Thursday, 29 January 2015

Driving with the Brakes on.

I've been busy this week and, unusually for me, I've done a lot of driving. While driving my mind wanders and mulls over all that is going on, all by itself. Sometimes I have really good ideas while driving but this week I've been reflecting on changes in me and changes in life. (Don't worry, it's not too heavy).

15 years ago, I didn't really want to stop smoking but I did. I was part of a rapidly reducing minority and I felt peer pressure to see the light as opposed to the lighter. So I got the patches and wore them for almost as long as an elephant's pregnancy and got the job done. And lucky I did too, for in subsequent years the smoking ban in public places grew and spread until it became the default norm. Now I think how hard it would be to smoke: where to do it? how much time it would take, the row I would get from my health consciously educated children. 
Worse would be living life, constantly needing to smoke and not being able to. This would remove any joy or relaxation from most pursuits. 
I actually feel quite sorry for those who continue to need to smoke. 

Later, when alcohol took centre stage, I gave that up too. ( What next you may ask!) 
On busy weeks like this one, I've gone from needing wine to cope, to missing it as a treat each evening, to being glad I don't need it now for anything because there is just not enough free time for me to sit back and drink, never mind spend time being hungover. 

I have reached a stage of being glad I'm not held back by booze. I am clear to focus on my various challenges this week and while I am personally grateful for this, I also feel sorry for those who still need to drink. For those who, like me, thought that wine each night actually helps them cope when in fact it is holding us back. 

A bit like driving with the handbrake, just sayin', well, yes, but only for a short distance!

Friday, 23 January 2015

Sober Book in the Final!!

An unremarkable little email popped into my inbox telling me I have been shortlisted as a finalist in the Bookbzz 2015 Prize Writer Competition (or rather 'Sober is the New Black' has)!! I'm so excited and proud about this as writing is not my day job. Though I've always done it, I've never been convinced I was any good at it or that anyone would be interested in the detail in which I tend to remember and describe the world. However, it now seems that the nice judges over at have enjoyed the read; time will tell when their review is posted.

The winner is down to the public vote. That's you guys. It will be a reality show type outcome with overall popularity winning the crown rather than absolute talent I'm sure. I've never won this type of competition. I never shout loudly enough about my achievements. So, it would be nice if you would all vote for my little book- I'll post the link when voting opens on 1st February 2015. 

And forgive me the plug (But it's better than the post I was going to write last night about how miserable I was and the number of biscuits that failed to help my mood!)

Happy Sober Weekend peeps

Sunday, 18 January 2015

True Horror from Stephen King

I received a couple of books for Christmas and started to read Stephen King’s non fiction book called ‘On writing’ first of all. It is hailed as one of the great books for aspiring writers to read and to learn from as the master of story telling recounts how he plots and writes.

The book did not disappoint. Written as part memoir and part advice on how to write, it begins with a swift journey through his life with emphasis on key moments in his childhood and adolescence where early signs of being an enthusiastic writer were evident. It was fantastic to read about his big break (and exciting to think it could be you!) as it is truly a rags to riches story.

What surprised me was to learn of his relationship with alcohol. It first appears as he describes the first time he got drunk on a school trip. Really drunk, causing him to miss the activities the following day and to be warned about the error of his ways by his schoolteacher. As he recounts the awful extent of his hangover he asks himself who would ever choose to do it again? But then the same thing happens the next night and then time and time again.

It all sounds incredibly familiar.

10 years later he completes ‘The Shining’ which just happens to be about an alcoholic writer and his ex-school teacher. The irony was lost on him at the time.
Being drunk and coping with varying degrees of hangover became his normal and he defended his habits by reassuring himself he ‘just liked a drink’. Realisation dawned at first when he started to collect cans for re-cycling and thought only an alcoholic could drink so many each week, and secondly when he was incredibly, regrettably, drunk and hungover at his mother’s funeral.

