500 days. Boo-yar!

1_Hr3fgcD_TgbUJ6aQ-_gt1w“Well, I drank more than a lifetime’s worth in the first 36 years of my life, so I thought I should call it a day.”

“I just couldn’t moderate, so I figured I shouldn’t have it at all.”

These are the sort of responses I have typically given when people ask me why I’m teetotal.

Just to be clear, I don’t mind when people ask me why I don’t drink, and I also don’t mind at all if people drink alcohol when I’m socialising with them, although truth be told, there wouldn’t be much fun for me in hanging out with a group of exclusively drunk people. Not because I’m jealous that they are drinking. Because drunk people are boring. And I feel I can say this without causing too much offence, having spent more than half of my life drunkenly boring the nips off my friends and family.

It has occurred to me that while my above responses are not untrue, they are the filtered version of the reason behind my sobriety. It’s time I told a bit more of my story, something I have been hesitant to do, earlier because of shame, now because I fear judgement not of the fact I used to drink excessively, but in case I am considered “attention seeking” or self-celebratory (“Look at me NOW! I’ve come so far!”).

The sole reason for my oversharing is this: it might help someone. I know this because reading the blogs of those who had put booze firmly behind them, slammed the door and vowed to “Never Question The Decision” to quit, quite simply, saved my life. I also know that the bits and pieces I have posted alluding to addiction recovery, anxiety and depression, have been helpful to some people, because they have told me so. Not that anything I have to say is exceptional. Indeed, I now know that my story is exactly like millions of other women’s, who looked like they were just fine, but inside, were teetering on the edge of self-obliteration. But this is the point. Realising that we aren’t alone and that we are broken in an unsurprising and fixable way, but that we cannot recover from addiction without help, is of absolute importance.

After ten demoralising years littered with failures to first moderate and later abstain from drinking, it one day occurred to me to type the word “sobriety” into a search engine. Many times had I googled “Am I an alcoholic?”, “alcoholism” or “liver cirrhosis”, and always felt further demoralised and afraid that I could not harness the willpower to address my little problem of ‘needing’ a bottle of wine each evening like I needed air.

But with that one little internet search in a slightly different direction, a mindblowingly simple shift took place. A shift towards “How can I create the life I want?” (NB initially the “life I want” wish was simply a life where I didn’t hate myself – and back in early 2017 even that challenge looked like Everest), away from “How can I possibly give up the only thing that gives me any respite from the constant streaming of vitriolic self-hate monologue in my head?”.

At this point I had zero self belief and had no concept that my all-consuming thoughts were not absolute fact. So this is where I had to choose to take a leap of faith that things could be different, better, transformed. And that is where reading other people’s hopeful stories of sobriety after being total nightmare boozehounds came in.

I didn’t necessarily believe I could change, but as I’m about to explain, I was at a point where I might not have much left to lose soon, so I figured, “What the hell, let’s just assume sobriety will be awesome once I get used to it”.

At the end of my drinking career I was severely depressed and had frequent suicidal thoughts, as well as intrusive thoughts of ‘running away’ from my family. Sleeping rough. Disappearing from my life. I know it sounds crazy, but I genuinely wondered by this point whether my children (at that point about 18 months, 4 and 11), would be less damaged in the long run by my complete disappearance from their lives than by my depressed, directionless, self-loathing presence. And I thought that my husband was perhaps so disappointed at the shell I had become, that he would be relieved if I disappeared from the face of the earth.

It is pretty humbling to come out of the other side of addiction. I walk past homeless addicts in the street, sometimes offering them food (which they rarely seem to want, because of course, that’s not what they want), and know that despite my appearance, apparent privilege and happy family life, all that separates me from them is a decision or two I made, then doggedly, unquestioningly (eventually) continued to make.

Because addiction knows no class, gender, race, sexuality, age, profession (although it’s true that our perception and treatment of addicted people in different groups is coloured with different shades of prejudice – addiction is certainly an issue for racial and gender equality politics). No one chooses the nightmare of addiction, and those who appear to have done so are inevitably fleeing other nightmares to start with.

By the way. “Mummy needs wine”-themed memes, cartoons, greetings cards and books offend me (note, really, don’t give them to me!). Most people in recovery feel the same, because these memes, “They whine, I wine” T-shirts, wine bangles (bracelets you can fill with wine… please tell me it’s a joke!) play a small (or perhaps not so small, they are bloody everywhere) but significant role in the ‘normalisation culture’ of daily drinking for mothers. Drinking as a crutch to deal with the very real stresses of motherhood is widely normalised, while addiction is heavily STIGMATISED to the point it feels painfully embarrassing to discuss a drinking problem and ask for help. This double standard is alarming. At the stage where many mothers start to realise that they really ‘need’ wine every evening, do you think they tend to

a) discuss their concern that they might be becoming addicted to wine with a friend or GP, or
b) pour another glass of wine, read “Why Mummy Drinks”, chuckle at and share a “Hurrah For Gin” meme, because, “thank God, everyone else is doing the same as me, at least it’s not just me, unwinding with a glass or three is normal, right? and I deserve a treat, I have 3 children and a demanding job, for goodness sake… And it’s one of your 5 a day, right?” ?
You get my point.

