News and Booze – Our Alcohol-Soaked Culture, And Six Years This Month Of Not Drinking…

My local post office closed down a few weeks ago and the service moved to the newsagents next door. The newsagents has a large sign in the window reading News & Booze and inside, the split of the two is approximately 90% Booze and 10% News.

When I was little, I loved going to the newsagents close to where I lived to spend my pocket money. I’d buy magazines and My Little Ponies, chocolate and stationery items. The shop was about a ten-minute walk from my house, and when my friends and I made the (what seemed like) long trek up there to purchase our weekend goodies, we all felt very grown up.

The News and Booze shop is very different to my childhood newsagents. As I stood in there the other day waiting to post a parcel, I gazed around at the three out of four walls filled with bottle after bottle of alcohol; vodka, wine and whiskey take precedence – I estimated there were at least fifteen different types of vodka on display. As I stood there, a man shuffled in with an empty carrier bag in his hand, embarrassment and shame inherent in his downward gaze. He asked the shopkeeper for a half-bottle of whiskey, and slid it quickly into his bag before paying and swiftly turning on his heel to head out of the door. It was about 11am. I guessed he had been waiting until a ‘reasonable’ time to go out and pick up his morning fix.

Today when I was in the same shop, a woman came in with her two young children. The smaller one, a little girl aged about two, repeatedly wandered to the bottles on the shelf, drawn by the colours on the labels and the shiny glass. She kept reaching out to touch them, entranced by the display that must have stretched up to the sky in her baby eyes. The mother repeatedly drew her back to her side as she tried to work through everything she had come into the shop to do. From behind the counter, the staff member joked to the toddler, “Don’t look at those! You’re not old enough for all that yet”.

And I observed both of these things like an outsider. Alcohol is a strange beast to those of us who used to drink too much of it but now don’t allow it anywhere close. When I drank, I never saw the harm in booze, despite the fact that my life was an alcohol-induced car crash mess – my crap job, my crap relationships, my zero self-esteem, my crap outlook, my crap depression, my crap life. It was all down to drinking too much, too regularly.

But alcohol to me back then was my highly defended best friend – I never blamed it for anything.

Nowadays, when I see alcohol encroach on people’s lives in such negative ways; now, when I see the blanket denial that exists across the board in relation to alcohol and how it never does any harm when we all know it does; now, when I see an alcohol-addicted man shuffle into a post office at 11am on a Monday morning to buy a half-bottle of whiskey; now, when I see toddlers being drawn into jokes about a damaging addictive drug, as if it were no more harmful than lemonade; now, when I see all these things, I feel like an alien. I wonder how those blinkers can be drawn so tightly that people see nothing wrong with alcohol. And yet when I look, I see a poison that nearly killed me and destroyed all my chances at being me, for over twenty years.

We live in a society so awash with booze that it is entirely normal to nip into your local post office to send a parcel, only to be greeted with three-quarters of the wall space filled with vodka and wine. Alcohol is ingrained into the fabric of western society, so entrenched that it can be virtually impossible to imagine living in a world without its omnipresence. And this is, of course, one of the reasons why it can be so difficult to imagine not drinking alcohol – at all, ever again.

More than anything else, the thing that has helped me adjust to being a non-drinker in a world apparently in love with alcohol, is belonging to Soberistas; knowing there are others who share my view of the world makes me feel like I’m not the only one – I’m not fighting this fight alone. Knowing this helps me to see our alcohol-obsessed culture for what it is; the sad outcome of profits over public health, the emergence of alcohol over the last few decades as an incredibly lucrative industry set firmly against the backdrop of capitalist society and a modern world in which lots of people want to escape the daily grind – and are encouraged relentlessly to do so through excessive drinking by alcohol manufacturers.

I am, however, comforted by the knowledge that I’m not the only person to recognise this truth. And I am so very grateful, every day, that I saw the light and waved goodbye to alcohol forever six years ago this month.

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Love Being You

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

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

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

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

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

Samuel T. Herring of Future Islands

Samuel T. Herring of Future Islands

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

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

Life Is A Journey – Make It Your Own

Life is a journey.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m So Sorry For Being Sober…Not!

