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.

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Making Connections – Sober

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flat Days, Evil Gym Classes & Proper Happiness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Does ‘Soberista’ Mean?

This post is about what being a Soberista means. The definition of this word has changed for me since I first came across it four years ago. Back then, my outlook on being a non-drinker was a little more simplistic than it is now; this is to be expected, as in 2012 I’d only been sober for about a year, now it is almost five. Time affects how you perceive things, and time changes you on the inside – you grow in strength and wisdom as a result of dealing with challenges. You learn.

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In 2012 I was very excited to first read the word ‘Soberista’. I thought it summed up beautifully all that it is to love not drinking. Its positivity shone out, and when I saw those letters together they conveyed something to me about being proud.

In the last four years, ‘Soberista’ has developed for me in its depth of meaning. Yes, it is still an optimistic take on being alcohol-free; yes, it still has nothing to do with gritted teeth and willpower; yes, it’s a way of life, and a really good way of life at that.

But then it’s all of these things too. Being a Soberista is not simply about quitting drinking. It’s not someone who is dull and doesn’t know how to live; it’s someone who recognises what life is really about. A Soberista is a brave person who’s been able to identify alcohol as being problematic for them, and set about conquering the fucking stuff. It takes guts to take a stance and stop drinking when everyone around you is downing gallons of booze. A Soberista means being willing to walk through miles of emotional crap because there’s a tiny glimmer of light at the other end that you believe is surely better than where you are now. Being a Soberista is being brutally honest with yourself, cutting through delusions and denial and drinking lies, recognising when enough is enough. And being a Soberista means sticking up for yourself and following your heart, even when you’re faced with unsupportive and unhelpful comments.

To me, ‘Soberista’ now also denotes community. I never imagined the thousands of wonderful people all coming together like a warm cloud of friendship and love who make up the Soberistas worldwide community, when I first saw that word. Truth be known, I was a bit down on humankind back in 2012.

But not anymore. Today, ‘Soberista’ means kindness, courage, love, friendship, and, as was the case right back at the beginning, it’s all about loving a life without alcohol.

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.

Feelings

Feelings. I didn’t like them once upon a time. I remember the stomach-churning fear, the excitement that bubbled inside of me and which I instinctively wanted to quash, the sadness of heartaches or bereavement that gnawed away at my insides and which I always felt compelled to numb with alcohol, just to restore a sense of calm and order.

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I was frightened to feel anything. I operated as an automaton – a woman with two settings: functioning and partying. Emotions that interrupted the status quo had to be dealt with, and there was only one reliable method I knew of by which to do that: drinking.

Without a shadow of a doubt, the most difficult thing in becoming a non-drinker has been learning to ‘feel’ emotions, not running from how I feel but accepting, understanding, and responding – appropriately. How bizarre it is to actually sit with emotions in the early weeks and months, to endure anger and bitterness, grief, happiness and excitement. How uncomfortable to have nowhere to turn in order to escape and seek solace from the raging storm inside the mind.

On my favourite running route, there’s a big hill. It winds through fields filled with sheep and cows, and as it climbs higher it offers a beautiful view of the west side of Sheffield where I live. As I reach the top, I often find that I have tears in my eyes. It’s a combination of listening to music (The War on Drugs currently, highly recommend it), immersing myself in the countryside away from anyone or anything apart from grass and trees and animals, the meditative property of running which affords me sufficient space for reflection. It’s probably something to do with the endorphin rush that comes from exercising too. The tears aren’t exactly related to being sad – they’re just tears. It’s an outlet for my emotions, which I need because, for the most part, I spend my life bombing around, spinning plates and keeping everyone happy – or trying to – as so many of us do.

A major part of the human experience lies in having emotions: we are grounded and guided by them. Living through them helps to heal us when we are wounded. We are strengthened by the tough times and find peace when we emerge out of the other side.

These days, I like feelings. I’m not scared of them. Feelings mean I am alive. Feelings mean I’m a human being. Feelings mean I no longer drink. I am aware. I am alive. I am present.

Revisiting The Past – With Armour

I don’t often feel the same emotions that I used to experience on a regular basis, the ones that would propel me with gusto towards the wine aisle of my local supermarket where I would load up on bottles and return home, ready to sink myself into oblivion. By and large I am happy, settled and content. But then, occasionally, thrown into the jumble of life – the childcare, work, relationships, household chores – is a wild card; that out-of-the-blue disruption to normality that causes everything to wobble, and places immense strain on the mental ‘togetherness’ that is often so easy to take for granted.

Last week my toddler fell ill and I found myself hurtling to the local children’s hospital in the middle of the night in an ambulance, siren screaming and lights flashing, my heart racing and horrific, terrifying thoughts churning through my mind like a horror film on a loop. She has since recovered fully, thank God, but I have been left with a morbid fear that she will fall ill again – a fear that has, naturally, impacted on sleep and stress levels.

