How I used alcohol to escape

In my previous posts, Why do people drink and How to beat the alcohol illusion, we looked at escapism. To be honest, most people are not living the life they thought they would live. Expectations set in adolescents are very rarely what the reality of adulthood looks like. Therefore a massively important part of maintaining your sobriety is to build a life you DO NOT WANT TO ESCAPE FROM!          

This, my friends, is easier said than done!

Youthful dreams

So, part of my personal story. After I had tackled depression in my early twenties, I was full of positive oomph at having found life again. For a while, in Edinburgh, things were good. I was getting married, I was doing a TEFL course so that we could travel abroad for a while, before settling somewhere and having children. Literally in the last week of my TEFL course I had a positive pregnancy test. I wanted children, so I am pretty sure that I self-sabotaged my plans to travel, due to fear of the unknown, and that I wasn’t as careful as I should have been. Depression set back in and mixed with 9 months of vomiting, it wasn’t a great experience!

Babies

But The Bot was so insanely cute, lovely and taciturn that I was OK for a while. Then, we decided that we could still travel and have the life we wanted. So while my ex-husband retrained as a teacher I signed up for a Masters in International Relations – sensible grown up ways of making travel abroad with a child more likely – then BAM, pregnancy No. 2. This time I really had done everything I should have done to not have baby number 2 so HUGE shock. Again I rallied and postponed my Masters for a year, another 9 months of vomiting. The Bear was born on a very snowy January night and I find it very hard to remember the first year with two toddlers. I must have swum rather sunk, as I’m still here and they are lovely boys, but I don’t remember. Somehow in all of this I completed my Masters.

My father made a littler picture for me, which was supposed to be funny but was actually painfully true.

Because actually, with a working husband and two toddlers, what exactly did I think I was going to do? Head off abroad to, become a charity worker, have adventures, with no real skills to offer and children in tow? Or just leave the children at home? I still had a fear of the unknown, my lack of confidence and lack of self-worth – so did I stay put to be a ‘good mother’ or did I stay at home as an excuse not to face my fears? Bit of both I think.

I hated being a stay at home mother. Some people love it but that was not me. I was going completely bonkers. I was stressed (with two toddlers and a by now miserable husband), anxious (with what I believe was badly managed post natal depression), frustrated  that life wasn’t working out as planned, afraid of the future and feeling trapped in my life – too name a few.

Egyptian escape

We moved to Egypt to escape the life that wasn’t working for us here. My ex got a job as a teacher in a private school and we packed up and headed off with the 3 year old Bot and the 18 month old Bear. What I quickly and depressingly realised was that I hadn’t escaped AT ALL!! What I now had was a 3 year old who cried every day going to preschool and was bullied horribly, a husband who was still miserable, a baby that I still had to stay at home with so still couldn’t so all the stuff I had imagined I would do. I had no car, was stuck in a purpose build town in the middle of the desert, no money (despite all the schools promises). I had to take taxis to get anywhere and no taxi driver would take me where I wanted to go because they thought, after the Arab Spring Egyptian Revolution, that it was too dangerous. Other than a trip top Luxor after Christmas, I did not see the Cairo I knew and loved at all.

They were probably right though. In the ‘safe’ purpose built town, despite wearing completely appropriate covering clothes, I was grabbed, groped, chased and masturbated on, all while my children were present. Lovely. No one at the school seemed to have these problems, but they very much kept to their expat bit, going to expat bars in Cairo or to the golf course, and drinking lots – nothing very toddler friendly.

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Self-sabotage

My anxiety set in, because I could no longer control or escape my life. Then my IBS set in, my stomach swelled up like I was pregnant and I missed periods due to stress, Additional fear of being pregnant stress added then too! 

But I also constantly self-sabotaged. Like TEFL, I believed in myself enough to plan and pursue dreams, but when push came to shove, I found a way to back out. I had been talking to a supervisor at Edinburgh University who had said he would be able to take me on as a PhD student. Amazingly, he was going to a conference in Cairo and would I be able to meet him to chat about it. Or course I agreed – amazing! Fate! Exciting! The day arrived, panic, fear, anxiety – that I wasn’t good enough, that I’d be rejected after the meeting, etc etc. So I sabotaged. The taxi journey was too long, too expensive, too hot for The Bear. Would The Bear behave? Would it be too long for him? Then I sent a message with every excuse saying I couldn’t attend the meeting. I was disappointed, frustrated and angry with myself all over again. Needless to add, I did not get another invitation.

Panic

I was so hysterical by this point, 6 months in, that I booked flights home with the boys, and said I wasn’t coming back. We arrived back on the Wednesday and by the Saturday we were in hospital and The Bear had been diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes. I honestly believe my Bear must have a guardian angel. Going back to Egypt was not an option. My ex did not return until the end of the year.

I had tried to retrain (for my current job) multiple times but things kept falling apart. I was so close at one point. After Egypt, I worked full time shifts in A&E (The Bot and Bear were 2 and 4 years old). I relied on my mother for childcare, as my ex was working, miserable and unhelpful. I would come home from a 12 hour shift and he would say, ‘what’s for supper?’ and then complain that I was going to bed to early (10pm – I was up at 5am) and who was going to keep him company while he planned  lessons. More often than not I slept on the sofa. I tried to run the household, work shifts, study and look after children. This was definitely not what I planned!  On top of this, working in A&E you see the end result of alcohol for many people. The pancreatitis, the cancer, the pain, the jaundice, the desperation in these poor people who have fallen victim to the horrors of alcohol. Most people brush it off and say, ‘that won’t be me’ but I knew that it could be anyone. I knew I drank too much, I was constantly controlling my intake, but my treat after 3 night shifts was a bottle of prosecco in a short space of time! I knew that this could be me if I didn’t get a grip on things, but this just caused further panic and more drinking to deal with the panic.  

Breakdown

This is when I had a breakdown. I had never really believed in breakdowns before. I almost believe that people chose to stop. 

One night, I got a phone call from my mother saying a family friend had died of carbon monoxide poisoning while visiting a friend. I had been paranoid about carbon monoxide since The Bot was born. I believe it was undiagnosed post natal depression that fixated on carbon monoxide as the thing that was going to kill us all. This news was the culmination of everything. I woke up in the night with an absolute certainty that I was imminently going to die. I have never been so sure of anything. I woke my ex to tell him and he said ‘go back to sleep you are fine’. I crept into the sitting room, unable to breath, heart pounding, sweating and cried until I couldn’t cry anymore. For the next two weeks I couldn’t leave the house. I wanted to, I told myself I could, I told myself I had to leave for the children, but every time I approached the door I started sweating, my heart was pounding and I became lightheaded. My ex did not help me during this time and my mother eventually got me to the doctors for antidepressants and beta-blockers.

After two weeks, I went back to work. But realised it was unsustainable and made the very difficult decision to stop chasing my retraining dream and accept that motherhood in the suburbs was my lot. I read You Can Heal your Life at the is time and started working on healing my life. I soon realised that my ex was not going to be part of healing my life going forward and we divorced soon afterwards.  

New dreams

I have said it before but genuinely believe that all the work I did at that time to heal and help myself, helped me open up to the universe and the universe gave me My Love (my now husband). He is a kindest, gentlest, sweetest most respectful and loving man in the world. He has helped me to fully heal and become the person that I am today, I am so infinitely grateful to him and the universe.

Not that it was quite that easy. My healing was still in the beginning stages so adding divorce, new relationship and failed retraining dreams all together was maybe a bit much. I was still drinking, obviously, and drinking far more than usual to manage the emotions. He hardly drank and although he never criticised, I knew he couldn’t understand why I did.

I had given up on the work I had been doing to heal myself was still a bit lost. Although I loved My Love so much, I was doing the whole lack of self-worth thing, and didn’t believe he really loved me. I wanted to test him, to try it, to push him. He stayed completely solid throughout, I have no idea how! I had said when I first met him that I absolutely did not want more children, but then I worried that, as he didn’t have any children, that he would resent me later on if we didn’t. He said he didn’t mind, but I didn’t believe that. I was completely overwhelmed by anxiety and worry again so pushed him to decide about children. I booked and appointment to be sterilised and said this was the last chance if he wanted to change his mind. This was not the manipulation that it sounds, I really didn’t want more children and thought being sterilised would give me peace of mind. I have subsequently been sterilised and it really has! He did change his mind. We stopped trying not to have children for 9 months and nothing happened. He had always wondered if he would be able to have children so we thought that this was the answer. I guiltily felt relieved that the universe had saved me from myself and I could say we had tried.

