Vulnerable

Sometimes, I feel really vulnerable. Like the world is too much for my emotions to cope with. I often wonder how some people can be so blasé, going about their business mindlessly as we all occupy this sphere spinning relentlessly through a vast expanse of time and space. This was one of the motivators for my alcohol consumption – the desire to quash it all, silence myself, level my feelings off and just stop the urrgghhh that so often blundered around my head.

Then there was the love of euphoria and letting go that made me turn to the bottle. I loved parties, dancing, showing off a bit I suppose. And these are activities that I have found not so easy to engage in as a non-drinker. Which in many ways is a good thing – I am no longer the ‘twat’ that my ex boyfriend decreed me after I’d had too much to drink (“When you drink, it’s as though you’ve swallowed a twat pill”).

I’ve noticed over the sober years that this business of not drinking is a matter of balance, of weighing up the overall good of sobriety versus the occasional letting rip that being pissed affords us. And the thing is, you can’t have both – or at least, I can’t. I can’t have the good without the very bad. There is no middle ground, just chaos and self-destruction.

I occasionally read about people who begin to dabble with having ‘the odd glass’ after years of being sober (Phil Collins being the latest to reveal his abstinence has gradually morphed into ‘controlled’ drinking), and I know that I will never be one of these people – but nor do I want to be.

For me to love being alcohol-free, it is essential that I love not drinking. That I engage with that notion as fully and with as much fervour as I once did alcohol. That I thank my lucky stars every day I scared myself witless one morning after drinking too much and I made a promise to myself that I’d never touch the stuff again; that I get to remember the rest of my life. That I get to make wise decisions and know who I am without the on going fog of too much alcohol confusing my thinking. That, no matter what, I’ll never walk backwards and attempt to revisit the boozing chapter of my life, because for me, this sober reality is the only one that makes sense now.

Last week I got in touch with a woman who lost her best friend to alcohol earlier this year. I studied years-old photos of the two of them in which they are slim, smiling, vibrant, and then I looked at the recent one of the woman’s friend where she is all bloated and puffy, taken just before she died as a direct result of her alcohol consumption.

My past is littered with stories of people who died from their addictions, who lost the most important people in their lives because they couldn’t stop drinking, of broken friendships and damaged souls and sad memories. It’s littered with my own regrets about the things I did because of alcohol, and because of the person I was when I drank.

Sometimes, I do wonder what it would be like to inhabit a drinking world again, one where alcohol is as innocuous as a light, spring breeze. But I know I crossed a line years ago, which means that for me, alcohol will always be my enemy. And I accept that fact with good grace and gratitude because, when all is said and done, it’s not worth it.

I get my kicks elsewhere these days, like this morning when I ran seven miles through the countryside with my dog who is ten years old but still throws herself into our runs with admirable zest. I get a buzz from knowing that I could be dead and for all intents and purposes I probably should be, given the way I used to spend my time, but I am not. I’m fit and healthy and I still feel young. I feel alive when I listen to my favourite music, and when I’m laughing with my close family and friends. I get a rush from the beauty of the world and thinking of all the people I’ve ever known and the amazing things we’ve experienced together, how miraculous it is that any of us get to lead this life with all the opportunities that are presented to each and every one of us. And I’m excited for the present and the future, for what incredible moments are waiting around the corner, none of us can ever know.

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Sometimes I do feel vulnerable and emotionally raw, and I wish so much that I could temporarily escape my head. But what I have – what we all have – is a life, and the years pass by in such a blur that they’re gone before we’ve even registered what happened. Those stupid little things we stress over: our child’s tantrum in the supermarket or feeling down because we can’t afford something we really want, or losing the car keys or just wanting to stay in bed all day because it’s raining and cold outside, and everything seems rubbish and twisted against us; these things are nothing, they matter not one jot.

Connecting with other human beings and loving them, and being loved by them, and loving and valuing yourself for your uniqueness, and witnessing a glorious sunset and hearing the wind roaring in your ears at the top of a mountain; looking into your child’s eyes and knowing that you’re doing your best and they’re doing OK, listening to someone who needs you, knowing that you’re making a difference. Lying on your back daydreaming and listening to your favourite music very loud. Waking up and not needing to patch together last night’s mistakes beneath the weighty dread of a hangover.

I truly believe that you cannot exist as you deserve to, fully and with real love in your heart, when you are drinking too much, too often. I think when you’re addicted to a substance it occupies too much of your soul, it blocks all the important emotions. It prevents you from seeing and connecting.

