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.



Monday 29 May 2017

Medicated but not Elated

It's been just over a fortnight since I began taking anti-depressants and on about day 11 the clouds definitely started lifting. My sharpness of mind has mostly returned and day by day the anxiety has eased dramatically (which my psychiatrist said should happen as I reach full dose). I'm far more relaxed and the days are so much easier to navigate.

My emotional state is still fairly flat. Moments of true elation have been few and fleeting. My reaction to situations of stark sadness (there have been plenty on the news recently) is not what it was. Mainly I feel numb rather than sad. I miss the former extremities of my emotions. You feel like a half person. But in time I know I will recover.

I have to mention a couple of moments that sparked a feeling of joy. At the end of last week, I found myself bursting with pride and unable to suppress a full-blown grin after my eldest daughter scored her first ever goal at netball. I was so pleased for her, and I noted how deeply happy I felt in that moment! I also returned to one of my favourite running tracks and as I descended through one section I felt a rare runners' moment of effortlessness. I imagined that I was floating just above the leaf-covered trail, totally lost in the moment. It was amazing.

Being lost in the moment has been one of my main allays this last week. When things have gotten difficult, or the anxiety has crept up on me, focussing on the task at hand has helped me through it. I've been getting through my days one task at a time, consciously avoiding thinking too far ahead. There's no need to rush. There's no need to worry about the past or the future. At the moment all I need to do is take care of myself and those around me.

I welcomed back my youngest daughter on Saturday, with a big bear hug at Christchurch Airport. Her eight days up North with her grandma and my wife's extended family gave her a lovely adventure and me the chance to get through the rocky first week on my medication. It gave the dust a chance to settle, and I'm so thankful to my mother-in-law for offering to do it.

Also on Saturday, I picked my parents up from the airport. It was my youngest girl's birthday party on Sunday and they came down for the occasion. It was a special time but all the rushing around caused me to crash a bit. I had periods of being extremely tired during the weekend and I lost my appetite. I struggled with being social. I'm also still not sleeping without the help of sleeping pills, not that it is stopping me trying. Last night I finally popped a pill at 11:30. Why can't I just accept that I need the help at the moment? Surely, like everything else, the sleep troubles will pass too.

I'm very thankful I sought help early, and that I didn't wait till I was truly broken to speak up. That would be my only advice to anyone out there. If you're not sure, but suspect something is wrong, you should talk to someone or see your doctor, or a counsellor. Don't suffer in silence.

I've been truly lifted up by all the messages of support, from friends, family members and readers. I feel so much love and concern for me and my family. My wife continues to be amazing. She came with me to my last counselling appointment. Love is an amazing thing. I am trying to pay back all the love I have been receiving to those around me and to people I bump into ... strangers. You never know the difference you can make to someone's day by talking with them or even just smiling at them.

I have been seeing many things as metaphors of my depression recently. The strongest one was when I returned for a run to Harry Ell Track on Friday. Parts of the upper track were engulfed by the Port Hills Fire earlier in the year. I hadn't been up there since the fires. Much of the charred forest has been cut down, the track bordered on both sides with blackened logs. The terrain is unchanged, but the devastation is sobering, large sections of formerly-forested hillside exposed, burnt and empty. But new growth is starting to sprout, grasses and moss blanketing the ground.

I feel like I've survived my fire too. I've accepted it has happened, and I'm growing again. I'm looking ahead to a bright future.



Monday 22 May 2017

Thawing Out

I'm struggling my way up the steep and winding Rapaki track to the top. You're drained just running up the road to the start of the track. You hit the forest and the track opens wide and swallows you. You carefully step across the steel bars across the first animal stop and the sky appears again. Ahead the path is craggy and winding; the destination seems so far away. My breathing is heavier than usual. There's tension throughout my body. I feel like a shell of the runner I know I am. I'm just not there. Eventually the tracks levels off to a flat section and my breathing relaxes. I ease into a short downhill stretch, before the last daunting uphill climb to the top. It never seems to end. It's at this point I think of how this run encapsulates my depression. I acknowledge that life is harder than normal at the moment, but that essentially I'm okay, and if I keep moving forward - step after step - I'll get to where I want to go. I rounded the last bend and moved towards the top spreading my fingers to feel the cold kiss my fingertips. I feel like this moment was a turning point.

