A Tale of Two People

Common sense told me a few years ago that I could not spend the rest of my life berating myself for the mistakes I made when I was drinking. What would be the point? I damaged much of my life through alcohol when I was pouring the stuff down my neck so I’m pretty determined that now that I no longer drink, I won’t allow it to infiltrate my existence any further. I experienced a huge amount of regret in the first year or so of being alcohol-free: wishing I’d seen the light sooner; disbelieving of some of my more reckless behaviour especially when my daughter was present; the numerous dangerous situations I put myself in, that now, looking back, resemble a latent desire for suicide.

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I can’t quite fathom how I emerged completely unscathed from my drinking years, truth be told. I was that rock bottom boozer – over and over again, and much of the stuff that happened to me during those twenty years sends chills up my spine when I recall it. It truly is a miracle that I managed to emerge in one piece, with only shame and a lot of regret to show for my manic drinking behaviour.

One of the things that worked its way into my consciousness in the build-up to 2011 when I stopped drinking for good, was that I absolutely did not want to become a person whose life was defined by their addiction to alcohol. I was beginning to recognise that too much of my existence was tainted by booze; it was in my face, my eyes, my gait, my shame, my mind, my heart. Alcohol had insidiously wormed its way into all of me, and it wasn’t a massive leap of the imagination to work out that others saw that too: Lucy the wino, Lucy the alcoholic, Lucy the pisshead. What a sad defining quality to possess – to be known simply as a person who loves to get drunk and escape her reality.

The demons that drove me to that escapism have all but been silenced. I am aware that I have a proclivity to addictive behaviour, and a difficulty in relaxing, and many years of self-loathing behind me that takes effort to eradicate. Habits become entrenched and it does take a while to learn new routines, coping strategies and outlooks. But my emotional awareness has developed over the last four and a half years to the point that I can now observe the workings of my mind almost like an outsider thus resolving any recurring problems as they emerge.

So I meditate, and I run, and I practise mindfulness. I read a lot of books about these things too, to educate myself further because I know they work for me – these are the things that keep me here: calm, happy and sober.

And the person I was, back when I drank, she is me but she isn’t me. She’s like a shadow of me, a ‘starter’ me. She was the person I blindly fell into but who was thrown off course by alcohol, drugs, and a lack of awareness. I can see why I became that way. It suited my personality down to the ground, all the excitement and the seeking of mental escape, the risk-taking, the shocking, anti-authority behaviour. But now I can see equally how I have become this person – and this way of life suits me much better. The old me was a reaction to my core traits. This version of me is the revised one, a more mature me, a person who appreciates both her strengths and weaknesses and deals with them with wisdom and experience.

I view my life as a tale of two people, the drinking me, and this one: the real me. I have let go of the regrets, acknowledging them first and learning from them but ultimately allowing them to drift into another place, a place where they won’t impinge on my positive state of mind. Because living successfully after an alcohol dependency takes work, and self-compassion, and an understanding of what led you to self-destruction in the first place. Sinking in self-flagellation is a non-starter for achieving any of these things. And with forgiveness comes peace of mind, and that’s all I was ever searching for.

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Elastic Bands and Drinking Yourself Away.

You start off thinking, “I’m going to stop drinking”. And a big part of you doesn’t really believe that you will succeed. You imagine the nights out, socialising with a glass of something non-alcoholic in your hand, one eye on the clock and deep, deep boredom setting in. You consider the endless evenings of sanity, clarity and awareness, with nowhere to run in order to escape the churnings of your mind. And you wonder, seriously, can I do this? Will this ever become my ‘normal’?

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You imagine yourself stagnating, standing still, this life now so predictable. This is the point where things grind to a halt and you bid the old you a fond farewell. Into the abyss you go, stepping into a life that isn’t really yours. And you dread becoming a lesser version of you, a shadow of your former self.

In reality this is not how it is. What happens during the trajectory of a bad relationship with alcohol is something akin to an elastic band stretching one way, and then snapping back again. I see myself as being genuine and true up until my mid-teens when the drinking and drugs crept in. Then, very slowly, I changed and became something I wasn’t – lots of things I wasn’t, in actual fact: loud, flirty, irresponsible, thoughtless, selfish, prone to kneejerk reactions, insecure, lacking in self-confidence, attention seeking, depressed, pessimistic, occasionally suicidal. The elastic band kept on stretching out, pulling me further and further away from who I really was. It reached its maximum length, and that was it…that was the stage at which I could go no further.

The band started to retreat, gradually erasing all the changes that had occurred to me as a person. As it approached its original shape, I recognised more and more about myself that I remembered as a child. The things I used to do, the stuff I liked that brought me pleasure – wildlife, music, cooking and writing – all took their place in my life again. The ‘me’ who I had become at full capacity of the elastic band began to diminish, growing ever more distant and insignificant, a person who I no longer regarded as the true me whatsoever.