You need to love yourself before you can live a full life, and I’ve yet to meet anyone who loves themselves when in the throes of alcohol dependency.

It isn’t always easy, being completely free from mind-altering devices, whatever form they may take. There are days when your inner voice is screaming for a brief respite. But there are other coping strategies, there are other means of achieving that escape – and when you quit drinking, you enable yourself to discover them.

Reframing and Reclaiming Christmas

“A compassionate attitude helps you communicate easily with fellow human beings. As a result, you make more genuine friends; the atmosphere is more positive, which gives you inner strength. This inner strength helps you voluntarily concern yourself with others, instead of just thinking about your own self. If one always thinks of oneself, one’s thinking becomes very narrow; even a small problem appears very significant and unbearable. When we think of others, our minds widen, and within that large space, even big personal problems may appear insignificant.” – The Dalai Lama

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This morning, as I enjoyed a rare lie-in, I was having a flick through a magazine with a cup of tea. The features were almost exclusively related to Christmas, the pages filled with pretty sparkling lights, images of beautiful people looking happy and full of love, gift ideas that suggested cavernous sources of wealth, and models showing off expensive clothes, hanging from their tiny, waif-like frames.

Christmas has become, for many people, a bleak time of the year when their shortcomings are highlighted and they’re made to feel inadequate by all the representations of ‘normality’ that we’re bombarded with from the end of November onwards. We are all expected to be attending a glittering array of parties, dressed fabulously of course, looking slim and attractive; our presents demand to be wrapped stylishly and ahead of time; the menu planning obviously needs to be completed by October at the latest, with the intervening months being utilised for making the Christmas pudding, cake, and all manner of tasty accompaniments which can be stored in the freezer until the Big Day.

During the darkest years of my life, Christmas was my least favourite time of the year. It caused me to internalise everything I hated about my life. I ripped myself to shreds for not being good enough, for being divorced and failing to find the next ‘Love of my Life’, for not having ‘made something’ of myself, for drinking too much, for not being able to stop drinking when I started, for not being perfect, for not ‘having it all’.

And because I concentrated so much on my own (as I perceived them at the time) failings, I gave little outwardly to anyone else.

Yet if I had been able to find the motivation to invest my energy into others, it would have helped draw the attention away from my own problems. Compassion, as the Dalai Lama points out in the quote above, helps us to make bonds, and bonds make us feel worthwhile and more human. Community enriches the soul. And it doesn’t take much effort – you don’t need to race off down to the local homeless shelter and spend your entire Christmas there (although if you did you’d probably feel fulfilled). Simply smiling at people and saying hello as you pass on the street, or taking a Christmas card round to an elderly neighbour who might need the company and a reminder that someone is thinking of them, can have a hugely positive effect on your own mental state.

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When we turn in on ourselves and forget to reach out to other people, we exacerbate the tendency to focus on the negative. Which, of course, makes it more tempting to drink. And when we drink, we internalize even more and find it virtually impossible to reach out to connect with other people. The endless push of ‘the perfect Christmas’ by those pursuing maximum sales is akin to a tidal wave – its force is relentless and it can easily (and, more often than not, does) overshadow the original meaning of the festive season.

So if you’re feeling the strain of this heavy weight of idealism, and if Christmas only serves to emphasise how bad you feel about yourself, and if the holidays always lead to excessive drinking to escape it all – take some time out. Look around you. See whom you could help. Try to focus your attention away from yourself and on to others. Compassion isn’t only about making other people happy; it serves to positively impact upon your own emotional wellbeing too.

Emotional Intelligence & The Importance of Self-Love

We have layers of emotions, and the deeper they run the more challenging they are to catch hold of. This isn’t scientific – it’s just my experience. I thwarted my emotional growth by drinking alcohol too frequently and in too large a quantity thus by the time I reached my early thirties I wasn’t so different mentally to how I was at age fifteen. Not that I was aware of the extent to which my emotional maturity was stunted when I quit drinking aged thirty-five. However, I’ve learnt a few things in the last three years; I have grown and developed my self-awareness, and I now consider myself to be reasonably emotionally intelligent, or at the very least, my emotional maturity is now in line with my age.

