Intention Not Habit

Human beings are conditioned, moulded to our own particular design keeping us trapped in repetitive behaviours. It’s easier to live by habit than intention, but when you do, you are ensuring that your life remains the same – fine if it’s all positive, but not so good if you’re unhappy.

I read this quote on Twitter a couple of days ago: “Live less out of habit and more out of focused intention” – Herman Siu. And it struck me that this is really so important, it amounts to an acutely mindful approach to living and when adhered to, this mantra allows us to continually grow and develop.

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Drinking too much and suffering all of the associated self-loathing and regrets was only one element of my life that was an outcome of habit as opposed to intention. My intentions were always, don’t drink too much; drink water in between alcoholic drinks; leave whatever social event you are at early; don’t text old boyfriends late at night when you are feeling maudlin and pissed…and so on. But I operated out of habit and so perpetually broke all of my own rules.

I occasionally catch myself now leaning towards old habits. Not booze-related but behaviours that I don’t like and no longer wish to demonstrate. They’re like kneejerk reactions to situations; I slide into them before I even know where I’m headed. Sometimes I don’t think things through fully before I act, I have this impetuous nature that I consistently need to reign in. I have a tendency to the negative, which I hate. I have to really talk to myself quite sternly and switch things around so I expect good things to happen instead of the worst-case scenario (I think this is a hangover from my drinking days when bad things did happen all the time because I was always doing stupid things drunk). I can be slightly anti-social and talk myself into spending too much time alone, which never has a good effect on me but somehow I convince myself it’s OK.

To do the opposite of all of these things requires Herculean strength on some days – massive mind-over-matter brain games, strict talking-tos inside my head, unnatural actions that are completely opposed to my automated responses. It all feels very weird and difficult. But, when you act out of intention rather than habit, you can chip away at ingrained behaviours and start to carve out new ones. And that’s how your life changes – wholesale.

Be Proud Of Being A Non-Drinker

Sobriety was once a dirty word to me. Boring do-gooders avoided alcohol. Cool people drank, and drank a lot.

This was probably the biggest challenge for me in terms of deciding to stop drinking. I could not conceive of losing my ‘edge’ and metamorphosing into a quiet dullard who couldn’t let her hair down. I know I’m not alone in thinking these thoughts, and I often read about other people’s experiences with friends and family who are sceptical at best, or scathing and down right rude at worst with regards to that person’s new non-boozy status.

What is it about alcohol that prompts people to share their opinion on whether or not we should be taking part in this national pastime? If I sat down at a dinner with people I wasn’t overly familiar with and announced that I was a vegetarian, I would more than likely receive a lesser inquisition than if I declared my AF lifestyle and opted for a mineral water amongst the truckload of wine at the table. But why do other people care so much about our drinking habits? Could it be that they don’t wish to draw attention to their own alcohol consumption? Generally, I’ve found that the people who have the least to say about me being a non-drinker are the ones who barely drink themselves, the ones who most definitely have not got any issues with alcohol.

Anyway, the point of the above observations is that society frequently has a tendency to be more accepting of heavy drinkers than those of us who opt for an AF life, and this can be a major obstacle in quitting. Peer pressure and the desire to fit in can contribute massively to ‘wobbles’ and, ultimately, to caving in and having a drink. In order to stay true to the path of sobriety, therefore, it is vital that we believe in the alcohol-free way. And I mean, really believe in it – to find it an aspirational way of life, fall in love with it, want it more than anything, and be proud to tell anyone who listens, “No thanks, I do not drink”.

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I did not feel this way about not drinking until at least eighteen months into my sobriety. I was ashamed of my problem, angry because I ‘wasn’t allowed to drink’, lonely and full of regret. But eventually, something clicked inside me and all the monumental benefits of being a non-drinker dawned on me. What the hell was I being so negative about? Where is the need to feel demeaned by a choice that will provide me (and my family and friends too) with a far happier and healthier life? Why be secretive about declining to consume an addictive substance that has consistently made you fat and act foolishly, which has caused you to hurt both yourself and those you love, which has damaged your mental and physical health and routinely put the brakes on all your hopes and dreams for future happiness?

