On the 31st August I will have been sober for a year. Those initial cravings for alcohol are long gone but deep rooted compulsions and drivers sometimes surface unexpectedly. I find this both interesting and disturbing and I can see, in those moments, why people start drinking again. Over the weekend I experienced these feelings and it threw me as it felt like I had just set out on my sober journey. I’m going to try and unpick the thoughts and feelings I experienced, dissect them if you like, to try and help me and maybe others understand what can sometimes make us return to drinking even after months and years of abstinence. It’s individual to me but may resonate with others.
My son and his girlfriend were visiting and staying with my ex who I get on well with and who lives in the same village. On the Saturday we had a socially distanced meal in her garden accompanied by much drinking. I was on my AF beers and the afternoon went well initially with just a few pangs of wishing I could join in as the party of 6 drinkers (my partner was also not drinking) sampled a variety of wines and beers. Being sober I was aware that I was experiencing that feeling of being an outsider. There were shared experiences going on but I wasn’t part of them. The sampling of wines, the slight change in mood, the change in conversational gears. Rather than going with the alcohol flow I had to watch and note how the tempo, content and language was changing. I tried to match that, but doing it sober felt contrived. As the afternoon wore on I felt slightly resentful that me doing my “not drinking” thing was preventing me having some of the experiences I had previously enjoyed, including getting slightly tipsy with my boys. The thoughts started coming in,”Why are you denying yourself, this is the sort of situation you used to love, sitting outside in the sun, eating and drinking, getting tipsy and enjoying the loosening of social and linguistic conventions as the alcohol kicks in. Go on Jim enjoy yourself.”
The truth was that I was not enjoying myself, I was focusing on what I didn’t have, what I had denied myself. There was also anxiety lurking in the shadows but more of that later. We then played some games. Finally we had a different focus and I really enjoyed that. Looking back I realise that as a non drinker I’m often dealing with situations that are drinker focused. Sitting round a table eating and drinking for hours as the conversations become sloppy and incoherent is not what I choose to do anymore so suddenly having to do that, naturally made me feel both an outsider and uncomfortable. Luckily the near 11 months of sobriety got me through as did the realisation that I had been a different drinker to most of the others now sitting around the table. I would have got carried away. Moderation would have disappeared. I would have got drunk and maybe that realisation was also affecting my mood; the reminder that I had stopped drinking because drinking had stopped being fun,both for me and the people near me; it was fucking me up. Maybe I was just resentful that they could drink in a way I couldn’t.
I know all this feels like I am massively overthinking things but by understanding the torrent of thoughts and feelings I want only one thing; to strengthen my resolve, to not take the easy way of going back to how I used to be.
Anyway, back to Saturday. We eventually go for a walk and they want to go to the local pub. Decision time. No way do I want to sit outside a pub drinking more liquid and spending more hours watching people get pissed. I took my leave and went back home and prepared seating for when my sons and girlfriends, ex and her husband came round after the pub. They arrived. My youngest son was now noticeably drunk. A new feeling emerged, oh I recognise this one – it’s guilt. Was my pattern of drinking somehow responsible for the way both my sons drank. They certainly can put it away. The youngest one is keen on sports but when he does drink it’s often to excess; just like his dad. It was sad watching him drink.
The next day my youngest son and girlfriend left and my other son and girlfriend called on me and we went for a walk again with my ex. Of course we ended up at a pub. No contact tracing, no queueing system at the bar, it was shocking. My son was the only one really drinking as he never drives. “Just ” the 3 pints for him but again I had the feelings of wanting to be able to enjoy a pint with him but realising it would end up with another day wasted if I did. I felt strangely sad as we sat there in the sun by the river. Why? Maybe it was the realisation that I do not really want to go to pubs anymore. They had lost their allure, especially now in Covid era. For years pubs were my favourite places. I loved pubs. I have books listing the best pubs in England, I have spent some of the best times of my life in pubs. But it was the booze mainly, if I’m honest, that’s why I loved pubs. Take away the booze and their appeal has gone. Like delayed grief it really hit me that something that was a big part of my life was gone, but in order to maintain socialising I was being reminded of my grief by revisiting the source of that grief. I just wanted to get away from there.
If I’m truly going to understand the desire to drink that I experienced sitting by the river I have to delve yet a little deeper. Sitting there with my ex wife, my son and his girlfriend I felt strangely awkward, uptight, removed. I found myself thinking about what I was going to say, as if I were detached but trying to be part of the group. What should have been easy going conversation felt constructed for me and constricted. I know this is part of a long held feeling that I’m not a natural group person. My career, the things I enjoy have been based around me being in control or playing a clearly defined role. Therapist, teacher, acting, performing; those are safe places for me, they are my comfort zones. The other slightly removed, detached , with me leading the dance, that’s where I thrive. Chit chat and social conversations leave me feeling awkward. Intimacy makes me feel awkward. Not in very close friendships or a few relationships but generally. That’s where the drink used to come into it’s own. The anxiety and self doubt in those situations would eveaporate, dissapate as soon as the drink hit the back of my throat. I would tangibly feel a loosening up and a relaxation that was often missing in my body and soul. It was wonderful. But of course it came a cost and did nothing more than cover up the symptoms. Like so many others have said, take away the drink and you have to sit with and confront many uncomfortable thoughts and feelings.
We left the pub, walked home and I said goodbye to my son and his girlfriend. I hadn’t seen both sons together since March and what should have been a happy time was contaminated for me, not them, by drink and the resurfacing of uncomfrtable truths. A time to connect and do things had instead turned into hours of mainly drinking. It would be easy to throw in the towel and just join back in with the whole culture of drinking. I’d connect better with my sons, not feel awkward and I’d enjoy pubs again but that’s not what I want. I want to show my sons that we could have a great time if we got together and “did” things; visited somewhere, played, cycled. I’m writing this on a Tuesday morning without having experienced a hangover yesterday and I am so glad of that. My sons may come to their own conclusions and decisions about drinking. I am sure years of seeing me and their mum and my friends drinking so much has rubbed off on them. My quiet hope is that now, seeing me sober, the same may happen in reverse.
My “little” job going forward is to dig into the black hole of anxiety and self doubt that made drinking such a relief and release in the first place.
It’s long overdue.