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Today I went for a walk, unusually without my little girl. The sky was grey and the air cold, a threat of snow lingering. I had my iPod on, music loud and providing me with a much-needed escape from recent mental stress. And suddenly I happened upon the exact cognitive processes that, once upon a time, would have led me to buying alcohol, lots of alcohol. I’d forgotten that place existed, so long it has been since I found myself there. Sleep deprivation and worry brought it right back.

In a way, it was comforting, like visiting an old friend who I hadn’t seen for ages. That familiarity and easy association we have with people we’ve known since childhood, even when years pass without talking to them. It was verging on the brink of madness, loneliness, a sense that the rest of the world is getting on with their business and has no idea what misery has been funnelled through your own private existence; a resilience, fiercely independent, a fuck you glare, a teetering on the edge of losing it. A need to escape. It was very real, and I remembered all too well how easy it is at that moment to just go and get wrecked.

I am not that different, not in the way my mind works when under stress, but I have changed dramatically in my levels of self-awareness and inner strength, the tools I can now rely on to pull myself back into a better place. I didn’t try to escape the feeling. I walked with it. I felt it. I even indulged in it a little.

And then I came back home and got my laptop out and wrote this. Like they always did, these feelings will pass. But, because I don’t drink, there will be no hangover to deal with when they do. And I will be a little bit tougher than I was before.

The Witching Hour

When I first quit drinking I frequently felt as though I was teetering on the threshold of a massive cliff. The edge represented the abyss of my feelings, the emotional reservoir that I had successfully avoided for my entire adult life, and I was petrified of letting myself go anywhere near it. Daytimes were manageable, filled as they were with childcare or work and characteristically lacking in the impressively stubborn self-destruct button that would worm its way into my head as the days evolved into early evening. But when darkness descended I routinely walked to the brink of feeling, and would always run in the opposite direction.

I know why I was so terrified of feeling my feelings: I’m still very conscious of it now, the enormity of human emotions, the turbulent effect they can have upon me, how they possess the unnerving potential to grow unwieldy and all-consuming. Emotions can be big, exciting, terrifying, out-of-control, barely there, impossible to ignore and pleasant, but crucially, they are merely a part of what it is to be a human being – and that fact took me a while to get my head around when I first stopped drinking.

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Initially, feeling emotions felt bizarre and uncomfortable. I was so accustomed to quashing the whole spectrum of my reactions to life that, once free of alcohol, living turned into a medley of colossal ups and downs and my kneejerk response of seeking numbness did not disappear for several months. What I noticed, however, was that as time went by I began only to wish away the bigger feelings. Boredom, slight shyness and mild grievances – those became doable fairly early on. The challenge lay in the real tsunamis of the emotional range; grief, heavy regret, heartache. When they hit, the old tendency to flee from myself would rise up from the ashes and eliminating them would require an inner strength that I never knew I possessed.

It was incredibly difficult to ride the storm and just ‘be’, but now, after three and half years without alcohol, I’m there. I can feel without feeling terrified.

Here are a few things I have learnt about managing my emotions;

  • This too shall pass – emotions don’t last forever. Some of them might feel uncomfortable and unpleasant, but bad feelings come and go like tempests in your soul. When I feel unhappy nowadays I just sit it out but with the comforting knowledge that my internal state has no permanence.
  • The anticipation of experiencing feelings is far worse than the reality. Numbing our emotions with alcohol is not actually the ‘normal’ human experience, despite the way society normalises heavy drinking. Feeling our emotions is OK and entirely natural, and it will feel less bizarre the more you do it.
  • Negative emotions can be a challenge to deal with, but sobriety allows for both good and bad emotional rollercoasters. Yes, you may have to cope with heartache, grief, disappointment or stress without the numbing properties of ethanol flat-lining your emotional state, but try feeling the purity of joy, pride, relief, falling in love or a sense of achievement free from an alcoholic fog. There’s nothing like it.
  • Living in the moment by practising mindfulness truly helps when it comes to managing out-of-control emotional states. Meditation is an excellent place to start with this and there are tons of books and online resources on mindfulness to tap into. I can’t recommend this as a way of life highly enough.
  • Regard every challenging feeling you experience as a major stepping stone in your journey to emotional wellness. With each one you will grow stronger and better equipped to deal with the good ones, the bad ones, and the ones in between. Avoid wishing your feelings away, and accept that they are a valid element of your life experience.

Why You Shouldn’t Fear Taking the Alcohol-free Leap

An alcoholic drink represents all manner of things to those who succumb to its perceived charms – it’s the social lubricant, especially attractive to the shy drinker. It’s the sexual provocateur, enticing and tempting to anyone looking for a little Dutch courage in the bedroom. It’s the emotional anaesthetic, perfect for blotting out the less desirable aspects of our lives.

But when alcohol begins to lose its magical properties and undergoes a gradual metamorphosis into a foul, domineering, mind-twisting liquid, one which causes the drinker to regard it with equal measures of love and hatred, then it’s time to consider a life free from its influence. However, this is not straightforward, largely because as we stand on the brink of the unknown, we often become paralysed with fear. Human beings don’t like change; we frequently become accustomed to our personal habits and ways, and a step into virgin territory constitutes a massive no-no for many people, in a myriad of different situations and for a variety of reasons.

