Well, there’s a first time for everything and whilst my heart was beating wildly and my palms were clammy, it would seem I survived. Again. I was having a video recorded chat with the lovely Norah Ginty and whilst I don’t remember everything I said – this seems to happen when I go into panic mode; I blab on and on but don’t have a clue afterwards what I said or how in God’s name it came out or across – I probably did better than my inner self-bullying tyrant would have me believe. Oh no, I don’t think I did great, but I did it. I’m hardly going to be an inspirational or expert speaker the first time, right? I gave it my best shot and that’s OK. I don’t know if I’ll be able to bring myself to watch it once it’s been published, but so what if I look like an absolute fool? Telling my story that way, just like telling my story in a meeting or on this blog, might just help someone else, it might just help another Anna.
What I do remember are Norah’s questions and how I after our chat thought lots more about what she’d asked. There’s just so much to say about all the wonderful things that happen when we get sober. It also struck me that I probably blogged a lot more about my drinking when I took my first, tentative steps into my recovery, whereas these days I mostly harp on about life as it is now: oh, glorious sobriety! Whilst I do so passionately want to show just how life changing and magical recovery can be, it struck me that sometimes it might just be handy to remind ourselves of not just the Pink Cloud with all its rewards that we live on now, but also consider the hell in which we used to be trapped.
So I decided to consider Norah’s questions here too.
What was your relationship with alcohol?
It was always chaotic. From when I first tried alcohol as a teenager, I was always the one to get the most hammered the fastest. No brakes. My view of alcohol, which probably stems from my upbringing, was that it’s closely linked to celebration. No one in my family ever drank excessively and alcohol was only ever present on special occasions and in moderation. I’ve never witnessed either of my parents drunk or out of control. Alcohol, in my world, was something you sprinkle on life as an enhancing glitter. Strangely, even as I reached the deepest lows of my addiction, this is how I saw it – even as I was drinking on my own into black-out on a daily basis, alcohol to me was a silver lining. Crazy, isn’t it?
And so when my first marriage crashed and I went through a thoroughly shitty time and messy divorce, I didn’t drink at all. In fact, I was always scared to touch a drop if I felt unhappy in some way because I used to believe that alcohol enhances everything we feel. Therefore, if I felt down, I’d steer clear of the stuff because I was terrified – given I feel everything so strongly – that it’d make me feel even worse. Now that’s true of course, I had that bit correctly: alcohol is a depressant which will indeed make anything shit even shittier. I was just wrong about it enhancing joy, because, uh, it’s a depressant. I kinda missed that bit. Anyhow, once I was through the worst and the divorce shit storm had subsided, I was happy again. And what do I do when a good mood hits? I go for the bottle.
As I described my relationship to Norah, it was like dating the wrong person. You see them through rose tinted glasses and have them on a pedestal. You want desperately to see them in a certain, shimmery way, like your heroic knight in shining armour. You forgive anything and everything. Over and over. But they’re the devil in disguise. They mistreat you and they’re bad for you. Yet you stubbornly hold on to that dreamy image you’ve created, even though it bears no resemblance to reality. That was me and alcohol. It was toxic.
How much did you drink?
I’m always a little hesitant to answer this question. Not because I want to hide anything, but because I keep thinking that if Drunk Me of some years ago heard me state an amount, it might be turned into “oohhh that’s more than I drink so then I must be OK“. See, I always took comfort in anyone who drank more than me, used it as a way of further cementing my denial and convince myself I didn’t have a problem. It was just that in the end I no longer knew anyone who drank as much as I did. In fact, the one person – whom I’ve nicknamed Tumbler on this blog when I’ve written about her – who drank more than I did and had sunk further than I had, drank herself to death in 2014. And then there was one. Me. I had no one else to point to in order to make myself believe I wasn’t so bad because I no longer knew anyone who drank more than I did.
Yes, I drank stupid amounts, but you can drink a lot less and still be an addict or a problem drinker. You can drink more than I did and not sink as low, just like you can drink less and sink as deep or deeper still. Ignore the quantities – we’re all different and tolerance is individual. Only you know, but whatever you do – please don’t take my drinking levels as some sort of evidence to show you’re OK. Maybe you are – great. Just sayin’. Either way, Norah asked and so I answered.
