Climbing Over The Mountains

I was thinking recently about the shift in thinking that occurs when we stop wanting to drink, when we become completely satisfied with the idea of being alcohol-free on a permanent basis. When I quit drinking, I didn’t expect to turn into a happy Soberista. I imagined a life of teeth-gritting boredom, tedium as I observed the world around me downing alcoholic drinks with gusto, and the endless pursuit of attempting to fill the hole that booze had left behind.

I hid away from the world for a very long time when I put down the bottle. On the odd occasion when I did venture out socially, I felt like a freak, convinced everyone knew about my ‘little problem’. I didn’t conceive of this feeling ever disappearing, but instead resigned myself to growing accustomed to it and tolerating an existence defined by my teetotal stance.

As it turns out, my life has become somewhat characterised by my decision to not drink. But not for the reasons I thought it would: cravings, stigma, embarrassment and shame arising out of my ‘issue’ with alcohol. No, my life has become defined by sobriety because stopping drinking has been the most monumental decision I have ever taken – and the person I’ve become as a result of not drinking is the one that I should always have been. I feel like I’ve returned to my roots since quitting the booze.

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What began as a painfully awkward, steep learning curve of living free from the shackles of alcohol dependency has blossomed into a profound love of life that is a million times better, because drinking no longer features in it. From April 2011 onwards, every ‘first’ was a giant hurdle that needed clambering over – sober. Christmas, birthdays, stressful days, boring days, lonely days, busy days, disappointments, nights out; each one loomed like a dark and treacherous mountain, but conquering those events brought satisfaction and confidence and contentment. And a healthy does of self-belief too, which only furthered my ability to manage the next challenge that lay ahead.

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As time has gone on, I have forgotten what it felt like to want to escape my reality. I have lost the sensation of ‘needing’ a drink. I look at other people drinking and have absolutely no desire to join them in altering their minds. I am very happy to not drink.

If you are just starting out as a Soberista and currently every day without a drink, every minute of intense cravings for alcohol, feels like a mountain to be climbed, don’t despair. It passes. Honestly, it does. The only things that you need to embrace for the transformation to occur are a commitment to not having that first drink and patience.

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Changing Tides

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Girl on the River Tyne

A photograph emerged over the bank holiday weekend of a young woman, presumably drunk, perched on the edge of the River Tyne in Newcastle’s Quayside as she relieved herself in full view of all those in the near vicinity. Unfortunately for the ‘reveller’, as she was referred to in at least one newspaper, her actions were also caught on camera and have since been widely shared on various social media channels.

This image has been on my mind for most of today as I was called this morning and asked to comment on it for BBC Radio Newcastle. My immediate reaction was more to do with the response from the media and the people viewing the photo via the Internet rather than with the girl herself and what she was up to in the picture.

Firstly, there is a gender issue. Would people have reacted in the same hostile manner, branding this person ‘scruffy’ and ‘disgusting’, if it had been a man in the photo? Society does not regard women – and especially women who are obviously under the influence of alcohol – equally to men. Women are not supposed to act with such outlandish disregard for themselves and the thoughts and feelings of others, and being drunk is no excuse; females should remain ladylike at all times otherwise they are labelled shameful and unfeminine. Men, on the other hand, are allowed to get drunk and display tomfoolery because it is simply illustrative of ‘boys being boys’.

Secondly, there appeared to be a response to this image from some quarters that could be described as light-hearted, a trivialising of the event. A hand in front of the mouth hiding a smirk as people observed the cheeky lass from Newcastle exposing herself in broad daylight; giggling because it’s all a bit of a laugh.

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I’m not banging the temperance drum here but I don’t think it’s funny at all. This picture reminded me of myself back in the day, legless and stupid, having a ‘bloody good time’ as I drank myself into a stupor day after day and consequently found myself injured, in dangerous situations, being abused and falling way short of my potential because I was always either pissed or recovering from being pissed. Fast forward a few decades and I can see this girl in her middle years, dying of shame and self-loathing because women of ‘a certain age’ cannot joke so easily about their drunken behaviour like teenagers can. Furthermore, when I was a teenager and doing stupid, mortifying things when I was drunk, I didn’t have the humiliation of social media to cope with on top of my own deeply felt self-hatred.

Thirdly, there is major concern, I think, for the fact that this girl may well have slipped through the railings and into the River Tyne where she could have drowned (as many do in the UK each year). Not so funny if that happened.

