Being Alcohol Aware during Alcohol Awareness Week (…& I’ve had another blip)

I once read an article about a woman who could buy a box of Quality Street and just eat the odd one.  “Bollocks” I thought.  Who can do that?  When I open a box of chocolates, packet of biscuits or family bag of Doritos, I eat them.  All of them.  The behaviour has made me “Quality Street Aware” – so I just don’t buy them.  It’s a shame I’m less aware when it comes to wine.  I’ve kick-started myself into writing this blog because I’ve had another ‘blip’.  I don’t like the term ‘relapse’ and as this is my sobriety journey, I can call it what I like. Despite what seems like relentless work on recognising my own skewed relationship with alcohol, for some reason, it still has a hold over me.  It is like the shitty boyfriend: the one who keeps telling you all will be different this time, and it is for a week or so, then he goes out and sleeps with your sister.  In the end you become wary, you become “dickhead aware” and you stay away.  Why, why can I not do this with wine?  Why do I keep thinking all will be different this time?

I also once read another article about Kathleen Tynan, that she when writing, could be found immaculately dressed sitting at a desk sipping cold white wine.  Come to think of it, I don’t think I read the actual article at all, I think I read that reference in Bridget Jones’ Diary.  The reason the reference comes to mind, is that as I sit here now, writing, I’m thinking “a drink would be nice” and the Tynan reference always pops romantically into my brain.  Bridget Jones also pops in there and I think: there’s a woman I would really like to share a Chardonnay with (and I don’t even like Chardonnay).

In truth, the “a drink would be nice while I’m doing this” pops into my head during all kinds of things: painting, decorating, ironing, working, cleaning.  I heard from a woman recently who drank wine whilst on the treadmill (I can hold my hands up that I never did that – go on a treadmill that is).    Maybe a drink would be nice, would take the edge off the monotony of the task, but I’m working hard on being Alcohol Self Aware: understanding that this thinking underlies everything I do, that the thought worms its slimy way into my head, stops me thinking about anything else, until The Wine Witch’s apple looks just too juicy and red in my head, and I bite.  For the first few bites I think “this is delicious”, but the apple soon withers, Snow White-style, and I quickly realise it is rotten and poisoned – and talking of slimy worms, there’s a big fat one in the middle.

The relief the bite of the apple offers is short-lived.  It switches off the internal dialogue, the “should I? shouldn’t I?” for a short while but that dialogue is very quickly replaced with anxiety.  Anxiety over having another one, and another one, and another one.  The task you were performing is suddenly secondary to the wine drinking which you had, half an hour ago, argued to yourself would just be a nice accompaniment.  If you’re painting or cleaning or whatever it is you are doing, that suddenly takes a lot longer as you’re obsessing over the wine.  After the relief of the first glass, by the third or fourth (usually within an hour for me), the old worries about the rate at which you’ve pounded the first two are back.  The fuzziness of the relief of the first glass is superseded by a general fuzziness and loss of control.  I hate this bit, the crossing of the nice and relaxed to the actual getting pissed, on your own, doing the ironing and starting to lose it.  The rest?  A mixture of regret and going to the toilet a lot. 

So, back to my blip.  A month after my first blip I’ve had another one.  The ‘reasoning’ behind my decision to drink is by-the-by, the danger is that I’ve now got myself into a headspace that tells me if I can go a month or so without, without too much trouble, I’m not an alcoholic.  My alcohol awareness has become compromised.  If you read my previous blogs you can appreciate that this ‘reasoning’ is… for want of a better phrase, absolute bollocks.  This thinking is dangerous because I know I will grasp that slippery slope, that I will throw away my “grippy shoes” and dive headlong onto that slope like it’s the Cresta Run.  I will, given the slightest ‘reasoning’ throw away my awareness and go for it.

I’ve talked before about how I had started the AA Step Program.  Right now, rightly or wrongly (and this is me, it is going to be wrongly), I can not commit to AA.  It’s not that I can’t commit mentally it is literally a matter of timing: my work hours are very erratic and I can’t get to meetings.  But I am still studying The Steps.  Step One suggests that the obsession around alcohol can be alleviated by resigning yourself to the fact that you are powerless over it.  That once you start if you ‘play the tape forward’ in your head you will see the mess it will get you into.  I have read countless accounts of people getting sober and their family and friends being ecstatic as playing the tape forward was like detonating a bomb and everyone around them was affected by the blast.  But what if those around you were always seemingly unaffected by the bomb? What if the detonation was more of an implosion than an explosion and the only person hurt was you? What if, by refusing to let the bomb go off you’ve become sufficiently alcohol aware that you are now seemingly adversely affecting those around you? Confused? So am I.  Let me explain.