When you think about it, becoming AF is a lifestyle choice that we should be shouting from the rooftops! These days I am supremely proud of being a non-drinker.

The Time Is Now

It’s funny how slowly, gradually, gently, we can slip and slide into a happier life, almost without noticing it happening. When things are not going well and everything seems like an uphill struggle, just existing occupies so much of your mental and physical energy; striving to cope, keeping your head above water, wondering why all this stuff always happens to you, and asking yourself, over and over again, when will I get a break?

It has been my experience that things have increasingly fallen into place the longer I live without alcohol. It’s not that nothing bad happens anymore; of course it does, but I am more resilient, wiser, less impetuous and calmer now that I don’t drink, and therefore I have the mental and emotional capacity to deal with challenges as they spring up from time to time.

The dangerous precipices, the cliff edges on which I used to totter and stumble and frequently fall right over, taking months to recover myself from, those don’t crop up anymore. There are the rocky, scree-covered slopes that are difficult to traverse; I lose my footing occasionally and my feet go from beneath me momentarily, but I can reclaim stability these days – I never fall too far.

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More noticeable is that my entire landscape has altered. It’s no longer a case of intermittent splashes of beauty and fullness scattered sparingly against a barren background of an arid, harsh wilderness. The good is now rich and far-reaching, and it colours my life with a regularity and predictability that I could never have imagined anyone witnessed.

When you feel happy and content, you tend to attract positivity into your world. Happiness breeds happiness. Positive people attract positive people. Life becomes a happy, virtuous circle.

I don’t write this blog wishing to sound smug, because I’m not. I am very grateful and acutely aware of how good life is. You will know from reading my previous posts that my life wasn’t always this way, and I know how easy it is to slip and slide in the opposite direction, away from the good and back towards those cliff edges once more. But I engage in certain things that I know increase my chances of staying over here, where things are coloured in goodness and cast in a clear, bright light: I don’t drink. I exercise a lot. I eat well. I surround myself with lovely people who love me for who I am and who I love for being them. I spend time doing the things that lift my spirits and help me cope with stresses and the odd anxiety. I look after myself. I don’t do things that make me feel bad. I stay away from people who make me feel bad. I listen to music that soothes me and elevates me, and that transports me off to a different place for a while. I lose myself in good books and immerse myself in art and culture to broaden my horizons and challenge my perspective on the world. I focus on what I have, as opposed to what I don’t.

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Earlier on today, I found myself driving home from the supermarket, car boot full of chocolate goodies and Easter eggs, looking forward to the next few days during which I will be with my family and relaxing, building happy memories and valuing one another without the terribly wasteful and pointless addition of alcohol tainting our time together. And I felt very content, and suddenly conscious of how things have seemingly all come together and fallen into place. At long last, I can say that I have a life I am really happy to be living.

And that gift is within everyone’s reach – but sometimes you need to navigate your way across the rocky patches before you get there.

I’m Running The Sheffield Half-Marathon Tomorrow!

Sixteen years ago I ran the Sheffield half-marathon. I was twenty-five years old, fairly new to running and still a bit of a boozer. I ran the race in two hours and twelve minutes, which I was pretty pleased with considering that only a year before I couldn’t even run a mile.

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Tomorrow, I am running the same race for a second time. I’m now forty-one years old but haven’t touched alcohol for six years and feel the fittest I’ve ever felt. Despite this, I was a bit worried that I might not stick at the training so I set up a Just Giving page to raise money for the Pink Ribbon Foundation, and I am so pleased that I did. Loads of people have sponsored me and their support has really pushed me when I’ve felt like giving up.

There are similarities in training for a race and quitting drinking, the most obvious to me is that by making yourself accountable you improve your chances massively at success. There’s also the fact that you’ve set yourself a challenge and, if you are anything like me, it’s way too disappointing to sack it off midway and just give up. Wasting all that effort, going through the initial pain for nothing, feeling such disappointment in yourself for not making it to the finishing line…all of those things act as motivating forces when times are tough and you’re tempted to throw the towel in.