Agreed, this girl shouldn’t have become so inebriated that she dropped her trousers and took a slash in public, and yes, she should have more dignity, and OK, whatever happened to personal responsibility? But none of us start drinking with the intention of acting shamefully and idiotically, dangerously and with no self-respect whatsoever – most people are under the illusion that alcohol will just make a social event go with a bang, inject a bit of excitement and glamour, and help loosen them up a bit. These type of outcomes are never planned or desired; rather they are the fall out from being immersed in a binge-drinking culture which, hypocritically, condones alcohol consumption on the one hand while chastising those who take things too far on the other.

Addiction Geographical

I’ve been aware of the concept of an Addiction Geographical for several years, the act of moving location in an attempt to try and erase a history of substance abuse. When I first became a single parent and embarked unknowingly into the ‘dark days’ of 2003-2011, I began to dream of moving to Cornwall, France, Spain, Italy, New York City.

I hated where I lived, an old industrial part of Sheffield comprising of rows and rows of terraced houses, back-to-back with shared gardens, no privacy, no open spaces and no big skies. Living there, I found it easy to remain glued to my drinking habit. That place seemed to bring about in me a self-fulfilling prophecy of gloom, reflected in the dark brickwork and blackened alleyways that ran in-between the houses like rat runs. I often imagined myself with a house by the sea, gazing out onto the rolling ocean each morning and being imbued with the abundant salty air and sense of freedom that belongs to the coast.

I never did move away from Sheffield, largely because of my daughter whose dad lived here as well as all her friends. But I wished with my whole heart that I could have left, and I bemoaned my home city to anyone who would listen, unable to find any positives to it.

Winding forward several years and here I am, four and a half years alcohol-free, and fully recovered from my addiction issues of the past. Yesterday I looked out of my bedroom window and noted the vast green swathes of woodland (Sheffield is the only UK city with a National Park within its boundaries and it’s rumoured that there are four mature trees to every person living here), the peacefulness of where I now live and the easy access to the Peak District, and I thought what a beautiful city this is to live in. The desire to escape where I’ve lived all my life (minus a year in London aged twenty-one) has left me completely.

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This made me think: I wasn’t motivated by Sheffield being such an awful place when I was filled with that deep longing to relocate – I was motivated instead by wanting to vacate myself, my own skin, to become a new person, one whose past was not marred by all those mistakes and regrets and shameful episodes arising from alcohol misuse. I deluded myself into believing that I could achieve an instant recovery from my demons if only I moved to a new place where nobody knew me, where I could start again. It’s been hard at times, toughing it out here, being reminded of my drinking past on so many occasions (There’s the pub where I puked my guts up in the toilets, There’s the pavement where I collapsed drunk out of my mind, There’s the house where I pondered suicide and cried rivers). But I’m glad I stayed. It’s been character building. It’s made me stronger. It’s taught me to face up to my mistakes rather than running away. And it’s made me recognise that there is always good to be found in everything – you just need to feel good about yourself in order to discover it.

Seeing Things From A Different Perspective

The streets are enveloped in a familiar cold, blue dawn. You’ve been here before: you belong here. Like a fox you’re welded to the periphery of human life, prowling, alone and set apart. You make your way towards home with your head hung low and the certain knowledge that you are bad. You are unworthy. You are different. Flawed. It’s a shameful secret, this drinking; this urge to seek mental obliteration. The faint hum of a milk float grows louder and the vehicle comes into view, a distinct reminder that, once again, you’ve opted out of regular living. What is this life that includes milk being dropped at the front door, and waking up feeling emboldened and a part of society? How come that life never materialised for you?

You opted out. You became this.

Twinges of shame are intertwined with defiance. You tell yourself that you like this way of being; who wants to be humdrum anyway? Who wants to wake up and march confidently into such a predictable existence, where milk bottles wait on the doorstep and strangers smile and chat amiably at the bus stop? That element of you that defies what is expected and challenges convention, that is your soul and it makes you who you are. You chose this way, you made it happen. This rotten, rebellious, outcast you, the one who can’t stop when she starts, the one who stays up all night drinking shot after shot of whatever’s on offer in a constant effort to satisfy the desire to numb: this is you. The one who so frequently disappoints because she refuses to tow the party line: this is you. The one who woke up lying next to a stranger: this is you.

Your chin stands proud, stubbornly guarding the truth, but your eyes reveal it – the self-loathing, the shame, the regret. It’s in your gait too, with your feet that aren’t lifted high enough from the pavement in each of your steps, and your defensive arms crossed over your chest. This walk of yours, it screams to anyone passing by that you are not approachable, you are not one of them. This walk says it all.