My alcoholism did not include many sordid tales (I stress, didn’t include many, that’s not to say there weren’t any).  There was no getting arrested, no wetting myself, no blackouts, no fights, no lurid tales of naughtiness. There was some wild dancing, inappropriate and sometimes downright nasty comments, loudness and a bit of stumbling around.  But this doesn’t mean that I wasn’t affected to my core by my drinking. It doesn’t mean that I didn’t suffer, every night, when my wine witch best friend suddenly turned on me and kept me awake with her incessant cackle. I’m always aware of those consequences.  However, when I fixate enough, when I think I really want a drink, as much as I’m alcohol aware, as much as I think of the consequences, I’m also about instant gratification  (instant gratification doesn’t work, let’s be honest, who doesn’t feel a bit sordid and guilty after a bit of instant gratification?).  So, in conclusion, being ‘alcohol aware’ will get you so far, being free of the demon takes relentless, daily, hard work.

A Portrait of a Piss Artist as a Young Girl

At the end of my last blog I told how following a drink binge five months into sobriety, I had gone straight to an AA meeting the next day.  I’ve not learned too much about AA just yet, I’ve attended a few meetings, shared, I’ve read The Big Book (albeit skim-read, if I’m honest, I find the biblical tone of the BB a bit wearing). I’ve read Russell Brand’s version of The 12 Steps (far more easy-read and if I get bored I can stare at his image on the cover for few minutes to cheer myself up) and I’ve chatted to members of The Fellowship.  Aside of AA I am learning a lot.

There have been two huge revelations for me: firstly, characteristics of my alcohol addiction are evident in lots of other areas of my life, I take everything I do to the nth degree. Secondly, if I’m going to follow a Step Program, it is going to require a lot of introspection.  When I realised these things, yesterday, I cried.  I cried solidly for an hour.  I am not a crier.  I’m not even a sniffler.  For me, I’m not sure I want to introspect, to “go there”. I’m a simpleton, I can’t drink so I don’t drink but the reality of that mantra has been that I’ve often been unhappy as a non-drinker, lost.  I don’t want to be unhappy and lost so maybe, unfortunately, “there” is where I need to “go”. 

I’m a drinker.  A lush.  Being a drinker has been a fundamental part of my identity since being a teenager.  I’ve wondered where it all began.  If there was silver bullet that drove me to drink.  The conclusion is that no, there wasn’t.  I’ve had my fair share of life issues but there was no one trigger that specifically tipped me over that boundary of social drinker to the dogged, determined, obsessive drinker that I became. For me it was probably a combination of things: my personality, my relentless desire to have fun, my tendency to take everything to the extreme, my constant need for distraction from boredom and my intense dislike of negative feelings and emotions – they were to be kept firmly squashed down.  I used an external power source – alcohol – to deal with life, to deal with the relentless boredom I find in a “normal” life.  What I do now know, is that power source is more trouble than it’s worth, time to find a new one.

To say I’ve always been an alcoholic is a bit harsh (unfair to me as a toddler) but I certainly always had an obsession with pubs and drink.  My parents weren’t big drinkers, we didn’t go to pubs as kids (I was a kid in the early 1980s, well before the heady days of Whacky Warehouse and kids menus in Wetherspoons), there was rarely alcohol in the house but I had a bizarre obsession with pubs.  I have an early memory of being involved in a school project to interview local shopkeepers, it was a council estate with a traditional row of shops and a 1950s brick-built pub in the middle.  I was about 8-years old and was ecstatic when I was allocated the pub landlord as my interview (a sign of things to come?).  We 8 year olds were dispatched to do our interviews (this was long before the days of Operation Yewtree), and I was beyond excited to finally get a glimpse inside this denizen of adulthood, to finally see behind the smoky windows, to understand what a “snug” was.  Even as a child I would cross the street to get a whiff of that salty mix of stale beer, fags and rancid carpet as a pub door swung open, I was desperate to get inside one.  So you can imagine my disappointment when the landlord wouldn’t let me in as “it was no place for a little girl” (I now know that to be true, that pub is a shithole), and I had to conduct the interview on the front steps.  My obsession rolled on.