New baby

Then we did the Whole 30. I hated it, (no alcohol or sugar!) and only lasted 9 miserable days, but My Love lasted the whole 30. So I recommend, anyone struggling to get pregnant, to give it a try, because pregnant I became straight afterwards!

It was the worst time of my life. It ruined my wedding, nearly ruined our relationship and who knows what it did to my poor boys. I had started retraining on the old path again before I got pregnant and so I was working shifts, studying, vomiting constantly and being a mummy and new wife.

I thought history was repeating itself and I sank badly into depression. I also realise that I did nothing to help myself. I wallowed big time. Furious at the world even though I knew I had done this to myself. This was the biggest self-sabotage of all time. I was awful to My Love the whole time, I was angry, kicking and screaming and unable to drink to hide from the pain

I know people reading this will be horrified that I could possibly be so ungrateful for the gift of another baby, but I was. Deeply, hideously ungrateful. I thought that this was the end of my life. I would never achieve anything now, never travel, never enjoy things with the older boys. The feelings and depression went on all through pregnancy and for 10 months afterwards. I refused medication this time and a mindfulness course started to get me back on track. But after the 10 months, it took another year before I stopped drinking and started to heal properly.

Denying my dreams

In the time after the mindfulness course, when I was healing, I took a wrong turning. In trying to learn to be grateful for the present and enjoy the moment, I started trying to be something I wasn’t. I denied my wanderlust, tried to force myself to accept it could never be, bought a caravan for UK holidays, stopped dreaming and tried to accept that my lot, which I had to be happy with, was as a suburban working mother. The antithesis of every dream I had ever had. I believe this wrong turn, is why it took me another year before I stop drinking.

Next post I am going to go into detail, (more detail you say?!), about how we can build the life we want, but to end this post about my journey, I want to say a few things that I learnt.

I learnt that, fight it or not, I did most of it to myself. Whether through a lack of self-worth, a need for validation and lack og confidence and belief, I created and then sabotaged my own situations again and again.

You need to learn to know and love who you actually are, not try to be someone else.

I spent years and years thinking about past missed opportunities or planning and dreaming about future opportunities, but at no point was I living or appreciating the life I had in the present. My mother told me I always made my life difficult. She was right. I could never just be, never just enjoy life, as soon as I was comfortable I was trying to sabotage it in some way in the fear of getting stuck.  

Nothing I did was small, realistic or sustainable. Everything was grand, unrealistic and doomed to failure. I read too many novels and believed I could transform my life in an instant.

I believed in myself enough to set dreams and plans but I didn’t believe in myself enough to carry any of it through, to take a chance or to trust.  

How to beat the alcohol illusion

My last post looked at How to stop alcohol cravings, so I want to go back a little bit. Back to my post Why do people drink so that I can beat some of the myths around alcohol and reasons for drinking.

Normalisation

It is difficult in our society to escape from the normalisation of alcohol but things are improving. Many pubs now have a huge selection of alcohol free beers, soft drinks and mocktails. Supermarkets are expanding their alcohol free offerings. Sainsbury’s are even opening a low alcohol pop up pub, fair enough only for two days but…‘times, they are a changing’! Whether you agree with the sober curious movement or the sober wellness trend, it is all helping to de-normalise alcohol.

Alcohol was so normalised for me and it wasn’t until I became immersed in the sober world that I found the normalisation didn’t affect me anymore. I had a new normal. Now I am asked less and less why I don’t drink and my reasons aren’t questions as much. I’ve mentioned this before but it is so important I’m going to talk about it again! IMMERSE YOURSELF!

Read quit lit, as much as you can get hold of! My recommendations are:

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Link to sober blogs – especially mine obviously (!) but other good ones are:

Find sober communities to link to, these are widely available on Facebook but some good websites are:

There are so many Ted Talks, podcasts and webinars available if you do a simple internet search.

The information you need is ACCESSIBLE and FREE! The more immersed you are the less normal it seems.

Accessibility

When you are first starting out on your sober path, make it easier for yourself by making alcohol less accessible. I removed all alcohol from my house initially. My Love, who never drank very much anyway, said he would also not drink – he was definitely the champion I needed. It was strange initially not being able to offer guests an alcoholic drink, and I’m absolutely sure some people visited less because there wasn’t one, but now it’s OK and guests know they’ll be offered diet coke, rose lemonade or a HUGE array of teas!

This all changed a little further  into my sobriety. We have some alcohol in the house now, my husband very occasionally drinks. My family still drink lots, so family events are full of alcohol but it doesn’t bother me now. I know I will never drink again and I know that I don’t want to – sometimes they forget I’m not drinking so I always bring my own diet coke just in case! 

Another important thing at the beginning is to avoid places where alcohol is readily accessible; especially if these places are a trigger. Even if the place itself isn’t, the likelihood is that being surrounded by alcohol is going to trigger you. A trigger is the second part of the habit process and,  as I mentioned in How to stop alcohol cravings, we have the replace our habits and secure the new neural pathways associated with the new habit. If you expose yourself to your triggers before you have done the background work, you are relying on willpower alone, and I don’t know anyone who is happy sober who has relied on willpower alone. So give yourself a break, and until you are more secure, avoid your triggers.

Social Pressure

The idea that you cannot have fun or celebrate without alcohol is a dangerous and nonsense ILLUSION! Let’s look at this in more details

Fun?

While the first drink might be fun, what happens after that? Watch and listen to people who have drunk too much. Everything slows down in their brain so they start talking loudly and more slowly while repeating themselves constantly. They start being cocky, arrogant and boastful. Later they can’t walk properly and vomit all over themselves. I’ve seen numerous people wet themselves after drinking too much. I’ve seen people being abusive to other people, to police, ambulance crews, doctors, nurses. I’ve seen arguments, fights, assaults, domestic violence, homelessness, illness and death all related to alcohol. Does that sound like fun?

Hangovers – fun?? – need I say more?

But how will I have fun

Find what makes you happy and do that. If it’s been alcohol for too long, find what used to make you happy before alcohol, and try that. Some of my fun things are reading, dancing, eating, walking, cycling, climbing, yoga and water – being in it, on it or by it! And I now have so much more time and energy to do these things.

Ask those you love to try other things for fun. Try to find a happy middle ground. There are some people who will completely refuse. There are people who will try to divert you from your path. Often people struggle with the fact that they will lose friends on their new journey. It is true, there are probably people you will lose, but you have to bear in mind two things

  1. Did those friends have your best interests at heart? Don’t you deserve friends who do?
  2. You will gain so many more friends on your new path who will be similar to you,
    have the same interests and make it so much easier for you to stick to your
    resolution

But how will I celebrate?

I wondered this over and over again before I quit drinking. So many people who have quit say that they no longer celebrate – but doesn’t this depend on your definition of celebrations? Is alcohol so ingrained that no booze means no celebration? I have found that my celebrations are pretty similar. Good food, good company, good conversation. Maybe I glam up a little less, but I also know that when the children are older and I get out dancing more (which is my ultimate celebration!), I will glam up again.

There are so many cultures all over the world that do not drink, and I guarantee you that they are not walking around miserable and not celebrating or having fun.

But nothing will be fun because I’ll always be craving

You absolutely do not need to spend your life craving alcohol once you stop drinking! I genuinely believed that I would never be happy if I quit drinking because I would be feeling deprived all the time.

When I did Dry January, 3 months before I finally stopped, I was craving like mad and it was awful. But when I stopped for good 3 month later, the cravings had completely gone. I was as surprised as anyone but it is because of all the work, immersing and habit replacing that I did in those 3 months. If you are worried about cravings, please read my post How to stop alcohol cravings to find out how to quit alcohol and be happy sober.

Two good books to help to shatter you the alcohol illusion are the as follow, but you don’t need both because they are very similar.

 

Social anxiety

Everyone has social anxiety on some level. We are brought up as children to be wary of strangers and to stick around people that we know. We cannot suddenly expect that as adults that conditioning will vanish! It doesn’t help that as teenagers and young adults, trying to find our place in the world, we haven’t found our self-confidence yet, and it is usually at this time that alcohol finds us and tricks us into believing that it gives us confidence. It doesn’t, we just depress our brain function so we don’t care as much. But how many times have you been too embarrassed to return to people or a situation because of what you have done when drunk? Surely we are just enhancing our social anxiety in this way?