He talks about the futility of trying to control it as ‘much like asking someone with diarrhoea to control that’ and the disbelief of seeing people in restaurants drink only half a glass of wine and leave the rest. I mean, what is wrong with them?

By the time he finished writing ‘Misery’ in 1986 he had a heart rate of 130 and ‘cotton wool swabs stuck up his nose to stem the coke-induced bleeding’.

Soon after his wife confronted him and dealt an ultimatum: get help in rehab or get out of the house. With humour he recounts asking for 2 weeks to consider his options as ‘a guy on top of a burning building looking up to the helicopter which has arrived and lowered a rope to rescue him, asking for 2 weeks to decide if he will grab the rope’.

In the end he chose to get clean and sober. He did so and remains so, since 1988.

This part of the book ends with a few statements that are so, so true.

Hemingway and Fitzgerald didn’t drink because they were creative, alienated or morally weak. They drank because that’s what people do run a greater risk of alcoholism and addiction...but we all look pretty much the same when we’re puking in the gutter’.

It’s a brilliant read and worth buying even if only to read the first half and not the ‘how to write’ of the second half.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

What you can gain when you give up

Al Holic ( FB do not allow him to have the C for his middle initial) asks for short personal stories to share with others who may be interested. 

Today I find my contribution posted on Facebook. You can read it here

And perhaps message him with your own story too. 

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Six Surprising Side Effects of Sobriety

If you stopped drinking recently you will already be noticing the benefits: no hangovers, more money, weight loss perhaps (sadly not for me) and better skin. These are well known and very welcome. In addition, look out for other more surprising benefits which will be coming your way any time now.
1. It no longer matters if you stumble over speech or get your words mixed up. Although you now notice it and remember it, you are not embarrassed by it. You are confident friends are laughing with you, not at you.
2. You can be genuinely clumsy without comment. Knocking over a drink or tripping up on the pavement are simply bad luck. Accidents do happen.
3. When you feel unwell and complain of headache, nausea or feeling under the weather, the default response from your nearest and dearest is one of sympathy with a desire to look after you. You feel truly deserving of their attention and efforts. The atmosphere is harmonious and gentle rather than seething with undercurrents of resentment because you brought it on yourself.
4. You have a perpetual supply of wine to recycle as gifts. Yes, people still give me bottles of the stuff; they ‘forget’ that I ‘don’t really drink anymore’ and still do not believe the ‘No, not ever, not even one’ part of the answer. I make this into a game of pass the parcel and present the bottles of wine in the lovely gift bags to another friend at the next opportunity where bringing a gift is required. (Friends please note, Heroes and After Eights are never recycled.)
5. You can now eat dessert guilt free. There are many, many calories in a bottle of wine. Far more than in a generous portion of sticky toffee pudding (slightly warmed) with vanilla ice cream. You have permission to indulge and still eat the chocolate that comes with the coffee.
6. Everyone now wants to buy you drinks. Partly in the mistaken belief that soft drinks are cheaper (when in fact most profit is made from non-alcoholic beverages in bars), but mostly because they want two things in return. Firstly, they are hoping for a lift home (fine if you can bear beer breath in your car) and secondly, they need to ingratiate themselves to you to buy your silence. The next day they want you to tell them how bad they were, what exactly happened, whether they made fools of themselves, and will end with a plea that your lips are sealed and it will never be mentioned again. (It's an easy promise to make because everyone else saw the extreme behaviour anyway.) Plus, the new you does not feel the need to gossip about the relative state of drunkenness of others. It is boring and it is sooo last year. 

Friday, 9 January 2015

Booze and Bed

Perhaps because January is the month to give up drinking (amongst other things), the Huffington Post have published an article I sent them about booze.

The title is Booze and Bed and I wrote about it in a  'Then and Now' style after so many people told me they loved seeing these contrasting aspects of the same event.

You can view it here and if you like it please consider sharing it with others you think may be interested.


Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Terrified About Your First AA Meeting?

