One of the things I’ve been learning on my Indian philosophy course with Sudhir Rishi is the idea that whatever we take in through our senses is ‘food’. Whatever we taste, smell, see, touch or hear feeds not only our physical body but becomes associated with our thoughts and moods, our memories of joy and sadness. You might say, ‘we are what we sense’.
My hike yesterday was filled with the smell of wild garlic, the sight of yellow dandelions, the sound of birdsong and lambs, the taste of lemon drizzle cake and the feel of warm wood under my hands as I passed through gates.
While walking, I thought about how I feed my body and mind, not always with the things that make it happy, whether that’s scrolling on my phone, watching trash TV, eating processed food, drinking alcohol or listening to an argumentative political radio show.
Once you start thinking of all these things as food, it’s easier to cut some of them out. In Indian philosophy, everything in existence is ‘god’ including your own body, so why would you offer it something bad? I’m not saying I’ll be able to change all my bad habits overnight but it’ll make me stop and ask myself some questions before I let them in again.
The ancient Indian text, the Bhagavad Gita, is our guide and today I learned about ‘The Six Enemies’ of peace – the six things that rob us of our inner joy. Here they are in Sanskrit:
Kaama – an intense craving for something. “I want it at any cost.”
Krodha – anger. “I can’t have it because something is stopping me!”
Lobha – greed. “I’ve got it but now I need more.”
Moha – delusion born out of attachment. “I refuse to acknowledge that this thing is bad for me.”
Mada – arrogance. “I’ve got lots of this thing and I’m better than you because of it.”
Matsarya – jealousy. “You’ve got the thing I want and it’s eating me up inside.”
I can apply some of this to my drinking past, especially the first four. I know I’d get annoyed if friends wanted to leave the pub early and I was in a state of denial about how bad alcohol was for me.
When I first heard my teacher say the names and meanings of the Six Enemies, I cried. Because I’ve felt like the moment I pressed ‘publish’ on my book in August last year, my peace of mind was robbed and I’ve been using those words ever since. Many of the elements of this checklist have been responsible, both in myself and other people. I’ve only just regained my inner peace and I’m back on the yoga mat after months of not being able to face it.
The only ‘sin’ (there isn’t an exact translation for that word in Sanskrit) in Indian philosophy is hurting others, including yourself. That is the root of all suffering, along with ignorance of the true nature of the self: which is uninterrupted, unconditional joy.
Maybe this is something someone needs to hear this Easter weekend so I’m putting it out there.
Hiking solo means that I often meet people I wouldn’t otherwise get to chat to if I was with someone else. It’s the great advantage of being alone – I actually meet more people, but not for very long, which is just perfect for me.
I met Caroline and Dan, two old friends catching up over a two-day hike, at The Pink Pit Stop – where there always seems to be someone willing to chat.
“I’ve just seen the happiest dog in the world!” Caroline said, in the queue for coffee and a brownie. I was amazed that it wasn’t Gnasher, the resident terrier.
They were going my way and happy for me to join them hiking and we spoke about freedom. Caroline spoke about having lived in San Francisco for a long time and how much she felt free there. I told her that SF had been the setting of a life-changing moment for me, finding a shell on a beach there and making a decision to leave my marriage.
We talked about ‘home’ and what that means and decided that we both felt nomadic and tied down by mortgages and property ownership. She has a husband and two children and feels the pressure to put down roots to provide stability for her family. It goes against her DNA, she said.
Dan was scampering around taking pictures as we talked but he said there was a woman in his life who wanted her freedom too and he wasn’t sure if he could cope with her being away travelling so much. I told him about my long-distance relationship and how it had made me reassess what is ‘normal’ versus what feels right. Perhaps it was time for Dan to think about the advantages of being in a relationship with time spent apart, we concluded, especially as he’s an adventure junkie too. Not every life adventure has to take place in a couple.
At the end of the hike they were going to the pub in the evening sunshine and I experienced a pang of longing for my past life of downing a chilled glass of white wine (or three)after a long walk. Instead, I said goodbye, felt grateful for such wonderful company and chose freedom from alcohol. It’s the only path for me.