It may have started out quite innocently, me drinking a couple of glasses of wine in the evenings because I felt so happy and free and content with my new life. However, cue my no-brakes default setting and it transformed into something else entirely with alarming speed. Within just a few months, a couple of glasses of wine had turned into a bottle, which then turned into a bottle and a bit, which turned into a bottle and a half, which turned into two bottles and then into nearly three. This still fascinates me a little. Yes, it accelerated quickly into insane amounts, but over my 12-13 years of heavy drinking, it didn’t really go beyond. I sort of think you continuously go faster and harder, but my consumption seemed to stay at this level and up to when I stopped I remained steadily at a daily average of two and a half to three bottles. I’m not sure why, but perhaps it stayed that way because I always worked and was therefore unable to drink during the day? Well, I did slip under a few times and I have no doubt I would eventually have stayed under, but I wonder if work is what stopped me from full on chronic drinking. I sort of consider it chronic though, there was NOTHING normal about the way I drank, it was more that I couldn’t drink around the clock due to commitments.
Remember one thing, though. Remember YET. I couldn’t drink around the clock YET. It was heading that way. Always just a matter of YET. Don’t forget that.
Describe your last hangover.
This is the thing – it wasn’t an epic crash or a horror story. It was a hangover like hundreds – thousands! – like it. It was a Monday like so many others. I woke up feeling like death and could barely stand up. I don’t think I’d drunk any more or any less than usual the Sunday evening before. Sometimes, though, my hangovers would be particularly severe. I just knew there was no way I’d be able to get myself into work so I waited until Hubby had gone off to work and called in sick. As with every other hangover, everything was horrifically uncomfortable: I couldn’t stand, couldn’t eat or do anything, yet lying down was equally nightmarish with my racing heart, sweats and body shakes. There’d come a time somewhere half way through the afternoon when I’d begin to feel a little better, and this was no exception, so by the time Hubby got home I’d managed to shower.
I never said to him I’d stayed home but I had that sinking feeling in my gut because I knew he could tell. Lying feels like you have the weight of the world on your shoulders and it was crushing me. Along with the anxiety and depressed mood brought on by alcohol, I felt utterly awful. Dishonesty isolates you and by not being truthful, I was emotionally isolating myself from Hubby, my best friend. But I knew he knew. My heart was churning and I felt so utterly hopeless and alone.
Then, at bedtime, we were lying in bed facing each other, chatting about the day as we always do. I knew it was coming and sure enough, it did.
“Anna, can you tell me something?” Hubby asked as he stroked my cheek and teased away a stray strand of my hair from my face.
“Yes,” I whispered and felt the tears already burning in my eyes.
“Did you get yourself to work today?”
There it was and I felt the same way I did on the only occasion I stole something – a chocolate bar at the age of 10 – and got caught. A little bit like the world fell apart. I’d been found out. My dirty, shameful secret exposed. But much, much stronger than that was a sudden sense of relief. And perhaps a tiny little bit of hope. An inner voice was suddenly shouting, no – SCREAMING at me: “SAY IT! SAY IT NOW! JUST ONE LITTLE WORD! ASK FOR HELP! THIS IS IT – SAY IT!!” And so I did.
“No,” I said softly, choking a little, “I didn’t. I don’t know what to do. I need help. I’m scared of where this is taking me.”
Hubby pulled me into his arms, held me tightly as I sobbed, kissed the top of my head and whispered gently into my hair:
“Anna, you’re already there.”
That was the most heartbreaking moment of my life, yet it was – even though it didn’t feel like it at the time – by far the greatest. It was the moment when my life began to change and instead of working so hard to kill myself I instead began to fight furiously to get well. It could just as easily have slipped me by and all could have been lost. In all likelihood, everything WOULD have been lost. But a small question, at precisely the right moment, gave me the chance to ask for help. If Hubby hadn’t asked, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have.
I’d given up, you see. I didn’t see a way out and had made my peace with the fact that I would continue the way I was, which I knew was killing me. I used to fantasise about something terrible happening. That I’d either crash my car or I’d collapse in the street. Something terrible enough that I’d be exposed and forced to get help. Isn’t that just so heartbreakingly sad? It seemed easier, and more plausible, to me to crash hard and therefore have the decision to seek help made for me forcibly than to ask for help. I didn’t know how to. I didn’t see a way out. Welcome to addiction, my friends. It ain’t a kind place. Luckily it didn’t have to get to a crash or death. It ended up with a loving husband who happened to put out a life line at the exact moment I was ready to reach for it. Had he not asked me, I shudder to think where it might have progressed to.
What made you stop?
Easy. Obviously my exit out of hell was presented to me in that moment by my beautiful husband, but it only worked because I was ready. I’d fucking had it. I was exhausted. It’s fucking hard work being a drunk. I was done. I couldn’t go on. It was do or die.
