Happy You, Happy 2017

The thing that really used to drag me down at Christmas was the picture perfect, stereotypical image of what this time of year was all about. It was the beautiful house sitting in a snow-filled garden, sparkling with fairy lights, so inviting. It was the magical relationship, the big, warm family, the presents, the parties, the not feeling different and on the edge of what everyone else apparently had and took for granted. It was acceptance, and being loved – feeling loved and immersed in a busy, fulfilled life.

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And because for many Christmases I didn’t feel any of the above, I would drink myself stupid. From mid-December to January 1st all bets would be off as I anaesthetised myself from the tornado of emotional hurt that I could never stand to feel.

When I consider what has changed now, what it is in my life, or about me, that prevents me from seeking mental obliteration in order to just make it through the festive season, I think it’s this; I am simply OK with my lot. I don’t mind that I don’t fit that ideal we are sold by the tidal wave of consumerism all year round but especially during the run up to Christmas. I don’t mind that I might not have a family that slots neatly into the 2.4 children, husband and wife model. I don’t mind that a few years ago I drank rather a lot and had my share of problems. I don’t mind that my house is not a series of showrooms complete with matching dinner sets and stylish soft furnishings.

I am me. And that’s fine.

Letting go of the desire to be what other people might expect or want me to be has been a major part of allowing myself to finally be happy. That desire is what used to send me half mad and heading to the bottle for a reliable escape from the inevitable pressures. I remember on countless New Year’s Eves feeling inadequate because I wasn’t living the high life, attending incredible parties, looking perfect and able to control my alcohol consumption. And because I couldn’t achieve those self-imposed, ridiculous standards, I would drink. And drink. And drink. And then hate myself some more.

As New Year’s Eve looms large, I’m sure there are people everywhere crucifying themselves for not ‘having it all’. And to those people, I would say this; you do have it all. You have your life, and a whole new year ahead of you with no mistakes yet in it; a blank slate ripe for the taking, a fresh sheet of paper on which to create the life you want, one that fits you and not the rest of the world.

If you want to stay at home on December 31st because you don’t really like parties and socialising in large groups, that’s fine – stay in, watch a film, have a bath, have an early night. If you are feeling sad for whatever reason and can’t face plastering a smile on your face, just be sad. Allow yourself to feel whatever it is you are feeling. If you’ve only recently stopped drinking and can’t bear the thought of watching everyone, everywhere, getting hammered on alcohol then avoid it all. Do something different, choose to indulge yourself in whatever it is that makes you happy. Buck the trend.

Because in the end, the thing that will make you like yourself the most, is giving yourself permission to be you; to stop chipping away at the essence of whom you are, striving to meet the expectations of others instead of just being; to accept that you have your quirks and perfect imperfections but to love these and know you’re special, exactly how you are.

Christmas and New Year’s Eve can be unforgiving times, but reclaiming yourself, accepting who you are, can amount to the best present you’ll ever receive – living life in a way that’s absolutely true to the person you are inside. Focus on that, and see if 2017 turns out to be YOUR year. I bet it does.

Happy New Year, Lucy xx

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Finding Happy

I would describe myself as a busy person: driven, proactive and slightly obsessive (especially in terms of tidiness). I don’t find it especially easy to relax (hence my erstwhile tendency to down a bottle or two of wine most evenings) and I’m not a great one for indulging in lie-ins, although this is largely due to the fact that I have a three-year-old who leaps out of bed with gusto at approximately 6am most days.

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However, this morning I found myself lying in bed enjoying the rare phenomenon that is a ‘lie-in’, minus the aforementioned toddler leaping on me and thrusting various soft toys in my direction whilst barking instructions like, ‘Put Boris’s dress on!’ and ‘Clopper needs this hairclip on his ear!’ and ‘Put Molly Dolly’s nappy back on!’ – instructions which I dutifully obey as I attempt to awake fully from a deep slumber. A lie-in is a lovely thing, particularly when it is also an infrequent thing. And lying there in my bed, drinking tea and listening to the world gradually coming to life outside, I began to think how important it is to listen to our bodies and minds and to act accordingly, to behave in a way that’s in tune with our physical and mental needs.

