I was going to try and move away from talking about alcohol in this blog but something strange happened this week. Out of the blue I REALLY FANCIED A DRINK. After saying in my last post how I didn’t want to go to the pub, there I was wanting to go to the pub. I wanted that lovely first pint of cold beer, I wanted to sit in the garden sipping an expensive Chablis. I fantasized about the different gins I could mix and sip. What was going on?
I’ve thought about this a lot- sure there’s the whole spectacle of people coming out of lockdown and seemingly all heading for beer gardens and the inevitable FOMO that that can lead to. But this was more than that. I was feeling a bit down. I was having one of those introspective, negative evaluations of my life moments: family, career, relationships – too many compromises, too many disappointments a sense of unease that seeps to the soul. Sound at all familiar?
I knew from my past experience that having a drink in such moments would give me a lift, would put a smile back on my face and make the world seem a little bit more OK. Although in the past I could drink when I was generally feeling good, the truth is drinking helped cover up the underlying unhappiness I sometimes felt. It was a respite and it was a quick fix. A lot of the time it was the added element of being with friends that also lifted the mood- friends+alcohol= Fun and laughter. Sometimes I miss that. When the existential grey clouds gather round, I really miss that.
I rode those feelings of really wanting a drink. I resisted the temptation and time does make that resistance a bit easier. I know I could have a drink if I wanted. There’s nothing to stop me but I had to remind myself that the short term “benefit ” was not worth it. If even one small part of my drinking was to assuage deep feelings of dissatisfaction with myself and my life then old patterns were bound to reappear and then I’d really have something to feel dissatisfied about.
The truth for me is that I now know those moments where I yearn for the quick fix of alcohol based contentment are a chimera. It’s the illusion of happiness. I know the reasons why I get to feel the way I do sometimes and there are things I know will help bring me out from those places that no longer require having a drink and the escalating consequences that come with that.
The other indisputable truth for me is that in the nearly 20 months since my last drink my “down” time has been so much less than when I used to drink. Overall, I’m happier, more productive, and positive than in my drinking days. My life is so much better without booze and knowing that and feeling it means being able to ride the occasional and probably inevitable surge of temporary temptation. When you drink to drown a deep seated dissatisfaction rather than to gently lift your mood, it’s unlikely you are ever going to be a moderate drinker. As the sign above the temple of Delphi says, “Know Thyself”.
Happy New Year to anyone reading this. Before I start this incoherent ramble a message to any new readers who are trying Dry January. For whatever reason you have decided to give up alcohol for one month. Stick with it. At the very least it will give your liver a well earned rest but it could well be the start of a fascinating, sometimes uncomfortable period of introspection and change. Nothing to lose and lots potentially to gain.
OK down to business. This is a tough post because I haven’t posted for a while and I’m not sure what I want to say. Having said that I have felt a strong urge to post and yet have been putting it off. So this is a more than usually self indulgent post, a shambolic attempt to figure out what if anything I have to say and where if anywhere this blog is going to go. If that all sounds like an existential crisis, it’s probably because it is one. I’ll just dive in.
The “not drinking “is going well. I’m still not drinking but not drinking, the original rationale behind this blog, is beginning to feel like an irrelevance. I don’t mean that giving up booze wasn’t a big deal and important. It was and it is, it’s just that now that being sober has become a set part of my life, I can see that drink was just a manifestation of deeper issues. I focused on alcohol because it was an issue in my life but its absence has starkly highlighted other issues in my life. As alcohol has moved into the background, other things have moved into the foreground. Alcohol kept some things in their place but like some semi permeable membrane it let other things through.
I’m grateful to myself that I stopped drinking but the landscape that has been revealed by its absence is not always comfortable. One example; feelings and emotions. With alcohol I could dampen down those unconscious emotions and conscious feelings. One example from my youth. Crippled by anxiety, I wanted to simultaneously approach girls and run away from them. A few drinks and those emotions and feelings subsided. I no longer feared rejection, I stopped worrying what people would think of me, I stopped comparing myself to other guys. It was liberating and I could join in. I felt normal. An illusion maybe but I had experiences I may never have had. Of course if I could go back to my younger self I would help me to understand why I had such shockingly poor self esteem at that point in my life. I see that now but at the time I just felt defective and alcohol made it seem OK for a while. And so it goes on and builds up. That’s why, with the perspective of not having drunk for 16 months, I can see that my dependence on alcohol was not about the alcohol per se, it was what the alcohol was helping, and later,not helping me deal with.