A recent topic of conversation on Soberistas.com has been about the embarrassment that some people feel regarding ‘coming out’ as a teetotaller, and it’s something that I have been thinking about over the last few days as a result. We live in a society that is heavily weighted in favour of alcohol as our preferred drug of choice, but also one that shuns those who are not ‘able to handle it.’ Those referred to as ‘alcoholics’ are often pitied, excluded and frowned upon for their apparent weakness and inherent inability to just have a drink with the rest of us and not cause trouble, for themselves or for us.

It is similar for those who are overweight; we as a society tend to consider them at fault for not being able to just put the lid on the biscuit tin. It is fine for ‘us’ to indulge in pizzas and cakes, chips and pasties because we know where to draw the line, but for those who continue to gorge themselves and who are subsequently obese, well, they have no one to blame but themselves. IMG_0271

Jason Vale, in his book ‘Kick the Drink…Easily!’ (of which everyone at Soberistas is now very familiar!), makes the point that other drinkers are the drinks industry’s best advertisers. Even a drinker who is on a short sabbatical due to antibiotics or pregnancy gets it in the ear as to why they are turning down an alcoholic beverage – ‘Oh you poor thing, never mind – only nine months and then we can go out and get hammered again,’ or ‘Oh no, how long have you got to take them for? Ooh, two weeks without a beer – nightmare!’

Why? Why has it become so abhorrent to society in general that some of us may choose to live our lives fully present? Is it so ridiculous that to some, their weekend may not revolve around stupidity, embarrassment, falling over, hangovers and a multitude of regrettable incidents?

I remember how I viewed those who abstained from booze when I was a drinker. Killjoys, frumpy, boring, party poopers; I would not have wanted to spend my time at a party or in the pub with a teetotaller, simply because their presence would have highlighted my weakness, my addiction. I gravitated towards those who were equally happy getting sloshed and whose idea of fun was staggering around and talking rubbish.

Perhaps it is the case that for heavy drinkers who are out to get pissed, teetotallers are their idea of the party guest from hell. But would we, as teetotallers, want to endure their company anyway? Listening to a boring, self-interested drunken idiot is my idea of hell – drunk people do not make good company to those who are with it enough to notice what they are talking about, and drunk people love being with other drunk people simply because it helps them to justify their own excessive drinking. And, of course, they are on the same wavelength; that is a very short, immature and inane one.

It is perhaps unrealistic to imagine that people who are stone cold sober and those who are absolutely out of it can get along together and have a merry old time. But then again, who would want to hang out with a heroin addict who had just shot up a load of top whack smack? But there are plenty of people who drink alcohol who do not get completely off their heads and I do think for them, it is inconsequential whether or not the person they are talking to is sober or not. And given the choice of the version of me drunk or sober, I know which one I would prefer to talk to (and it wouldn’t be the one who was slurring her words, wobbling about and flirting outrageously with every bloke in the room).

For every person who is brave enough to pour away their last bottle of wine and come to the healthy and happy choice to be sober, one more step is taken towards making teetotal living more normal, more acceptable; for every person who is strong enough to take a sober stand in this alcohol-fuelled society that we inhabit, we are building a viable alternative to the standard idea of ‘a good time.’ One day, in the not-too-distant future, I hope that it will be considered rather odd to head off to the pub on a Saturday night, spend a ton of money on a liquid that will annihilate your short-term memory, act in ways that you would never act when sober, and then as a result, waste your entire Sunday in bed with a hangover.

Cinderella in a Restaurant

Should children be tolerated, welcomed or banned from public places? So asks the Daily Post’s ‘Weekly Writing Challenge.’ Read on for my thoughts on the matter…

There is a little plaza in the village of Fornalutx, Mallorca, where an ancient fountain bubbles away, a backdrop to the sound of the local children’s high Spanish voices squealing and laughing as they play around the old tree in the centre of the square. Their parents sit outside the tapas bars, sipping a beer or café con leche in the shadows cast by the dipping sun, talking about grown up stuff and occasionally looking over to ensure everyone is safe and behaving themselves. The atmosphere is convivial and full of humanity, a hub of community life ticking along as it has done for centuries.