As people with busy lives and a ton of responsibility, how many of us successfully manage to demarcate ‘me time’ in order to create a small window of opportunity for recharging our batteries? I am guilty, even when I actually do have free time, of not using that space to relax but instead going for a run or squeezing in a bit of work, or catching up on texts and emails. But this morning as I returned to bed with a cup of tea, I could feel how exhausted I was, how tired my legs were, and I wholeheartedly relinquished any notions of doing anything, choosing instead to do nothing.

I am forty in October of this year and it’s taken me reaching this age to accept when I need to rest, and to get on with doing it, free from any guilt or worry over all the things I should be accomplishing instead. Looking after myself is a by-product of stopping drinking. It’s something I never achieved when I was poisoning myself with alcohol. Lie-ins were for recovering from hangovers and free time was for getting drunk. As a drinker, there was no such thing as relaxation time – just mental obliteration followed by periods of self-induced illness.

Happiness is a holistic concept. It is achieved when we take care of all the aspects of our lives, ensuring we maintain balance wherever possible. In a nutshell, my own happiness stems from an active lifestyle, but one that is countered with adequate rest and good sleep; eating nutritious food; employing gratitude for all the things I have in my life whilst simultaneously not dwelling on what I don’t have; interacting with good friends and family in positive and reciprocal relationships; regarding my alcohol-free stance as one of upmost importance and never wavering from it; doing a job that I love and which gives me huge amounts of satisfaction; learning, finally, to like myself.

I guess what this post is about is emphasising the need for balance – and through not drinking alcohol I find balance easier than ever to achieve. For me, this is the key to staying happy, well and sober.

Love Being You

People pleasing. Not wanting to miss out on the fun. Restlessness. Overthinking. Scared to be me in company. Scared to be me alone. Frightened of offending someone. Feeling on the periphery of everything.

For these and many other reasons, I found alcohol to be a convenient and acceptable drug. I used it to soften the abject awkwardness I experienced in certain social situations, and to feel less lonely during evenings at home when I couldn’t face human company but struggled to feel content in my own skin.

There have always been aspects of the world that I don’t understand and that have resulted in me perceiving myself as different, slightly askew from the norm. I have, through trial and error, worked out that I am not what you might call ‘mainstream’. Somebody recently described me as ‘eccentric’ – a label that I would never have used but one that triggered a light bulb moment. It dawned on me that others might see me in this way too, and perhaps the perennial doubt I had always had about fitting in wasn’t just in my head after all. I was silently relieved.

For a very long time, too long a time, I tried desperately to squeeze my metaphorical foot into the glass slipper – a round peg in a square hole, moulding my personality to suit the requirements of others. But I never found it very easy unless I was drinking; booze is a highly effective leveller. And so subsequently, when I stopped drinking four years ago, I discovered that all the characteristics I’d taken for granted as being inherent – social butterfly, chatterbox, party animal – simply vanished like a puff of smoke.

I write this because last night I went to see Future Islands, a band I am madly in love with, at Plug in Sheffield where I live. I sat on the bar, elevated above the heaving crowds because I’m not the tallest person in the world and couldn’t see much from the floor apart from the head of the man in front of me. And I loved it. I loved being with all those people, listening to that music, watching the singer, Samuel T. Herring, who is simultaneously slightly bonkers, incredibly passionate and wonderfully talented. I didn’t need anything else other than just sitting there with my friend, listening and breathing in the atmosphere, soaking up the music.

Samuel T. Herring of Future Islands

Samuel T. Herring of Future Islands

Afterwards, I reflected on all the things I’ve done throughout my life that haven’t really been me, and the many nights out I have endured with people I had nothing in common with and who I didn’t, truth be known, actually want to spend time with. I thought of what I really love to do, the stuff that makes me feel like me and fills me up with excitement and reassurance that I fit in somewhere – stuff that I need to seek out instead of just waiting for it to land on my doorstep.

