Get A Christmas Action Plan Together!

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I know it’s only November but I’ve already had several emails from people worrying about those dreaded festivities lying just around the corner. Time does have a terrible habit of running away with itself so I know it’ll feel like Christmas is upon us in just a matter of minutes.

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In anticipation of the worrying I know lots of people will be doing in the coming weeks, here’s my guide to making the festive season a lovely experience that will definitely NOT derail your alcohol-free intentions…

  1. If you convince yourself that alcohol doth make Christmas special and magical, I guarantee you’ll spend the whole of the holidays feeling like you’re missing out. Booze is not a good thing when you can’t moderate the amount you drink. It makes you argue with people, fall asleep on the settee drooling, make an arse of yourself at the work Xmas do, have the hangover from hell on Christmas morning (making present opening and cooking dinner truly horrendous experiences that you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy), and adds countless calories to your already wildly-exaggerated daily intake. So remember – you’re not missing out on anything by not drinking!
  2. Get organised with the whole festive shebang – and make the organising a thing to enjoy! I’m never one to pass up any opportunity to write lists and plan stuff so perhaps I’m slightly biased with this one, but hear me out. If you aren’t organised, things become super stressful, right? And when you’re stressed, you’re more likely to want a drink. So it makes sense to start shopping early, work out your budget, write Christmas card and pressie lists, and put together a theme for your decorations and tree. The earlier you start with this, the better you will feel. Plus, it has the added bonus of keeping you busy when otherwise you might be thinking about booze.
  3. Buy a nice outfit. Have your hair done. Get a new lipstick. Focus a bit of energy and thought into looking and feeling glamorous during the Crimbo period. You’ll feel amazing, get loads of compliments (thus boosting your self-esteem and confidence), and it’ll help get you into the celebration mood.
  4. Spend a couple of hours before the holidays start making and testing out some mocktails. Make sure you have all the ingredients in ready for Christmas, and enjoy drinking your special creation on the day. Nothing will make you feel flatter than drinking water with your Crimbo dinner.
  5. Be creative. When I drank, I never really did much creative but when I stopped, I found that I LOVED making things. Whether it’s baking or conjuring up some homemade Christmas decorations with the kids, being creative is a brilliant way of staying mindful and not letting your brain run away with anxieties and worrying about booze and how you’ll manage to stay sober.
  6. Look after yourself REALLY well. Get as much sleep as you can, eat as healthily as you can, get lots of exercise, meditate, and spend time alone rejuvenating and winding down. This could be in the bath with candles and some luxury smellies, going for a run or listening to music, wrapping up and going on a gorgeous country walk, or whatever else takes your fancy. Just make sure you take care of YOU this Christmas. Because when YOU are in tiptop condition, everything else becomes so much easier to manage. I’m also a fan of buying yourself a few presents alongside those you’re choosing for loved ones…
  7. Last one – remember what Christmas is. And what it is not. It’s a holiday, lovely downtime for spending quality time with family and friends (this is my definition because I’m not religious, but if you are a Christian then it’s all about celebrating that – either way, it ain’t about booze). In the run up to Christmas, focus your thinking, whenever you get a quiet moment, on what Christmas means to you – really zoom in on what you want it to be, for you and those around you. Give it a new meaning, whatever works best for you.

When you apply all of the above, it should be entirely possible to start making new, much happier festive memories! Wishing you a very happy time this Christmas. Lucy xx

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The Day Ahead Is Yours

Waking up before anyone else in the house, creeping downstairs in the dark and putting the kettle on, with nothing coming between you and the universe as it stands, free from all the hustle and bustle of our busy lives; the heating kicking into action, in a house that’s otherwise still and silent; no questions or demands to detract from the settled state of mind that emerges after a good night’s sleep.

I’ve always been a morning person. I am at my most productive before lunchtime, when everything around me begins to escalate into a series of necessary chores and duties, each one taking on a life of its own and demanding my full attention. But first thing, as the sun peeps up above the horizon and the early birds begin to chirrup and tweet, that’s my time: calm and serene.

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No calamities or disappointments have occurred as the sky begins to colour, becoming illuminated and alive after hours of darkness. No unexpected tasks have popped up to throw everything out of schedule. No unwanted thoughts and desires that turn our heads into a maelstrom of push and pull, an internal battle of wills that saps all our energy.