So having given up, I can see why I was attracted to alcohol and why bad habits developed but recently I have had something else to contend with. Alcohol helped suppress some difficult emotions but it also let others through particularly as I became older. Through necessity and application I managed over the years to control my feelings. I learned to shut down, to blank off difficult stuff. I became good at that. People dying, yeh let’s deal with that, divorce; let’s not let that get you down. I started to take a perverse pride in how I was able to deal with stuff that others couldn’t understand were not breaking me. But these things always come with a cost and that cost for me was a neutral emptiness or maybe better described as a gnawing, nagging emptiness, a void where I knew there should be something. Then I’d drink and the dam would break. tears would flow and I’d allow myself the misery and sometimes ecstacy of feeling. Of course with alcohol it’s impossible to regulate where things would go. Sometimes I would wallow in regret and anger, at other times remember wonderful times where there was a promise of a fantastic future. But the alcohol has stopped. The membrane now holds up and very little gets through. That, I’m realising is not good. I feel sometimes like the physical lock down we have all had to experience for me has been accompanied by an emotional lock down. Safe, sanitised but not how life should be. And where alcohol would, in the past, help me deal counter productively and self destructively with some of this “stuff”, other coping strategies have now tried to take the place of drink. The “stuff” is still there and needs dealing with. That’s why I say the alcohol feels irrelevant. It’s not a part of my life and I’m tremendously happy about that, but it was only a symptom, a reaction to other things, and unless I deal with those other things, alcohol and similar coping strategies will always be pulling at me trying to lure me into a false sense that all is OK.
Not sure that I have expressed what’s really going on but still trying to get a sense of it all. Maybe with it being a New Year I might let my blog go in a different direction. Like may others, food has taken up some of the slack left by booze. If booze was never really the problem but became the problem, perhaps the same applies to food. If that is indeed the case I need to deal that and unpick what the food is really feeding. What is the real hunger? Let’s see where that goes.
First off, what’s happened to my good intentions? I was going to blog more regularly, really I was. I was intending to read other blogs, make comments and generally be a more responsible, committed blogger. Sounds very much like my approach to giving up drinking; a good idea that just took me a bit of time to get round to. At least with blogging it’s only been just over two weeks. My decision to finally give up alcohol took slightly longer; maybe 30 years give or take.
The reason it took me so long to finally quit booze was down to one main reason, DENIAL. Good old denial, it keeps us following the same tired old path regardless of the evidence in front of us. Denial is sneaky though. It concedes a tiny little bit. In my case I knew that drinking excessively was bad for me, I knew I didn’t want hangovers that lasted two days and the wasted days that entailed. I knew that dependency creeps up on you. Despite that , denial is a strong adversary to our good intentions. Here are some of my favourite denial soundbites; a top ten” Jim’s favourite denial tracks” if you like:
You’re doing a demanding day time job- you can’t be too dependent
Jim, it’s OK you don’t drink in the mornings
You only lost your licence once and that was 30 years ago
Your liver function test was fine, you’re fine!
That homeless guy clutching his cheap cider- now that’s a guy with a drink problem
You’re overthinking it, just enjoy life
If your’e worried just moderate a bit
Everybody has one too many occasionally
You deserve a treat
Churchill drank far more than you Jim and he won a war and was a national hero
You get the picture. I could add another twenty justifications for my drinking and one of the “sobering” aspects of being sober is the stark realisation of how much denial there was in my relation to booze. Had someone confronted me at the time however Mr Denial and Ms Protect would have emerged to defend my drinking at any costs.
I was thinking about this in relation to a little trip I have planned. Next weekend I’m off to see my son and his girlfriend for an outdoor meal at a pub near where they live. I’m not seeing them at Christmas as I am not keen on catching Coronavirus by sitting for hours in a heated enclosed room with several people in close proximity to me. So outdoor pre Christmas meet ups is my preferred option. No problem… except, in my drinking days this would have put me in a highly agitated state. Driving somewhere like a pub and not being able to drink alcohol was my personal nightmare. I hated it. I couldn’t envisage sitting down, seeing drink all around me and not having a drink. Here’s another list. Jim’s “What I used to do when invited for a meal/pub/party/ far away”
Work out cost in terms of time and money of trains and taxis (not always feasible or desirable)
Find some way of manipulating someone else to give me a lift
Find some way of manipulating other parties to come nearer to where I live
Work out how many units I could drink and still legally drive and how much time that would necessitate me being at the venue
Arrange to drive, get a lift back and get someone else to drive me to venue to pick up car next day
Consider the horror of going and not drinking alcohol at all (very rare)
Decline the invitation rather than the hassle and torture of any the above
The scary thing is I was thinking this last week that the last option of declining invitations rather than not being able to drink was quite a common one. Just consider that in all its sad truth- I actually occasionally used to make decisions not to see family or friends if it meant I couldn’t drink. Drink before relationships. There it is in black and white. No denying that one and I may well have done that this weekend. I know I would have probably not gone, or tried to get them to meet me somewhere else or have driven and not drank but spent most of the time thinking about the fact that I couldn’t have a drink rather than enjoying their company.
