Happy Birthday Soberistas x

Soberistas.com is three years old. Today, thousands of people belong to this online community, which started out on November 26th 2012 as just a couple of hundred members posting blogs and comments and nervously wondering what would happen next…

Soberistas has been a major part of my own story of recovering from an alcohol dependency that eventually put me in hospital. When I set the site up, I genuinely had no idea that so many people felt exactly how I did – people from all walks of life; men and women, from England, America, Canada, Australia and so many other countries in between.

Gradually, this community has increased in size and strength, and over the last three years we have come to represent a viable resource for those drinkers who want to become alcohol-free but who need a bit of friendly support in getting there.

The things that helped me personally become happy, and therefore to stay happily off the booze, are detailed below, because I wanted to share them again for the benefit of anyone who is in that desperately dark place that I once was, back in the spring of 2011. But before I go on to explain what has helped me get and remain sober, I think it’s important to state why it’s worth putting yourself through the challenge of stopping drinking. What are the benefits of becoming alcohol-free?

Well, here’s what I’ve gained in the last four and a half years:

  • My self-esteem
  • A love of life
  • An appreciation for EVERYTHING I have, and for all the people I am lucky enough to have in my life
  • Confidence
  • A job that I love
  • Lifelong friends
  • New experiences, travelling and taking up different and challenging opportunities
  • Clarity
  • Thousands of mornings, clear-headed and hangover-free
  • Quality time with my children, free from the guilt-ridden anxieties over my drinking that plagued me so much in the past
  • Becoming a published author
  • A life free from a daily dread of developing liver cirrhosis or cancer caused by my alcohol consumption and smoking habit
  • Finally knowing my own mind and what makes me happy – and what makes me tick

The stuff I did to help me become firmly established as a Soberista all stem from the first, extremely important (and perhaps obvious) starting point: I didn’t touch alcohol at all once I decided to quit. No cheeky little glasses of wine because it was my birthday, no sneaky halves of lager when nobody was looking. Zero. Zilch. Nada.

This was vital to my long-term sobriety because it enabled me to develop a completely clear head, free from all the negativity and confusion that arose from the excessive alcohol I once consumed.

I got fit and found other things to do with my time. This prevented me from getting bored, it gave me the mental lift and escapism (especially running) that I had previously attempted to obtain through alcohol, and it boosted my self-esteem, which in turn helped me to realise that I did actually deserve a life that wasn’t coloured by the terrible consequences of my drinking.

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I discovered gratitude. I started to think positively about my life, and focused on the good bits instead of the crap parts. I recognised that actually, I was very lucky, and had a lot that was worth living for.

I spent time in the countryside and indulged myself in nature. This helped me to put my problems in perspective and reminded me that we are so small in the grand scheme of things, our lives are so fleeting, and that ultimately, we should be grabbing onto life with both hands and living it to the absolute max – rather than wasting it in a drunken haze, routinely floored by self-hatred and shame.

I reached out to people and opened up. I admitted to people that I had a drink problem. Again, sounds simple, but I stopped pretending that it was normal to pass out and blackout and embarrass myself terribly.

I repeatedly told myself that This Too Shall Pass. When the going got tough, I stuck it out. I persevered. I never gave in. I believed in better. And eventually, things got better. Much better.

I meditated and practised mindfulness. I made a concerted effort to live in the here and now. To focus on today, instead of worrying ceaselessly about shit that hadn’t happened yet, or shit that had happened and of which I could do nothing to change.

And so, here I am. Sober, happy; a happy Soberista. Thank you to all those inspiring people out there who helped me find this life free from alcohol. And to anyone who wants to be a Soberista but who hasn’t got there yet – if I can do it then so can you. This sober life is a vast improvement on a drinking life, for anyone who can’t moderate his or her alcohol intake. Good luck. xx

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.

BiTN Meditation

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.

Out with the negative;in with the happy!

As a child I perpetually lived in the moment. I was lucky enough to have a very happy childhood, one that was full of Enid Blyton-esque adventures in sunny fields with friends, roller-skating up and down the cul-de-sac that I grew up on, baking cakes and biscuits, reading and writing voraciously and never seemingly worrying about anything, past or present. I just was.

During the years that I spent drinking heavily (aged 15 – 35) my state of being was at a polar opposite of those younger halcyon years. Anxiety levels were astronomical, with worries over relationships, divorce settlements, my daughter’s wellbeing, how much I was drinking, paying the bills, whether I was causing my body untold harm through all those cigarettes and bottles of wine…my mind seemed to be set to a constant whirring mode, churning and cogitating and over-thinking all these troubles that in the end, were what they were; none of the excess pondering made the slightest indent on any of it. The outcomes were the same regardless.

Nowadays I experience ‘normal’ worries. A small amount of worrying does us good and if we existed in a blissful childhood state, skipping about without a care in the world, we would find our little lives running to a standstill fairly quickly. Normal worrying helps us keep a reign on our budget, encourage our children to work a little harder on their homework when they begin to spend too much time on Facebook, put a bit more effort into our relationships if we feel they are not as tight as they perhaps might be.