I was always desperate to stop being a kid and become an adult.  I couldn’t wait to grow up and for me the biggest symbol of that shift from kid to adult was to drink.  I went to a posh secondary school, an all-girls-bitch fest.  It was a grammar school and I’d got in on merit, the only kid from my school, but with my rough council estate accent I stood out like a fly on a wedding cake.  Yet I always had lots of friends, I was clever and mouthy and from an early age found that I had the ability to make people laugh which always served me well.  But I always relied on these personality traits, never talked at length with my friends and hid everything beneath the jokes.  I never really fitted in, even after compulsory elocution lessons to take the edge off the accent.

As a teenager I started drinking.  From the off I was really, really, really good at it.  It took me ages to get properly pissed and I could hold it.  I loved that.  Wore it like a badge of honour.  I could hold my booze and what I really loved was how drinking threw off any inhibitions, I could be funnier, more confident – and I was a favourite with the boys, and I liked them (sounds awful, but it was true, sounds awful, but some things never change).  That behaviour too I now see as symptomatic of my addictive tendency.

 I had a mouth like an elocuted Tourette’s sufferer, drank and smoked liked a smoky pissed fish, I could hold my own amongst any crowd – I was popular, and in my twisted head, that was due to my drinking prowess.  I was fun, up for it Nikki and as the late 1980s rolled into the ladette culture of the 1990s I was “trendy”. To end this portrait of Nikki as a youngster, I went to university to study History.  On my first day I turned up at the halls armed with 24 bottles of wine that my aunt had given me (“to help make friends”), in a nutshell, when the wine ran out, I left.

Writing that mini history of my early drinking has made me realise that I got stuck in that thinking:  that drinking, holding your booze and being fun is symbolic of young and trendy.  But what gets you going when you’re 17, doesn’t, and indeed shouldn’t, be what gets you going at 45.  In reality the fun drinking changed from being fun to an intense, unhealthy, dogged, determined obsession.  As with everything I tend to do, I took it to the nth degree and spoiled it. It became a compulsion to drink to squash down every emotion and to drown out dealing with the realities of life and facing the decisions I’d made along the way.  Drinking strips from you your ability to deal with life, strips you of your natural personality and strips you of your self-respect.

What I struggle with now is that all those raw emotions have been unleashed and I don’t have my go-to tool to drown out the constant internal dialogue. I relinquished my power to deal with life the day I started drinking and now I live in constant negotiation with the idea of manageability over abstinence and that’s what makes me unhappy. I struggle to live happily with relentless boredom.  So I’m willing to give AA, a program for living, a go because I know, really, that it has to be abstinence because for me, once I start, it becomes very, very, very, very, very, very hard to stop.

Genesis: The Creation

Genesis: The Creation (Of a Northern Piss Can)

In The Beginning…

Well, maybe not In The Beginning but last Tuesday.

The decision was made within a minute. 

Maybe not a minute, a second.

Or, maybe not a second but weeks ago.

I shoot behind the bar, grab a bottle of wine, pour it into the glass and slurp the top in a massive gulp before I have chance to change my mind.  The staff are cheering, the customers are cheering, it feels fun, it feels naughty, I feel like “I’m back”. Things are going to notch up a gear tonight, don’t look back Nikki, this is what we do, you’ll be fine, back on the wagon tomorrow.

Within forty minutes I’ve drunk the bottle.

By 4am I’m awake.  Dry mouth, guilt, heart racing, anxiety. Back sleeping on the sofa: “What the hell  have I done?”

Here’s what I did…drank two bottles of wine within a couple of hours, a few shots, a few vodka & colas.  For twenty years there was nothing new about that.  A nightly occurrence, but I’d just been alcohol free for five months.  I’m gutted.

You see I’m an alcoholic.  An “enthusiastic drinker.”  A lover of wine, beer, spirits, cocktails, shots.  Even Cinzano, even Baileys, even Midori and even Crème de Menthe if need be for fuck’s sake.  You name it, I’ll drink it.  There was no occasion that I believed couldn’t be improved by the appropriate accompanying drink: wine mostly, but beer in the sunshine, rum in the Caribbean, Whisky in Scotland, Vodka in Russia (I’ve never been to Russia but I know full well that would be the first thing I’d have done).  You get the picture, a booze romantic.  A night out? Impossible without a drink, I mean who does that? Boring gits that’s who.  I drank heavily and steadily for more than twenty years, no breaks for babies (child free), no “Dry January” (usually made it to the 3rd), nothing could stop me, I loved it…and most of all I was good at it, it was my number one skill.

