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.

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Something Worth Fighting For…

Nobody wakes up one day and decides that they fancy frittering their life away on drugs and booze. The drinking and the partying are just elements of what a person initially perceives as being fun and the more of it they do, the more it becomes acceptable. The lines get blurred. What was once off limits appears not so scary. The restrictions that prevented the bad stuff occurring are slowly eroded, and a wilderness fills the void – a barren landscape in which time is fluid and reality not certain.

Underlying my own alcohol and drug issues was a malignant desire to hurt myself. I relished in self-destruction, wore it like a badge of honour. The scars of my lifestyle were embraced and absorbed into my rebellious nature, it’s what I wanted to be. Dangerous. Free. Unconventional. Brazen. A warrior, fighting against my self, at war with my mind and inflicting neglect and suffering on my body. I liked it like that; there was a comforting familiarity to it all.

I think in the midst of this, I was frightened to acknowledge my future in a particularly honest way. I did not, for instance, fully accept that the chances of me developing cancer or liver disease were being significantly raised as a result of my alcohol consumption. Occasionally I’d be hit by a morbid fear, but there was always the drink to wash the worries away. I thought I liked who I was, and I never gave consideration to an alternative way of life. It was meant to be that way, wasn’t it? The time for casting roles had long since past and I was who I was, in my shoes, walking my path. Defined by drink and getting wasted. The one who would always take it a step further. And people who weren’t like that bored me to tears. I was a part of a tribe to which non-hedonists did not belong. I didn’t want anything to do with real life. Outside of my bubble of mind-altering substances, nothing interested me.

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But if you give life a chance, sufficient time spent not under the influence of alcohol and drugs, it teaches you how to live it. Things become apparent and it starts to grow easier to exist. The demons that ate away at me in my teens and twenties have all been eradicated. I have a broader cognisance now, which has allowed stuff to fall into place. It isn’t necessary to hurt yourself to get your point across or to show the world just how different you are. There’s nothing unusual about getting out of your skull every day – people are doing it everywhere.

Conversely, this quiet acceptance, a real love for life’s minutiae as well as the major things that we exist amongst, self-awareness, self-compassion, reaching goals, being proud, having clarity, being calm, a ripple-free life, relationships on a plateau, less anger, more control – that’s different. That’s special. Being in tune with yourself as a human being, listening to your body and mind, and recognising who you truly were meant to be, that’s worth something. It’s worth fighting for.

Walk the Line

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Listening to Johnny Cash’s ‘Hurt’ this morning, I was reminded of the terribly low opinion I once held about myself. His line, ‘Everyone I know goes away in the end’, used to ring horribly true when I drank. In a bizarre way, I sought comfort in the fact that I was, apparently, stuck fast on a predestined road to misery. I was so accustomed to disaster and disappointments that it hardly occurred to me that life did not, in actual fact, need to be that way at all.

The thing about heavy drinking is that it results in a loss of control over one’s emotions, sensibilities, intuition, honour, pride, dignity and integrity. It slams shut the door on personal growth and emotional maturity. It consistently prevents an optimistic outlook from emerging, and instead encourages a warped, negative default position in response to life.

I would routinely push away the people who were close to me, the ones who tried to break through the defensive barriers I’d built. I didn’t believe that I deserved to be happy and so I sought a bleak existence, one that was filled with reinforcements of my poor self-image. And when my behaviour was rewarded with the loss of yet another relationship, I would retreat into my comfortable world once more – one inhabited by just me, alcohol, and self-pity.

It didn’t take me long, once I put down the bottle, to realize that things aren’t really like this, not in the realm of alcohol-free living at least. As soon as you become in control of your life and develop emotional reactions that are appropriate to a given situation, when you begin to understand yourself and learn exactly what it is that will make you happy (and unhappy), and when you start to appreciate that your actions really do influence those around you thus determining the trajectory of your relationships – then life becomes reasonably straightforward.

It becomes possible to clear out all the crap and get started on creating a better, brighter future for yourself. Self-sacrifice is no longer a meaningless concept, forever out of reach because of an overwhelming desire to escape your reality. The booze-fuelled, nightmarish situations melt away and everyday life is simplified, predictable.

There’s nothing magical about this process; it just happens when the brain is no longer being regularly soaked in a mind-altering, toxic substance.

Johnny Cash was married to June Carter for thirty-five happy years, his life transformed for the better by his decision to quit drinking and other drugs. He found true contentment with his best friend and love of his life because he was able to give himself fully to her as opposed to the bottle. He left behind a son who loved him and millions of adoring fans all over the world. He died with his integrity and his dignity intact, and with the knowledge that he’d done his very best to be the best he could be. I am inspired by Johnny Cash.