I have news! The first of my new £1.99 guides to a free and happy life is available for pre-order on Amazon. It will publish on January 10, 2022, my three-year soberversary. It contains my essential twelve steps to sobriety, my own sober diary from the early days of quitting, plus a related extract from my memoir.
I will be releasing BYC guides on other topics discussed widely on my blog, including how to live a happy single/childfree life, how to travel solo, how to live a free working life, how to love your own body and how to live with menopause. Watch this space – or better still, sign up to my newsletter to get the news on the next one first: https://www.getrevue.co/profile/redwoods1
I had an epiphany last week. I’d got bogged down with my book promotion and temporarily forgot why I published it in the first place – to help other people trapped in unhealthy situations, be it a marriage or an addiction to alcohol. I’d lost sight of that as the pressure for my book to ‘perform’ mounted. I am someone who is deeply suspicious of free things (and people who only want things because they’re free). I would never have thought that making my book free for a day was the key to something so good.
In publishing, we’ve forgotten that writing is an art form that we might pursue for pleasure or to spread enjoyment locally. It’s an industry obsessed with sales figures and book deals; recognition and validation from an elite group being the main goal. We’ve forgotten that people like to write stories and feel pleasure when someone else enjoys reading them. We’ve forgotten that there is a pleasure in a local group of people enjoying art and aim for global recognition, sometimes not even showing anyone our writing because it hinges on a deal that may never come.
I’m asked all the time about sales figures. How are sales going? How many books have you sold? I get asked this every day. A little light in my heart goes out every time. Is that all you can see? I think. Let me tell you about the people who have loved my writing and messaged me to say that the book changed their lives. Let me show you what success really is. I often use the analogy of painting to point out this weird commerciality attached to books. I know that if I hung a painting of a sunset on Worthing Pier, people wouldn’t ask me how many I’d sold. They’d hopefully stand and enjoy it and invite their friends to look at it. Just because it’s not on a global tour to major art galleries, doesn’t make it any less valid. I think of my self-published book in the same way.
My free book day brought me so much joy. Perhaps there is someone out there now, a woman, who needed to read my story in order to make the leap into freedom. I spent the following day hiking on the South Downs, thinking about what it meant to be free and happy. For me, it’s a solo hike in the sunshine, the wind whipping my hair, a warm down jacket and everything I need in a pack on my back. I sat eating a slice of apple and cinnamon cake in the sunshine with a hot mug of tea and simply felt happy. I am happiest when being in nature, when writing, when helping other people, when being alone.
My book (and this blog) is about freedom in all its forms: from the confines of an unhappy marriage, from alcohol addiction, from unhealthy relationships, workplaces and friendships, from dieting and beauty standards, from society’s expectations around marriage and motherhood, and from the toxicity of corporate life. Most importantly, it’s about asserting oneself as a solo individual. To me, freedom is about not waiting to be validated or given permission to do anything by another person or entity.
I am reigniting my writing here with the fire of freedom and changing my branding to suit. No more Because I Can – it’s Because You Can from now on.
A wonderful review from Always Need More Books. Thank you, Clair!
Cheat Play Live by Lisa Edwards Originally published: 6 August 2021 Author: Lisa Edwards Published by: Redwood Tree Publishing Genre: Memoir Length: 246 pages Reading dates: 4-9 November 20 21 On a beach in California, Lisa finds a shell on a rock, its two halves open to the sky. On the outside it is sea-worn and […]
Last week, I was interviewed by Be Sober‘s Simon Chapple about my relationship with alcohol, and how I managed the transition to a sober life. I talk about how writing my memoir made me realise that drinking had had a huge impact on my life from the time I started in my twenties until my early fifties, when I gave up. Many of my (bad) decisions and behaviours had taken place under the influence of alcohol, including asking the wrong man to marry me. You can hear me talk about my story below, and of course, read the book here (leave a review!).
I also wrote a blog post for Simon, which I’ll share here. For me, it’s all about awareness and choice – if you’re aware of the realities of drinking, you can make an informed choice as to whether to do it or not.
