18 months and 31 years

So as of today I am exactly 31 years old and 18 months sober. Both of these facts seem quite surprising. Two thoughts spring to mind:

1. Where did the last year go? I’ve not spent any time comatose on the sofa or lost whole days watching TV. I’ve been fully present in my life and yet time has still run away with me! I think it’s because turning 30 seemed like such a big deal last year, I let my guard down after that and quick as flash, 31 comes rolling in. Or more precisely: 31 and no boyfriend. (Big sigh…)

2. How did a stay sober all this time? It’s not very British to heap praise on oneself – but flipping heck, I’m dead proud of myself. If you told me on day 1 that I’d still be on the straight and narrow eighteen months on I’d never have believed it.

As many of you know, I stopped drinking on April 6th 2013 because I thought that would give me a good six months to prepare for the big three zero. I did not want to carry my destructive drinking with me into my thirties. At the time, I had no idea whether the significance of the date would really motivate me to stick with it. I’d made those kind of big promises to myself before.

In fact at the end of 2012 I vowed that I’d have a whole year off alcohol – not a drop would pass my lips until 2014. I even booked myself onto a fitness bootcamp so I’d get off to the best possible start. I spent New Year’s Day being made to run up hills by very attractive former marines. Everything was great – until I got home. Left to my own devices I slipped back to my old my ways just five days later.

Five days. I was so annoyed with myself about that. I think that’s why I drank so much between January 2013 and April 6th, when I finally stopped. I’d spent a lot of money on that bootcamp and I was pissed off that I’d thrown it all away. I’m definitely a perfectionist so if I screw up I’ll make sure I do it good and proper. For a couple of months I was hell bent on drinking whatever I wanted, regardless of the consequences.

I’m conscious that sometimes this blog makes it look like I just decided to stop drinking one day and everything was hunky dory after that. But it really wasn’t like that. There were many, many failed attempts before things clicked into place – I just didn’t write about them.

When I look back on all the other times I tried to quit, the thing that makes April 6th different to previous attempts is that a) I found help and b) I realised I wasn’t alone. It wasn’t intentional – I stumbled across Unpickled’s blog by accident. On a whim, I decided to start my own blog because I like writing. I thought it would keep myself accountable and, like writing a diary, it might help me make sense of my thoughts. Without realising it I was building a sober support network – and this opened the door to a world of help and understanding. If you’re reading this, then you’re part of my sober network. It may not be conventional; it doesn’t involve meetings, and you can be as active or inactive as you like – but hey, it worked for me. Thanks very much for being part of it.

Medicating the middle classes?

It was when I first tried to stop drinking (several years ago) that I became aware of how little help is available for problem drinkers in the UK. If you’re a smoker struggling to quit, your family doctor will jump at the chance to help you stub out those evil fags. If you’re a chronic alcoholic, in need of rehab, then your GP should be able to offer some practical advice. But if you’re just quietly drinking too much at home then the NHS isn’t much use. Until now.

I read with interest this morning that Nalmefene – a pill designed to reduce alcohol consumption among ‘problem drinkers’ – is likely to be made available to NHS patients. Problem drinkers in this instance are described as people who ‘have half a bottle of wine or three pints a night’. Nalmefene works by blocking the part of the brain which gives drinkers pleasure from alcohol, stopping them from wanting more than one drink.

According to the Telegraph, the £3 tablet could save as many as 1,854 lives over five years and prevent 43,074 alcohol-related diseases and injuries:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/11136111/New-drug-for-mild-alcoholics-drinking-two-glasses-of-wine-a-night.html

So on the face of it, this sounds good, right? Anything that kills your craving for alcohol has to be a good thing. It seems amazing that you could take a pill and bam! you’re fast tracked to that stage of sobriety where you can push away an ice-cold glass of wine without flinching. For people who can’t imagine a life without alcohol in it, this pill could give them a glimpse of life on our sparkly, sober side of the fence. I also think that if GPs have this drug at their fingertips, they’re more likely to bring alcohol up in conversations with patients. Talking about booze more openly and honestly has to be a positive step.

So parts of this seem good but yet … it doesn’t feel right to me. Handing out pills feels like a sticking plaster solution. Nalmefene has been dubbed ‘methadone for alcoholics’ for a reason.

I wonder how much counselling people taking these pills will be offered – if at all? As we all know, if you don’t do the head work it’s very hard to stay sober. You have to take alcohol off its pedestal and see it for the poison it really is. And what happens when someone stops taking Nalmefene? Maybe I’m wrong here, but it seems highly likely that they’ll go straight back to old thought patterns and cravings. That voice that says “I want more, more, MORE!” will never truly go away unless you tackle it head on.

