19 Lessons in 19 years
We are all surrounded by echoes from our past. We may not be able to see them, but they are there — in our behavior, our beliefs and our consequences. Echoes are the unresolved issues or trauma that show up in our present. We all have them. And we all have a choice in how we deal with them. They are, for want of a better word our “stuff,” — our work that we have to deal with.
There are only two kinds of people in this world: those who are dealing with their “stuff” and those who are not. You can spot the difference. Our behavior is merely an outward expression of our inner feelings. We behave how we feel, and our behavior is shaped by our echoes.
Were you told, or did you feel like, you were worthless when you were small? If you were, that’s going to show up all the time in your romantic relationships.
Was your home life as a child unsettled or stressful? Was there arguing or uncertainty? That’s going to appear in your choices as an adult.
Did you experience some kind of trauma when you were younger? Were you in abused in some way? That’s showing up … well, just about everywhere, but most certainly in all your relationships.
These are all echoes. And the ones that affect us the most are the ones that keep echoing down from childhood.
Fear and drinking
On May 2nd, 2019, I celebrate 19 years of continuous sobriety. This did not come easy. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done and I made some big mistakes along the way. But through these mistakes, I learned some vital lessons that have helped me stay sober and become the best version of myself that I'm capable of being.
Long-term recovery means you never stop learning and growing. Here are the things that have helped me learn and grow the most....
1. Just when you think you’ve nailed it…..
More than once I’ve thought “I’ve got this!” “I know everything there is to know about recovery and addiction.” “I’ve dealt with all my issues … I don’t really need to do any more work on myself.” Yep, that usually happens right before I fall flat on my arse.
2. The growth never stops.
Ever. I mean, like never, ever stops. It smoothes out a lot and things are definitely less bumpy. But there is always more to know, and if you think you know all there is to know, then see above.
3. We teach other people how to treat us.
My behavior will instruct you on whether you can walk all over me, abuse me, or hurt me. Instead, I can teach you how to treat me, with the boundaries I protect and by saying what I mean.
4. Say what you mean, mean what you say.
People do not need to hear me waffling on about my story, they do not need excuses, they generally just need a truthful yes or no. My life became so much calmer when I learned how to do this.
The Relationship Fix
There’s something about a drink problem that twists all our emotions and makes the unpleasant ones dominant in us. Especially fear. We seem to take fear to a whole new level, much more than ordinary people do. It’s like I was born frightened and my whole life has been a reaction to the fear. None of my fears were real, they were always imagined — but they seemed real to me and they followed me wherever I went. It was like a cancer of the mind, spreading and destroying everything in its path.
When I was drinking, my fear crippled me. I lived in blind terror every day. Everything was frightening for me. Other people terrified me. I felt so worthless in their eyes and was sure they would see any minute what a despicable human being I was and discard me. At any given time I couldn’t really explain what I was frightened of. I just knew that I was scared. It ate me up inside. I would try to act as if it wasn’t there, try to ignore it, but it would come back stronger.
Some days it felt like I could barely breathe because the fear was crushing me. It made me feel sick. I struggled to find different ways to cope with it. Alcohol, of course, numbed it briefly. I tried to ask for help, but I couldn’t find the words that would make someone take me seriously.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
Relationships as a “fix’”
A relationship is never going to work when two love-starved and needy individuals demand the other person fix them. I just had nothing to give.
As I wasn’t capable of having a healthy and functioning relationship, I took “hostages.” I grabbed on to someone and didn’t let go, no matter what I thought or felt. I was just desperate not to be alone. I “engineered” all of my relationships. I was controlling and manipulative. I cared for some of the men I had relationships with, but the truth was that the relationships were never based on love.
