I spent most of my nights in the pub. Duped by some ludicrous delusion. The promise of greater things lead me to the trap. Every night I would fall for it. The next day I would vow not to fall for it again. Yet with symptoms similar to amnesia I would stagger back, thinking this all feels familiar. Days blended into weeks and then into years. My life spiralled out of control. I said “Never again…” but it always happened again. The allure pulling me back. That intoxicating brew. Devastation masquerading as a solution.
Until one day, it all got too much. Betrayal. The beer siren had lied to me. Cheated me out of so much. Like a jilted lover I was hurt. My heart was broken. I had nothing left. Alcohol had taken it all.
Broken and battered like the survivor of a shipwreck. I wretched and vomited. I shivered and cried. Happy to be alive. Frustrated at having nothing. Lost and scared. I had washed up on a beach. The island of sobriety. My clothes were torn and tattered. My mind scattered and fragmented.
In the early days of sobriety, I went to work during the day and sat at home at night. Constantly thinking “I want a drink.” followed by “I can’t have a drink.” It wasn’t fun. It was hard.
After six weeks it stopped. Well, it calmed down and the new thought “I am bored,” plagued me. Boredom was a trigger for me to drink so this is when I reached out for help but I think it was a turning point. It was the point that allowed me to stay sober. To use the Island analogy; I could sit on the beach waiting to starve or I could take action to try and make life resemble something close to normality.
When I got bored, I got busy.
I started new hobbies. I am not a huge people person so I chose things that kept me engaged and challenged. I read a shit ton of books. I learned musical instruments. I wrote. I made plans. I dreamed. I travelled. I meditated. I exercised. I loved and I lived. Eventually, I forgot about those beer sirens.
It is often said that a day sober is a successful day. In the early days, it was because I couldn’t comprehend doing anything else. But eventually I needed to do something with my sobriety.
We feel a man is unthinking when he says that sobriety is enough.
Big Book of AA
Boredom is our bodies way of telling us that it needs stimulation. Like a rumbling tummy when we’re hungry. So listen to the boredom and start living, learning, loving, growing, reaching out, meditating and exercising.
Sobriety gave me the time to do all the things I wanted to do when I was younger but was too scared to do. It took time though. To overcome the boredom I had to try new things. In order to try new things I had to overcome the fear of failure that held me back.
Often said as “False Evidence Appearing Real,” fear was the warden in the prison of my misery for many years. So strong was the psychological manipulation of the fear, I believed I was worthless and every attempt to break free of this misery, would fail. Slowly fear crushed my spirit. Inebriation was my only escape. It remained this way for a long time.
For me, the fear worked in a way that would stop me from attempting… anything. I became so terrorised by the fear that at the mention of trying something new my brain would go into overdrive. It would produce all the possible negative outcomes. Everything that could go wrong. It would paint me a picture of how people would laugh when I failed. How I would feel embarrassed. So I would decline, politely and return to the bar, my prison. The warden’s arm around me and his poisonous words in my ear.
The first goal I set was don’t drink. This is when I began to realise that I was the creator of the fear. I began to feel cheated. Cheated out of years of life. Years that I hadn’t lived because of a fucking illusion. An illusion that I was worthless and would never succeed. I had spent nearly twenty years of my life believing a story that wasn’t true. I HAD to prove it wrong.
In early sobriety, the fear was in full force, whispering in my ear; “You’ll be alone,” “You’ll have no friends,” “You’ll do nothing,” “A pariah,” “People will laugh,” “What are you going to say when people ask you why you don’t drink?” “Just do what you always do and give in before you try.” But I had a point to prove. I wanted to see what I was made of. Fuck it. I’d failed at life by not trying. I literally had nothing to lose.
After a stretch of not drinking, I felt stronger. Initially, I didn’t believe that I could do it but I just kept going. I was so proud of myself. Then, when I felt strong enough, I started building an escape plan.
A step at a time. A week at a time. A year at a time. A bill at a time. Life became manageable and I became unmanageable to the fear. It lost its power over me.
I’ve since learned, there are two types of fear; rational and irrational. Rational fear is the belief that there is a tiger in the grass and it is going to eat you. If you are in an area where you have seen a tiger there before then this makes sense. If you are walking through Oxford Street then it doesn’t. It is irrational. The latter is what held me captive for so long.