I believe we have the immediate response, an instant reaction to an event or situation, and the one that we can draw on should we possess the ability to stand back and think things through a little. The deeper we dig into our emotional reserves, the happier and more content the person we will become. At least, this is how it works for me. The less obvious feelings are sometimes fleeting and I have to really focus on pinning them down, analysing and then utilising them. The surface response might be anger or jealousy and my subsequent actions would be influenced by these immature and ill-thought out emotions, should I choose to tune into them. But if I can step back and search within myself for the more complex, compassionate and difficult-to-reach understanding of the situation, it will almost always result in a happier outcome for everyone involved.

I was utterly unaware of this when I drank alcohol. I didn’t know I had those inner reserves, the ‘better’ person inside who was able to rebuff more negative reactions and replace them with kindness, self-sacrifice and understanding. I didn’t know anyone had that, and assumed we were all the sum total of our instantaneous, knee-jerk reactions.

It takes effort to find more humanitarian solutions to problems. But like the Dalai Lama said, ”I believe all suffering is caused by ignorance. People inflict pain on others in the selfish pursuit of their happiness or satisfaction. Yet true happiness comes from a sense of peace and contentment, which in turn must be achieved through the cultivation of altruism, of love and compassion, and elimination of ignorance, selfishness, and greed.” Often these more commendable qualities do not present themselves immediately. Conversely, it takes effort to draw upon them and, in turn, to demonstrate a more compassionate, less selfish attitude towards the people around us.

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Having the ability to do that means possessing emotional intelligence – not reacting like children do, stamping feet and throwing tantrums, but thinking things through. Not acting in the way that we might initially feel inclined to, but searching within ourselves for the kinder, more mature and more compassionate response.

All of this, of course, applies equally to the way we treat ourselves. We can only change our outward behaviour if we alter the way that we handle internally the situations life throws at us – dealing with things in the same way as we always have will simply provide us with identical results. But drawing on our inner emotional strength, believing that we have the power to change, and to think and act differently to how we have routinely thought and acted in the past, takes huge amounts of courage. It also requires a monumental leap of faith.

It’s worth remembering that compassion begins with each one of us, personally. When we are able to master self-love, we will then naturally begin to exercise a more compassionate response to the people around us. Often, if we have misused mind-altering substances like alcohol for any length of time, the process of learning to love ourselves begins with recognising that we too deserve to feel like real human beings. Saying no to a craving and realising that by doing so we are demonstrating compassion towards ourselves, is the very first step in getting there.

Love is all you need

I feel so strongly that we, as human beings, should always strive to help one another. It saddens me when I am faced with a person who is devoid of empathy or compassion, for what do we amount to as a species if we cannot say that we love and care for humanity? Thinking about other people also helps us, in that we can grow as individuals when we take the time to think of others. We become less wrapped up in our own issues, more concerned with what is happening in other people’s lives.

The Dalai Lama said that ‘Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.’

I don’t consider that people who are morbidly obese or who drink too much or who compulsively gamble or who sleep around, are happy and in control of their lives. When any addiction rules your life it is because of entrenched insecurities or an emotional need which has been left unmet. It is not because the gambler or heavy drinker wishes to ruin their life and the lives of those around them. It is not as a result of choice – rather, it is down to powerful urges and the desire to feel complete, emotionally full and ‘normal’ in a world which judges too frequently.

After indulging in whatever one’s addiction may be, the need returns sooner or later and it does so with increasing force. Over time it grows ever-more difficult to ignore. As the years pass, that compulsion strengthens until it defines an addict and they are perceived as nothing more than ‘a gambler’ or ‘a drinker’ or ‘an over-eater.’

We humans are not without our flaws; emotions and hormones and our genetic make-up combine to establish certain weaknesses that we must, if we are to be happy, learn to conquer. There is no-one on the planet who is not beset by a fault, an issue that impacts negatively to some degree on the rest of their life.

And so, when a person feels compelled to judge those who are outwardly suffering from an addiction, assuming that they are in full control of their actions and should simply ‘pull themselves together’, I would say this;

Nobody is perfect. Life makes us what we are, but if we’re afforded the benefit of compassion, kindness and love from the world around us, we have a fighting chance of becoming the person we should be, the one who is hiding beneath the layers of negativity, the one that people have never seen. What is wrong with accepting that human beings are susceptible to weakness and inner struggles? Why can’t we all show tenderness to people who are not yet in the emotional place we feel they should be?

With love and understanding we can help each other find a happy place where the need to seek contentment from without can be eradicated by the shared knowledge that true joy only ever stems from within.