I'm reading John Kirwan's book All Blacks Don't Cry, about his struggles with depression and anxiety. I read it years ago and marvelled at how his inner turmoil was tearing him apart when the whole country assumed he had the perfect life. He writes about how he eventually reached out for help and how he has made himself well again - the work that he puts in daily to keep his life in balance. I am now reading it and relating far more to his experience. I see myself in his words. I saw him talk in Wellington years ago about mental health and he was inspirational. He took several years before he sought help. Initially he tried to guts it out, fighting it like it was another opponent to side step. Because of his example I recognised I wasn't okay sooner than he did, before I spiralled down too deep.

It's been a weekend of ups and downs. My wife has started to show signs of the strain that the last week has put on her. She's been unbelievable, taking on so much extra work on top of her busy job to keep the house running and take the pressure off me. Emotionally it's been tough for her. She's worried about the uncertainty that my depression has thrown into our lives. It seems complicated and messy right now. She's worried I'll suffer bouts of depression for the rest of my life. She hates seeing me struggle, the vacant look in my eyes when the clouds close in again. I told her I'll do everything I can to make sure I get well and stay well. I told her I'm worried she's putting too much pressure on herself. I told her I need to keep things simple at the moment, and that all I need at the moment is for her to focus on her work and at the end of the day I just need her arms around my shoulders. I told her that, while it's tough at the moment, this could be the best thing to ever happen to me.

The tide is turning. The anxiety is ebbing away and my mood is lifting by the day. My biggest fear at the moment is that I still feel like I've been turned to stone. I crave for a flash of joy or to feel truly sad. I haven't cried for days. I haven't been able to sleep for more than a week without the help of the sleeping pills I've been prescribed. I was dog tired the two days I decided not to take it and I still couldn't sleep. I just feel a bit numb. Last night I saw my wife's tears trickle down her face and I recognised her sadness, but also wished I could feel it too.

I've had some true moments of tenderness; hugging my daughter tight and telling her how proud I was that she was making decorations for her little sister's birthday party, kissing my wife's hand and in that moment reflecting on our life together and how lucky I am to have met my soulmate, seeing my youngest daughter's face on Skype calling my name, and when I kissed my eldest daughter goodnight and she said: "I love you so, so much Daddy."

I can't believe I'm quoting from Frozen here, but it's my daughters' favourite movie, and I have seen it more than a few times:

"Love will thaw a frozen heart."

I will feel again.



Saturday 20 May 2017


On Thursday night I paced around my living room waiting to be picked up for a catchup in town with a few mates. I was shaking with anxiety, feeling so desperate I was on the verge of pulling out. But I decided to go and I'm glad I did. I told them about the depression because I wanted them to feel like they could speak up if they were struggling, and we chatted about it before moving on. They were supportive as I knew they would be. By the end of the night I felt great.

A couple of people have told me of the dark, dark place they found them self in with depression, one to the very edge of taking their own life. Seeing that they had clawed back to wellness and gotten their life back in balance is very inspiring. Seeing them thriving tells me I will get through this and also puts my current struggles in perspective. I feel grateful I called out for help early before I sunk too deep, that I'm physically fit, and sober, and that I have incredible support and love around me. I have the odds stacked heavily in my favour.

A good friend gave me the advice to: "Talk about it, and keep talking". Talking does help me, whether it is about the depression or anything. Having a connection to people is a lifeline. I'm finding isolation and silence the hardest conditions to navigate.

My youngest daughter has gone with her grandmother to the North Island. The night before she left, she came downstairs balling her eyes out saying: "I'm going to miss you Daddy!" That was hard. My wife and I wondered if we were doing the right thing sending her, but yesterday morning we kept things low key and she was far more settled and excited again about her big adventure. I got text reports all day yesterday saying how awesome she was and that she was loving her trip.

