Self-Esteem: A Restoration Project

It ate away at my insides like a worm, burrowing around my soul, destroying my belief in myself. It made me afraid to leave the house. It prevented me from looking people in the eye when I spoke to them. It stamped on my ability to move my life forward, to better myself, to grow, to change. It caused pain when I looked in the mirror. It propelled me into making bad decisions and put me in situations that made me hate myself more. It made me ache inside and cry and cut myself. It made me starve myself and put my fingers down my throat. It made me poison myself with toxic substances that blotted out my emotions. It made me believe that everyone else was better than me. It held off pride for my achievements, handing over the credit to forces external to me. It made me bitter. It made me cry myself to sleep. It made me want to die.

I had no idea how to restore my broken self-esteem. I was so shattered, so lost that I didn’t even acknowledge my life was the way it was because of low self-esteem. I believed everything was down to free will, that I was choosing my mistakes. I thought that I was in control of my path of self-destruction, actively making it all go wrong.

But somewhere, beneath all the darkness, was the voice of who I once was as a child. That person never wanted to hurt herself. She had courage and self-belief. She had dreams and she was damn well going to get out there and grab them, turning them into reality. When I stopped drinking, that little person was allowed to breathe again, and she came to the fore. Over time, she stopped allowing other people to hurt her. Pride came back, as did dignity. She started looking in the mirror again and liking what was reflected back. She acquired the strength to allow only positive influences into her world. The dead wood was cleared out. A fresh breeze blasted through the cobwebs of her life and she stopped being afraid of all that she was.

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The metamorphosis from a young girl with gumption to a shell of a teenager, who hated herself so much that she often went days without food, is one that happened gradually, like dusk creeping up and casting shadows one by one. Just as joy had been standard as a child, so bleakness and an emotional black hole became the way things were as an adult.

Saying goodbye to alcohol meant turning my back on all that was wrong with my world. The poison that I subjected my body and mind to every day for twenty years held such a grip on me that I had failed to realise how it controlled my every move.

Self-esteem does not get lost forever. You can grab hold of its threads and, if you hang on tightly enough to weave them back together, you will find that everything you thought had disappeared will return, tenfold. Your perspective changes when you start to like yourself. And as it does, so will your life.

The 4 Emotional Stages of Sobriety

I stopped drinking in April 2011, embarking on a journey that began in the early hours of one spring morning and which has taken me on a convoluted and emotionally turbulent ride, finally allowing me to climb off into a place that resembles contentment and emotional stability. For anyone who has recently ditched alcohol, I have written the following; it outlines my experiences of the different emotional stages I travelled through in the 23 months between my last drink and today, and I hope that it might help those of you who are new to sobriety by giving you a bit of a heads up of what to expect in this new and exciting chapter of your life.

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Stage 1 – the joys of the natural high

As an alcohol-dependent person who had felt terribly out of control of her own life for many, many years, the first few weeks and months of living as a non-drinker were a breath of fresh air. The joy of waking up each day and not immediately running through a mental checklist of who I had insulted/let down/hurt the night before was beyond compare. I literally jumped out of bed each day, a massive weight of anxiety removed from around my neck. Gone were the fears of developing breast cancer or dying of liver failure; the dreaded guilt and shame that I suffered as a result of doing something stupid and/or irresponsible when under the influence were gone – I felt free as a bird. Going out socially was a wonderful experience, as previously I had always felt butterflies in my stomach as I feared how the night ahead would unfold, never knowing how drunk I would get and where that state of mind would take me. Instead I knew that I was finally calling the shots – I would decide who to talk to, what I said, whether or not I chatted someone up/allowed myself to be chatted up; this was me, and not that idiot who I became after too much wine. This first period was characterised by a sense of freedom, lightness and joy.

Stage 2 – boredom and why me?

OK, nothing lasts forever. After a couple of months, I became beset by a black mood and the doubts began to creep in. The little devil on my shoulder grew in his boldness and whereas the angel had definitely ruled the roost in the early weeks, the voice of addiction became louder and more assertive in this second phase. The following are examples of the conversations I had with my devil; what if I’m not addicted to alcohol? What if I just need to learn how to moderate? Could it be that my boyfriend would prefer me to be more under control to suit him better, and that’s why he professes concern at how much I was drinking?

Who is he to think he can control you? Doesn’t he see that you are a free spirit – you don’t run with the crowds, you are different, untamed; alcohol is a part of who you are. Everyone else in the world is allowed to drink and get drunk – why the hell can’t I? It’s not fair.

In the midst of this period, I initiated a blazing row with my boyfriend (now my fiancé) and told him in no uncertain terms that I was planning on drinking that night. He tried in vain to convince me that it was the addiction talking, but how could it be? It was so convincing and powerful – that was me talking, the voice was coming right from within me. We stormed up to the pub together and he ordered himself a pint and sat outside. I scuttled up to the bar after he had taken his seat, my heart beating ferociously and my cheeks burning.

I ordered a lime and soda.

Every tiny piece of me wanted to buy alcohol except for the tiniest voice, hidden somewhere deep inside me. It told me that I would never change if I bought a glass of wine now; this moment was definitive – it would determine whether I stayed on the road to self-discovery and a better life, or if I returned hell for leather to that old path of destruction. I couldn’t let myself down, and I stuck to my guns.

Stage 3 – resolute but bitter

I turned a corner that night and all doubt was removed. The devil fell away from my shoulder, but nothing replaced him for a long time. There followed months of falling in a vacuum; I accepted my lot as a non-drinker but I wasn’t happy about it. I missed alcohol terribly – I wanted to sit outside pubs in the summer, laughing gaily over a big glass of icy cold white wine. I wanted to get glammed up and drink cocktails in a fancy bar, enjoying the sense of relaxation, of throwing caution to the wind and forgetting my cares for a night. At times, I hated other people for being ‘allowed’ to drink. This was a very difficult stage.

