Wrapping Your Head Around 'Sober'
When I stopped drinking, I absolutely did not want to. I felt utterly deprived of something I loved and needed, and petulantly told anyone who enquired as to why I was not joining him or her in an alcoholic drink, that I was ‘on the wagon’. Understandably, with these ideas going on in my head, it was very difficult to contemplate living without alcohol forever.
Initially, things didn’t feel wholly dissimilar to being a teenager and grounded by my parents as punishment for bad behaviour. It was uncomfortable and unpleasant, and I felt incredibly angry about the fact that I was now ‘not allowed to drink’. On rare occasions when I stepped foot inside a bar or went to a party, I sat miserably in the corner nursing a glass of sparkling mineral water. For all intents and purposes, I may as well have had a flashing pink neon sign above my head, screaming out “Newly sober person! Wishes she could get blotto with the rest of you but she can’t because she’s got A BOOZE PROBLEM”.
The way I perceived it, I was different now. I was weird, a failure - a social outcast.
The difficulty lay in the fact that I still wanted to drink. I continued to see alcohol as a good thing, a vital component of a happy life spent having fun and living it up. Other than the obvious health gains, I couldn’t identify any positives whatsoever in being a non-drinker.
The psychology behind this inner tantrum is not rocket science; we all know that when we are told we can’t have something, we only want it more. Whatever the unobtainable yet deeply desired object of our affection may be, we become obsessed, dreaming of it almost constantly with tempting pictures of it flashing in and out of our mind’s eye. It eventually occupies virtually all of our conscious thinking time, and simply because we decided to banish it from our lives.
I discovered I was pregnant just a few months into my sobriety and admittedly, this helped me to stay on track. With the option of drinking fully removed, I didn’t once entertain doing it - at least, not in the present moment. However, I did idly toy with the thought of getting drunk again once I’d had my baby and all the nursing bras and breast pads had been disposed of for good. I fantasised about cold, white wine, and lusted after the memory of drinking enough to temporarily escape my reality. Despite my growing bump, I knew I was still swimming in murky waters with regards to my relationship with alcohol.
As the baby’s due date neared, my trepidation intensified as to whether or not I would be able to maintain my commitment to not drinking past the nine-month mark. I saw a Cognitive Behavioural Therapist who helped me to establish some mind-management techniques and also provided me with strategies for coping with my then very low self-esteem. Under his instruction, I practised picturing a box with a lid, stored on top of a wardrobe. In my head, I would take the box down, lift the lid and remove all my various fears and anxieties, one by one. I’d allow myself an hour each day to indulge in these worries, pick them apart and ponder my reactions to them; to examine the underlying causes behind each one; to establish if they were valid or not. And then carefully I would replace them in the box and close it, returning it to the top of the wardrobe. Once the box had been put away, I would not permit myself to ruminate further over what was locked inside until the next day.
I also spent time telling myself in no uncertain terms that I was OK. Every morning I looked in the mirror at my reflection and, as I stared straight into my eyes, spoke the words, “You are not a bad person. You’re doing your best”. After a while, I started to believe this mantra.
But of course, it wasn’t quite that easy to eradicate all of my entrenched longings for alcohol! It began to dawn on me – and I feel as though this gradual revelation was my ultimate life-saver – that if I was going to stay sober once I’d become a mum second time around, I would have to develop almost a sense of apathy when it came to alcohol. To despise it and blame it for all my ills would be to elevate too greatly its importance. In order to successfully get past this stumbling block, I needed to not care at all. I had to become one of those people who just doesn’t want to drink, who can have a snifter of sherry at Christmas and then forget all about the stuff for the rest of the year (except I didn’t even want the snifter of sherry at Christmas!).
Employing the newly-acquired mindfulness knowledge I’d picked up from various sources (meditation classes, my CBT counsellor and endless Internet reading around the practice) I arrived at the conclusion that the voices whispering to me so persistently that I needed to drink, should drink, must drink and would only ever be happy ifI drank, amounted to nothing more than those of a bad boyfriend. The similarities were endless it seemed, once I began to focus on this analogy. (From which followed my first book, The Sober Revolution.)