It dawned on me that there is a way to experience contentment and happiness on a fairly constant basis; it requires having one’s ‘shit filter’ turned up to the maximum setting. Don’t subject yourself to rubbish that annoys you or makes you feel uncomfortable. Do subject yourself to stuff that you love, that makes you feel amazing, that draws you close to like-minded people who reflect your own values. Be selective: the world has far too much to offer for any one person to experience it all, so don’t try to. Just pick out the best bits – for you.

Life Is A Journey – Make It Your Own

Life is a journey.

This is a maxim that we often hear, and maybe we like to imagine we spend our time on earth just enjoying being in the moment, soaking up all manner of different experiences, and learning more about other people and about ourselves. But deep down, how many of us are fixated on goals, on the life stages we are desperate to reach in order to tick them off on a mental check-list of all that we must achieve before we die? How many of us waste vast amounts of our time worrying about reaching a place, a position, a status?

There is a lot to be said for aiming for things – it keeps us motivated, and helps boost our self-esteem when we are successful in achieving what we set out to. But there are some goals that are not so important, and it’s these that prevent us from living in the moment.

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When I got divorced ten years ago I threw myself headlong into finding a replacement husband. I wanted the company, I needed the constant reassurance that I was attractive/nice/funny/desirable, but more than that, I simply wanted to feel normal. I hated how I felt consigned to the ‘no good’ rubbish heap of the unwanted, that I must be somehow flawed in ways that my friends were not – after all, they were still married and I was not. During that period of my life I did not consider myself to be partway along a journey; the aim of remarrying stood loud and bright like a beacon, impossible to ignore, a fixed end to my struggles, a place that I must reach before I could live again. The days, weeks, months and years before I was to settle down again were ones in which I was not living in the present. All I could focus on was the future, reaching that destination and reclaiming what I felt was rightfully mine.

Looking back, I was far too concerned with society’s expectations of how we should live our lives, and not mindful enough of the things that would make me happy and fulfilled. Sometimes it’s difficult to remain true to yourself, in and amongst the bombardment of ideals and aspirational lifestyles that we are surrounded by every day. It takes true strength of character to turn inwards and tune into exactly what will make you content, what will give your life meaning and how you wish to live it.

A big part of quitting drinking and the problems encountered in doing so, is that the world we inhabit expects us to consume alcohol. There is an assumption that you just do, and when you don’t, a sense of being strange, an oddity and of sticking out like a sore thumb can conspire to lure you back to the bottle. Listening to the real you – the one who resides quietly inside, beneath the various outward layers of character that are presented to others – takes real effort. Acting upon that genuine, undiluted element of who you are, takes courage and strength.

And when we can live according to the true person we are, life becomes a journey again. We stop striving to conform and no longer contort ourselves into all sorts of predicaments purely to fit in, to be accepted, to reach wherever it is we are told we should be heading. If we can perceive the challenges we face, the idiosyncrasies that make us unique and the alternative ways in which we opt to live our lives as vital components of who we are as individuals, then we can focus on just being us. Different. Interesting. Exciting. Special.

That’s how we can make life into a journey – and one we can enjoy.

My latest book, ‘How to Lead a Happier, Healthier and Alcohol-Free Life’, published by Accent Press, is now available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle.

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http://www.amazon.co.uk/lead-happier-healthier-alcohol-free-life-ebook/dp/B00NSIN986/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&sr=&qid=

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.

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.

7 Very Useful Everyday Expressions

I grew up hearing so many old expressions and commonly-spouted phrases that had been handed down through multiple generations, never really holding them in particularly high regard. As I have grown older, however, these snippets of wisdom have really begun to mean something to me. Just as is the case with the nursery rhymes we sing to our children to help them sleep or to keep them entertained, reassuringly familiar sayings have a comforting purposefulness about them, and should never be dismissed as merely phatic utterances.

