Sunday, 15 April 2018

A spiritual awakening

A couple of years ago I joined my husband for a business lunch with a potential client of his.  When we offered him a drink he declined all offers of alcohol, explaining that he was giving up drinking for a year.  I asked him why he had chosen to stop drinking, primarily because I found it quite bizarre to meet someone who was willingly abstaining from alcohol without being pregnant or a raging alcoholic.  He replied that he had heard that if you gave up drinking for a significant amount of time you were meant to experience a 'spiritual awakening' and he wanted to see if this phenomena was true.  I remember taking a slug of my wine and thinking he was a bit of a weird hippy.  However, I'm now over 100 days into my alcohol-free life and I'm beginning to see that there may be a hint of truth in this.

To date, my three favourite things about being sober are:

1. Time

Now that I am free from hangovers and the apathy that accompanies them, I have so much more time on my hands.  I get up early every day with ease and I have reinvested a lot of my spare time into looking after myself properly.  This includes doing yoga, swimming or hiking on a daily basis, and reconnecting with things I used to love doing that had fallen by the wayside, like reading and writing.
Evening hike up The Peak

2. Clarity

Over the past three months I have noticed a gradual defogging of my mind.  Slowly, without alcohol, I have been freed from my struggle with anxiety, anger, guilt, shame and sadness.  No longer is my brain racing and swirling with negativity and regrets.  The outcome has been two-fold.  Firstly, I have been able to focus on the areas of my life that matter and most recently, this has given me the chance to start revisiting goals and dreams that I now feel equipped to fulfil.  Secondly, I have started to be much kinder to and accepting of myself.

3. Calmness

There is significant research to highlight the correlation between drinking and anxiety.  I used to medicate with alcohol when I was feeling stressed and anxious, but now I can see that alcohol only exacerbated my anxiety.  Over the past 103 alcohol-free days my mind has slowly calmed, my thought processes have become far more rational and there is less negative, distracting chitter-chatter in my head.  This has made it far easier to deal with every day annoyances and to let go of irritations instead of dwelling on them.

The amalgamation of these three elements has lead to a small epiphany or 'spiritual awakening'.  I am starting to rediscover and reconnect with a part of me that I had lost and I am starting to like myself  rather than relying on validation from others.  I recognise traits and passions from the girl I was before I started numbing life and hiding behind my alcohol security blanket. Rediscovering the me that had been forgotten, ignored and hidden for so many years and finding that she's a kinder, gentler, calmer, more compassionate, more introverted, more forgiving, more creative, more introspective and less impulsive woman, has been both uplifting and enlightening.  This poem perfectly expresses how I am feeling right now as a result of my 'spiritual awakening'!

Love after Love

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the others' welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

Derek Walcott

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Monday, 9 April 2018

Braving it abroad booze-free

This is a blog I wrote a week ago when I was on holiday...

I’m writing this blog from my first alcohol-free holiday with friends. It’s 6.30am and I’m up with my first cup of coffee looking out across the ocean watching the monkeys play on the beach, willing them not to come any closer to me (but more about that later), while everyone else sleeps. I am truly loving my first sober holiday but there are some big differences between this holiday and every other holiday I've been on since I was around 17.
My blog writing spot

Embracing the daytime

As I’ve morphed into a booze-free person it has started to dawn on me (you’ll get this metaphor in a second!) that I am an early bird, not a night owl. I would much rather be in bed before ten and be up before seven. This seems to have spilt over into my holiday routine. It’s quickly become apparent that I’m working on a different time scale on this holiday to all of my friends. When I’m leaping out of bed enthusiastically at 6am, my mates are still snoring away. On the flip side, when my friends are revved up to take the party to the next level, I am stifling yawns and sneaking off to bed.

The downside to this has been that when I decided to take on the monkeys who were smashing bottles outside our room at 6am yesterday, there was no one around to save me as I became surrounded by the little f**kers, snarling and flashing their teeth. It appears monkeys don’t like being told what to do and when you piss off one monkey, the whole tribe will come to their aid. Unfortunately, my tribe weren’t available to help me so I had to defend myself!

The bottle-smashing monkeys

Expelling the fear

Now that I don’t drink, the breakfast buffet has become a far more pleasurable experience. This is because I can enjoy it without a splitting headache and cringe-worthy memories from the night before flashing back to me. Now I no longer have the fear, I can look everyone in the eye with absolute certainty that I didn’t embarrass myself in front of anyone the night before. Hopefully I come across as a far warmer person now as I am able to greet people with a smile and a cheery ‘good morning’. 

Committing to anything

Over the past three alcohol-free months, I have gradually realised just how many things I wouldn’t have committed to in the past, knowing that I would be too hungover the next day to cope. I feel a little sad thinking about all the things I have passed up on doing and the opportunities I’ve missed thanks to debilitating hangovers. However, this holiday it has been exhilarating to find that I am able to commit to being up early and, for example, going diving in the morning, safe in the knowledge that I will be clear-headed and raring to go.

Sitting out on the fringes

While during the day on the holiday I have felt very much part of the crowd, once the alcohol starts flowing, there is a noticeable change. I move from being part of the group to looking in from the periphery. When you have played out your entire adult life as one of the chief instigators of drunken debauchery, it feels unfamiliar and abnormal to no longer belong to that group. To be honest, I feel like I’ve lost part of my identity and I’m not entirely comfortable yet with this new sensible, calm, less extrovert character that is emerging. 

