LYNX AFRICA

Sometime in the early 1990s:

Dear diary,

When a man sat next to me on the bus today, smelling of Lynx Africa, I became so overwhelmed with sadness and longing for Jamie Barton that I cried.  I love Jamie so much, why, why, why did he have to dump me? He was my reason for being, the love of my life.  Things will never be the same…

September 2020:

WhatsApp message to friend:

A customer came to the bar today reeking of Lynx Africa. That stench still to this day reminds me of that two-timing-twat Jamie Barton…

A smell, a song, a place.  They can evoke powerful responses rooted deep in our psyche.  As soon as we sense a scent or hear a melody we can be transported to a different place and time.  That, essentially, is our subconscious at work. We can’t do much about it, we don’t control it.  If you think of your mind as an iceberg, around 90% is below the surface, the subconscious, and in those icy depths are our beliefs and our emotions, formed over the course of our lives. What we can manipulate is the 10% glistening above the water: that is our logical and critical thinking which influences our responses and our reactions and we do this through educating ourselves.

A sniff of Lynx Africa still reminds me of Jamie Barton, I’ll probably never be able to change that.  What has changed over time however is my response.  At 17 I thought Jamie Barton was the love of my life and when I caught a whiff of his Lynx scent, I was reminded of him and how he’d left me and that made me sad.  But over the next few weeks and months I became educated in the realities of Jamie Barton and learned that he was far from being the love of my life never mind my reason for being.  For me, he was putting on an Oscar-winning role as the perfect boyfriend and I fell for the performance.  What I learned over the next few weeks and months however, was that he was a two-timing shit who had snogged half of my friends, and the more I learned, the more I became indifferent to the point of dislike of him.  So, although a sniff of Lynx Africa still reminds me of Jamie Barton my reaction in 2020 is totally different to that of teenage me.

What I’m attempting (probably very badly), to convey in this analogy is that for me, Jamie Barton is like wine and Lynx Africa is….well….for me….it’s anything I want it to be: a day with a ‘d’ in it, 5pm ‘wine o’clock’, friends turning up, a night out, a holiday.  They’re all things that trigger a ‘Jamie’ response.  I’m reminded that this is wine time.  The ‘Lynx event’ is so deeply ingrained with association with wine and drinking that it’s hard to shake off.  But, what I have learned, through using the Jamie Barton example, is that we can educate ourselves in the realities of what you perceived to be true.  In the wine case, that wine is a depressant doing an Oscar-winning role as a relaxant and go-to fun potion.  The reality is…it’s not. 

It’s a bit like birthday cake.  When you’re a kid, you can’t imagine a birthday without cake!  You’d feel deprived and hard-done-by if you didn’t get one.  But, as you grow up, you realise that cake ain’t the be all and end all of a birthday, you grow up and you’re not bothered. Things change, our association between birthdays and cake change.  What we have to work on now, is understanding that wine or alcohol isn’t a necessary accompaniment to the events we thought it was.  We’re not children, it’s time to grow.  

The good news is, that you can do it.  ‘Neuroplasticity’ is a real thing and we can train our brains to develop different responses to stimuli.  You can shift your subconscious beliefs.  This has happened on a collective level when it comes to smoking.  Many of us used to smoke in the ‘olden days’ before we understood the consequences to our health and it became the social no-no that it is now.  The perils of smoking are now so ingrained in our collective psyche that it is impossible to just light up with a cavalier attitude when you know all the risks.  Our collective and our individual subconscious and conscious minds have shifted, education has transformed our responses.  The problem with drinking and our collective psyche is that most people haven’t caught on to the dangers yet, so we have to be the pioneers, the mavericks, the path forgers.  

Why am I banging on about Lynx Africa and smoking?  As part of my commitment to my sobriety this October I intend on doing some hardcore work on shifting my subconscious beliefs and cementing my attitude towards what I thought were drinking ‘events.’

That is the next task for any of you interested in doing this with me: to start to list your beliefs about drinking, what you believe about it, what you believe it contributes to you…and then we can do the interesting part, revealing ‘the truth.’  I shall be posting my own beliefs over the next day or so.

Disclaimers:

Names have been changed, not to protect the two-timing shit that is Jamie Barton, don’t worry about him, karma had it’s day with that bastard, I saw him recently and he looked like an old giffer and had a front tooth missing – which I can only hope was sucked clean out of his head by one of mates he snogged. 

Actual, proper disclaimer: I don’t pretend to be an expert in neuroplasticity, conscious and subconscious beliefs or an expert in anything really…I’m just somebody who has used alcohol in an abusive way, abusive only to myself, and I want to do some work on undoing any positive associations I have with wine and if you think this helps and want to do the same then feel free to join me. You can even send me your own lists of beliefs if it helps…I’m not saying I’ll read them but….

A Fairytale: The Arse, The Witch and The Wardrobe

Once upon a time there was little girl.  Well, she wasn’t that little, she was about 16.  She was popular and clever and witty and had a decent face.  She had a big arse but she was learning to live with that.  She had a loving family and friends, had never been bullied or abused or even name-called and to top it all she lived in the glorious city of Manchester.  She had the world at her feet.  She was a very lucky girl indeed.  

One day, as the girl was getting ready to go out with her many friends, a witch called.  She didn’t look like a witch, she was blonde and wore a big dress (think Glenda from Wizard of Oz), she was kind and looked upon the girl and said:

“Well, haven’t you just got it all? You are a lucky girl.  I can help you make all of this even better, I can make you even more popular, even more funny and more confident, like you’ve not a care in the world*”

*she also added,“I can’t do anything about the giant arse I’m afraid, I’m a mere witch, but in time, big arses will become popular, there’s another witch on the way called Kim Kardashian.”