A few things to remember when approaching a social event:

      • Many people will be as anxious as you are!
      • If they are drinking, they probably won’t remember anything you say anyway!
      • Lots of people like talking about themselves so just give them an opening!
      • You have people in your life who love you, so what other people think does not matter

Ultimately though, swap I ‘should’ go to this social event to I ‘could’ go to this social event. Then if by saying ‘I could’, you realise you don’t want to – question why and if you can’t overcome those reasons – DO NOT GO! Or go and leave early. There is nothing anywhere that says you have to do anything! Protect yourself, do what makes you happy. If you need alcohol to make a situation OK, then maybe that is not a situation you want to be in.

Bear in mind, as with anything, the more you practice, the easier it becomes. Socialising and small talk is no different to anything else in this respect.

If you are an introvert, embrace it! The world needs balance. It is unfortunate that we live in a world that celebrates extroverts, but not everyone can be an extrovert and we need both. Find those people like you, because I promise there are lots of them out there! Miranda Hart, a brilliant comedienne, is also a well-known introvert.

Susan Cain talks brilliantly about being an introvert. Watch her TED talk or read her book The Power of introverts in a worlds that can’t stop talking.

Pleasure

Alcohol may give you a temporary feeling of pleasure, but as anyone who drinks know, this does not last. It often gives way to anxiety, guilt, fear and remorse.

It most definitely DOES NOT make you happy.

What makes you happy might be the situation you are in and the people you are with.

Picture this really common trigger. A beautiful summer day, picnic benches outside a pub by a river, sun shining, breeze in the trees, beautiful people in beautiful clothes chatting, drinking, eating, relaxing, carefree and enjoying life. What can alcohol add to this? Surely the sun still shines, the breeze still blows, the chats still happen and the beautiful clothes are still worn without alcohol? You may say that alcohol helps you relax, but wouldn’t this situation be relaxing anyway? And wouldn’t it be nicer to have enjoyed that day and go home clear headed, no headache or nauseous feeling, able to do things with the rest of your evening?

Do we use the situation as an excuse to drink or do we use alcohol to give ourselves permission to relax?

Alcohol adds nothing to that situation, so there must be something else. If you aren’t enjoying the situation without alcohol then maybe it is not a situation you enjoy naturally. I realised after drinking that I hate BBQs. I hosted them, went to them, drank through them, pretended to enjoy them, but I really didn’t! So now I don’t do them. Way too much delicious food in the world to burn sausages on a fire!

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Instant gratification

I think many people drink because it is so quick to give you the sensation of pleasure or relief from stress, upset and frustration – whatever your reason for drinking is.

Whilst it is true that nothing gives you those feelings quite so quickly, we can get around this.

Exercise, say a 4 minute Tabata routine from You Tube, can get those happy hormones flowing – it may not be immediate, but 4 minutes isn’t much to ask!

If you need it at the beginning, sugar can have a similar effect.

A short meditation or breathing exercise can reduce those stress hormones. To be honest, I struggled with this one because when I’m properly pissed off, I find it hard to relax with a short meditation, but it’s coming with practice.

And if we keep up with our new healthier habits – exercise, baths, reading, yoga, meditation (OK, diet coke and sugar are not healthy but they are better than alcohol!), then our periods of stress will be fewer and we will know how to deal with them without needing that instant relief.

Ultimately, delayed gratification has been shown time and again to be far more pleasurable than instant gratification!

Escapism

I know I drank to escape. Massive escapism! I drank because I didn’t know how to deal with my feelings.

I am not unusual in having feelings of depression, anxiety, stress, frustration, disappointment, excitement, fear and loneliness.

We are escaping from the feelings brought on by bad past experiences, present experiences, parenting, unhappiness as work, loss and feeling trapped.

The lists can be endless, because feelings are a part of life. More often than not, we are escaping because we don’t know how to just be us. To be honest, I am still learning how to be me, but that is OK because by learning to be me, I am learning to like me, just me as I am, and that makes all the difference in the world! 

Something I discovered quite early in my sobriety was that so many of these feelings were exacerbated by alcohol. I used my (non-existent) Latin blood as the reason that I shrieked, shouted, argued and cried (all the time!). I am a Sagittarius; it’s my birth month that makes me fiery.  Instead of trying to slowly change anything to make a difference, I would fight and kick against the unfairness of it all. If I made a change it had to be dramatic and huge, therefore unrealistic and unsustainable, so it would fail and I would be back to the feeling that life was against me. I was comfortable in my uncomfortable roller coaster of emotions.

I still am a bit fiery (My Love might say more than a bit), but now that I am comfortable in my sobriety, those feelings have so much less power over me.

I’m going to talk about escapism more in How I used alcohol to escape and How to build a life you do not want to escape from, because it is such a huge topic.

Cutting down

I am probably going to lose a lot of reader by saying this but I have to. Cutting down is so much harder than stopping completely. Cutting down will do nothing but extend your misery. I ‘cut down’, ‘moderated’ and ‘controlled’ my drinking for 12 years. I didn’t want to stop completely because of all the myths, which I hope I have tackled above. The neural pathways for your alcohol habit are formed and well-trodden. Although we can reroute pathways and build new ones to better, healthier habits, unfortunately the old ones do not disappear. So while we feel we might be OK to ‘have just one’, ultimately, it is very easy for the brain to slip down the old route and reawaken the old habit. You may not believe me now, but please know that for most people, moderating is not an option. You can live an amazing, happy, fulfilling life that you may have only dreamt of, if you accept that alcohol has no part in it.

How to stop alcohol cravings

In the last post, Am I an alcoholic?, we looked at how a habit works. Now we are going to look at how to break bad habits and stop cravings.

Although this will hopefully be helpful to anyone who drinks too much, if you suffer from physical withdrawal symptoms, such as shakes, nausea or hallucinations, please see a professional to decide the best course of action.

What is a habit?

Based on James Clear’s book Atomic Habit, a habit has four distinct elements that follow the same pattern every time. These are

  1. Cue
  2. Craving
  3. Response
  4. Reward

You brain is constantly seeking a reward and has associated many things with the reward: these are the cues. The cue triggers a craving, we respond to the craving and the brain receives its reward. For someone who drinks alcohol, as we saw in Am I an alcoholic , the rewards for drinking are initially huge, so the brain continues to want these rewards. The more often we drink, the more developed the neural pathways to this reward becomes. The more we drink, the more cues become associated with the drinking reward.

This is why it is so hard to break the alcohol cycle.

Theoretically, to break the habit we have to change one element of this cycle. However, if only it was that easy!!!

Willpower

People get caught up in the willpower cycle. They think that they can’t stop because they are weak and don’t have enough willpower. That is completely the wrong way to go about things! A lot of people who drink too much are often extremely strong and high achieving people.

If we get to the craving point of the habit then there is going to be willpower required to stop ourselves responding, so let’s go back a bit and see how we can avoid getting to that point.

We need to do a little work on ourselves before we even approach dealing with the habit. If anyone has woken up one morning, said I’m going to stop drinking, and just done it like that then please let me know how! As far as I know, it takes some background work first.

There is a famous quote, usually accredited to Einstein, which says “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results”. The fact is that to change anything we actually have to change something, and changing something often takes effort. So you have to know that you are willing to make that effort before you begin.

If you are doing this for someone else, or because you feel you should, it is very unlikely that anything is going to change. The problem is, we are often wanting to quit for the wrong reasons. We feel like we should stop drinking (for health, relationships, or a whole myriad of reasons) but we don’t actually want to stop drinking, because we still want that escape, stress relief, social easer and celebratory tool. We don’t want to stop drinking, we want to stop wanting to drink.

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How to want to stop drinking

See alcohol for what it really is

Alcohol contains ethanol. Ethanol is a toxic poison used in lots of things you would never consider putting in your body, and in its pure form it is likely to kill you (1). For adults, a lethal dose can be 1 litre of spirits or four bottle of wine (2).

Alcohol is created in the fermentation process, basically what happens when certain foods go off. 

Alcohol depresses your central nervous system, making it harder for you to function normally. It also acts as a diuretic, making you wee more and become dehydrated – hangover time.

I know that when I was trying to quit, if I thought too much about what I was actually doing to my body it made me panic more, and how did I deal with panic and anxiety…..you guessed it! So I’m not going to go into anymore of the negative effects of alcohol. But it can be good to have it in the back of your mind that anything that makes your body feel the way alcohol does, can not be a positive thing for you.  