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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.

Freedom to Fly

For me, regularly drinking alcohol generated terrible feelings of being worthless and inferior to everyone else I ever came into contact with. In addition, this destructive assault on my self-belief always came to the fore simultaneously with a hefty dose of what can only be described as Negative Mental Attitude.

It was the world’s fault that I did not achieve what I wanted in life, that my marriage had ended in its infancy, that I hated my job, that I was struggling financially – there was always someone else to blame and never me.

One of the greatest gifts of sobriety is the joyful return to living in the Real World. Occasionally there are difficult patches which must be navigated through and not drinking certainly does not make life a guaranteed bed of roses; what living alcohol-free does provide, however, is a reality check and a realisation that whilst things may not always be quite how you would choose you are equipped with all the tools required to make the best of your hand.

Instead of enduring a crippling dose of internal criticism whenever I meet a person who I deem to be superior in some respect to me, I now recognise their plus points as nice qualities which I admire rather than an emotional hand grenade to hurl at my fragile sense of self; so if someone is very pretty I consider them as, well, being pretty; as in ‘She’s pretty – wow, what gorgeous hair/eyes/cheekbones.’ This is infinitely healthier than the old alternative of ‘Oh my God, she is so beautiful. Look at me in comparison; I am fat, ugly, with horrible hair, awful clothes and generally hideous. I must run home at once and hide away until I forget that I ever had the misfortune to stand near this stunning creature.’

Nowadays I recognise that whilst I have my plus points and am neither hideously ugly nor out-of-this-world beautiful, I am just fine the way I am. If I meet people who are prettier/cleverer/wittier/more interesting than I am then it’s a pleasure being in their company and enjoying their special qualities. I have come to understand that there will always be someone who is doing something or looking better than I will ever be able to, and people who have amazing physiques that I will probably never attain, and people who are fortunate enough to have long, flowing, glossy tresses which I know I will never be able to grow.

Butterfly-033But that’s ok, because they will never have what I have either.

Not drinking stops the endless cycle of self-loathing and negativity caused by depression and alcohol-induced shame. Living alcohol-free allows you to come forth like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon and to subsequently realise all your qualities that have previously been smothered by alcohol for so long.

Give yourself a chance; stop drinking and spread your wings.

Turning the Other Cheek

The devil will, I believe, always be within spitting distance of my mind. I’ll have days when I ponder the notion that perhaps now, after all this time, I could have just one little drink. That sneaky voice, pervasive and persuasive, will once in a while pop up and proposition me with the questions of ‘did you really need to stop for good?’ and ‘how about you simply exercise some alcohol moderation?’ and ‘don’t you know that time heals all?’ I will still, occasionally, feel a tugging on my collar as the demon attempts to lure me back into his den of destruction.

Why can I now resist what I never could during all those drunken years of my past? My sober persistence stems from learning a lesson, accepting the truth and keeping myself firmly on a path that leads in the opposite direction. Being sober and true to myself doesn’t mean that I no longer hear the call – it simply means that now I understand the need to ignore it, and that over time I have gradually developed the tools to silence it.

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Not drinking alcohol for two years does not eradicate the inability to drink ‘sensibly.’ Avoiding booze for a sufficient length of time does not magically dissolve the desire to consume the whole bottle just as soon as you pop the cork and swallow your first mouthful.  But what time without alcohol does provide is enough self-awareness to allow you to recognise your weak spots, your triggers and your instincts.

Living alcohol-free allows you to develop the knowledge that your brain operates on two levels; this is commonly referred to as being ruled by your head or your heart, or having your angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other. Given enough time without alcohol sullying your ability to think clearly, it becomes second nature to spot which is the ‘bad brain’ talking and which is you.

A little like being a child and having a naughty friend who coerces you  into causing trouble with them, and a good, loyal friend who respects you and regards your feelings above their own, understanding which of your two brains to listen to means arriving at the realisation of what’s right for you, and what works best in your happy life.

So when you hear that little voice whispering sweet nothings in your ear and attempting to draw you back to where you ran so desperately from once upon a time, try and regard it as the bad friend – turn the other cheek and seek out what’s right. YOU will thank you for your strength in the morning.

Sliding Doors

Do you ever wonder where your life may have taken you, had you made different decisions? For me, a large element of learning to let go of my past mistakes has been the understanding and acceptance of who I am today, and how all the choices I have made on my journey to this point have amalgamated to create who I have become.