And with those words she left a potion in a little whisky shaped bottle.  The potion was called

“MAD DOG 2020, WATERMELON, 13%”

and there was a little tag around the neck of the bottle with ‘DRINK ME’ written in spidery letters.

The girl was good and obedient and who wouldn’t want to make all that she had even better?  She had been educated since being a nipper in the wonders that alcohol brought to the adult world.  She tasted the Watermelon 13% nectar and she liked it.  She went out with her friends and the words the witch had said were true, the girl giggled more and was confident (she puked Mad Dog 2020 Watermelon 13% too, but she quickly forgot that bit) and she was hooked.  Right there, from the beginning, she was hooked.

From that night on the girl never went out without her beloved potion.  She’d discovered that the witch had branches everywhere called “Bargain Booze” and you could get the potion for a couple of quid.  

“The witch was right!” the girl exclaimed.  

“This potion is the dogs’ bollocks, I can’t ever imagine life without it.”  

The girl loved it, with every bone of her body and she couldn’t get enough of it or how it made her feel and loved what it could do. It was magical, it could turn frogs into princes at the drop of hat and gave her the confidence to kiss a few of them.

To cut a long fairytale short, over the next 30 years the girl turned into a woman.  She still had her beloved potion by her side but she had learned that Mad Dog was for kids and she had progressed to wine (as that was good for you, they said so on the telly).  She had ditched Bargain Booze and had invested in her own alcohol emporium and worked alongside the potions every day and night where there was a magical, never ending supply and nobody to question her when she drank it because as owner of the emporium, the elves who worked there were a bit scared of her.  

Drinking the odd potion had progressed to drinking wine every night.  A small glass of potion had turned into two or even three whole bottles of wine, every night.  As the woman’s friends were jettisoned one by one as they couldn’t take the pace, the woman found herself befriended only by the witch.  The witch was now her only ally.  She had noticed that the witch didn’t look at all like Glenda-from-The-Wizard-of-Oz anymore, she was gnarly and ugly and tended only to call on the woman at 3am.  The woman assumed the witch lived in her bedroom wardrobe during the day.

After years of being woken by the witch at 3am the woman decided enough was enough.  She had slowly discovered that the magical wine elixir wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be and she was turning into a fearful, anxiety-ridden, tired, emotional, snappy, even-bigger-arsed witch herself.   She banged on the wardrobe door and said:

Come out witch, pack your bags and fuck off.”

The woman however was a realist, she understood that she still had to live and work in the alcohol emporium.  She was like Willy Wonka trying to give up chocolate: chocolate was all she knew and she liked the Oompah Loompahs and the chocolate sales gave her a good living (and she also found herself in the midst of a pandemic where it became illegal to buy chocolate after 10pm and so there was no way people were buying as much chocolate as they used to, never mind chocolate factories, so financially she was a bit glued to the emporium)  but she was determined to find a way.  She had educated herself in the realities of expunging the power of the potion from the kingdom of her subconscious and knew it would be difficult but…. she would do everything she could to free herself of the power of the potion and if she could, there, in the emporium, then surely, anyone could.

To be continued…

Pokemon Spongebob

It’s Sunday evening.  I’ve just finished a long day, part of a long week at work.  It’s been difficult: staff have resigned, it has been insanely busy considering we are smack in the middle of a social-distance-inducing pandemic, and I’m shattered.  Shattered, but sober.  What I really want to do is climb into bed but this short blog has just burst out of me like something from a sci-fi movie.  On my last blog I said how I wanted to do “the work” required to maintain long term sobriety, so here I am, tired and weary but so willing to find my way, to do the work.

It’s been a very constructive week.  The long working hours and difficulties with the pub would, in the past, have induced me to push the “fuck it” button and I’d have ‘rewarded’ my woes with wine. But not this week.  I’ve accepted that I have a drink problem and that once I start drinking, the Pringle factor is just too strong, once I start I can’t stop.  The relief this self-admission has provided is immense.  Too immense to describe in this short space so all I would say is this: it’s easy to understand that you need to accept your problem. As heavy drinkers trying to find sobriety we are not idiots, we are often booze-educated, we understand the concepts, the jargon and the winning formulas.  But, you can’t force it.  When it happens, it happens.  It takes test after test after test for most of us, until the tests just become too hard and the penny drops that this isn’t worth it.  The penny has clanged with a rewarding ‘thud’ for me.

Things feel different, easier than before when I’ve quit drinking, but I’m not resting as I know what can lurk around the corner so I’ve committed to doing “the work” to maintain this long term.  I’ve committed so long term, that this week I’ve cancelled a university course I was due to start in October.  I love my studies, but I want to love the sober life more, so I’m here, punching this keyboard with what I hope to be my work over the next year or so, making my obstacle my way forward.  I want to write a book about sobriety and am using these blogs as my aide memoir.  I want to write the book that I’d like to read; not necessarily just a story of finding sobriety but hard tips on how to find it.  Not so much a “do as I do” as “this is how I did…”

Anyway…Pokemon?  Chatting with Pikachu and friends this week has been my first piece of work.  What do I mean?  In her recent book “Glorious Rock Bottom”, Bryony Gordon talks of how, as part of her sobriety toolbox, she gathered soberites around her “like Pokemon”.  With that in mind, this week I dusted off my own set of Pokemon cards and set to work.  I’ve chatted and text with my own sober community, people in all stages of sobriety: those with years under their belt, a year or so and those starting out and struggling.  I want to become part of the sober world, engage with “my people’, it’s important.  Now I’m not learning at university I want to study at the feet of those who’ve cracked it.  I’ll be a good student.  I’m willing and I’m happy to absorb anything they can give me.  I’m soaking up top tips like a sponge.  I’m Spongebob Swat-pants. 