Reading that back it’s horrendous the grip that alcohol had over me, preferring it at times over spending time with family. Wow. Next time I feel tempted to drink, this will be one of the scenarios I will remind myself of. To be free of that power and grip that alcohol had over me, that I often denied to myself, is the gift I gave to myself 15 months ago and it keeps giving. People mean more than drink. Obvious really when the fog of denial has lifted. I just need to remind myself of it now and then. Sober batteries fully recharged!
It’s everywhere isn’t it? The references to booze, no wonder it’s so bloody hard to give it up. The other day I’m looking at a website and an advert pops up. Campo Viejo wine. I loved it and those bloody tailored advertisers knew it. Bastards. Not only that, the advert talks about all the things we are missing in this pandemic and shows an idyllic summer setting, with an outside meal being set up. Sun shine, family, Meditteranean country setting, friendly chat and then the uncorking of wine and the glug glug as it’s poured into glasses. The not so subtle message; wine is the oil of social interaction, the gift of the gods that makes life so much more pleasant. As I say, bastards. It’s an advert, I don’t get taken in by adverts but those associations are so powerful that I can feel myself willing to jack in a year plus of sobriety to reconnect with that old life and down a glass or two of Campo.
But it’s an advert. It’s designed to trigger us and make us want to rush out and buy the wine. I notice there’s no one at the table passed out with their face in the bloody lasagne or a pissed uncle boring everyone with his outraged stance on politics, ranting and raving after drinking one too many or cutting to aunt Sofia in the local hospital hoping for a liver transplant after a life of excess bloody Campo Viejo.
But that’s just one advert. I watch my favourite programmes. They all arrive home and open the wine to relax, they go to bars and order a beer. Everyone is drinking. It’s inescapable. Here the message is a little more subtle. Normal people drink small amounts but do it all day long. It’s nice, it’s what normal people do, it’s part of what makes us human. You, sober viewer are abnormal. Come on join the party. Bullshit I scream but it’s like i’m constantly having to be on my guard to challenge and counter these perpetual, persistent messages. Even bloody Bake Off has people sticking rum and other spirits in their cakes. Wink, wink , oh a cake laced with booze is so much better and naughtier than a sober cake. Well I’m a sober muffin and I’ve had enough. I can be as naughty as a gin soaked chocolate eclair on a good day. I don’t need a drink, I don’t want a drink. I know what drinking does, it’s not romantic, it doesn’t relax me, it doesn’t enhance life. So what to do when faced with this constant onslaught?
This is where my sober heroes come in. The ones who prove to me that you can be cool, talented, smart and sober. (let’s leave Donald Trump and Hitler to one side for the moment- they give sobriety a bad name). I still remember the guy at my drama group when I was in my twenties who loved to party, was a hit with the girls, was at ease socially and loved to dance. It was a shock when I found out he never drank. It was so unusual back in the 80’s. He didn’t need a drink to have a good time. That stuck with me. Then came my obsession with the Irish musician Christy Moore. Gave up when it was getting out of hand and recently heard him speaking about how his life has been so much better since he stopped drinking. Sober heroes, role models. We need them. Then there’s the American Writer Raymond Carver. Ah, a true hero. A great writer and for much of his life a true alcoholic. It nearly killed him. He stopped suddenly by himself and did the best writing of his life. He also found love with another writer, Tess Gallagher, whom he married and they had 11 great years together. Here’s what she said about Carver, I’ll leave it to her:
Instead of dying from alcohol, Raymond Carver chose to live. I met him five months after he’d made this choice, so I never knew the Ray who drank, except by report and through his stories and poems. One result of his decision to stay sober was that he became an internationally respected master of the short story, a writer who, at his death, was called by the London Times ‘America’s Chekhov.’ For me, the best result of his choice was that we found each other, and could write and live together, challenging, inspiring, and supporting one another in this new life we created day by day.