In a few months, I am going to embark on a journey of a lifetime. It would not have been possible if I was still held captive by fear. I would have talked myself out of it but thankfully I no longer waste my time with “False Evidence Appearing Real.” I much prefer the Ian Brown acronyms from the song F.E.A.R; “Fantastic Expectations, Amazing Revelations,” & “Free Expression As Revolution,” because that’s what life has become; a revolution of free expression and amazing revelations.
I was sixteen years old when this question first had weight behind it. In my head, it had been translated to “What do you want to do for the next fifty years of your life until you retire?” I didn’t know. All I knew was that I wanted to see the world, explore and learn. All of those were forgotten until twenty-one years later. When I finally regained my freedom and started following my dreams.
The question, “What do you want to do for a living?” was the start of adulthood or as I like to think of it “The signing of a social contract.” That social contract came with proposed security, promises of reward for hard work and happiness. In exchange for, servitude, social conformity and getting in debt. I didn’t know this at the time I just lived my life, paid my bills and drank alcohol on the weekend to have fun.
The anxiety-inducing question that sent shock waves through me. Once I had a job, could afford to cover my basic human needs were met and could afford some unnecessary items. Now what?
“Replace the things you have with newer things!”
That was the solution that was offered to me. Nobody really knew the answer. A few people had dreams but those dreams had become unachievable due to them not having time or money. Usually down to the fact they had a car they couldn’t quite afford or a mortgage larger than they really needed. Because when they got to a position of asking “Now what?” they realised it was time to step up to a bigger house. Rinse and repeat.
“If you do what everyone else does, you will get what everyone else gets.”
My solution was to try and not think about it. Alcohol switched off the part of my conscience that posed those questions. I was blissfully ignorant to my life being pointlessly, pissed away. The real kicker is that I was miserable as fuck but had no idea how to get out. I would spend my evenings drinking and talking about a life I wasn’t living. Endlessly talking in childlike awe of wondrous places like Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat and the Taj Mahal. These places that were visited by other people but not by me. I would bemoan my life. I would blame everyone for my situation. I would say that it wasn’t my fault.
When I stopped drinking, I stopped passing the blame and started taking responsibility for my life. I wasn’t happy because I wasn’t being true to myself. I wasn’t being true to myself because I was scared of living. It was easier to drink my woes away in a bar than to face them, deal with them and move past them. Drinking numbed me to my worries but it also numbed me to life. It washed away my woes but it took my joy with it. When I hit rock bottom I had no other choice but to step up to the plate. My problems came pouring back. Magnified and demanding their pound of flesh.
Sobriety was not the end for me. Sobriety was the awakening to the reality that I needed to change in order to live a life more in line with how I wanted. It was the clarity to plan the changes needed and the courage to go through with them. Giving up alcohol was the freedom to focus my efforts towards a better life.
First, I needed to clear my debt. A UK politician once said “A man in debt is a slave to his manager,” and I have to agree. Once the shackles of alcohol began to loosen I noticed the other shackles that were holding me back. My debt was keeping me financially unstable which caused more anxiety and fear. It was also limiting my freedom.
The plan: I owed £4500 on a credit card and £15,000 on a loan.
To give you an indication of paying back that £4500 credit card debt:
Paying £70 a month off the credit card would mean that it would take me approximately sixteen years to pay of the debt and it would have cost nearly £9000 extra in interest.
Next, I took out a £15,000 loan over five years. The interest rate was higher then than it is now. It was about 10% then. Now it is about 3%, it is a perfect time to get out of debt. Many people think “Ohhh debt is cheap I’ll get more.” Which is fine if it is used wisely but I had turned my debt into alcohol and drank it all. I refinanced the loan after two years when the balance was lower and decreased the number of years to keep the repayments the same.
Spending money is a habit
Working a job to buy shit I didn’t need in the hope of finding happiness wasn’t working for me. The more entrenched in that life I got the more miserable I became. The more miserable I became the more alcohol I consumed, the more sugar, fat and salt I ate and the more shit I bought. Something had to change.