So that’s it.  A short entry but an important one.  This week I’ve spoken with people who are lost and people who’ve recovered themselves.  Sometimes we just need some structure, so here’s my own Step 1: find your tribe, your people, your Pokemon and soak ’em up like a sponge(bob)!

The Saga of a Serial Relapsing Maverick Lunatic: Chapter 1

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – you are the easiest person to fool” (RICHARD FEYNMAN)

You’d think the fact that I had a shelf full of well-thumbed sobriety books should have screamed to me that I have a drink problem.  

You’d think the fact that I know what acronyms like AA, SMART and ODAAT mean, should have screamed to me that I have a drink problem. 

You’d think the fact that I’ve attended AA meetings in the past should have screamed to me that I have a drink problem.   Unless you’re a vicar who has taken a wrong turn in the church hall, that doesn’t happen by accident.

You’d think the fact that all I think about is my relationship with booze should have screamed to me that I have drink problem.

But nothing screamed loud enough.  

If anything, especially the AA visits, they screamed that I must devote myself to proving that absolute opposite, that “I’m not one of these guys”.  My number one rule was that I’m not an “alcoholic”.  My number two rule was that we don’t even use the “A word”.  From what I could work out, these ‘A-people’ lived in a state of constant negotiation with the drink-devil and had swapped actually drinking every night to just talking about actually drinking every night.  I thought no thanks, instead, I’ll prove to myself and everyone around me that I’m not one of them (which, incidentally, I actually did every night). 

Lunatic thinking number one: if your life’s work is proving to yourself and everyone around you that you’re not a problem drinker then chances are, you probably are.  But, I kept trying to prove it anyway. Each time I have had a drink over the last 8 months has been an exercise for me in proving the validity of my relationship with the stuff.  Every time, I failed.  Correction: not every time, there were probably two occasions when I did drink “normally” and the whole thing didn’t descend into the usual chaos, but, if anything, these two occasions were more dangerous than all the others put together.  Why?  Because in my skewed mind, they were proof that I could be OK.  Their memories screamed louder than all the other occasions put together – the occasions that actually represented the reality of my drinking.  

I like proof, I like evidence, it’s the historian in me.  Why am I talking about being an historian?  Because, when I eventually got my degree, in History, it was my third attempt.  I had dropped out of two universities and finally achieved it through The Open University at home.  I got a first.  I never attended a single online lecture or ever spoke in person with a tutor.  This was evidence (to me) that I’m smart*, I’m an auto-didact, I teach myself and do things my way.  I applied all these same tactics to my drinking education.  I didn’t want to follow the traditional path, I wanted to teach myself.  I’ve done things ‘my way’ before, the ‘evidence’ is there.  

*Please do not see this statement as evidence of arrogance.  I may be smart but I’m also a bloody idiot.

I’ve also lost a lot of weight before.  By a lot of weight, I mean a lot.  30lbs.  Did I attend a slimming group?  Of course not, I’m a maverick, I do things my way.  I taught myself what to eat and I taught myself to cook healthy meals.  Incidentally, I lost all that weight when I stopped drinking for 8 months last year, did I correlate the two?  Of course not.  It was all because I’d done it my way!  Didn’t I tell you, I’m a maverick?  

So when it came to drinking, I wanted to do things my way.  I didn’t believe that a program for life or to do things the traditional way was for me (despite the evidence that my own program for life wasn’t going that well).  The truth is I thought I was bit too smart for a program.  I realise now that I’m anything but. With all the predictability that proceeds a statement like “I’m a smart-arsed maverick, I do things my way,” I failed.  Yet…I’ve never given up.  That’s the important part.  I’m here, again, putting it all out there for all to see.  It’s much like getting my degree or losing weight, just because you don’t follow the traditional methods or achieve your aim first time around doesn’t mean it won’t happen.  You keep trying. 

Because I have educated myself in the narrative of sobriety and because I know what ODAAT and SMART stands for, I am also aware that I’m literally drowning in confirmation bias.  I cherry pick occasions that are evidential to me that I can do things my own way and that I’m not like everyone else.  Last year I gave up drinking for eight months.  Of course I didn’t follow a program or do anything else my fellow soberists engaged in.  They all told me I was doomed to fail long term, I didn’t believe them. Out of sheer bloody mindedness I lasted the eight months but they were right, I was doomed to fail as despite all the sobriety speak, I fundamentally believed that I was different, that my circumstances were different and that I could prove them all wrong by demonstrating how different I was by becoming master of the beast.  I would become the elusive normal drinker.  

Again, with all the predictability of a self proclaimed ‘individual-nobody-is quite-like-me-maverick’, I failed!  I can laugh about it now, the audacity and arrogance of what I set out to prove.  People in recovery talk a lot about ego, I trashed this talk as part of what I interpreted as the ‘namby pamby’ element of sobering up.  The meetings, the strangers trying to hug you, it all made me feel a bit queasy.  What I wanted was a hard, fast solution.  I wanted a magic bullet.  What I really wanted was to drink as much as I like whenever I like, the magic bullet having eradicated the want.  What my smart, egotistical brain drastically failed to register was that there is no bullet, you have to do the work, the graft, and part of that is understanding and engaging in the namby pamby. 

Maverick, egotistical idiot, arrogant cow, serial relapser, problem drinker, alcoholic – who cares how we term it?  I prefer bloody lunatic.  But then that’s me, talking about me, I get all uppity about terminology yet have no problem referring to myself in anything but a derogative term.  I’d never talk to anyone else that way, but we’re allowed to do it to ourselves.  That’s the rule. But, one thing I am not is a quitter.  I will never give up trying and I will get there in the end.  

