Maintaining the rage

I was thinking about Wolfie today. You know Wolfie. Maybe you call him Al, or your addict voice, or the devil on your shoulder. Whatever your term for it, you’ve probably found it very helpful to anthropomorphise the part of you that enables your addiction, and – this is crucial – to separate it from yourself.

One of the bewildering things about being an addict, both when you’re in the throes of the addiction and once you’re out the other side, is the cognitive dissonance that’s required to maintain your habit. Once you’re out, it’s easy to feel total incredulity; was that really me? Did I say and think and do those things? Why would I…I mean, integrity and generosity are part of my personality and yet… It can go on and on, that reasoning and self flagellation. One way to make peace with it is to accept that the addict voice is inside you, but isn’t the true you; its only focus, its one motivation, is to feed the addiction. Questioning its ways is rather like a newly pregnant woman wondering why she’s doing something as illogical as throwing up her breakfast. There’s a parasite inside her, is why, and it plays by its own rules.

My Wolfie is an abusive partner, by the way. That’s the metaphor I find most useful, to understand what went on and who I became and why. But that’s not what this post is about.

This post is about the fact that even as we anthromorphise our addictions, bestow them with names so as to drain them of power, we divert attention away from the biggest baddest wolf of them all: the alcohol industry.

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Alcohol is the only drug left that is able to advertise freely, and the people who profit from it make the most of it. Not drinking is so unusual that it’s considered socially unacceptable in many cultures, including my own. I met a teetotal bloke the other day who told me that he was so sick of the judgement that he had started claiming to be an alcoholic in recovery, because at least that gave him a ‘reason’ not to drink. It’s madness.

Western society favours individualism. The idea of ‘taking responsibility for yourself’ and doing things on your own and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is invested with huge moral power. Nobody wants to be seen to be whining, or shifting responsibility, or blaming others. Don’t be a tattletale, we tell our children.

But to press the narrative of individual responsibility is to ignore something that we all already know, which is that advertising works. Huge corporations, filled with thought leaders who are highly qualified in their fields, do not spend billions of dollars every year on a losing strategy. They advertise because advertising works, and they pay extremely dedicated people extremely large amounts of money to come up with ways to make that advertising more effective and more ubiquitous all the time.

Here is something else that we all know. Alcohol is a drug. It is, by its very nature, addictive. Not everybody gets addicted to it, but a lot of people do. It’s about one in ten, in fact.

So we take an addictive drug, and we allow the people who sell that drug to spend vast amounts of money on selling it to us, more and more of it, in more insidious ways all the time. And some of us do what all that advertising is designed to make us do, which is drink regularly. And some of us do what the drug is designed to make us do, which is get addicted to it.

And then what do we do? We call it a disease. We call it Wolfie. We call it a personal struggle with our inner demons, and we admit our failings and we spend the rest of our fucking lives worrying about ‘falling’ once more, strategising to slip through the cracks in the huge net thrown over us by the behemoth alcohol industry, and apologising to our friends for the inconvenience while we do it.

I spent today writing an article about the hidden alcohol in food, because it’s not enough that the stuff infiltrates the rest of our lives, now we have to be wary about eating it as well. I included tips on how to refuse your great-aunt’s tiramisu without offending her, because obviously we, the sober ones, are the problem here, and we don’t want any awkwardness, right?

Today, I am maintaining the rage. It’s not personal rage. Not drinking is not a problem for me right now, and I’m happy to accept that I’m not going to drink again. It’s rage against the industry that spends a fortune on selling us lies, and makes us sick and weak and desperately unhappy, and against which, for some reason, we never push back. Because we don’t want to be killjoys, or ruin the fun for the normies, or look like whingers. Because it’s our fault we’re alcoholics, and it’s our struggle to face. Because, for some reason, even those of us who are direct victims of the alcohol industry still feel like we need to include a caveat – of course I’m not saying nobody should be able to enjoy a crisp glass of white wine! – defending it.

Fuck that, you guys. Seriously. This is total crap, and it needs to end.
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The chasm between courage and crazy

Thanks for all the loveliness, guys. Not much to update here: in a shock twist ending, my employers have not, in fact, seen the errors of their ways and offered to double my salary if I come back.