Last Woman Drinking
I knew that I’d hit rock bottom when the young designer next to me in my bed was on the phone to his very understanding girlfriend, reassuring her that he was ok, and that nothing had happened. “We have a very honest and open relationship,” he said, looking at me shyly.
I’d got him so drunk at some work drinks that he hadn’t been able to get home. We’d both slept next to each other, fully clothed, and now it was time to face the harsh light of day. And the fact that I was his boss…
As a senior manager in a publishing house a few years ago, I organised a weekly ‘Prosecco Hour’ every Friday at 4pm. I’d say it was ‘for the staff’, but now I realise it was also for something else: it was a way of enabling and validating my own drinking by having everyone around me join in.
The publishing world is made of prosecco hours; they’re everywhere, from book launches to book fairs. We’d whip out a bottle with the merest whiff of something to celebrate, even if it was just the end of a stressful day. But over time, I noticed that the numbers joining in had dwindled, and they were more likely to be peers my own age gathering around the fizz while other younger team members backed away politely, saying they needed to get to their yoga class. I couldn’t understand why they’d prefer that over booze and I scoffed at their lack of party spirit.
I’d got a name for myself. “Lisa likes a drink,” I’d hear people say. I’d laugh with them about my inability to ‘just have one’ – everyone knew I’d drink one bottle, not one glass. I didn’t know I had a problem. It was what everyone was doing, wasn’t it?
Writing my memoir, Cheat Play Live, made me examine where my drinking began. I knew it had started in the nineties with my entry into publishing and ladette culture. We all drank Stella with the boys and fancied ourselves as Bridget Jones, Ally McBeal or the girls in Sex and the City. I drank as a reward for triumphs at work and as a commiseration for the stress. But I was also using alcohol to numb the grief of losing my father as a child and to cope with my mother’s dementia.
As the decades passed, I started drinking on my own in bars. My feminist self justified it as a woman exercising her independence and freedom, but really it was further validating my habit. My drinking gathered pace over time, until it reshaped itself into something I could cope with: bingeing.
Before I stopped drinking almost three years ago, my life was largely constructed around alcohol. I was successfully managing my career, and my drinking. I was trapped in a binge-recovery cycle that I told myself was ‘cutting back’. I’d restrict my drinking to three nights per week and felt smug about my nights off. In reality, I needed those days in between to recover from the bottle of prosecco (or two) that I was consuming on the other nights.
Leading UK alcohol charity, Alcohol Change UK, states: “…a generation who drank heavily in the 1990s and 2000s is bringing those habits into middle age, with potentially serious consequences for their long-term health.”
I spoke to Lucy Holmes, the charity’s Director of Research and Policy who said, “Many women drink half a bottle of wine per night, not realising that it represents a third of their weekly recommended intake. They are unaware of the health risks and the links between alcohol consumption and cancer, stroke, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.”
I am proud of the fact that I’ve never smoked, having lost my dad to cancer (he was a heavy smoker). I was ten years old when he died and I swore I’d never touch a cigarette, even though everyone around me was doing it. As it was, I also managed to avoid alcohol until I was in my early twenties – and if I’d been told that drinking alcohol was equally harmful, I never would have started. But of course, we know that the alcohol industry is worth £10bn to the government – they’re never going to highlight its harms in any meaningful way, even if £3.5bn of that income has to be spent on managing alcohol’s damage to our health.
Being made aware of potential physical harm has a huge effect on our smoking and drinking habits. The increase in non-drinking among millennials and Generation Z is largely attributed to their awareness of alcohol’s harmful effects (as well as its cost). Similarly, many women my age are proud of giving up smoking because they see it as a greater harm, having swallowed health campaigns such as the British Lung Foundation’s Stoptober. Like me, they’ve also seen the effects of smoking on their ageing parents. A friend of mine, Cheryl, 51, a press officer living in Brighton, admits, “I don’t worry about my drinking,” she said, “it’s the late nights and the cigarettes I smoke when I am drunk that I worry about.”
Public Health England found that high-risk drinking increased from 16% in 2019 to 19% in 2020, most of which was driven by women during lockdown, specifically those between 35 and 54 years old. (High-risk drinking is anything above the recommended limit of 14 units, equating to one and a half bottles of wine, six pints of beer or seven double gin and tonics, or anything above 5 days per month of binge-drinking.) Women my age used alcohol as a way of coping with the increased stress around working and schooling from home during lockdown.