And most of all (and this is something that is very real and truly lovely, even after four and a half years of not drinking), the mornings are now fresh and clear instead of being muddied and sullied by the events of the previous night. The previous night, when things would take place that I did not want to take place, when I acted in a way that I would never normally do without alcohol in my system, when I poisoned my insides by drinking enough to pass out or throw up. When all of these things resulted in my first thoughts of the day amounting to how much I hated myself, and how much I hated my life.

These days, the sun comes up, slowly and majestically. And the weather is revealed, the wind or the rain, the leaves scurrying around on the ground and the clouds scudding overhead, racing against one another. Inside my mind it is peaceful. Inside my body I am in tune with the world, instead of fighting against it. The day ahead is mine. I own it. Yesterday hasn’t stained it, predetermined it, cast it in negativity before it even starts. This day is mine, to do with what I will.

Spiralling Out Of Control

This week has mostly been a foggy jumble of sinus-related illness, tissues too many to recall, and a fortieth birthday which somehow slid by barely noticed due to the aforementioned illness. BUT! Throughout it all I have stuck stoically to my commitment to staying sugar-free, and as a nice side effect I have lost two pounds.

Over the last seven days I have been increasingly more mindful of what I’ve been eating. It’s so easy to slip into overeating (especially junk food) and I confess to being the queen of chocolate frenzies; I have regularly scoffed entire giant bars of the stuff within a matter of minutes, barely registering what is going on until the empty wrapper lies before me and I’m filled with disgust at such a potent lack of self-control.

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However, during the past week I’ve noticed a gradual but obvious reduction of cravings for sugar, a very significant lack of interest in sugary foods, and a small sense of pride in starting to overcome my addiction. It’s nice to know that I’m not a complete slave to the white stuff.

Another positive is that I have finally reached a point in my life where I feel safely able to ‘watch my diet’ without launching into obsessive and dangerous eating patterns, as was the case in my younger years. I’m not denying myself crucial calories in a bid to lose vast amounts of weight; I’m addressing an addiction to sugar which, when consumed in excess, causes us problems both physically and mentally. I read on Soberistas.com all the time about an inability to control food intake and especially so in the early stages of becoming alcohol-free. This is a common problem, and one which many people beat themselves up about.

I was incapable, once-upon-a-time, of eating ‘sensibly’ without spiralling into a dangerous game of excessive control which resulted in losing way too much weight and becoming obsessed with food and how best to avoid it. I hated my body and used my restrictive calorie controlling as a means of exercising discipline in the rest of my life – where I clearly felt as though there was none.

This whole business of ‘getting better’ following a dependency upon alcohol is a very complex one. Personally speaking, my ‘issues’ manifested themselves in drug use, an eating disorder and heavy drinking, and I merely swapped between these three things (or engaged in all three simultaneously) for several years in an effort to channel my discontentment away from actually facing up to them. Anything but resolve my deep dislike of myself.

The thing that really began the ball rolling towards happiness and acceptance of who I am was stopping drinking. That act alone was enough to initiate a steady process of beginning to like myself. It provided the foundations for being able to deal with all of the negativity, and injected me with the inner strength to get to grips with everything that I was scared of facing for all those years.

Cutting out sugar may sound like a fairly insignificant lifestyle change. But for those of us who’ve found our demons emerging in so many guises including a warped relationship with food, being able to eat nutritionally well and to enjoy healthy eating in a normal manner without fearing food, is a massive achievement.

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.

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.

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.

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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.

Seeing Things From A Different Perspective

The streets are enveloped in a familiar cold, blue dawn. You’ve been here before: you belong here. Like a fox you’re welded to the periphery of human life, prowling, alone and set apart. You make your way towards home with your head hung low and the certain knowledge that you are bad. You are unworthy. You are different. Flawed. It’s a shameful secret, this drinking; this urge to seek mental obliteration. The faint hum of a milk float grows louder and the vehicle comes into view, a distinct reminder that, once again, you’ve opted out of regular living. What is this life that includes milk being dropped at the front door, and waking up feeling emboldened and a part of society? How come that life never materialised for you?

You opted out. You became this.

Twinges of shame are intertwined with defiance. You tell yourself that you like this way of being; who wants to be humdrum anyway? Who wants to wake up and march confidently into such a predictable existence, where milk bottles wait on the doorstep and strangers smile and chat amiably at the bus stop? That element of you that defies what is expected and challenges convention, that is your soul and it makes you who you are. You chose this way, you made it happen. This rotten, rebellious, outcast you, the one who can’t stop when she starts, the one who stays up all night drinking shot after shot of whatever’s on offer in a constant effort to satisfy the desire to numb: this is you. The one who so frequently disappoints because she refuses to tow the party line: this is you. The one who woke up lying next to a stranger: this is you.