You imagine that things will never change, that everyday will be a day on the edge. How could things be different when the real problem lies in the very fabric of your soul? You were made this way. You belong here, in this cold, blue dawn. It’s who you are.

This was me. For many years, this was me. I never thought I’d change, I never imagined I could be happy and fulfilled. I couldn’t envisage finding a place in the world that was just for me, somewhere that felt like home and which didn’t include mind-altering substances. But I did. I found it when I stopped drinking. And that rotten core, that stench of awfulness resting at the centre of all that I was, gradually dissipated. It deserted me. It left behind a person who is not bad, and who doesn’t disappoint, and who is able to smile and chat amiably with strangers at bus stops.

I dropped the defiant posture with the folded arms that warned against approaching. I found a purpose. I began to like myself. I started to get milk delivered to my door.

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Seeing things from a different perspective

Drinking, Shame And Not Beating Yourself Up

I generally write about how good life is as a non-drinker, how much happier and brighter the world appears now that I’m not looking at it through a fogged up lens. I’m incredibly passionate about living a clean existence – more so because I can still recall (with great clarity) the polar opposite: the hangovers, the awful sense of shame on particular mornings, and the secrecy, the double life I seemed to be leading sometimes. I especially remember the kernel of dread that I’d wake up with, a knot of fear in my stomach that I desperately wanted rid of but which routinely took days or even weeks to leave me.

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I often read on Soberistas (frequently on Monday mornings) blogs that describe feelings of shame. The people who write them have typically picked up a drink over the weekend, truly believing that they will be able to stop after just a couple (haven’t we all done that?), but who have then gone on to have a major blowout. This, in turn, leads to a variety of catastrophic consequences – an angry argument, a regrettable sexual encounter, passing out in front of the kids – many of which aren’t unfamiliar to me.

I often think when I read these confessional posts, at what stage should we start to blame ourselves? Is it correct to feel shame over something we’ve done when absolutely out of it? With what or whom does the blame lie, when we have acted inappropriately or embarrassingly because of the amount of alcohol in our bodies?

Here’s the truth: if a person who cannot moderate comes to recognise the fact that if he or she has A drink it will inevitably lead to LOTS of drinks, then things become a whole lot easier. When that time arises, happy days – it becomes less of a struggle to stay away from booze, knowing that the stuff is likely to bring about the eruption of a sequence of disastrous events (as Robert Downey Junior once said, “I don’t drink these days. I am allergic to alcohol and narcotics. I break out in handcuffs”). The problem comes about before this epiphany occurs, when a little voice is perpetually whispering, ‘one won’t hurt’ and ‘everyone has a few too many at some point or another’.

A desire to drink in moderation is simply not enough for some people to actually be able to drink in moderation. And for those people, once the first drink goes down, all self-control is lost. At that stage, a person is stripped of the ability to exercise caution or good sense in whatever it is they are doing. It becomes a lottery situation, a Russian roulette of life – how bad things end up is just a matter of potluck. This is how it always was with me, never knowing where the drink would take me, almost crossing my fingers at the beginning of a night out as I prayed things wouldn’t descend too low.

Until you genuinely recognise that you don’t have an off-switch (and you’re not alone if you don’t – see this recent article in The Independent, which reveals one in ten people in the UK are unable to stop drinking alcohol once they have started) and subsequently make the decision to become teetotal, then try to exercise some self-compassion the morning after. We should not be speaking of feeling ‘shame’ when we have attempted to impose restrictions regarding our alcohol intake, restrictions that failed to work. We should be talking about alcohol dependency, and understanding that when you’re in the thick of a problematic relationship with booze, it isn’t as black and white as just saying, ‘OK, that’s me done. No more drinking’. Sometimes (usually) it takes a long time to establish a concrete acceptance of an inability to control intake.

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A good starting point for reaching this point of acceptance is to talk to others who have also experienced difficulties when drinking. Whether this is at a real-life meeting or with an online group such as Soberistas.com, airing your thoughts and feelings about your drinking habits is a really helpful thing to do for contextualising, understanding and, finally, for beginning to resolve an alcohol dependency.

On being Freshly Pressed, and a massive thank you!

Last week I was lucky enough to have my WordPress post, Thirty-Something, selected to be Freshly Pressed. Since then, the post has received 304 likes and my blog has attracted almost 300 new followers – which is amazing!

I’m writing this post to say thank you to everyone who took the time to read ‘Thirty-Something’, for all your lovely, kind comments and for choosing to follow the Soberistas blog.