Know why we want to drink

Put some time into working out why you want to drink in the first place. Have a look at my post Why do people drink? and write down or think about your reasons for drinking.

Acknowledge that alcohol is an illusion and not a friend

One of the traps we fall into is the idea that alcohol is our friend, our support, our soothing medicine. It is the idea that alcohol creates the fun that we have rather than the thing we are doing actually being fun. One of the most amazing things about being sober is that we can clearly see alcohol for the illusion that it is. It took me a long time to realise this, I was thoroughly in the ‘I need alcohol to have fun/relax/cope’ camp.

What had happened was that my brain was extremely comfortable with the ease of the pathway to my ‘reward’, alcohol. And even when the alcohol made me feel completely awful, I knew the feelings, I knew the results, I knew my life with alcohol, so I was comfortable in my struggle. So much scarier to leave everything I knew and try to be just….me. 

My next post, How to beat the alcohol illusion, looks to tackle and dispel some of the myths around why we drink alcohol, so have a read.

Picture your life without it

Visualisation is a very powerful tool for bringing about change. I used Paul Mckenna’s meditation in Change your life in 7 days, but you don’t need to follow a meditation. Just think about what you want your life to be like. Why is it that you think you should stop drinking? Is it to improve your relationship? Is it to be a better parent? Is it to improve your health? Is it to feel and look better? Is it to attain some goal that is out of reach? When you have all your reasons, visualise yourself as the person you want to be as often as possible. Really take time doing this. Feel how it would feel to be that person. Use a visualisation board if you prefer something more solid to look at. This is not a tool to berate yourself with later, so make sure you only look at it as a positive force for change.

How to stop wanting to drink

Once we have established why we want to stop drinking, we can look at the habit. But, as my husband pointed out to me reading this over my shoulder, it is not about breaking the habit, it’s about changing the habit. Initially, it is easier to replace a habit with another habit than break it completely.  

Have a plan

Essential to your quitting alcohol toolbox is a plan.

Your visualisation will have given you an image of your life without alcohol. However, often the image is so far from where you are now that it can seem disheartening. Mine was, as I described in What I learnt my first year sober, the floaty, bohemian, calm, hippy, zen, coping person – which was laughably far from what I was! So you need to have your image in the back of your head but put the focus of your plan into the baby steps you are going to take to move forward from your current position.

Changing habits

While it is good to write out or think about the steps you want to take to reach your goal, you don’t want to start too much at once. You are trying to reroute or create neural pathways. The more the pathway is trodden, the easier it becomes for your brain to use that route instead of your old bad habit route. If you start too much at once, you won’t secure that new pathway easily. So maybe choose one or two new habit, repeat them consistently, until they and you feel more secure.

What new habits?

My new habit was definitely exercise and yoga. I had done these things before but sporadically, in unsustainable intensive bursts. You know the type of thing, ‘I’m going to lose a stone and become really strong in a month’, then you go at it in a frenzied way until you realise you can’t sustain the pace, you’re not losing a stone that quickly, so you quit, feel crap, and slip back to your old, comfortable habits. To create these new habits, make them REALISTIC and SUSTAINABLE.

I mentioned before that I used T25 and Yoga with Adriene on You Tube. T25 is 25 minutes and Yoga with Adriene is normally between 16 – 30 minutes. I did these at home which made it realistic that, between work and parenting, I could find the time to do it. I planned it meticulously so that I would do it while the boys were at school and the baby napped. This made it sustainable.

Realistic and sustainable = consistent = new neural pathway = new habit!

Now, I can often find the time to do T25 and Yoga daily (if not yoga twice daily), and I can do it anytime, children or no children. The Baby often shouts ‘yoga’ in the morning and eats his breakfast while I’m doing it. The Bot will occasionally do T25 with me, he shows willing for about 10 minutes!

New habits that feel good

You have to create habits that you want to sustain. Trying to create a treadmill habit if you loathe the treadmill is not sustainable!

So have a think about what makes you feel good. Think about you as a child; sadly for many of us, pre-teens was the last time we actually did stuff that nurtured us and made us genuinely happy.  As a child what did you do for fun? What did you absolutely love doing? What made you the happiest. This is a starting point to find new habits.

As we saw in the Am I an alcoholic?, the reward of alcohol has a lot to do with the chemicals in the brain. Luckily there are proven natural ways to get to the same reward.

These are, doing things that make you happy, listening to music, being in nature, absorbing sunlight, visualisation (see above), meditation, yoga, being with people you love, laughing and exercise.

Exercise is a guaranteed win on the feel good front! The idea of exercise puts so many people off but it really shouldn’t! There are so many different ways to exercise and there will be one that suits you. It doesn’t have to be pounding the street in your running shoes – although go for that if you love it! And it doesn’t have to take long, just increasing your heart rate for 20 minutes a day can be enough. 

If you sign up for my free course below, it goes into more detail about different exercises and meditation

The 28 day alcohol free challenge joins exercise with community – really important when trying to quit drinking, as I talk about in How I Quit Drinking . They say find an exercise challenge – like a running club – which will combine the benefits of exercise and community not to mention the positive reinforcement to your self worth when you achieve something new.

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Supporting new habits

There are also habits you can form that will help to support your body in its quest to stop drinking.

Drink water – being thirsty often has people reaching for an alcoholic drink. Apart from the fact that is insanity because alcohol dehydrates you, it is a huge cue for many people. By drinking regularly we should avoid feeling thirsty and avoid the cue.

Eat regularly – Similarly, swings in blood sugar levels make us crave sugar and for many of us that sugar is in alcohol. Try to eat regularly to avoid these swings.

Protein – eating protein has been shown to increase dopamine (one of those nice reward chemicals)

Sleep – get your sleep! We are far less able to manage anything if we are sleep deprived. It messes with our hormones and it is so much easier to slip back to old habits (I will write more extensively on sleep in later post because it is so important).

Equally though, it is EXTREMELY common for an alcohol habit to be replaced by food and especially sugar. Sugar has a similar effect to alcohol, triggering those neurotransmitters and hormones, and creating those happy feelings.

THIS IS OK! I am sure I will be shouted at left right and centre for saying this – but for me, for you, for your sobriety – do what you need to do! I ate loads of pizza, ice cream and sugar when I first stopped drinking – still do to be honest!

Coffee and doughnuts, yes please. Chocolate in the evening, yes please. I’m not saying this is a long term solution but if it works for you, stick with it, and eventually, when you are feeling more secure and stable, you can start to work on other things, if you want to. Even doing this, I still lost 8kgs in weight and am stronger, fitter and happier than I have ever been – so suck on that alcohol!!

Community

I will just touch on this here because I have written about the importance of community in previous posts. I found Dry January amazing. It allowed me to be a part of something, be open, talk about my struggle, without all the stigma usually attached to saying you want to stop drinking (“Is she an alcoholic??”- see Am I an alcoholic for more on this). It was hard but it kept me going and I genuinely believe it started the changes in my thoughts that led me to stop drinking completely. There are so many challenges available now. Dry January, Sober Spring, Dry July, Go Sober for October, One Year No Beer. Just pick on and have a go.

Be kind to yourself

A common reason that we start and continue drinking is due to our own lack of self-worth. We are not enough without something else. When our unrealistic plans don’t amount to what we hoped, we berate ourselves and use it as proof of our hopelessness, uselessness and failure.

If this resonates with you please start to look at why you feel this way, alongside starting your new habits. I promise you will feel much better about yourself once you stop drinking, but learning to like yourself will make your sober journey so much easier.  I have addressed this in my free course which you can sign up for at the bottom of this page. But if like me, you are into bibliotherapy, I found the following books amazing.

When you are building your new habits be extra extra kind to yourself. The 28 day alcohol free challenge says “bad habits need replacing not telling off”. If you slip up one day, that’s OK. If your day doesn’t go to plan, tell yourself you are amazing and tomorrow you will try again. If you baby ruins your yoga practice, it doesn’t matter! What matters for building these new neural pathways is that you do it consistently and kindly. Slip ups do not wipe out all the hard work you have done, but berating yourself, until you fall into your old patterns, can.

Cues

As you can probably tell, I could go on forever! But you might be asking yourself why this post is called How to stop alcohol cravings, when I’ve talked very little about cravings. This because I want you to live a sober life that is happy and free from cravings. I never thought that would be possible and that I would be fighting cravings every day, but that is so untrue!!

