It takes everything in the end

The other night was TV night.  TV night is Thursday nights, a tradition that started some years back when Lovely Husband started going to an evening class once a week and leaving me in control of the remote.  Since it is only once a week, it’s a night I look forward to.  No idle channel surfing for me; TV night involves a DVD set or something highly recommended from Netflix.  It involves an indulgent meal, eaten solo after the children are in bed – recently I’m favouring spicy buffalo wings and fries, but it can be a smoked salmon and Brie affair or a huge bowl of lentil soup, as the mood takes.

And back in the day, it also involved a lot of wine.  A lot of wine: TV night was my free-pass night, because I was drinking sight unseen and I knew LH was nearby in case of emergencies.  I just added that last bit in case I sounded irresponsible; let’s be frank, here.  I was just drinking a lot because nobody was watching.

When I gave up drinking, one of the things I mourned was the end of my Thursday nights.  Because, you see, I can’t watch television sober.  That’s why I only do it at all once a week.  I needed the wine to make the television fun, without seeing through the tiresome cliches and the telegraphed plot points.  It was worth it, of course, but it was a loss.  And I stopped Thursday TV nights for a little while.

And then I started them again, and I found other ways to keep occupied.  Once I learned to knit, it helped a lot: I can’t knit without doing something else and I can’t watch TV without doing something else but the two things go together like the newly sober and oversharing.  TV night was back.

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Anyway.  Last Thursday, I started the next episode of my current series (which is Nashville.  How good is Nashville?  LH hates it.  I’m particularly a fan of the fact that nobody kills one another and so far zero women have been raped) and I realised that I’d somehow skipped ahead.  I couldn’t remember which episode I was up to, and the blurbs weren’t helping, so I spent a few minutes cueing up past episodes and watching the opening to see if I’d seen it.  It took me four episodes to find the one I was actually up to, and all the time that I was doing this I was feeling The Oh.  The Oh is when I see a previous memory in a different light and – Oh.  Oh, that’s what was going on.  How did it seem like it was fine?  Oh.

I thought that wine helped me watch TV!  For maybe a YEAR after I stopped drinking, I still thought that!  (And not without a soupçon of smuggery, either: you guys, you normal people with your normal intellect, you might be able to enjoy the entertainment of the masses.  Some of us can’t descend to popular culture without a deliberate deadening of our insight.  Jesus.  How anyone ever stands me in real life, I don’t even know.)  And yet, here I was, mimicking a time when I used to have to re-watch episodes of my given show because by the end of the previous TV night, I was too drunk to remember them clearly.

The difference was that this time, it took me less than a minute to check each episode, because I remembered seeing it within that time.  Before, it would take me longer.  I might have seen this one?  I remember this bit, I think, where the guy comes in and shouts, but that whole sequence before it is new or is it?  I wasn’t enjoying TV.  I was barely registering it!  I had to give up on Sherlock because I couldn’t follow the plot!

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Here’s another example: books.  I’ve written before about my love of reading with wine (and TV, in fact – here I am, at six days sober, two years ago, talking about exactly the same thing I’m talking about now).  Reading + wine.  Heavenly.  But again, by the end.  Not so much.  It became normal to pick up a book where I’d left off and then flick back until I reached a page that I remembered reading.  Sometimes that would be a page or two.  Sometimes closer to a chapter.  What was the point?

It takes everything.  It takes EVERYTHING.  Back when I drank, my only hobbies were reading, drinking, and occasionally watching TV.  And arguing on the internet, I guess, but I was trying to quit that one well before I got sober.  Forget the me that I now am, with a birthday list stuffed full of gorgeous hand dyed yarns, running gear, and courses I want to do on power tools and window glazing.  Reading and watching TV.  It’s not a big demand on the universe, to have those things to enjoy.  But I didn’t.  I no longer had even those.

In an abusive relationship, the abused partner adapts to the demands of the abuser.  She tries to become better at acquiescence, hoping that if she can show him enough love and understanding, he will return the favour in increased trust and openness.  Instead the demands grow, and grow, until the victim is backed into a corner and she has nothing left, and if she is lucky she will realise that nothing she can give will ever be enough and if she is really, really lucky she will be able to get out of that corner and away.