Becoming an observer

Without alcohol I have become an observer rather than a participator. I have witnessed the standard loss of volume control, the incoherent and repetitive conversations, the meandering stumbles home, the loss of use of limbs, the collapsing and being incapable of getting back up, the sound of alcohol-induced vomiting and the screaming rows. I’m really not commenting on this judgmentally as I have pretty much ticked all of these boxes on various booze-fuelled holidays in the past. However, it is a great relief that I am now watching the mayhem unravel rather than being one of the centrepieces of the carnage. 

Saving money

Finally, I have spent very little so far on my holiday as I’m predominantly drinking water, with the odd calamansi juice or fruit shake when I’m really pushing the boat out! Knowing I have saved a lot of money by being sober has made it easier for me to justify taking my PADI Enriched Air Diver qualification so that I can dive for longer on nitrox. So, I will come away from this holiday with something of value, rather than a pair of sore kidneys - win/win!

Overall, would I want to change my first alcohol-free holiday? Abso-bloody-lutely NOT! OK, so there has been the odd moment where I haven’t felt as though I have slotted into the group as comfortably as I would have done, had I been drinking too. Nevertheless, the benefits far outweigh this minor negative, which is far more about me getting used to my new normal than anything else. I just need to stay patient as I know that sooner or later I will acclimatise to being this more reserved, less chaotic version of me.

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Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Strutting my booze-free beach body

I've almost made it through to Easter alcohol-free...that's 85 glorious hangover free days, or two months and three weeks of mental clarity and positive thought patterns. For now the anger appears to have passed and I'm feeling a lot calmer and remarkably content.  There is one small issue though... my chocolate consumption!

When I decided to give up drinking, I had visions of the weight falling off me and by Easter, a sober, slim and toned butterfly emerging from her chrysalis, replacing the pudgy booze-swilling caterpillar.  Unfortunately, the pudgy booze-swilling caterpillar has been superseded by a chocolate-troughing one.  There is absolutely no sign of a butterfly yet!

In two days time, I leave for a diving holiday in the Philippines where I had envisaged doing the great reveal of the new slim-line me.  Sadly, it is not to be.  However, despite not having the bikini body of a Victoria's Secret model to parade around the beach, my new sober lifestyle has liberated me from a great deal of self-hatred.  In the past I would have berated myself for not having slimmed down and felt ashamed of my inability to be self-disciplined enough to attain an 'acceptable' bikini body.  I would have spent the holiday comparing myself to my friends with their skinny legs and thigh gaps. I would have tried hiding my wobbly, cellulite-y thighs under a sarong as much as possible.  Now though, with my new head on, I can accept that I am an overweight Labrador who loves her food - especially chocolate. I know I have to stop comparing myself to my Whippet, Chihuahua and Afghan Hound friends because we are simply not built the same.  I'm sure I could get slim if I stopped eating but I'd still have disproportionately big thighs and this Labrador's life would be utterly miserable deprived of food.  So, on this trip to the Philippines I intend to embrace my fat, my stretch marks and my cellulite and wear my bikinis with pride - no covering up of the wobbliest, most stretched and dimpled bits. Besides, I do have some really gorgeous bikinis that need showcasing!  I have spent so much of my life hating and feeling ashamed of my body, which is actually pretty strong and surprisingly fit, that it's about time I started to accept it for what it is and show it some love... and reward it with chocolate! 

Now the beer's gone, it's time to cast aside the sarong!

One of the most unexpected outcomes of being alcohol-free is how much healthier and rational my thoughts are. Rather than consistently honing in on the negatives, I am now better equipped to pinpoint a more positive perspective.   The impact has been a shift from a damaging internal dialogue filled with shame and hatred, to one that is kinder, more accepting and more forgiving, resulting in me liking myself a lot more - chocolate addiction, flaws and all.    I found this poem today, which nicely sums up how it feels to have muted my toxic internal monologue at last.


The monsters were never
under my bed.
Because the monsters
were inside my head.

I fear no monsters,
for no monsters I see.
Because all this time
the monster has been me.

Nikita Gill 

Follow Nikita Gill on Instagram @nikita_gill - her poems are AMAZING.

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Thursday, 8 March 2018

My inner incredible hulk

Today I have finally come to realise that since stopping drinking I have developed a worryingly short fuse - and very quickly, a testing situation can escalate with me morphing into The Incredible Hulk.  Embarrassingly, I had a Hulk moment this morning in the Apple Store and I'm still shaking with rage.

Don't make me angry, you won't like me when I'm angry!

Since the end of last year I noticed that my iPhone battery was running down extremely quickly so today I finally headed to the Apple Store to get the problem fixed.  I deliberately set out to arrive there before the store opened so that I could be one of the first people there before the crowds arrived. It was immediately apparent that a lot of us were suffering with the same issue and a neat line had already formed outside the closed doors, thanks to the friendly guidance of a very helpful member of the Apple Store team.  However, as the security guards raised the doors to open the shop, one 'gentleman' (for gentleman read 'impatient tw*t'), broke free from his position at the back of the line, and sprinted into the shop to gain pole position.  There were a few grunts from the other people in the queue, but his behaviour really enraged me and I completely laid into him for trying to queue barge.  The other people in the queue bowed their heads to avoid the confrontation but I know the guys in front of me were secretly quite pleased that 'impatient tw*t' was pushed off pole position and back to his rightful place at the back of the queue.  While I was waiting to be served all I could hear was him muttering obscenities about me under his breath!  At the same time, I was struggling to suppress my anger.  I'm still feeling angry now, five hours after the incident but really - was it worth getting so worked up about?