Every artist and writer faces the challenge of how to honor his or her intensity while not being consumed by it. Ray was nearly consumed by his. The decision that changed his life happened on June 2, 1977, a date that, if it were up to me, would be declared a holiday to honor all those who make it out of alcoholism. When I go to his grave now (he died at the age of 50 of lung cancer caused by smoking), I find messages from those who, as he did, want to stay sober, and who lean on his humility and generosity of spirit. They leave him notes: ‘Ten years sober, Ray! Life is sweet, you bet! Thanks, man.’
Ray and I always celebrated the anniversary of his sobriety by doing something simple, like eating chocolate after a nice meal at which we’d toasted the occasion with sparkling apple juice. I’d give him a gift: one year a stuffed elephant to remind him of his story by that name; another, a briefcase in which to carry his newly drafted short stories.
I think, in the end, Ray managed to exchange a deadly intoxication that would have killed him for an intoxication with language and story-telling. Ray had been ‘in the drink,’ as the Irish say, for 25 years by the time he finally quit for good. It took the wounded grace of moments added to moments for him to inch his way free and later, at age 50, finally sit on the mountain of 10 years of sobriety. He considered his decision to stop drinking the single most important event of his life. He wrote this poem shortly before his death on August 2, 1988.
Here’s the poem that Carver wrote:
No other word will do. For that’s what it was. Gravy. Gravy, these past ten years. Alive, sober, working, loving and being loved by a good woman. Eleven years ago he was told he had six months to live at the rate he was going. And he was going nowhere but down. So he changed his ways somehow. He quit drinking! And the rest? After that it was all gravy, every minute of it, up to and including when he was told about, well, some things that were breaking down and building up inside his head. ‘Don’t weep for me,’ he said to his friends. ‘I’m a lucky man. I’ve had ten years longer than I or anyone expected. Pure gravy. And don’t forget it.’
So Campo Viejo- next time you try to lure me in – I shall remember my heroes and the wonderful “Gravy” of sobriety. Thanks Raymond, Christy and the guy from my drama group (and all the wonderful inspiring sober bloggers). You remind me why not drinking is the better choice.
I had a very interesting experience a few weeks ago that gave me a real, if somewhat unsettling, insight into my own dependency on alcohol.
When I first stopped drinking just over a year ago I found social events like meals extremely challenging. The urge to drink if I sat down for a meal with others was almost overwhelming. Restaurants were things to be avoided. I had tried going to one a few weeks after stopping and far from enjoying a nice meal with friends all I could focus on was their drinks, my misery and a sense of grievance as to why was I having to miss out.
Having friends or family round for meals was also a major abstinence battleground and again my strategy was mainly withdrawal rather than engaging in the fight. The problem there was that if I avoided things I liked, abstinence was going to be pointless. So I tackled the meals out and the meals in. Gradually as I successfully navigated a few meals I could feel the urge to drink lessen. The urge was still there though and I knew that this had to be less about a physical addiction to drink and more an association. Or was it? My urges took on a pattern which I am sure is familiar to other drinkers; meals with friends and family, social events, weekends; all triggering waves of anxiety.
After the first few months I could go days without wanting a drink at all, zero desire and then a trigger event and my cravings would start. The strange thing was that the cravings would ease rather than grow as the particular situation evolved. I knew these cravings were based around anxiety, the need to blot it out, but I mistook the nature of this anxiety. I thought my anxiety was based on my inability to enjoy myself without a drink; could I still have fun, be convivial without the aid of a few glasses of booze inside me? The answer was yes I could and as the months passed so gradually did some of this anxiety dissipate.
Back to a few weeks ago. I was hosting a meal for for four people. I was cooking and I knew that none of the people were big drinkers. As I prepared the food, I could feel the urge to drink creeping up on me. What! Still? I thought to myself. I rode the anxiety, we had the meal and my feelings settled down. Then last week we had four people round including my son and his girfriend. We all knew more coronavirus restrictions were on the way so this was likely to be the last such meal at home for some time. The urge to drink kicked in as I was preparing the food. Two meals on consecutive weekends and two lots of urges to drink. I was really disappointed. I thought I had beaten this thing. I enjoyed being sober and not having to plan my life around the next drink. I was annoyed that I was still experiencing times when I felt I really wanted a drink. That’s when I stopped and really looked at what was really happening. Up to then I’d assumed my anxiety was triggered by wanting a drink because it was a social occasion but this was something more. I have had a year of many social situations where there was a zero urge to drink. I knew I was anxious and that a drink would soften and kill off that anxiety but what was the real cause of it?
