What did I think I’d get from being sober?

When I drank:

During the years when booze was a constant in my life, I very rarely considered not consuming it. Yes, it was always at the root of all the disasters that kept on springing up, hitting me repeatedly, trying to drive the message home – “Coming back for more…? OK, here’s another drunken, messed up relationship with someone who does nothing for you; here’s an entire weekend spent lying in bed crying, not daring to face the world; take this massive blast of shame, can you believe you REALLY did that??” And yes, I was fully aware of all the health harms I was subjecting myself to, but really, I didn’t care all that much. I wasn’t in a place where I held myself in especially high esteem and so it was easy to keep on knocking back the wine. Plus, in the name of denial, I think I had a fairly strong hold on the notion that I was somehow not like everyone else, that my liver would be able to withstand the regular battering, and maybe, just maybe, I’d be able to outrun the immense self-abuse and live well into my eighties.

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When I first quit:

I stopped drinking because I was scared to death that if I picked up one more glass of the stuff, it could kill me. I wasn’t being melodramatic – as soon as I had managed to gain some clarity on the situation I found it utterly remarkable that I hadn’t lost my life in and amongst all of my boozing adventures. The nights I had walked home in the early hours – staggered would be more apt – in ill-boding areas of town and as vulnerable as they come, like a baby bird fallen from the nest; the many, many dramatic falls down staircases and steep driveways, on the ice and in the middle of roads; countless nights in seedy pubs with seedy people who were capable of dangerous things.

So when I first quit, it was with the hope that in doing so I would save my life. I didn’t expect a lot else, other than gritting my teeth, gazing lustfully towards drinkers who appeared so happy and carefree with their alcoholic beverages to hand, and I suppose a feeling of ‘doing the right thing’ – like I was being a good girl now that I was all grown-up and dealing with my little problem.

Beneath all of that, however, I was dreading this new life I’d committed myself to. It stretched out before me like an endless parched landscape of drabness. I expected at that point to be left wanting for the rest of my days.

Now, five years on:

I’m really quite shocked at all of the goodness that’s emerged from the single act of stopping drinking. I never imagined any of it, couldn’t have seen it coming. I frequently sit back to take stock and ask myself, “Really? Is this my life? When did it change so massively?” It’s as though aliens whipped me away one night, did a major overhaul with what I was and then dumped me back down, all new and fixed.

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The things that have happened are direct consequences of me no longer drinking – mostly they’ve arisen because I got my confidence and self-esteem back, which led me to making better choices. I found the nerve to say no sometimes, without being terrified that the person I was saying it to would hate me for it. I challenged myself with new experiences, things that resulted in me meeting new people and making friends, because instead of only ever wanting to drink, and drink and drink, I needed – and chose – to seek out more from life. I found the courage required to take risks, but calculated ones that didn’t wind up in disaster as they always had in the past. I began to believe that people might actually like me, and so I stopped being so defensive and paranoid, and I opened up to the world in return. I got to know who I am deep down and what I need in order to be happy, and then I had the self-belief to go out and get it.

I never foresaw any of this when I decided to stop drinking, because all I thought I was doing in making that choice was reducing the risk of dying before my time. It was a knee-jerk reaction, born entirely out of fear and one that I felt was going to be a hardship and something that would drag me down and make me miserable forever.

How wrong I was, how unbelievably naïve – and how grateful I am that I did it anyway.

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Making Connections – Sober

One of the reasons why alcohol can appeal to us is because it’s a social lubricant. It has the power to transform a shy, awkward wallflower into a wild, life-and-soul-of-the-party type – although for lots of people it unfortunately then has a habit of pushing things too far in that direction, drawing them into doing things they later regret. I used alcohol for social confidence, and over the years it became that I required more and more of it to get the same, initial hit. And when I consumed increasing amounts, I acted in an increasingly out-of-character manner of which I was deeply embarrassed and often ashamed the next morning.

But, a sense of connection is what so many of us are craving when we reach for a glass of something alcoholic at a social event, and it’s this crutch that can be so difficult to let go of when we decide we really would like to become alcohol-free. Is it possible then to achieve this connection when we are teetotal?

My answer to this question would be yes. Yes, you can obtain a sense of belonging, a feeling of unity with others, when you are stone cold sober – and the trick to doing so lies in self-confidence, patience and a solid belief in the knowledge that if you can’t control your alcohol consumption, people will far prefer you as you are naturally to when you are completely out of your mind.