This highlighted to me that there have been a few times recently where I have felt irrationally angry and have been unable to control my temper.  When my parents were in Hong Kong we flagged down a taxi to go to the airport.  The taxi had stopped in the street and as we were loading up the boot with all our suitcases, one of the cars behind us started aggressively honking its horn.  Rather than ignoring it, I exploded into a tirade of swear words and one fingered gestures, while my shocked father stood beside me and berated me for my foul language.  To make matters worse, one of the husband's clients was in a convertible car, with its roof down, in between the honking car and our taxi and witnessed the entire sweary episode! 

I've even felt uncontrollably angry in my yoga classes, which are meant to calm me!  Dragon pose definitely brings out the dragon in me.  Last week, while I was attempting to breathe through the pain of stretching in the pose, the instructor repositioned himself so he was crouching in front of me and said 'It's OK to cry!'.  At the time, I didn't want to cry, I wanted to lash out and scream at him for making me hold that shitty, painful position!

Getting home from the Apple Store today, I decided to look up to see whether anger issues were part of the process of going alcohol-free.  I discovered that there are two stages of alcohol withdrawal: the acute withdrawal phase and the post-acute withdrawal (PAWS) phase.  The PAWS phase peaks at around four to eight weeks of being alcohol free and its symptoms include, amongst other things, irritability, attacks of anxiety and sudden mood swings.  It can last for up to two years - so God, help me and all around me!

Writing on the Club Soda website, Laura Willoughby states that: 'The brain has a tremendous capacity to heal but this is not a quick process. When alcohol is consumed it affects the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain, adjusting the way it functions and causing it to become tolerant to and primed for alcohol. If you stop drinking, the brain has to readjust and find a new balance and it is this lag time which contributes towards post acute withdrawal symptoms.'

So, despite the horrifying prospect of possibly two more years of unleashing my inner hulk, it is reassuring to know that there is a reason for this, it will pass and it's just part of the healing process.   In the meantime, for those of you who know me well - you have been warned!  It doesn't take much for the Hulk to make an appearance these days!

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Tuesday, 6 March 2018

There goes the fear

I've noticed a change in me over the past two months of alcohol-free living - FOMO* has left the building.  There have been a few times recently, where the husband has turned to me and asked "Do you mind if I stay out?", to which my response has generally been a swift "No!", as I've hastily grabbed my handbag, flagged a cab and rushed home to the luxury of a good book and starfishing in the bed!  Now, the fact that I'm in my mid-forties and am firmly settled into 'middle-age' may provide part of the reason for this change, but I also know that as a sober person I have been able to make more rational decisions with my crystal clear head.

Up until this year, I frequently didn't want the party to end - following the crowd from bar to bar or refusing to leave the party, while feeding my unquenchable thirst for alcohol, until the night inevitably fizzled out or I had to be medevacked into a taxi by the husband.  This was fuelled by a fear of missing out and the desire to keep drinking because, quite frankly, what else do you do late at night when you're a booze hound?

Now that FOMO has exited my life, I understand that this fear is destructive, stressful and it feeds anxiety.  I am without doubt, benefiting from its absence in a number of ways.

I'm no longer there just for the sake of it

Now, when I'm at a party or out with friends, I am there because I have a genuine desire to be there and to spend time with those people.  I don't just accept every invitation on the off-chance that I may miss out if I don't make an appearance.  To be frank, I’ve had to edit FOMO from my life to avoid situations that may trigger a strong desire to drink and divert me off my path to sobriety. Without the fear of missing out I am able to make more reasoned decisions about what I do and steer a course that better aligns with my well-being.

I focus on a smaller group of friends

FOMO can lead you to spreading yourself really thin and not enjoying quality time with anyone.  Nowadays, rather than being out and sniffing around for the 'What next? /Where now?', I am far more content with spending quality time with my network of close friends, enjoying their company and then calling it a day at the right time, rather than fretting about whether I should be elsewhere, potentially having even more fun.  As a result I am far more present, without a head buzzing with FOMO.

I've eradicated self-destructive behaviour

Without that constant desire to stay out, chasing the illusion of greater amusement elsewhere, I've managed to erase the damage instilled through FOMO.  Research carried out by Texas A&M University shows that a 'wanting more' attitude can be detrimental to us both physically and mentally. It goes on to state that "The problem with FOMO is the individuals it impacts are looking outward instead of inward. When you're so tuned in to the 'other,' or the 'better' (in your mind), you lose your authentic sense of self. This constant fear of missing out means you are not participating as a real person in your own world."

In part FOMO had to be expelled from my life through a necessity to ensure I stay alcohol-free, but also its departure is a natural by-product of my new lifestyle.  The result is definitely beneficial as I feel more in control, calmer and less exhausted without FOMO driving the pursuit to be part of all the potential fun and amusement that is going on.  I'm truly enjoying my less hectic, more peaceful life and I'm far more fulfilled and a happier person as a result.

Me and my mocktail

* FOMO: the fear of missing out. The fear that if you miss a party or event you will miss out on something great.

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Thursday, 22 February 2018

Passing the 50 day mark

This week I passed the 50 day alcohol-free mark.  I'm not really counting days because I prefer the idea of looking ahead rather than getting fixated on numbers, but I do have a sobriety app that I check from time to time - and I was ever so slightly smug to see that more than 50 days had gone by.  In my 'Goodbye letter to alcohol' I outlined some of the things that scared me about giving up alcohol so I thought I would revisit them 50 days in....