I relied on zero-alcohol prosecco to see me through, even though I did spend some time staring at the shelves of the real stuff. It’s the most I’ve been tempted since I gave up – I wanted to break up the day, numb the boredom and anxiety, and celebrate when it was all (apparently) over. On ‘Freedom Day’, I watched two women taking a bottle of prosecco and two glasses down to the beach and I so wanted to join them. But I didn’t.
The UCL report showed that while the numbers of women drinking during lockdown increased, the numbers of those trying to give up also showed an upward curve. I know that among my friends, their increased lockdown drinking scared them a little into cutting down. Candice, 42, single mother and a senior lecturer in sport and fitness in Hampshire, worked from home and homeschooled her 13-year-old daughter during the pandemic. She drank gin and tonic every night as her life became more stressful. “I use alcohol as a reward or something to help me unwind, and during lockdown,” she told me. “It was something I used to break the day into evening. That kind of habit forms very easily and after lockdown I decided to cut back for the sake of my health.”
Since the pandemic, Candice has reduced her drinking to two to three nights a week: “I now consciously have nights off alcohol, drinking a cup of tea or a hot chocolate instead. I try to only drink at weekends and I’m happy with that. All my friends have done a similar thing.”
A number of celebrities who were heavy drinkers in the 1990s and 2000s have recently embraced the sober life. Kate Moss, 47, has been alcohol-free since 2018 and Zoe Ball, icon of ladette culture, quit in 2016. More recently, Susannah Constantine, 59, spoke about her own alcohol dependency: “The truth was, not only was I dependent on alcohol, I enjoyed life better when I was drinking. Until I didn’t… Drinking had ceased to be fun. I had ceased to be fun. I was no longer in control of my drinking; it was controlling me.”
I had a very similar epiphany to Susannah. My own sober journey started nearly three years ago with therapy, yoga and reading ‘quit lit’ such as This Naked Mindby Annie Grace – the sober bible for so many people. Drinking alcohol had stopped making me feel good and I’d begun to question why I was ordering the first drink, never mind the second. The only part that was every truly good was the anticipation of it and that first sip. Drinking started to feel increasingly disappointing after that point and I did and said a lot of things I now regret while under its influence.
Reading This Naked Mind and William Porter’s Alcohol Explained revealed that what I was drinking was literally a poison – a toxic depressant – and it made me give up for good. But this was a message I was opening to hearing at a particular time of my life. When I’ve told friends who are still drinking that they are putting flavoured ethanol into their bodies they just look at me blankly. But is the message slowly seeping in?
Some of my friends gave up drinking at the same time as me (literally the same day I told them), seemingly relieved to being given social permission to do so. Others have read my blog and my book and felt they could give it a try too. My friend, Cheryl, who recently fell down some steps on her way home at 3am and knocked herself out, said, “It made me question why I can’t just have the one and head home. When I’m dancing away in a club I feel great, but the next day, I feel dreadful and a bit of an idiot. If my friends all slowed down then I probably would too – I don’t want to be the last woman drinking.”
Since becoming sober, my life has completely changed. I’m more likely to stay in, because I’ve realised how much of my going out was tied to drinking. I’ve reclaimed mornings and now use them as my ‘evenings’, where I walk, meet friends for coffee and muse on the day ahead before I start work. At 54, I look younger, have a clear, (mostly) anxiety-free head, and I’m more able to cope with menopause symptoms which are known to be worsened by drinking.
But that, my friends, is a subject for another book…
Cheat Play Live by Lisa Edwards is out now (Redwood Tree Publishing, £4.99 (ebook), £6.99 (paperback). Buy the book, read reviews and listen to more interviews here.
Whenever people say to me, “You’re living the dream! I’m so envious!” I always reply by saying it is possible to feel sad in paradise. Believe me, I’ve experienced it all over the world. I’ve cried on beaches in Thailand, Costa Rica and Egypt. Somehow these palm-fringed locations make a feeling of sadness or loneliness stronger because you’re not meant to feel those things here. But you can, and do.