Anxiety is often explained as fear without a home but I needed to identify that fear. But not at that moment. Guests were arriving, food had to be prepared, table laid, drinks chilled. Both meals went well and I enjoyed both evenings. I knew I had to revisit what was going on and as I replayed the evenings and my feelings the location of the anxiety I felt started to reveal itself. It was located deep within me, and I think it was a fear of failure , of not being able to produce good food, a good evening for my guests. Would they like the food, would they approve or would the whole evening end up as crashing failure with my being revealed as the flawed individual that I am.
Wow, I was a bit shocked, was this what it’s always been about, drinking to avoid feelings of failure of being something less than others? I knew that tendency had been with me for a long time but felt that I’d successfully overcome it. The reality was that I had probably used alcohol just to mask it and give me a false sense of confidence in some specific situations. My urge to drink was really an urge to avoid that confrontation with the hurt and shame buried deep within me, to mask it. For me giving up the drink has allowed many things to surface and this particular “thing” seems the most significant. Had I not stopped drinking I would have carried on just drinking “to take the edge off” and that worked for me in a way. It blotted out a sense of failure, of not being good enough but it came at a cost. Part of that cost was that my drinking, in itself, became a cause of shame and yet another failure. A failure to control the very thing that was supposed to help. Better have another drink then, and so it continued.
When the current lockdown ends and I can enjoy a meal with others, I shall try and cook that meal reminding myself that my meals are OK, that I have put on good evenings for others in the past, that I’m alright as I am without the need to top myself up with booze. In fact what having meals like that has shown me is that the anxiety decreases as the evidence shows me that I wasn’t a failure. The food was OK, everyone had a good time and I have been able to enjoy that occasion sober. That takes time to sink in. The next time I prepare a meal the same feelings are likely to reemerge and I need to finally confront those uncomfortable feelings, look them in the eye and comfort the young Jim that grew up believing he wasn’t good enough.
Maybe it’s things like these that constitute the real challenges of giving up the booze and I’d be interested to know if others have had similar insights into their own patterns of drinking.
I didn’t want it, I didn’t ask for it, I don’t like it, but my buttons have been well and truly pushed. I have, like some other bloggers on here, managed to go alcohol free for just over a year now. I have known for probably 20 years or more that my drinking was problematic. I sometimes drank to excess, I always drank more than was good for me, I planned my days and weeks around drink and it was a constant battle preventing myself drinking even more than I was. I damaged friendships with my drinking, I upset my children on occasions and 3 marriages probably attest to the fact that it had an adverse effect on my relationships. I tried cutting down but I eventually came to the conclusion that I had to stop. I prepared for that, I researched it, I sought the support of bloggers and I set a date. 1st September 2109. I haven’t had a drink since. Has it been easy? No. Have I wobbled? Yes Am I proud? Yes.
So what’s the problem? Well I have been on the end of some strange comments by one person in particular seemingly annoyed that I have so far succeeded in giving up and then even more strangely suggesting that the only reason I have been able to be successful is that I don’t really understand addiction. Presumably the logic runs that true addiction in insurmountable so anyone giving up wasn’t really addicted in the first place. This I find insulting and is the logical refuge of the alcoholic who isn’t ready to let go of their addiction or sees it as somehow on a different scale to everyone else’s.
I certainly can see that addiction or dependency is a scale and some are further along that scale than others but to attack someone’s sobriety by saying you couldn’t have been an addict because it was so easy to give up is essentially saying true addiction can be proved by constant failure. That simply is not the case. Overcoming addiction is tough, it will be tougher the greater the extent of the addiction but anyone who is dependent on alcohol and who manages to stop deserves a pat on the back because it is bloody hard. And people on all points on that scale have successfully given up. They don’t boast but they rightfully are proud.
It’s hard going sober because it’s not just about the alcohol, it’s about how we change with the alcohol, how we socialise, it’s about giving up taking part in something that is woven into the fabric of our culture, resisting the urge to just have that pint or glass of wine with friends, colleagues, lovers. I’m pleased that I gave up alcohol. It was certainly not easy and I’ve never glossed over the struggle. What made a difference was reading about the others who have successfully stopped. Those stories showed me it can be done. There was a peer pressure of not wanting to let people down although most bloggers would never knock someone who did have a slip up.
Maybe one or two people just don’t want to see others succeed. That success can make their own difficulties in stopping seem like failure which of course it isn’t. We each of us have to find our own way of combating this dependency on alcohol and I think that peer support is crucial. To undermine someone’s attempt at stopping by saying your success show a lack of understanding of addiction is contrary to the spirit of mutual support which sustains these blogs. Maybe those that say such things need to look at their own dependency and ask themselves whether they really want to give up or are ready to give up. Addiction can be a powerful friend that some might be too reluctant to part company with. You can’t help somebody that doesn’t want to be helped.