Every Friday, I would think “I have worked hard this week, I deserve a treat,” and would order a takeaway. Usually, after eating the takeaway, I would feel bad. Not guilty just uncomfortable from the sugar, fat and salt. Eventually, it dawned on me that it wasn’t a treat all. I had just been using a reward system that had bestowed upon me. The same reward system that kept me drinking every night under the pretence “I’ve worked hard I deserve it.” I should buy shit because I’ve been good/worked hard/feel down, the approach is the same to them all. I had to rewire those habits (I’ve talked about changing habits here https://fromthebarstooltothebeach.com/2019/07/13/my-sobriety-health-and-well-being-toolbox/) by doing something different until the feeling to treat myself was no longer there. The same with spending money; I had to resist the urge to buy shit I didn’t need. I got into a position where I could choose what I bought. Did I need it? Or did I want it? Could I afford it? I did this by setting goals and reminding myself that the choices I’d made previously hadn’t worked.
It took me a year to start seeing real financial improvements. Enough that I could go on a holiday to Italy without having to borrow money to go. A great feeling. The clearing of debt for me was cathartic. Closure on a previous life. I needed to get rid of the debt because I had planned to take some time off work to travel. A dream I’d had for years. So I needed to minimise my outgoings. If you want to be free from debt then you have to retrain your spending habits.
“Less is more.” It took me years to realise by buying less I would have more options. It also took me years to pay off the debt and liberate myself from the consequences of following a path to self-destruction disguising as liberation. I had chipped away at my debt, made sacrifices and stuck to the task. After five years, I was free of personal debt.
Quitting drinking, stopping borrowing money and stopping over consuming allowed me to reverse the problems I had encountered. It also gave me the financial and mental freedom to choose a path of my own creation. To create a life that was more of a reflection of my inner desires. A life that allowed me to feed my spiritual, creative and physical pursuits instead of shutting them down.
You can have anything but you cannot have everything.
Alcoholism took my freedom of choice away. Debt did the same. Now, after five years of sobriety and finally clearing my debt. I have visited many of the places I used to talk about whilst propping up the bar; Angkor Wat, Taj Mahal, Machu Picchu and many more. I am on course to take six months off work and see the things I used to dream about; The Grand Canyon, Teotihuacan, Chichen Itza, The Great Pyramid of Giza and Petra. It has taken perseverance and sacrifice but it has been worth it. It truly has become a life beyond my wildest dreams.
I can’t remember exactly when I made Machu Picchu my desktop wallpaper on my PC but it was before I stopped drinking. It was in a time of my life when places like Machu Picchu were fantasy destinations. Places that others were destined to visit but not me. I was destined to prop up a bar somewhere, bemoaning the fact I couldn’t visit places like Machu Picchu.
That was, of course, until I quit drinking. Now, after four and a half years of sobriety, I was crossing the Urubamba River and making my way along the Inca trail which winds its way to Machu Picchu. The excitement I felt was a welcome relief after having spent a few days on a cold hotel bathroom floor, cuddling the toilet, vomiting, shivering and questioning my life choices. Thankfully, it was due to altitude sickness and not a hangover. It was a great reminder of those drinking days, though. Where praying to the porcelain God was an all too often occurrence.
The guides with us were beginning to unravel their tales about the Incas. They must have told those stories thousands of times but their words still crackled with energy and excitement. I guess it’s difficult to get bored of work when your office is the Inca Trail. I was hanging on their every word, whilst trying to take in as much of the scenery as I could.
These are the experiences I got sober for. Sobriety allowed me to be present and grateful.
Eventually, we came upon Patallacta. I had seen numerous terraces whilst we were in Peru but standing looking over the ruins was my first real experience of how efficient the style of living was. It looked as though everything the residents of the Town needed would be made or grown there. We stood for a while and I tried to imagine what it would have been like when it was a living and breathing place. I had seen what they wore and imagined the place bustling with life but I could not even begin to imagine what day to today living was like.
We carried on walking until we reached Wayllabamba camp where we would be stopping for the night. When we arrived at the camp, the porters, these miracles of men, had set up everything for us. This was after carrying all of the equipment to start with. I have to admit it’s a little shameful as someone who professes to have a reasonable level of physical fitness to be passed walking up a hill by a man carrying a full rucksack that he could probably fit inside.