A huge difference that I have noticed in the last few weeks since I began to practice the art of meditation is that I seem to be able to better control those uncontrollable fits of anxiety, the ones that render you feeling sick and with palpitations; a bit like the way I felt yesterday morning on my way to the ITV studio to appear on Daybreak. I caught myself becoming overwhelmed with fear in the back of the car as we travelled past the London Eye looming out of the early dawn with its blue-lit cars suspended over the Thames, my stomach churning and my mind rattling along at a hundred miles an hour. Then I made a decision to not feel that way.

Hang on a minute! It’s my mind, I call the shots.

I took some deep breaths, focussed my mind and cleared my thoughts. I began to consider that this experience was something to be savoured – it’s not every day that you get to go on live TV and sit next to Dr. Hilary! I recalled how this would have been dealt with by me as a child – I would have seen the whole journey through eyes wild with excitement, from arriving in London late at night, staying in a nice hotel, being picked up by a car with tinted windows and taken to ITV’s studios…I would have loved every minute 30 years ago. Instead, I had been allowing my out-of-control worrying to ruin the whole event.

Practising meditation has allowed me to be much more aware of negative thinking patterns and has also taught me that I don’t have to accept them – I can decide whether I perceive something in a positive way or a negative way. Yesterday I chose to see things positively, and I found myself enjoying the whole experience; by simply altering the way I decide to process external situations, I have also made myself a little bit braver and next time (if there is a next time) I will approach things in a far more relaxed fashion, right from the off.

Only you can determine whether you tackle things positively or negatively – taking the former option makes life a million times easier and more enjoyable!

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.

Beware! Virtuous Weekend Ahead

I managed to find a brief window earlier which I utilised for meditation purposes. It wasn’t ideal – the washing machine was whirring in the background and the blinds were open, thus causing me some anxiety that a delivery man/window cleaner/potential burglar might be staring in at me sitting on the kitchen floor crossed legged, eyes closed and looking, if I’m honest, a bit weird. I think I need to find an alternative time and space for this activity…

Things that are niggling me today are; a) my bitten nails and b) my apparent inability to lose the last 5 pounds that will bring me back down to my pre-pregnancy weight. Do these things even matter? Should they matter? Probably not, but I do keep hearing a voice in the far reaches of my head that reminds me of the ‘9 months on, 9 months off’ rule of thumb regarding pregnancy weight gain/loss. My baby was 9 months old 3 days ago.

I bit my nails my whole life until I broke up from my ex-husband; during that awful time, I suddenly grew some nails, lost 2 stone (a bit too much really, but depression and divorce are extremely effective dieting tools), drank like a fish and started eating meat again after 18 years of vegetarianism. That was 10 years ago, and I’m thinking that life moves in cycles because I have now decided to become vegetarian once again (it’s been buzzing in my mind for a while but my recent interest in Buddhism and the horse meat found in burgers and lasagne scandal have pushed me firmly back into the land of Linda McCartney sausages, tofu and Quorn fillets), bitten my nails to the quick and am the heaviest I have ever been when not pregnant.

Despite my belief that true happiness stems from the inside, I know I feel better when I am slimmer; I feel more energetic, my clothes look better and I don’t agonise over trying not to eat cakes, then being consumed with guilt when I ultimately cave in to temptation. Likewise, my nails make me feel happier when they aren’t chomped down to a couple of millimetres in length, the cuticles are tidy rather than being scraggy and torn, and I haven’t got my fingers clamped between my teeth for most of the day like some demented nervous nelly.

So, I have just ordered some stuff from Amazon that is supposed to strengthen weak nails and encourage their growth, and I am embarking on a more structured attempt to lose those last few pounds. If I am miserable as sin then these external factors won’t make a jot of difference to my emotional wellbeing, I know that; but if I am happy as well, then having nice nails and being slimmer can only serve as the icing on the cake, surely…

How to go about the weight loss then? I need to step up my running – the cold weather and snow have knocked my running regime off a little in recent weeks and I seem to have lost my determination and motivation a little. BUT I have a 10K race coming up in a couple of weeks and I really need to increase my mileage. I’ve placed an embargo on cakes, biscuits, white bread and basically anything rubbish and fattening for the foreseeable future, and I am kick-starting my weight loss effort by eating mostly fruit and veg over the coming weekend. I also need to drink a LOT more water (again, this is down to the cold; in the summer I drink gallons of the stuff but in winter I crave tea and coffee. My plan to combat this is to drink hot water with a slice of lemon in it).

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This weekend, then, is suddenly looking very virtuous – no cakes, lots of exercise, and meals consisting mainly of fruit and vegetables. Also, a spot of meditation that doesn’t take place on the kitchen floor with the washing machine providing the background noise, no mobile phone or laptop in the bedroom at night, plenty of reading instead and no nail biting.

Let’s see if any of that makes a difference to how I look and feel…

Your mind is your instrument. Learn to be its master and not its slave.

