Changing Tides

I’m standing in a dark room with sweat pouring off my face, slightly breathless, endorphins coursing around my body. In the window next to me I catch my reflection; hair falling over my eyes, dumbbells raised, a focused expression that says, “I’m fucking doing this”. I’m in a room with two other people: the trainer, and a young woman who’s taking this High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) class along with me. I feel in control, strong, confident, and like I belong. I’ve been doing this class for about a year and I’ve never been fitter or in better shape. I’m running the Sheffield half-marathon in April 2017 and it doesn’t scare me at all. I know I’ll be fit enough to do it.

I am a different person to who I once was. I have changed irrevocably.

I wanted to write this to prove that it’s possible to force your life into reverse, change direction and become completely renewed. I know it’s possible, because I’ve done it.

I wanted to highlight one instance that would stand as a good comparator to the above scene, to show how different things used to be for me. But when I sat and thought about it, there wasn’t one single occasion that sprang to mind but instead a feeling, a sense of shame – and it’s this that equates to the polar opposite of how I felt in the gym this morning.

It is a slow, creeping cloak of fear that envelops me. It originates in the pit of my stomach, and it spreads up into my heart and all through my limbs. I can feel it in my eyes; it renders me incapable of looking directly at anyone. It’s as though I am walking in a quagmire and my legs are leaden, heavy with dread. I don’t want to leave the house. I don’t want to talk to anyone. I don’t want there to be another day. My head hangs heavy with shame. I feel unworthy. I think everyone hates me. I hate me. I have a secret – I turn into a monster when I drink alcohol. There’s a person hiding inside me, a bad person who does terrible things, and I can’t stop her escaping when I’m drunk. And I can’t seem to stop getting drunk. Even though I try.

Days will pass and the fear will dissipate slightly but the self-hatred never leaves me. It festers deep inside and it keeps me in my place, somewhere dark where the ceiling is low and the walls are closing in; a place for people who are undeserving, a place where people never grow.

When I was younger, I thought people who were heavily into fitness were a bit vacuous, with brains in their biceps. But nowadays, I am so convinced that being fit and healthy physically means that we are mentally well too. It’s not just the act of pumping iron or running that boosts our emotional wellbeing: it’s engaging with people who don’t get out of their heads every day, who value their bodies; it’s the knowledge that you are strong and capable of conquering challenges; it’s living, day after day, without ever getting drunk; it’s the memories of that person you became when drunk fading into the distant recesses of the mind; it’s replacing fear with hope; it’s learning to like yourself again through the process of development and personal growth; it is the removal of toxins from the body.

Now that I prioritise my mental and physical wellness, I feel alive every day. I like myself. I maintain eye contact with other people when I’m speaking with them. I never think I am undeserving or less than anyone else.

At 41, I like myself. Genuinely, six years ago, I never would have believed I’d ever have been able to utter those words and mean them. But liking yourself is something we all deserve to feel. And it isn’t out of anyone’s reach. roc1

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.

Summer Running

I did not feel like running much earlier on today – 28 degree heat, a long day working and a desire to throw myself in front of the TV with a plate of biscuits were just some of the obstacles that stood between me and my fitness, but I forged on and did it anyway.

I remembered this quote from Muhammad Ali, “I hated every minute of training but I said ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now & live the rest of your life as a champion’” which is somewhat reassuring I find; if he hated training and yet achieved what he did, then there exists living proof that mind over matter works. I might not be aiming for world class athleticism but I am still striving to be the best me that I can be.

There is a big and gorgeous park at the bottom of the road on which I live and when the weather is good, hundreds of people decamp onto its vast expanse of grass, set up disposable barbecues, crack open a few beers and act as if they are on holiday. It has a nice vibe and the drinking never spills out of control – at least not whilst people are in the park, perhaps later on when they make their way into town somewhat the worse for wear (as I used to do, once upon a time).

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I was listening to a varied selection on my iPod from The Beatles, to MGMT, to Morrissey, to the Happy Mondays (as you can tell, my music tastes are bang up to date) and dragging the dog along beside me, her tongue scraping the floor as she desperately attempted to enjoy this run, something she’d been looking forward to all day but was now finding a little uncomfortable and way too hot.

I ran into the the park, just as ‘Kids’ by MGMT came on my iPod and the sun was burning down on all these people enjoying life and being with each other, and the dog was doing her very best to keep up with me as she panted away like a steam train, and my speed picked up and I was truly in the moment, arms working hard, total rhythm going on…and I filled up with tears that sprang out of nowhere. They stemmed from happiness, and from the amazing world that we live in, and from how grateful I am that I finally, somehow, worked it out that you don’t get this feeling, ever, when you drink alcohol.