The porters had even provided some warm water to wash our faces and some drinking water for us on arrival. The food that was prepared by the chef was of high quality considering we were camping and his equipment was minimal.
After dinner, we sat chatting and drinking tea. It was a welcome return to simplicity. Being present without the addictive pull of technology as a distraction was also a nice change. Although, I have to admit I felt a slight withdrawal from the addictive tech that fills my life. I was asleep early and slept soundly thanks to the silence that surrounded us.
The following day we were woken by the porters for breakfast which was waiting for us. The camaraderie between them was evident and I’m sure that’s what helps get them through. That and the cocoa leaves.
A few members of the group were concerned about this day due to the 4,198m altitude and the climb to get the peak affectionately known as Dead Woman’s Pass, due to its resemblance. I was looking forward to the challenge. Quietly confident that I would be okay. That was until we started the climb and every step felt like a flight of stairs due to the lack of oxygen. Again being passed by a man carrying a massive bag is somewhat disheartening.
Eventually, we made it to the top and were greeted with fantastic views… of clouds. But it was so peaceful. I would have liked to have sat a little longer but the cold began to seep into my bones, so I had to keep moving.
When we got to the camp the porters were just setting up the tents so we hadn’t done too bad for time. We tried to help but they refused and made us a cup of tea instead. Which I drank gratefully whilst looking at the wonderful views and enjoyed the peaceful atmosphere. I began to feel a sense of calm by this point of the trail. The manic, hustle and bustle of city living faded away to leave me feeling serene.
Again, we enjoyed a fantastic meal, whilst chatting and taking in the stories from the guides. Another early night as my body clock found some sort of normality in the naturally dark and serene surroundings.
After breakfast and refilling our drinks canisters we started our hike for the day. After a couple of climbs, we entered the delightfully named Cloud Forest. Which was densely grown and filled with a variety of plants and trees. Thankfully, there were two botanists in our group so I was firing questions at them like an inquisitive child.
We passed through a tunnel that was carved through the solid rock. It demonstrated the lengths that the builders went to to ensure that their path made it to the destination. A wonderful metaphor for the obstacles we encounter on our journey through life.
We were soon greeted with the ruins of Phuyupatamarca, the city above the clouds. Which unfortunately was the city IN the clouds when we arrived but at the altitude we were at it was to be expected.
We continued until the trail opened up to reveal another ruin, Winay Wayna. Sitting on a steep hillside and looking out over the Urubamba Valley, the ruins demonstrated how the Incas made the mountain their own whilst also harmonising with it. Like most of the Inca trail, I found it peaceful and spellbinding.
We sat for a while as the guide shared his stories about the history of the Incas and how the history we are told is created by western culture. “How can those people tell me how my people lived?” It was a welcome relief to hear someone say “We don’t know how a lot of things happened.” The guide explained about the Incan Goddess, Pachamama, the embodiment of Earth, Water, Sun and Moon. Which made sense to worship as those things are visible and bring life. The guide talked about the Spanish invasion and the end of many indigenous ways.
Due to a combination of the scenery, the days without technology and the stories the guide was telling about Pachamama my mind began to wander. Thinking about how we are raised in certainty. The stories we are told in school are absolutes. Our way of living is the right way. It dawned on me that the egocentric nature of certain cultures throughout history has had a devastating impact on the planet and each other. The cultures that showed gratitude and sorrow for the things they took from the planet were destroyed for not wanting to adopt the “Right” ways. Now, hundreds of years later we reflect on our childlike approach and realise that it has had a huge impact. Almost as if our technological advancement outweighed our emotional advancement. Just children with weapons. It dawned on me that just because I believe something doesn’t make it true. Although we will fight people to protect our beliefs purely on the basis that we believe them to be true. The same arrogance that kept me in denial. Shackled to addiction. Chained to the bar. Refusing to admit my problem even though it was killing me. It wasn’t until I’d lost everything that I was prepared to try another approach and open my eyes. Maybe that’s the depths humanity will have to reach before changes are made.