I’m a fan of Stoicism (bet you never saw that coming); Ryan Holiday, in his book of the same name, talks of The Obstacle Is The Way: embrace your obstacle and make it your life work.  The penny has finally dropped for me, I have a problem and I’ve reached exhaustion point in trying to prove otherwise.  So I embrace it.  I’m going to make The Obstacle my life work and I’m going to document it.  When you read as many sobriety memoirs as I have, you kind of get to know what the ending is before you even begin: girl starts drinking, likes it too much, sees the light, has never looked back.  The reason I’m going to document my sobriety here is that who knows the end?  This is a real time record and its for me and for all of us serial relapsing maverick lunatics who will never give up on giving up.  

This is the first chapter in my new Saga of a Lunatic.  The work starts now.  I’ll keep you posted.  

COVID Camino

They say “The Camino finds You.” If you’ve never heard of The Camino de Santiago, it’s essentially a traditional pilgrimage across northern Spain, spanning anything from 100km, to the destination of the Cathedral at Santiago de Compostela. Walking The Camino Frances (800km) has been an ambition of mine for many years, long before it was made popular in the movie ‘The Way’, I’d been aware of the pilgrimage since my teenage years as a Medieval history student.

Over the last year or so I’d been sought by the Camino, hooked into the idea of doing it, not so much for the historical pilgrimage, the places of interest, the camaraderie and meeting new people (and certainly not for the ‘challenge’ of sleeping in communal albergue dorms), but for the opportunity I thought it offered at decluttering my mind. To spend time in pure solitude, perhaps enduring discomfort, both mental and physical, ultimately to see how I ‘came out at the other side.’ I had struggled on and off with whether or not I was an alcoholic, a problem drinker at the least, and I had planned on walking at least part of The Camino in autumn 2020. I saw it as an opportunity to indulge myself purely in thought, to finally ‘think out’ all the jumble tumble of thoughts whirring around my mind. The plan was to put the internal dialogues out there and literally walk/wear them out. Or at least discover where my opinions stand.

When the Coronavirus pandemic struck in March 2020 I quickly realised that any plans for travel for the remains of the year were pretty unlikely. My Camino plans were trashed for the time being, as were any plans…for anything really, as it turns out that as UK went into lockdown, even a trip to Tesco became something of an expedition. My daily existence was frozen. I couldn’t go out, I was off work and in a kind of limbo as what to do.* I’m incredibly fortunate that my own pub business is in good shape and if any pub was going to survive long term, we were in as good a position as we could be to be one of them. When Boris Johnson announced that pubs wouldn’t be re-opening until at least July 4th I also then knew that I had a rough time frame to work with.

*I would at this point mention that I really wasn’t and am not, moaning about this. There were and are people out there FAR worse off than I, having to go out on the Covid front line every day. I had it easy.

So with a rough date for re-opening and having done all the jobs many of us have used our lock down time doing – painting rooms, renovating furniture, my sock drawer is a work of Japanese contemporary art nowadays FFS – contradictorily, lockdown meant I suddenly was confronted with a strange kind of imposed freedom. I knew I had around five weeks to occupy before I’d have to start on the intricacies of re-opening the pub. Each day I found myself thinking “What would you really LIKE to do today?” and, albeit within the restrictions of lockdown, I kept getting the same answer: “I’d like to walk my Camino. I want to walk. I want to clear out ALL these myriad thoughts in my head and, ultimately, decide where I stand on my drinking”. Oh Ok, that’s easy enough. Off you go.

So that’s what I did.

For five weeks I walked. I walked every day. No music, no audio books, no podcasts. No distractions. Just me, my feet – and my scary head.

Now, please don’t think of this as either:

  1. I’ve morphed into Forrest Gump.
  2. I did a strange, Medieval-style pilgrimage, barefoot and living off berries, rain water and the kindness of strangers/monks. That would be a bizarre thing to do around suburban Manchester at the best of times.
  3. – because I haven’t and it wasn’t.

In fact, especially for those of you that may have actually walked The Camino then you may be wondering how on earth I can compare what I did to that challenge. So I invite you to make your own conclusion:

  1. In total, over five weeks, I walked a total of 543km. The Camino Frances is 800km, usually walked over 4 weeks, but, bear in mind I am a not-particularly-physically-fit 45 year old, generously-arsed woman.
  2. The scenery I encountered can only be described as “same-ish” and “suburban” in that walking consisted daily of being dropped off at a location usually around 15-20km from home and I walked back. NOTE: there was the odd exception to this when I would drive out to a local walking trail or beauty spot, these included sections of the Cheshire Sandstone Trail and parts of the Peak District, but as we were under various stages of lockdown, these were only a handful of occasions.
  3. Even if I had stumbled across something interesting, I wouldn’t have been able to explore anyway as, because I chose to do this walking challenge during lockdown, everything was…locked. Closed. That includes local churches and places of historical interest. NOTE: When I say everything was closed, I mean everything. That included public toilets which meant that my walks were mainly limited to around 15km per session as I quickly learned that was about the limit at which my 45 year old bladder could hold out, walking mainly on pathways, lanes, avenues and alleyways (song anyone?), meant there was no way I could just ‘go behind a bush’ as said bush would invariably be in someone’s garden. I did however, on a number of occasions, walk home, use loo and the ever-compliant Landlord would then drop me off again to continue some daily mileage. In fact, the Landlord was always happy to drop me off at some remote location any time of day, anyone could be mistaken for thinking he preferred me not being at home? Yes, he was very helpful. The only task he was not so keen on, in fact flatly refused to do, was bathe my feet, despite the fact that I repeatedly told him that this was a standard offer for a walk-weary pilgrim. My requests were met with a raised eyebrow at best and “I aint going anywhere near your sweaty trotters” at worst.
  4. I didn’t speak to anyone when out walking. By comparison, The Camino can be a jostled route, busy with pilgrims comparing rucksack weights and comparing blisters (I imagine, having never actually walked it). I was certainly never asked such questions, I didn’t speak to anyone, aside of tiny chit-chat with the whipper-snappers who worked in local shops when paying for bottles of water. Incidentally, to add insult to mundanity, it was often the same shop.
  5. The Camino strips life down to it’s basics: you rise, breakfast, walk, eat, sleep. That’s pretty much what I did each day. Whilst I often didn’t walk the requirements to hit 800km in 4 weeks, I was constrained, as mentioned, by the limited capability of my bladder and the fact that we were under lockdown, I walked usually for around 4 hours each day. To add to the experience however, I barely watched any TV, no social media, no contact with friends and family (aside of the very basics and one particular Saturday around one week in when I frantically messaged just about everyone I know), and spent my evenings painting (portraits, pretty pictures) and reading. It was life about as basic as I could make it under the circumstances.