What did your first few weeks of sobriety look like? How did you break the habit?
It was strange to come home and not pour a glass of wine. It was strange and unfamiliar and yes, I’ll say it, uncomfortable. I wanted to get sober more than anything else, but I won’t lie – it was really, really odd! Over the first few weeks I went to AA meetings regularly and Hubby and I would also go for long drives. But habits are just habits and I can’t say it was horrendously difficult because it wasn’t. It was just a little strange to begin with, that’s all. Soon enough, however, new habits formed and I rediscovered my love of running. Suddenly what had initially appeared as endlessly long evenings without wine were filled with GOOD STUFF. Exercise, quality time, cooking really lovely food, long walks and so on.
…and eventually, I didn’t even notice it anymore.
My worst drinking sessions would occur when Hubby was away. Home alone and unchecked, I’d guzzle with even more abandon. I’d even book days off in advance to facilitate my suicidal drinking. (Yes, suicidal drinking is a THING – drinking the amounts I did falls into this category you see, something I learned since I got sober but in all honesty even when I was actively drinking I did know it’d kill me). To begin with, the first few times Hubby travelled after I got sober I was absolutely terrified. And super aware of the peril I found myself in. But then eventually, I didn’t have to be so terrified anymore. And then… …eventually came a time when I’d be home alone and it’d only occur to me as I crawled into bed that this used to be when I went for it, yet it had gone unnoticed. Sweet, sweet victory. Have faith, it does get easier. Not only that – it gets easy, full stop. Not only easy – it gets freaking AMAZING.
What were the first rewards sobriety brought?
I could wax lyrical about how my life has changed, but let’s stick with the very immediate rewards – I can bleat on about the many joys of being sober in other blog posts.
First thing was sleep. Holy cannoli, sweet, sweet sleep! From not having slept well for over a decade and lying awake each morning at 4am with palpitations, sweats, shakes, anxiety and crippling fear, I suddenly slept like a baby. Blissful, uninterrupted quality sleep. Solid blocks of eight hours’ shut-eye. Fuck me – it was like winning jackpot! Not to mention waking up feeling rested and refreshed.
Also an immediate reward was waking up feeling WELL – my mind clear and steady on my feet. Absolute game changer. And no wonder! If you’ve spent over a decade waking up feeling like death, feeling alive is going to be pretty glorious, right? It’s heavenly.
I guess the third immediate reward would be to say that I started to get ME back. It was like someone had switched the lights on and the world was suddenly full of colour again. Amazing stuff. I could suddenly form coherent thoughts and felt so much clearer.
…and those, remember, are just the very immediate rewards that my recovery brought to me. If I were to list all the amazing, magical ways in which my life has changed since I got sober, this list would never end. Mark my words.
There was one thing that wasn’t covered that I thought about lots afterwards and it’s probably the one thing I want to convey to all other Annas out there, to anyone else who is still trapped in their addiction: don’t be scared! You’ve been lied to! Sobriety isn’t a boring or bland place to be. Your fix fixes nothing, it only makes everything worse. Remember the illusion I was under too? That alcohol would somehow enhance happy feelings? Lies! Pure, barefaced lies! Life might not always be ponies and rainbows, but it’s SO much better when we don’t poison ourselves.
When I stopped drinking, we already had several things booked: a long weekend in Paris, a trip to Gothenburg to see Foo Fighters live and a summer break to Lipari. That, along with our usual summer trip to Sweden and other things like Ascot and a bunch of other things that had to me previously been Prime Drinking Occasions. I dreaded every single one of those, thinking it’d all be really shit. I mean, who goes to Paris and doesn’t drink Chateau Blotto? Who the fuck goes to a Foo Fighters concert SOBER? Who sits on a sea view balcony gazing out over the picturesque harbour of a beautiful Aeolian island without a bottle of wine (or three)? And how in God’s name do you enjoy one of those Scandinavian summer nights when the sun never sets sitting at the west wall of Falla without several sauvs enhancing the moment? ME. I do all of that, and if you won’t believe anything else I say, please do try to believe this: all of those things are so much better without booze. None boring. All just so much better because I was present and could enjoy all of it fully.
Well, I’ve gone on for long enough. I’ll leave it there. Except to say I’m today going to be around a bully again and so my focus will be extra focused on one little line: “give me the serenity to accept the things I can’t change”. I can only change myself. So I will take deep breaths, let things go and not allow other people’s imbalance and chaos get under my skin. Not something I find easy, but I will try once again – not my circus, not my monkeys.
Today I’m not going to drink.