On my last post, Sherry said something very wise, I think – that because I’m sober, I can deal with all the emotional crap of being laid off now, rather than postponing it. That’s true, I think. Certainly it’s true that I have been having All The Emotions, from euphoria to fury and back again. Did I mention I’ve also been solo parenting for two weeks? Fun times. I cannot tell you how glad I am that I am doing this sober. I still notice, every day, how much easier it makes my life. Little Girl has been waking at dawn this week, for some inexplicable reason, which translates to ‘around 5 am’ for those of you not sharing my part of the world. 5 am sober is a whole different world from 5 am hungover, guys, and I’m not saying that it’s a good world, or anything – let’s not get crazy here – but it’s one I can live in until Lovely Husband comes back and spots me.

That’s the practical stuff. That’s nothing, compared to the emotional stuff. If I were drinking, this redundancy would have destroyed me. DESTROYED.

Let me tell you a story. Let me tell myself a story. Settle in: this will be long.

Four years ago, and I may have talked about this before, I was asked to leave a job because I was under performing. I was a lawyer. I had a young baby, a horrendous commute, very high expectations of myself, and I wasn’t coping. Because I wasn’t coping, I was under performing more, and then hating myself more, and then drinking more. I lived in a miasma of self-hatred and terror; terror that the letter I’d forgotten to draft the day before would land on my desk like a time bomb in the morning. Terror that I would find myself in court with no preparation and get slammed with costs. I used to read the Professional Discipline Board hearings like they were prophetic. Every day was awful, and it was all my own fault because I just couldn’t, no matter how much I screamed at myself, make myself pull together and just do the fucking work. So I lived in a state of heightened anxiety every day, and every evening once Big Girl was in bed, I drank the terror away.

It was a relief when the partners finally suggested that I would be happier elsewhere. I found a new job. Part time hours, lower expectations, leveraging my legal experience but in a quasi-legal role. I could no longer call myself a lawyer, and I missed the cut and thrust of court and the excitement of a new file and I knew I was lucky to have the job. I referred to myself, ruefully, as ‘mummy tracked’, and if nothing else I felt grateful that I had that excuse for my downward career trajectory.

But I hated it. And I hated myself.

In that job, too, I procrastinated. My boss left me alone for days at a time, and I never had enough to do, so I took things very easily. Sometimes I gave myself a pep talk; they’ll never give you more responsibility if you don’t show initiative! But mostly, I showed up, did the things asked of me, spent a lot of time on Facebook, and went home again. And drank.

The thing was that although the job was a stopgap, I was too scared to try and get into Law again. I had been lucky that the last job ended as discreetly as it did, but if I took another job and failed at it, that was it for me in this small city. So I didn’t. A friend invited me to submit my CV to his firm, a firm I’d have loved to work for once, one that shared my politics and needed my speciality. But I didn’t. Once, I had the opportunity to go into a small partnership with another friend, but what if I screwed up my own files, with no boss to chase me and cover for me? So I didn’t.

And things went on. I had Little Girl, and I don’t even want to tell you how soon after she was born it was that I went back to drinking. I went back to work after maternity leave, and was thankful for it being easy work while I adjusted, but I was bored.

So I drank.

I drank for other reasons, of course. I drank before my career failed, and I would have drunk even if the dream job fell into my lap. But at the time I’m talking about, my lack of career, and my lack of self esteem, and my drinking, were inextricable. Losing my position as a lawyer was the most crippling thing that has ever happened to my self esteem. Four years later, I’m typing this in a cafe, and I can feel the emotions well up.

As Small Girl got bigger, and started sleeping through the night, my old energy and brain started to return, and I could see how stuck I was in a job that would never amount to anything. But I still had no idea what to do next, what my exit plan was.

And then I got sober. And, as you know, I started to write, and realised that writing was what I wanted to do. And it became clear that sometimes, other people wanted me to do it too, for their sites, and that was relevatory.

But it wasn’t the writing itself that was transformative. It was the realisation that I could write regularly, and set myself deadlines, and stick to them. It might sound ridiculous, to you, that such a mundane thing was the thing holding me back. But it was. Every time I thought about becoming self-employed, I remembered my inattentive, procrastinating ways, and all the times I’d failed to do something, and I’d squash the dream back down.

This time feels different. It’s different because I’m sober, but I’m sober largely because it’s different. When I wanted so badly to drink a week or two ago, I kept telling myself that I couldn’t drink and write: I want to write more than I want to drink. It’s my mantra.

What is transformative is that for the first time, I believe in myself.

