Life’s What You Make It

Most things in life come down to a choice: the choice to focus on the positive or the negative; the choice to go after something you really want or to sit back and let someone else have a go; the choice to try out new experiences or to remain in your comfort zone; the choice to stay in a damaging place or to get out and start afresh.

It’s also possible to choose to see life as a series of choices, not a hand of cards that you are powerless to change. And if you do, there is nothing sitting beyond your reach. This may sound simplistic but I truly believe that it’s the only mind-set to have for living a fulfilling life.

Back in the dark days (when I drank most evenings and hated myself), I had no idea that life could be based on choices. Even down to the most basic of choices – deciding which thoughts I paid attention to and which I let go of – I was under the impression that I was a sitting duck: that whatever terrible episode may land on my doorstep, whichever bit of bad luck might descend upon my world, or however lonely and unloved I felt, I had no control over any of it whatsoever. It felt as though it was all just ‘my lot’.

There are many snippets of wisdom that we pick up during our time on earth but I think that grasping the idea of having choices and living life accordingly can make one of the biggest differences in how happy we are.

I decided that for me to be content and fulfilled, it was necessary for me to not drink alcohol. This was a choice. I could have followed the school of thought that says addiction can’t be beaten, that I am powerless over alcohol, that I had no choice. But I believed in the notion of choice, and I made that choice and stuck to it.

Yesterday I found myself suddenly overcome by negativity. Everything was wrong; I started to flounder in a pit of despair. But then I went for a walk in the nearby woods that are brimming with bright, autumnal colours and I took a few photos of the trees, noticed the beautiful blue sky, and breathed in the cold, fresh air, felt alive, watched my dog trotting amongst the fallen leaves and became aware of how even this mood that had engulfed me moments earlier was, in fact, a choice.

I started to think about all the things in my life that I am grateful for, all the beauty of the earth, the simple pleasures that make it all worthwhile. I stood in front of a tree for a while and observed the way in which the leaves, now littering the ground at the foot of the trunk, appeared as a reflection of the canopy above. It occurred to me that this could all be perceived as the dismal end of summer, a tree moving into a state of hibernation for the winter, or a stunning image of vibrancy, a captivating celebration of change; the beginning of a miraculous new season. I stared at the tree for a long time, and it became a symbol to me of how life is whatever we want to perceive it as.

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Earlier in the week, I had thrown a small Halloween party for my four-year-old and a few of her little friends. The carpet was covered in crisps, toys were strewn all over the lounge, and the kitchen looked like a bomb site. After everyone had left and I’d scrubbed my daughter’s face clean, wiping away every last trace of the ghoulish make-up she’d been wearing, my older daughter shouted down the stairs to me; “Can you help me with that English coursework now please?”

I had a choice in how I perceived all of this; to see the stress, the mess, the chaos, and to focus on my tiredness and how all I wanted to do was go and lie down on my bed. Or I could have chosen to see it as the lovely, hectic, full-on express train journey that is life, with all its demands and busyness.

I took the decision to view it as the latter.

The World Does Not Revolve Around Me

When I drank, my ego was blown out of all proportion. Yes, I was routinely annihilated by the shame and self-disgust which arose out of countless boozy incidents, but I was simultaneously affected by the indulgence that walks alongside heavy drinking, the way I prioritised alcohol over the rest of my life. In a perverse way, my addiction fuelled an over-exaggerated sense of my own importance, despite the constant chip chipping away at my self-esteem as a result of silly drunken escapades. Having chronically low self-worth and an inflated ego are not mutually exclusive concepts I have come to realise.

Drinking upon our every feeling means we become frozen in our emotional development. Although it often feels like a soothing lotion applied to our inner pain, alcohol is, in reality, a numbing agent that stunts our personal growth. When I stopped drinking I had the emotional maturity of a teenager – impetuous, petulant, self-centred, paranoid and angry. It took a long time to get my head out of my backside and to realise that no, the world does not revolve around me. The old me would throw a tantrum if I didn’t get my own way. I would manipulate where I failed to see a desirable outcome emerging otherwise. But once sober, it dawned on me that if a person disagrees with me it’s not because they hate me. If someone fails to pay me attention, it’s more than likely because they’re caught up in the storyline of their own life, not because they don’t care about me.

One of the greatest lessons I have learnt since becoming sober is one of humility. That, whilst I understand and value my place in the world, I no longer allow myself to think I am more than I am. Nature and immersing one’s self in it is, for me, the best way to reinforce a humble attitude, to cement the notion that none of us is more than a brief hint of an impression on the world. Walking amongst towering mountains that have stretched high above the land for an eternity; breathing in the salty sea air and listening to the rolling waves of the ocean; acknowledging the bright splash of colour in a flower that grows amidst rocks; hearing the sound of nothingness in a place untainted by mass human inhabitancy. Submerging my soul in the natural world is like medicine. It strengthens my emotional core and keeps me fully grounded.

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Not drinking has taught me that, ultimately, we are all the same: nothing and everything, simple and complex, brilliant and ordinary, memorable and forgettable. I used to crave a life in which I stood out head and shoulders above everyone else, in which I was admired and desired in equal measures. And alcohol fuelled this yearning just as much as it kept me thinking I might be achieving my aim. As a non-drinker, I value highly my equality with the rest of the world. Our environment is everything and we, just like the other animals and plants we share it with, must live harmoniously with our surroundings and ourselves. The moment we imagine we are greater than any other person, or that we have more of a right to anything than anyone else, we knock everything out of kilter. Sobriety has made me see this. And I’m a much better – and happier – person for it.