So was I, so you are not alone and I think being anxious and scared is an appropriate response to making such a huge decision as going along to a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Many people ask me about AA: if I go to meetings, if I went to meetings, what is my opinion of AA and so on, so I thought I would share exactly the experience of my first meeting in the hope that it will relieve some of the anxiety felt by those who are considering going along.

Before I do so, I would like to state my personal opinion.

 I do not go to AA meetings at present as I found it was something I could only relate to a little. I found there to be many aspects, usually unquestioned 'givens,' that I did not agree with. However, I went to several meetings in the early days and found them very useful; the stories terrified me. Hearing how bad the lives of others had become through alcohol, was a huge deterrent against returning to drinking and served as a warning that, while I was not perhaps as bad as many, I was on the same slope and would only slide downwards if I continued my most recent drinking pattern. I do believe dependence is progressive and I feel lucky I recognised this in time and stopped drinking when I did.

Approaching a year of sobriety I returned to a few more AA meetings. I found out more about the 12 steps and having a sponsor in the hope of reaching that higher plane of contentment where many in AA claim to be. I didn't want to be one of the 'dry drunks' they spoke of; I didn't want to want to drink.

On balance I couldn't relate to the process that was described to me. Instead I sought and received support from alternative sources: on line and through the sober blogosphere, (admittedly as a silent voyeur until I felt brave enough to participate). This led to me meeting a couple of friends in real life too and my first conversations with each of them immediately fell into place. These friends (and they know who they are) can understand the crazy part of me that was all about wine and while being relative strangers at first, we had massive amounts in common. I am grateful to have them.

If you are considering AA, the best thing about it is that the door is always open. You will always be made to feel welcome, each and every time you return. At the same time, there is no pressure to return. No one will initiate contact with you outside of the meetings. The ball is firmly in your court and it is there for taking should you want to attend.

Below is my diary entry after my first AA meeting.