It is my sincere wish that anyone could say, “I am worried about my relationship with alcohol” to a friend, colleague or doctor with no more trepidation than if they were saying, “I’m worried about this rash, do you think it’s ezcema?”.

If I’d felt able to do that, perhaps I might have avoided getting to the rock bottom stage where I considered the option of becoming a tramp as a preferable alternative to subjecting my children to having me as their mother.

Today happens to mark 500 days since I last drank alcohol. My husband wasn’t aware of this milestone when he put his arms around me at 6.30am this morning (while our 3- and 5-year olds bounced on our heads) and said, “You’re amazing, you know?”. And I thought:

Yes.

I do know.

If this sounds self-celebratory? So what.
I did more than a lifetime’s worth of self-loathing in the first 36 years of my life, so….. I think I should call it a day.

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I failed* at Dry January 2017 but now I’m 9 months sober

IMG_20180909_195504[Originally posted January 2018]

#DryJanuary has become such a ‘thing’, that yesterday I caught a luxury Scottish hotel using this hashtag in an Instagram post advertising drinking #champagne and #celebrating #theweekend with a beautiful inviting picture of two flutes of bubbly at a decadently laid table. “Why are you using the ‘Dry January hashtag’ to promote drinking your champagne?,” I asked them. “Don’t you think this is a little insensitive to those who are following this hashtag and trying to kick alcohol addiction?”. No response yet, but secretly hoping they’ll send me vouchers for a luxury weekend stay and a magnum of San Pellegrino.

Unwad your panties, Leonie, you might be thinking, it’s just a little marketing. It’s just advertising. Yes, yes it is. And it’s not acceptable. There’s a reason why people recovering from alcohol addictions are angry with this sort of thing. It’s because it is everywhere, and it is the reason why people are dying every day from alcohol-related illness. It is the reason why families are destroyed by alcoholism. It is the reason why people get behind the wheel after a bottle of wine, to go to the shop for more wine, because their pre-frontal cortexes are so shot by addiction that they cannot reason out why this is a wrong choice. “It” is the constant, pervasive, aggressive normalisation of drinking alcohol, and it makes a few people very rich indeed.

Things have shifted for other addictive substances. Today’s generation of children are no longer growing up surrounded by subliminal suggestions around the glamour of smoking cigarettes. No. Instead, they are picking up discarded cigarette packets outside their houses and asking their parents what the HELL that picture is (“it’s a photo of a cancerous tongue tumour, poppet, caused by smoking”).

I grew up with the slogan “Just say NO” (to drugs), and, being a very good girl, I duly said NO to drugs, with the exception of a joint or two which, lucky for me, made me vomit, was just not my jam and went no further.

But alcohol? Alcohol made me vomit too. Probably every time I had it for the first 10 times or more as a teenager. But interestingly, this never put me off. Is that because believed, deep down in my bones, that alcohol was a normal, healthy part of grown up celebrating? I think so. And why? Marketing. So pervasive, so EVERYWHERE is it, that we don’t even notice it. I literally never noticed alcohol advertising until I started pursuing sobriety. That’s because it’s so EVERYWHERE that it’s like beige WALLPAPER.

It’s common knowledge that, if alcohol was only discovered today, it would not and could not be legalised for medical use as relaxant**, let alone for recreational use. It is addictive and is linked with higher incidence of several types of cancer, even when consumed moderately.

So anyway. I *failed Dry January 2017 after 28 days, after already starting on 2nd January (because obviously, you have to treat a New Year’s Day hangover with a glass of wine or three). But listen- here’s what is important. IT WAS NO FAILURE. It was part of the warm-up, like a gentle stretch, or a bit of essential strength training, in the run up to the REAL race: the rest of my life, which, it turns out, just so happens to be a life free of alcohol. A life that – yes – does NEED to be free of alcohol. But it’s a gift, not a hardship.
*It’s not really failure
**It’s a useful antiseptic though!

The Silence of the Drinkers

IMG_20171224_083908[Originally published 24 December 2017]

I’ll put my hands up and admit that if you say the word ‘addict’ to me, I can’t help thinking of hollow-eyed, emaciated criminals diving into toilets after suppositories, zombie babies on ceilings and people sleeping on mattresses on a dirty floor. Say the word ‘alcoholic’ to me, and I think of overweight men in their 50s sat in pubs in the morning, liver transplants and yellowing skin. Say ‘recovering alcoholic’, and I think of the same late-middle-aged men, but this time in church basements (but only church basements in America).