I yearn for complete inner calm. I want to be one of those people who drift along with a look of serenity, a palpable sense of sanctum about my being, an enviable ability to cope in even the most stressful of situations. Despite becoming more level-headed since ditching alcohol and with less of a tendency towards depressive or anxious episodes, I know there’s still room for a deeper level of tranquillity.

I felt strangely at home as I entered the Kadampa Buddhist Centre for my very first meditation class last Monday evening, despite never being inside such a place before. After removing my shoes and coat I took my seat in the meditation room alongside about 30 others, and placed my feet on a cushion on the floor. It felt very normal to be sitting there in front of the Buddhist Altar complete with numerous gold Buddhas and, bizarrely, a couple of large packets of tortilla chips (was Buddha a fan of crisps?).

Image courtesy of © Bparish | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos

We listened to our teacher’s friendly introduction to the session and then jumped straight into a spot of meditating – I was a little taken aback at the speed with which we were getting to the nitty gritty, but went with it regardless. I approached the idea of meditating with an open mind, and I believe that this is what enabled me to go pretty deep into a state of meditation almost immediately upon closing my eyes. This surprised me – past efforts at being hypnotised have failed miserably, largely owing to my somewhat cynical nature I think…meditating was different though and it all felt totally normal and right to be sitting amongst 30 strangers with my eyes closed, slowly drifting off into a state of mind rarely visited; serenity.

After half an hour, we were ‘brought back into the room’ and I was amazed that so long had passed – it felt closer to ten minutes. Our teacher then talked for a while about how, through meditation, it is possible to determine whether external events affect us in a positive or negative way, simply by becoming more in tune with our emotional energy. This is what I wanted to hear; I want that ability to shun the occasional burst of anxiety, the odd blue mood. I am deeply drawn to the idea that I call the shots with regards to my own emotions, and that I can develop an ability to see the positive in (almost) everything simply through practicing this amazing art of meditation, which in itself is a powerful thing.

I can’t remember feeling so relaxed…EVER. I was so chilled out that I was somewhat concerned about driving home, with visions of me swaying behind the wheel with an inane smile on my face as I ploughed straight through some red lights playing in my mind’s eye as I approached my car after the class. I was filled with a sense of positivity and love; I could not wait for the next class so that I could do it all over again.

Meditating, just once, has highlighted to me the extent that my lifestyle has come to represent the typically Western way of being; a life that is crammed full of activities, chores and work, and one in which any spare time that I have is largely filled with checking emails, texts or Twitter. I NEVER sit and JUST BE. No wonder I sometimes find it difficult to relax. Even when I go to bed I usually scroll through my tweets, or take a last look at my emails, when once upon a time I always read books.

Since the class I have made an effort to notice my emotions more, trying to pinpoint the stress points in order to better reverse the negativity. I have also become more aware of how I breathe, and have realised that I have a tendency to hold my breath when I become anxious, which in turn increases the anxiety only further. My aim now is to leave my phone downstairs when I go to bed, thus encouraging me to read and relax before trying to sleep, rather than scrolling endlessly through electronic messages of one type or another. I am also trying to find some time each day to practice meditating, although this is proving difficult with a 9 month old baby, a teenager and a dog to look after – I can see that it is possible but I need to attach a higher priority to it in order to fit it into each day.

And of course, I will be attending my meditation class next Monday.

2013 – Seeking Serenity, Wellbeing & Happiness

I’ve been writing about alcohol for quite a while now; about when I used to drink, why I stopped drinking, how it made me feel, the regrets and the shame, and the newly-discovered happiness and positivity that I have derived from sobriety.

Giving up alcohol has led me to thinking a lot about the meaning of my life, how to achieve and then maintain true happiness and how to feel the very best, and how to be the very best, that I can be. And so I’ve decided that 2013 is going to be a year of effort and experiments, a living test to find the secrets of inner serenity, wellbeing and happiness – and I thought I would share my findings with you. A new day

Life isn’t about being dealt the best hand – it’s about doing the best you can do with the hand that you’ve been dealt. This year I want to discover all my cards, and work out how to play them to the best of my ability.

I’m focussing on the spiritual, physical, mental and social aspects of life because I believe that true happiness comes from within, not from without. I think the world we live in often places too high a price on the shallow and the irrelevant, failing to realise that what is just under our noses is often the source of the greatest joy; cooking and eating wholesome meals together as a family, creating something out of nothing, working towards and then reaching a personal goal, spending quality time with family and friends, learning how to be more mindful and appreciative of the small stuff, letting go of anxieties about the things we are helpless to change, being kind and helpful to people we don’t know, and to those we do, having adventures, seeking out new experiences, being community-spirited, and finding space in busy days to have ‘me time.’

From now on, I’ll use this space as a record of everything I do that counts towards reaching my goal of seeing all the cards I’ve been dealt, and how to play them as best I can. This journey of self-discovery that began when I woke up one day in April 2011 with THE worst hangover known to mankind will be twisting and turning for a while yet, I hope. Now that I’ve cracked the alcohol, I’m going to channel my efforts into being the best sober ME that I can be…and I’m starting with MEDITATION.

Read about my very first meditation class in my next blog…