I have had relationships which would, I’m sure, have taken me to very different places had I remained in them; the boyfriend who I moved to London to live with in my early twenties was an ardent socialite, a lover of debauchery, and not someone who I could imagine I would ever have become sober whilst involved with. My ex-husband, the workaholic, who I erroneously believed to be the love of my life prior to him walking out and leaving me with a broken leg, crutches, our four-year-old daughter and a mad puppy on Valentine’s Day 2003, would only have stunted my emotional and personal development had we remained married, and I am eternally grateful that he left me as he did.

The years that followed his leaving were admittedly awful, the wine drunk far too vast in quantity, but the ensuing depression and dark days were, I believe, all vital ingredients in building my emotional strength and character. If he had stayed, I am certain that I would never have grown as a person, would never have fought and beaten my demons, and ultimately, never have drunk so much that I then considered it absolutely essential that I conquer my alcohol dependency.

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In the years that followed my divorce, I had relationships with a few men, all of whom were lovely in their own way but none of whom would have helped me find the road to sobriety, self-discovery and finally, learning to like myself. They were all heavy drinkers, and despite their collective disapproval of the multifarious displays of my terrible drunken behaviour, none were brave enough to take on the dragon that was Lucy’s beloved bottle of wine. Had I stayed with any one of those partners, I probably would have drunk myself into an early grave.

In the midst of all that pin-balling from one bad relationship to another, the mornings of self-hatred that evolved into afternoons in the pub and evenings of comatose drunkenness, arguments and hour upon hour of wasted life, the smallest desire to escape my situation began to gain momentum. So insignificant that I didn’t even know it was there for a long time, the seed that grew into a very real knowledge that I must stop drinking took years to establish itself. The boyfriends who were a mistake, the under-achieving at work due to constant hangovers, the inability to move forward in my life and the associated frustrations that arose as a result, gradually amassed to provide the food and water required to nurture my growing awareness.

And one day, there it was – it turns out that all those bad choices were not so bad after all, because in the small hours of a Thursday morning almost two years ago, I woke up and realised that the seed had become a tree. All of a sudden, I recognised how I should be spending my life, and I began to live it. If none of my bad times had happened, if the years of pain and grimness had been erased and left me with nothing but an easy ride, I wouldn’t be here, doing this. No contentment, no new baby, no self-esteem, no Soberistas, no gratitude for my life.

There will always be sunshine after the rain.

Finding Me

How do we ever know who we are supposed to be? Which version of us is the real one, and which are fabrications of our imaginations, finely tuned by our habits and daily living?

An advert for the Christmas film, Elf, played on the TV earlier, the voiceover setting out the premise of the story as being about someone who finds out one day that he isn’t who he thought he was and suddenly armed with this truth, he sets off to discover exactly who he really is.

And hearing these words, I began to think that this kind of narrative is popular with people because it is a phenomenon many of us can relate to. Maturity has much to do with self-discovery and exploration of self, but I think for those of us who have lived through and emerged out the other side of addictions, the need and desire to understand ourselves is particularly strong.

As a regular and heavy drinker, I thought I was outgoing, flirtatious, bubbly, a little bit of a daredevil, something of a maverick. As a sober person, my opinion of myself has altered drastically. I found out that I am not much of a party animal in actuality – the excessive socialising served as a cloak by which to disguise my urge to go out and get hammered. It was an easier pill to swallow if I got drunk with other people who were also getting sloshed, rather than staying home alone with just a couple of bottles of wine for company.

I’m much more interested in politics and humanity at large than I ever thought I was back in my drinking days. I simply had no energy to care about the world outside of my small and mostly inebriated existence. I now love setting myself challenges and achieving my goals, especially in running and creative projects; it is so rewarding seeing things come to fruition after hard work and planning. Pre-sobriety, running was a bit of a chore, something I did to keep in shape. I enjoyed it when I actually managed to go, but I didn’t have the same passion for it as I have now. And creativity wasn’t even in my vocabulary back then.

In Elf, Will Ferrell’s character journeys to New York in order to find out who he is and what his place in the world is, but in reality the process is a little less exciting than that. When you begin on the road to true self awareness, you just have to start walking, armed with a lot of patience, take a few tentative steps in a direction that you hope might be the correct one, see how it goes, find out how it will make you feel. Weeks and months of going nowhere, of experiencing little in the way of change may pass and it feels as though you are simply treading water and moving neither backwards nor forwards. And then you get a breakthrough.