It was joyous, and I felt totally alive.

Focus On The Important Stuff Instead

Never underestimate the human ability to adjust to new situations – what you may imagine is impossible will one day become easy, if you open your mind.

 Find time every day to get your rock n roll kicks from listening to loud music; lose yourself in it.

My beloved Red Hot Chili Peppers

The Red Hot Chili Peppers

Do exercise a few times a week – it makes your weight easier to manage, kills stress and releases an endorphin rush so you’ll feel happier too.

Refuse to be influenced by your past failures or your imagined future limitations – the person you are today is the only one who can affect change in your life.

Learn from mistakes and then leave them where they belong – in your history. Getting it wrong enough should always lead to getting it right, so don’t beat yourself up for the things you did when you were younger and not so wise; use your experiences to foster growth instead.

 The people you love should be the recipients of your kindest, most generous self. When they’re gone, you will find it hard to shed deep regrets; try not to have any.

Drink plenty of water; it helps your body and mind work effectively. Avoid fizzy drinks – they are of no value.

Only you know when a habit has become destructive – that little voice in your head is there for a reason; listen to it before you have reason to regret not doing so. It’s there to protect you from yourself.

Eat when you are hungry; forget about food when you’re not. Over-thinking anything will only lead to negating good intentions.

Trivialities aren’t the makers or breakers of your happiness – whether you buy those new shoes or not won’t fundamentally alter your life. Focus on the important stuff instead.

Having a change of scene and breaking your routine does you a world of good.

Never hold your looks in too high regard – one day they will fade and you need to make sure you’ve got back up. You’ll be much better off if you put the effort into developing your character.

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Ironing, cooking, gardening and knitting are so much more than practical chores. Losing yourself in one of these tasks acts a little like meditation; it demands enough concentration to stop you sweating over the small stuff, but not so much that it feels like effort. Try immersing yourself in baking a cake next time your anxieties are getting the better of you.

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Be nice to someone you’ve never met before – you’ll feel better and their faith in humankind will get a major boost.

Make an effort to look nice, but avoid obsessing over your outward appearance. Vanity makes even the most beautiful person appear ugly.

Adopt a cat or dog from your local shelter – having a pet reduces stress, and you’ll be giving an animal who has felt the cold hand of hurt and abandonment the chance to feel at peace. Don’t buy one from a breeder when you could help so much more by taking a stray.

Find an art form that helps you escape from reality for a while; whether it’s a film, book, seeing a live band or visiting an art gallery, get your hits from someone else’s creativity; avoid searching for highs in mind-altering substances. The former will help you grow; the latter will stop you dead in your tracks.

Make the effort to empathise. You never know what life will fling at you next – good or bad, you will always want to share things with people who understand.

Remember how fleeting your time on Earth is; use your sense of mortality to put life’s minutiae into perspective, as well as to focus your mind on doing your best where it counts.

Always keep your ego in check – when things are on the up, remind yourself that you are just human; when you’re down, tell yourself you are unique and amazing.

Let go of hatred; it prevents you from being a free spirit.

How to do a 10k race (and how not to)

Today I ran my first 10K race in ten years. The race, known as the Percy Pud, takes place in the Loxley Valley, Sheffield, bypassing the beautiful Damflask reservoir. One thousand runners enter, with many turning up in Christmas themed outfits, and each runner receives a Christmas pudding upon completion.

I last ran the Percy Pud when I was twenty seven years old, or thereabouts. I was in the throes of divorcing my eldest daughter’s Dad, caught in the turbulent winds of an incredibly acrimonious split. My alcohol consumption had begun to creep up around that time, and I was regularly drinking enough to feel tipsy most nights, enough to get completely out of it two or three nights a week.

Somehow (maybe because I had youth on my side) I managed to turn up on time to run the Percy Pud and actually achieved a new personal best. The night before, I had drunk four pints of Guinness and went to bed about 2 am. I ran the race in 48 minutes, fighting the desire to throw up all the way around.

To celebrate, a few of us went to a pub and got drunk.

Today was a different affair. Last night I put thought into what I ate (carbs – macaroni cheese), drank loads of water and got an early night. I did a little run yesterday, just to work my muscles gently, but otherwise I rested (as much as you can with a seven month old and a teenager who requires an on tap taxi service) in an effort to conserve my energy.