I haven’t had a terrible week, I was just feeling sad and a bit lonely last weekend for reasons I won’t go into here. I started to do that thing of ‘wandering the earth’ that I do back home when I’m feeling like this, but this time the earth was simply Agonda. And then, just as I was at my lowest ebb, a motorbike came wobbling towards me carrying my friends Hannah and Dave and their precariously balanced luggage and guitar. It was so good to see them I nearly knocked them over with hugs on the street. They are just such great people – nice and normal. They love dogs as much as I do. Thank goodness for Hannah and Dave.
As well as his guitar, Dave has brought his harmonica and when he spontaneously began to accompany Taylor the guitarist at Silent Waves resort, it was a beautiful moment. He played along with guitarist Willem to Mr Bojangles – a song with such poignancy. I felt so proud of him as he shyly took to the stage. It takes guts to get up there.
Part of the reason for me feeling so discombobulated is that I’ve started teaching public yoga classes. I watched Dave get up on ‘stage’ (aka a raised bit of sand) and tried to channel a bit of his bravery. I think it’s the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done – preparing and teaching a class full of hopeful yogis. I tore myself to pieces beforehand and during the classes, feeling sure people would just leave or pick me up on something I’d got wrong. It turned out the only person who wanted to leave or criticise me was myself.
I’ve had so much encouragement from my friends at Sampoorna – hugs and kind words and “it’ll be fine” times a million. I’ve also had one or two people returning to my classes – thank you Daniela and Uwe. I have resolved to keep going and ‘screw my courage to the sticking-place’, but this whole week I’ve felt very emotional and I’ve hardly slept. There’s been another full moon, too. Perhaps that has something to do with it.
I haven’t spent as much time on the beach this week, but when I have it has more than delivered. Firstly sunsets to die for and secondly a sea otter, who emerged near Simrose last Wednesday at 8am, and swam all the way along the coast to its rocky home, accompanied by me alongside (walking, I might add). He, or she, swam silently by people in the ocean who didn’t notice they were sharing the ocean with such a glorious animal, and he stopped to come out of the water with a silver fish in his mouth at one point, to eat breakfast. I was pointing him out to people but few were interested. Vasudev (Captain Nitesh the boatman) was as excited as me, though, because he loves the nature in his home village.
I’ve also discovered the delights of Charlie’s street food van by Gita’s clothes shop in the main street. Gita introduced me to Charlie one day when she was having her lunch. I was persuaded to come back for a snack lunch the next day and sampled an omelette and bread roll for 25 rupees. The next day I had bhaji with bread roll for 50 rupees. Both were delicious and Charlie is so lovely. I like that you stand and chat with him while you eat. He’s there all day from 7.30am to 10pm at night serving delicious food. And for someone on their own, this is a way of bypassing the awkwardness of sitting somewhere on your own. I sense that I’ll be going to Charlie’s cart a lot from now on.
In dog news, Sweetpea has been spotted on the beach again and again, and I’ve just left her in the company of a Portuguese family, being fed titbits. It’s so lovely to see her out and about again. The old Sweetpea has returned. Zimbo and Sanjo are still my pack, but I saw Zimbo cosying up to a group of people at Jardim a few days back so I know I share him a bit.
Papaya, the Kopi Desa dog, has started to walk up to me for a cuddle whenever I stop by, after years of ignoring me. Same with Jerry (Gary? the jury is out on which name it is) at Simrose. He’s ignored me for years (apart from sitting outside my Simrose hut two Christmasses ago) and suddenly he’s butting my legs with his head. I don’t know what’s caused the change but I love it. More dogs to cuddle for me.
Ocean is growing bigger and stronger every day and now sits on the beach to watch the sunset with his human and canine friends from Love Bites. I saw the election news from back home and cuddled Ocean to remind myself that beautiful, innocent things exist in the world.
I have decided that I won’t let the news get me down. I won’t let it fill me with negative thoughts and feelings of helplessness. I will simply strive to live a life that is as good as it can be. Many people have been quoting Gandhi on Twitter and Facebook: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” I’m not sure if he said those exact words, but that’s what we were taught in our yoga teacher training at Sampoorna because it’s part of Indian philosophy (otherwise known as Hinduism). It’s all you can do when it comes down to it – be in control of your own thoughts, words and actions.