Setting yourself a challenge like becoming alcohol-free or running a long way is also an effective means of proving to yourself that you can do whatever you put your mind to. Who says you’ll never manage to get sober? Who says you’re not fit enough to run thirteen miles? You can do whatever you want to if you put your mind to it, and achieving those goals is all the reinforcement of this message you’ll ever need.

Today I’m relaxing and eating lots of carbs, drinking loads of water, and getting myself ready for a pretty tough run tomorrow. In the morning, I’ll be thinking of all you amazing Soberistas who have supported me by donating money to the Pink Ribbon Foundation and using those happy thoughts to help power my legs up those Sheffield hills! Big thanks to all of you, Lucy xx

PS. A supporter of mine and of Soberistas has also been doing his bit for another charity by writing some brilliant books with his 9-year-old son – all proceeds of which go to the National Autistic Society. You can buy the books here.

News and Booze – Our Alcohol-Soaked Culture, And Six Years This Month Of Not Drinking…

My local post office closed down a few weeks ago and the service moved to the newsagents next door. The newsagents has a large sign in the window reading News & Booze and inside, the split of the two is approximately 90% Booze and 10% News.

When I was little, I loved going to the newsagents close to where I lived to spend my pocket money. I’d buy magazines and My Little Ponies, chocolate and stationery items. The shop was about a ten-minute walk from my house, and when my friends and I made the (what seemed like) long trek up there to purchase our weekend goodies, we all felt very grown up.

The News and Booze shop is very different to my childhood newsagents. As I stood in there the other day waiting to post a parcel, I gazed around at the three out of four walls filled with bottle after bottle of alcohol; vodka, wine and whiskey take precedence – I estimated there were at least fifteen different types of vodka on display. As I stood there, a man shuffled in with an empty carrier bag in his hand, embarrassment and shame inherent in his downward gaze. He asked the shopkeeper for a half-bottle of whiskey, and slid it quickly into his bag before paying and swiftly turning on his heel to head out of the door. It was about 11am. I guessed he had been waiting until a ‘reasonable’ time to go out and pick up his morning fix.

Today when I was in the same shop, a woman came in with her two young children. The smaller one, a little girl aged about two, repeatedly wandered to the bottles on the shelf, drawn by the colours on the labels and the shiny glass. She kept reaching out to touch them, entranced by the display that must have stretched up to the sky in her baby eyes. The mother repeatedly drew her back to her side as she tried to work through everything she had come into the shop to do. From behind the counter, the staff member joked to the toddler, “Don’t look at those! You’re not old enough for all that yet”.

And I observed both of these things like an outsider. Alcohol is a strange beast to those of us who used to drink too much of it but now don’t allow it anywhere close. When I drank, I never saw the harm in booze, despite the fact that my life was an alcohol-induced car crash mess – my crap job, my crap relationships, my zero self-esteem, my crap outlook, my crap depression, my crap life. It was all down to drinking too much, too regularly.

But alcohol to me back then was my highly defended best friend – I never blamed it for anything.

Nowadays, when I see alcohol encroach on people’s lives in such negative ways; now, when I see the blanket denial that exists across the board in relation to alcohol and how it never does any harm when we all know it does; now, when I see an alcohol-addicted man shuffle into a post office at 11am on a Monday morning to buy a half-bottle of whiskey; now, when I see toddlers being drawn into jokes about a damaging addictive drug, as if it were no more harmful than lemonade; now, when I see all these things, I feel like an alien. I wonder how those blinkers can be drawn so tightly that people see nothing wrong with alcohol. And yet when I look, I see a poison that nearly killed me and destroyed all my chances at being me, for over twenty years.

We live in a society so awash with booze that it is entirely normal to nip into your local post office to send a parcel, only to be greeted with three-quarters of the wall space filled with vodka and wine. Alcohol is ingrained into the fabric of western society, so entrenched that it can be virtually impossible to imagine living in a world without its omnipresence. And this is, of course, one of the reasons why it can be so difficult to imagine not drinking alcohol – at all, ever again.

