Going Back To My Roots

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.

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 dose 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.

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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.

Freedom

“Free at last, Free at last, Thank God almighty we are free at last.” Martin Luther King’s words changed the world, his ‘I Have A Dream’ speech being one of the most moving and inspirational orations of the twentieth century. Freedom was the end game of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s in America – freedom simultaneously being one of the most taken for granted rights, and one of the most precious, depending on whether you are lucky enough to enjoy it or not.

Freedom can arise in many guises; freedom from imprisonment, torture, pain and suffering, from acts of cruelty that are inflicted upon us by others. But it can also mean a release from our own actions, the gift of being able to live free from the restrictions of addictive and destructive behaviours. Wayne Dyer, self-help author and motivational speaker, once said, “Freedom means you are unobstructed in living your life as you choose. Anything less is a form of slavery”.

And isn’t that precisely what addiction is? A form of slavery that holds us back and restricts us, maintains its control over our every thought and action and response? We are not ourselves when we are operating under the cloud of addiction. We are not making free choices when those choices are governed by patterns of thought that rule our body and mind.

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When we spend our money on alcohol, we are not free. When we show ourselves up and act in a manner not true to the real us inside, we are not free. When we cannot look in the mirror because we despise the person we have become, we are not free. When we are unable to be the friend or parent or partner that we are capable of being, we are not free. When we destroy our liver and brain and heart through excessive alcohol consumption, we are not free. When we put ourselves in dangerous situations, walking home alone late at night, drunk and out of control, we are not free.

Conquering addiction means granting ourselves freedom. It means we are able to choose how we behave. It means we know exactly what or who will make us happy. It means we fulfill our potential as a friend, parent or partner. It means we possess peace of mind. It means we know ourselves inside and out. It means we no longer spend money on the things that damage us. It means we take care of our bodies and minds and give ourselves the best chance at a long and happy life. It means we have dignity and self-respect. It means nothing or nobody exercises control over the person we are, apart from ourselves. It means remembering the finer details of every day and every night. It means being free to like the person we are.

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Freedom is a precious gift, and being free from addiction is incredible. This state of existence, being released from the walls that once held you back and kept you lying facedown in the dirt, can feel like a rebirth. A fresh start. A chance to see life for what it is; amazing, in all of its complexities and its banalities.

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.

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.

A Precious Life

Most people won’t recall the first day of primary school. A sea of new faces, new rules, new routines and new information, all racing through the immature brain at a hundred miles an hour, little of it sticking with any permanence – at least not for the first few weeks. Most people won’t remember to whom they spoke on the first day at school; whether it was a child who was to grow into a friend or just one of many faceless classmates who would eventually drift off into the far reaches of the school experience. Perhaps there will be, for some, a glimmer of a memory of a tearful, wretched goodbye to a parent at the school gates, the very first real separation marking the beginning of a series of many.

Most children readily absorb school life; they relish the learning opportunities presented. That first day becomes the first week, and then a month, a year. Our infant education whizzes by and suddenly we are moving rapidly into the junior years and beyond. Friendships are cemented, the shared background of metamorphosis from child to teenager makes for deep bonds, the like of which are rarely repeated in later life. The innocence and freshness of youth sparks dreams of what might be waiting for us around the corner as adults, a place none of us know but most, in their teens, would claim to be familiar with. Clutching at a medley of half-formed views and childish interpretations of the world, we are united in youth by a lack of real life knowledge and, simultaneously, a belief that we are more than capable of going it alone.

I do remember the very first person I spoke to at primary school. Her name was Fiona and she was a one-off; a live wire, filled with intelligence and passion, topped off with an unruly mop of brown curls. We became best friends, and remained so throughout much of primary school. Once in secondary education we slowly disconnected, each of us becoming welded to new groups of friends but always retaining the close, unmistakeable childhood bond we had sealed on our very first day at school all those years earlier.

When she was aged seventeen, Fiona was murdered, very brutally. Her death has haunted me almost every day since I became aware of it, when I recognised her face on the front page of the local paper, a patchy look-alike created by a police artist. It was the week before Christmas, December 18th, in 1993.