Your chin stands proud, stubbornly guarding the truth, but your eyes reveal it – the self-loathing, the shame, the regret. It’s in your gait too, with your feet that aren’t lifted high enough from the pavement in each of your steps, and your defensive arms crossed over your chest. This walk of yours, it screams to anyone passing by that you are not approachable, you are not one of them. This walk says it all.

You imagine that things will never change, that everyday will be a day on the edge. How could things be different when the real problem lies in the very fabric of your soul? You were made this way. You belong here, in this cold, blue dawn. It’s who you are.

This was me. For many years, this was me. I never thought I’d change, I never imagined I could be happy and fulfilled. I couldn’t envisage finding a place in the world that was just for me, somewhere that felt like home and which didn’t include mind-altering substances. But I did. I found it when I stopped drinking. And that rotten core, that stench of awfulness resting at the centre of all that I was, gradually dissipated. It deserted me. It left behind a person who is not bad, and who doesn’t disappoint, and who is able to smile and chat amiably with strangers at bus stops.

I dropped the defiant posture with the folded arms that warned against approaching. I found a purpose. I began to like myself. I started to get milk delivered to my door.

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Seeing things from a different perspective

Busy Making Other Plans

John Lennon

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” John Lennon, you were so right. We human beings have a tendency to spend almost an entire lifetime with one foot in the past and the other in the future, and in doing so, the present moment continually whizzes by so quickly that it’s barely registered. Like a speeded up video of a motorway, where the taillights are streaming: long, meandering streaks of red. We never see the present until it becomes a memory, part of our past to be dissected and reflected upon. Sometimes regretted, other times remembered fondly, a mental image wrapped in the soft glow of rose-tinted nostalgia.

My eldest daughter and I arrived home a short time ago and, in my usual breakneck style, I grabbed the vacuum cleaner from the cellar head and motored it around the kitchen and living room with the dog chasing me, barking and attacking the machine. My daughter screamed and laughed, jumping onto the settee with her legs pulled up out of the way. I laughed, it was funny, this hectic domestic scene that is just how we live. Mad dogs and frantic cleaning carried out in and amongst the mountain of other daily tasks I try my best to plough through.

My daughter will be leaving home in a few short years. At sixteen and a half, I am eminently aware of the fact that she will soon be flying the nest, and these times – the silly times, with the barking dog and the vacuum cleaner that nearly clips her painted toenails as she leaps out of its path – they won’t last forever. It’s these times that are our lives; these are the bits that matter.

In the old days, with a bottle of wine inside me, I would drift off into a fantasy world, not present, no longer in the here and now. The morning after I would be consumed with that bad head and dry mouth and dragging sense of lethargy, and I would barely speak. I was unable to fully notice my life, or my daughter’s. Sinking in the quicksand of alcohol and an insidious dependency on it, it didn’t occur to me that I never, ever spent a moment in my present: perpetually fearful, anxious or regretful, or longing, planning, lusting after that next glass.

The second that just flashed by was the only one that mattered. Now it’s this one, and this one, and this one. They dissipate like a puff of smoke, and you have to train yourself in order to grab them, fleeting and precious, unique. I could never do that when I drank, I didn’t even have any awareness that I should be doing that. But yes, John Lennon, you were so right – life is what happens while we are busy making other plans, or worrying about what we did last night, or when we might be able to open that bottle that is sitting patiently in the fridge. It’s passing us by all the time, like a relentless steam train, and it’s not going to stop for anyone.

Trust Your Gut Instinct And Know That You Matter

When you don’t value yourself, you are incapable of living a fulfilled life. Nothing devalued me more than constantly drinking alcohol. It made me want to hide from the world; prevented me from seeing myself on a par with other people. Everyone was better than me – prettier, cleverer, cooler, more clued up about life. I felt like a little girl and a big part of me was desperate to be scooped up and looked after. Alcohol became a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy for me – the more of it that I drank the more I reinforced the idea that I was worthless, and the more worthless I felt, the more I drank. It was an incredibly dark and difficult place from which to escape.

