I am striving to be, I am not constrained by any influences other than those I choose to be constrained by, I learn from my mistakes, I am making progress, I recognise my weaknesses and know how to work at improving on them.

On my birthday I will be intensely thankful for living – and the finite nature of that life makes it all the more valuable.

Tips for beating those pesky cravings!

It’s easy to know what is good for you, not so easy to act on that knowledge. When it’s YOUR head telling you to do something (‘Pour that wine, go on, you deserve it’ or ‘Just have a slice of cake – one tiny piece won’t hurt’), then ignoring it isn’t always what you WANT to do. Sometimes, at that moment in time, all you WANT to do is give into that voice, act on it, pour the wine or eat the cake. When a craving strikes, it feels like a bona fide part of YOU, shouting at you to do as you are told.

Learning how to recognise a craving as simply that, rather than a real need or want that is stemming from you (as opposed to your addiction), is the first step in powering through and sticking to your resolve. Here are a few tips to help you do exactly that;

  • A craving lasts 10 minutes – set a timer, grit your teeth and repeatedly tell yourself that this is a very short-lived ‘want’ and after a few minutes everything will return to normal. This isn’t going to last forever.
  • Each time you ignore a craving and refuse to give into it, your resolve strengthens. This means that next time it will be a little bit easier to rebuff that devil on your shoulder.
  • The initial week will be the hardest because the benefits are yet to be tangible – stay with it until you see the rewards of weight loss, brighter skin, more even mood or better quality sleep; witnessing the positive outcomes of sticking to your intentions will spur you on no end, and you’ll begin to see them after just a few days.
  • Learn to separate YOU from the voice of the craving – picture the owner of that persuasive voice as an evil witch, a little demon or a horrible monster who is intent on ruining your life. Imagine yourself sticking your fingers in your ears; block out the voice from your thoughts. Giving into it means letting that monster/witch/demon win, so toughen up and stick up for yourself by saying NO!
  • Keep a supply of healthy snacks close-by to make sure you don’t get hungry; whether you are aiming to banish the buns or beat the booze, this will help you. When you feel hungry you are much more likely to cave into temptation and reach for the chocolate or wine. Some good suggestions are dried fruit and nuts, toast with hummus or malt loaf.
  • DISTRACT yourself. Get busy with a task or activity, and you will keep your mind engaged in something other than thinking of whatever it is you are craving. Whether it is cleaning the bathroom, sorting out your tip of a wardrobe or rustling up some healthy soup, getting stuck into a distraction will make those ten minutes pass by all the quicker, and with much less agony.

Good luck, and stay happy and healthy this weekend! Lucy xx

Alcohol and its Effect on Mental Health

When sinking into the quicksand that is depression and low (or no) self-esteem, it is virtually impossible to recognise that a problem is afoot. Our barometer of wellness lies, after all, in our minds – when mental illness infiltrates our thought processes and directs our decision-making, how on earth are we to know that all is not well upstairs?

 My family, who love me and have always been there for me at the drop of a hat, despaired of me in the not-too-distant past. I can hardly blame them, for, under the strain of a divorce and the associated financial pressures, plus the struggles arising out of being a single parent, I cracked and broke into a thousand shattered pieces of my former self. I leapt from one bad situation to another, listening to the advice of no one, lurching impetuously as I desperately attempted to claw some happiness back from somewhere that always turned out to be the wrong place; an unsuitable relationship, a sudden house move or change of job, and always, always, the constant stream of wine running in the background.

 Whenever anyone close to me raised the issue of my state of mind, they would usually be met with a barrage of denial and a rage of angry retorts as I persistently sought to deflect the negative attention. Just as had been the case when I was a child being reprimanded for misbehaviour, I simply would not be told. I honestly had no idea that I was suffering from so many mental health issues, and firmly believed that it was just the way I was.

 As the alcohol misuse increased, so did the consequential mood swings, panic attacks and mental blackness. And amidst it all I didn’t realise, nor even consider, that perhaps, just maybe, it might be the booze that was behind my chronic unhappiness and up-and-down emotional state.

Of course it isn’t always the case that alcohol is the root cause of mental health issues – far from it. But where it does play a part, it can be so enormously powerful in its negative effects on a person’s mind. The effect it wields on the central nervous system sparking off jittery and fluctuating moods, the drunken actions it brings about, which are often far-reaching and frequently so out-of-character that they leave the drinker paralysed with shame and guilt the morning after, and the practical impact it leaves behind owing to the constant drain on finances, health and appearance, all combine to worsen the situation considerably. Excessive and regular alcohol consumption invites catastrophic mental health issues, and then conceals them from the drinker in a hazy fog of hangovers and drunkenness leaving the people around them to stand by helplessly as they witness their loved one’s downfall.