For a start, booze had a cunning way of masquerading as a harmless fountain of endless fun – that is to say, it did so at the start of a night out (or in). As the evening wore on, and the more alcohol I poured down my neck, the liquid magic would frequently morph into liquid poison, and I would become my own worst enemy. I would flirt, argue, pass out, slur my words, fall over… why did I never see any of this coming? I honestly believed at the start of each booze-fuelled night that everything would be fine. And yet alcohol was no better than a lying, abusive boyfriend who wriggled and wormed his way into my good books after letting me down, time and time again.
That archetypal bad boy (or girl) who lies and cheats and then buys flowers to make it all OK again, that’s what alcohol had become to me. And amazingly, even with all the decades of experience and prior knowledge of its wily ways, I fell for it – every single time. As I anticipated the night ahead, I’d see myself: glamorous, good company, and with glass to hand, a winning smile on my face, charming all I spoke with.
That was the illusion.
In reality, I’d wake up the following morning, hungover and feeling emotionally bruised and battered - and often physically so too. On an untold number of occasions I would locate huge, ghastly black bruises about my person and never be able to remember how they’d arrived there. They would usually be in difficult-to-reach, somewhat odd places too – the insides of my knees, for instance, or right next to my armpit. I struggled to work out how exactly how those accidents had happened because they warranted such bizarre contortions of the body!
Almost without exception, I would open my eyes the morning after a heavy night of drinking and the primary emotions I’d feel were fear and shame. This hungover state of mind started to occur with increasing regularity around my late twenties but happened on and off throughout my entire drinking career of twenty-two years. And it was the misconception I had of alcohol together with the colossal power it held over me that led to these fierce attacks of low self-worth and the urge to hide under the duvet all day. Exactly like being with a controlling boyfriend or girlfriend.
Aged thirty-five, I finally reached a stage where I was exhausted by the whole game of control: booze had obtained the upper hand and I felt totally unable to continue the battle. By visualising alcohol as this awful partner who had treated me with such disdain, lied to me, tricked me, and made a fool of me for so many years, I felt anger initially and then indignation. But it helped enormously in getting me started on the path of falling out of love with alcohol, once and for all.
How dare booze think it could do this to me? Gradually, over the last two decades, alcohol had taken over my life. I never saw it in that way in the thick of it because drinking just became what I did – and besides, everyone else was doing it and simultaneously telling me it’s not only OK but funny, rebellious and adventurous too! I bought into the marketing of alcohol, that which is orchestrated by the industry selling it and by the other people who drink it too. Alcohol is sexy, liberating, sophisticated, grown-up, romantic, cool, naughty and stylish – all rolled into one. How could anyone, bombarded with all of that, possibly resist?
But eventually, in my mid-thirties, I developed the strength of mind and tactics to say no.
So exactly how doyou eliminate a toxic relationship?
You get tough, that’s how. You stop making excuses up for this person who never shows you the respect you deserve. He/she has been cheating on you for weeks? You end it. He/she stands you up and leaves you dateless for no good reason at an amazing party you’ve spent hours getting ready for? You end it. He/she is mentally and physically abusive towards you? You end it. You draw a line in the sand and promise yourself that you won’t believe any more of the lies. You remove the blinkers and you see things as they truly are.
I was able to leave my abusive relationship with alcohol because I doggedly set about brainwashing myself with all the reasons that it is horrible and destructive. Contrary to everything we are taught about this addictive drug that we afford such a privileged spot in society, I began to perceive it in the harsh light of day. And as each week passed by that I remained alcohol-free, I grew a tiny bit tougher.
I identified four central ‘Booze Lies’ and they became my reference point whenever I felt tempted to drink. They were the allegedly positive attributes of alcohol that I had grown up believing throughout my entire life, reinforced via a wide variety of cultural reference points but which I could now recognise as being false.
Here are my four Booze Lies:
1) Alcohol does not make you attractive
2) Alcohol does not make you successful
3) Alcohol does not make you cool
4) Alcohol does not provide you with a better social life
My next few posts will cover these booze lies and how YOU can ensure you stop believing them.