Yesterday was by far my best day since I started medication. It was the day I doubled my dose, and I felt the fog slowly lifting. I went to a morning yoga class which was absolutely brilliant for relaxing my mind, focussing the body and, most importantly for me at the moment, staying in the present. It was great for my breathing. As the class progressed I could feel the anxiety in my body ease. This will be a weekly activity. In the afternoon I went to Preschool to do my hour and a half helping the teachers pack up. One little girl was in such a happy mood it was infectious. Another boy helped me roll up the carpets. Spending time with the kids was healing. The teachers all showed their care and concern - one giving me a couple of wee easter eggs, and making me a cup a coffee as my anxiety returned and my mood, and energy, crashed. By the end of the day I was exhausted, but I felt my sharpness of mind had returned and my mood lifted, albeit temporarily.

Being around people is helping me. My counsellor gave me a piece of advice last week at the end of our session to try and avoid "turning into" the depression, and instead "turn out". I've thought about that quite a bit this week.

This morning I ran along the Heathcote River and watched the languid, steady flow of the water, wishing my life could be like that; easy, effortless, quiet, moving in a clear direction.

Right now my life is very simple; Sleep, medication, exercise, rest, staying connected, being with my family.

Those are the only things that are important right now. There's little to no room for desire, ambition or urgency.

In the last week I've become far more attuned to how my children and wife are feeling. One upside is I've deepened my bond with my children; looking them in the eye more, listening to them, and responding to their emotional needs in a far more connected way. Doing this has helped me recognise the ways they give that love and attention back to me; how much I need them and how much they need me. That is a gift. After nearly 21 years with my wife, our relationship has deepened too as we turn towards each other and discover the depths of each other's love and inner strength.


Thursday 18 May 2017

All Things Will Pass

All things will pass. I know this, but I am afraid. Usually I'm in control of everything, but right now I feel like I control nothing. I feel like I'm slowly stripping myself back, but I am plagued by uncertainty about who I will be when I rebuild myself. Will I still be me? Do I even know who I am? Will things ever be the same again? Do I want them to be?

At the moment simple tasks are difficult; making breakfast, shaving, picking an outfit, making small talk. Making simple decisions has become a complicated business. I've just returned from a walk to the supermarket. My hands trembled slightly as I scanned my three items at the self checkout, and I stood paralysed when the machine commanded me to key in the code for the cous cous. I was just about to take positive action when the supermarket attendant moved in to help me. I miss my old sharpness and, till it returns, perhaps I should give the self checkout lanes a miss. Everything is taking me longer. I used to be able to rely on my punctuality but now I am finding myself hopelessly late for things and the more worrying thing is it doesn't seem to bother me (though I did get stressed out when I got stuck in traffic and was late to school pickup yesterday).

I have felt anxiety bubbling every time I've had to go out in public. For me it's just a simmering feeling of unease and uncertainty. It feels like all my nerve endings have been woken up and are standing to attention ready to riot. My breathing gets very shallow. Going to preschool yesterday was difficult (I resigned as Service Provider on Friday as part of the de-stressing process). For some reason being there was a trigger.

People have been popping in to visit. My parents ring every day, and my sister called from the UK this morning. Contact is good. It's nice to be able to talk. Today a good friend dropped off a cake she had made on behalf of the Preschool Board. People care, and it feels good.

I received this email from an overseas friend:


Sorry to hear you have been through the grinder and I really hope you will find stability and harmony again - you deserve it. I'm so pleased that you didn't use the alcohol crutch when it might have been the natural "comfort" to ease the pain temporarily. That is a major achievement for you and a blessing for your family.

You have been very brave through all of this, even though you probably did not feel brave. I have great admiration for people who are beset by these "invisible" illnesses. It is much easier to get support and encouragement when you break an arm or a leg than it is when you are struggling and there is nothing visible to show of the struggle.

You are blessed with a beautiful family - imagine the titanic challenge for someone who is in a home where there is constant discord and tension. They have the deck doubly stacked against them in their chances of being restored.

Cheering for you from across the ocean - you will climb this mountain, in the same way as you have become Soberman365.


I actually am glad I am at the stage of my sobriety where alcohol holds no appeal. I never even thought of drinking to 'help' ease the depression, because I knew it wouldn't help. I want to recover as soon as I can not sabotage my efforts.

