One year ago, in 2019 I did dry January. Now I was not a problem drinker at that point but the truth is I have been in the past. In my teens I routinely and addictively used various substances, pills and powders, and when the shame of that became unbearable I switched to the socially acceptable substance of alcohol. At the time this felt like an improvement because I was mainstream – I was in ‘normal’ society now. I believed that now I could be accepted.
This wasn’t a random thought. During my teens my father had told me to ‘go away and come back when you don’t take drugs anymore.’ I’ll say more about that later, in another blog.
Throughout my first marriage I continued using alcohol in less than helpful ways and more than once – mostly before and occasionally during my ‘trial run’ (thanks to my friend Vicky for that phrase!) marriage – being drunk put me in situations and places where I was incredibly vulnerable and less than pleasant things happened as a result. At best I would have apologies to make for things I could barely recall doing, at worst I would have bruises or sensations on my body that did not make sense. It is hard to write and acknowledge this, from my vantage point of ‘healed’ and ‘recovered’. It is hard to look at the person I was making the mistakes I did and hold them up for viewing and judgement. I am glad to be alive.
I didn’t realise that I had just switched addictions, and hadn’t really looked at what was underneath the drive for addiction.
In my late 20’s the marriage to my first husband ended, and with it ended the level of drinking I had been doing. At the end of my marriage I also smoked cannabis for a while – a revisit of an old habit that felt more like revisiting an old and familiar friend I hadn’t seen for a while, only to find out said friend is still messed up, passed out on the sofa and won’t go home.
I stopped again and continued drinking in my new reduced way. Weekends, celebrations and a glass of wine with dinner now and then.
The thing that didn’t change was the sensation of ‘one is too many and ten is not enough.’
At any given time when out and drinking I would crave more and the next. I would go to unusual lengths to be able to continue drinking rather than call it a night and go home. Once the claws of alcohol were in me, I just wanted more. I do not believe I can moderate. All I could see at that point is that I was so much better than I had been in the past. I recognise now that this was a stepping stone on the way forward through a healing journey. I trained and became a counsellor working with addiction and recovery. I still believed in moderation back then and was at least using alcohol without making myself vulnerable any more. I believed I had it made. I had resolved my difficult relationship with alcohol to a take-it-or-leave-it status quo. I didn’t bother to question if I can take it or leave it then why on earth would I choose to take it? It is a toxin, it causes significant problems in the body and the mind. It literally kills. I will explore this question in part two of this blog.
So back to dry January 2019. With the encouragement of my friend Vicky, I embarked on doing a dry month. I was glad to do it because I had been overdoing things for the month before. I had my rules of ‘only drinking at the weekend’ which had gone out of the window temporarily for December 2018. I recognised I emotionally, mentally and physically needed a break from socially poisoning my body.
I read quit-lit. ‘This Naked Mind’ by Annie Grace has become a go to for me to recommend to others. It de-bunks the myth that we need alcohol to have a good time. I still recommend it now.
Somewhere in the middle of dry January I recognised that I was learning, or unlearning, things that were more than to do with alcohol.
Also in the back of my mind was both a conversation with my daughter and a conference I had attended a couple of years before – ‘Generation Next’ in Adelaide. During this conference they had highlighted that many of our young teens are opting not to drink alcohol, but subsequently find themselves ostracised as a result. The conversation with my eldest daughter had confirmed this. ‘I don’t think I want to drink alcohol Mum,’ she had said one day whilst we cleaned up together in the kitchen, ‘I don’t like the sound of it.’
I want to be a parent that supports this decision.
I needed to be the example that demonstrates abstinence is a real option, and still has a connection to social networks and friendships. I wanted to show her that abstinence does not equal isolation. Dry January easily became dry February. At the beginning of the year I told people ‘I want to see what it feels like to have a year without alcohol’. At the end of the year I told people ‘I think this is me now.’ It turns out I really, really like being sober. Here is what I have learned in my year without alcohol.