So that’s what I’m going to do. I’ve hit my 11-month soberversary this week and the fact that I almost missed it shows how much I’ve moved on from my drinking lifestyle. I’d rather watch a sea otter in the ocean early in the morning and say hello to a dog named Sweetpea.
I wanted to follow up my post about being newly alcohol-free with a few thoughts about how it feels, and the social, physical and mental changes I’ve observed. Today is day 66 for me – I’m heading towards my 10-week anniversary in a few days.
Clarity. I’ve already described how it feels in your head to go alcohol-free – like moving from a pixellated phone screen to hi-definition. Especially in the first few weeks. It may just be the crystalline spring light all around me, but the world literally feels lighter and brighter. Many recovering people report an improvement in eyesight which may well be due to rehydration. Whatever it is, it’s a wonderful sensation. I feel like I’ve had a factory reset.
Positivity. I used to feel as though I was dragging myself through the world, meeting challenge after challenge, obstruction after obstruction. Now I find I can meet the world head on, whatever it throws at me. I can see the positives and the opportunities, whereas my former self would feel sorry for herself. My former self would cry a lot when she drank too much. That’s all gone. Now I only feel like crying during yoga – but only because of the emotion it releases.
Productivity. I feel like I am chewing through my to-do list very quickly. I met a person recently who said I should ‘eat the frog’ each day – do the difficult thing I’ve been putting off first so I can enjoy the day. She was so right. It feels easier to do that, and move on to the next thing. I used to find it very hard to get out of bed, which brings me on to…
Sleep. I used to say that I was an insomniac. For some weird reason I always woke up at 3am and stayed awake for a couple of hours. I blamed age, I blamed stress, I blamed my low-carb diet. Even though those things played their part, the biggest culprit was alcohol. I knew that regaining blissful sleep was one of the key outcomes of giving up drinking but it took 45 days for it to kick in for me. If you’ve been drinking for about 27 years, and not even every day, it takes a while for your body to readjust to its factory settings.
Social life. I socialise more. You think that your social life will disappear if you stop drinking, but the exact opposite happens. You can go out for multiple nights in a row because you don’t have to build in recovery time. You don’t have to arrange your nights out around what you are doing the night before. Suddenly Monday night becomes a social prospect.
Friendships. I feel much more engaged with my friends when I’m with them. I feel less selfish in conversations. There is something about alcohol that made me more self-centred and I’m very glad to see the back of that. I can concentrate on the things my friends are telling me and ask them about them the next time I see them, rather than casting about for a memory of what they may have told me the last time I saw them. It’s more about them than me and that feels good.
Self-respect. I’ve stopped doing bad things that make me anxious the next day. No more drunk texts, ill-advised encounters, minor injuries, lost memories, inappropriate social-media posts or arguments with friends. No more ‘Lisa likes a drink’ comments or presents involving prosecco. I have my self-respect back.
Back to my youth. I do feel like I’ve had a factory reset to the age I was before I started drinking in earnest (around 25). My brain is sharper, my head clearer, but I am also slimmer, fitter and for some strange reason, my hair has thickened and feels bouncier. Apparently that’s also an unexpected bonus side-effect. I have spent way more time in the yoga studio which has taken me back to a level of fitness I was at when I was studying contemporary dance every day, but also back to a time when my head was less addled with anxiety.
Sugary sweet. Another unexpected outcome is a massive craving for sugar, which I’m told will subside. But for now, Cadbury’s Mini Eggs are my nectar. The advice is to be nice to yourself and get yourself through these weeks and months in whatever way you can. So my first move is a return to Goa – the place I said I’d never return to. My therapist asked me why I was giving myself that rule, why I wouldn’t want to return to a place that feels like home, with friends and animals I love, yoga and a place to write my book.
I wasn’t intending to give up drinking alcohol forever, but somehow that’s what happened. And this is Day 50 as alcohol-free Lisa.
