This piece was written in April 2017. It’s by far the most personal thing I’ve shared online. Even more so than my anxiety piece. I look back at that time, and I felt I had come so far, achieved so much (I had), but wow – I had no idea what was yet to come. The last two years have been phenomenal. I have done things I never could have dreamed I would, many written about here – others; the work I’ve done, the organisations I’ve worked for, the personal friendships gained, and old ones strengthened. Writing songs, posting them online – WHAT?! NO WAY! My diving, my physical strength milestones. Being pretty content in my body, in my thoughts… That’s a big one.
I never thought I would share this, but two years later, here I am, posting it.
Reading it, please keep in mind, it’s about me, my story, my life, the way I live and lived it. There is no judgement on others and their choices. This is about me. No one else. And my journey to a beautiful, precious, fun filled, rollercoaster life of sobriety.
Written on August 8, 2015 – 28 days before my final drink.
Dear future self,
Do not forget how much you like sobriety
I’d always assumed alcohol gave me my backbone, my voice, my energy. I never questioned it, and why would I? It was never a considered option to stop drinking until the day I actually did. I don’t remember my first taste of alcohol but as a child I was always dipping my fingers into the foam on my Dad’s pint. Once I was able to drink the lager I realised I actually disliked the foam, I must have just been drawn to the beer.
I was 12 the first time I got drunk, it was neat vodka. I remember it so clearly, I was wearing a pink pinafore dress with black palladiums, and my friends and I were sat at the bottom of a concrete hill, just hanging out by a gas station. I felt invincible; so bold and fearless. Sure I was sick before getting in to bed that night, I think we all were, but that was just part of it. I loved the way it burnt my throat on the way down, then made my whole body shudder intensely, followed by hot vapour rising up my throat making me feel as if I could breathe out fire. This fierce, power inducing sensation of the first hit never left me. It’s what I consistently used to ‘get me through’ in my later years. Just a little something to ease the anxiety, or to give me that extra kick for the day.
The warning signs were all there. It wasn’t so long after that I shouted ‘I fucking love being drunk’ to my Mum at a New Year Eve’s party before promptly tripping over and sending myself flying, landing in a heap on the floor, laughing hysterically, loving this new found sense of freedom.
Paradoxically I’ve never felt like one of those people who ‘needs’ alcohol to be outgoing. As a child I was silly, loved trying new things, was always busy, always had friends. As I got older, when I met people who didn’t drink but were chatty, opinionated, impulsive, youthful… I felt akin to them. I never thought that perhaps their apparent confidence might have stemmed from not feeling the need to hide behind alcohol, or wait for it to pump them up. But from that first time getting drunk, alcohol became so important to me. I drunk addictively, obsessively and always needed to know when and where the ‘more’ was coming from.
Despite looking back at my childhood as a happy one, from a young age I was very sensitive and emotionally quite extreme, with obsessive thoughts and behaviours. I often felt I carried the weight of the world on my shoulders and suffered from acute mood swings and uncontrollable anger. When I entered secondary school my self belief disappeared. I started thinking darker thoughts and self harming in ways I didn’t even realise were self harm at the time. When I had the first few sips of alcohol it felt like it helped take the pain and confusion away, but now I know it intensified it. It hindered my confidence. It made my moods more severe but less real, honest and genuine. Drinking lessened my ability to channel anger in a constructive way, or to force myself to sit with my emotions, and eventually became the only response to my mood – whatever mood it was.
The addiction and lies creeped up slowly, but started young. In my social circle, as a teenager it was normal to get drunk. But perhaps not so common at age 14 to drink vodka orange in the free period before English on a Tuesday afternoon. I wouldn’t tell anyone – I didn’t do it to show off or even think it was cool. I just loved the way it allowed to me talk when I usually felt too shy to open my mouth despite having so many opinions. I felt a sense of security knowing I had my little secret magic potion. It was of course the vodka that gave me the confidence to speak my mind and I never thought perhaps I should just push myself, and speak up a little.
Age 15 en route to see my boyfriend at 11am I would drink 4 cans of Strongbow Super. He seemed to really like me, he even told me he loved me, and we are still friends, but looking back I was terrified at the thought of a whole day alone with him, me just being me. How could he could like that? I told him I had a can, perhaps two on the way, you know, to pass time on the 50 minute tube journey. Canned confidence. I felt I needed it to be a girlfriend he could be proud of, the girlfriend I wanted to be.