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It can be easy to fall into the trap of believing that alcohol makes us wittier, sexier, more attractive and interesting, but in reality this is a fallacy created in our own drunken minds. To the sober onlooker, people who are inebriated are quite boring, and they look a bit of a mess. These days, I enjoy far more the company of those who don’t drink to excess, and if I am forced to spend time with people who are heavily under the influence then I’m desperate to escape their company as soon as possible! The truth is that people who are not drunk are way more interesting, sensitive and funnier – although you do need to ensure that you’re spending time with people who you actually like (it’s fairly common when you quit the booze to realise that many of those you’ve always socialised with as a drinker are, in reality people whom you don’t care for all that much at all when sober).

With time, patience and no more drinking, a person’s self-confidence can be restored remarkably quickly following sustained and heavy alcohol misuse. And with that confidence, and a more positive reaction from friends and family, it is soon the case that one enters into a virtuous circle: a good response to the non-drinking version of you reinforces your suspicion that you’re better off not drinking, and the longer you continue to be alcohol-free, the more of a positive response you receive from the people in your life.

What it boils down to is this: connectedness is all very well and good, but if YOU are the sort of person who becomes drunk each and every time you consume alcohol, you are not connecting with anyone; rather you are distancing yourself more and more from the people you love and who love you. If you are someone without a reliable off-switch (like me) then it is absolutely true that you will be loved far more and by many more people as an alcohol-free person. Try it and see for yourself.

Flat Days, Evil Gym Classes & Proper Happiness

We are schooled in the West to expect each day to bring us happiness and perfection, and when these ideals fail to materialise we often feel disheartened and annoyed with ourselves, as if we are a failure. There’s an easy assumption to jump to when you decide to quit drinking, which is this: the booze was behind all my mistakes, it was the drinking that brought on the depression and the anxiety, it was all down to alcohol. And now that the drink is gone, everything will fall nicely into place.

Except things rarely pan out like this, at least not all the time and on every single day. Yesterday, for instance, turned out to be something of a flat day for me. I awoke with the kind of paranoid fear that only parents will ever experience owing to the fact that my three-year-old had had a fall off the top of a slide at an adventure playground on Sunday afternoon. She was fine when I put her to bed (we’d given her the once over and everything was ok apart from a couple of big bruises) and yet I was convinced, when I woke up at about 6am, that she wasn’t fine at all and that some delayed reaction to the fall may have occurred during the night. I raced into her room and found her lying in her pink bed; eyes fluttering open, cute smile on her face and voicing an invitation for me to climb in beside her and Boris the Bear.

As the morning went on I felt tired and weary, owing to the fact that I’d had a restless night worrying about my daughter. By lunchtime, my eyes were stinging from the need to sleep and I couldn’t concentrate on much. This dragged my mood down into the doldrums and I subsequently cancelled my boot camp class at the gym, booked for 6.30pm.

Daughter Number One then arrived home from school to find me moaning on about being so tired that I couldn’t take her to the gym after all, and that I was going to have an early night instead and do absolutely nothing. She swiftly changed my mind (she was coming too, poor girl – pumping iron with a beefcake instructor barking loudly in your ear to move faster, lift heavier and stretch further is not many people’s idea of a fun evening) with a few short, sharp words, and I rebooked the arduous session.

My eldest daughter and I don’t get masses of time together these days as she has social engagements and work commitments that don’t involve her mum, and I have her energetic sister to keep entertained plus a heavy workload to manage. So it was very nice to spend some quality time together in this place of agonising physical hardship, sweating like pigs and groaning over the ridiculously heavy weights we were supposed to be lifting. We arrived home, exhausted but happy, and slumped in front of the television for a while before bed.

It wasn’t a day filled with hugely exciting things. It wasn’t a day during which momentous events took place, or even a day that presented anything new. It was a day in which I mostly felt very tired, slightly dissatisfied at times and even fed up at others.

But by the end of it, I felt blissfully happy, and I pondered why this was as I lay in the dark in my bed, aching like a bas***d from the boot camp session.

This is what I came up with: the love and deep satisfaction we derive from long term, committed relationships such as those we have with our children, partners and other family members (if we are lucky), bring us vast oceans of happiness and contentment. These relationships require effort but the pay-off is massive. Love is ultimately what we, as humans, are set up to prioritise over all other elements of our existence. It’s what leads us to procreate and continue the species. It’s what enables us to provide a secure and nurturing environment in which we can raise happy and healthy children. Love, demonstrated to those around us and to ourselves, is the prerequisite for our self-actualisation and to be truly fulfilled in life.

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There’s no magic recipe, a secret formula that will deliver a constant supply of laughs and smiles. It’s just that when we live a real existence, one that isn’t interrupted regularly by the shit that alcohol reliably brings with it, we can focus on exercising love. And when we do, we are rewarded by good, functional relationships with the people around us. Which makes us happy.

It’s not rocket science. It’s just love.