The guide made an offering of a few of his best Cocoa leaves to Pachamama to ask for good luck on our journey to Machu Picchu.
Deep in thought, I made my way to Winay Wayna camp.
After dinner, we were presented with a delightful cake that the chef had baked as it was the last night, which was a remarkable achievement.
I went to bed that night deep in thought about what the guide had said. Every place I have visited in sobriety has taught me a new lesson. Each new experience has knocked the sharp edges off me and broadened my world view.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
We were up at dawn to make the final journey to Machu Picchu. After we said goodbye to the porters, who wouldn’t be making the journey with us, we proceeded onward. The journey to this point had been mind-expanding and so calming but Machu Picchu was the place I used to dream of. Soon I would be there.
Arriving at the sun gate, I climbed the steep steps fuelled by the excitement of seeing Machu Picchu for the first time. To be greeted at the top with a view of nothing but clouds was a big disappointment. All that distance travelled and now I wouldn’t see the famed site from this perfect vantage point. I had heard that many people saw the same thing, so it was partly expected. I sat and reflected for a while, as I tried to catch my breath after those monstrous steps. Suddenly, there was a slight cheer and applause that grew in volume.
I looked across to see that the clouds above Machu Picchu had cleared just enough to see the iconic city in the sky. It was like a gift from Pachamama. I felt overwhelmed with gratitude and had to fight back the tears, as awe sent a tingle down my spine.
I have tried to write many times the feeling I got being there. How the energy created by the people around me felt. A dream. A gift from sobriety. The best explanation I could come up with:
If you stared at perfection would perfection describe it? Would there be words in the entirety of known language to be able to articulate it? Wouldn’t the moment constrict your throat and demand to be appreciated? Words dancing on your tongue mockingly; knowing their own limitations. Emotions demanding to be expressed but bubbling and dying as the moment consumes all facalties. The brain manages to force a inhalation, a single breath… A gasp. This is the sound that expresses what words cannot. That is the sound of the brain forcing itself to not be starved of oxygen and to force survival. Because the moment you are experiencing becomes so overwhelming that survival becomes secondary. Consumed by beauty, debilitated by wonder, no words can express that feeling.
I said thank you. To who? I don’t know. Pachamama? God? The universe? Myself? The porters? The guides? The Incas? The weather? The people who have helped me along the way? Probably a combination of them all. It is all those things combined that made it possible. Life is a journey we walk together but experience alone.
We continued towards Machu Picchu. This was “Pinch me” time. I had climbed down from a barstool and made a journey back from hell. I was now being rewarded with my dreams.
As we got closer the crowds grew larger, which was something I hadn’t accounted for. A small percentage of visitors walk the Inca Trail. So there had been times where we hadn’t seen anyone outside of our group for a couple of hours. The crowds were an unwelcome return. Especially after not showering for four days but the stillness of the Inca trail resided within, so patience was abundant and necessary.
The guide explained the various theories of who built Machu Picchu, how it was built and why. Whoever built it, it is a remarkable achievement of engineering achievement and demonstrates what humans are capable of when they work together on a common goal. I wandered around for a few hours, just looking at the brickwork and the views. The builders certainly knew how to pick a location.
I stayed for as long as possible and didn’t want to leave when it was time to go. I noticed a variety of stonework that was created to a different quality. Almost as if created by different builders. Some of the finishes were of unbelievable quality and the tolerances they worked to were minuscule. It is either a site built by a lost technology or we are doing ourselves a great disservice as we have far more potential than we are using. Potential that is diminishing all the time as our dependence on technology replaces our natural ability.
I would have loved to go back the following day and have another look but our tour pressed on.
Even though it was only a few days hike and a day visiting Machu Picchu, the experience will stay with me. It was a profoundly spiritual experience and my view of the world has been changed because of it. Which are the reasons why I travel and the reason why I got sober. In the five years since quitting drinking, I have learned so much about myself and the world. It has been a great journey and the Inca trail was a fantastic part of that. It confirmed that my decision to quit drinking was the right one.
Alcohol stole my freedom. Sobriety gifted it back.
Thanks for reading,
I walked the Inca Trail as part of a larger tour called Absolute Peru which I booked through GAdventures. The tour was very good but the Inca Trail was mind blowing.