Perhaps a better solution would be to tackle our booze orientated culture instead. Drinking is still considered to be so very, very cool. As a nation, our relationship with alcohol won’t change until we stop seeing it as the only way to have fun / socialise / let our hair down. If drinking was given the image makeover that smoking got a few decades ago, the average person would naturally be drinking far less. It feels strange to see people being called ‘heroes’ as they pledge to go sober for October. Taking a month off the booze isn’t heroic or newsworthy, it should be just … well, unremarkable. But we live in such an alcohol soaked world that a month of sobriety is a big deal to most people.

There. That’s my rant over. But if there is such a thing as ‘sober heroes’ then I think you, me and the rest of the sober blogosphere would probably qualify… Right?

Leftovers – Part 2

Thanks for all your comments on my last post. That’s one thing I love about the sober blogosphere – you ask one question … you get 40 answers.

I got rid of the wine. As many of you pointed out, the fact that I’d written an entire post about it was proof that it was bothering me in some way. Your responses made me think about the importance of boundaries and how they vary from person to person. What feels right to me might feel wrong to you. And if – like me – you cleared the house of alcohol before you stopped drinking then you’re bound to feel differently to someone who happily left half a bottle of wine in the fridge.

In a way, I felt annoyed that I was letting this one, pathetic bottle of wine play on my mind so much. I feel so happy and confident in my sobriety that I had no intention of drinking it. And yet … it was kind of troubling me. It didn’t feel right having it in the house. In the end I took it with me to a party and it got drunk pretty quickly.

I haven’t got much other news, but life feels really hectic at the moment, almost uncomfortably so. I’m working lots, drinking too much coffee and not getting enough sleep or exercise. I’ve been away the past couple of weekends. There’s very little food in the fridge, my flat is a tip and there are piles of stuff everywhere. I don’t feel on top of things. Written down it doesn’t sound like very much, but this kind of life-craziness led to me black out drinking in the past. That was my response to stress. When the going got tough, I pulled the shutters down and mentally checked out for a while.

When I first stopped drinking I wondered how I’d manage without that escape; that ability to completely leave your conscious self and the rest of the world for a while. One of the biggest surprises about sobriety is that I actually like having to be more present. A weekend spent tidying up, cooking and paying bills might not sound crazy and fun, but at least I’m getting things done. The reality of my drinking was hardly glitz and glamour; more often than not it involved waking up at 3am on the sofa, face down in a glass of wine. And when I think of the hours spent hungover, wasted in front of daytime TV … well, I wonder how I ever got anything done back then.

So that’s why I’m quite looking forward to a ‘boring’ weekend at home. Sure, there’ll still be a bit of escapism, but it’ll come in the form of catching up on The Great British Bake Off, going for a run and getting my nails done. And that’s fine by me.

Leftovers

Something quite strange happened to me last weekend… I bought a bottle of wine.

Yes, you read that right. For the first time in 17 months I bought some alcohol – but don’t worry, it wasn’t for me. I haven’t drunk it. In fact, the people I intended on giving it to didn’t drink it either! So now the bottle in question is sitting at the back of a kitchen cupboard, next to the baked beans and orange squash. The thing is, I can’t decide whether I’m bothered by it being there or not.

So to explain – I had some friends round on Saturday night. The plan was to meet at mine for a few drinks and then go out for dinner. I was pretty sure everyone would be intent on having a boozy evening. (I know that’s what I’d have been hoping for not so long ago….)

Whilst I have an impressive selection of soft drinks, cordials and fancy teas, I suspected they might not go down too well on a Saturday night. And I didn’t want to be a bad host. There’s definitely still a bit of me that worries about being perceived as boring. Whilst I know sobriety isn’t dull, some of my friends still think my teetotal life is a bit odd. I certainly don’t want to force my sobriety upon them.

So earlier that day I found myself in the wine aisle at Tesco, trying to buy something that didn’t scream ‘cheap and white’. It occurred to me that I actually know very little about wine, which is hilarious given the amount I drunk. I eventually chose the wine, bought a corkscrew – I’d got rid of mine a long time ago – and got the wine glasses out. And do you know what happened that evening when I offered people wine? They opted for a soft drink.

Seriously.

Did my friends feel weird accepting an alcoholic drink from me? Perhaps they didn’t fancy white wine? Maybe they just didn’t feel like drinking that early on in the evening? I have no idea. Afterall, I know a lot about heavy drinking but not much about normal drinking, so who knows what they were thinking. The upshot is that I still have an entire bottle of wine in my kitchen.

I know some people will be reading this wondering what all the fuss is. If you’ve managed to stop drinking whilst living with someone else who does drink, then hats off to you. I know that when I first stopped I absolutely couldn’t keep alcohol in my house. It was just too tempting. Besides, I wanted my home to be a sanctuary; it had to be a safe haven away from the boozy world we live in.