When we say the words ‘alcohol abuse’ we tend to mean that we abuse alcohol.  But alcohol abuses us.  It takes and it takes, and it lies and it lies, and we give up everything rather than lose it.   There is nothing we need it for, and there is nothing it won’t take.

It takes everything.

Johann Hari and the cause of addiction

Here is an article that I want to talk about, but before you click over and read it, please be warned: I found this deeply, deeply triggering.   The author is effectively arguing that if you are happy and find community and happiness in your world, then you will no longer be an addict; that the root cause of addiction is loneliness, and once loneliness is removed, the addiction goes away.  If that’s not a perspective you feel like you can deal with today, don’t read it.  Otherwise, though, please do; it’s a fascinating article in its own right.  One of the things that really interests me is alternative approaches to drug and alcohol abuse, which legalises their use and concentrates on eradicating the pre-existing reasons why people abuse them.

The author, Johann Hari, has recently published a book about the American War on Drugs (‘Chasing the Scream’), from which this article comes, and a lot of his arguments are solid.  He’s a great investigative journalist.  In fact, his findings mirror a whole body of research done by, amongst others, Dr David Best, who has published widely on the findings that recovery is best achieved where the recovering addict has access to peer groups and a sense of community even when those are not specifically recovery focused.  That is, even joining a rowing club is more likely to bolster your recovery efforts than not doing so.

Hari talks about the fact that in the Vietnam War, up to 20% of American soldiers were using heroin.  Taken out of that environment and reunited with friends and family, most of them simply quit – as, of course, do the vast majority of people given medical heroin, or morphine, in hospital settings.    Also, rats.

Rat Park, a wonderland for heroin-addicted rats

Rat Park, a wonderland for heroin-addicted rats

So why then, at a time in my life when I am arguably the happiest I have ever been, did I read this article and feel a surge of hope that maybe I could drink normally?  If my addiction was caused by loneliness – and that rings partially true, in that it accelerated when I was an isolated new mother – surely I could moderate now?

But Hari isn’t talking about moderating.  He’s not relating experiments that allowed addicts to use their drug in a social fashion; he’s just saying that given enough support, community and other reasons to be happy, one stops being reliant on a drug.  Alcohol is the only drug about which we preserve this ridiculous illusion that the opposite of addiction is moderation.  Of course it isn’t.  I can get over an addiction, but I can’t drink.

Still, though.  My initial surge of hope tells me that my addiction is still there, waiting for me.  Because, really, there’s no reason for me to drink.  What is it that I’m hoping for, when I hope to be able to drink?

The same thing that drives the addiction to begin with.  Community.

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Hari’s book may talk about this, I don’t know; his article doesn’t.  But he does say this;

If we can’t connect with each other, we will connect with anything we can find – the whirr of a roulette wheel or the prick of a syringe. He says we should stop talking about ‘addiction’ altogether, and instead call it ‘bonding’. A heroin addict has bonded with heroin because she couldn’t bond as fully with anything else.

Sure.  Probably.  But there’s something else.  The use of softer drugs, like alcohol and nicotine, have been sold to us explicitly as increasing our sense of community.  We haven’t turned to them because there’s nothing else; we have turned to them because they sell us the illusion that they will give us the friends that we want.  Happy shiny people clinking glasses in the sunlight; images of party crowds; romantic dates that create lifetime bonds.  Tobacco companies used to do the same thing, and then when they were banned from doing so, the smokers themselves banded together in solidarity.  Being a smoker became an identity, albeit a persecuted one.  A friend once said to me ‘I know I should give up smoking, but all the cool people at a party smoke, and I wouldn’t have an excuse to go outside with them anymore’.  I knew what she meant.

I have fulminated against alcohol marketing a few times on this blog, and every time I am misinterpreted as wanting to ban alcohol.  Let me be clear: I don’t want to ban alcohol.  I don’t want to ban any drug, in fact.  I am strongly in favour of decriminalisation.  Stop fighting a punitive war on addicts and start addressing root causes, and while you’re at it, how about funding some decent welfare programs and promoting equality and then let’s see who ends up under a bridge smoking crack.