Now, I’m aware that this may all sound very odd. It probably was. At the time however, it felt right. It actually felt pretty hardcore. I spent one whole afternoon selling myself the idea that this was the Vipassana Meditation version of Camino. Vipassana is an ultra-orthodox, stripped down, intensive Buddhist meditation technique. Remove the decorated temples, fancy bells and meditative mantras, Vipassana is the practice of just sitting and purely regarding your mind, witnessing your thoughts and their patterns but allowing nothing to remove you from your seat. I sold myself the idea that I was doing a similar thing, I was walking The Camino without the nice bits, no lovely scenery, no camaraderie, no Spanish sunshine, it was just the walking. Purely putting one foot in front of the other each day and often enduring the physical discomfort of your bones not to mention the mental wrestling with your thoughts. I leave you to make your judgement on that somewhat far fetched comparison.

On the subject of thoughts, that was always the goal of my Camino. To see what came out of the other side. To untangle the intricate web of thoughts and iron it all out. Expose it all. Well, here’s the thing, prepare to be underwhelmed, the conclusion was: I am not nearly as thought-heavy and interesting as I thought I was. The constant jumble of thoughts it turns out, is actually more resonant of a juke box playing the same old tracks over and over. It got to the point where I thought “here we go, I know this one…ooh, yeah, no change in that then, yep, and here goes track two…” as the thoughts came out day after day almost in the same order like a never ending well played album where you find yourself humming the next song whilst the current one is still playing. After a couple of weeks just thinking the same crap every day (and you quickly break down that it is mainly crap), it almost breaks you. You think to yourself “Jeez, is this it? Is this REALLY all you have going around your head?” It’s almost funny if it wasn’t so disappointing.

Conclusions:

  1. Maybe to others who have walked Camino de Santiago, I have audacity in using it as a comparison to what I did. I literally just covered (some of) the mileage and I’m totally missing the point. The Camino is about the whole experience, be that spiritual, historical, physical or other, it is about the relative companionship of others undergoing the same journey to the same destination. Who knows, I haven’t actually done it. BUT, I would stress that the whole point of Camino is to experience it your own way.
  2. Walking and enforced solitude is a fabulous meditative therapy. NOTE: so long as said solitude is self-enforced, voluntary, I’m not talking false imprisonment or solitary confinement here.
  3. I’m not nearly as interesting as thought I was. Neither am as broken as I thought.
  4. In relation to the ever-present “Am I an alcoholic? A problem drinker? Do I need to abstain?” the truth is that I’m none-the-wiser. What I did learn is that comparison is the thief of joy. You can compare yourself to a thousand other recovery stories (and if you are a connoisseur of the sobriety memoir like I am then you may have done this), but it doesn’t mean that that is you. You have to find your own way and be comfortable living with it. It is a highly personal process. Today I am happy not drinking, who knows what will happen tomorrow. We are what we are today only, our lives are a current event, not a tangible object. We will only know if we ‘were truly happy’ on our death bed as that is the only day that we can objectively look back. If you’re comfortable with your decisions today and they do you no harm then go with it.

On that happy thought…Buen Camino 🙂

Last thought…I opened this with “they say that The Camino finds you”. Maybe it did find me. I will definitely walk the actual route. I’ve just remembered something else I heard… “ayahuasca finds you” – as I’m so obviously uninteresting on this plane of consciousness, I’m wondering if it should seek me out…

Dates and Numbers

April 29th 2019

At 9:30pm, feeling desperate, lonely and scared I tweeted the following:

“Day 1.  I’ve chosen not to drink.  This has been a long time coming.  25 years hard drinking virtually every night with no break longer than 3 weeks.  Thing have to change.  I’ll need help.  I’m a Pub Landlady.”

That was a year ago today.  A year since my first serious attempt at giving up my ‘beloved’ wine.  The day when I turned months, if not years, of intentions into action.  Today I should be celebrating a whole year without booze! I’m not.  Before you go any further, this is not a total success story epitomised in a picture of me, like some competition weight loss winner finally standing in one leg of her old jeans, holding out the waistband for all to see how far she’s come.  But…I am celebrating, because I have come so far and in truth am a completely different person to last year.

I see lots of inspiring posts talking about numbers: 1 day, 1 month, 1 year, since a last drink, it’s brilliant stuff.  When I first seriously quit I loved counting the days ticking them off feeling, rightly so, proud of myself.  But as the days mounted, so did the pressure and just counting days wasn’t enough.  Giving up drinking is the start and I wasn’t becoming the contented, rounded individual I’d envisaged.  Where would it all end anyway?….“Here Lieth Nikki, she didn’t drink for 14,327 days”. That smacked too much of having a life denoted only by alcoholism and I didn’t like that, didn’t like that at all.  We are so much more than just an alcoholic, we are defined by lots of different things, at different times of our life and to different people. 