Only with sober hindsight does it become clear that the persona someone might once have regarded as being true is actually nothing like their real self at all, but a construct of too much booze and the regrettable actions, depression and low self-confidence that represent the cost of heavy drinking.

When that moment of clarity finally comes, the relief is indescribable.

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‘They’ll Drink Bucket Loads of the Stuff’

Claire Blank writes for Soberistas – an insight into the marketing strategies employed by the alcohol industry

In 2009 the Alcohol Education and Research Council (AERC) carried out an analysis of a number of the alcohol industry’s internal advertising and marketing documents. The documents had been obtained by the Commons Health Select Committee as part of its investigation into the conduct of the UK alcohol industry. The report which was subsequently published by the AERC was entitled ‘They’ll Drink Bucket Loads of the Stuff’ and was carried out by Professor Gerard Hastings of the University of Stirling and the Open University.

Before discussing the report in more detail, here’s what the Advertising Standard’s Agency’s code of practice says in relation to marketing alcohol. The code dictates that alcohol advertising must not;

a)      Link alcohol with seduction, sex or social success

b)      Link alcohol with irresponsible, anti-social, tough or daring behaviour

c)       Show alcohol being served irresponsibly

d)      Show people drinking and behaving in an adolescent or juvenile way, or reflecting the culture of people aged less than 18 years

As a university student in the 1990s, I grew up in an environment where the consumption of excessive amounts of alcohol was entirely normal. I regularly took part in the University of Sheffield’s annual Rag Week ‘Pyjama Jump’ which was ostensibly a charity event but was, in reality, an organised mass piss-up. During the November event, the sight of eighteen-year-old boys dressed in women’s underwear and throwing up in the streets was par for the course, as were risky sexual encounters in pub toilets, girls flashing their breasts, and a plethora of booze-induced injuries. The jolly japes were brought to a close in the academic year 1996-1997, on the advice of the police and with the safety of students in mind.

Why I never stopped to question this behaviour was largely down to the fact that it was presented to me as normal. A few years later, following the end of my degree and my first graduate position, the excessive boozing continued apace – albeit with an aura of respectability. Never outwardly drunk, but regularly imbibing far more than the recommended government guidelines, alcohol was by now a staple part of life for me and my friendship group.

It was only after the birth of my son in my mid-thirties that I began to question my consumption. Partly as a result of a growing interest in fitness and my health, I then took steps to dramatically reduce the amount of alcohol that I drank.

I, along with many other women of my generation, have come to drink heavily largely as a result of the normalization of alcohol within western society, and in particular owing to our being swayed by the frighteningly successful advertising campaigns of the alcohol industry giants.

Professor Hasting’s report (despite it being no great surprise that alcohol manufacturers are intent on maximising the saleability of their products) highlights some questionable practices indeed. Hastings’ analysis shows that in some cases, the aim is not to ensure that drinkers switch from one brand to another, but rather it is to encourage new consumers to jump aboard the booze train. Research conducted on behalf of WKD found that there was a need to appeal to the ‘up-and-coming generation’ through the development of new products.

In 1986 when I was aged thirteen, Taunton launched Diamond White cider and it quickly became the beverage of choice amongst my circle of underage drinking friends. Boasting an ABV of 8.2%, Diamond White comfortably took hold of a 30% market share, 60% of their customers being female. Several years later, my friends and I transferred our booze allegiances to ‘K’ cider, attractively presented in a matt black bottle with a striking red letter ‘K’ on the label. In an article dated June, 1993, The Independent newspaper described cider as being ‘backed by slick advertising campaigns and packaged in shapes and colours designed to attract the young. Bottled cider is being presented as a product to be seen quaffing in the pub.’

The alcohol marketers certainly worked their magic on me. By the age of eighteen, shy and somewhat lacking in confidence, I was a regular binge-drinker of cider, secure in the knowledge that this particular choice of beverage helped me to fit in, appear sophisticated and feel more outgoing.

