A tangle of narrow old streets that are so awful for motorists

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I’ve been re-reading I Capture The Castle, have you read it?  You should.  The heroine is a delightful eighteen year old, very intelligent but unworldly, with a wonderful way of puncturing her own pretensions as soon as she writes them onto the page.  Near the crisis of the novel, she is deeply unhappy, and desperate for consolation.   She considers whether she could lose herself in good works and piety, as suggested by her only friends, and just as she thinks it’s the answer, she has a vision of the town.  A wide, straight road bypassing the centre, and then the busy part that goes right through the town itself in a

“tangle of narrow old streets that are so awful for motorists on market days, but so very, very beautiful.  Of course, what my mind’s eye was trying to tell me was that the Vicar and Miss Marcy had managed to bypass the suffering that comes to most people – he by his religion, she by her kindness to other  And ti came to me that if one does that, one is liable to miss too much along with the suffering – perhaps, in a way, life itself.”

I’m in kind of an angry, sad, despairing place at the moment, but mostly a furious one.  I am furious at the world and the ugliness of people who kick those who are down and the stupidity of those who cheer the kickers on, and encourage them, and give them the power to keep doing it.  I am furious at the quicksand that surrounds me and my girls when we try and take a step towards freedom, because it is so much effort to keep fighting for basic rights and respect over and over again.  I am terrified all the time about my life and my job and getting it wrong, and the bravest thing I do is getting up in the morning, taking a deep breath and telling myself that it’s going to work out fine.

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It is possible that my mood would be improved by more cake and less hormones, but we work with what we have at the time.

But I never think about drinking.  It isn’t an option.  I want to extend Smith’s metaphor about how, instead, I have the fortitude to head into that dark tangle of streets that lead straight through the centre, and I keep going because I am brave these days.  But I am sick of my own words and my metaphors and my neat wrapped-up endings.  There isn’t a neat wrapped-up ending to this one.  It’s dark, and I can’t run my fury out, so I type type type instead, trying to distil it and whittle it down and get to the truth under the flourishes.  That’s another tangle of narrow old streets, right there.

narrow street chania

The thing about sobriety is that it doesn’t solve things because some things can’t be solved.  But the things I am unable to solve are things I wouldn’t even have confronted if I were still drinking.  I mean, I am terrified about my job because I am self-employed and flying by the skin of my teeth, and I would never have attempted that in the first place, drinking.  The things that make me angry about my relationship, or rather about relationships between men and women and the patriarchy as a whole, they’re things that I come up against because I push, now, for my own space.  I used to step aside.   They’re things in the middle of the town, awful and beautiful, and I would rather be here, in the thick of it, than taking the road around.

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The ugliest infant you ever did see

The first three months of a newborn baby’s life are known as the ‘fourth trimester’.  The idea is that the baby is not yet really ready to be born; he or she is delivered early because of the disproportionate size of the human head, which would mean that delivery was impossible if the baby stayed in for any longer.

The practical result of this is that newborn babies are incredibly needy.  Their vision is myopic, their limbs are weak and shaky, and they require intensive, round the clock care.

It is completely overwhelming, as a parent.  You think you’re prepared for the work involved, but you never are, because it’s so much more work than it seems like it conceivably could be.  Newborn babies don’t have a bedtime; you spend all evening in the same grind as the day.  They don’t have a sense of self; if you leave them alone for a moment, they cry.

And something happens to you, mired in the mud of hormones and fatigue; you lose your perspective.  It seems like it is going to go on forever.  You know, logically, that you won’t spend the rest of your life burping and cleaning and feeding and wiping and rocking, but it seems like it.    And you start to think that maybe you should be doing something else with your days, because surely this can’t be it, and should you be achieving more?  It’s only afterwards that you realise that you were doing just what you needed to: surrendering yourself to this tiny baby and its incessant need.  It wasn’t for long, in retrospect.

Of course, this is a metaphor for sobriety, that ugly, squawking, greedy infant.  In those early weeks, it swallows up your life, and you have to find a new way to do everything.  Your social life is abruptly curtailed, because it was based around alcohol and evenings out.  Your relationships are strained.  You are so, so tired.  The fatigue weights you down and no matter how much sleep you get – in the first days you get very little, as your body adjusts to falling asleep without your soporific of choice – you wake up exhausted.  And you protest against it, because if this is your new life, you want the old one back, and quickly.

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But it’s not.  It’s just a transition period.  Give in to it.  Yield.  It will pass.

Why was I thinking about this now?  Because I was lying in bed the other day, having trouble getting to sleep, and feeling all sorts of cross about the fact that I can’t drink.  I thought this bit had passed, I grumbled to myself.  I have done the hard bit, and here at nine months things should be easier.  Damn it all, it isn’t fair, I thought to myself.

And then I remembered that I have felt like this before.  With my babies.  Other mothers reading will recognise this: the dreaded nine month sleep regression.

For the uninitiated, the nine month sleep regression – which occurs anywhere between 8 and 11 months old, broadly speaking – is what happens when your darling infant decides that she is going to learn to crawl, attempt to stand up, and usually sprout a few teeth into the bargain.   Quite understandably, these enterprises take a lot of energy (a lot of babies lose weight at this age) and also require a lot of practice.  Which means that sleeping goes out of the window, and any incremental gains you have made towards becoming a semi-functional human being once more are comprehensively lost.

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It’s not as bad as the infant phase, in a lot of ways.  But it feels worse, because it feels like you’re right back where you started, and you just can’t go through that again, not yet.

My sobriety is nine months old.  It is learning to crawl.  It is pulling up on objects.  It is starting to want things beyond its grasp, things that aren’t as simple as its mere continued existence.  It is ambitious, and determined.