More than anything else, the thing that has helped me adjust to being a non-drinker in a world apparently in love with alcohol, is belonging to Soberistas; knowing there are others who share my view of the world makes me feel like I’m not the only one – I’m not fighting this fight alone. Knowing this helps me to see our alcohol-obsessed culture for what it is; the sad outcome of profits over public health, the emergence of alcohol over the last few decades as an incredibly lucrative industry set firmly against the backdrop of capitalist society and a modern world in which lots of people want to escape the daily grind – and are encouraged relentlessly to do so through excessive drinking by alcohol manufacturers.

I am, however, comforted by the knowledge that I’m not the only person to recognise this truth. And I am so very grateful, every day, that I saw the light and waved goodbye to alcohol forever six years ago this month.

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Climbing Over The Mountains

I was thinking recently about the shift in thinking that occurs when we stop wanting to drink, when we become completely satisfied with the idea of being alcohol-free on a permanent basis. When I quit drinking, I didn’t expect to turn into a happy Soberista. I imagined a life of teeth-gritting boredom, tedium as I observed the world around me downing alcoholic drinks with gusto, and the endless pursuit of attempting to fill the hole that booze had left behind.

I hid away from the world for a very long time when I put down the bottle. On the odd occasion when I did venture out socially, I felt like a freak, convinced everyone knew about my ‘little problem’. I didn’t conceive of this feeling ever disappearing, but instead resigned myself to growing accustomed to it and tolerating an existence defined by my teetotal stance.

As it turns out, my life has become somewhat characterised by my decision to not drink. But not for the reasons I thought it would: cravings, stigma, embarrassment and shame arising out of my ‘issue’ with alcohol. No, my life has become defined by sobriety because stopping drinking has been the most monumental decision I have ever taken – and the person I’ve become as a result of not drinking is the one that I should always have been. I feel like I’ve returned to my roots since quitting the booze.

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What began as a painfully awkward, steep learning curve of living free from the shackles of alcohol dependency has blossomed into a profound love of life that is a million times better, because drinking no longer features in it. From April 2011 onwards, every ‘first’ was a giant hurdle that needed clambering over – sober. Christmas, birthdays, stressful days, boring days, lonely days, busy days, disappointments, nights out; each one loomed like a dark and treacherous mountain, but conquering those events brought satisfaction and confidence and contentment. And a healthy does of self-belief too, which only furthered my ability to manage the next challenge that lay ahead.

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As time has gone on, I have forgotten what it felt like to want to escape my reality. I have lost the sensation of ‘needing’ a drink. I look at other people drinking and have absolutely no desire to join them in altering their minds. I am very happy to not drink.

If you are just starting out as a Soberista and currently every day without a drink, every minute of intense cravings for alcohol, feels like a mountain to be climbed, don’t despair. It passes. Honestly, it does. The only things that you need to embrace for the transformation to occur are a commitment to not having that first drink and patience.

The Person We Could Be

“Why can’t I drink like a ‘normal’ person?”

This is a question I’m sure many of the people on Soberistas have asked themselves at one time or another; I know I have. “Why can’t I go to that party and enjoy a few drinks like everyone else, and not end up embarrassing myself or collapsing in a corner or arguing loudly and drunkenly with people?”

“Why, oh why?”

This morning I read this article in The Guardian, an incredibly sad and moving piece written by a woman whose mother drank herself to death and who, during her lifetime, was a loving mum (albeit with unresolved issues).

These two states of being are not mutually exclusive. When I drank, I was also, for the vast majority of the time, a good mum. My older daughter (the little one was born after I stopped drinking for good) has always been the apple of my eye. She saved me from a life of complete self-destruction because if anything was to pull me back from the brink, it was her gorgeous little self, born in 1999, a long time before I understood my demons and started to get a handle on them. Without her in my life, I have often supposed I wouldn’t be here at all today.

The Guardian piece made me think that there are many people in the world who just shouldn’t drink. Because we are not able “to drink like normal people”, and when we do, we turn into monsters; we change from the inside out, we are not the people we were meant to me. Donald Trump, as a famous non-drinker, cited his reasoning for abstinence as recognition of the fact that he had the alcoholic tendency in his genes; he knew he would get into trouble with drink. Trump is not a man with whom I find myself agreeing with over much, but in this case I absolutely do.