1. I was only drinking at weekends but I was in a relationship with it all week. During that first month I realised my default was to be thinking about Friday when I would ‘reward’ myself with alcohol for successfully abstaining all week. From Tuesday onwards, I would plan which wines I would have. I might even chill them down in the fridge, in preparation and anticipation of my weekend ritual. I would occasionally feel the need to have a mid-week gin. I would reach out and then congratulate myself on not succumbing. Even this success is still measured against drinking (or not).
In NLP we have a phrase ‘don’t think about a pink elephant.’ You’re probably thinking about a pink elephant right? We say this to demonstrate that the unconscious mind cannot process negatives and that even negating a thing puts emphasis on it.
In this way I spent the whole week in a relationship with alcohol, even when not drinking it.
2. I am a better parent without even a little bit of alcohol In those first months I realised a motivating factor was my teenagers. As I said above, I want to be the parent that can model alcohol as an optional extra – not a necessity – when it comes to social interaction. What I didn’t realise until I caught myself in the act is that I was also a better parent to my younger children, who rarely saw me drinking alcohol.
We were at Junior Netball on a Saturday morning. One of the other parents had made an offer that she would collect my daughter and bring her to netball. I had already refused this offer (as no alcohol on Friday means no need to avoid being awake on Saturday morning). If this wasn’t enough evidence of being a ‘more present’ parent there was what happened next. One of the other parents gave me a flyer for a kids disco that night. Now, put this next to the ‘Mummy has a drink at weekends’ me and I would have been shoving that flyer in my pocket so we could ‘have a think about it.’ (read forget about it and apologise later ). Without thinking any of this I immediately showed it to both of my younger children. ‘Hey girls,’ I said, ‘Do you want to go to a disco later?’
Now I know in the world of potential muck ups and terrible experiences that some addicts children go through, missing a disco or two barely registers. I am also grateful that much of my addictive tendencies and terrors were pre even my older two children, so I am not in any way attempting to minimise the trauma of being an addicts child.
I am recognising that even this simple act – taking the children to a disco at all let alone without any eye rolling or martyrdom is a shift in a much better direction for me as a parent. In the (promised and much referenced) later blog I will talk about how I didn’t really have much of a model for this. I’m pretty much winging it all the time and in the past have used what I learn professionally over anything I experienced personally as a go-to for how to parent. So for me, this was a huge win.
3. People are more tolerant than you think about abstinence. One of the regular questions I find online are ‘What do I say when people ask why I don’t drink?’
I am a member of a fine wine and food group called Chicken and Chablis. This lovely group of women meet monthly to enjoy food and matched wine and it is both a social and learning experience as we discuss and learn from each other about the different wines. For the last year I have continued to attend this group and any other social event without drinking.
Now don’t get me wrong, there has been some debate on this and I rather sensibly opted not to take the role of president this year (thanks to a dear friend stepping forward into the role at the 11th hour). That said, the group has responded with open curiosity and acceptance of my decision to abstain.
It could have so easily gone another way, and I know for some others it does. I think people saw that this was a deeply personal decision for me, and not a judgement on their choices, that drove my sobriety. I think three things helped me. a) I chose to focus on the positive responses and not the rare negative ones. b) I recognise people are usually very generous spirited if you allow and give them opportunity to be. Finally c) People will follow your own response to a thing. I was confident in my decision, people saw this and subsequently mostly didn’t question it.
On the rare occasion I have been asked to justify my decision I have a couple of responses.
‘Isn’t it funny how alcohol is the only addiction we have to explain not having’,
‘No-one is more surprised than me, it turns out I really like being sober!’
That seems to do it.
4. Alcohol was my way of dealing with past trauma. Actually, substances were strictly speaking my way of dealing with trauma. Alcohol was simply the latest in a long line of substances. In Felitti’s Adverse Childhood Experiences study the correlation between trauma in childhood and addiction is evidenced strongly. For me, beginning my foray into substance use wasn’t even a stretch. I grew up in a time and an area where high unemployment and crime rates also meant high substance abuse and trauma. It was not unusual where and when I grew up to see wives or husbands or children with bruises.
