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.

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The total surrender of self

Trigger warning: this post discusses the attraction of alcohol and drugs.  You may choose whether you want to read it today.

 

These days I am too much in the world
And in other people.
I am not with myself enough, alone.

My body moves,
My mouth opens and closes
And words come out,
Even laughter.

But I am not centered enough,
There is an emptiness to me,
I cannot escape.

Inside I am frantic,
My thoughts have no place to settle,
I need it all to stop a little.

I need it all to stop.

 

i am unsettled, f.gabdon

A friend’s husband misses the party scene, now that he’s older and a father. But the party scene – music at melting volumes, nights that bleed into morning, drinks in plastic cups and long queues for grotty bathrooms – belongs to the young. Even without the responsibilities that weigh us down in our thirties and forties, the party scene is not our country.

He doesn’t crave the drugs the way an addict does. Occasionally he goes out and gets very, very drunk; not ideal from a health point of view, but he doesn’t fit into the diagnostic spectrum of alcoholism either. It’s deliberate, occasional, planned when it won’t impact his life. He does it because he seeks the oblivion that used to come from those perfect clubbing moments, when the drugs took him higher and the music fused with his soul and all the people dancing were in love and there was no self, only communion.

He’s a good father, a loving husband, a responsible citizen who accepts that his drug days are done. But the occasional bender doesn’t feed him the way the scene used to, and he walks around with a hollow space inside, grieving without knowing it.

rave

Another friend and another conversation. She is talking, hesitantly, about her need for BDSM sex. How she tried to turn off that part of her sexuality when she met her vanilla husband, but she felt it as a loss, as if she was permanently unfulfilled. No matter how amazing their lovemaking, it wasn’t the same as when she could submit entirely and satisfy both body and soul.

They’re both seeking the same sort of transcendence. A surrender of self, a letting go of individuality and autonomy and the responsibility that comes along with that, in return for a greater, deeper communion with something bigger.

Drugs and alcohol (…so, drugs) can provide that too.  People talk about ‘getting obliterated’ or ‘wiping themselves out’.  An obliteration of self, a temporary abnegation of responsibility – at its peak, a total surrender of self to something greater.  That moment in a bar, with a close friend, when you’re finishing the second bottle of wine together and your words are a tumble of excitement, tangling with one another in the joyous rediscovery that you think alike.  The sudden clarity in a late-night club, when you see through the costumes and the poses and you feel as if everybody in the room is human, flawed, vulnerable, but no less beautiful for all of that.  Even the moments alone, drunk, when you crack yourself open to the universe.  It’s not that alcohol allows us to create deeper bonds with one another, not real bonds: in fact it does the opposite.  I feel, react and love so much more deeply since I became sober that I am constantly overwhelmed with the strength of the bonds I have discovered.  But what drugs do do is help us get out of our own way.

It’s no wonder that many people in recovery discover, or rediscover, religion.  It’s another answer to the need.  Religion (and I am not a theologian, but this is certainly not limited to Judeo-Christian beliefs), preaches a surrender of self; joy and fulfilment through submission to a higher authority. An ecstasy-taking raver might balk at the analogy to religious authority, but the joy in surrender is the analogy, not the thing to which one surrenders.

joy

I don’t have the answer to this.  In This Is How, Augusten Burroughs talks about his belief that no amount of twelve-step programs, or self-discipline, or fear, will keep you sober if you haven’t found something you want to do more than you want to drink.  For him, and for me, that thing is writing.  Writing takes me out of myself; it allows me, like the poet above, to be with myself but also, in my own small way, part of something greater.  For other people, there are good works, risky sports, music, meditation.  I don’t know if there’s an easy answer for everybody; it’s certainly not as simple as chirping ‘just take up a hobby!’.  I love to cook, it makes me happy, but cooking doesn’t fill the hole in the same way, not for me.  Because it’s not just a matter of finding something you like to do; it’s finding something that allows you to transcend your self.  

So I don’t have any answers, but I do know one thing.  Alcohol, or drugs, are really fucking bad at doing what we want them to do.  I was never so painfully aware of myself as I was when I was drinking.  I was conscious of my physical self all the time, reminded by headaches and gas and nausea, wondering if I smelt of stale wine, worrying about the red streaks appearing across my complexion.  I was never so much in the world as I was when I spent my days wondering if there was wine in the house and if not, how I could obtain more.  I was never so empty and frantic as I was as an active addict.  

I need it all to stop a little.  I need it all to stop.

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. 

soberrev

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.