Both of my children were awful sleepers in that first year.  And both of them are growing up to be incredible people.  When I complained about the colic and the sleeplessness, the strong wills and stubbornness, people said ‘just you wait.  Those characteristics are going to make for great, strong young women one day’.  When I was walking the corridors at night holding a wailing, furious baby, that seemed like scant consolation.

My youngest daughter is about to turn three.  She speaks in full, complex, clear sentences, and interacts with her peers, and has ambitions and dreams about what she wants to be when she grows up.  She picks out her own clothes in the morning and pours her own breakfast at the table.  She is kind and loving, even as she fiercely guards her independence and possessions from well-meaning intervention.  My eldest breaks my heart with her beauty and grace, and her teachers stop me in the corridors to tell me what a pleasure she is to teach.

Some days, the best parent is the one who gets out of the way, stops trying to control things, and has faith that their children will grow and thrive under the sunshine of loving kindness.  Sometimes, the best thing to do is to surrender to the hard bits and have faith that they will pass.

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I got my sobriety through its newborn phase, and now I have to live through a regression, and as long as I don’t get in its way, it will grow and thrive just like my daughters.  Even if it does throw the odd toddler tantrum along the way.

Sex. Sober sex.

The first boy who kissed me did so in daylight. We stood under a weeping willow in a public garden when he bent his head to mine, and I remember every second of it. Even through my thrilled astonishment I was startled by the sheer size of his mouth, which didn’t seem as if it could possibly fit closely with mine except that it did. All the time I was kissing him I was thinking a million things about the experience, an exquisite blend of nerves and glee and sheer arousal. I was sixteen, sweet sixteen and the light shone dappled through the willow leaves.

I remember the first time I made love, as well. I was dating a beautiful loser, the sort of boy put on the earth entirely to provide teenage girls with their first summer romance, and we experimented together as teenagers do, whenever and wherever the opportunity arose.

I was sober both times. Alcohol had entered my life, but it was a party drug, not a pre-requisite for living. We were far too broke back then for alcohol to be anything but occasional; most days we chose nicotine over food, let alone contemplating a luxury like wine.

I’m not sure when sex and alcohol became inextricably linked, but I don’t think I’m alone in that association. Even without getting into the murky issues around teenage sex, consent and exploitation, there is a very strong societal link between alcohol and intimacy. Expensive wine on a date, the licentious names given to cocktails, the word cocktail, alcohol marketing – the message is very clear that if you want to get laid, you need to open a bottle.

And it’s not surprising. Drinking with somebody is an excellent way to create a false sense of intimacy, as well as lowering inhibitions and enhancing our desire for others – the famed ‘beer goggles’ are true, it appears. If you’re not sure if somebody fancies you enough to take their clothes off in front of you, getting them drunk is an effective way of stacking the cards in your favour.

But if you always drink before having sex, then you come to rely on it. Just as we become convinced that alcohol gives us courage or sparkle or confidence in social situations, we come to think of it as necessary for creating intimacy.

When we strip away the alcohol, we have to re-learn the skill without it. Most of us have blogged about finding ourselves perfectly able to hold our own at a party drinking only Perrier, or our discovery that herbal tea and a scented bath are better at relaxing us than a Chardonnay ever was.

But I absolutely refuse to believe that I’m the only one who ever felt a moment of anxiety at the prospect of sober sex.

Sex is an act of trust, every time. We strip away our defences with our clothes, and stand before our partners with our flaws on show. Good sex, in fact, demands that we don’t self-censor; nobody can properly enjoy sex if they’re worrying that their moans sound odd or their tummy fat bulges in certain positions. You can have sex with your clothes on, but you still have to be naked underneath.

Alcohol is custom-designed to help with all of this. If you’ve ever been the loud tactless person closing down the bar, you already know all too well how alcohol overrides social inhibition. If you’ve ever snogged someone you’d ordinarily shun, you know the ease of attraction that it lends. Drunkenness is an abrogation of self, and sex demands that self gets out of the way.

So. Sober sex. What a daunting prospect, right? Suddenly there’s nothing shutting down the millions of thoughts going through your head, no blurry edges obscuring your self-view. Your limbs are suddenly all present instead of melting into your partner, and oh, goodness, you can’t seriously be expected to … say … or do … those things, surely? Not sober!

Enough generalities. You want to know how it is for me. And here is where I wish I could tell you that it’s a million times better, because finally we’re conjoining our true, authentic selves without barrier or artifice. And to some extent, that’s true. Often, that’s true.

But there are differences, and – you know, I’m figuring out why nobody blogs about this now, because, well, yeesh – sometimes those differences don’t leave everyone as happy as before. And this does come back to consent, in a way. What I have found is that there are some things that I am no longer comfortable with. Things that I used to drink in order to feel comfortable with. This isn’t a matter of consent in an awful, sordid way, whereby one partner is pressuring and the other is numbing themselves to get through an ordeal. Nothing like that. But sometimes, in an intimate relationship, there are things that you know might make your partner very happy, but which are a little tiny bit over your comfort line. But you love and trust your partner, so what you do is you blur that line a little bit, so that you can meet them where they are, enthusiastically and willingly. And that’s great where there’s no power issues or abuse going on. I think everyone pushes their comfort levels a little bit where intimate relationships are involved, sometimes; agreeing despite being tired, making the effort to enjoy something new, maybe pulling on some frilly knickers that aren’t that comfortable. But because this stuff is so intimate and so integral to bodily autonomy, it’s not so easy to just talk yourself into it – for it to work, you have to feel it too. And wine, for me, answered that tension.

I can tell myself all I want that it’s about boundaries and self-respect and authenticity, but at the end of the day, sober sex is not the same. It’s better, and it’s worse, and it’s definitely more frequent. But it’s not the same.