Confidence. Perhaps alcohol’s greatest marketing lie. In my teens and 20s I waited until the alcohol kicked in before I became ‘me.’ I’d drink alone before meeting people, and when the tube ban on drinking came in, I switched from cans to wine in water bottles. If I couldn’t I’d just make excuses of being tired or still buzzing in work mode until, usually 1.5 drinks in, I’d not feel so socially anxious. I thought that my personality came from that liquid poison, where as in reality it stunted my growth, muted my voice and crippled me; made me believe I needed it to stand on my own two feet, that without that crutch, I was incapable.
I’m a feminist human rights advocate. If I’m not challenging and pushing some people’s buttons – I know I’m doing it wrong. But alcohol put me on pause for so long. It gave me anxiety, where as I thought I was just an anxious person. It made me care and overthink about things I didn’t really care about, or even care to think about. It made me question what I’d said and done but as I’d forget huge pockets of time, I couldn’t stand by my words and actions as I didn’t even know what they were. During the school holidays I spent night after night drinking cans of Carlsberg, smoking cigarettes, watching indie movies, writing poetry, playing my guitar. I looked up to the characters in the movies and people in the bands I wanted to be in, all drinking, alone, getting fucked up, thinking deep inebriated thoughts, creating.
Being creative. Expressing yourself. Needing alcohol to do so. Alcohol’s second biggest lie. I believed all of this went hand in hand. If I didn’t drink, I couldn’t create. I couldn’t be a musician, a writer – the things I wanted to be. In the end, my drinking stopped me writing music, lyrics and words for years. Most of my 20’s I sat night after night, in bars, in hotel bars, in airports, at home, thinking tomorrow, tomorrow I’ll start again, tomorrow I’ll write, play, create.
Even when the opportunity presented itself to do something I loved, both being sober or drunk would stop me. There was no middle ground. Despite wanting to sing I used to dread karaoke nights out. When someone passed me the mic I’d refuse, saying ‘after a couple more drinks.’ I’d be so nervous trying to pick the perfect song for my voice – one in my vocal range, one I thought I might be able to sing without sounding too terrible.If I couldn’t do it here, how could I ever sing on stage? I played guitar in a band for a while, and thought I had worked out the perfect amount to drink in order to play without freezing from nerves, or completely screwing up from being too drunk. Looking back, I don’t think I had found the perfect playing point I thought I had!
I generally never actually ended up with the mic anyway as by the time I felt ready to sing, I’d be too drunk to care anymore. My dreams of singing in front of an audience would have to wait until tomorrow. Again. The one time I did sing on stage was at a school charity event I’d organised. I was so nervous about singing ‘Like a Virgin’ I got blackout drunk. Thankfully, I was told, the night was a success and even more thankfully my Mum didn’t work out how to use the video camera properly… so I missed out seeing what I can only imagine would have been a shambolically embarrassing performance. I was 17.
So, how did I go from that state of being, to a week sober dancing and singing on stage with friends in Portugal, in front of an audience, and genuinely having the time of my fucking life?
Rewind back to the week before that and I was at a music festival a few hours north of London. After I started my most recent stint of trying to moderate a few months before this was one of my ‘allowed to drink’ nights, the first one in two weeks. I was excited. The first beer went down so well. The second made me feel invincible. This is it. I can do this. This is how I’ll live my life – sober most of the time, drinking occasionally on special nights out. I got this. Look at me. Living the dream. Having it all.
One or two beers later I was crying alone in the bathroom. Sat in a crappy blue plastic looking Student Union cubicle staring at the cigarette burns on my arms I’d made 16 years before and wondering if anything had really changed. If, despite all I’d been through, had I really grown or matured at all. I didn’t even know what I was crying about, but felt so confused, alone, angry; so uncertain of what my future would be and more importantly what my future path should be. I knew that everything in my life revolved around drinking and I felt out of control. I had tried so hard to manage my drinking, but I wanted more from life than this constant mental obsession.
The next morning on the train home I knew. I was done. Something had switched in me. Over the months previous I’d passed so many milestones, first weekend sober, first week sober, first 38 days; that was a huge one. But on that train home, I told myself I had to do a year. Everything sober once. My birthday, a New Years Eve, a Christmas, probably a wedding, hen party or two.
It had eventually dawned on me, I was never going to be able to drink with any control. I tried many, many times before, getting angry at myself for ‘letting it get so far’ without realising how deep rooted my addiction was. Wondering why I didn’t just drink a bit less frequently so that I wouldn’t have reached this place, but truthfully, there was no point in my life where I could have changed path to lead to ‘normal’, non alcoholic obsessive drinking.