I’m scared my husband won’t want to be with a teetotal wife having married a lush

My husband's initial reaction to me stopping drinking was not 100% positive - probably not helped by the fact that I didn't tell him in person, he read about it on my blog - oops!  He expressed concern that we would lead separate lives and I wouldn't want to go out any more.  His worry hit a nerve, as my fear was that I wouldn't want to spend as much time in bars and that he wouldn't like the sober version of me, and we ran the risk of drifting apart.  So far though, I think my lifestyle change has benefited us both and brought us closer together as a result.  My husband has definitely been drinking less and been leading a healthier, more active life - maybe partly because I am subliminally guilting him into doing so, and partly because I'm not there to support the 'just one more' reasoning any more.

I think our relationship has improved too as a result of me not being consumed by self-hate and shame post-drinking, which I would inevitably take out on him. Don't get me wrong, I'm still pretty moody - I had hoped that would disappear, but sadly not - but I'm not overwhelmed by negative feelings that erupt out of me like an enraged rottweiler.

I’m scared friends will find me boring

I have discovered since going alcohol-free that I am actually rather sensible, calm, restrained and in control.  None of these adjectives could have been applied to me after a bottle of wine and some cocktails.  I am still nervous that friends will get bored of this new sensible me. 

Having said that, I also have to remind myself about the drunk version of me who would often pass the fun, carefree, relaxed stage and morph into a slurring, shambolic, sometimes angry, discombobulated mess.  If my friends could tolerate that version of me, I'm hopeful that they can accept sensible me.  Perhaps over time, I will grow more comfortable with my alcohol-free self and find it easier to let my hair down and make a dick of myself again!

I’m scared I’ll never have the confidence to dance on a table or belt out karaoke again

OK, so I still haven't had the confidence to dance on a table, however I was forced to sing karaoke to a room full of people at a Chinese New Year party.  I honestly never ever thought I would be able to do that sober, but it appears I can - albeit, fairly tunelessly.  Here's the proof... prepare your ear plugs before turning up the volume!

Watch the video here... you know you want to!

I’m scared no one will choose to hang out with me

Over the past 50 days I have been lucky enough to have been invited to lots of events and parties, from dinners and (alcohol-free) drinks with friends, to gala dinners,  Chinese New Year parties, to hen parties, birthday parties and weddings.  So I guess I haven't become a social outcast quite yet.  

I have discovered that I am very comfortable going to dinners or events where I am sitting down around a table and where food is involved.  However, the anxiety levels definitely rise when I know the event will involve just standing around, chatting and drinking.  I'm already feeling very apprehensive about a hen party in a couple of month's time - not because I'm scared I'll be tempted to drink - but because an event like that typically hinges on drinking and games and activities that require you to 'let go'.  As the sober me is sensible and restrained, I know I am going to struggle to blend in.

To date, I am relieved that most of my fears have been unfounded and I am really proud with how far I have come in just 50 alcohol-free days, although I know I still have quite some way to go.  I look forward to a time where I can truly cut loose and relax without being propped up by booze. I am sure it will be possible, I'm just not there yet.

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Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Today is my favourite day

The last couple of weeks have been really challenging – jolting me out of my metaphorical comfy armchair and reminding me that life is fleeting and capricious. Two weeks ago David and I received an email from a very close friend telling us she had secondary breast cancer, for which there is no cure. The email was heartbreaking, yet brave and uplifting as she told us how much she loves us and asked that we celebrate her great life and many achievements, and surround her with joy not sadness. It has been overwhelmingly painful to process news of this magnitude and I have been lurching between profound sorrow for the future, waves of nostalgia for what has been and an intense rage which I’ve been struggling to suppress. To add to the emotional burden I’ve been really sick over the last week which has reduced my capacity to cope and has opened the door to a black cloud of depression, which fortunately seems to be dissipating today. In short, it’s been a bit shit.

In our society we seem to fear death and brush any thought of it under the carpet as though it doesn’t actually exist. However, when it unexpectedly looms, it does remind us, with a hefty boot up the arse, that we only have one life and we need to live it with purpose. The Roman philosopher, Marcus Aurelius, wrote: “It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.” None of us are going to be around forever so we need to really live our best possible life now. Today.

My naughty, brave, spirited and courageous friend is 'life is not a dress rehearsal' personified. Her achievements are numerous. To name but a few: she is a very successful partner in a law firm; she has climbed Mont Blanc; she took part in the 2017 Arctic Marathon; she has competed in the 100km Gurkha Challenge trek across the South Downs; she was selected to sing and tour with the World Youth Choir; she has competed in numerous sailing races including Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club’s Round the Island Race on Wonderwall; and there aren’t many corners of the world that she hasn’t explored. She has crammed more excitement, adventures and achievements into her 39 years than many people manage in 80. She has shown what can be accomplished by living for the now.

Today is the day for me to stop wallowing and to start celebrating my friend's achievements and surrounding her in the joy she wants.

Steve Taylor, Ph.D. , wrote on the Psychology Today blog: “Becoming aware of our own mortality can be a liberating and awakening experience, which can – paradoxically, it might seem – encourage us to live authentically and fully for the first time.” So today is also the day to follow my friend's example by no longer procrastinating and starting to live life in the present with genuine purpose.

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Sunday, 28 January 2018

Thinking about extending dry January... READ ON!


This morning I received an email from an old friend of mine with the subject 'Inspiration Required', stating: "I think a number of us, especially that are close to completing the usual dry January, could do with a pep talk blog to consider our path. I am not yet minded to abstain for the long term... but through to Easter is a possibility."

My intention is not to make my blog all preachy and self-righteous, I really don't mind if people choose to drink or not and I have no issue being around people who are drinking.  For example, last night I was at the Volvo Ocean Race Prize-Giving Gala Dinner. With well over 500 attendees, I was one of only a handful of non-drinkers but I still had a great night sipping my orange juice and mocktails.
© Erwan Her

However, if you are coming to the end of dry January and thinking maybe, just maybe, you could extend going alcohol-free for a while longer - here is some food for thought.

