2 years. 730 days.

IMG_20190420_155529_1.jpgToday marks 2 years, or 730 days, since I became teetotal.

By my old habits, that’s 730 bottles of wine NOT drunk (probably many, many more).

That’s around £7K (I’ve NOT flushed down the toilet (ouch, how my credit rating has always been so tidy is an absolute mystery).

730 mornings of waking up feeling healthy.

730 days of realising I’m not, in fact, prone to depression, I’d just been causing depression for nearly 20 years by self-medicating my anxiety with alcohol.

730 days of getting used to not having to diet to be slim(-ish) because I’m not drinking an extra meal’s worth of calories each night or craving junk food.

730 days of not feeling dog-tired ALL THE BLOODY TIME.

730 days of realising that although I love spending time with people, I’m actually an introvert and need plenty of time to myself. I wonder whether anyone truly loves socialising in huge groups…. perhaps there’s a reason large get togethers are usually booze-soaked.

730 days of realising that I look forward to Friday nights even more now that there’s no wine involved. Sounds crazy, I would never have believed it, but there it is. The excitement I used to hold for Friday night wine, I now hold twofold for retro film night with my husband and teenaged son. And now – bonus! -I get to stay awake and remember the film!

And the absolute clincher:
730 days since my 22-month-old daughter perhaps saw her miserable, depressed mummy with one last glass of wine in her hand.
Now she’s nearly 4, and will only ever know me as a teetotaler.

Out of curiosity, I just asked my 6 and a half year-old son if he ever remembers Mummy drinking wine, perhaps a long time ago. He looked confused about why I was asking. His answer was “no”; he also can’t (consciously) remember that version of me with the wine glass permanently glued to my hand each evening.

These past 2 years have been both the hardest and the most amazing of my life, firstly overcoming alcohol addiction, then losing two people I loved very much, one tragically young. I feel so incredibly grateful to be sober and to finally be able to count myself as a resilient person. Thank you to everyone for your amazing words of support over the past two years… especially my super amazing husband, and also my beautiful best friend, who isn’t here any more but was so incredibly supportive of my sobriety at the hardest time of her own life.

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The Room

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When you are suffering with an addiction, it feels like you are trapped in a room with a vanishing door.

Sometimes you don’t want to find the door. After all, the room is warm, with nice chairs and chic decor. There are no surprises.

Your friends are there from time to time, but somehow they seem to be able to come and go as they please.

Occasionally the door appears. You walk outside. You look down and discover you are only wearing underwear, you don’t know where you are, and it’s blowing a hurricane outside. You are not prepared for this. Also you feel like crap and you are tired.

So you run back into the safety of the room. You are relieved. You can try again tomorrow, after all.

But then the door vanishes again. For a month. Or a year. Or 5 years. You begin to hate the room. You begin to hate yourself. You wonder what is so wrong with you that you can’t leave like others seem to.

Perhaps you share the room with someone you love, and they desperately want you to stay. They themselves might not be bothered about finding the door or seeing the outside world, so don’t see what all the fuss is about. Maybe they feel betrayed by your attempts to leave the room. Maybe you start questioning whether your room is really all that bad a place (you try to overlook the cracks that have appeared in the walls, the broken furniture and the lack of daylight).

You are confused. When you first visited, you walked in willingly, because it looked fun. You wandered in and out as you pleased, like your friends, not even considering whether there WAS a door, or if it might disappear from view.

You never imagined that you would get trapped here for a decade or more.

How do you find the door? And how do you weather the storm outside the room?

The answer is different for each person.

I think the key is in believing that change is possible, even if the path behind you is littered with failures.

Firstly, understand this: thousands of people before you have failed in their attempts to leave the room called addiction 100 times, only to succeed in their 101st attempt. Be willing to start before you are ready. Try again. And again. And again. Tenacity is not about success or failure at a specific point. It is about trying again. Trying in different ways.

Don’t give up hope.

Secondly, realise that you don’t have to face the storm alone, because there are hundreds of thousands of people stepping into that same storm with you. Who knew! So many neighbours around the globe are trying to leave their rooms, too, at this exact moment!

Thirdly, educate yourself about addiction and addiction recovery. When you understand the beast, you can step back from it, observe it, outsmart it, destroy it. When you don’t understand it, it will outsmart you. It is clever. But with information, you are cleverer.

You have this one life. Ask yourself, do you want to spend it in this room?

Trust that there is something waiting for you beyond the storm.