By nature, I’m a cynic. Suspicious to the point of paranoia and an ardent demander for proof. For years, I would pooh-pooh spirituality as new age commercialisation of archaic practices. I still believe some are but I cannot deny that gratitude and spirituality have transformed my outlook exponentially.
In my drinking days, I was angry. Not violent. Just angry at everyone and everything. I thought the odds were stacked against me and life hated me. I was closed off emotionally and just wanted to be left alone to drink.
In sobriety that has changed; life doesn’t seem as difficult now and the world doesn’t seem as dark as it did. All of which is down to a change of outlook. So I apologise if it comes across as preachy, that wasn’t my intention.
Here are ten things I’ve learned from sobriety and travel: 😊
1) In the western world, water is readily available to the majority of people. This is an outstanding benefit that is often taken for granted. Every time I run the tap to get a drink I say thank you. To whom? I don’t know. What I do know, is that it keeps me grounded and which in turn reminds me what is important in life; friends, family, love, adventure, altruism. It also keeps my problems in perspective as it is a reminder that I am so lucky compared to the 2.5 billion people that go without proper sanitation and even more lucky the 780 million people that don’t have clean water at all.
2) Over the last forty years, there has been a rhetoric that we are individuals and that whatever happens to us is a result of our own actions. This is only partly true. Many things are out of our control and yet we cling to the belief that if we just try to control things a little bit harder then everything will be alright. The saying goes “If you are trying to control everything, then you are at war with everything”.
3) If 10 years ago, I was offered the life I lead now I would have flatly refused on the basis it sounded boring. Sitting in the sun and reading books? Or walking in the woods? Where is the hedonism? Where is the chaos? Where is the fun? Because I believed that those things brought entertainment to my empty life. Now I think they bring disruption to my peaceful life. Drama is for the television, not my life. But on reflection the drinking life was boring. The cyclic mundanity of bouncing from work, pub and home in a zombified state. In sobriety, I have spent a lot of uncomfortable time with myself but eventually, it happened. The world seemed brighter and my head wasn’t such a scary place to visit anymore. I hear people say “I can’t meditate,” and you know what neither could I when I started. Maybe, people think it’s a quick fix solution much like the delusion reading a 300-page self-help book will transform your life. If you don’t keep working at change then those new behaviours won’t be written over the old ones.
4) We are constantly bombarded with messages about happiness… No, wait. We are constantly bombarded with messages explaining why we are; too fat, too thin, too old, not old enough. That our car, phone, shoes, suit, etc etc are out of date and by proxy so are we. This is the commodification of happiness. In my humble opinion, happiness is a marketing word used to sell shit that people don’t need. A by-product of which has resulted in people believing that they have to be constantly happy. This is further compounded by the illusionary lives of social media. I say fuck finding happiness. Find yourself and happiness will follow. You are happiness. You are complete and always have been. You have so much to give that even a fraction of that potential would make you realise how wonderful you are. So close the Amazon app, get a glass of water and revel in the simplistic beauty of sobriety. You are all you ever needed.
5) Test yourself. You’ll be surprised by what you will achieve. That picture you wanted to paint? Paint it. To hell with the fact it isn’t the Sistine Chapel. That book you wanted to write? Write it. If you had time to drink alcohol then you have time to develop those skills. There is no failure. Only opportunities to learn and grow.
6) The shit from the past will hold you back like being tied to a bolder. The only way to make it lighter is to start to chip away at it. Piece by piece it breaks down until it is no longer bothersome. It doesn’t matter where you start to chip away, just start somewhere. The feeling that being freed from this weight gives is amazing.
7) I have never been to prison but it often felt like I was. The pub was my cell and my workplace was the yard. Exacerbated by the debt that tied my wrist like a tether, I was trapped. Clearing as much debt as possible and stopping drinking made me feel like I had dug a tunnel and pulled off the great escape. The pleasure that was offered by the products I got into debt to purchase was far outweighed by the anxiety induced by the precarious financial situation it placed me in. Freedom from addiction emboldens. So does freedom from debt.