Much of this new habit forming happens before we actually stop drinking. Think about what your drinking cues are and if possible try to avoid them while forming your new habit. The more secure your new habits, the less deprivation you will feel when confronted with your old habit. But at some point you will come across cues that spark you old habit. For these times we need to learn how to deal with our cues, or as people often call them, our triggers.

– Have a trusted someone that you can talk to or rant at if you are really struggling not to respond to the cue

– Get away from the cue as quickly as you can

– Acknowledge the feeling. It is only a feeling, it cannot make you do anything, and it will pass.

– Drink water or something else and try to wait it out. If you are away from the cue, the craving should only last 10 minutes.

– Try to do something else in this time – preferably one or your new habits.

I hope this post has helped you to see how you can start to build new habits which will make it infinitely easier to change your old alcohol habits and lead to a happy life without cravings and feelings of deprivation. My next post, How to beat the alcohol illusion, will debunk the myths and reasons for drinking, as discussed in Why do people drink?

  1. https://www.chemicals.co.uk/blog/what-is-ethanol-used-for
  2. https://www.alcohol.org.nz/alcohol-its-effects/health-effects/alcohol-poisoning

Am I an alcoholic?

Effects of alcohol

The 2010 study from the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs (1) showed that alcohol ranked as the number 1 most harmful drug in the UK when combining harm to users and harm to others. There can be lots of arguments around this and obviously alcohol use is far more widespread than most other drugs, so this will affect the statistics, but let’s just compare it to smoking. We all know smoking is bad for us and most smokers would like to quit. But smoking only ranked 6th most harmful and had less ‘health damage’ than alcohol. When we’ve seen what smoking can do to us physically, that’s quite a scary thought.

So just some quick facts about the effects of alcohol.

Alcohol Change UK (2) says that in the UK 20 people a day die as a result of their drinking and it is the biggest risk factor for death in 15 – 49 year olds. Alcohol is also implicated in many crimes, sexual assaults and road accidents. In terms of health, the NHS (3) lists the risks involved in drinking from accidents, violence and homelessness to heart disease, stroke, and a whole array of cancers.

Am I an alcoholic?

For the next section I apologise to anyone who has found the term alcoholic helpful for their recovery. As with everything, do what feels right for you. These are just my thoughts and feelings on the subject.

This is a question I asked myself and asked Google many, many times. The problem is that it is such a huge spectrum, that most drinkers are on somewhere, that it is difficult draw a line and say – that side is the alcoholic and that side isn’t. ‘Alcoholic’ has so many negative connotations, and I have felt myself cringe since writing this blog as my parents, aunts, and others have all whispered ‘is she an alcoholic?’  But I think this negative attitude is exactly the reason why many people fail to say anything when they are struggling and don’t ask for the support they need.

When I worked in A&E a while ago, one of the questions we were supposed to ask every person who checked in was do you drink 6 or more units (8 for men) more than twice a week?” Right people, that’s two large glasses of wine twice a week or 2-3 pints twice week. If they answered yes, we were to put in a referral to the drug and alcohol team. Hahahahahahahahahaha!!! So, as you can tell we never asked that question. Firstly, people massively lie when they are asked how much they drink – society shaming us again. Secondly, nearly every single bloody person who worked there or walked through the doors would have needed a referral. What a joke! 

The scoring systems you can get from the NHS, Alcohol Change UK, Drink Aware and similar places are also not especially helpful. I scored High risk drinker on all of them, which is true I was. But they skip so nimbly from ‘Do you feel guilty about drinking’ to ‘Do you drink in the morning’. I’m sorry, but there is a huge part of the spectrum that comes between feeling guilty and drinking in the morning. So the stigma attached to being a ‘morning drinker’ puts high risk drinkers, like myself, off trying to do anything about it because you don’t want to be labelled an alcoholic.

Also, if you tell yourself you are an alcoholic, that often takes the power away from you do to do anything about it. ‘It’s an illness’, ‘It’s something genetic’, ‘Once and alcoholic always an alcoholic’. I find these phrases so massively disempowering and unhelpful. Like when I was told that once depressed, always depressed, I refuse to believe that. Yes, there may be an underlying propensity to slip back that way if I don’t pay attention to my thoughts, feelings and circumstances, but that in no way means that there is a daily battle not to be those things. You can help yourself to get out of the vicious alcohol loop, so don’t disempower yourself before you’ve even started. 

When looking at the symptoms of withdrawal they name physical symptoms of shakes, sweating, nausea, hallucinations and seizures, and psychological symptoms as depression, anxiety, irritability, restlessness and insomnia.  Now, as you may have guessed, I also have a problem with this (4). So I have seen withdrawal, and it’s not pretty. I have no argument with the physical symptoms because they are what they are, but my issue comes with the psychological symptoms. Many people who drink suffer with depression and anxiety so it’s not really a withdrawal symptom – I’ll talk more about that in a bit. Personally, I was massively irritable when I was quitting, but that’s because I was hugely pissed off that my cravings weren’t being met not because I had the irritability and restlessness that accompanies withdrawal – they look, and I imagine feel, very different.

The point I’m trying to make is there is always hope! You can help yourself! Do not disempower yourself and admit defeat before you have even started.  Be proud of yourself and what you are doing, it is strong and brave. Acknowledging you have a problem is hugely important, but don’t label yourself and alcoholic with all its negative connotations, unless you find it helpful. You are a survivor and a warrior. 

So for the purposes of this post I am talking to all those people on the spectrum before physical dependence. If you are trying to quit and suffering from shakes, sweating, or fever, nausea, stomach troubles, hallucinations or a restless irritability that cannot be distracted, then please seek professional help.

Bit more than a habit

I said in my previous post Why do people drink?, that to describe my relationship with alcohol, habit is too weak, but addiction is to strong.  So I was intrigued by this and wanted to find out why it is harder to quit drinking than it is to change other habits. I wondered if I was completely wrong and maybe you were immediately addicted to alcohol and that was that. So, this is what I discovered. A habit has 4 stages that follow the same route every time. I have taken this from James Clear, who wrote Atomic Habits  – a book about building good habits and breaking bad ones (5).

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These stages are

  1. Cue
  2. Craving
  3. Response
  4. Reward

If you do something repeatedly, your brain associates the reward with the cue, so the next time you see the cue, it will trigger the craving, your response and then the reward. It is continual loop. Your brain is scanning all the time for rewards and the cue shows your brain that a reward is coming. For example, when I was drinking I always drank in the kitchen while cooking. So every day, opening the fridge and starting to cook was my cue. I then craved the drink, my response was to reach for it or go and buy it, and then my reward was drinking it. It was a very well used loop. If I didn’t get my reward I was a bad tempered cow until I was away from the cue and the craving subsided.

The theory goes that you have to break the loop somewhere and you can break the habit. No one is forcing you to respond (pick up the drink) other than yourself. That all sounds lovely in theory but anyone who has tried to break any habit, let alone alcohol, knows it’s a bit harder than that!  You also have to break the habit consistently. Studies claim this can be anywhere from 18 to 245 day of consistent loop breaking (6)! This is where despondency comes in, as people believe they just need willpower.

But something wonderful that is becoming more accepted is that there is no Day 1! On social media particularly I see people so devastated because they had a drink and feel like all their effort has been wasted and they are back at the beginning. I was completely the same, and every time I drank I felt like a monumental failure. But studies are showing that when forming a new habit, if you slip up one day, you do not go back to the beginning.  As long as you start again with forming your new habit, all the hard work you have done to this point is still there (6).

We have all tried to break a habit, so why does breaking the alcohol habit seem so much harder?

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Alcohol and the brain

The neurochemical changes are what make alcohol a harder habit to kick.  

We have seen from the habit making that what we are craving is the reward. So with alcohol, this has a few factors.

  1. Endorphins – we’ve heard of these right? The happy hormones.  Drinking triggers the release of these happy hormones making us relaxed and euphoric (7) 
  2. Dopamine – alcohol releases dopamine into the ‘reward centres’ of our brain making us again, feel great (8)
  3. Serotonin – this is the chemical we use to have those nice feelings of wellbeing. When we drink alcohol, we temporarily boost those nice wellbeing feelings (9).
  4. GABA – this is an inhibitory neurotransmitter. Alcohol mimics the GABA signalling in the brain meaning that it inhibits brain activity, giving those feelings of inhibition, relaxation and sedation (10)

Our brain is continually creating neural pathways. The more often these pathways are used the easier it is for the brain to send signals down the same pathway. The brain is constantly looking for rewards so it is going to use the neural pathway that will reach this goal the quickest. With alcohol, it is not just the reward from satisfying the habit that we are chasing, it has added a whole host of other nice things above to make it even more rewarding.  The more we satisfy the habit and the more alcohol we drink, the easier it is to follow this neural pathway.

