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.

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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.