Change your perception about alcohol
In 'This Naked Mind' by Annie Grace, she discusses how 'almost everything in our society tells you, both consciously and unconsciously, that alcohol is the 'elixir of life', and without it in your life you would be missing a key ingredient'. However, throughout her book she dissects all our justifications for drinking, backed up by the latest scientific research.  She clearly outlines that 'when you completely change your mental (conscious and unconscious) perspective on alcohol, you begin to see the truth about drinking.  When this happens, no willpower is required, and it becomes a joy not to drink.'  

In Jason Vale's 'Kick the Drink... Easily' he states that 'the only thing that keeps people hooked is the illusion created by the drug itself and the years of conditioning and brainwashing'

I highly recommend reading Annie Grace's 'This Naked Mind' and/or Jason Vale's 'Kick the Drink... Easily'.  They have completely changed the way I think about drinking and have made it so much easier to stop.  As I've mentioned before I have joined some online sober support communities and countless members of these groups agree that having read these books their perception of drinking has changed, making it simpler to quit.

Focus on the benefits
Jason Vale highlights how ''When you stop drinking you are giving up absolutely … NOTHING! Oh sorry, apart from the headaches, the hangovers, the lethargy, the bad breath, the beer gut, the arguments, the violence, being overemotional, regretting things you have done but can’t remember doing, getting things out of proportion, putting things off all the time, the stress, the overdraft, the taxis, the guilt, the lies, the deceit, the brewer’s droop, the mood swings, the breakdown of the immune system, the lack of resistance to all kinds of diseases, the destruction of brain cells, not to mention the excess weight..."

For me, the benefits to date of going alcohol-free have been:  deep deep sleep; weight loss; increased energy levels; a more positive mindset; no more anxiety; no feelings of shame or embarrassment; generally feeling more able to cope with the crap that life can sometimes throw at us.  I also know that I am only just beginning to scratch the surface.  Things will only carry on getting better going forward.

If you have managed to get through dry January, you really have done the most difficult bit.  From my previous experiences of giving up alcohol for longer than a month, you really do start to reap the rewards from around six weeks onwards.  Why not give it a little longer, you really do have nothing to lose but everything to gain.

Take back control
Maybe like I did, you had a nagging fear that alcohol was stealing your ability to manage your emotions and was causing unhappiness, irritability, fear, anxiety and/or a range of other negative emotions.  Maybe you've noticed that you feel more in control of things and more positive after a month of no drinking.

Annie Grace states that 'Alcohol erases a bit of you every time you drink it.  It can erase entire nights when you are on a binge.  Alcohol does not relieve stress; it erases your senses and your ability to think.  Alcohol ultimately erases your self.'  She goes on to state that - 'for many, alcohol ensnares them at such a slow pace that it's imperceptible.  The changes are subtle.  You come to depend on alcohol, feeling it gives you the courage to face the day, when in reality it steals confidence from you.'

Deep down we all know that alcohol is damaging and controlling us.  This is why we expend so much energy justifying why we are doing it.  Since I have taken back control and stopped drinking, I feel I have regained confidence and I am holding my head higher.  I finally feel a sense of peace and calm which I know I can never achieve when alcohol is controlling my life.

If you want to take back control longer term and feel you need some extra support then join a sober online community like Club Soda or Soberistas.  You will discover many different people from every walk of life facing exactly the same struggles as you.  Realising you are not alone and thousands of others are also wanting to beat booze out of their lives really helps to keep you on track.

So, if you are wondering what to do now that your dry January has come to an end.  Why not challenge yourself and extend it further?  You'll probably find it is far easier than you think.

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Monday, 22 January 2018

Perfection: A path to addiction

Since I've been posting about my relationship with alcohol and my rationale for breaking up with booze, I have been bowled over by the astoundingly supportive messages I have received from friends and strangers alike.  On Tuesday, a heartfelt message popped up in my email inbox from an old colleague in response to my 'Hope is the only thing stronger than fear' post.  One of her comments really made me think.  She wrote:  "You've always come across as such a confident, self-assured lady - reading your latest blog (and then going back and reading earlier posts) has made me see a very different side to you."   Many of us wear a mask to disguise our weaknesses and vulnerabilities and present a version of ourselves that we want people to see, rather than our true self.  I know that I, in particular, have concealed the real me, especially in a work environment.

Throughout the years when I worked in advertising and marketing, I suffered from imposter syndrome, believing that I was inadequate and a fraud, despite evidence to indicate that I was actually very skilled and successful.  I was a perfectionist, setting excessively high standards for myself and beating myself up when I failed to reach a goal.  I was riddled with self-doubt and worry. I was also a control freak.  This made me terrible at delegating, as I always wanted everything to be done perfectly and my way.  I expected my work to be 100% perfect, 100% of the time.  To my colleagues I must have looked extremely self-assured, confident and on top of everything, but I felt like the elegant gliding swan paddling frantically below the surface.

As I was writing this, I thought to myself, 'Thank God, I'm no longer like that!'  But then I thought back to studying last year and the blog I wrote in November where I talk about striving so hard to achieve a distinction for my DipTESOL that I was suffering from anxiety and panic attacks.  How quickly we forget! To the other people on the course I probably appeared to be over-achieving with consistently high marks, but inside I was wracked with self-doubt and fear that at some point I'd be outed as not being good enough.

This lead me to read up about perfectionism and its impact on our lives.  According to Gnilka, Ashby & Noble (2013) there are two forms of perfectionism: adaptive perfectionism where individuals 'strive towards personal high standards without a crippling self-critical voice when these elevated standards are not met'; and maladaptive perfectionism which 'is associated with extreme self-criticalness and a persistent sense of failure to live up to personal high standards of performance'.  Maladaptive perfectionism has been linked to various psychological outcomes, such as depression, self-esteem and self-confidence.  Rice, Van Arsdale & Amy (2006) go on to highlight how maladaptive perfectionists have significantly higher levels of stress and a tendency to drink to cope. In Rettig's Huffington Post blog about 'Perfectionism And Addiction', she states how perfectionism supports addiction through causing 'persistent feelings of frustration, despair, shame and guilt that an addict might turn to alcohol or some other addictive substance or behavior to soothe'.  I can now see that I have definitely fallen into the maladaptive perfectionist category throughout various chapters of my life and one of my most prevalent uses of alcohol was as a 'soother' and 'stress reliever'.

I know that I focus on presenting the photoshopped version of me to the world and I feel ashamed and embarrassed by my failures.  Maybe some of you can recognise these traits in yourself.  If we all became more comfortable with removing the veneer of perfection,  and embracing (and sharing) our failures as part of a natural learning process on the pathway to success, we could start to make in-roads into leading happier more honest lives with less need to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol.  One of my favourite Nelson Mandela quotes is: “Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.”  It's time to start applying this to my life and accepting that I will never be perfect.  I need to be less harsh on myself, embrace the real flawed me and keep getting up, dusting myself down and carrying on without beating myself up.

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Thursday, 18 January 2018

Same same but different - part two

Following on from yesterday's blog 'Same same but different - part one' where I looked at the aspects of going alcohol free that I have found similar to my previous attempts at sobriety, today I am looking at the differences.
Bye bye booze!

So, what is different this time around?

Putting my story out there - Brené Brown states that 'owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.'  So, I have taken the decision to share my story - warts and all - and out myself as a fledgling member of the sober revolution.  Through revealing my vulnerabilities I am connecting with a staggering number of people who can relate to where I have been and where I want to end up.  I also hope to recruit a few others to join the revolution so they can share the same positive changes as me.

My support network - This comment was posted on Facebook about my blog this week - 'Stopping is one thing. Staying stopped is another. It is the hardest, yet most rewarding journey ever. I hope she finds the right people to support her'.  I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment as I am pretty good at stopping but pretty poor at remaining stopped and I know the importance of finding a supportive tribe to fight my corner with me.  This time around I have taken a different approach and I am shouting from the roof tops that I am no longer drinking, to rally the backing of friends. I am also using sober support networks to keep me on track.  For anyone interested in adopting a similar approach, Club Soda seems to be home to the most like-minded ex-drinkers for me.  What I love about these alcohol free groups is that they are ridiculously supportive and non-judgmental because we've all been there, done that and got the T-shirt.

Overcoming the stigma of being a non-drinker - Clare Pooley, author of The Sober Diaries writes on her blog'When I first quit drinking, I told no-one... I imagined that if I told my friends that I'd quit that they would judge me and assume that I'd been a terrible lush (partly true) and a terrible mother (not true, at least not most of the time). I thought they'd label me boring and stop inviting me to parties. I thought they'd worry that I'd become all preachy and judgmental (as if I'm in a position to judge anyone!)..'  Most of these thoughts have been running through my mind and it's apparent that there's something wrong with our society for us to feel marginalised for giving up an addictive substance! The more I have read, written and published, the more I realise that these prejudices and stigmas stem from systematic brainwashing and fear.  I am starting to see that there does seem to be a growing army of us who are calling bullshit on the 'boring'/'judgmental'/'raging alcoholic' labels attached to non-drinkers and I want to be on the front line of that army obliterating those stigmas and making it easier for others to make the same choice as me and to be able to talk about it with pride.

My resolve - I have stopped drinking a gazillion times before, but mostly as a temporary thing with a fixed end date so from day one I was always counting down to when I could drink again.  I know now that I don't want to leave the door ajar to the possibility of drinking and my resolve is set very firmly on this final break-up with alcohol.  Jason Vale states that 'once you make a firm decision [to stop drinking alcohol], you cut off any other possibility and doubt; so whatever happens in your future life, drinking alcohol is not just not an option but something that you have no interest in doing.  You have moved on and are free.'

And that really sums up how I feel about drinking right now.  It's over, once and for all, and I've already taken the first steps into my new life without booze and I feel free.

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Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Same same but different - part one

I have now been alcohol free for more than two weeks - with the exception of the little splash of red wine I added to some Quorn mince, which quite frankly needed all the help it could get to taste of something.  I have given up booze many times and often reached this point but this time it does feel quite different in certain respects - although reassuringly familiar in others.

The familiar aspects are:

The chocolate cravings - Due to alcohol being converted to sugar in the body, when you quit drinking your body craves sugar. Last week I seemed powerless to resist the call of M&S chocolate & orange mini bites and giant chocolate buttons.  Damn you M&S and your yummy chocolate!  Research suggests that sugar has a similar effect on the brain’s levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter controlling the brain’s reward and pleasure areas, as alcohol. So this week my focus is on breaking the chocolate cravings before I replace one dependency with another.  So far.... not so good though!
Move away from the chocolate!

The deep deep sleep - After the first week of disrupted sleep and disturbing dreams, I am now sleeping ridiculously deeply.  I cannot over emphasize how blissful it is to wake up every morning feeling properly rested and raring to grab hold of the day ahead.  There is extensive research to support the fact that 'alcohol affects sleep, daytime alertness, and certain physiological processes that occur during sleep' - so it's no wonder that my sleep has improved so dramatically.