Here are my 7 favourite everyday proverbs together with the reasons why I find them so helpful;

This too shall passI have lost count of the number of times this has been of comfort to me. In the darkest of hours, I have always reassured myself that absolutely everything eases with sufficient time – hanging onto that thought steered me out of some truly desperate moments.

There’s always someone worse off than youWhereby you should never reduce your own serious issues to nothing but trivialities, it is important to retain some perspective when one is up the proverbial creek minus a paddle. Personal difficulties can become magnified under the weighty pressure of whatever it is that has gone wrong, but when you remind yourself of what other people have to deal with, it really can help reduce the size of your problem.

An apple a day keeps the doctor awayBeing busy, pre-occupied or simply caught up in a carb-craving frenzy can occasionally make me forget to eat healthily. When I turn my back on the green stuff and opt instead for pizzas, cakes or biscuits, I notice a marked reduction in my energy levels and general sense of wellbeing, and a lack of desire to do any exercise. Conversely, when I eat well, I feel good.

A problem shared is a problem halvedSitting alone, mulling over a problem, the world can feel like a cold and unfeeling place. Those feelings vanish instantly the second we open up and talk over our troubles with a sympathetic and caring listener.

Every cloud has a silver liningThere has been a positive aspect to every single bad life event I have experienced, whether it was my divorce (taught me independence, forced me to grow up, eventually led me to where I am now), or failing to get a job that I had my heart set on (other opportunities opened up instead which turned out to be a much better fit for me, and which evolved into even greater and more exciting things than I could ever have imagined originally). Seek out the silver lining wherever possible; it will help you to appreciate EVERY part of your life.

As you make your bed, so you must lie upon itPersonal responsibility is so important for emotional development. We have to accept things are of our own making (when they are) in order to be able to learn from our mistakes and grow into better people. Blaming others results in bitterness and a narrow mind – it takes strength and dignity to accept responsibility when things go wrong.  

Carpe DiemAlways remember the brevity of life. You never know when your time will be up and it will be too late to do the things you always dreamt of. Make the moment count, never waste a day, and always try to be grateful for having the opportunity to live.

What Makes You Happy?

“The purpose of our lives is to be happy.” – Dalai Lama

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Many people, me included, began drinking in the hope of finding a route to happiness. Teenage parties were livened up just as soon as a couple of bottles were introduced into the equation, a Friday night with a friend transformed from merely chatting and watching TV together, to uproarious laughter and silliness after a few glasses of Chardonnay had been sunk.

We all want to be happy. Life without happiness is a humdrum existence – we are simply being, rather than living. Alcohol for many is the secret to elevating themselves from mundane to extraordinary, the key to flitting out of normality for a few hours and into another world.

We all strive to be happy, we want to enjoy our time on Earth.

For me, and I am sure countless others, alcohol provided a reliable, cheap and easy way to find happiness. For a while.

One of the problems with utilising alcohol as a means to happiness is that the effects are short-lived and, when they wear off, often difficult to remember. Alcohol is also a depressant, and excessive drinking frequently leads to bouts of anxiety and mood swings.

When we choose to live alcohol-free, we lose that fast-track path of transportation to a different place – something which can take a long time to grow accustomed to living without. Gone is the chance to drift away into a parallel universe, and when times are tough there is no immediately obvious escape route. Living AF means learning to live with ourselves, under every cloud, each ray of sunshine, and amidst the most torrential downpours of unrelenting misery.

Despite booze enabling me to feel happy on many occasions during the twenty years that I spent downing more of the stuff than was good for me, it was a happiness that did not come free from sacrifice. The pay-off for those happy nights dancing and letting my hair down and laughing about nonsense, was terrible mood swings, frightening anxiety attacks and a gradual erosion of my self-confidence.

If the purpose of our lives is to be happy, then for me, this is best achieved through living without alcohol. I can’t fulfil my potential when I drink, I am without self-esteem and uncertain of whom I really am or what I want out of life. I stop caring so much about other people and instead am caught up in obtaining my next fix of wine. When I drink, the ONLY means of finding happiness is to be found at the bottom of a glass.