8) In Eastern cultures, when people are feeling low they do something for someone else. In the west, when we feel low we do something for ourselves. We usually buy something for ourselves. When the effects of the act of the thing we do for ourselves has worn off we do it again and thus a cycle is born. By performing an act of altruism it helps maintain relationships, improve mental health and gives a sense of purpose. While also improving self-esteem. What’s not to like about that?
9) Walking in nature is another natural way to improve mental wellbeing with the bonus of the exercise. The calming effect of this simple thing is wonderful and I try to have it in my weekly routine.
10) Life is short. Put on your favourite song. Dance, sing, smile, laugh. Overcoming addiction is hard. Life is mental, balancing life and navigating its pitfalls is hard. I assure you it is easier sober. So keep going. No matter how difficult sobriety seems to be, keep going. Don’t let a splash of rain ruin the parade.
I don’t know if any of this makes sense or is of any use but I found I had to change my outlook to stay sober. So far it’s working 🙂
All our energy is spent for the purpose of getting what we want, and most people never question the premise of this activity: that they know their true wants. They do not stop to think whether the aims they are pursuing are something they themselves want. In school they want to have good marks, as adults they want to be more and more successful, to make more money, to have more prestige, to buy a better car, to go places, and so on. Yet when they do stop to think in the midst of all this frantic activity, this question may come to their minds: “If I do get this new job, if I get this better car, if I can take this trip–what then? What is the use of it all? Is it really I who wants all this? Am I not running after some goal which is supposed to make me happy and which eludes me as soon as I have reached it?” These questions, when they arise, are frightening, for they question the very basis on which man’s whole activity is built, his knowledge of what he wants. People tend, therefore, to get rid as soon as possible of these disturbing thoughts.
Erich Fromm, Fear of freedom (1941)
I remember standing in the smoke shelter of a power station somewhere in the Midlands, UK. I was twenty-six years old and the other person there was explaining in great detail the intricacies of the car they had just bought. I could see it from where we were stood, parked in the carpark and gathering coal dust from the heaps of coal all around that was waiting to be turned to electricity.
“How much was it?” I asked
“Thirty thousand,” he said
“Why did you pay thirty thousand pound for a car?” I asked.
“Because I like it,” he said.
“But you work twelve hours a day to pay for it. For twelve hours a day, it’s parked here gathering coal dust and then you drive it home?” I said.
“What’s the matter with you?” he said.
That’s when I realised it was a con job. Life I mean. An absolute blag. A culture of artificially implanted desires that lead us down roads of supposed happiness yet to be met with disappointment. I was working eighty-four hours a week at that time and was being paid quite well for it but I was miserable. I should have been happy; I had money and I could buy things but felt trapped. I was drinking heavily every night. My life had become a cycle of work, drink, sleep, repeat. Months passed by without me realising. Life was passing me by.
That conversation about the car made me think about what I wanted from life. I have a finite time on this planet to do something. Something, I hoped more than working my entire existence away under the belief that I would be free when I retire. I have been promised freedom at every step; when I left school when I got a job etc but every new phase of life comes with its chains that bind. Addiction being the worse. So if I wanted to find freedom then I had to remove the hooks of the chains.
I have to come to think that the external consumption model exists to plug an internal void. To mask an uneasy question. To make life seem a little more colourful even for a moment. For example; I drank excessively because I hated my life and myself. I hated myself because I didn’t have the strength to change my life. So I kept telling myself if I worked more, earned more and drank more it would get better. It only got worse. A lot worse. The same could be said of buying things; if you are unhappy with the shit you own then you will sure as hell be unhappy with the shit you buy. If that is the case, then maybe the problem isn’t an external one. It could be argued that the external is a reflection of the internal.
On my commute in the morning, I stand on a crowded tube that is bereft of colour. The only colour that exists is splattered on the adverts that line the sides of the tube train. Children and adults alike adorn their uniforms of conformity disguised as professionalism. We are a culture repressed. Seeking excitement externally while fearful of our minds. As we age we are weaned of creativity. Our existence is one of production not pleasure. The only pleasure we are encouraged to seek just happens to deaden our desire to live or increase our productivity at work; Nicotine, sugar, caffeine, alcohol, opium-based pain killers, anti-everything tablets. You get the idea.