No wonder it is harder to kick the alcohol habit!

The problem when we drink far too much for far too long is that the body starts adapting. This is the land of physical addiction so I won’t go into too much detail but briefly, your body gets used to the increased GABA sedation effect so produces glutamate to excite brain activity. This will make it harder for the person to get the same sedative effect, so they will have to drink more. Too much glutamate causes those withdrawal effects when there is no alcohol to mimic the GABA effect (7).  

With long term drinking the effect of dopamine is practically non-existent and serotonin levels are reduced. This leaves the drinker chasing rewards that they are not going to get (8,9).

Why does alcohol make anxiety worse

Anyone who has drunk too much for too long will be able to attest to the awful feeling of anxiety that accompanies drinking. I read an interesting article that explained why this could be (9). It suggested that low blood sugars, caused by the body producing insulin in response to alcohol, lead to dizziness, confusion and shaking which can mimic and trigger anxiety attacks. It says that symptoms of dehydration can trigger anxiety as they mimic the symptoms of illness.

Long term drinking leaves the body with higher levels of stress hormones. It also depletes vitamin B6 and folic acid which help the body manage stress and reduces certain neural receptors that would normally help the calm the mind.

Not a good combination! This is likely to be why my anxiety, which was getting worse as I got older, is virtually non-existent at 14 month sober.  I would say that alone, is well worth quitting for!

Reroute neural pathways

The hugely positive thing is that we can change all this! Our brains are so clever that we can retrain them to stop our destructive behaviour. Neuroplasticity is the brains ability to find new neural pathways to follow (12, 13). The more we use the new pathway, the more secure it becomes and the easier it is for the brain to use it.

In the next post I will look at how to change our habits, start to create new neural pathways and overcome the effects of alcohol. But the amazing thing is, the more we understand what is going on inside us – physically and psychologically, the more likely we are to be able to put a stop to it once and  for all!

References:

  1. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-11660210
  2. https://alcoholchange.org.uk/alcohol-facts/fact-sheets/alcohol-statistics
  3. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/alcohol-misuse/
  4. https://www.drinkaware.co.uk/alcohol-facts/health-effects-of-alcohol/mental-health/alcohol-withdrawal-symptoms/
  5. https://jamesclear.com/three-steps-habit-change
  6. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2009/oct/10/change-your-life-habit-28-day-rule
  7. https://drugabuse.com/alcohol/alcohol-addiction/
  8. https://www.forbes.com/sites/daviddisalvo/2012/10/16/what-alcohol-really-does-to-your-brain/#2994b58c664e
  9. https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/negative-effects-alcohol-anxiety/
  10. https://www.therecoveryvillage.com/alcohol-abuse/alcohol-and-gaba/#gref
  11. – telegraph – alcohol resleases addcitiev endorphins article
  12.  https://www.mentalhelp.net/addiction/changes-the-brain/
  13. https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/ending-addiction-good/201302/neuroplasticity-and-addiction-recovery?quicktabs_5=0

Why do people drink?

Drinking is the worst thing that I have ever done to myself, so why on earth did I start and then continue drinking?

I look at teenagers and young adults now, who do not drink and have absolutely no problem with it and I ask – why was I not like that? What made me feel I had to start?

I am not claiming to be an expert in the physical or psychological motivations and consequences of drinking alcohol, but I am writing based on knowledge I have gained through personal experience and personal research in my own quest to understand why I drank and eventually stopped drinking. 

Why do start people drink?

Normalisation

I started drinking at 14 because it was completely normal. I had grown up in a family of drinkers, every single social occasion involved drinking, and I sent to boarding school where alcohol on a Saturday night before the disco was basically de rigeur. Alcohol was present at meals, in the evenings and after church on a Sunday. Alcohol took centre stage at birthdays, Christmas, funerals, Easter, parties and holidays. It was used to celebrate new jobs, new homes and new babies, and to commiserate break ups, unsuccessful jobs interviews or any other unfortunate event. Advertisements scream about the latest alcohol and show the beautiful, glamourous people having a wonderful time with the alcohol with a tiny bit in the corner saying ‘Please drink responsibly.’ Oh OK, why didn’t I just think to do that?!

Accessibility

Alcohol was all over university, it was everywhere I used to work (pubs, bars, restaurants, clubs) and it was in nearly every home I ever visited. The accessibility of alcohol made it so much easier to start drinking. I think the ‘think 25’ challenge in shops and bars has made it a little harder to access alcohol at a younger age, but when I was a teenager I could buy it at 15. Funnily enough now, without my children in tow, I’m asked for ID for alcohol free beers!! But once you hit 18, it’s a free for all. Buy and drink whatever you like! The first polite offer as you enter a house, ‘would you like a drink?’ Our society, particularly in the UK and Europe, is alcohol soaked. From what I have seen, if you come from a family who do not drink or smoke, you are less likely to drink or smoke. So normalisation and accessibility play a massive part in why we start drinking.

Social Pressure

Similar to the points above, if you live surrounded by alcohol, there is a massive social pressure to start and continue drinking. It is hard as a teenager and young adult, to navigate the big scary world and try to find your place in it.  If all your friends are drinking, it’s very unlikely that you are going to be the one who wants to stand out by abstaining. If your boss in a new job is taking you out for after work drinks, are you going to be the one who says, actually no thanks. It’s far more likely at that age that you want to impress your friends or your boss. You want to be seen as fun, social and popular. The expression ‘you can’t put an old head on young shoulders’ is famous for a reason.

Social Anxiety

Like social pressure, social anxiety is a huge problem for young people and often carries on well into adulthood. Many, many people are shy or introverted. People like this will often hide these parts of their character behind alcohol. Our society celebrates people who are loud, funny extroverts. So where does this leave the shy introverts. Think of Robin Williams. One of the most brilliant actors of my time and by all accounts an incredibly kind and good man. The public saw him as hysterical, loud and energetic but apparently in real life he was quiet and reserved. Tragically he struggled with depression, alcohol and drug abuse. I am speculating here, but could part of his alcohol abuse have been because he was fighting against his true nature?  When we drink it does lower our inhibitions, so it makes us feel like we are OK in situations that we are actually not comfortable in.

Pleasure

The first drink of alcohol is often a pleasant experience. Initially when we start drinking, before it takes over, those first drinks and first social occasions are fun. We feel part of something, we feel accepted, at ease socially, funny, exciting, spontaneous and relaxed. The initial tipsy can be so nice why wouldn’t you want more? It’s not very long before we are chasing that feeling. I loved the feeling of the initial glass, but realistically the nice feeling only lasted about 15 minutes. After that, the rest of the time was spent drinking more and more to try to recapture that nice feeling that could never be recaptured until the next day. Was that 15 minute nice feeling really worth the years of struggling, arguments, hating myself, and feelings of guilt, shame and anxiety?

 Instant gratification

One of the reasons we keep chasing that 15 minutes is that it’s so quick and easy to reach. Alcohol starts working pretty quickly and all the pleasant feelings are there. Everything melts away and we are temporarily at peace. Everything else that could give us the same feelings takes work and effort and we all have such busy, often difficult and stressful lives, that reaching for a glass of instant relief is more realistic. However, like I said, that peace doesn’t last.

Escapism

I believe that escapism is a HUGE reason why people continue to drink, and end up drinking to excess. For the 15 minutes you feel better and for the rest of the drinking time, until you go to sleep or pass out, you are not fully there. You don’t have to face anything, do anything, you can dream and pretend and nothing is really real. It will be real the next day, it won’t go away, but for the drinking time, it’s not there. So what are we escaping from?

Often it’s stress. We don’t live in a very relaxed society. We expect ourselves to work, raise families, maintain friendships and relationships, be glamourous and thin, look after our health, cook well and be sociable, fun and spontaneous. Not exactly a small order!