But gradually things have changed slightly. Over the summer I spent several weeks at my parents house – where there’s always lots of booze lying around – and I noticed I wasn’t really bothered by it. In the supermarket I no longer feel the need to walk the long way round to avoid the wine aisle.  And at parties I’m not bothered by other people drinking, because if they want to get smashed then that’s their choice.

So why the big deal about this bottle of wine in my cupboard? It’s not as if I feel the urge to drink it – I’ve not had any cravings for ages and ages. It just feels a bit … wrong. It’s like an ardent vegetarian storing fillet steak in their freezer. It goes against my whole lifestyle and belief system. And yet another part of me thinks I should just get a grip and keep it for next time someone comes round and fancies a glass.

What do you reckon? Should I keep the wine in my kitchen, snuggling up to the baked beans? Or should I give it away to a friend? Maybe I’ll leave it somewhere random where it could be a nice surprise for a total stranger.

Coping with life’s ups and downs

Wow. It’s been a long time since my last post. I seem to have got out of the habit of blogging recently but rest assured I’m still here – sober, drinking tea and eating ice cream.

My life got a bit crazy at the end of May, when I found out I needed major surgery to remove an ovarian tumour. I’d been admitted to hospital with unexplained, excruciating stomach pains. (I’m no wimp but I’ve not known pain like it). A scan revealed a cyst the size of a large orange. Although ovarian cysts aren’t that unusual – and most are totally benign – the doctors weren’t sure about mine.

I was told countless times that it was very, very unlikely to be cancerous. But it’s hard not to be scared when you’re allocated a cancer support nurse and talked through exactly what will happen if the results aren’t good.

When I first stopped drinking I often wondered how I’d cope in future if something very bad were to happen. Were there exceptional circumstances in which it was ok to relapse? Perhaps if something happened to my family, or my house burnt down? What if I found out I only had a few days left on the planet. Would it be ok then?

Well I’m pleased to say a brush with cancer didn’t rock my sober boat. And that’s all it was, thank goodness. A near miss. The results were all totally clear. It’s hard to describe what a relief that news was. I’ve been left with a great big ugly scar up the front of my stomach and I’ve lost an ovary. But that’s all. And that seems a pretty good outcome in the grand scheme of things.

In the run up to the operation, drinking didn’t really cross my mind. Once or twice I did think ‘this would be a good excuse for a relapse’, but I didn’t feel that pull to drink. Besides, I had so much other stuff to do – like move house. I was warned that post op I’d need six weeks off work, lots of rest and I wasn’t to lift anything heavy. So all of a sudden there was a real rush to get as much done as possible before life was put on hold for a bit. It was incredibly stressful at the time but looking back I think being busy was a good thing; the night before the op I was up late cramming my belongings into boxes.

My family were brilliant during this time and so were my friends. I was lucky to have lots of visitors both times I was in hospital. Surprisingly, many of the people who came were actually friends I felt I’d drifted apart from, because of being sober and not going out as much.

Before the op I did wonder if my drinking history had played a part in my illness. I guess I’ll never really know the answer so there’s probably no point dwelling on it. In hospital it was comforting to be sober – I had to fill out countless pre op questionnaires and it was very satisfying to answer the ‘how much do you drink?’ question with a big fat zero. Post op I feel that by being sober I’ve given my body the best chance of healing properly.

It’s exactly six weeks since my surgery now and I thought I’d have written about all of this a lot sooner, but somehow I just didn’t. I guess sobriety isn’t dominating my life in the way it once did. Does that make me sound complacent? I hope not – I think it’s a good thing. Sobriety is a bit like driving; it’s hard at the beginning but you get better with practice. I don’t feel like a learner driver anymore, but I know I’ll always need to keep my eyes on the road.

I was catching up on some episodes of the Bubble Hour yesterday and it was just so lovely and familiar and comforting that it prompted me to write this. The awesome thing about the sober blogosphere is that it’s always there, just waiting for when you need it. And I definitely still need people in my life who get what it’s like not to be able to drink normally.

Pressing the flesh

I do not like networking events. All those strangers; all those hands to shake and names to remember; the endless polite conversation. Last week I had to go to a drinks and dinner evening, as part of my new job. It’d been on the calendar for months and I was dreading it. Not only was I having to go on my own, but I knew I’d need to make a good impression. Hiding in a corner – or staying at home – was not an option.

I’ve noticed these kind of events offer people drinks the minute they arrive. (At least in the UK they do). The message seems to be: here’s a glass of liquid courage for you, this will help you to be the social butterfly you wish you really were. Sure enough, I’d barely taken my coat off when a waiter approached me offering a choice of two drinks: white wine or red wine. Hmmm. When I asked for a soft drink he pointed towards the bar. Get it yourself. 