Just for the record. The topic in the above rant has not been the reason I haven’t been on the blog recently. That has been down to a couple of trips in my Campervan and having more work than expected. Now I have got this triggered response out the way I’m hoping I can reengage with my blog and calmly reflect on an interesting experience I had a couple of weeks ago.
In two days time it will be one whole year since I stopped drinking alcohol. I was always looking forward to that anniversary and planning the big, one year anniversary post and yet here I am, on the cusp and I haven’t got a clue what I am going to say- I’ll probably do something on what I personally have learned over this last year in the faint hope that others may find something useful in that to help them as they attempt to move away from alcohol. But I’m not at that point- yet- a couple more days should do it and I do feel incredibly proud of myself in achieving what will be something I never really thought I could do. Support, of course, is crucial but I wanted to say something today about something that perversely I have not found supportive; and that is the evangelical tone of many of those who write books on giving up alcohol.
Like everyone in the position of contemplating giving up alcohol I read some of the books aimed at kick starting a new life free of booze. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty that is good within those books but they are written ultimately to sell, to make money for the authors and to do that you need an unequivocal voice. That voice, that message is usually, “alcohol is a dangerous toxic drug, we have been manipulated into wanting it and it’s no fault of ours if we get hooked.” For me that was a real turn off. I drank because I liked it. Yes it’s a drug, but that’s the whole point of it. If I’m thirsty I drink water. I drank alcohol because i wanted the effect it gave me. Being a drug it then becomes hard to moderate especially in a culture where it is so freely and cheaply available, but that’s not alcohol’s fault, lay that one on society, business and government.
The evangelicals try to make out that developing a problem with alcohol is not a failure of individuals and again I don’t agree. I tried many times to moderate and despite some success I realised that when I did drink I often drank far too much- because I’m like that. Many of my friends do know how to enjoy alcohol moderately but I am not one of them. If I could drink moderately I would not have given up alcohol. It’s that simple. So my pride in giving up is tempered by a sadness that I couldn’t get to a point where alcohol was just a small pleasure in my life and not the dominating presence it became. But I am OK with that. I do not need to demonise drink in order to be OK with not drinking. As time has gone on I’m getting to like not drinking but the truth is it would be nice to think I could have the odd glass of champagne at a wedding or a glass of wine with a meal. That won’t happen because I’ve worked hard at giving up and I’m not a moderation type person.
The evangelicals talking about toxins and all the rest really have missed the point that humans have always imbibed toxic substances to alter consciousness. Alcohol, weed, peyote, tobacco, you name it we humans have tried it. Even in the Amazon rainforest they lick the backs of certain frogs to get a psychedelic hit. It’s universal but the thing that marks traditional cultures is that taking such substances was always associated with ritual which meant taking such drugs was limited and done in a revered, constrained manner. The problem with alcohol in our societies is that it’s been made into this readily available commodity that we are encouraged to drink at parties, weddings, celebrations, work dos, days out, days in, meals out, meals in, when cooking, when watching films, when friends come round, when meeting friends , new job, leave job, BBQs, when stressed, when relaxing, basically all the bloody time. That is why it becomes hard to moderate and bloody hard to give up.
So there we have it the evangelicals didn’t do it for me with thier black and white thinking. The support for me, as I have said before, has come from fellow bloggers both on line and sometimes in private off -post communications. The messy, confused, contradictory world of blogging showing that giving up is a struggle, that people do miss their booze sometimes but carry on because it is the best way forward for them. Acknowledging that we miss the crutch of alcohol sometimes but also knowing that mutual support from fellow bloggers is a much more consistent and longer lasting support than any drink could ever be.
So the evangelical “Give up the Booze” writers carry on. You have helped many people I know and you don’t sell books by saying giving up booze is complex, full of grey and with contradictory feelings. You sell those books by giving a nice, clear, missionary style message that’s full of can do and ” see the beast for what he is.” But it’s not for me. Give me the messy, anguished, nuanced and human world of the blogger any day. Nearly there.
I just want to get this post out of the way so I’ve decided that I’m going to dictate it using voice recognition software. I hate using it but I just need to get this done and finished and out there.
So, as you can guess, my diet is officially, like Monty Python’s parrot, completely dead. It’s expired, it’s lifeless, dead as the proverbial dodo (interesting that I just had to manually correct that last word as dictation software wanted to put dead as the proverbial dildo).