Something a lot better than that shitty little room, even if sometimes it’s the opposite of easy. Without this addiction, life will look quite different. It might feel like a barren landscape for a while, without the shelter of the room. But soon you will begin to build your own city on these plains, a city where you will remember to leave doors open.

Remember, life was never meant to be easy. Changing addictive behaviour is difficult. But trust me- it’s achievable.

And then, once you’ve gathered a little strength, and with a little help from others, you can take a wrecking ball.

And obliterate the fucking room.

Elves, shmelves.

You know when you have SO MUCH to do and you feel sick with anxiety and all you really want to do is sit down and write a cathartic blog post about how you used to take a deep breath at the end of November and dive into and swim below the surface of the totally legitimate festive pit of wine that was late November (your birthday) to 1st January (hair of the dog), allowing the stress and pressure of soulless consumerist bullshit to pass pretty much over your head…?

No? Just me then!

Back then, I was an (albeit half-baked) gingerbread-baking, jolly kind of mum, friend, daughter and wife during the festive period.

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The rest of the year I was just plain depressed and drinking too much – Christmas time is the time when people with drinking problems blend in the best. It’s considered normal to drink heavily. Everyone seems to be doing it. There are pictures, ads and images of it everywhere. You may not even notice them. I never did until I became teetotal. Exotic brands of alcohol in overpriced, pretentiously flavoured mixers and the decadence of Christmas are synonymous.

Except…. they are not. Or shouldn’t be. That’s just what we are drip-fed currently. Perpetuating this belief around the dependence of fun upon booze consumption makes a few people very rich indeed…. and this deep yet false cultural belief makes a LOT of people very sick indeed. Physically unwell, mentally unwell, spirituality unwell, socially unwell.

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I’m being a Bah Humbug. Old me would have hated my little sober rants. When I write about my sobriety (20 months on Boxing Day!), normally I hope to leave people with an inspired aftertaste, but I’m not sure that’s what is flowing through my fingers today…

So be it. Life’s not all making lemonade from lemons that come your way. Sometimes you just don’t want lemons, and you wish lemon season was over, but everyone around you is obsessed with lemons. Sometimes, you forget how the lemon metaphor is related to the point you started trying to make.

But this much is true: I don’t miss drinking (although of course, I used to!). And I certainly don’t miss that visceral fear about what I couldn’t stop doing to myself and my family, that seeped in and around my thoughts before I awoke each morning.

On the other hand, this is also true: I’m finding the run-up to Christmas incredibly difficult this year. I don’t think that’s unusual. Mainly, I’m frustrated with myself:  I KNOW better than to buy into all the crap about how many presents I need to buy and what kind of beautiful food I should be preparing; I KNOW better than to compare myself to other people or to care about who’s finished their gift wrapping when half of my gifts are still with an Amazon courier; I KNOW better than to concern myself about who makes the effort to do Elf on the Shelf when even the idea of having to remember to move a toy elf around each night makes me want to dance around an elf bonfire toasting marshmallows. No disrespect to people that are into their E.O.T.S. I think it’s a lovely idea in principal, but, a bit like getting a dog, I’m not ready to commit to that level of extra work while frankly I still struggle to look after myself and three children.

I know all this… and yet, I feel sick with anxiety each morning in December that I’m “not doing enough”. I worry my children will be disappointed, even though I’ve sold out and bought way too many presents in a panic-stricken frenzy. Every Christmas card I receive sends a mini shockwave of panic through me about the fact that I haven’t sent all my cards yet. In fact, I don’t even know where my address book is, and I’m blaming it on the elves.

I’d bet that each year approximately 50% of people find Christmas hard. A time that’s ‘supposed’ to be joyful is extra hard if you’re grieving, physically or mentally ill, suffering with addiction or caring for someone who is, in an unhappy relationship, lonely, or in poverty. This is the reality for many people. Just writing this, I’m now wincing in gratitude for all that I have. I know I have nothing to complain about and everything to be grateful for. See? I knew a bit of writing would straighten me out.

So yep. There you have it. I’m a big, unnecessarily anxious, sober Scrooge. If you don’t receive a card from me or if I seem abrupt or irritable, please know that despite this, I love you all and I’m deeply grateful to know you all. FESTIVE GREETINGS. And all that.

If anyone ever needs a listening ear, I’m here. I may be terrible at sending cards and staying calm around Elves on fucking Shelves, but listening is something I CAN do. And, for today, I’ve decided, that IS enough.

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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.

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.