My brothers who had been raised in the care of the local authority came back into the home when I was three and a half. My grandmother who was the reason I had not been taken into care, because she had stepped in to help raise me, died a year later. Amongst all of that in the privacy of my own home I had a violent father and a mother who had just checked out – spending days and sometimes weeks in bed. My strong suspicion is that both of them have undiagnosed Personality Disorders. Food became their means of controlling us and locks were put on the food cupboards. We were frequently hungry. In the backdrop of all this I was being sexually abused. I can reflect now that all parties were traumatised and as the third child to two parents who were aged 22 when I was born they were poorly equipped to deal with their own trauma of violent backgrounds and abandonment. This did not make it easier for me as a child.
I recognise the amount of interpersonal work I have done to overcome this has paid me back in droves, I feel vulnerable but not a victim. I am a work in progress and still have work to do, but I know I am equal to it.
I also recognise that the loving start and secure attachment I had to my Grandma gave me something that my brothers never had – it gave me a place to return to. I had a secure base and a sense of what this feels like. I spent many years with a part of myself knowing that something was off, that being treated the way we were was not okay. My brothers did not have this and although theirs is their own story to tell but I will say that I have managed to overcome many things that they still struggle with.
5. The traumatised parts were ‘preserved’ by the alcohol
In many areas of Psychotherapy we have the concept of ‘Parts’. The basic premise is that our self – or our Psyche – gets fragmented as a means of managing trauma. In the most extreme examples of this an individual might end up with Multiple Personality Disorder, more recently named Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID).
Even without fully blown DID where fragments of the self have their own identity and function, we all have parts that serve a purpose and a function. This is usual.
In extreme trauma the part will attempt to seperate itself from the rest of the individual’s psyche and wrap itself up in amnesia – believing that the rest of the personality is not strong enough to deal with whatever it was that happened. When life settles down these parts begin to make themselves known.
I find clients at any age can come to me with these parts as they have started to emerge. Sometimes in the form of dreams or flashbacks, other times a straightforward remembering, and frequently (although not always) triggered by a life event or something they saw on tv in a film or on the news.
I have done a lot of work on myself over the years. In my training as counsellor and later as I became a Psychotherapist this was not a process of looking at people as if they are in a petri dish – seperate and to be observed in clinical conditions. It was and still is the process of being in it. Of walking my talk and having the experience of going through things and taking things to my Clinical Supervisor and going back to therapy if needed. Thankfully as time has gone on the confrontation of this process gets less and less.
When I stopped drinking in January 2019 without the usual distraction of being pregnant (the only other times I have cut back or down on alcohol). I found that there were parts that had been ‘kept at bay’ with my weekly tipple. One drink at the weekend when I had opportunity to pause and reflect was the perfect time to keep my 5yo part who was still grieving for my Grandma, or my 7yo part who was deeply saddened by the things that are happening to her, at arms length with ‘just the one.’
These parts remained untouched, not so much preserved by alcohol but by lack of interaction. They still grieved, they were stuck, and with alcohol to distract me they would have forever remained so.
This year I have been on a search and recovery for the parts that got left behind in trauma, and I am fully aware that without being completely sober I would never have been able to do this. It has been confronting and difficult at times – at one point being triggered in the middle of a training with professionals and peers – but so, so worth it.
6. I really like being sober This isn’t just a glib phrase. I really like being sober. I sleep better, I have less work to do to manage my emotions, I feel more authentic, more myself than I have done for many years. Part of this has been revisiting a geeky, nerdy version of myself that I abandoned age around 12. She’s awkward, and clunky and doesn’t always make the conversation flow. I love her, because with her came back my permission to love nerdy things and the zero shame of being me. I missed her and she disappeared when the ‘lets get high’ me appeared. I’m finding space for both of them and giving the latter a new role.
So I’m writing this at the end of January and this may be being read by fellow newly sober enthusiasts. If this is you, feel free to comment either on here or on FB or insta with your own observations! What has abstaining from alcohol added to your life?