Professor Hastings’ report makes it clear that the student demographic, and especially freshers, represents a key target audience for several alcohol brands. In the documents, WKD defined its typical consumer as ‘Aged 18-25, chavs and students’ while Carling proposed a greater focus on students as ‘a core recruitment audience.’ Lambrini in 2004/5 suggested a ‘launch in Fresher’s Week, to act as a hit on students.’ The language employed in many of the marketing documents referred to in the AERC report is clearly aimed at the youth market, with terminology such as ‘lads’, ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ being commonplace.

Professor Hastings’ analysis demonstrates that in many instances, not only do the alcohol marketers actively attempt to draw in the young, but once their attention has been caught, they are encouraged to drink to excess. Numerous references to ‘getting pissed’, ‘blasted’, and ‘getting messy’ are made throughout the documents, with one brand, Sidekick, referring to shots being used to ‘crank up the evening’, ‘accelerate the process of getting drunk’, and as being a useful method of reducing the volume of liquid required in becoming inebriated.

The strategizing utilised to persuade people to begin their drinking careers in earnest at a young age does not stop with the kind of tactics described above. The widespread sponsorship of events by alcohol companies is now a routinely-used marketing tool – think Diageo’s creation, ‘Arthur’s Day’ in Ireland, or Carling’s sponsorship of football and music events. As Hastings points out, ‘…producers and agencies regard sponsorship as a powerful strategy for building brand awareness and attracting new recruits to the product.’

For me, the most sinister example of the way in which the alcohol industry is trying to engage with and pull in a fresh, new audience lies in its use of new media. Whilst technically, outlets such as Facebook and Twitter are regulated by the Advertising Standards Agency, they are notoriously difficult to monitor. Hastings’ report highlights how both WKD and Smirnoff (et al) have latched on to new media as an effective way to reach the younger potential consumer. A quick scan through WKD’s current followers on Twitter reveals that many are below the age of eighteen. Take Daisy for instance, who refers to being in Year Ten (aged fourteen/fifteen), Shann who states that she is just thirteen, and Aaliyah, who is pictured dressed in her school uniform and professes her love of Disney and Nickelodeon.

Last week, a BBC Radio 5 Live investigation revealed a considerable increase in the number of children who were admitted to A&E units across the UK last year following excessive alcohol consumption – in total, 6,500 under-18s during the period 2012-3. Frighteningly, 293 children aged eleven or under attended A&E with alcohol-related conditions. Despite statistical evidence pointing towards a reduction in the numbers of children drinking now than several years ago, it would appear that the ones who are drinking are doing so in vaster quantities. And girls are engaging in such behaviour in greater numbers than their teenage male counterparts, a reversal of the past trend.

Children learn behaviour from a variety of different sources, but one thing is for certain – if we are witnessing a rise in the damaged health of the younger generations as a direct result of alcohol, the patterns of binge-drinking in the UK are not being curbed: rather, they are intensifying. Despite Professor Hastings’ report being four years old, perhaps now is a good time to take another look at his findings and put in place tougher restrictions that the alcohol industry must adhere to. Let’s stop pretending that excessive alcohol consumption is normal and OK – it isn’t.

Transformation

Earlier this morning, I received a follow-up phone call from someone who works at the alcohol advisory service I visited just after I quit drinking in April 2011. Hearing her voice ask me how I was evoked multiple emotions: a real mixture of sadness, delight and quite a bit of pride.

When I look back on the person I was in the late spring of 2011 I hardly recognise her as me. I recall the only occasion when I visited the alcohol advisory place, shuffling into the driveway with my head hung low, terrified that someone might recognise me. I remember the consultation with the support officer who met me with a friendly smile, sat me down on a chair opposite hers in a dark and dusty room and asked me to grade my feelings on a scale of one to ten for a variety of statements: I like myself. I have strong relationships with my family. I am happy. I sometimes think about suicide. (The suicide one was high, the self-esteem ones terribly low).

The walls were decorated with scruffy posters stuck on with Blu-tack and displaying phone numbers and other details of a variety of help centres for drug and alcohol problems. When she asked me what had led me to contacting them I burst into tears and couldn’t speak for several minutes.

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I never went back after that, despite agreeing to go along to one of the SMART recovery meetings offered at the centre on a regular basis. Whether my decision was based on stubbornness, a bit of denial or merely because I found it too upsetting being there, I couldn’t say – probably a mixture of all three. But I forged on with my decision to not drink alcohol regardless, and here I am now, a completely different person.