Today I went for a run, up through the parks and close to the border of the Peak District. It is twenty-one years exactly since Fiona was killed – years that I have been lucky enough to live, and she has not. As I stopped to take in the view at the top of a hill, I took note of my health, my vitality, my age; that I have made it to thirty-nine, am fortunate enough to have two beautiful daughters, and have friends and family who I love. So many things that have shaped me over the last twenty-one years ran through my mind; the music I have listened to, nights out I’ve had, holidays I’ve enjoyed, sunrises I have witnessed, snow I have played in, seas I have swum in, books I have read, people I have met, films I have seen, laughter I have shared, love I have known, goals I have reached, tears I have cried.

And for a few moments, I categorically understood just how precious this one life is with which we are granted. How fast it goes, how easily it can be snatched away and how, once it has gone, it has done so forever. It’s so important that we make every day count, that we don’t wait until tomorrow before we make the changes that will get things moving in the direction we want. Too many people never have the chance to see their dreams realised – those of us who do should try our very best to make sure they happen.

I have always known that Fiona’s chance to shine was just waiting for her, if only she had made it just that bit further in her life. At eighteen I didn’t fully grasp the monstrosity that her death amounted to, the tragedy that losing someone at such a young age is. As I have grown older, I have felt it acutely, year on year. And the only sense I have come to make of it is that her death should serve as a reminder of what a gift life actually is.

Pause for Breath

We live in an amazing world. Think about it for a moment; in the midst of a massive black space home to many uninhabitable planets, stars and a boiling hot sun, we get to reside on Earth – a beautiful, green and blue sphere filled with amazing animals, interesting insects and us, human beings.

We jump out of bed each day, go through the same rituals and motions, drink coffee, pack the kids off to school, navigate our way through the busy streets to reach our places of work, engage in phatic conversation with colleagues, come home, eat and talk, and then collapse into bed. And how often, in all of that time, do we stop and look around and think ‘OH MY GOD! THIS IS ALL JUST TOTALLY CRAZY AND WONDERFUL’? Probably not very often because if we did, we wouldn’t get much done and everyone would think we’d gone slightly wacko.

But think about it now, for a minute, because it really is.

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We’re so immensely clever, we make things that are beyond incredible – we worked out how to fly out of our atmosphere and into space, and how to send satellites into orbit that take pictures of other planets so we can find out what’s out there. We found bones and old artefacts and put the clues together to work out how people lived thousands of years ago and how we got to be here at all. We’ve developed communication so extensively we can send a message to someone instantly on the other side of the world, engage with millions of people all at once, and watch films on a tiny screen we can hold in our hands.

We’re caring and thoughtful, and have built a society which incorporates all kinds of help and support for those in need. We conquer disease and illness, saving lives every day through unbelievably sophisticated medical techniques. We established how to take blood from one and give it to another to prevent them from dying.

We invented the wheel and bridges, aeroplanes and cars, so we can move about wherever we want to go. We are able to fly to the other side of our planet in less than a day, and travel the length of an entire continent in just a few hours.

We are creative and brilliant and have dreamt up stories and songs capable of completely changing a person’s mood and inspiring them to live differently. We’ve written millions of books, recorded breath-taking music and penned screenplays and scripts that have literally changed mankind. We are leaders and teachers and motivators and doctors and mechanics and builders and engineers and actors and scientists and academics.

We live in a place where the sun rises and sets with a multitude of colours, and where blue-green waters roll in and crash onto white sandy beaches. There are mountains capped with glistening snow that stretch up to the sky. We share our world with the simple wonder of a daffodil and the rarity and beauty of a tiger.

We have each other, our friends and family, the people we can laugh with and who cheer us up, who hold us when we feel alone or sad. Our children show us how to rediscover excitement in the seemingly mundane, and our parents pass on the insight and wisdom that age brings. We form groups who share the same interests, and bond with others over a mutual thought. We fall in love.

And mostly, we let all of this slip by every day while we grumble about our mobile phone being slow to connect to the internet, complain about the traffic jam we are sitting in or because we can’t find a particular ingredient in the supermarket. We fight with people over meaningless nonsense and forget to value ourselves and all that we have. We don’t stop to look around at our planet and history, and at everything we’ve accomplished together as a species.