Following a particularly heavy boozing weekend at a wedding (heavy even for my standards) I made a decision.  I was desperate, hungover, worried, anxious and above all I was tired.  Not just physically, but mentally exhausted.  Tired of the constant internal dialogue of should I drink, shouldn’t I drink, what should I drink.  Relentless.  I stopped completely for six months.  

But the old nagging doubts started to creep back in.  The Wine Witch came calling regularly, filling my head with negativity about my decision to this “FOREVER?  Like really?  Forever?”  The Wine Witch is akin to an abusive partner, one who seems to promise fun and release from boredom, and who does to an extent, but there is a HUGE caveat: he also fills you with self-loathing, regret and anxiety.  The thing about this relationship is that you start as the exciting prospect yet by the end you are the desperate and needy one. Nothing attractive about that.  When I started drinking again I had forgotten all ‘his’ bad sides and fell for the promise of one last fling, that all would be different this time.  What I learned was, ‘he’ hadn’t changed a bit.  

So, April 29th, not necessarily my sober date, in all honesty I can’t remember the date of my last drink.  It was sometime in March.  When the reality of Covid 19 and prospect of losing my livelihood hit home I hit the bottle. But it wasn’t carnage.  I didn’t even enjoy it.  I’m happy that I can’t remember the actual date as it removes the pressure of the numbers, but April 29th is always etched in my memory as my sobriety journey date.  It was when my serious attempt to quit started and I reckon I have had more than 320 sober days out of the last 366 (it’s been a leap year, alcohol didn’t befuddle my brain so much that I don’t know how many days are in a year).  One thing that has happened is that since being off work due to Covid, I have not even thought about drinking.  They say that drinking is a symptom of the thinking and most of my drinking was done at work.  Come to think of it, I rarely used to drink on days off as I didn’t want to waste them.

April 29th 2019, outwardly I appeared to have a decent life: 44, nice partner, nice home, ran a successful business that afforded me time to do my own things and allowed me to indulge my passion for travel with a good half dozen trips around the globe each year.  But, inwardly was totally different, I hated my job and the six trips abroad each year which I saw as “escape” from my daily life still left 44 weeks annually living my ‘real life’.  What Covid has done is remove the root cause of the drinking and so the symptom has gone.  A year of trying everything from attending AA, working The Steps, getting help, getting a mentor… Covid has serendipitously been the revelation and the remedy to one woman’s battle with the Wine Witch.  As I sat there this day last year pondering how I was going to armour myself, I would never have seen that coming.

This blog has been rushed.  I had so many plans to tell you about what I have discovered over the last year and ALL of those changed today as I sat to write this as sometimes you just make self-discoveries as you write.  It is an organic process.  I would say that my sober journey this year has also been an organic process and the person writing this now is ultimately far happier than the one writing that tweet this time last year.  This is not the traditional story of “Woman discovers wine actually isn’t very good for her, she gives up, it’s hard but she manages it and has never looked back, happy ever after” but I would say that this is a story of “happier ever after” and what I really want to get across is NEVER give up on giving up, it may not be straightforward, you may not know or count the days, but what you definitely don’t know is what lies ahead, so go with it, you CAN get there, your own way. 

If…

If…

If only…

If only I was taller…it’s being this short (5ft) that makes me unhappy, it’s embarrassing having to ask for things off high shelves in the supermarket, to have your feet swinging above the ground when sitting on a chair, like a toddler on a potty.

If only I was thinner…small bottom = direct correlation to happiness, surely?

If only I had a new carpet in the sitting room…I need a new carpet, this current scruffy rug is making me miserable.

If only I had a new laptop…this old one is outdated, I NEED a new one, I need a MacBook…a MacBook, that would make me happy…happier…

Absolute verbatim examples of the kind of crap that goes around my head.  Talk about being a victim of your own self-created, non-existent-in-the-real-world misery!  Reading back on these examples is not only embarrassing, it’s certifiably insane.  Trying to find ‘happiness’ from ‘things’, we all know it doesn’t work.  We get the prized ‘thing’, holding it above our heads like a scene from The Lion King, and within days (if not minutes), the momentary ecstasy has been usurped by the ‘need’ for the next ‘thing.’ It reminds me of when I was drinking, the initial first drink relieved the incessant internal dialogue of “should I, shouldn’t I” which, as soon as you had given in to that first one, was quickly superseded by anxiety over where the next one was coming from and was eventually replaced with “I wish I hadn’t”.  

But being happy is surely the ultimate life goal?  Don’t we put ourselves through the challenges of life in order to make ourselves happier?  The tiny Kingdom of Bhutan, tucked away in the Himalyas between China and India, is known worldwide for its innovative Gross National Happiness Index, a measurement tool used to incentivise state policies that increase the well-being of its people.  When I read this I wondered what such state policies could be?  National access to MacBooks?  Average heights for women above 5ft 5? A CarpetRight on every corner? Free access to beautiful carpets? In my research for happy nations I stumbled across Finland (not literally, you don’t stumble across a country – actually, on second thoughts, that’s not strictly true, as someone who has stumbled, drunk, around many a country), Finland was allegedly the happiest nation on earth.  

I liked the sound of The Finns, who so pride themselves on their stoicism that they have a word for their national ‘grit’: “Sisu,” and who have been named the happiest people in the world for the third year in a row.  So, what was their secret?  The editor of the Happiness Report reckons that the Finns’ happiness stems from Trust.  They trust each other, care about each other and that’s what fundamentally makes for a better life.  