I loved it so much I made it my life.  I had a short-term career in local media and post-work drinks were nightly.  5pm soon became 10pm and I boozed hard, every night for six years. We’d visit the local pub and were the life and soul of the party, so much so that as his favourite customer, The Landlord and I fell (literally fell on a number of occasions) for each other, became an item and shortly moved in together. I quickly ended up giving up my own career to run the pub.  I was 25. It was a dream come true.  A career match made in heaven.  I was EXPECTED to drink.  Plus, I was sensible (in my head), no drinking during the day, just decent wine in the evenings. It was social.  Jeez, I’d won the alcoholic lottery! Happy days!

 However, social drinking is very different to what I ended up doing.  By the time I was in my forties I was polishing off 100 units a week and there was absolutely nothing social about it.  Necking wine like we were on the brink of war rationing, no counting how much I was drinking, there was an unlimited supply behind the bar, and as the boss, there was nobody to question me.  If it was not wine, it was rum or vodka.  Keep popping back to that optic, just looks like I’m serving a customer, nobody knows it’s for me, it looks like I’m just drinking cola.

Now here’s for the sad bit…this happened. Every. Single. Night.

 I was trapped.  Trapped in a cycle of despair where a typical day looked like this: wake up 3am, dry mouth, banging head, anxiety, retreat to the sitting room, to the sofa, don’t want to disturb The Landlord, watch TV, cry, nod off.  8am: wake up, hangover, tears, ‘this is going to stop, today’. 1pm, a few hours work under my belt, I’m ok, I’ve got this.  Nap by 3pm (sleeping patterns destroyed) and by 5pm?  Well I’m back! Fully functioning and doing a deal with myself over what to drink tonight.  Crazy deals, where my thoughts were along the lines of: stick to vodka, that’s “pure”, better for you (?!), drink just decent wine, just wine, no spirits, beer – it’s less alcoholic, will make me less hungover, I’ll start tomorrow… blah, blah, blah.  By 7pm, I’m drinking again.

I trod that hamster wheel every day for years. On the outside I appeared fine.  I like the analogy of a decent car.  When I say “decent” I don’t mean like a Porsche but maybe a high spec Fiat 500 that looks nice from the outside, yet when you open the bonnet you see that the engine is shagged and someone has left a dirty protest on the seats. 

A few years ago I knew something wasn’t right.  I was anxious, my confidence had plummeted, I was eating badly, had zero energy, was emotional, a careless partner, a rubbish boss.  Something had to change.  I was getting sloppy too.  As I pounded the booze harder and harder at work people were starting to notice.  You may kid yourself that you’re functioning normally with a bottle of wine and ten spirits inside you but you’re definitely not.  I looked online, did a few tests “Am I an Alcoholic?”  The answers always came back “Yes”, the only thing I didn’t do was drink in the mornings – but even that wasn’t true if I was at an airport for a holiday, a ferry terminal, early train for a day out with friends. 

Then came the sobriety blogs and memoirs, my goodness did I identify with all that!  For 5 more years I read that stuff, telling myself I’ll start tomorrow.  The positive in reading these is that I was building knowledge, a toolkit of understanding my skewed relationship with the poison and formulating a plan in how to tackle it.  I knew, deep down, that the booze had to go. What was the alternative?  Keep boozing myself into despair and ultimately an early grave?  But I was scared.  I didn’t believe I could do it and I wasn’t sure I wanted to.  I liked pissed me – even if those around me thought I was about as funny as a dose of chlamydia.

After a particularly heavy wedding weekend where I walked my sister up the aisle, pissed, at 1pm, I decided to give it a go.  No AA, no SMART just me, my knowledge and some tweeting with like-minded people in recovery.  I was sober for 5 months.  Life became unrecognizable: better sleep, I was kinder, more motivated, had more confidence – the compliments alone for how much better I looked could create a whole new addiction of their own – a better boss, the list was endless. Then after five months, after weeks of questioning all I had learned and wondering if I could become a “normal drinker” I tested myself.  That test was passed (or failed, depending on which way you look at it) and it reaffirmed my love of my sobriety but also confirmed that I can not do this alone.  So right the next day I attended AA.  I’d always been scathing of AA, believed it was reserved for the “real alcoholics”, not “enthusiastic drinkers” like me.  Yet after just one meeting I loved it.  So let’s see how this next chapter of my sobriety goes.