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My issue is with marketing, and this article – with which I pretty much agree – only strengthens that view.  If the opposite of addiction is human connection, then the attempt to sell human connection as a lure to buying a drug is all the more dangerous.  Marketing preys on the lonely and the unhappy and the isolated.  So does addiction.

When I miss drinking, what I miss is the shared experience of drinking.  Of course, in the end drinking became deeply isolating for me, because I was hugging secrets, and living with shame, and choosing to stay home and drink instead of go out and painfully moderate.  That, too, is part of the nature of addiction.  Like an abusive partner, it creates an environment in which it can flourish.  It robs you of friendship, family, community, so that all that is left in your life is the drug itself.

But twenty years of associating alcohol with community don’t go away just because my logical brain knows better.  It is lonely to be the only person sipping cola in a room of twenty drinkers.  It feels like a loss, sometimes, that I can’t share a bottle of wine with LH, a bottle that we bought together on our honeymoon and saved for a special occasion.

I don’t miss drinking.  I miss bonding.  I know it’s an illusion, and that my authentic self is better at making authentic connections with people.  But this, you see, is where my issue with alcohol marketing comes from.  It isn’t enough to tell people that they should drink responsibility, when most marketing campaigns are aimed squarely at the people who won’t, because they can’t.

But in the meantime, sober friends, go join a club.  Make a new friend.  Take up a hobby.  You are loveable and worthy and valuable in your own right.  We all are.

Book Review: The Sober Revolution, by Lucy Rocca and Sarah Turner

The other day, I found myself recommending The Sober Revolution: Women Calling Time on Wine O’Clock in glowing terms over at  Living Sober – and if you haven’t checked out Mrs D’s new venture, go and do so, because she’s doing an amazing job of curating a friendly, non-threatening new sober community.  So I thought I should sit down and write a proper review of it.

Put very simply, this book is the reason why I’m sober.  I read it on the evening of my last ever drink.  I hadn’t quite screwed up my courage to quit, at that point; I knew I should, which is why I was reading it, but I didn’t really believe that I’d be able to.  So I accepted the gin and tonic that Lovely Husband had poured me, and sipped it while I read.  I was only halfway through the drink when I realised that I was going to quit, and although I finished it, it was the last alcohol that passed my lips.

Lucy Rocca is the founder of Soberistas, which she began to help others after ceasing her own drinking in April 2011. At her worst, she was drinking 150 units a week: roughly twenty bottles of wine. Sarah Turner is a cognitive therapist specialising in addiction, also with a background of her own alcohol abuse, who went on to found the Harrogate Sanctuary from which most of the case studies are drawn. The combination means that this book combines the experience of an alcoholic with the knowledge and training of a specialist in the field, the lack of which is my problem with a lot of self help alcohol books.

Sober Revolution spoke to me in a way that no other alcohol self-help book ever has, and when I re-read it yesterday I kept pulling out quote after quote that seemed to encapsulate everything I want to say about it. This is partly because Rocca and Turner are writing to women. They talk about wine rather than alcohol, employ the analogy that wine, for a problem drinker, is like ‘Mr Unsuitable’ the emotionally abusive boyfriend, and fill the second half of the book with case studies of female drinkers.   Rocca references the idea that ‘Mummy’s wine o’clock’ marks the point where a day attending to the needs of children shifts into a relaxed adult evening, and that the wine is a powerful prop in this shift. This book is explicitly aimed at female drinkers, and its aim is true. 

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The first part of the book, written by Rocca, addresses the common fears that people express when they’re considering sobriety.  What if my spouse isn’t supportive, how will I enjoy myself at parties, what will I drink instead?  It focuses on the way that alcohol makes us feel rather than the quantities; Rocca is pretty explicit in saying that if you feel anxious about how much you drink, then chances are that moderation has already failed for you and sobriety is the answer.  And it does something that many other books on the topic don’t do: it acknowledges that sometimes, drinking can be wonderful.  That even if things have gone beyond the point of no return, sometimes you have a lovely night, cosy with your partner or laughing with friends, and wine is there with you.  But as she says, occasional good nights are no reason to stick with something that’s causing so much damage.  It’s the abusive boyfriend analogy again: no matter how lovely and caring he is today, how romantic his gestures…if you stay with him, he will eventually hit you.