The Great Big Sober Secret
I’ve just finished the book Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. I finished it in about five days flat. It’s beautifully written and will haunt you days after you have finished. The book touches on two big themes — loneliness and trauma. The main character, Eleanor, is alone and isolated because of her childhood trauma. Her loneliness is crushing and she uses alcohol to escape from it. I have come to believe that loneliness is the disease of our times. It kills more people than anything else. Human connection is life-sustaining: we need it like we need the sun and air. Yet so many of us live in desperate isolation.
The book made me shudder at times, as there was a period of my life that was very close to hers. It was 1995. I had graduated from university and was living in North London — Wood Green to be exact. I was about 25, and I had succeeded in pushing everyone away. The only connections I had were with the people I interacted with at work.
I'd started a new job working for the Metropolitan Police in London, and my life was exactly like Eleanor Oliphant’s. I would go to work and be busy and deal with people. Then I would come home on a Friday night, stop at the off-license, and purchase two bottles of wine. I remember thinking that was okay because it was a Friday night and I would hope the person serving me assumed I was having a dinner party or something. Would assume I had a life and wasn’t some sad lonely person sitting at home getting wasted on their own. Which of course I was. I would drink those two bottles of wine, and I would spend the entire weekend on my own smoking cigarettes, watching re-runs of Friends and just drinking.
Early recovery is like flying to Barbados
Anne Hathaway’s comment that she is going to quit alcohol to be a better parent has drawn quite a bit of attention. Of course there is push back from some who see Hathaway as trying to be perfect for her kids (she’s not, she just wants to be present). In particular, there is this particularly awful piece in The Guardian by columnist Zoe Williams who is somehow trying to present drunk parenting as beneficial to children. Despite her son asking why she isn’t dead from all her whiskey consumption (I know it’s hilarious right?)
It may have escaped Williams’ notice, but we are not living in 1997 anymore. Tony Blair is no longer prime minister (or popular, for that matter), Britpop is no longer a thing, and the good ship Cool Britannia has sunk.
Way back in the day, we all thought our drinking culture was a harmless fun thing that we all did. Because so many of us binge drank this way, we thought it was normal. We are, after all, the generation that normalized abnormal drinking. We had the ladette culture spearheaded by Sara Cox and Zoe Ball (who is now sober, by the way). And we drank without thought or care.
But it’s not 1997 anymore, and Zoe Williams’ tone-deaf piece of dinosaur journalism was 20 years too late.
I am so bored by the idiotic musings on what a “laugh" it is to get so drunk you wet yourself and can’t remember half the night. Now it’s dressed up as a fun story in a columnist’s “think piece” (hello, Barbara Ellen) or in a tweet (yes, I’m looking at you, Caitlin Moran) just so the writer can signal how hardcore and cool they are.
My top 3 strategies for dealing with people who DON'T want you to stop drinking.
It’s not going to start when you find the right job, house, partner, lose ten pounds. This is not a rehearsal.
These precious seconds right now are your life. Are you going to make them count or are you going to fall back into your numbed state and sleepwalk through your life?
I often tell clients that in early recovery, those first few painful months when you ‘wake up’ to who you are and what you have become are like the experience of when you have to wake up at 3 am to catch a flight to Barbados because you’re going on your much-anticipated dream holiday.
If we numb the pain then we numb the joy
When we decide to stop drinking it's common for a lot of us to experience some 'push back' from our family and peer groups.
Generally speaking the people around us don't like it when we stop drinking as it upsets 'the apple cart.' We have all been conditioned to drink alcohol and abusive drinking has been normalized in our culture. So 'not drinking' is seen as very weird. It's a bit like being a vegetarian in the 70's. People look at you funny.
In 18 years of sobriety this is what I know for sure ...
A question I get asked a lot is ‘when will I know if I’m ok?’ Or, ‘when will I be done?’ Obviously, the answer is never, the journey of self-discovery is one that never ends. However, what I can say is we know we are firmly in the realm of recovery when we begin to have appropriate emotional responses to events.
What does that mean exactly?
On May 2nd, 2018 I celebrate 18 years of continuous sobriety. This did not come easy. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done and I made some big mistakes along the way.