Here’s a little bit of background about what Soberistas is, and what it is that we hope to achieve through our online community. I used to be (as you will know if you have read any previous posts) a bit of a piss artist. I employed every trick in the book to maintain my ‘head in the sand’ approach to drinking, and it was only when I woke up in hospital in the early hours of one morning in April, 2011, that I found the strength and determination to quit booze for good. About a year and a half later I launched Soberistas.com; a social network site aimed at women who knew they had issues with alcohol and who wanted to explore their options with regards to sobering up.

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The site is essentially a non-judgemental and supportive online space, and the peer support it offers has now helped countless people turn a corner and become alcohol-free. We have members from across the globe, all of whom make up an amazingly inspirational community. As time has gone on we have added new features to Soberistas including our Ask the Doctor page, monthly expert webinars and a book club. In February 2015 we are holding the first Soberistas Run, which will be a fabulous opportunity for our members to meet up in person, celebrate their new alcohol-free life, and also to raise money for the British Liver Trust.

One of my main goals when I set up Soberistas was to help break down the stigma associated with alcohol dependency – I never wanted anyone to feel the shame that I felt when I awoke in hospital with no memory of how I had arrived, and the subsequent self-loathing I experienced upon getting out of there. So many people have dependency issues with alcohol, from all walks of life and with a myriad of different drinking tales to tell. There is no shame in falling foul of such a highly addictive, freely available and excessively marketed drug – the only shame is in that there is so much hypocrisy and prejudice aimed towards those who struggle with managing their alcohol consumption.

So, that’s a little bit on what Soberistas is about, and if you are one of our new followers then a massive thanks to you for your support. I hope you enjoy my posts.

Lucy x

The Elusive Off Switch

Why Don’t I Have an Off Switch?

I used to ask myself this question a lot as a drinker. I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that other people could manage to enjoy a few drinks, even becoming quite obviously drunk, but then always and reliably be able to count on themselves to call it a night at the appropriate time.

Not me. At two, three, even four o’clock in the morning and with all manner of challenges facing me the following day from the everyday demands of being a mother, to postgraduate level degree examinations, to job interviews, to packing and setting off on holidays, I would regularly be scouring the cupboards in the hope of discovering a long-forgotten bottle. I once happened upon a beer delivery service when a flier dropped through my letterbox; the answer to my prayers, here was a bloke who drove about during the night dropping off an array of alcoholic beverages and packets of cigarettes to all those (like me) who were after ‘just one more’ in exchange for a slightly inflated charge and a drunken display of gratitude.

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For many years I struggled with the knowledge that, on occasion, I went way too far with regards to my alcohol consumption. Regrettable ‘romantic’ encounters, throwing up and destroying yet another carpet, dramatic tumbles ensuing in large, unsightly bruises oddly located around my body – whenever these things happened, I knew I had no off switch. And yet, because such terrible instances did not arise out of every single drinking episode, I was able to reassure myself that when they did, they were one-offs, oddities, freak incidents that could happen to anyone who enjoyed alcohol.

My booze-related accidents were something I accepted as part and parcel of a drinking lifestyle. And in between times, when I did display something akin to an off switch and managed to get myself to bed prior to anything horrific taking place, I comforted myself with the belief that I was, after all, the same as everyone else; I was able to act responsibly, at least some of the time.

For me, drinking was, essentially, a game of Russian roulette. Whenever I picked up the first drink of the evening, I was entirely unaware of how things would pan out. I did not know whether this would be a night when I’d have a few drinks but would then remember that I needed to down some water and go to sleep, because otherwise tomorrow would be hell on earth. I did not know if I would throw caution to the wind and find myself ringing the beer delivery man at two in the morning, holed up in some stranger’s house, smoking and drinking until dawn broke.

I desperately wanted to know why I didn’t have a reliable off switch, but for twenty years I could not simply accept the fact that I didn’t. On my final night of drinking, my off switch finally gave up the ghost. This facility that many people have and which enables them to ‘drink responsibly’ fizzed and popped and eventually blew up altogether. I was like a dog with no concept of having its appetite satisfied – the more booze I could lay my hands on, the more I poured down my neck. And on and on I went, until finally, with the expiration of that little switch, I fell unconscious and wound up in hospital.

I am glad that my little faulty off switch ultimately died for ever. It made everything so straightforward, so black and white. After I quit drinking, I stopped asking myself why I did not have the ability to stop drinking at the optimum point in the night, and instead, threw myself into being a person who just doesn’t drink alcohol. I no longer have to worry whether my off switch will be functioning when I go out socially, and there are no more awful ripples of disaster to have to cope with because it failed to work properly. It’s existence, broken or not, is simply of no concern to me anymore. And that’s the way I like it.