When you put an end to destructive drinking patterns, life becomes more noticeable. The little things jump out at you, you are awestruck by things you never used to see. But if you don’t pause to take stock occasionally, your time on Earth will fly past you at a hundred miles an hour.

Stop for a minute today and soak up everything that we are. Our world is truly amazing.

When ordinary becomes magic

It’s perhaps something of a cliché to state that the best things in life are free, but it’s true; they really are. What makes certain everyday things suddenly wonderful is a magical combination of factors, impossible to recreate, elusive to the end.

It’s as though the world and everything in it secretly conspire to conjure up the perfect ingredients, quietly and behind closed doors, purely to afford us one instance of wonder in and amongst a melee of ordinariness.

Yesterday was mostly spent in bed, the wind and rain noisily raging against the windows as I snuggled under the duvet with tissues, Lemsip and a pile of books and magazines. Maybe this one day of hibernation was partly behind how appreciative I felt of life in general today; my cold appears to be on its way out and, despite some torrential rain, there were reasonably lengthy periods of sunshine.

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As the baby slept this afternoon I tackled our garden pots, digging out the dead sticks that were once flowers and replacing them with some beautiful blue pansies and miniature narcissus. I haven’t been in the garden for any longer than a minute or two since last summer, usually dashing through with the dog and pram, or clutching the baby’s chubby little hand as I guide her away from puddles and mud. But today as I knelt on the cold ground with my trowel and bag of compost, I felt the cold air on my neck and watched the clouds scudding across a bright sky. For a moment I was utterly at peace, full of joy, and in love with the world.

Later, as I arrived home from an early dinner at a nearby restaurant with my sister, her little boy and my two daughters, I had another perfect moment. We’d had a lovely time, everyone in a good mood and lots of laughter and happiness at just being together. My eldest waited on the pavement as I retrieved the baby from her car seat, and then we saw the bright and shiny moon beaming down on us.

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The baby is mad about the moon. We paused outside our house beneath the black starry sky, and watched her face light up with a huge, completely natural, full-of-wonder smile. Her fingers stretched out to point upwards and the three of us stood for a few seconds, ordinariness becoming magical and a memory being painted in all of our minds.

We often go to great lengths to seek out the exciting, the different and the remarkable, and simultaneously miss out on all the subtle but amazing aspects of life that are all around us and free for the taking. Frequently caught up with anxieties over irrelevant and unimportant issues, we too easily forget to notice the present, thus missing out on the little gems of perfection scattered all around us.

Today I got two, and feel very lucky indeed.

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The sun comes up, the traffic begins to build as workers set out for the day, I put on my trainers and lead the dog out onto the pavement for our morning run. It’s just another day. There is a chill in the air but the icy breath of winter has been superseded by a more tolerable spring breeze. Buses roll past me, undertaking the static cars powerless to move faster in the morning rush hour jam. It’s just another day.

Back at the house I check my phone and notice the date, 26th April. It’s a friend’s birthday.

He’s much more than a friend actually. He’s my lifesaver.

Approximately 725 days ago the friend who’s birthday it is found me unconscious in the dark, alone and drunk and vomiting. He called an ambulance, rode in it with me, sat by my bedside for hours in the stark glare of the hospital ward, told me it was ok when I woke up, looked at me with sadness, held my hand, helped me discharge myself and took me home in a taxi. He put me to bed, made me a cup of tea, told me it would be ok, told me I would be ok, didn’t leave until I had stopped crying.

I never really thought I had been within touching distance of my own death until that morning. The weeks that followed were the darkest I’ve ever known. But eventually the sun came out again, and I moved forward.

The friend who saved my life gave me so much to be grateful for; the chance to live free of the shackles of alcohol, room to grow as a person, all the days I’ve spent since with my two children, fiancé and my family, a deep appreciation of everything I have in my life, my health and happiness, a real awareness of the fragility of life and with that, a passion for so much that the world has to offer, developing a realisation of the things that matter, and the things that don’t, my future hopes and dreams, becoming who I was meant to be, my life.

I sent him a text. It read ‘Happy birthday Lifesaver. Lots of love, always.’ And I meant it.