Saturday, 17 June 2017

The Final Chapter

Today is a special day for me. One year ago today I decided to quit alcohol for a year in order to change my relationship with alcohol. My drinking started in inglorious and ultimately messy fashion at my mother's 50th birthday party when I was 13. I'd never had a prolonged break from drinking in my life since then. I still remember the rollicking good times I've had drinking, but mostly now I can see how dysfunctional my drinking was at times and how it harmed me physically and emotionally.

It's funny how some things in life you never question. The way I started drinking - at a family event under the noses, and with the tacit approval, of equally tipsy adults - mirrors the experience of so many people I know. The idea that your kids are going to drink anyway so it might as well be under parental supervision is something that is intrinsic to our drinking culture. In the last year alcohol has been practically invisible in our house, rarely drunk by my wife (who has cut down significantly), and seldom even indulged in by our guests. My children may decide to drink, but now they have a non-drinking option modelled to them. I'm proud of that. I realise now that in the past I have been a facilitator of drinking for myself and for those around me, always offering our lunch or dinner guests alcohol - almost insisting they have one with me ("Go on, I'm having one!"). When my wife and I go out and socialise now, more than anything else, I notice how the majority of people in our lives don't actually drink to excess. I used to think everyone else drank like me (rushing to the bar to get a few under the belt in order to feel at ease), and that I was fitting in. It was my need to feel like everyone else, and conquer my natural shyness, that drove much of my drinking.

How do I feel this morning, as I write this? I feel deeply satisfied and a little emotional, that I've achieved what I set out to achieve. I've not only changed my relationship with alcohol, I no longer have any relationship with it. My wife has just told me she's proud of me. In the first few months I wrote a blog asking others if I'd ever feel comfortable in my sobriety or would I always feel that pull to pick up again. For those of you in the early days of your journey, battling with those same feelings, I can tell you that it gets easier. I no longer have any desire to drink again. Everyone's experience is different, but I wish the way I feel now for you also. It's a beautiful thing.

I've written at length about the benefits of sobriety but to recap briefly; I'm calmer, more connected to those in my life, less frustrated, more compassionate with myself and others, healthier and more confident socially.

Naively, I thought at the beginning that quitting alcohol would solve all my problems and I'd enjoy the fruits of a perfect life. But in reality quitting alcohol has made it impossible to avoid facing up to the stresses I'd always squashed down in the past (the bottle of red wine at the end of a stressful day at home with the kids, the rigger of cider to take the edge off). Knowing how great I have it makes me feel guilty and self indulgent to feel like I have any real problems, but the past year has been difficult. I've been dwelling on whether giving up alcohol has opened the door and ushered in the depression and anxiety I now battle. Despite my current struggles, I don't regret giving up alcohol one little bit. It was the best thing that I've ever done (apart from marrying my soul mate and having our children). I see this depression as a period of growth, from which I'll emerge stronger. Giving up drinking and now dealing with depression has put me on a path to living in the present and being more mindful. I've found it necessary to  keep things simpler, not dwelling on regrets of the past or agonising about the difficult things ahead. This is a very good thing for me.

Every story has a beginning a middle and an end. My story and sober path continues, but this will be my last blog. Writing it has truly helped me, especially in the early days. It's connected me to like-minded people around the world and around New Zealand - some of whom I've actually met! Reading your comments has encouraged me, enlightened me and educated me. Signing up to Living Sober was the best thing and I encourage anyone who is thinking about their drinking to do it. I don't know how I would have stayed sober without the support of the Living Sober tribe. I may have done it, but it would have been far harder. I'm not sure how to thank you really. It's the most supportive, open, generous place. Mrs D has created something very special for us.

A year ago I felt lonely, apprehensive and a little afraid as I contemplated giving up drinking. But now I feel like I have many friends - true friends - all bound by a common path. There is strength in numbers and I take your inspiring strength forward with me.


Sunday, 4 June 2017

Turning Point

Today is sober day 352. I imagined that I'd get to this point and quitting the booze would have caused all my problems to melt away. Life would be perfect. Simple. Easy. But it's not that simple is it? Alcohol has helped avoid dealing with my emotions, avoid properly dealing with hard stuff. It's stunted my emotional growth, and now I feel small and vulnerable.

And it's not that I haven't noticed the turmoil and hard times being experienced daily on Living Sober. I've heard Mrs D talk about living life in the raw. But here's the common thread that binds us all. I haven't heard one person who has gotten themselves sober say they want to return to their old lives, no matter how hard things get. I feel lucky and grateful that I'm dealing with the ups and downs of depression and anxiety without also having to factor in alcohol. Quitting alcohol is still the best thing I've ever done for myself. I wouldn't change a single thing.

The antidepressants are slowly restoring me in both mind and body. It's a slow process but I feel a lot better. Everything has slowly improved; my concentration, my general mood, my energy. There are still downs, but nothing has been as bad as that first week after I started medication. I had a setback on Friday night. I had felt little peaks of anxiety throughout what was a frantic day. I did far too much and didn't listen to my body. At about 6pm I had a major panic attack - my breathing got out of control, my hands and back went numb and I burst into tears in front of my children. It was pure fear. But in many ways it wasn't as bad as my first attack last year, because at least this time I knew what it was and that it would pass.

Last night the anxiety returned just before Lotta Dann's book launch in Christchurch. I met some beautiful Living Sober members and talking to them helped me get through it. It was great to see Lotta (Mrs D) again. She asked me if I had seen the depression coming and I told her that in many ways I had seen it coming for most of my adult life. But by the time I was in real trouble it was too late to get myself out of it.

It was about 15 months since I travelled to Wellington to interview Lotta for an article I was asked to write about Living Sober for the New Zealand Drug Foundation (read it here). I had joined Living Sober and was doing moderation at the time, but I hadn't quit alcohol yet. While I was talking with Lotta I knew I was at a major turning point in my life. The energy, the wisdom, and the example Lotta sets for so many people is what makes her special. I returned to Christchurch and read her sober memoir Mrs D is Going Without, and I knew my life without alcohol would be so much richer.

Last weekend my wife saw her new book Mrs D is Going Within and bought me a copy. This book based on the Mindfulness techniques Lotta has found to deal with hard emotional stuff - was far harder for Lotta to write and she feels unsure about releasing it to the world when she is still so "wobbly" and unformed. But this is the inspiration of it for me. To know that quitting alcohol is just the start and that there is more work to do is golden. Life can be fucking hard, but the fact that we keep moving and working and trying and hoping for better is the generous and wonderful gift of Lotta's book. I hope at some stage Lotta can just bask in a feeling of pure pride at what she's done. She deserves that.

This morning I ran the Christchurch Half Marathon. I wondered how my body would cope after the panic attack on Friday. I even considered pulling out. But I slept well last night and felt relaxed this morning. One of the things I'm trying to do at the moment is not to hold on so tightly to things. Too many times I've failed to reach a certain time and for years I've dreamed of breaking 1 1/2 hours. Today I focussed on soaking up the experience, enjoying it even. Towards the end when my legs were screaming for me to stop, I told myself to keep going. No matter how bad things get, I'm alive, and lucky to be able to do something I love. I didn't run my fastest time but I enjoyed this event probably more than any other, and was truly satisfied with the result (this is really unlike me). My wife and children cheered me on as I crossed the finish line. My girls even made signs for me. I'm a lucky man.

Right now, as I write this, I'm feeling a nice, warm feeling of happiness and I no longer take for granted how good that feels.