I am almost annoyed that I haven’t said goodbye properly, or had one last blast – although I did, on the last day of my Christmas holiday in Goa. I just didn’t realise it at the time.
Like many people my age, especially women who came of drinking age in the ‘90s ladette culture, I’ve been toying with the idea of cutting down or stopping drinking for a while. Last year I joined online forums where people discussed it and I paid particular attention to feature articles talking about it – so much so that algorithms started supplying me with more and more to read.
At first I congratulated myself for increasing my non-drinking days to three, four and eventually five days a week. I even got to eight days at one point. I’d go out once or twice a week and know that I was going to blast through a bottle of prosecco. I couldn’t seem to stop at one or two glasses – I had to keep going. I was a binge-drinker. I admitted that to myself at least.
But I excused myself too. I watched the Adrian Chiles drinking documentary on the BBC, and thought, “at least I don’t drink that much”. I’d started tracking my drinking on an app and being truthful about it. With my one or two days per week drinking I wasn’t exactly a raging alcoholic, but I was at least double the recommended 14 units per week for women (Chiles was well over 100 even when he’d cut down). I kept coming in at ‘increasing risk’ on the health-monitoring part of the app but I so wanted to achieve ‘low risk’ status.
By the time I went on holiday to Goa at Christmas, I knew I didn’t want to spend every day waiting for cocktail hour (which I’d done the year before). I was mildly ill for two days which meant I couldn’t drink, and decided I’d stick with it to see if it suited me. It did. I was going to bed early and getting up early to play with the dogs on the beach and go to yoga classes. I liked the way I felt in the morning. I wasn’t annoyed and anxious. I was smiling and friendly. People smiled back a lot.
On a few nights I had a couple of cocktails and regretted it as soon as the second drink touched my lips. It just didn’t seem to contain the same joy it once had. And it spoiled my beautiful mornings. I went back to drinking nothing. Then came the last night at my favourite bar and I went for it. “I’m on holiday!” I thought. I spent two days after the flight recovering.
Then a chance meeting changed everything. A woman I’d just been introduced to told me she was trying to cut down on her drinking. “Me too!” I exclaimed. She immediately recommended a book she was reading – This Naked Mind by Annie Grace. “I don’t want to stop completely,” she said. “Oh me neither,” I replied. “Just cut down a bit.”
But, dear reader, I stopped as soon as I started reading the book. It was instant. No looking back. Seriously – this book should come with a warning sticker. It promises to resolve any cognitive dissonance you may have around drinking – your conscious brain telling you you don’t want to drink and your subconscious telling you you want a drink very badly. In summary, it works by telling you the science behind your cravings and what alcohol actually is and what it’s doing to your body. Now I know what I know, I can’t go back. It’s very weird – I seem to have known all along that alcohol is a highly addictive drug, but I also didn’t. I also seem to have known it was toxic, because your body rejects it and hangovers happen – but I also didn’t know. When I was on holiday in Goa I read an article that described alcohol as a ‘toxic depressant’. Those words really struck a chord with me, even to the point that later that evening at the bar, I ordered “a glass of your best toxic depressant, please!” in my head.
But it is. It was a depressant for me. I didn’t know that it was the alcohol that caused it. I thought drinking helped feelings of anxiety and worry but in fact it created them and then pretended to resolve them. I didn’t know that the happiness I felt when I picked up that first sparkling glass of prosecco wasn’t the effect of the alcohol – it was the impending satisfaction of a deep craving. A craving that had got worse and worse as the years went on and the addiction grew. There is a reason why people around my age are struggling with their drinking – it’s because we’ve built this addiction up over decades. Although never tipping into full alcoholism as some do, it started to become something we needed and depended on. Anyone who opts out is eyed with deep suspicion. “I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t drink,” we’d say. I said that. I said it last year. I’m horrified at myself now I know what I know. I wish I’d never touched a drop because I never needed it.
Well, my body never needed it but the pain in my heart did. I now know that I drank to self-medicate – to numb the pain of existence. I can almost trace the journey back to that moment in the ’90s when my mum was on a downward trajectory with dementia and I’d already lost my dad. I couldn’t wait to get home to the wine in my fridge each night. I didn’t connect the two things until now.