After several months of this, I read Jason Vale’s book, ‘How to Kick the Drink…Easily!’ and my life changed. I suddenly saw alcohol for what it really is, and I knew that all those voices and cravings I had felt over the last year or so were as a result of slowly weaning myself off a very powerful and prevalent, socially acceptable drug. I gave myself a break – began to let go of the regrets and shame that I was still carrying around with me. The bitterness slowly dissolved into contentment; the sun began to shine once again.

Stage 4 – understanding me, as a non-drinker

The final stage is the best. Over the last couple of years I have worked through many emotions and feelings of regret, sadness, anger, bitterness, sorrow, remorse, jealousy and fear. After a good year and a half, the negativity became noticeably reduced; as my self-esteem grew and my appreciation of the world and everything in it was heightened due to the clarity that comes from not poisoning your body with alcohol on an almost daily basis, it was as though the bad thoughts were mopped up one by one by my new found positivity and optimistic take on life.

I stopped experiencing wine envy when I walked past a pub full to bursting with drunken, loud revellers, but I didn’t huff and puff either – drinking is their choice, just as not drinking is mine. I love my life and I am grateful every day that alcohol no longer plays a part in it. I never have moments on a Friday night like the ones I had in the early days – DVD, nice bottle of wine, oh how wonderful it would feel to just kick back and slowly feel the alcohol ameliorating all my anxieties. It simply isn’t a part of my consciousness any more – I drove it out and replaced my addiction with happiness and good health.

It would have been perhaps easier to jump straight from Stage 1 to Stage 4, but the journey has allowed me to learn so much about who I really am, minus the veneer of alcohol, and I wouldn’t have missed it out even if I could have. I had no idea that when I stopped drinking it would be necessary to undergo such emotional turbulence; to feel as though my old self has been through a seriously intense recalibration before being reinstalled with a new lease of life, eventually leaving a turbocharged version of me back in the driving seat of my future. I didn’t expect any of that, but I am 100% happy that it happened.

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…

Illusion of friendship

You approached me with a smile; held my hand and took me away.
We visited places far removed from where I should be,
We waltzed hand in hand, faking bonhomie.

You feigned normalcy; you slotted right into my ordinary world.
Your influence stretched to my true inner core,
With you in me, I was me no more.

We parted and I feared I might lose my way; fall to oblivion.
Without you by my side, convinced I’d stumble,
That version of me gently crumbled.

Absent, you left stealthily as you came; my paradigm shifted.
Since your departure, I emerged out of hiding,
Grasped all I am, curbed the endless sliding.

My consciousness knows no other voice; I am in control of my Self.
There is no light brighter than each untainted day,
Forever strong, my resolve will not sway.

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.

Knocking it on the Head

When I first emerged from the wreck that my alcohol dependency had created, I felt battered and small – my personality had been manipulated and shaped by addiction and shame for so long that I no longer knew who I was. I’m not sure if, in the first few weeks, I truly believed that I would never drink again. There was an element of self doubt that teased my newly sober self with the thought that I couldn’t do it, that over time I would forget the horror of my last encounter with booze and I would cave in and begin to drink again. But I didn’t drink for a sufficiently long enough period to allow myself the first taste of being me without the prop of alcohol, and during that time I recognised and learnt things about myself and my relationship with booze that cemented my commitment to teetotalism. A major step forward was to admit to myself that I had a dependency upon alcohol.

The UK Alcoholics Anonymous website states that whilst they do not offer a formal definition of alcoholism, the majority of their members would agree on the following statement; “…it could be described as a physical compulsion, coupled with a mental obsession. What we mean is that we had a distinct physical desire to consume alcohol beyond our capacity to control it, in defiance of all rules of common sense. We not only had an abnormal craving for alcohol but we frequently yielded to it at the worst possible times. We did not know when (or how) to stop drinking. Often we did not seem to have sense enough to know when not to begin.” This description fits perfectly with my relationship with alcohol, but it took several weeks of being sober for me to recognise that I was an alcohol addict. As soon as I took a sip from my first drink, my mind would begin to whir frenetically, as it attempted to map out the most effective way to consume as much booze as possible before someone intervened and told me I had had too much. This was the reason why drinking alone was always so much more enjoyable for me – there was never a killjoy leaping forward to impose their own restrictive behaviour upon me, when all I wanted to do was get hammered.

And so, armed with this newfound awareness, I slowly accepted that I was dependent upon alcohol and therefore I had a responsibility to those around me and to my self, to stop for good. No single factor would have been sufficient in prompting me to get on top of my problematic relationship with booze – rather, elements in my life began to come together like a jigsaw puzzle that once complete, presented something of a eureka moment to me. The years of destructive and shameful behaviour and the associated self-hatred, age and a growing sense of mortality that grew at the same rate as my youthful ignorance of personal responsibility diminished, meeting my fiancé and developing an awareness of who I really was without the façade of drinking – it was all of these things that pushed me in to that place where I had wanted and needed to get for so many years. And now, here I am – nineteen months of sobriety and what feels like a lifetime of self-discovery later, a much calmer, honest, more confident woman who is enjoying a normal existence after twenty one years of self-abuse.

I knew that I had come on leaps and bounds when on holiday last week, as I didn’t miss alcohol one bit; conversely, if someone had put a bottle of Pinot in front of me and told me that I could drink it with none of the associated negativity, without the hangover or the guilt or the damage to my health, I would have happily walked away. (See the photo? That’s a mocktail I’m drinking. Mocktail = stress free drinking!)