Me in the white top, at the halfway point in the Percy Pud this morning

Me in the white top, at the halfway point in the Percy Pud this morning

I ran the Percy Pud today in 55 minutes, a time which I am pretty pleased with. I didn’t run for several months whilst pregnant and then subsequently recovering from the caesarean, and began to jog regularly about four months ago. I’m justifying my race time to you here, because a tiny bit of me really wanted to prove that by living a much healthier lifestyle, I would be able to easily smash my PB.

But, the important thing is this – all the way round the race today, I was soaking up the beautiful scenery, enjoying the camaraderie of all the other runners, focussing my mind on breathing, my technique, running through the pain barrier. I ran it and I was there, in the moment – I lived that race. The last time I ran it, I was trying not to be sick and pushing myself to get to the finishing line so that I could get my Christmas pudding and get the hell out of there and off to the pub.

Thus, I am proud of what I did today, and have decided to buy a training book to help me improve my time and technique in 10K’s. There’s another race at the end of February 2013, and I’m aiming to get my PB down to less than 45 minutes for that one.

Tonight I feel physically tired, the kind of tired you get when you have really pushed yourself, conquering the inner you that wants to slow down and instead forcing your legs to keep moving, as fast as you can make them go. The calmness and ability to relax that physical exertion brings, is noticed and appreciated far more when sober. I am, once again, extremely happy that I no longer drink alcohol.

Say goodbye to the muffin top.

What a difference a day makes. I’ve spent the last couple of days feeling pretty flat with regards to keeping fit (I just wrote fat there by mistake – how telling!) and shifting this last stone of baby weight. I signed up for a 10k race which takes place on December 2nd, and I am starting to worry slightly that I may not be able to complete it, never mind improve on my PB (which was achieved approximately 10 years ago). None of this was making me feel particularly positive. Oh yes, to disconcert the healthy-lifestyle apple cart further, I seem to have gradually upped my biscuit and chocolate munching once again – this week it’s been close to the epic pregnancy portions, which is never going to make me happy. Or thin.

Not rocket science…these things have been maintaining my muffin top.

But this morning as I lay in bed at 6am with Lily gurgling next to me, I began to think about will power and positive mental attitude – how I have managed to successfully transform myself from heavy binge-drinking, manic depressive, bipolar-esque boozer, to calm, happy, level-headed person who is much nicer to be around (I hope). I didn’t switch from one persona to the other by accident, or with no effort. I did it by altering my state of mind.

Prior to giving up alcohol for good, I regularly knocked it on the head for short periods of, say, six weeks or three months. I would spend the entire duration of my wagon rides miserable as sin, drooling whenever I thought of wine. At the end of these aeons of alcohol deprivation, my spirits would lift once again as I embarked on a good old piss up by way of a reward for my abstinence. I’d give myself a good pat on the back too for not being an alcoholic – after all, if I could manage six weeks without booze then surely I couldn’t be dependent upon it?

In order to stop drinking for good and to be happy about it, I had to alter my thought processes. Without alcohol in my life, I wasn’t depriving myself of something desirable; I was giving myself the benefits of good health, happier state of mind and improved physical appearance. Without alcohol, I am able to go running whenever I want, I don’t have to worry about what I said or did the night before – ever (that is so freeing), I never suffer from a furry tongue, bad breath or dried leather-handbag skin owing to dehydration, I have more money, my fears about dying prematurely have vanished, I no longer have panic attacks, my self-confidence has improved massively, I have tonnes more energy, and I don’t hate myself. Makes me wonder why the hell I ever drank in the first place!

So, back to my ponderings this morning – in order to get back in pre-pregnancy shape, I need to apply the same state of mind alteration to my cake-munching and fitness programme. I read an article yesterday about Alzheimer’s now being regarded as Type-3 diabetes, in that recent research suggests that it is brought on by eating too many sugary and processed foods. Cakes and biscuits are bad for us; they keep us from reaching our desired weight loss goals, they’re bad for our teeth, they provide absolutely no nutritional benefit whatsoever and they cost money that could be spent on better things. Now they may even be responsible for the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. I want to lose a stone and I want to be able to run a good time when I take part in the 10k in December. Cakes ain’t gonna help me do either.

So, with cakes out of the window and a new, more positive state of mind in place, I did 100 crunches followed by a 1 minute plank this morning in my PJ’s, and I am going to take the dog for a 5 mile run shortly. I skipped my usual cake at the café and I am planning on repeating my crunches/plank regime every day. Incidentally I have never followed a fitness regime for any length of time that specifically targets one area of the body, so I am intrigued to see how effective this will be. I am feeling much happier as a result of this mind change – it’s good to discover yet another positive from giving up the booze, which is that if I can get that shit out of my life, then I can pretty much achieve anything I want – happy days! (I’ll keep you posted re the six pack).