I was scared. Petrified in fact, but I felt I had no choice. Previously, the option was never to stop drinking. Moderate? Sure. Once a week. Twice a week. Four times? Only festivals? Holidays? The parameters constantly changed. This was the first time I’d ever genuinely considered it was over. Even when I said a year I knew there was more to it, but I had to make it more manageable to myself, even give it a sense of purpose, like a fun challenge. Easier to position personally and to help fend off the numerous people that kept trying to convince me I wanted to drink. It took me a few weeks to admit to myself that I probably couldn’t drink again, but after a few months I decided I didn’t WANT to drink again.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Early sobriety was so different to what I expected. I thought my mind would be so much clearer and I’d have boundless amounts of energy, start new projects, learn a new language, face the world head on, embrace my new life right NOW! Aside from the initial obsession with not being able to drink I was seeing alcohol in places I hadn’t before, namely everywhere; all adverts, films, songs, promotions, social events, a celebration, a commiseration, just because ALCOHOL IS FOR EVERYONE ALL THE TIME!
Despite this, the real world was a new place to me, and I was seeing in technicolour, hearing in surround sound. Often this was incredible, I felt born again, a toddler in constant awe. It was, and still is exhilarating. But, it was also exhausting my mind having to process all these new experiences and new emotions. There was no respite. No quick fix or stop. Sometimes I felt so present and connected with the world around me; after decades of disconnecting myself from reality. Unfamiliar experiences in familiar places. But often everything was foggy, seemed surreal and my focus and concentration was awful. I spent a lot of time overwhelmed and confused, but also unable to express this to my friends and family, who despite their general support, just couldn’t understand, and I thought I sounded crazy. Many times I genuinely thought I was going insane. But once I read about PAWS (Post Acute Withdrawal Syndrome) and how it takes time for your body and mind to adjust to sobriety, it helped me be kind to myself, and know I had to ride it out. It also made sense to me, if you put a mind altering drug in your body every day, and then suddenly stop of course your mind will start to re-wire itself, process input differently and work out how to do so. I was, and am still, part of a predominately female online sober blog community, and without their support I don’t think I would have made it to the 38 days, let alone the full year and beyond.
I had to re-learn the art of conversation. A real shock to myself, and those that knew me. Drunk me was a great host, friendly, sociable, inclusive. My tolerance was so high most people didn’t know that ‘me’ was actually ‘drunk me.’ Early sober me was quiet and scared, and started developing a stammer. I had to give myself pep talks before going out, even with close friends and learnt to take a deep breath before speaking, or if I started to ramble, stop, apologise, and start again, even laugh it off. I eventually came to realise that most people are not witty orators, they don’t scrutinise what you say, and most importantly how lazy alcohol makes us socially. My social circle got tighter, and conversations became at the very best, more fulfilling, genuinely funnier, more honest, more intimate, and at the very least, just more memorable. But, I cannot lie, it’s much more exhausting being present, and I had to factor this in to my new way of living.
Once day to day sobriety became more normal and I wasn’t thinking about drinking all the time I thought about maybe trying to write again, or pick up my guitar. But I was apprehensive. How could I do this sober? I hadn’t really played instruments properly since my teens. Or written a poem. I’d written a few travel blogs, but all with the help of bottles of red. All the most creative, inspiring people drink, or take drugs, don’t they? For years I hadn’t pushed myself because of a fear of not being perfect, hell, just not being remotely good enough, so how was I going to do this without my vodka soda security blanket? Without my prosecco powered crutches?
I sat one lunchtime, on a concrete block by the canal at work, pondering this. What did I really want to do? How could I do it? Could I really express myself sober? And it dawned on me, like one huge bolt of beautiful fork lighting, an awakening; alcohol didn’t make me creative! I’d been feeling more intensely, more truthfully in the last few months than I had for years. So surely I could channel these new experiences and emotions into something. I even thought that perhaps creative people are more susceptible to becoming addicts because drink helps to dull and quieten down a painfully active mind.
I’d fallen prey to the great myth that alcohol fuels creativity. But it wasn’t alcohol that wrote, printed and sold the zines I made at 14. It wasn’t alcohol that wrote songs and lyrics about the pain I felt as a teenager. The correlation between the amount of alcohol I had consumed and the lack of creative output I had generated suddenly became so clear. During University I didn’t pick up my guitar once in the three years, but always lugged it from home to uni because ‘this term would be different.’ It never was.