I told the person who called me today about the fact that I have set up Soberistas.com, and when she proceeded to quiz me on the scores I would award myself now for various aspects of my life and the state of my emotions, I gave her straight 10’s. It was a great feeling, like I had graduated from university with flying colours.

However, inside I am all too aware of how very differently things might have panned out for me, if it were not for a number of factors. So, to what do I owe my transformation from the alcohol-dependent person I was back in 2011, to the happy and full-of-life person I am today?

I’m very lucky to have a wonderful family and friends who have stuck by me despite everything. Knowing that such a safety net exists has always cushioned me in my darker moments, and perhaps without it, I may have crumbled and given into cravings. I am by nature an incredibly determined and obstinate person – I set out to beat alcohol and it would have taken a lot to sway me from this course once I had set the wheels in motion to fight it. The books I read offered me a completely new perspective on alcohol addiction, and they helped me to regain a sense of power in my situation.

Through visiting a cognitive behavioural therapist I learnt that I am not like a leaf blown around in the wind, ending up wherever fate may choose, but a woman with the intelligence, strength and ability to direct her own path in life.

But most of all, the thing that has helped me to reach where I am today, is Soberistas. Discovering that I’m not the only person (by a long chalk!) who has difficulty in moderating her alcohol consumption, and that some of the awful situations I regularly found myself in when I drank alcohol have happened to lots of other people too, and that the world holds an incredible number of people who are kind and tolerant and full of understanding, has made the last year an amazing journey for me. I really love the Soberistas community and I just wanted to share with you all that today’s phone call brought home for me;

When you quit drinking alcohol, you will change. Let go of the fear that you’ll struggle to be YOU once you have lost your prop – you won’t be the person you were as a drinker anymore, it’s true, but that’s a GOOD THING! Without alcohol messing up your emotions and relationships and perspective on life, you’ll be free to be the person you REALLY are, underneath all of the booze-induced rubbish. Imagine you are clearing a bramble bush to make way for beautiful flowers to push their way up, and allow the true YOU to emerge.

Good things happen to good people, just as soon as you give them a chance to.

The Soberistas Choice Campaign

I think you all know that I used to drink like a fish. I take full personal responsibility for this, as I also took responsibility for my choice to stop boozing and sort myself out!

However, I have become acutely aware since becoming a non-drinker just how much of an alcohol-obsessed society we all live in, and in particular how the supermarkets use persuasive marketing techniques coupled with heavy discounts in order to make it so very tempting for their customers to pop another bottle into their trollies.

In the run up to Christmas I expect this blatant promotion of booze to intensify (as is the case every year) and along with the increase in alcohol consumption during the festive period, we can also expect to see a rise in drink-driving incidents, domestic violence (approximately 50% of reported domestic violence cases are linked to alcohol) and hospital admissions for a plethora of booze-related illnesses and accidents.

I believe that supermarkets have a responsibility to create a store environment that encourages and promotes healthier choices, not just with regards to the food they sell but also when it comes to alcohol. Between 1992 and 2011 there was a 38% increase in the amount of alcohol drunk at home, and most people buy their booze along with their weekly grocery shopping.

Soberistas would like to see all the major supermarkets routinely display a prominent selection of attractively-packaged, sophisticated and grown-up alcohol-free beverages, in an effort to help us all make healthier choices. The power of marketing is huge, and, just has been the case with alcoholic drinks being sold in a way which makes them appear exciting and attractive (with none of the health concerns especially highlighted), if AF drinks were marketed in a more appealing manner perhaps a few more customers may choose them over the boozy option, at least some of the time.

Rather than shunting the AF selection alongside the kids’ cola and lemonade, the Soberistas Choice Campaign will require (from those shops who sign up) supermarkets to counterbalance their alcohol displays with at least one attractive and easy-to-see display of non-alcoholic drinks, specifically featuring the types of beverages that appeal to AF adults (and not their children). We aren’t talking fizzy pop and orange squash, but beautifully-bottled and tasty treats like Ginger and Lemongrass Cordial and Elderflower Presse.

Soberistas will begin its campaign soon and as a starting point, we would love to present our argument to the supermarkets together with a collection of supporting statements – from you! So if you agree with what we are trying to achieve and would like to help us reach our goal of all the major UK supermarkets signing up, please leave a comment below stating why you love the idea of the Soberistas Choice Campaign.

Thank you (we would also be very grateful if you would consider sharing this blog post through Facebook and Twitter in order to build momentum for our campaign).