Once the pain had been dealt with during therapy last year, the reason to anaesthetise disappeared. I knew I didn’t need to do it any more. The book simply gave me more ammunition – it confirmed what I’d subconsciously known all along. Alcohol is not good for me. It’s not good for anyone.
What’s crazy is that I’ve always prided myself on opting out of substances that are harmful to me, even if they’re socially condoned. I’ve never smoked, I’ve never taken drugs apart from one puff on a special cigarette, and I don’t take the pill because it makes me suicidal and not ‘the natural me’.
Turns out I was never the natural me under the influence of alcohol either. It takes ten days to fully leave your system. Ten whole days. Which means, in reality, it never really left. I can’t believe I’ve been in the grip of this addictive poison for over twenty-five years, ‘enjoying’ something that is hugely carcinogenic whilst simultaneously feeling smug that I’m not a smoker.
In sobriety, I’ve rediscovered someone I used to be years ago. I remember this clear-headedness and this ability to smile at people and not feel annoyed about everything. It feels as though I’ve gone from a pixelated screen existence to hi-definition. This is me at around 25, almost 27 years ago. I could cry when I think of all that time wasted.
I can’t say I regret everything I’ve done after having a drink – some of my best friendships have been forged in the pub and some of my best lovers have been met at pubs, clubs and parties. I have done bad things as a result of drinking, like proposing to a man that didn’t love me, but also things I’ll never regret.
But now, at this stage in my life, my relationship with alcohol is over. We had good times, we had bad times, but we’re done. In the first few weeks it did feel like a mourning period, looking back on those sparkling moments through rose-tinted glasses (which I now know is a thing called Fading Affect Bias or FAB).
There is also a thing recovering people call the Pink Cloud. In the early alcohol-free days your body and brain are rejoicing in their new-found liberty and they make you think it’s all going to be easy. It’s wonderfully euphoric and it doesn’t last. I know I have some testing times to come but I know I won’t cave in. I know I can now go to gigs on my own without booze, can be on holiday without booze and go to bars with my friends without booze. And all of those times are still fun. More fun, even, because I’m not trying to stay to the end, or go on to another bar or have a seconds night out when my friends go home. I go home to my bed and sleep.
In my first month I read voraciously – apparently it’s a thing, this obsessive reading about sobriety in the early days and weeks. After This Naked Mind, I moved on to Alcohol Explained by William Porter, The Sober Diaries by Clare Pooley and then The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober by Catherine Gray. Where Annie and William both gave me the science behind what I’d been doing to my body, Clare and Catherine put it into context. As women from media backgrounds, they’d both fallen prey to the ever-present alcohol. Their journey had been speedier than most as a result and their recoveries nothing short of epic. They reminded me of extreme versions of me and my friends and helped put everything I’d learned into a relatable context. My voracious reading is not unlike every other sober person I’ve encountered in a forum, including the order in which I read those particular books.
That initial frenzy of content imbibing has now slowed and I don’t need to read other people’s stories any more, but I know they’re there if I need to go back (I read This Naked Mind twice).
The reaction from my friends has been interesting – a couple of them stopped drinking as soon as they heard my news. Some reacted by immediately telling me how I was different to them – they didn’t drink that much, they could handle it, they like the taste, they could never give it up. One thing I’ve learned is that this is a deeply personal journey but one that does touch other people if you dare to share. I read in one forum that people are just waiting for permission to stop drinking, because the social rules are so strongly weighted towards it. If you mention you’ve stopped, pretty much everyone tells you what their relationship is to drink straightaway. They know it’s a problem.
I have always prided myself on acting on choices – to not have children, to not stay in a loveless marriage, to remove toxic people from my life. Just because everyone else is doing something doesn’t mean you have to. The social pressure to join in drinking is perhaps the greatest pressure we experience in the west, along with to get married and have babies, to get a good job and a mortgage. Opting out is hard, which means we often keep it a secret.
On my 50th day of sobriety I have decided to share my story – I don’t do secrets. (Well, maybe just a few, but usually to protect other people.) I’ll see you at the bar because I’m still going to be there. But I promise I won’t be making you stay until the end.