Russell Brand said, “Drugs and alcohol are not my problems, reality is my problem, drugs and alcohol are my solutions.” I would argue that yearning for reality was my problem. Yearning for life. Yearning for meaning, beauty and connection. Like the quote at the beginning says I used alcohol to rid those disturbing thoughts. Alcohol switched off that yearning but made me into automaton.
The feeling of being deadened to life becomes the accepted norm. Yet sobriety has taught me otherwise.
So I say throw off the shackles. Dust off the paintbrushes. Throw colour into your life. Embrace your eccentricities and be true to who you are. Life’s too short to live as someone else. I mean whose life is it anyway?
What I was doing was staring into the nearly empty glass in my hand.
“Thinking,” was my reply.
“What about?” she asked.
“Nothing important. Can I have another pint?” I said, before finishing the remainder of the lager in my glass.
The barmaid brought the drink over and I paid with a gruff “Thanks.” She took my money and went to the till. I returned to my staring. I was alone. I felt alone.
The barmaid didn’t ask me the question again when she returned with my change. She just left it on the bar. My answer “Nothing important,” hadn’t been completely truthful. I knew what I was thinking about I just didn’t think she would understand or that she could help. The chaotic storm that blew constantly in my mind was not for the faint of heart and had I began to explain, I would have come apart at the seams. Almost as if it only became real if I vocalised it. Keeping it internal meant that I could continue to live a charade. A charade that only I believed. To any curious observer, it was apparent that my life was a complete fucking mess. That’s what the thoughts were about “How the fuck do I get out of this mess?” I couldn’t escape it. I drank until the questions in my mind stopped being asked. When the storm died down I could relax.
I remember the moment in the bar because it was the first time I had got to last orders and the questions were still there. The storm had not abated in my mind. The drinking didn’t switch it off anymore. The miracle cure turned out to be snake oil and the salespeople had long since departed with my money. I was fucked. My problems were queuing up and waiting for their turn to give me a good kick in. I was scared. I didn’t think I was strong enough. Or smart enough. Or good enough. All I could think was “How the fuck do I get out of this mess?”
This was approximately two months before I stopped drinking. It was the beginning of the end and the beginning of the beginning.
My solution? I increased the amount I drank. That was my solution. I had no other solutions. That had been my go-to for everything. It had worked fantastically well so far. But now, no matter how much I drank I couldn’t shake the problems. I kept trying though until my liver gave up.
Game over. Fess up. Come clean. No more running. No more hiding. I was devastated.
How did I get over it? I rolled my sleeves up and got a dustpan and brush. I started cleaning up the wreckage of the past a bit at a time. A scoop at a time. Sometimes a little. Sometimes none. Progress, not perfection. It seemed like trying to flatten the Himalayas at first but eventually, it got easier. Sometimes there was defeat. But I didn’t drink. Some heartache and I had to sit with it. Some disappointment but that’s life. Eventually, I had a clean street and the tools to keep it clean.
I would implore anyone contemplating quitting drinking to do so. I thought about it for years and my only regret has been; why didn,t I do it sooner?
Sobriety has been an absolute gift that I hold dearly. A badge of honour I am proud to wear. An accolade I have earned. It wasn’t/isn’t always easy but it is so worth it… well it has been for the last five years.
Just over a month ago, I crossed the half-decade without drinking alcohol. A remarkable achievement to many, a sensible one to me. An achievement none the less that has taught me a few things that I would like to share.
I have difficulty sharing experiences as I often try and think of what would benefit people trying to stop. And honestly, I can’t. The sober version of me is everything that drunk me hated; Happy, free, fit and healthy. All of which were previously points of scorn, thinly veiling envy. I was angry at life, myself and… everything. I blamed everything for my problems. Mostly because I didn’t like myself and didn’t know how to put it right. Sobriety was the start of the journey to put it right.
If you are considering quitting alcohol then I say give it a go it has been the catapult to a new life for me.
Here are five things I’ve learned along the way:
I am incredible – (And also very modest obviously) we all are. Incredible I mean. A statement I never thought I would say about myself. The other day I was sitting and I thought “You’re alright, Charlie.” I spent years calling myself all the negative names under the sun. