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

 

Strangers on a train

This morning I was on a packed train to work when a very large man squeezed into the seat next to me. Straight away I could smell it: the booze on his breath. It was horrible. It was worse when he looked or breathed in my direction, but I could actually smell it whichever way he faced. I think it was coming out of his pores.

Things got considerably worse when he opened his bag and pulled out a hot McDonald’s breakfast. I don’t want to sound like a food snob here, but there’s something about the smell of McDonald’s food that really turns my stomach, especially at 8.30am. The seats on the tram were so small he was practically eating the food in my lap.

I spent most of the journey staring furiously out the window, before remembering that less than a year ago this could have been me (albeit without the Maccy D’s). I thought back on all those times that I’d finished work late, maybe not getting home until 10.30pm. Despite knowing that I had to be up early in the morning I would stop by the off licence for beer and a bottle of wine, planning just to have a few glasses. Just enough to relax. That was always the plan. But hey presto, all of a sudden it’d be 3am and I’d wake up and realise that a) the bottle was empty and b) I’d been sleeping on the sofa again.

The man on the train looked so tired. I remember feeling like that, like I could sleep for a week. Going to work with a secret hangover is tough. At best you are a 50% version of yourself. And you can’t tell anyone about your hangover because that would be weird, right? So it becomes this silent thing that you have to just get through, whilst appearing to be fine. It’s hard work. It amazes me how often drinkers are painted as weak-willed, because actually you have to be quite a strong person to cope with the hangovers, turn up to work on time and then repeat the process.

When you stop drinking you notice so many benefits. For starters you sleep better. You also look better, feel better and you save money. But above all, sobriety makes life so much easier. It really does. It brings an end to the lies you tell yourself and others. You stop having to keep so many secrets. You stop feeling guilty about failing to stop. This morning, I looked at this man on the train and thought: yes, life is so much simpler now. 

A simpler life doesn’t have to be a boring one either. On a slightly different note, I wanted to share this article about Davina McCall. I’ve always been a fan of hers but I became an even bigger one during her recent Sport Relief Challenge (running, cycling and swimming from Edinburgh to London). Talk about determination! She has been very open about her drink/drug problems in the past and I particularly like what she says in the interview about being “hedonistic whilst completely sober”. I like the sound of her parties…

Spring is around the corner

I cannot believe it’s going to be the 1st of March tomorrow. Where is this year going? February has flown by and I’ve hardly posted at all because things have been busy, busy, busy.

The big thing that happened this month is that I told some real life people about my blog. Eeek. Not just any old people either – my parents. For various reasons, it suddenly felt like the right time to do so. Needless to say, it was a nerve-wracking experience, but all is good. I have been cringing a bit, thinking of the things they have read and subconsciously I think this may have put the brakes on me writing anything else for a while. But all in all, it feels great to be a bit more honest about things. Much of this blog is about drinking in secret and then getting sober in secret. All that secrecy had become a bit of a burden.

In other news, I have a new job. Well, a part-time job to be precise. As some of you will know, I have been trying to change careers for a while, but my biggest problem has been working out exactly what it is I want to do. I don’t want to write off journalism completely, but my current job definitely isn’t right for me anymore. I think stopping drinking has played a big part in me realising that. My new role can mainly be done from home, but it’s part-time enough for me to juggle it with my full-time job, for now at least. Eventually I hope it will provide a bit of a financial cushion if I decide to leave my proper job or take a year out. Who knows?! It feels like I have lots of options.

This past month hasn’t all been hard work. Last week I had a very chilled few days at a fancy spa. It was incredibly posh: think stately home, surrounded by beautiful countryside. I went with a friend and we knew as soon as we arrived that we might be a little out of place because the car park was like a Range Rover showroom. Apparently the spa has a few permanent residents who live there all the time, waited on hand and foot everyday. Can you imagine?!

My friend and I went to the spa primarily to relax, but once we arrived it became obvious that most people go there to lose weight. The food, whilst delicious, was very, very healthy. Everything was fresh and cooked from scratch. There were lots of salads, herbal teas and fruit to snack on. But incredibly, the spa also had a bar. I looked at the menu and noticed it was mainly organic wine and champagne. So no beer or spirits. But still … alcohol? In a wellbeing spa?

We were eating dinner one evening when one of the reception staff came over to our table. There had been a problem with the shower in our room and the receptionist was very apologetic about it. She wanted to get us a complimentary drink from the bar by means of apology. Would we like a glass of champagne, she wondered? My friend, who does drink, said yes. I explained that I didn’t, but that I could murder a Diet Coke or a tonic water. The receptionist looked at me like I’d just asked for a Big Mac and fries. “We don’t serve those kind of drinks here” she replied, shaking her head.

Now I know that diet fizzy drinks, loaded with artificial sweeteners, aren’t the healthiest beverages. But they must be better for you than champagne, which is loaded with empty calories and contains alcohol, a POISON. It was very tempting to point all of this out. But I didn’t. After all, the receptionist was only trying to be nice. So I took a deep breath, ordered a sparkling water and resolved that if I ever went back I’d smuggle some Diet Coke in with me …

When drinking wine is like eating chocolate biscuits

On Friday I had to interview some people who’d taken part in Dry January. Truth be told, the feature was kind of my idea, but I wasn’t expecting to actually have to do it myself. I wasn’t in the mood for talking to people who were about to celebrate their sober success by getting pissed. So when it was assigned to me, I did what I do best and put it off for as long as possible.

I’ve written before about how weird I think the concept of Dry January is. All other public health campaigns encourage people to make a permanent change to their lives. Stoptober is all about stopping smoking, permanently. Change 4 Life encourages healthy eating, forever. But Dry January? It seems to imply that a month of saintly living is enough to counteract 11 months of boozing it up.

Anyway. On Friday afternoon – after taking a long lunch break, sorting through all my emails and making several cups of tea – I finally got round to picking up the phone. Despite my reluctance, chatting to the Dry January-ers was actually quite interesting.

For starters, their enthusiasm was infectious. They’d all lost weight, saved money and slept better. They’d got lots more done on Sundays. They’d realised that it was possible to socialise without drinking. They’d started to think about how much of their drinking was done out of sheer habit. It was all I could do not to chime in with “Well, wait till you get to 10 months, then you really will feel amazing!” But as I was in the office, surrounded by colleagues who still seem to be largely oblivious to my sobriety, I kept my mouth shut.

I was speaking to one lovely lady, Helen, when something clicked for me. I was listening to her talking about her love of white wine when I realised that her relationship with alcohol was about the same as the one I have with chocolate biscuits.

Helen likes a glass of wine when she gets home from work. It makes her feel better. At first she found not drinking hard, because it had become part of her routine. I love chocolate digestives with a cup of tea in the afternoon. But if I’m on a diet (hello January) I’ll try to cut them out altogether. I found that hard to start with, but got into the swing of things after a while. If Helen has a bad day at work, she might have two glasses of wine to cheer herself up. But she’d never drink enough to get a hangover or be incapable of looking after her children. If I’m having a bad afternoon I might have four biscuits instead of two. But as much as I love them, I’m never going to eat the whole packet because I know that would make me feel ill. And eating biscuits doesn’t actually solve anything.

Crucially, I could see that Helen felt her drinking had become a bad habit, one that she was keen to get on top of. But she wasn’t obsessed by alcohol and it didn’t control her.

My relationship with alcohol was very different. Once I had started drinking I could not control my intake. It didn’t matter what I had to do the next day. Once I’d started, I didn’t really care about the consequences. But no matter how much I drank, I never felt truly satisfied or content. Left to my own devices I would drink until I passed out. After a big binge I’d be ‘good’ for a while, but even then, alcohol would still be playing some tune in the background.

I’ve never had that problem with chocolate biscuits.

I guess what I’m trying to say, in a rambling, long-winded kind of way, is that perhaps Dry January is a good thing for people who aren’t problem drinkers, but who have just got into the habit of drinking too much. People who drink wine like I eat chocolate biscuits. I still think some people might misuse it and see it as a wipe-the-slate-clean, magical detox. But there are some good points. And ultimately, anything that promotes sobriety in some shape or another has got to be a good thing, right?

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