Out of nowhere, you begin to see a new element of your self coming to the fore, seeking its place in your world. After time, the jigsaw begins to look more complete, and eventually, just the odd piece remains unfixed around the edges waiting to slot in somewhere.

Occasionally, a new situation arises and I feel unable to deal with it, not knowing whether to rely on the old me, or to try and find a different way of coping. It’s a no man’s land of emotions, a sensation of being lost in your own body. I do know how to get through these periods now though; I have finally learnt how to respond to the unknown – plod along, get your head down and get on with it, run as much as possible, stay true to living without alcohol, and eventually the sun comes out again and shines on the answer, right in front of your face.

It’s called self discovery and it only begins to start fully when you stop drinking.

How Addiction Works

Big changes stem from small decisions, which in turn derive from a multitude of thought processes, some monumental and others seemingly insignificant. I see the world differently today than how I did a couple of years ago; my eyes take in an alternative universe, a place which is poles apart from the world I once thought I lived in.

Being addicted to something that ruins you is a pretty difficult way to live. When I was a teenager I was hooked on starving myself, obsessed by skipping meals and weighing myself, throwing up on purpose and counting the days that had passed since I last ate.

I once got dragged along to the doctors by a well-meaning friend who thought I really should get help, but I suffered a panic attack in the waiting room which in turn brought on a gushing nose bleed, and so I ran outside to the car and never went back.

I resolved that first instance of self-harm when I found myself pregnant with my eldest daughter. It suddenly dawned on me that the human body is quite remarkable and I loved mine for being able to nourish and grow this tiny life inside it. The urge to starve myself disappeared.

New motherhood meant that cigarettes and alcohol fell by the wayside too, until the onslaught of my divorce a few years later hit me like a train, tugging at the destructive seeds of self-abuse that had been lying dormant all those years, poking and teasing them out until they emerged slowly, but full of vigour, from where they’d been hiding.

Then came the booze addiction, which was far more tenacious than the eating disorder. It became entrenched in my conscience and mindset, it defined who I thought I was, becoming the reason why I did anything and everything, the motivation for the choices I made; it was behind the selection of my friends and boyfriends and the path I followed in life.

I didn’t know I was addicted to alcohol, and so its insidious and altogether socially acceptable qualities enabled it to creep up on me unawares, pulling me down a dark and dangerous road, all the while soothing and comforting me, and making all the pain seem like it was normal. A persistent voice in my head told me that I was not a good person and that all the bad stuff that happened was down to some inherent characteristic of mine. The doomed relationships, financial struggles, unsatisfying jobs, failure to make something out of myself – I reasoned them all away by telling myself that I was not worthy of the good stuff.

It’s easy to keep on hurting yourself if you believe you are no good. And, I have to be honest, there is something oddly comforting in being a misery in that way – you know where you are, right at the bottom, and so you figure you can’t go any lower. You fight the fight each day with a willing acceptance that things can’t get any worse, and anyway, there’s always the alcohol to numb feelings when things really hit the fan. You can derive comfort from knowing that you don’t belong in that cosy, false reality that is so ubiquitously present in Hollywood films, and top up your diminishing pride by relishing in being The Outsider. It bolsters the belief that you deserve to get drunk, because nobody understands you anyway and nobody truly cares.

You’re trapped, in one of those steel-jaw leghold varieties used by hunters; when the jaws slam shut around the flesh, the struggle to escape results in endless tearing of the flesh, ripped tendons and unintentional amputations – a one-man bloodbath created by the trapped animal itself, fighting to the end to get free, ultimately shredding itself to ragged streamers of flesh. 

It takes years to find one’s self ensnared in that way, and then all of a sudden, there you are – stuck in that awful place, knowing neither how you arrived, nor how to escape.

Big changes stem from small decisions, which in turn derive from a multitude of thought processes, some monumental and others seemingly insignificant.

Little thoughts begin to niggle at the back of your mind, a notion here, and an idea there. Over time you begin to act on them and the way that life changes around you as a result, how you find yourself featuring in different scenarios and discovering that you actually enjoy them, these things make a dent in the way you act; they begin to shape your new design.

And just as it takes an eternity for life to unravel in such a way that you finish off caught in the vice-like jaws of a steel trap, so it takes time to wind itself in and unfurl all over again, in a completely new and ameliorated form.

Reactions need to occur, and behaviours given the chance to draw a response from people around you. It’s self esteem that’s required; that’s the key to breaking out of the addiction cycle and starting afresh. Self-esteem, self-respect and self-confidence; the three amigos that shape the souls of happy people.