I was at a socially distanced outdoor children’s birthday party on Sunday. Of course I wasn’t drinking but I was eating and I was also observing how I ate in comparison to how other people ate. It didn’t take me long to realise why I struggle with diets. It was quite clear that I eat the way I used to drink; excessively with moderation completely thrown out the window. Whilst other people picked up the occasional crisp I was cramming handfuls into my mouth. When the hot sausage rolls appeared most people politely picked up one whereas I, on the other hand, managed about four within the first five minutes of them appearing. I was not eating like other people. I was devouring food. I was not eating to satisfy hunger, it was some anxiety generated, emotionally damaged,bored black hole I was trying to fill. I was suffering from some strange affliction. One could just say I was just being a greedy pig but that doesn’t sound good to me as it smacks of moral weakness, “Eataholic”is more reassuring as it takes responsibility away from me and locates it in a condition over which I have no control but is clearly nonsense.
Then it hit me, I talk too much, when I smoked I smoked too much, when I drank I drank too much, often when I eat I eat too much, I used to do a lot of drama in other words I love the sound of my own voice, I play music and have the need to sing all the time; it’s quite clear I’m orally fixated. Freud would love me, he would say I’m a perfect example of someone who didn’t go through that initial oral phase in a satisfactory manner. I got stuck there and constantly seek comfort and pleasure from all things connected with my mouth. And yes my mother had to stop breastfeeding me quite early and so at last I now know why diets do not work for me. It’s my mother’s fault! She should’ve carried on breastfeeding me then I wouldn’t have had all these problems with smoking, drinking and eating. Simple.
I jest of course. There may be a slight element of truth in what Freud had to say but of course his theory of psychosexual development does not really stand up to scrutiny. What I can say though is that consuming alcohol and food has been my way of coping with a certain level of social anxiety and an inner void, of which I’m increasingly aware. The fact is that on occasion I do eat excessively and diets alone will not work for me, I have to look at the why of my eating?
What this all means is that I have to approach cutting down on food the same way I approached giving up alcohol, I have to dig more into the reasons why I really eat and find a way of managing some of those compulsions. As I said before the option to just quit food isn’t an option so it will be very different to how I tackle booze in that with food it will be about moderation. It will be about stopping certain foods and it will be about monitoring how I eat, when I eat, types of food and the quantities. Crucially though I need to do the work of what emotionally I’m trying to comfort and suppress when I do eat excessively. Maybe that’s been long overdue so now is the time stop blaming my mother and dive into that emotional void. That should be fun! Wish me luck.
Let’s try and cut to the chase. I’m 11 months without a drink. There is no physiological need for me to drink, any physical dependency is long gone, but I’ve had urges, oh yes. Like many others I’ve had to reflect on all of this. There were lots of reasons I had for giving up (see crap graphic that proves my art teacher was correct when he told me NOT to pursue art at school), health, hangovers, impact on others, blah, blah, blah. But, like others giving up wasn’t a one way street. I was not some down and out drunk. I drank too much on occasion, I took it to excess sometimes, but…. I enjoyed it, I loved it, the drinking in company, different wines with different foods, getting slightly tipsy, switching off for a while, losing the anxious straightjacket for a few hours, I was a drinker, an unapologetic, “you only live once, you boring bastard,” drinker.
Now when I get the urge it’s when I’m with family or friends, pubs, restaurants, BBQs, where the norm, the expectation is that everyone will drink. At those points, despite the growing AF drink selection, I am an outsider. The UK is a drink based culture and I am now the outsider, constantly reminded of that every time there’s a meet up in a pub, house, anywhere.That gap between what I’m trying to be and what the social expectation is, that is what creates the unease. That’s what is fuelling the urges, the thoughts of why not go back to something I loved.
I knew the “something I loved” was no longer good for me and I took the decision to part with it and yet the pressures, enticements and yearning remained. That’s when it hit me. This is no longer a battle with alcohol. 11 months without, I’ve won that battle. No, for me this is now about who I am and how I identify myself, that’s where the tension comes from, I am convinced of it. For 50 years I developed the identity of a drinker. I was known for it. People told stories about my drinking, my drunken exploits. IT WAS WHO I WAS. My drinking defined me and wherever I went,I went with a drink in hand. Booze and me melded into one seamless identity. We went to places we felt comfortable; pubs, restaurants. I hosted social events so i could be Jim the Drinker. I had an identity and, good or bad, it was a consistent identity and we all need one of those.