The section that deals with moderation, or the idea of an occasional drink, really encapsulates Rocca’s message.  Unsurprisingly, she’s not an advocate.  But it’s why she’s not an advocate that I find powerful.  A lot of addiction literature refers to an immediate loss of control; one glass will turn into a bottle, which will turn into a black-out.  That’s never been the case for me, and I always find those arguments uncompelling.  This idea that addiction is entirely about ‘not having an off switch’ and the alcoholic drinking until they pass out or all the drink is gone, is so reductive that it is part of what kept me drinking.  I didn’t drink like that, and so, according to some views, I wasn’t an alcoholic.

Rocca, instead, focuses on the reasons why getting sober is such an amazing experience, and why attempting moderation (if you’re a problem drinker; she certainly isn’t claiming that nobody should drink) will negate all of those good things.  She focuses on the fact that when you stop drinking, you regain your self-esteem.  Drinkers have low self-esteem, in part because the fact that we try, and fail, to moderate ebbs away our self-pride, and also because the effect of alcohol on the central nervous system causes anxiety and depression.  

Here’s Rocca: ‘For twenty years I had repeatedly piled on the negative, the stupid, the irresponsible, the terrible and the majorly regrettable incidents to my already fragile levels of self-confidence and the result was a weak person who would crumble at the slightest sign of a problem’.   (As an aside, I read that, and thought: Well, but I have pretty good self-esteem actually.  I mean I hate that I drink, but I’m an alright person.   I’ve accepted that I’m never going to be talented or famous or successful, and I’m not beautiful and a bit fat, and my job is go-nowhere because I couldn’t make it as a lawyer. But I’m okay with that.  Honestly. )  So, she posits, you need a good period of time completely free from alcohol to enable your self-esteem to come back.  ‘The truth is”, she says “whilst ever you continue to drink alcohol on a regular basis, you won’t know who you really are or what your full potential is”.  And she’s talking about sobriety as a journey of self-discovery, which, it turns out, it is.  You need to silence the voice of alcohol to hear your own voice again.

Rocca is so positive about the ways in which sobriety can be transformative that I found myself disbelieving her by around Chapter Eight.  You’ll gain hobbies, she says, and new friends.  You’ll awaken a creative spark, take a leap in your career, look better and feel happier every day.    Right, I thought.  Whatever.  I’m failing to do all of those things not because of the wine, but because I have small children, ADHD, any number of other excuses.  “Over time”, says Rocca, “it will become glaringly obvious that the only reason you felt like you were treading water for all these years was because you spent them drinking too much”.    And you know what?  She’s right.  She’s right!

The second half takes case studies of women, some from the Harrogate Sanctuary and some from elsewhere, and talks about their drinking and their moment of realisation.  Some were heavier drinkers than others, but all of them were able to overcome their problem.  The one that shocked me the most was the tale of Ruth, a highly functional career woman whose drinking was controlled to the point where she never blacked out, embarrassed herself or drove drunk.  Except that she did: one morning, after a night where she’d drunk heavily but ceased around 8pm, she was rear-ended in a car accident that was entirely the fault of the other driver.  A policeman attended the scene, breathalysed both parties, and found that she was two and a half times over the limit.  She had been driving drunk, on the residual effects of the night before, probably for years.  And so had I, in that case, and that blew another perception of mine out of the water.

Sober Revolution is a very thorough book.  It addresses different forms of problematic drinking, their causes and effects.  But throughout the book, the message that comes through loud and clear is one of hope.  Give up alcohol, and gain the world.  Become who you were supposed to become.  You can transform yourself; you’re worth it.

If you’re reading this, and you’re worried about your drinking, read Sober Revolution.  It might change your life.  It changed mine.