The increased energy levels - Without alcohol in my life and probably thanks to being well rested, my energy levels are off the scale.  Last week I hiked 60km, walked up 588 floors and stretched my way through three yoga classes - which can only be a good thing bearing in mind the vats of chocolate I have consumed!
Hiking, hiking and more hiking...

The weight loss - After I got back to Hong Kong after Christmas, I gingerly stood on the scales and nervously looked down to see the damage caused by a month being back on the booze again. I was horrified to see that I had gained 3.5kgs.  However, two weeks down the line and I've already lost all of that weight.  With booze being loaded with calories, it is not surprising research shows that the men and women consuming the greatest quantity of alcohol tend to have the highest BMIs.  As such, I'm hoping the scales will continue to follow a downward trend from now on.

The positive mindset - Right now I am nestled in a lovely warm, cosy, aura of contentment and positivity, although I am conscious that this may be what ex-drinkers call the 'pink fluffy clouds' - an intense feeling of happiness that moves in to replace the lows of drinking. Long may this feeling last! There are loads of resources on the DrinkAware website explaining the impact of alcohol on our mental health and I am relishing the lifting of my dark rain clouds without booze in my life.

The doubters - Those pesky little doubters and sober saboteours are still out there in force and the more drunk they get, the more persistent they become. On Saturday night I went to a pub quiz and at the start of the night I received nothing but praise and admiration for choosing to stop drinking.  However as the night progressed, the banter escalated.. 'You don't know what you're missing' 'Mmm, are you jealous?' How long is this going to last? 'I give you until April' 'What addiction are you going to replace the booze with?' etc. and it was revealed there is a sweep stake on how long it will be before I relent and drown myself in red wine.  All I can say is the more you doubt me, the stronger my resolve becomes!

So, what is different this time around? Read tomorrow's blog to find out.....

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Sunday, 14 January 2018

Hope is the only thing stronger than fear

At the start of October last year I was feeling exceptionally low.  I couldn't really pin point why but I felt myself sinking into a very negative space where I felt angry and unable to cope.  I was aware that I was binge-drinking as a crutch which was counter-productive as it simply made me feel worse about myself.  One morning, I found myself hiking up the Peak - my go to activity to make me feel happy - in floods of tears and I decided that enough was enough and it was time to seek professional help.

I found a counsellor who specialised in issues around 'self' and binge-drinking and spewed my worries out on an email to her.  She instantly responded saying that my issues were well within her scope of work and asked me to complete a client in-take form, which contained some fairly soul searching questions.  After I sent back the form, the counsellor suggested some times we could meet but unfortunately none of them worked with my teaching schedule.  As I felt that she had the right skill set to help me, I didn't really want to see anyone else so I temporarily parked the idea of going to counselling.

However, the process of completing the in-take form did clarify that my relationship with alcohol was far from healthy, so I made the decision to quit drinking for a while to see if that improved my mental state.  To avoid the difficult questions and the potential sober saboteurs, I told my friends I was on a health and fitness regime and was looking to lose 10kgs before Christmas.  This worked well and I didn't experience the usual barrage of abuse and constant haranguing of 'don't be so boring''can't you just have one', 'when are you going to start being fun again' etc.

I stopped drinking for seven and a half weeks and in that time I noticed many dramatic changes.  I lost 5kgs, I went down a dress size, my skin became much clearer, I looked younger, I slept really well and people kept telling me how great I looked.  The most notable change though was just how quickly my mental health changed for the better.  My anxiety, anger and negativity were replaced with feelings of extreme contentment and positivity.

Slipping back into my drinking ways over Christmas, it was very revealing to see how quickly all of these positives could be reversed.  As a result this has helped to strengthen my resolve to make alcohol free living a permanent fixture in my life from now on.

Out of the blue, the counsellor got back in touch with me this week to apologise for not having been able to work out a time to meet last year and to find out if we could set something up now.  I explained how after I had originally contacted her, I quit drinking, my mindset changed dramatically and I felt better about myself. I told her how I've realised that I am much more stable and content without booze in my life and how I am using online support groups, self-help books and my blog to keep me motivated to make this change for the better.  I also sent her a link to my goodbye to alcohol letter which has now received almost 8,000 views.  I said that I didn't feel the need to see her now but I would be in touch if things changed.

She sent me back an amazing response asking if I would be prepared to speak at an event in the future, as she has many clients who are hooked on alcohol and she is looking to run a programme for alcohol.  Me...speaking as an ex-drinker!  Who would've thought it!  She ended the email by saying:

I share all this with you as it sounds like you are a leader and you may come across people who find it harder than you to quit. I am inspired by your story!

It made me feel so proud of what I've achieved so far and so hopeful, rather than afraid, of my booze-free future.

Today, I dug out the client in-take form I completed back in October.  On the form I stated that the goals I wanted to achieve through counselling were as follows:

'I want to be content and accept myself no matter what.  I want to stop comparing myself to others.  I want to stop thinking others are saying/thinking negative things about me. I want to feel 100% secure.'

I know without a shadow of a doubt that without alcohol in my life, all of these goals are well within my grasp.  I am no longer afraid - I am brimming with hope.

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Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Learning how to celebrate without booze

Yesterday I had some fantastic news. After a six week wait, I finally received my DipTESOL exam results and I got 77%! Rather disappointingly this was 3% short of a distinction but at times I never thought I would even manage 50% for the written exam, so I’m really not complaining. Here’s my exam paper if you are interested in taking a look to see what all the fuss was about. This result combined with the results of my assessed teaching, my research projects and my phonology exam mean that I have achieved a distinction overall for my DipTESOL which I am ecstatic about. This is the culmination of a year’s worth of seriously hard graft and I’m really proud of my achievement.