Nobody strives to be miserable, and without an alternative common and definitive meaning to life, I will settle on the Dalai Lama’s notion of what the purpose of our lives is. I believe that to be truly happy, one needs to exist in a way which the abuse of alcohol quite clearly acts as an obstacle to – to help others, connect with people, care for ourselves, achieve self-fulfilment, find a purpose and know what it is to have self-esteem.

Take Good Care of Your Self Esteem

What happens to so many people in our society as they grow from children to adults and in the process gradually shed their self-belief and confidence? Between the ages of 13 and 35 I slipped into an alcohol dependency that became so deeply embedded in who I thought I was that the revelation of the real me who came to light after becoming teetotal came as a huge surprise.

As a child I was brimming with self-confidence, a little bit stubborn, a high achiever and natural leader. I threw myself gung-ho into whatever activity I was doing and thought I would reach nothing less than amazing and dizzy heights of success in whatever field I chose to venture into – post Oxbridge, of course.

Oh how reality bites – by age 14 I was drinking regularly, smoking, obsessed with boys, rather less obsessed with school work and venturing ever near to the brink of an eating disorder which fully took hold a few months later. Over the course of the next 5 years, my self-belief nosedived and by the time I was 20 I was living with an ex-con, drinking like a fish and struggling to get through my degree course. I hardly ate, smoked 20 a day and had no desire to do anything with my time other than get absolutely out of my head.

I don’t really have any definitive answers for the puzzle of how that happened. I came from a happy and secure family, I wasn’t bullied at school, there were no major traumas of which I bore deep mental scars. The only constants in the trajectory of my youth, twenties and early thirties were alcohol and cigarettes.

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As I spend my life now without the crutch of alcohol, or of any other addiction (excluding coffee and chocolate, but they constitute small-fry in comparison to previous vices) for that matter, it seems entirely probable that the somewhat skewed path that my life took prior to quitting alcohol 2 years ago was as a direct result of too much booze. I was permanently depressed as a consequence of all that wine, I neglected to eat properly owing to a huge lack of self-esteem and some misguided belief that if I was super thin I would be super happy, and not eating caused me to suffer terrible mood swings; I self-medicated these with more wine, and the alcohol was also responsible for many of the poor choices of partner that I made over the years – many of whom I would never have been within 10 yards of had I been sober.

I see my 14 year old daughter now caught like a rabbit in the headlights, choosing whether to believe in something good for herself, or throwing it all to one side and getting on with the business of self-contempt. It seems that, especially for women, developing a sense of low self-worth is perceived as interesting at best, romantic at worse. As a teenager I fell for it hook, line and sinker, filling my head with sexy notions of messed up women, the idea that falling into a state of vulnerability and despair would somehow enhance my attractiveness; a Betty Blue for Sheffield.

Today, as a strong, positive and determined woman of 37, I see nothing to shy away from in the idea of a woman being together and able to take care of herself and her family without the need for a crutch of any sort (apart from the chocolate and the coffee – see above).

It is now my mission to pass this ideal on to my wonderful, intelligent, capable and strong teenage daughter.

Joie de Vivre

Some people can drink alcohol moderately and manage to maintain a happy, balanced life.

Some people cannot.

Alcohol can make you feel happy, sexy, confident and full of joie de vivre.

Alcohol can make you feel desperately unhappy, full of self-hatred, anxious and sick.

Drinking is a social event, a ‘thing’ that seems to be all around us.

Being teetotal can make you feel somewhat left out.

Nobody can make you stop drinking, so if you choose, you can continue to drink until you die.

Nobody can make you continue to drink, so if you choose, you never have to drink alcohol again.

Some people can take or leave alcohol.

Some people can’t seem to stop drinking once they begin.

Some people want to reach self-fulfilment.

Some people are happy to drift along as they are.

Alcohol is marketed in a way which can make it appear to be sophisticated and cool.

Alcohol is the root cause of thousands of deaths every year.

Alcohol can negatively skew your vision of your world.

You possess the ability to choose what works best for you in your life.

You are the master of your own destiny.

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