Letting go of a reliance on alcohol evokes terror in the most apparently outgoing and self-confident types. The concept of existing as a free entity, minus the liquid crutch which supports the drinker at every turn from teenage escapades to wedding days to each and every Christmas, is nothing short of bizarre to the intrepid explorer about to embark upon the road to sobriety.

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But the reality of facing life’s challenges without regularly reaching for a can of cold beer or twisting the cork from an expensive bottle of red, can be a pleasant surprise. The difficulties that inevitably crop up as we negotiate the twists and turns of our individual worlds appear to be nowhere near the insurmountable obstacles they did when hangovers and alcohol-induced depression and anxiety were thrown into the mix. Funnily enough, the drink, which many consider is helping them to cope, usually turns out to be the very substance that’s capping their ability to deal with things rationally in the first place.

The false confidence we believe to be intrinsically ours when out socialising often serves as an unflattering mask, and when it falls away in the morning we are left with nothing more than a series of half-memories and a niggling worry that, in the boozy heat of the moment, we acted or spoke in a way which now fills us with remorse and shame.

Whether we choose to drink alcohol or to abstain, life will remain the same; convoluted, at times tricky to navigate, and an emotional roller-coaster. We will be subjected to the same occasions of sadness, exuberance, anger, reluctance and disappointment, no matter if we turn to the bottle or turn the other cheek.

What are revolutionary are the concepts of self-awareness, emotional intelligence, and a rational mind. These qualities will be allowed to slowly emerge once the alcohol has been laid to rest, thus the stresses and challenges that seemed so frightening to a person at the very start of their sober journey are eminently more manageable than he or she could ever have imagined when regularly drinking.

Accepting this fact demands a huge leap of faith, but it’s one which is absolutely worth taking.

Desperately Seeking A Natural High

When I drank alcohol I did so because I perceived booze to be an effective way to lift me out of my current situation. That may sound simplistic but essentially it’s the only reason why anyone would drink alcohol – it’s a mind-altering substance, ergo, people drink it in order to alter their minds. (If that wasn’t true then people would only drink alcohol-free drinks thus avoiding the potential negative health consequences of alcoholic beverages.)

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to escape reality. We do it all the time via a variety of alternative means; watching films, reading books, engaging in sports, and through consuming alcohol and ingesting other drugs. Much of the human experience revolves around plodding through somewhat mundane obligations while looking forward to enjoying whatever light relief we choose to engage in during our spare time.

My problem (and that of countless others) with choosing alcohol as a method of escape arose out of the fact that drinking brought about a miserable parallel reality, as opposed to the brighter, happier, more fun life that I imagined it would give me. Ever the hedonist, I perpetually opted for instant gratification over long-term happiness. Alcohol artificially made me happy for a short period of time, but then took vast amounts from me and my well-being as payment. The ratio of happiness to misery was woefully imbalanced.

As a drinker I failed to see that almost my entire existence was spent under the cloud of booze, one way or another; either I was drunk, hungover, or excited about drinking again. The sum of all this alcohol-related thinking amounted to an inability to perceive the world clearly. Crucially I failed to grasp that my whole personality would be different without alcohol thus the crutch that I so heartily believed in would no longer be required as a way of making it through life.

Without alcohol in my world I, and all those other people who have kicked the stuff out of their lives, am without an instant escape route from life. However, with all the ponderings and emotions and hopes and fears that we all experience on a daily basis, it’s natural to crave a break from ‘the norm’ from time to time. If you choose to quit drinking alcohol then I believe you have to find something which serves that same purpose (i.e. escapism), only without the negative consequences that crop up when (like me) you are bereft of a functioning off-switch.

I consider this to be a simple case of arming yourself with the right ammo to win the sober fight long term. You just need to work out what it is that lifts you out of your reality for those occasions when you feel the need to take a break. Even if the act itself only takes a couple of minutes, if the effect is powerful enough then it can be sufficient to alter your state of mind for a few days, if not weeks.

The best films in my opinion are the ones that make you feel differently about yourself and the world. You know the ones that make you feel like impersonating the life of the protagonist for a while (that is, until you remember that that was Hollywood and this is your regular existence and when you act in that way all your friends think you’re just plain weird so you resume the old you, pronto)? Those kinds of films are excellent for temporarily altering your state of mind. Carlito’s Way has this effect on me, as does Thelma and Louise.

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Some novels can do the same – they fire you up and create an inner determination to be different to the way you’ve always been.

But for me, the best, most effective methods of elevating myself from everyday life come in the guise of fast and exhilarating sports; skiing, skydiving, zip-wires, running in the rain. These are the things that help the most. Their impact on my state of mind lasts far longer than the time it takes to scrub the mud off my legs in the shower afterwards.

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I don’t always find the time to do these things, especially after having my second baby. It was so much easier to pick up a bottle of wine and throw it into the supermarket trolley, but that attempt to achieve a quick respite from life pretty much always resulted in tears.

After any of the above activities, I have never ended up with anything other than a big, fat buzz and a smile on my face.