As parents, we are expected to do all of the above and be good parents, give our children special attention, cook, clean and wash, do homework, do fun family things, take them to school and extracurricular activities and, obviously, bring them up to be happy, healthy, kind, loving, well rounded people. All of this while they are fighting us, fighting each other and learning to navigate their own place in the world. Is it any wonder we need a break? Even though there are amazing books like ‘The Unmumsy Mum’, that have made it easier for people to talk about how hard motherhood is, it still feels like we can’t really say ‘Help! I can’t cope!’ We still have to pretend everything is wonderful and post pictures on social media to show how well we are doing.  So we hide our not coping behind our wine or gin or cocktail. There are other books about motherhood that are really funny, like Hurrah for Gin, and I have laughed so many times at parts of this book, but it comes with the downside of normalising alcohol for mothers as a coping mechanism. It’s not just books. Facebook memes, birthday cards, presents and Gifs – all screaming, we need alcohol to cope! 

On top of this people often have really crappy things going on in their lives. If you don’t have people to talk to and share the problem, or people who can help, you are going to try to help yourself. It is awful but there are so many people who have had rubbish childhoods. From full on abuse and bullying to benign neglect, there is a whole spectrum of stuff that goes on in childhood which is often not dealt with and is buried. As people get older and they start drinking, it becomes another way to escape from and bury negative feelings and memories.

I had a whole combination of reasons to start and continue drinking. Later, I added disappointment and frustration to the list. I had this idea of what my life was going to be like. I would have a job I loved – preferably with a charity abroad, travel the world, learn languages, have amazing friends, be sociable and glamourous, attend black tie events and dance and sing all the time. I would read books, paint pictures and practice yoga. I would walk up mountains and host charity events. Then…..children. What happens when you have children? You love them fiercely but you give up your whole life. I found that I disappeared into motherhood and there was very little of me left. All those dreams became much harder to fulfil, and when The Bear got diabetes they became harder still. I was living a life I had never wanted to live and everything around me was telling me I was supposed to be happy about it. So I drank to dream, and pretend I could still do all of those things.

Feelings

We are hiding from feelings because we have not learnt how to deal with them. From loneliness, sadness, stress and disappointment to depression and anxiety, alcohol can temporarily numb and block out these feelings, appearing to make life easier to manage.

Underlying reasons we drink

Ultimately, I think the reason we drink comes down to two categories, a lack of community and a lack of self-worth.

Communities are not what they used to be. Although I wouldn’t say that community was always a good thing, there were definite benefits. We are all now expected to navigate the world in small nuclear families or by ourselves. We feel we have to do everything ourselves and prove to the world how well we are doing it. If we’re ‘failing’ we blame ourselves not the situation. We don’t have the large support network that communities used to provide to support us and reassure us that we are doing OK. We haven’t got the experience of watching people living their lives in the open to know what is normal and what isn’t.

Imagine as a parent, you’re suddenly expected to have a child, know how to bring it up, care for it entirely yourself, give up everything you’ve done before (except possibly work) and get no break. Is it any wonder this causes feelings of inadequacy, isolation, loneliness, anxiety and depression?

This would be hard enough to manage if many of us weren’t struggling with a lack of self-worth. There are few people who really appreciate their own value and love themselves. The people I have met who are closest to this are usually the ones how have really struggled and dragged themselves out of difficulties. We often judge our value on what our families and then society tell us it is rather than looking to ourselves and those who love us. Families and parents, either consciously or subconsciously, will give us our initial sense of self-worth as children. Often parents are dealing with their own feelings of inadequacy, so can pass this onto their children accidentally. As a teenager it is society, peers and family. If we are shy, we do not have value; if we don’t conform we don’t have value; if we don’t look the part, we don’t have value. As we get older it becomes more about ‘success’, possessions and parenting. We end up believing these things and berating ourselves for not being enough. The more we listen to this negative voice, the more we believe its negativity. If we do not believe we are to enough, we are never going to believe we deserve the life we want, so we will not strive for it and we will lose ourselves in trying to be acceptable to society. We will then drown the accompanying negativity, frustration, disappointment, unhappiness and loneliness in alcohol.  

Why is it so hard to stop

Social pressure

I listened to an amazing TED talk by Claire Pooley, author of The Sober Diaries. She said we still see drinking too much as a taboo. Like a shameful character failing. She says when people say that they’ve quit smoking, everyone says ‘wow that’s amazing, well done!’ When you say you’ve stopped drinking, they look shocked, ask if you were ‘an alcoholic’, justify why their drinking is OK and try to push you to have just one.  Alcohol is so deeply ingrained in our society and not drinking is seen as the odd thing, not visa versa. So stopping, in this society, is very hard for anyone.

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Form of self-harm

I know that for me alcohol had become a form of self-harm. Self-harmers are often trying to escape from or cope with feelings they can’t manage and trying to punish themselves for their inadequacies. I couldn’t cope with my inner voice and daily struggles so I drank to cover them. I then felt so shit for drinking that I drank more to punish myself. I then spent months trying to stop again because I was so filled with disgust at myself. I never forgave myself, just berated and hated. Very hard to make any positive changes with this mindset.

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Addiction

To be honest, this is where my knowledge gets bit fuzzy and I’m not entirely sure what I believe yet. In post How to beat the alcohol illusion, I to try to counter all my points above and discuss how we can overcome alcohol once and for all. However when it comes to addiction, my posts Am I an alcoholic and How to stop alcohol cravings put forward arguments and counter arguments from reputable sources do try to gain some understanding for myself and for my readers. I have seen people in withdrawal, from alcohol and drugs. I have seen people at the end of their lives; their body’s destroyed by alcohol. So I know that addiction is a real and awful thing. But I have also seen people go from drinking bottles of whiskey a day to stopping completely without the withdrawal effects. I don’t really understand where we cross the line, or even if there is a line to cross. From my personal experience, I know I drank too much because it made me feel dreadful, but I think, for me, it was all psychological. Habit is too weak a description, but addiction is to strong. 

What I learnt my first year sober

When I imagined myself sober, the image was wonderful. I would be transformed into a bohemian, happy, floaty type who would wear pretty summer dresses, practice yoga and meditate daily while walking around in a mindful haze. I would serenely cook healthy meals for my family. Sugar would have no part in my life. My peaceful state would be such that reading, art and exercise would all come naturally. My children would obviously have my undivided attention and they would feel the love emanating from me.  I WOULD BE ZEN!!!! Well that didn’t happen! I soon realised that I was exactly the same person – just minus alcohol, hangover and guilt. That may seem disappointing but it’s not! It is actually wonderful! Nothing has to change, you already have the power within you to be sober and be you.  You have the power to cope with everything, and to face head on the things you are hiding from.

Conversely though, I am slowly becoming the person I imagined, not through some miracle transformation, but because I am choosing to become that person.

I used to laugh at the idea of using yoga to relax instead of alcohol. I remember talking to some girlfriends after a job interview for a very stressful job. The interviewer had asked how I would cope with stress and I, of course, said I’d do some yoga and have a bath to reflect. To my friends I said hahahahaha, like hell, I’d actually drink a bottle of prosecco and cry. We all laughed. But seriously? Why was I laughing? I frequently did drink a bottle of prosecco and cry. It wasn’t nice and it didn’t help, so why did we laugh? I actually really wanted to be that person who did yoga and had a bath, but I felt it was so far from anything I could ever become that I had to laugh or I would cry.

Since I stopped drinking I am now becoming that person and I love it! Not completely zen yet – or anywhere near in fact – but I am working on that! I try to practice yoga every day. If I’m seriously pissed off I’ll do a HIIT session and my mood evaporates. I love baths, candles and breathing exercises. I feel so much better than I have ever felt before. No regrets, no shame, no guilt and no hangovers!

Expectations, that may seem unrealistic when drinking, can be achieved sober, you just have to choose what is important to you and work up to it slowly.

Choice is a huge part of sobriety and happiness. One of the quotes that struck me most in my journey was ‘change could for should’. We all, especially as mothers, feel there are so many things we ‘should’ do. But why should we? Who says we should? What if we changed that should to could and asked the question again? Say there is a party for a friend. You feel a bit off but feel like you ‘should’ go. Change it to I ‘could’ go. If you still don’t feel up to it you can ask yourself why and then based on those answers, make your decision. Another example, my sister gets annoyed with me because I currently have no idea about what’s happening in the news. She says, ‘how can you have a degree in international relations and not care what’s going on’. The fact is I do care what’s going on. I care deeply. But I changed ‘I should listen to the news’ to ‘I could listen to the news’, and then asked myself why I wasn’t. Currently I get upset with the state of the world so I am protecting myself emotionally; I have so many things I am doing, that I need to protect my time so I am not overwhelmed. I am protecting myself and choosing what is important for me now. Later I may choose current affairs, but not right now.