I believe that if I can’t do something well the first time, I can and will take another course, find another mentor, just do some damn practice, until I get it right.

I believe that my habit of procrastination is not necessarily a moral failing, but just the way my brain works, and there are ways to combat that, and to harness it. In fact, the ability to think about several things at once, and always be excited by the next challenge, is proving an excellent asset in journalistic writing, which requires one to spread one’s attention very thin and retain all sorts of facts in the process.

I believe that even if I fail, I’m not a failure.

If I was still drinking, and I had been laid off, I would probably not be in a cafe, typing this post. I would be in a therapist’s office, or a rehab, or somewhere worse. Because a redundancy, in my old state of mind, would have been confirmation of my own self-hatred, of my conviction that I was a failure and a fraud. I would have blamed myself for my underperformance, and I would have laughed at myself for ever thinking that I could hold down a job. I have, of course, held down jobs successfully for twenty years, but the drinking brain is mean and abusive and grinds you down until you don’t recognise the person you used to be.

But I’m sober. And this was not my fault, and I was worth more than that job.

I’ve never done anything scary in my life. I have always meant to, and always found excuses not to. I once started to learn to ride a motorbike, but changed my mind after one lesson. I almost moved back to England, completely alone, when I was twenty, but I met Lovely Husband and decided he was worth staying for. When I inherited a small lump sum in my early twenties, I stuck it straight into the mortgage instead of travelling overseas like any self-respecting child free young woman should have done. Safely married in my mid-twenties, I had children at exactly the median average age for my generation. You get the picture. I’m a middle-income middle class woman, mired in the suburbs, and my idea of taking a risk is putting a red tea towel in with the whites to see if it’s colourfast.

But here I am, doing something terrifying. I’m going to try and make it on my own, off the back of my words. I’m no longer going to be a writer. I am a writer.

Getting through it

On Wednesday afternoon, I was at my desk as usual, preparing an agenda for a meeting I was due to chair the following day, and my boss asked to see me.

Fifteen minutes later, I was walking out of the office, lugging three bags full of possessions.

To say I was blindsided would be an understatement: I literally had no idea at all that a redundancy was on the cards. It was, at least, a genuine redundancy, complete with severance pay and a good reference. But it was a complete shock, and I didn’t get chance to say goodbye to people with whom I had worked for four years. There was no farewell card.

Lovely Husband is away on business, in an area so remote that he can only ring me by satellite phone. He didn’t have a chance to ring me that first night. So that left me, my grief, and two small children in a house full of alcohol, alone.

It’s difficult not to feel self-pitying rage in those circumstances. The whole point of alcohol, after all, is to be there when you are sad and hurt and there is too much emotion to deal with right that moment. It is there to take the edge off: that is what it is for.

But I’m sober. The grief keeps hitting me on and off, interspersed with anger, fear and not an insignificant amount of excitement for whatever the next thing is. But I’m dealing with it so sensibly that it is sickening: I borrowed some comfort reading from the library, and I have been in bed by 9.30pm every night with a mug of chamomile tea.

Last night, Friday, Little Girl came down with a sudden violent stomach bug. Vomit covered the walls and the floor of our little bathroom, and she cried at the mess, and I wished fiercely that I had a second parent to help me out while I wrung out cloths and stuck her in the shower. It seems awfully unfair that I am barely standing straight again after the redundancy dealt me such a crippling blow, and now I am ankle-deep in regurgitated sausage, I thought.

Imagine if I’d been drunk, though. Imagine dealing with all that effluvia, and all that impotent rage, and all those feelings of unfairness and self pity, drunk. Imagine getting out of bed every hour on the hour to position a toddler over a bucket yet again, while dealing with the first toxic pulses of a hangover.

If I hadn’t been sober when I was made redundant, I would have gone home and drunk without limits. It’s the sort of life event that feels like you can break every drinking rule you have, after all, and I would have polished off a couple of bottles of wine without feeling guilty about it for once. Part of me would have enjoyed having the excuse.

And then, when Little Girl vomited everywhere and then burst into terrified wails, I would have been trying to deal with it dizzy and sick and slow on my feet. I wouldn’t have been able to lie down with her and cuddle her safely; I certainly wouldn’t be able to take care of two children today, on two hours sleep, not with a hangover.

Sobriety delivers all the things that alcohol promises, they say, and in a crisis that is certainly true. I am getting through it sober. I am getting through it because I am sober.