However, the excitement of getting the result I’ve been dreaming of over the past year fell a little flat now that I am ‘on the wagon’. Normally, I would use an event like this as an excuse to go out for a some exotic cocktails and/or a glass bottle of bubbles. Instead, to keep me away from the enticing embrace of alcohol, I checked into my yin yoga class and meditated rather than self-medicated! Although the eight hours of blissfully deep sleep that resulted from the yoga was a welcome reward, it didn’t really recompense the 12 months of hard slog I put into getting my DipTESOL. So now that I am alcohol-free, I am going to have to learn some alternative ways to celebrate that don’t involve cracking open a bottle.

Therefore, on Friday night, the husband and I are trying an experiment. We are going out for a booze-free dinner together to see if we can celebrate in style without a bottle of wine or two. My concern is that although we will feel fabulous on Saturday morning waking up without hangovers, there will be a wine shaped void at the dinner table, resulting in us potentially feeling deprived and subdued. It is the flavours of the red wine accompanying the food that I will miss, even more so than the initial ‘and relax...’ feeling I get from my first sip of wine. Somehow, a bottle of San Pellegrino doesn’t have quite the same appeal as an Argentinian Malbec or a full bodied Cabernet Sauvignon. If I was in England I would try experimenting with dealcoholized red wine but although I’ve searched high and low for it here in Hong Kong, I can only find alcohol free beer and I’d never choose to drink beer with a meal. Perhaps we will push the boat out and try a fancier restaurant than we would usually go to and start off with some exotic mocktails to rev up our first alcohol-free celebration.

The reality is that over the years I have used alcohol as a reward, a confidence booster, an emotion suppressor, a special event marker, a comforter... and so on. As a result it is going to take time to erase these ingrained habits, to learn new behaviour patterns and make them become second nature. Learning how to celebrate without using alcohol is no doubt the first of many hurdles to overcome in the coming months.

I’ll let you know how my booze free celebration goes!

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Friday, 5 January 2018

Day five in the booze free house

Today is my fifth alcohol free day and the idea of having a drink hasn’t crossed my mind.  However, I have made a few observations about my new booze-free lifestyle.

The first is that I have had four absolutely terrible night’s sleep.  My brain has been totally preoccupied with planning life without alcohol and won’t shut down.  The only positive to the sleep deprivation is that it has given me plenty of time to read about sobriety.  For anyone considering going alcohol free, I highly recommend reading Jason Vale’s ‘Kick the Drink Easily’, which is written in a similar style to Allen Carr’s ‘Easy Way to Stop Smoking’ and shatters many conceptions about drinking and has certainly helped me to alter how I see alcohol and its role in my life.  I have also read a book by Clare Pooley, an ex-colleague from London advertising days, called ‘The Sober Diaries’ and I’m half way through ‘The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober’ by Catherine Grey.  Both are well written and provide helpful advice framed in honest and often witty accounts of their journey to sobriety.  Knowing others have paved the way and their lives have improved immeasurably as a result is reassuring.

Apart from the lack of sleep I have noticed the varying responses I have had to my decision to give up drinking.  Mostly I’ve been completely overwhelmed by the tidal wave of support I’ve received since publishing my ‘Goodbye to Alcohol’ letter – thank you!  However, I have also had comments of dismay, inferring that I am now confined to a life as a social hermit missing out on all the fun.  Even my husband alluded to this by remarking that by going alcohol free we would spend less time together.  This is undoubtedly true in that we will spend less late night drunk time together when I would invariably speak a load of bollocks, get aggressive, possibly fall over and not remember much of it in the morning, so I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing!

Having read my letter, another friend asked me ‘Are you an alcoholic?’. This reaction is apparently fairly typical when people announce they are quitting drinking.  This is highlighted in Jason Vale’s ‘Kick the Drink Easily’ where he states:

“We have been conditioned to believe that you are either a ‘normal’ drinker or that you have lost control and are an ‘alcoholic.’ As a result, people who have finally woken up to the fact that they are not in control have to keep quiet about it for fear of being made an outcast. If they are brave enough to voice a desire to stop drinking, they are called alcoholics which suggests they have an incurable disease and would have to ‘give up’ drinking forever. This is an unwelcome and frightening thought for anybody who drinks. The truth is that the vast majority of people are never in genuine control of their alcohol intake.”

In short, I believe that I am alcohol dependent, alcohol often controls me and I want to change that.

My final observation occurred on my way to work this morning.  I bumped into a bloke I met in a bar a while back when I was watching rugby and knocking back vats of red wine.  Having not seen him for some time he suggested that my husband and I met up with him for a drink at the Foreign Correspondents Club and my knee-jerk response was an apologetic ‘Oh no, I’m sorry, I don’t drink any more’.  He looked genuinely surprised and said ‘You don’t have to drink alcohol.  I don’t care what you drink!’  How fucked up is it that I felt the need to apologise for not drinking and assumed that someone wouldn’t want to meet me if I wasn't quaffing alcohol?  It’s obvious I still have some way to go to fully accepting this new way of life.

So, overall what I have learnt over the last five days is:
  1. Not sleeping is really irritating but it is possible to use the time productively.
  2. By being honest and open you quickly find you have an army of supporters and that you are absolutely not alone... and that is just the best feeling!
  3. I’m not going to be apologetic for not drinking.  I’m going to be proud.  This is my new normal.

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