I picked up some really bad habits during the twenty years that I drank heavily. I genuinely believed that I didn’t deserve good things and so I always aimed fairly low in terms of attaining happiness. This was reflected across the whole spectrum of my life, from work, to relationships, to how easy I found it to waste vast chunks of time, drunk.

Since I quit drinking a few years ago, my self-esteem has been steadily restored and things are so much better than they were. Everything has improved – I can’t stress that enough, my life has just done a 360-degree turn and altered completely. But, occasionally I catch myself falling back into those unhealthy behaviours that so defined me as a drinker. I know that I still have a leaning towards not valuing myself highly enough. If someone isn’t treating me how they should, I can dream up a ton of excuses for their actions. I can easily lose my grip on the person I’ve become, and the old Lucy, the one who took all kinds of shit from people, creeps up on me, catching me unawares.

This happened recently. I had to recalibrate, take that leap of faith – again – and let go of something that was damaging to me, even though so much of me wanted to hang on to it. There was only me who could do this (although friends and family have been trying to convince me of the same for a while) and I’m so pleased that I have the self-belief nowadays to do it. I have a strong gut instinct about things now that I don’t drink, and I trust it. It’s a reliable sixth sense – yes, I get blown off course once in a while, but now I have the capacity to reroute, as opposed to sliding perilously all the way to the bottom of the metaphorical slope – as happened in the old days, every time.

Me now - finally capable of making good decisions - with my youngest daughter.

Me now – finally capable of making good decisions – with my youngest daughter.

Instinct is such a vital component of human existence. We know that other animals have it but we so often overlook our own ability to recognise what is good or bad for us. Alcohol really messed with my intuition and that was such a dangerous side effect of drinking. It meant that I was propelled into making wrong choices time and time again, permanently devoid of the clarity to see what I was doing to myself. I perceive instinct now as a brilliant gift – one that drinking robbed me of.

If you are considering the benefits of quitting booze, consider this: too much alcohol disrupts the natural order of who we are as human beings. That has a knock-on effect on all areas of life. The terrible decisions we make as a result damage us further. Alcohol then becomes more appealing to erase the associated pain. And on and on the wheel turns…remove the booze and the rest takes care of itself.

Self-Esteem: A Restoration Project

It ate away at my insides like a worm, burrowing around my soul, destroying my belief in myself. It made me afraid to leave the house. It prevented me from looking people in the eye when I spoke to them. It stamped on my ability to move my life forward, to better myself, to grow, to change. It caused pain when I looked in the mirror. It propelled me into making bad decisions and put me in situations that made me hate myself more. It made me ache inside and cry and cut myself. It made me starve myself and put my fingers down my throat. It made me poison myself with toxic substances that blotted out my emotions. It made me believe that everyone else was better than me. It held off pride for my achievements, handing over the credit to forces external to me. It made me bitter. It made me cry myself to sleep. It made me want to die.

I had no idea how to restore my broken self-esteem. I was so shattered, so lost that I didn’t even acknowledge my life was the way it was because of low self-esteem. I believed everything was down to free will, that I was choosing my mistakes. I thought that I was in control of my path of self-destruction, actively making it all go wrong.

But somewhere, beneath all the darkness, was the voice of who I once was as a child. That person never wanted to hurt herself. She had courage and self-belief. She had dreams and she was damn well going to get out there and grab them, turning them into reality. When I stopped drinking, that little person was allowed to breathe again, and she came to the fore. Over time, she stopped allowing other people to hurt her. Pride came back, as did dignity. She started looking in the mirror again and liking what was reflected back. She acquired the strength to allow only positive influences into her world. The dead wood was cleared out. A fresh breeze blasted through the cobwebs of her life and she stopped being afraid of all that she was.

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The metamorphosis from a young girl with gumption to a shell of a teenager, who hated herself so much that she often went days without food, is one that happened gradually, like dusk creeping up and casting shadows one by one. Just as joy had been standard as a child, so bleakness and an emotional black hole became the way things were as an adult.

Saying goodbye to alcohol meant turning my back on all that was wrong with my world. The poison that I subjected my body and mind to every day for twenty years held such a grip on me that I had failed to realise how it controlled my every move.

Self-esteem does not get lost forever. You can grab hold of its threads and, if you hang on tightly enough to weave them back together, you will find that everything you thought had disappeared will return, tenfold. Your perspective changes when you start to like yourself. And as it does, so will your life.