As I was getting ready for the event I thought about how handy it’d be if I could still drink, because let’s face it: alcohol is great at squashing down unwanted emotions, like nervousness. I’m reading a good book at the moment (Goodbye Mr Wonderful, by Chris McCully) which describes alcoholism as ‘a disease of the emotions’. I think that’s a great description. It’s those pesky emotions – and our desire not to feel them – that drives us to drink. When we stop drinking, we have no choice but to learn how to handle those emotions head on. ‘Dealing with stuff’ is not always easy and I think it’s natural to look for ways of avoiding unpleasant emotions every now and then.

Even though I know alcohol is a lie and a con and a big fat waste of space, I find that every now and then my brain clicks into ‘old’ mode. If there’s a problem, it scans its database of possible solutions, and – imagine cogs whirring here – ta da: booze is presented as the answer. I mention this because I think it’s important to know the difference between a craving and a thought habit. I’ve been sober a year and sometimes old thought patterns creep in. But that’s all they are – thoughts. There’s no need to act on them.

Anyway, back to the evening in question. I made a beeline for the bar and ordered a tonic water. To my dismay, it was handed to me in a tumbler, with a straw. Honestly, a straw! What am I, a child? This annoyed me immensely – I wanted my drink in a grown up glass like everyone else. So I (politely) asked the bar tender if she could pour the tonic water into a wine glass. She gave me an odd look but did what I asked. For a few moments it all felt a bit awkward, but that conversation paid off later on. Once we’d sat down to eat, I seemed to become invisible to the waiters, who floated round offering people wine, wine and more wine. Fortunately, the bar tender remembered I wasn’t drinking and came over several times to see if she could get me anything else.

Having spent so much time worrying about the evening, I was relieved it went ok. I survived by acting my ass off and pretending to be the confident person I wish I really was. Although, maybe I am more confident than I think? Who knows. The only person who commented on my sobriety was the man who interviewed me for the job. He came over, pointed to my drink and said “You’re being very abstemious. Are you trying to make a good impression?!” Our conversation was interrupted at that point so I never had to reply. But his comment made me realise how nice it felt nice to be in control of myself – so I could indeed make a good impression. It was reassuring to know that everything I said came from the real me and not the drunk, sloppy version.

One year!

It’s been ONE WHOLE YEAR since I had a drink. Can you believe it? I knew today was The Day but I still checked my sobriety app just to make sure. I swear it winked back at me. Hello, it said. I’m still here. You don’t check me very often any more but rest assured I’ve been here all along, quietly counting every day. And today is a real milestone.

It’s true, I don’t count the days anymore, because sobriety is the new normal. If you’re reading this from the sidelines, let me tell you – it’s pretty awesome. I am happier, thinner and richer. I sleep better. I have more control over my life. I don’t have as many secrets or as much guilt. I have more time to do stuff. If nothing else, life is just simpler. Controlling my drinking was like trying to keep the lid on a can of wriggly worms. I had to put so much energy into keeping the lid closed, but every now and then it would blow right off and I’d be clearing up for weeks.

When I first stopped drinking, one of the things that scared me most was how I would find my ‘off switch’. Before, drinking an entire bottle of wine had seemed like a pretty good way to close down my stressed out, racing brain, or turn off any unwelcome emotion. Alcohol allowed me to check out of life for a bit when things got difficult.

So what happens when you take that option away? Really, your only choice is to man up and start tackling things head on. It’s hard at first. Really hard. But if you keep doing it again and again you build emotional muscles that Popeye would be proud of. When you finally get ‘it’, and you do something like go to a party and mingle and have fun it’s a great feeling because that is the real you doing it. There’s no falseness.

It’s not always rainbows and glitterballs, but that’s because life isn’t like that. We all have crap days, but they’re easier to deal with when you’re sober. A hungover, emotional, miserable person does not always make the best choices (that’s what I’ve found anyway!). I’ve been quite ill this week. I think it’s the first time I’ve been poorly since I stopped drinking. It’s been a timely reminder of what it’s like to have a hangover. I am not used to operating at less than 100% any more and god, it is horrible.

I’ve made quite a few changes in my life over the past year. I’m in the process of buying a flat right next to a beautiful national park. I always thought I was a glamorous, city girl but actually I’ve realised I need green spaces in my life. I want to live near cosy cafes and fresh air, not clubs and kebab shops. I’ve got a new part-time job and have put a lot of work into making myself happier in my career. Change is happening slowly, but that’s ok because I’m pretty patient.

Of course, I couldn’t have done any of this without you lovely people. This big, supportive, sober blogosphere has got me through the hardest of times. Everyone needs a support network and if you can’t find the help you need in your day to day life I think it’s brilliant that you can get it here. When I look back on my previous attempts at stopping, it seems crazy that I thought I could do it all on my own. So, I want to end this with a big, big thank you to all of you out there who read and comment and blog. You rock.

xxx

 

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