As the anti-depressant medication builds up I hope things settle down and I start to feel better. There are signs some emotions are returning. Yesterday I felt frustration for the first time since last Friday (damn non-indicating drivers!!!). There are flashes of sadness, and flashes of joy. I have also felt very stiff and sore in my legs after my last couple of runs. I never really get much muscle pain from my running so I'm guessing it's the medication. I joked to my wife that it felt like I had four groins and they were all strained.

I am worried at the moment that my wife is taking on too much to take the pressure off me. I am determined to rest well now but start to contribute more. My youngest child is heading north with her grandma to visit family tomorrow. This will take some stress away but the next 8 days will be by far the longest I've ever been apart from her.  My daughters' arms around my neck is a great medicine. I'm going to miss her.

Tonight I'm going to see some friends for a monthly catchup. Tomorrow I will be doubling my medication. I'm looking forward to tomorrow.

Wednesday 17 May 2017

Early Days

In the last few days my life has changed so dramatically I'm not sure if I'll ever get back to the way I was, or whether I want to. Since being diagnosed with depression on Friday I've stripped back most of my responsibilities in order to focus on getting well again, as soon as possible.

I've started on anti-depressant medication (Venlafaxine) and things have been so up and down. I don't know how I'm going to feel from one minute to the next (this will settle down as the doses build up and my body adjusts). There's no general pattern to my emotions, and nothing dramatic. It's more subtle than I imagined. Mostly I have felt generally flat, with frequent bouts of anxiety or fear. When the tears have sprung forth (which tends to happen in the morning) they haven't been precipitated by anything sad, mainly by a feeling of hopelessness.

Since Friday I haven't felt frustrated, or angry or sorrowful. I think the numbness is the scariest thing. For any of you who have watched rugby with me, you'll know I'm so invested in the result and I get so worked up and emotional it's like I turn from Dr Jekyll into Mr Hyde. It's lucky the referee's can't hear me shouting at them. But on Saturday night I watched passive and emotionless as one of the most gripping games of the season unfolded between my Crusaders and the Hurricanes. I just didn't feel anything. It's like a whole range of highs and lows have been swept away leaving me feeling lost somewhere in the middle.

I think the biggest change is that I now accept I am depressed, and am no longer struggling to hide it or deny that it is happening. As my counsellor said this morning: "You can't be half pregnant." You either are or you're not. Letting go of the control I had, even down to taking a break from most of my usual daily tasks, has been a huge adjustment. My wife took Monday off to take the kids to school and preschool, and we spent the day together. We walked alongside the ocean in Sumner and had lunch and talked about everything. I am so lucky to have her unconditional support. She has taken a huge amount of pressure off me, but I'm conscious I don't want her to overburden herself. As I recover I'll build things back up.

I have really focussed on engaging with the kids these last few days. I'm concerned that they're okay and, while they know I'm not well at the moment, they are happy and coping well. That makes me feel better. I love those guys so much.

My mind feels a bit scrambled at the moment, which is actually making writing coherently a bit of a struggle. On Monday I popped into the bank to deposit a cheque, and after some confusion, worked out I was in ANZ rather than Kiwibank. I tried to order lunch in Sumner and told the waitress three seperate things before I remembered which dish I had actually decided on, leaving her a little confused. This morning I lost my keys (which usually never happens to me). When I finally found them I couldn't find my phone which I had just put down to find the blimmin' keys! I know this will all settle down in time. My counsellor has encouraged me to just relax and not take on too much in the next week or so.

I haven't lost my sense of humour. I am lucky to be fit (running helps a lot). I am staying connected to friends and family (support is important). I'm open about what's happening to me, because there's nothing to be ashamed of. People aren't ashamed when they get the flu after all. My wife and children are incredible. I AM going to get better. I think I will be better, and more empathic, human being for the experience.

I feel this blog is quickly transitioning from the subject of sobriety to mental health. So be it. The two are connected in so many ways. I had planned on finishing writing when my counter clicks over to 365 days next month, but I feel compelled to continue as I work through this depression. If you'll have me for a bit longer.