During the last six years that I’ve spent sober, I have gradually come to accept that I too ‘get into trouble with drink’. It’s a place I don’t ever want to revisit. That woman, who is not me – with the drunken mask that overshadows my real, true self – is one I never want to encounter again.

What a great thing it is to have this realisation and be able to slam the brakes on before we reach the end of the road, before we get to that place where people will describe our demise as one being brought about by alcohol. We have the chance to stop now, and not become the person who drank themselves to death. We have the chance to make new memories and show people that we are not those individuals who are governed and defined and repeatedly ruined by drink.

That chance is today, it is right now. It is the acceptance that some of us do not mix well with alcohol. And there are a lot of us; it’s not a unique condition. I believe that if we can have more conversations about alcohol misuse and the fact that many people are simply unable to drink in moderation then we will begin to get help to the people who want and need it.

Often, all it takes is a simple reflection, the chance to see in someone else one’s own behaviour. From there, a person is able to say, “That’s me. That is my story”. And usually, this marks the very beginning of turning the corner.

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Sometimes It’s The Little Things…

After an extraordinarily stressful couple of days, I just went for a run. I passed a bench, erected by someone in remembrance of a loved one. The wording on the bench said the person’s name, and the years of their life (just 54 years) and then, “Stop. Feel the sun”.

I stopped, I felt what it is to be alive. I stared at the inscription. I breathed. I ran.

About a mile further on in the woods, I took a break from running to wait for my dog who had paused to sniff around in the bushes. After a while, she looked up and noticed how far ahead I was, and set off at a fair old pace to catch me up. The air was cold, my breath hung in it briefly when I exhaled. I bent over, putting my hands on my knees and waiting for my dog to catch me up, her tail wagging, tongue hanging out of her mouth.

And it was the most alive I’ve felt in a long time.

Sometimes it’s the little things…

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Happy You, Happy 2017

The thing that really used to drag me down at Christmas was the picture perfect, stereotypical image of what this time of year was all about. It was the beautiful house sitting in a snow-filled garden, sparkling with fairy lights, so inviting. It was the magical relationship, the big, warm family, the presents, the parties, the not feeling different and on the edge of what everyone else apparently had and took for granted. It was acceptance, and being loved – feeling loved and immersed in a busy, fulfilled life.

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And because for many Christmases I didn’t feel any of the above, I would drink myself stupid. From mid-December to January 1st all bets would be off as I anaesthetised myself from the tornado of emotional hurt that I could never stand to feel.

When I consider what has changed now, what it is in my life, or about me, that prevents me from seeking mental obliteration in order to just make it through the festive season, I think it’s this; I am simply OK with my lot. I don’t mind that I don’t fit that ideal we are sold by the tidal wave of consumerism all year round but especially during the run up to Christmas. I don’t mind that I might not have a family that slots neatly into the 2.4 children, husband and wife model. I don’t mind that a few years ago I drank rather a lot and had my share of problems. I don’t mind that my house is not a series of showrooms complete with matching dinner sets and stylish soft furnishings.

I am me. And that’s fine.

Letting go of the desire to be what other people might expect or want me to be has been a major part of allowing myself to finally be happy. That desire is what used to send me half mad and heading to the bottle for a reliable escape from the inevitable pressures. I remember on countless New Year’s Eves feeling inadequate because I wasn’t living the high life, attending incredible parties, looking perfect and able to control my alcohol consumption. And because I couldn’t achieve those self-imposed, ridiculous standards, I would drink. And drink. And drink. And then hate myself some more.

As New Year’s Eve looms large, I’m sure there are people everywhere crucifying themselves for not ‘having it all’. And to those people, I would say this; you do have it all. You have your life, and a whole new year ahead of you with no mistakes yet in it; a blank slate ripe for the taking, a fresh sheet of paper on which to create the life you want, one that fits you and not the rest of the world.