Once I’d opened my eyes to the notion that creative expression comes from within a person, not a bottle, I started to notice how many artists and intellectuals are sober. I begun to see through the ‘profound’ statements and ideas conceived in drunk conversations, for what they really were. Generally nonsensical, reactive, and repetitive. I only have to look at my drunk ‘arty’ photos taken on the tube ride home or ‘pensive’ (sad, overemotional drunk) selfies to convince myself that boozed up me was not the creative artistic genius with a sharp eye, that I thought I was.
It takes time and effort to be an artist, writer, musician, actor, comedian, photographer – you need to put your heart and soul into it. Time and effort I had no room for when alcohol was number one, controlling me, my daily activities, my life. I’ve learned that it doesn’t have to be perfect, it’s about the doing, the creating, the taking part. Enjoying the process and not worrying so much about the end result. So, what have I done since? I’ve started a band with my best friend, and of course, I’m singing. I send her vocal tracks, and laugh at the terrible bits, but still hit send. The lyrics I write feel empowering, releasing, cathartic. Even when I have no mental energy, instead of reaching for a glass of wine, I’ll just pick up my guitar and strum, get rid of the junk of the day through some badly played power chords.
Sure, before getting sober I’d go to the theatre, but I’d get drunk. I’d go to the cinema and get drunk. I would write in my diary, about the shitty things I’d done, drunk. I was a functioning alcoholic, working, gymming, socialising, but everything I did involved alcohol. I had my times very close to what would be called a rock bottom, where I was barely functioning, but I made it through. And so when I gave up alcohol, I wasn’t at my worst. I’d stopped the morning (and lunchtime..) pick me ups a year before, (well mostly, if I’m being brutally honest) and felt more together, healthier mentally and physically. And in trying to pull back a bit further, I realised how tight the grip my addiction had on me was. It was by finding out I couldn’t just drink less I became confused, because alcohol no longer worked like it did, I stopped having fun drunken nights out, but yet I couldn’t stop drinking. The only time I enjoyed being drunk was at home alone. I’d leave early to sit at home by myself. I didn’t quite appreciate I was doing this until after I got sober, and it dawned on me I’d wasted too much time doing nothing but drinking. The booze had been number one for so long and it was time for something else to take first position. Sobriety finally made me aware that anything I wanted to do, I actually had to do! Not drink and see what happens. Any person I want to talk to, I have to go up to them and say hello. Awkward situations became surprisingly more manageable, because what I did and said, was in fact in my hands, and my control.
I had no idea that in getting sober, I would actually also be breaking up with booze. The feelings were so similar to the split with my ex-fiancé. Together we were no longer a good team, I knew this. We never had fun anymore. But early on I still missed him and cherished the good times, because there were great times, and sometimes I’d romanticise it and think ‘what if…’ and do I want to go back? But overall, deep down… I knew it was over, and though the future alone may have been daunting and scary, for the first time in years I felt I had a future, not just an existence. I’d seen through the lies of alcohol, and wrote down what it had become to me:
To you it’s a glass of wine. A reward. A celebration. An ode to the work hard play hard world. A ‘whoops wine o clock’ giggles and silliness. To you it’s just a pint of beer. Banter, laughs, getting fucked up and doing stupid shit with your mates.
To me, it’s anxiety, crippling anxiety, self harm, ripping my skin with my fingernails, walking at night on the way home alone, crying, mascara rolling like little black waves. It looks empowering sometimes, for a moment or two, then it’s remembering the crushing weight on my chest, that makes me hurt so much. More and more to make it better but making it worse. My hurting heart, my hurting head. It’s trying to fit in, and feeling so unbelievably alone. It’s about being a slave to whatever is in that glass. That first sip and I lose all sense of agency. Of self. It never mattered what was in that glass. To me, it’s just poison. Mental and physical poison.
I can’t have this sober life and that chaotic drunken life together. I can’t have the booze without the self hate, without the anxiety. I can’t read and learn and be present in all these newly acquired hours in the day, as well as still drinking.
I’ve always been fine with people thinking I’m acting stupid, immature, laughing, doing dumb stuff with my friends. But turns out I don’t need booze to do it. I’m also happy being alone, doing things independently. But booze took that away from me. I felt it always had to be me and the alcohol, but it didn’t at all. I’m good, just me. I feel like a teenager again, but with confidence. Not arrogance, but confidence in myself, because it’s me and only me from here on out. No escaping into obliteration but with the ability to deal with the good and bad of life. So much wasted time and now I CHOOSE the sober life.