The fictional recovering alcoholics that reside in my brain are really fucking miserable. If they work really hard, they may live out a few sober years desperately missing booze, then eventually relapse, losing any remaining loved ones, and then die a lonely alcohol-related death.

Bloody hell. Who would want to be a recovering alcoholic?

Did I mention, I am a recovering alcoholic?

This is the point where I try and slightly fail to fight the powerful urge to quantify the above statement with information like, “but I was on the lower end of the addiction spectrum, I didn’t drink in the morning (unless it was Christmas or a wedding or we arrived for lunch early), I never drove drunk, I didn’t find it hard to abstain during pregnancy, I know lots of other people who drank WAY more than I did” and a million other totally irrelevant and boring facts about my past drinking habits.

The only important information here is I could not control how much I drank. And ultimately it began to make me very unhappy and dissatisfied with my life.

I was aware for some years that I drank more than I should. But wasn’t too sure that I minded. I enjoyed it. And my entire adult life I saw evidence everywhere that many people were doing the same.

University in the UK is practically a training ground for high-functioning alcoholics. I have memories of most Freshers’ Week parties involving huge plastic storage boxes full of disgusting concoctions of spirits that I rolled my eyes at and refused to drink. I was much more at home in the pub sipping wine with my fellow choral singers, nurturing a much classier brand of drinking problem. Because vomiting red wine into someone’s flowerbed is a cut above nasty cocktails.

So I was saying, I enjoyed drinking. But then I gradually began to suspect that it was affecting my mental health.

Then I became convinced beyond doubt that it was destroying my mental health.

The one or two drinks that used to feel like a beautiful hug releasing me from daily anxiety (“how can something that feels so good be bad for me?!”) began to trigger suicidal thoughts and impulses to self harm.

Realising this is happening and still not being able to stop drinking is a terrifying place to find yourself. What I didn’t know then was the fact that the organ of the body most quickly attacked and damaged by alcohol is not the liver. It is the brain. And for the record, your GP telling you that it’s fine to drink alcohol whilst taking antidepressants does not necessarily mean that it is fine for YOU. Based on my experience of this, I would compare daily drinking whilst on antidepressants to using eye drops for an eye infection whilst poking oneself in the eye with a a sharp stick every hour or two.

I find it hard to draw myself back into the memory of my old reality, not just because it is unpleasant, but because already, the idea of drinking alcohol feels ludicrous to me. I almost forget how unbelievably hard I had to work to make the change – just this one little change to my life! – to stop ingesting ethanol each day. I mean, all I had to do was not go into the shop for the wine each day, not open any bottles of wine, not pour any wine into any wine glasses, not raise any glasses containing wine to my lips, not swallow any fucking wine.

Right?

How can it be all that hard to just not do any of those things?

Anyone who has had or has addictions, be it nicotine, sugar bingeing, or even just the seemingly innocuous habit of constantly scrolling on their phone, will understand that the above question is rhetorical. And the answer is BECAUSE OF ADDICTION. The answer is also because it is everywhere, and because through constant exposure to it in advertising and media since the day we were born, we all believe on a deep subconscious level that alcohol is a normal part of every important occasion or intense emotion in life. Celebration. Grief. Boredom. Socialising with new people. Relaxing. And so on. Therein lies a smorgasbord of ways for addicted brains to normalise and justify drinking every day.

I thought I understood how addiction worked, but I did not. In April I signed up to an online 8 week ‘Sobriety School’. Developing a toolkit of coping mechanisms, making friends who were also recovering from addiction (and, I might add, not a toilet-diving junkie or basement-lurking old man in sight), and learning the true complex nature of addiction are amongst the priceless gifts I received.

Someone somewhere once wrote that if you put Shame in a petri dish and add Silence, it grows and grows. And so it is with addiction. I am a recovering addict, and proud to announce that I am not in fact an old man in a basement (respect and love to those guys though), but more importantly I want to tell you all that I am not miserable about sobriety. I am so relieved that I never have to experience a hangover again, or feel embarrassed for perhaps having acted like a bit of a dick but not really remembering. I want to say that you don’t need to be a ‘total alcoholic’ (the thing I used to claim NOT to be) to decide to give up alcohol forever, or to take a 6 month break, or to just not drink one evening if you don’t fancy a hangover. Contrary to popular belief, not drinking alcohol at a party makes you the opposite of boring. I want to tell you that I often find life really hard, but I find joy in simple things now. Life is short and time with real friends is wasted by anaesthetic.

I finally broke free from my toxic relationship with my handsome, charming, controlling, abusive ex-partner on 26th April 2017. His name was vin rouge. I don’t even feel jealous when I see him kissing other girls.