If you want to stay at home on December 31st because you don’t really like parties and socialising in large groups, that’s fine – stay in, watch a film, have a bath, have an early night. If you are feeling sad for whatever reason and can’t face plastering a smile on your face, just be sad. Allow yourself to feel whatever it is you are feeling. If you’ve only recently stopped drinking and can’t bear the thought of watching everyone, everywhere, getting hammered on alcohol then avoid it all. Do something different, choose to indulge yourself in whatever it is that makes you happy. Buck the trend.

Because in the end, the thing that will make you like yourself the most, is giving yourself permission to be you; to stop chipping away at the essence of whom you are, striving to meet the expectations of others instead of just being; to accept that you have your quirks and perfect imperfections but to love these and know you’re special, exactly how you are.

Christmas and New Year’s Eve can be unforgiving times, but reclaiming yourself, accepting who you are, can amount to the best present you’ll ever receive – living life in a way that’s absolutely true to the person you are inside. Focus on that, and see if 2017 turns out to be YOUR year. I bet it does.

Happy New Year, Lucy xx

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Life’s What You Make It

Most things in life come down to a choice: the choice to focus on the positive or the negative; the choice to go after something you really want or to sit back and let someone else have a go; the choice to try out new experiences or to remain in your comfort zone; the choice to stay in a damaging place or to get out and start afresh.

It’s also possible to choose to see life as a series of choices, not a hand of cards that you are powerless to change. And if you do, there is nothing sitting beyond your reach. This may sound simplistic but I truly believe that it’s the only mind-set to have for living a fulfilling life.

Back in the dark days (when I drank most evenings and hated myself), I had no idea that life could be based on choices. Even down to the most basic of choices – deciding which thoughts I paid attention to and which I let go of – I was under the impression that I was a sitting duck: that whatever terrible episode may land on my doorstep, whichever bit of bad luck might descend upon my world, or however lonely and unloved I felt, I had no control over any of it whatsoever. It felt as though it was all just ‘my lot’.

There are many snippets of wisdom that we pick up during our time on earth but I think that grasping the idea of having choices and living life accordingly can make one of the biggest differences in how happy we are.

I decided that for me to be content and fulfilled, it was necessary for me to not drink alcohol. This was a choice. I could have followed the school of thought that says addiction can’t be beaten, that I am powerless over alcohol, that I had no choice. But I believed in the notion of choice, and I made that choice and stuck to it.

Yesterday I found myself suddenly overcome by negativity. Everything was wrong; I started to flounder in a pit of despair. But then I went for a walk in the nearby woods that are brimming with bright, autumnal colours and I took a few photos of the trees, noticed the beautiful blue sky, and breathed in the cold, fresh air, felt alive, watched my dog trotting amongst the fallen leaves and became aware of how even this mood that had engulfed me moments earlier was, in fact, a choice.

I started to think about all the things in my life that I am grateful for, all the beauty of the earth, the simple pleasures that make it all worthwhile. I stood in front of a tree for a while and observed the way in which the leaves, now littering the ground at the foot of the trunk, appeared as a reflection of the canopy above. It occurred to me that this could all be perceived as the dismal end of summer, a tree moving into a state of hibernation for the winter, or a stunning image of vibrancy, a captivating celebration of change; the beginning of a miraculous new season. I stared at the tree for a long time, and it became a symbol to me of how life is whatever we want to perceive it as.

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Earlier in the week, I had thrown a small Halloween party for my four-year-old and a few of her little friends. The carpet was covered in crisps, toys were strewn all over the lounge, and the kitchen looked like a bomb site. After everyone had left and I’d scrubbed my daughter’s face clean, wiping away every last trace of the ghoulish make-up she’d been wearing, my older daughter shouted down the stairs to me; “Can you help me with that English coursework now please?”

I had a choice in how I perceived all of this; to see the stress, the mess, the chaos, and to focus on my tiredness and how all I wanted to do was go and lie down on my bed. Or I could have chosen to see it as the lovely, hectic, full-on express train journey that is life, with all its demands and busyness.

I took the decision to view it as the latter.