It reminded me of when I was at most recently at my happiest.  Last year to be precise, for six months between April and October.  I was fundamentally happier than I’ve been for a long time.  The reason?  I’d stopped drinking, completely.  Not drinking per se didn’t make me happier, it was bloody hard, especially at first and there were lots of times of anxiety, upset, questioning of whether or not I needed to totally abstain, feeling uncomfortable in situations, tears, new addictions came to the fore…you name it, it happened.  But one huge, unforeseen benefit was the ability to trust myself again.  

When you have been caning the booze, for twenty-odd years, like I was, it is not without consequence. Alcohol destroys your natural confidence and that, coupled with endless failed attempts at packing it in, making a fool of yourself in public, hiding your problem, feeling like an idiot most of the time, erodes your self-belief and your self-worth.  When I gave up last year, I learned to trust myself again, I was beyond happy that I could be relied upon for actually achieving something I set out to do. 

Not drinking didn’t of its own volition make me happier.  It took hard work and some very unhappy days, but I see it as a trade-off.  A trade-off between anxiety, sleepless nights, self-doubt, self-deprecation and ultimately trading your life goals of happiness for momentary ‘fun’.  Fun and happiness are not the same.  Achieving something you set out do, enjoying the unforeseen benefits of abstinence: looking after yourself, having deeper, more authentic relationships and friendships, having trust in yourself and those around you, trusting your own decisions knowing they are made in the full light of a sober brain, these are the things that can make you happier. 

My own sobriety story has not been an all-out success.  But I’m taking a leaf out of the Finns’ book and will carry on with “Sisu”, never giving up in my attempt at giving up, for good.  At the moment it is going well but I know that hard times will come again so as a kind of Bhutanese-Finn hybrid I build my own nation of happiness using my sobriety as the key definer of my own Happiness Index.  

Embracing Change in Unprecedented Times

Strange times. Unprecedented.

‘Unprecedented,’ a word that has been used an unprecedented number of times recently in the news and in our conversations. It’s a time for new words to our vocabulary, or if not new, then words that were unusual in times B.C (by B.C I mean Before Covid). “Herd Immunity”, “Self-Isolation”, ‘Furlough”, “Pandemic” and of course “Coronavirus”. Pandemic is a word I hadn’t used since my time as a History student and was in relation to the likes of The Great Plague or The Spanish Flu. One thing I did learn as a historian was that pandemics have always been great agents of change.

Change it would seem is possible. Things we deemed essential to modern life and impossible to stop, have stopped. Planes are not flying, children are off school, shops are closed, pubs are closed – my own pub is closed. Everything I deemed as normal life has shifted enormously. Now, I’m a looooooong way off suggesting that this episode of history is a positive thing, but one thing I am open to is the possibility of permanent change. I’ve already learned that I am in no rush to get to back to the stressful demands of my B.C life. I’m worried of course, the same worries many of us have at the moment about my family, my livelihood, finances…but…alongside the uncertainty and the worry I’m embracing the fact that I, along with everyone else, can not control what it is going to happen.

The fight against Covid19 is not like war in the sense of Kitchener’s rousing ‘Your Country Needs You.’ All we are required to do is stay at home. I know that can be difficult but it is not like we are being ripped from our families and asked to live in trenches for four years. All we have to do is hunker down, settle, watch TV (not overdose on the news however), and keep in contact with our nearest and dearest, albeit on a screen. Yet I feel a huge pressure to do something life changing and constructive with this time, and I know that this is not just me, many of us seem to think this unforeseen break from work should be used to do something huge.

I’ve seen comments about how Shakespeare wrote King Lear (or it may have been Macbeth, or Othello, or Anthony and Cleopatra…I can’t remember), when isolating against plague. No pressure there then. But Shakespeare was holed up in his country retreat, no 24-hour rolling news, no daily Zoom meetings or WhatsApp family roll calls (I didn’t even know I had an aunt Mary until this). It was different, so back off with the self pressure. However, talking of literature, Marquez’s ‘Love in the time of Cholera’ keeps popping into my head, not for the content of the story so much as the title, as I want to launch my own ‘Love in the time of Coronavirus.’

I have made a decision to use this time not as an opportunity to create my Magnum Opus, but to reaffirm my own love story: with sobriety. As a serial relapsing alcoholic, albeit not had a drink for a few months now and who has had three times as many sober days than drinking for nearly a year, I have always given myself reasons to believe that giving up drinking ‘for life’ is too difficult: it’s not the right time, I work in the alcohol industry, I’m surrounded by booze all day, my friends don’t support my decision and I like my social life too much. Always a reason. Covid19 has suddenly and inadvertently meant that the distractions I perceived as detrimental to my long term recovery have disappeared.

So, it is time to create my own ‘Love in the time of Coronavirus’, I am making a commitment, like a marriage, to sobriety. You don’t enter into a marriage (I’m saying this purely speculatively by the way, being a spinster), thinking that ‘this won’t last.’ It takes commitment, it takes faith and you can’t go running for the wine aisle every time things get rocky. It’s a commitment for life, for better, for worse. I am embracing this time as my once lifetime opportunity to let my neurological pathways stand a chance at rewiring themselves and to concentrate fully and remind myself fully of all the reasons why I love the sober life, through thick and thin.

Pandemics: agents for great change. Unexpected time on our hands, the desire to do something life changing and constructive. If you really want to do your ‘Your Country Needs You’ bit, keep yourself as healthy as possible. It’s time to take responsibility for ourselves and for our health as best we can and if that includes giving up alcohol, embrace this opportunity for change, for as demonstrated, change can happen, no planes in the sky, no shops open, the unimaginable is possible. Being asked to stay at home, no distractions or usual opportunities/excuses to fall off the wagon. I am using this period as an opportunity to make a solid commitment to myself, and to the NHS, that I will do my best to keep myself healthy. The biggest threat to my health was always my drinking so that commitment is that I won’t drink.