I searched for a meeting far from my home in the hope that I would not see, nor be seen, by anyone I knew. Although I knew that everyone would be there for the same reason I still wanted to retain my anonymity and keep my ‘real’ life private. 
On the day, I scouted out the meeting venue and parked nearby half an hour before the start. I had a good view of the door and was able to see the comings and goings at the entrance. There were a few people hanging around outside with large steaming cups of tea and cigarettes. 
My initial impression was how happy they all looked. They were laughing and looked as if they were having a good time. People who joined them also looked happy and pleased to see each other. There were friendly greetings all around and they conveyed a sense of true camaraderie. I had expected them all to look miserable, to be miserable, the way I was feeling right now but nothing could be further from the truth. Surely they could not all be wrong? Surely they could not all be pretending or be the exceptions to prove the rule? Perhaps it was possible to be happy and enjoy life without alcohol?
I felt brave yet very nervous as I walked into the building, trying to look confident as if I knew where I was going. A woman ahead of me hung back and said, ‘Are you a friend of Bill’s?’
‘No,’ I said, thinking she had mistaken me for someone else. “I’m here for the AA meeting”.
I soon found out that being a friend of Bill is a code phrase that AA fellows use to identify each other. Bill or Bill W, refers to the original founder of the Alcoholics Anonymous fellowship, William Wilson. This was news to me, as was much of what took place over the next hour and a half. 
My second impression of the meeting was that I have NEVER before walked into a new club alone and not knowing anyone, yet have people spontaneously approach me, welcome me and introduce themselves. This just does not happen at a gym class or the school gates. Here, people seemed genuinely welcoming and I really was touched, if a bit overwhelmed. I was ushered in, given a large cup of tea and offered biscuits. A ‘regular’ immediately took me under her wing, sat beside me and told me what would happen. I became the ‘newcomer’ 
My third impression was that there seemed few barriers. Usual social groupings and barriers did not apply here. Looking around the room alcohol was the only common factor. There was a vast array of age groups, ethnicity, clothes, hairstyles (or not), accents, piercings and personalities. None of these seemed to matter. The meeting opened with some AA formalities and then someone shared their story with the group and became the Chairperson for the rest of the meeting. My guide was almost apologetic that the ‘share’ may not be one that I could readily identify with but suggested I should try a few meetings as they were all different. During the share I felt wonder at the speaker telling of his deepest darkest moments to a roomful of people and also privileged that I had been invited in and allowed to listen, despite being an unknown. 
After a break for more tea, biscuits (a cigarette if needed) and camaraderie it was time for the second half. Here, the Chair would go around the room, inviting people to comment or respond to his shared story or indeed just to speak. I was reassured by my guide I did not need to speak and could opt to pass when it came to my turn. As talking aloud was one of my reasons for going I decided I would speak. I said I had accepted the fact that I could not moderate or control my drinking and was not sure I could remain alcohol free alone. Out of the blue I became over-whelmed with emotion and began to cry. Tears were pouring down my face as I randomly spoke of all the things in my mind but strangely, I did not seem to care. I continued to speak whilst sobbing and hiccoughing throughout. It was such a relief to speak out loud to an understanding unknown audience. I felt a weight lifting from my shoulders as I finally admitted it aloud. By confessing I could really wipe the slate clean and live differently. I felt calm and relieved. Things were actually going to be okay.
Afterwards, another woman gave me her mobile number and said to call anytime. I chatted to her for a few minutes outside and she suggested if time allowed that we continue our chat at the coffee shop across the road. I surprised myself by accepting the invitation there and then. Now that my pressure relief valve had opened I wanted to continue to talk. I enjoyed the hour we spent talking about alcoholism, her experiences and my hopes and fears.
I left feeling a great release of tension. I felt lighter. I could now talk openly and honestly to a friend about my problem and the millions of thoughts buzzing around my brain.
Subsequently I went to a few other meetings. I became accustomed to meeting and greeting strangers with infectious enthusiasm. The tales I heard were varied. People who had lost everything, their job, their spouse, their children. their self respect. People who were grateful for things now back in their life because they were sober, being allowed contact with grandchildren or once again being invited to family celebrations. These accounts re-enforced my view that if I returned to drinking I would end up further down that same slippery slope. No one was immune. The disease, as those in AA believe it to be, is progressive. Over time alcohol consumption continually increases. Our need becomes greater and our requirements increase as our bodies become ever more efficient at handling the drug. More and more is required to attain the same mind altered state as time goes by and more is required to normalise the habitual drinker and render him or her functional. I had experienced this throughout the preceding ten years of my life and felt thankful I had recognised this increase and drawn a halt to it, before I lost  the big things in life that were important to me. I always left AA meetings with renewed conviction to remaining free from alcohol. My feeling it was the right thing to do was affirmed and the stories I heard sent me a frightening warning of what could happen, if I were to give alcohol a way back in.
I never joined a particular group or attended any one meeting regularly. Subconsciously I did not want to be one of them or commit fully to their program. Hence I was always identified as the Newcomer at meetings. This was welcoming at first and I appreciated the good wishes and accepted the congratulations for having taken the brave step of attending. With time it became tiresome. I felt conspicuous. Most people, when speaking, referred to the new person in the room with some advice or comment and I felt all heads turn to face me each time. It was too much attention, well meant but over bearing. Neither was I sure I agreed with some of the underpinning philosophies. I don’t believe in higher powers. Personally, I don’t believe I have a disease for which there is no cure. I don’t have a constant day in day out hankering for alcohol and am not worried I could be drawn to drink at any minute of any day. Indeed I still have a lot of alcohol in the house which would be against the advice of many. I have removed my temptations though, and as long as there is no white wine chilling in the fridge I know I will be okay. I believe simply that I have a choice whether to drink or not and that the correct choice is hard to make at certain times. This will always be the case for me and I will need to be continually on my guard to identify and plan for when such situations arise. 
There are many sound bites regularly repeated in AA circles and many of them I find very helpful and so true. You never regret not having another drink. You never regret not drinking. Avoid the first drink and you will be okay. One day at a time. 
One day at a time is an interesting concept. It is used in AA to keep things in the current moment. Not to plan or commit to the future. It is used to convey a knowledge that while one is sober today, it is not guaranteed you will be so tomorrow. I like the idea of one day at a time. I like that it is a small manageable chunk of time, but I find it has many negative connotations in AA. It is used to depict a life where today is yet another that I’m struggling through. I am trying hard not to drink at each and every moment of the day and it is such an uphill struggle I do not know if I can manage it tomorrow as well. Who knows what may happen then? There is a reluctance to look forward to a more enjoyable life as well as a guarded reticence to looking back, celebrating that already achieved. 