On holiday in Mallorca earlier this year

In Sheffield where I live, things are a little different. For the entirety of my eldest daughter’s life, I have eaten in restaurants with her on a frequent basis. Sharing a meal out is a great opportunity for families to spend quality time talking to each other and to escape the ubiquitous mobile phones, TV’s and laptops that encroach on almost every other aspect of our lives. Because I have taken her out to dinner from just a few months old, she has always displayed good table manners and knows exactly how to behave amongst adults in a busy restaurant. When she was smaller, she would dress up in a Cinderella or Snow White costume when I took her out; now she puts make up on, wears a dress and high heels (mine, usually) and looks stunning. I am always extremely proud to walk in to any restaurant with her, knowing that her behaviour will be nothing less than perfect.

Now that I have a six-month old baby, she joins us when we eat out at restaurants. Down the road from where we live, there are a few places to eat of Mediterranean origin, and we usually choose those over more English, traditional venues, owing to the fact that we are a family with a baby. Mediterranean cultures celebrate children, and include youngsters in the conversations and social interactions that take place in restaurants and other public places. One particular aspect that I love about those cultures and the way they embrace little ones, is how the men fuss over babies and young children in such a relaxed and comfortable way – a social norm that is rarely seen in English culture. Mediterranean men seem so at ease with their masculinity and place in society, that they have no qualms about cuddling babies in public, kissing their children openly and generally demonstrating their paternal love for their families whenever they see fit. I love that!

I have never witnessed a badly behaved, bored child who is desperately trying to seek their parents’ attention, when on holiday in Mallorca, Spain or Italy. The children there are a part of whatever is going on; they are valued participants in  social gatherings of any kind, and join in the conversations with adults as equals. Or they are just allowed to let off steam, chasing each other round a big tree in a plaza, or splashing water scooped up from a fountain, until they are tired and happy to join the grown ups and their more sedate chatter. Children who feel wanted and loved do not (generally) behave badly, and children who know that they are accepted and welcomed by society as a whole when they visit public places, usually meet the expectations they understand have been placed on them, and act accordingly.

Eating out should always be about friends and family coming together to share conversation and laughter, and to cement relationships. Children are as much a part of the social equation as adults and should be treated as such by everybody. When children are listened to and respected as human beings, they are a source of endless fun and interesting banter, often more so than many of the adults to be found in restaurants!

A Bit of a Rant

I wasn’t going to blog today but I feel compelled to have a bit of a rant. I am not perfect, far from it, and certainly in the past I have acted in ways of which I am not proud at all. But since I got my act together I do try very hard to be a good citizen and do my bit for society. It would appear that in my neck of the woods, not everyone feels the same.

Walking the dog, Betty, and the baby, Lily, up to the park in glorious sunshine, I turned a corner and was forced to embark upon a slalom course in order to avoid driving the pram wheels through three of the biggest dog turds I have ever seen. The animal which produced those must be of gargantuan proportions. A fellow angry resident of the area had thoughtfully positioned two traffic cones close to the offending piles of crap, with hand written posters on them instructing the asshole of an owner to kindly pick up his dog’s muck next time, rather than letting it decorate the pavement as though it were a farmer’s field being treated with manure.

A little further on and I passed a couple of men, one wearing a high visibility vest with the name of a construction company emblazoned across it. As I passed, well within earshot, the workman (enjoying his own rant) complained to his mate that he couldn’t park his van due to there being so many (and I quote) ‘cu**s who park here and walk in to town so they don’t have to pay the fu**in’ parking fees). This was blasted out at full volume, right in to the ears of Lily, Betty (she probably didn’t notice) and me (I definitely noticed), without a care in the world.

Tutting to myself, I carried on a little further and pressed the button at the traffic lights for the green man to appear. As said green man popped up, I set foot in to the road (don’t forget I have pram and dog) and a man, driving whilst eating a bacon butty and with mobile clamped between ear and shoulder, almost drove in to me as he failed to notice the lights were on red. Oh my god.

I did grumble a little to Betty and Lily but neither of them seemed as bothered as I was about the decline in standards that we were witnessing all around us. So, now that the two of them are sleeping quietly, I thought I would get it off my chest and have a bit of a moan to you. Hope you don’t mind, and thanks for listening.