Alcohol takes such a central role in the lives of those people who depend on it to escape their realities that when it’s gone, the vacuum it leaves behind can be immense. But we shouldn’t consider letting alcohol go as marking the beginning of turning into somebody new, lesser, an altered state. It’s just the start of the journey home, back to whom we once were before we entered a warped world of negativity and discontent.

Addiction Geographical

I’ve been aware of the concept of an Addiction Geographical for several years, the act of moving location in an attempt to try and erase a history of substance abuse. When I first became a single parent and embarked unknowingly into the ‘dark days’ of 2003-2011, I began to dream of moving to Cornwall, France, Spain, Italy, New York City.

I hated where I lived, an old industrial part of Sheffield comprising of rows and rows of terraced houses, back-to-back with shared gardens, no privacy, no open spaces and no big skies. Living there, I found it easy to remain glued to my drinking habit. That place seemed to bring about in me a self-fulfilling prophecy of gloom, reflected in the dark brickwork and blackened alleyways that ran in-between the houses like rat runs. I often imagined myself with a house by the sea, gazing out onto the rolling ocean each morning and being imbued with the abundant salty air and sense of freedom that belongs to the coast.

I never did move away from Sheffield, largely because of my daughter whose dad lived here as well as all her friends. But I wished with my whole heart that I could have left, and I bemoaned my home city to anyone who would listen, unable to find any positives to it.

Winding forward several years and here I am, four and a half years alcohol-free, and fully recovered from my addiction issues of the past. Yesterday I looked out of my bedroom window and noted the vast green swathes of woodland (Sheffield is the only UK city with a National Park within its boundaries and it’s rumoured that there are four mature trees to every person living here), the peacefulness of where I now live and the easy access to the Peak District, and I thought what a beautiful city this is to live in. The desire to escape where I’ve lived all my life (minus a year in London aged twenty-one) has left me completely.

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This made me think: I wasn’t motivated by Sheffield being such an awful place when I was filled with that deep longing to relocate – I was motivated instead by wanting to vacate myself, my own skin, to become a new person, one whose past was not marred by all those mistakes and regrets and shameful episodes arising from alcohol misuse. I deluded myself into believing that I could achieve an instant recovery from my demons if only I moved to a new place where nobody knew me, where I could start again. It’s been hard at times, toughing it out here, being reminded of my drinking past on so many occasions (There’s the pub where I puked my guts up in the toilets, There’s the pavement where I collapsed drunk out of my mind, There’s the house where I pondered suicide and cried rivers). But I’m glad I stayed. It’s been character building. It’s made me stronger. It’s taught me to face up to my mistakes rather than running away. And it’s made me recognise that there is always good to be found in everything – you just need to feel good about yourself in order to discover it.

What Lies Beyond?

What lies beyond that obstacle, the one that prevents us from making real and lasting changes? The obstacle that takes residence in our hearts and in the pit of our stomachs, the one that governs our actions and holds us back in a place that, while familiar, is not necessarily where we want to be. The fear that stops us growing and moving forward in our lives can be almost tangible; I am aware of it festering in my whole being at times, and it can be an almighty challenge to ignore it, refuse to bow down to its demands and ultimately, to overcome it.

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I’ve been frightened of so many things throughout my life but my biggest fears have arisen when I’ve been contemplating quitting bad habits – alcohol and certain boyfriends, primarily. I have often been virtually paralysed by the dread of what lies beyond that which I know, the thing that may have been causing me so much pain, but the thing that I am familiar with. Better the devil you know. The comfort of not changing can be so enticing that we are frequently rendered incapable of taking a leap into the unknown and embarking upon a new way.

This is how I look at things now, largely aided by my successful mission in stopping drinking (I always say to myself, if you could do that, you can do anything!). I ask myself first, what will happen if you do not see this person/eat that bar of chocolate/any other behaviour that I am trying to not engage in? Will the world end? Will I crumble? Will anything around me change in any way at all? Will I be in danger? Will my children be badly affected? Will there be any catastrophic consequences as a result of me not doing this thing? The answer to all of these questions is, obviously, No. Nothing will happen. I will sit with an uncomfortable feeling for a few minutes, yes, but that’s it. The sky will not cave in. I will not spontaneously combust.

These emotions, the slightly edgy, raw feelings that come from just sitting with a craving, will reoccur, several times, maybe for a few months, intermittently springing up out of nowhere and making us feel unpleasant for a matter of minutes. But that’s it. That’s all that will happen.

In the midst of those unpleasant feelings, I now try to find the space to sit down in a quiet room, breathe deeply, focus on whatever the behaviour is that I am trying to stop, and to bring back a sense of calm and order to my headspace. Or I go for a run in the woods and listen to music. I have learnt not to allow the spiral of discontent and negativity to erupt within me and send me into a whirlwind of bad thinking. It never helps. It never did.

BiTN Meditation

Eventually, with a little bit of patience and time, bad habits and unhealthy behaviours can be relinquished to the past. Without hardly realising it, you can find yourself in the place that you were so frightened of initially, the place where the unhealthy relationship, the drinking, the overeating, no longer lives. And when you get there, you’ll wonder why on earth you were so terrified of making the shift.