I prefer to reframe this thought so as to mean that I’m enjoying this way of life, one day at a time. The number of days passing is not the focus of my life, rather they represent a marker of the beginning of this new way to live. The time passed is an accumulation of many single days of this way of life, rather than a millstone around my neck.  I do not want alcohol and the fact that I do not drink it to be the defining feature of my life.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Sobriety and its Money Back Guarantee

If this is your 4th Day sober then you may be feeling the pressure. The initial euphoria of ‘having done it!’ has passed and reality is kicking in with tomorrow bringing the return to work and school for much of the UK (myself included).

So instead of thinking it has passed and it’s time to knuckle down to the nitty gritty, stop and congratulate yourself that for the last 3 nights you have managed to say no. Did you believe that could happen a month ago? Probably not. Could you do the same for another three nights? Of course you could!

Instead of thinking it will be harder this week remember that back into your usual routine, time flies by. Plus the focus on socialising and drinking has gone and normal life resumes. This year you have a head start of four sober days, a clear head and a clear conscience to match.

If you are worrying about how you will cope without a glass of wine to collapse with at the end of each day, don’t. Don’t even think about it. There is no need to think about it as you have decided you no longer drink wine so you must now do something else. Anything else. Change your routine at your critical wine o’clock moment, when you would usually open the wine. Walk the dog, do the ironing, have a glass of sparkling water. Do anything except open the wine. Just do it for tonight. 

Two years ago I was in this exact same circumstance. I lasted until 21st January. Those observant enough to notice my sober date as 28th March will be correct in assuming I tried again in February and again in March until finally having success. The theme there is to keep trying.

What changed at the end of March? 

Two things really. Firstly I changed my mindset from counting up my days of not drinking to that of a non-drinker where instead I counted the days since I made that change. Subtle but effective I felt. 
The second thing really took the pressure off and lowered the stakes. Feeling ‘allowed’ to drink if I really wanted reduced my anxiety about whether I could manage or not and took away (some) of my fear of failure. 

I asked myself each night if I could ignore my craving for one more evening. If it was still awful the next night, I could reconsider my on-going sobriety and may choose to have a drink if I so wished. I literally did this each time I was tempted to drink. I used it at each social event, then at each challenging ‘first’ I encountered. 

Each time when I would have reached for the wine, I asked myself to try that event, whatever it was, sober, just this once. If it was truly awful and I realised it a big mistake then at the next event or challenge, I could choose to drink if I still wanted to do so. 

When every ‘next time’ came I felt so proud of my additional achievement and chose to continue it for just a bit longer. The thing with alcohol is, it is always there and it will always be there. It’s very reliable. If you change your mind and feel this sober business is too strict for you, alcohol will still be there, waiting for you. It will be just the same as it always was, in all respects, I assure you.

If you’ve tried sobriety for the last 3 days and have enjoyed it, try to keep going for three more, relaxing in the knowledge that sobriety comes with an infinite money back guarantee: at any time you can return to your ways of old safe in the knowledge that the booze will always be waiting for you and it will be just as if you’ve never been away.
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