Now. After 11 months I realise that smashing that identity is at the heart of my sometimes malaise. I have ceased to be the same Jim to many people. I don’t like sitting in pubs anymore. Many of the things that helped define me have gone. I have been stripped naked and it feels raw at times.
This growing realisation about identity being the crucial element in my current position in relation to alcohol is important for me. It’s helping me understand why the separaration has been painful at times. I didn’t fully appreciate how difficult giving up my identity would be. When I had the urge to have a few pints with my son and a few others, it wasn’t the drink calling me, it was my old identity. Give me the props of my old identity; pub, drink, silly conversation and for a moment I’d be back to the old me. The safety and warmth of a distorted identity. I was missing being me.
Wait a minute I thought. Does that need reframing? Was I missing the old me or had I simply not worked at creating a new me.
This seems to be the issue for me at least. I gave up an identity, failed to see the enormity of that, and did not take the time to build a new one. In the absence of a new secure identity I understandably felt drawn to the comfort of the old one.
So now after 11 months it is finally time to say goodbye to the old identity of Jim the drinker. It served its purpose, it was good while it lasted but it had to go. No more regrets. It had to go and I’m glad its gone. My task is to now build a new identity and be secure and happy in that. No more looking back. It feels like a time of grieving has come to an end and a time for renewal has begun. Maybe a time to feel both glad and proud to be sober? Brave enough to finally ditch one identity and embrace another.
In my last post I spoke of agitation, missing out, craving and anxiety, the usual heady cocktail ex drinkers often go for when they are having a bad day. I suppose I feel a bit disingenuous in that I left out something that probably also accounted for my mood. I mention it now because I do know it’s relevant and if the name of the game on here is honesty then I should tell myself and others the whole story.
Today is 12 years since my son, George died. He was 21 and had been diagnosed with a brain tumour at 19. Despite the diagnosis he studied illustration at the university of his choice and fell in love with a fantastic girl. He got on with his life, hating pity but towards the end was understandably angry and scared. Everyone loses people they love and anniversaries can be a mixed bag of emotions. I know last weekend I was thinking about George and without doubt that was the unsaid element to explain my desire to just say “to the hell with it, let yourself have a drink; some solace.”
I know I also needed to mention George because he had a direct impact on my decision to stop drinking and maybe I’ve avoided saying this because, like George, I don’t want sympathy, but at the same time it’s not fair to not mention him and his contribution to my abstinence.
Twelve years ago around March 2008, we knew the end was coming for George. Everyone deals with stuff like this in different ways. I would occasionally go off and drink to find some kind of oblivion I suppose. I tried to find a place where none of this was happening. As we all know booze doesn’t rewrite reality it just hides it temporarily under a cloak of fogginess and hangovers. One day in March I stayed overnight with a friend in London. I told George I would get the early train and be back by 11am so we could do something together ( at this time he was with his mother at her house). On the Saturday night I went out with my friend and drank. Then I drank some more, but the drink wasn’t working. The reality of the situation seemed to be growing not diminishing. More drink seemed to be the answer until I was at the point where I had lost control. I was drinking, crying, laughing, shouting and heading for the worst of hangovers. I woke up next morning unable to move with a thumping head. I knew I had to get back but I couldn’t travel. My friend gave me the usual cups of coffee followed by fried food. Eventually I could travel.
I arrived at my ex wife’s house around 3pm . I was at least 4 hours late. I lamely gave my excuses to a disappointed George. I then went to the downstairs toilet and threw up. George heard me. He knew I’d been drinking to the point of missing the train and being ill. He was angry with me. He then told me something which has stuck, he said, “I’ve got cancer, I can’t do anything about that but you’re making yourself ill, you don’t have to do this to yourself.” There it was. Simple. True. He couldn’t prevent himself dying, I could, but was choosing not to. Fuck. For days and months and years that thought replayed in my mind. George would have done anything to be in my situation, to be in control, to be able to make choices that meant health and growth.
After that day, whenever I drank to excess, George’s words came back to me. I knew deep down that the only way I could honour those words which were angry at the time but based on love and concern, was to give up alcohol. He was right of course and it took me 11 years to act on his words. In giving up alcohol I am choosing life. I guess that’s the best reason of all to give up something that is essentially a poison.
Today I shall visit the tree I planted for George. It is in a protected burial woodland near the river where he used to love sitting with his friends playing guitar and smoking a joint. I’ll go with his mother and we shall talk about the good times and probably have a little cry. Then , as George ordered me to do, I’ll go off and enjoy life; booze free of course.