We are in this pandemic together and together we shall overcome it. It reminds me of my years struggling with alcoholism. I learned that difficult dichotomy that it is very difficult to tackle it alone, yet only I can do it. Connecting with those going through the same process helps, so if you want to look back on The Great Plague of 2020 and ask yourself what you did, why not reach out, ask for help, say hi, and then you can say that you did your best to create or reaffirm your healthier, alcohol free life.

A Letter

In these days of social media saturation it can be easy for us to feel disappointed. Disappointed that we don’t have the right accoutrements for the ‘right’ life: don’t visit the right restaurants, live in the right house, take the right holidays, wear the right clothes, you know the drill. The danger of comparison and succumbing to the green eyed monster. If you were to actually believe the carefully constructed glimpses of life crap you see on Instagram it would be enough to drive you to drink.

To be honest, I’ve never given a shit about any of that life comparison stuff. Have confidence in your own taste has always been my motto, even though that ‘taste’ was mainly towards wine. However, recently I’ve been feeling disappointed. Not with my life status, but in my progression with my sobriety.

If you have read my previous blogs you will know that I packed in a long and tumultuous drinking career on 29th April 2019 – and I did this alone. By alone I mean that I did not follow a Recovery Program or attend A.A, but what I did do was engage with some like-minded people on social media who were going through the same process and they became vital in keeping me on track. And it worked. Or at least it worked right up until I launched myself off the wagon towards the end of the year. The upshot of that was two-fold, I felt like I’d let my peers down, that they had wasted their time with me, and I felt that I was no longer entitled to feel the pride I had before.

I was down in the dumps, on a real Debbie-Downer. Even though I’ve since given up drinking again (I’ve not touched a drop this year), I still felt like I didn’t quite ‘get it’, that I was an imposter amongst the soberites in my circle and that I was failing where my peers were succeeding. Where did this come from? This mad comparison? I suddenly realised that had ‘me’ of a year ago been told that she had finally started to control her relationship with alcohol and had gone more than three quarters of a year with just a few drinks, well, she would have never believed it! So I decided to tell her – to tell myself just exactly what I’ve achieved….so I wrote myself a letter:

Dear TPL,

I know you’re scared. Terrified. I know that you don’t know what to do. Well, you do know what you need to do, but you don’t believe for a second that you can. You know what I’m talking about. That thing that occupies your every waking moment, that mad cycle that you are trapped in that when you are not thinking about how you need to give up wine, you are thinking of how to get it, how to hide it, how to drink it.

Well, are you sitting down? You’re never going to believe this. This year…this year….this year for you are going to kick the habit. You are going to stop drinking. You are going to stop drinking for nearly six months!!! I know!!! Sounds mad doesn’t it? You – you who has not gone more than 27 days without a drink in nearly 25 years (remember that 27 days, in 2013?) will finally get the demon under control.

And the best part of this, you are never going to believe the things that will happen as a result of that decision…so here’s a glimpse…

  • Firstly, you are going to have an affair. A real love thang. Now, don’t get too excited, this isn’t a hottie, this love affair is with yourself. For the first time in a long time you learn to like yourself, to trust yourself, to believe in your own reliability. For the first time in years you have actually accomplished something you set out to do – and it is a real achievement. It is difficult, so hard at first (and you knew it was going to be hard, you’ve read all the books, you know what to expect), but actually doing it? Yes, it’s difficult but you do it – and you’re proud of that, so proud you spout about it all day long on Twitter, but you should be proud, you’ve proved yourself.
  • Your sleep is infinitely better. The 3am Wine-Witch-Wake-Up-Call has gone. The improved sleep means you are far more able to deal with the days. Life is clearer, better, brighter.
  • You’re lighter – not just emotionally, but physically. All those empty calories in the wine you were pounding that you know were wreaking havoc with the size of your arse, well when they’re gone, you shrink, literally.
  • You’re fitter – this year you will climb mountains, swim miles, walk miles and miles, run, buy a bicycle and ride every day (or ride whilst the sun is shining anyway, but ODAAT and all that…ODAAT? You probably don’t know what that means, you will learn a whole new host of jargon and acronyms this year)
  • You go on holidays and don’t drink.
  • You go on holidays and remember them when you get home.
  • You look better – your skin is glowing and you get compliments, lots of compliments (which in truth cause a whole new addiction of their own, but it’s a nice one).
  • Your relationships are deeper and more authentic, remove the drink and you can really get to know people, and you do. Now, one relationship does suffer, but don’t worry it will be ok, some of those closest to you will struggle with your decisions as they literally mourn the old you, it’s painful to watch, but….but it has to be done.

So, TPL do you see where this is going. What you do this year is amazing. Life changing. There is nothing to fear. It is a huge thing that lots of people set out to do and don’t manage it – but YOU DO!

You have it all to look forward to.

And the best part? You really enjoy it.

As a quick add on, as if these incentives weren’t enough these things happen too:

  • You make a load of new contacts through your documentation of your recovery on social media, lifelong friends.
  • You get ASKED to write blogs
  • Some of your favourite writers start following you
  • And
  • And
  • and
  • and….
  • Russell Brand retweets some of your comments – I knew that would be the clincher!! 🙂

THIS is what awaits you. What are YOU waiting for?

Love TPL xxx

P.S Don’t worry too much about the falling off the wagon bit, you develop enough skills and knowledge this year to climb right back on, but, if time travel does exist and you can see this before you start your recovery: DON’T go out on 30th October…. just saying.

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.