Everything we do is a choice. In choosing ourselves we can begin to find out who we truly are. I used to feel like a bad mother if the children were driving me crazy – especially at ‘wine o’clock’ – so I drank to cover it. Now, if it’s too much, I close the kitchen door, cook supper, listen to an audio book and drink a diet coke. Does this make me a bad mother? No, I am choosing myself for 20 minutes so that the boys can have a happier, more stable, sober mother. Those 20 minutes are better for everyone in the long run! Choosing yourself is part of the self-care and self-love that is crucial in early sobriety and beyond. 

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These are the things I have discovered about me in my first year sober.

Celebrations

I still love celebrating and no alcohol has made very little difference. I do not like sit down meals or date meals. They feel formal and forced and I feel pressure to make conversation in an unnatural environment. Now we go for date breakfasts, and I love them!

I am actually surprisingly good at parties, but I think this is because I can move on or leave when I need to. I love dressing up. As a mother there are fewer opportunities so I used alcohol as an excuse to dress up. I have dressed up less in this year sober but I know that I love dancing and at some point when the boys are a little older I will be able to dance more often and that’s a perfect excuse for dressing up!

I love birthdays. Mine, my children’s anyone’s! But instead of a big party and flowing booze, I want to eat good food, be with those I love, take a trip, sing karaoke and dance. I was even loving musical statues at The Baby’s third birthday.

I love Easter and Christmas. This Easter was the best one I have had. Family around, lots of food, painted eggs. We did yoga in the garden, my nieces and nephews sunbathed with music on, we played silly games outside, watched a film and played board games in the evening. It was a whole day of fun and I loved every minute. With alcohol I’d have been tired, anxious, feeling sick and just wanting it to end.

Christmas I have loved since a child so I suppose it’s not surprising that I still love it, although it surprised me a great deal! But what I have discovered is that I don’t like Christmas day. We never did Christmas Day as children because my mother was a nurse for the elderly so she chose to work. We celebrated Christmas Eve and Boxing Day. For this reason Christmas Day has never sat right with me, although I’ve tried to do it for the children. Next year we’ll try something completely different but it doesn’t have to look like a ‘normal’ Christmas Day does it?

Evenings

I always dreaded evenings but I have realised I was creating that situation myself by drinking. I love evenings now and hardly ever get the evening blues anymore. They were a daily occurrence before. In the winter I love being fluffy and cosy, lighting candles, looking at my YouTube fire, reading books and having baths.

I also enjoy going out in the evenings, just to walk or drive around. Both summer and winter evening can be insanely beautiful. Lights on in houses, Christmas decorations, ice sparkling on the grass or rich red sunsets, warm breezes and swishing leaves in the trees. Ooooh, so yummy!

Family

I love being with my family now and don’t find the children nearly as stressful. Don’t get me wrong, they drive me completely crazy at times but I don’t get cross in the same way I used to and we feel more of a team than ‘me versus them’. I have realised I can’t stand wet and cold children. So if we go swimming (which I never used to do but now do twice a week), or we go to the beach, or play in the fountains in our town square, or get soaked in the rain – I need to know that I can get them back to a shower with ease, then it all feels more manageable.

Job

I have somehow always had it in my head that I would find the right niche for me and then I’d be a complete high flier at work. Now I have realised this is not me at all. Firstly, by this age wouldn’t I have found it already? Secondly I can’t stand being part of a huge corporation or institution – I’d much rather do my own thing; thirdly, if I’m going to put massive amounts of stress on myself, it’s going to be for something that means something to me, like family, or a business of my own, or this blog – not for a job.

Holidays

I adore holidays, but what I have discovered is I prefer the planning and the travelling to the destinations. This has been a huge revelation. I have always known I have itchy feet but I have fought against it as there is the feeling that you ‘should’ settle down, you ‘should’ have a house/car/mortgage. But why? My husband asked me why I had to do any of those things and the question really surprised me because I hadn’t considered that I had a choice before. I then found a quote that I loved which goes ‘not all who wander are lost’. I had always felt that my need to move around and travel was because I hadn’t found myself and I wasn’t happy. But maybe I am just a wanderer? To find out, we are planning 6 months of nomadic living in Asia with the children. I may come back saying how awful, but at least I have taken the chance.

Exercise

Exercise is my salvation. Without regular exercise I become more grumpy, emotional and anxious. I choose to find the time every day to exercise. It has to take priority over other things and the more I do it the easier it is to find that 25 minutes.

Safe space

I need to know I have a safe space I can get to if I start becoming anxious. For this reason I need to not be reliant on other people for lifts, not stay at other people’s houses unless I am very comfortable and not agree to do things that I don’t want to do. Yes, I am also working on my control issues!!

Feelings

I have found my feelings so much easier to manage since I stopped drinking. This is mostly because I now recognise my feelings, so can question them, or just let them be, because I know they will pass. I am not hiding from them or frightened by them anymore. Now that the guilt, shame, raging anxiety and hangovers have gone, feeling are much easier to manage. There is way less black and white thinking without booze.

Stress

I react to real stress in life with a huge bout of IBS that takes months to settle back down. I used to blame this completely on alcohol but it’s mostly because I still haven’t worked out my coping mechanisms for dealing with stress. Currently I try to avoid it.  This doesn’t mean that I don’t challenge myself. I am very driven and constantly looking for new challenges. However, if I feel that they are detrimental I am now equally happy to walk away and not feel like a failure.

Being kind to yourself

I was never very kind to myself and I believe that for most people struggling, this is the crux of the issue. If you pay attention to your inner voice, how often do you say nice things to yourself? Imagine if that was a child and you were saying all those things. Would they grow up happy and successful? Learning to stop berating myself was one of the most important things in my journey to sobriety and away from depression. To the extent that healthy eating never stuck, stopping drinking never stuck and exercise never stuck. I would make unrealistic plans and then get so angry with myself when they didn’t work that I would stop trying. Now if I eat pizza, so what? I made that choice. If I choose not to exercise one day, that doesn’t mean I’ve failed my 30 day yoga challenge and have to start again! It just means I pick it up where I left off and keep going. This was an absolute revelation for me! The only thing I will not do is drink. Luckily that is now because I really don’t want to.

Community

I am a bit of an introvert and people scare me, so I always struggled with the idea of community. In my head community meant having lots of friends who came over of drinks or making plans to meet in parks or going to their houses. Massive pressure, totally freaked me out, so I stayed hidden. I have realised in my year sober that that isn’t all that community is about. Family and friends are so important but so is being part of where you live. I now love going to local cafes, taking the bus, going to the library, going to our local cinema or swimming pool. All stuff I never considered as special before, but if you do it enough you get to know the people who work there or go there regularly. You can have random conversations and find out what people are doing with their lives. It Is often surprising and sometimes awe inspiring. It makes me feel grounded and connected.

One thing I always loved was the idea of big Italian family’s eating food together and being in their community. One of my stumbling blocks in stopping drinking was that this idyll then couldn’t be for me. I felt I would lose my dream of living the Italian lifestyle. When I read The Little Book of Hygge, it changed my viewpoint. The Italian lifestyle is about the community, the sharing and the food – not about the alcohol. Companionship is so important for all humans and without it we become depressed and despondent. I am so grateful to all my local cafes for their friendliness and good food!

Be grateful

How many times have we heard this. It used to really piss me off. Those Facebook posts that say ‘cleaning the house? Feel grateful that you have one to clean’ – oh fuck off!!! However, I found that when I went warm and fuzzy about something I would make a note of it in my phone. Then when  was feeling pissed off and not particularly grateful, I could look back at my notes and the warm fuzzy feelings would start to peak in. Gratitude makes things you have to be grateful for grow exponentially. So help yourself on bad days by having a list to remind yourself of what you have to be grateful for.

Let go of control

Stopping drinking was not a magic elixir that cured everything straight away, but it allowed me to start working on loving and getting to know myself which made all sorts of surprising and wonderful things happen, not least of which is being happy!

I am still a control freak and get very anxious when I lose control. But I am working on this. To manage my dread of evenings I’d plan them meticulously, but this never worked and I ended up frustrated, annoyed and anxious. Since I’ve let evening go, my ideal evenings actually now happen. It’s about setting an intention and then letting it go. Then the universe gets to work on your intention to makes it happen. If you cling on tightly to it, this will never happen! Sorry if that sound hippy dippy but its worked too many times for me not to be true. For more on this read Deepak Chopra’s Seven Spiritual Laws of Success

You have to be who you are, acknowledge what is right for you and honour yourself.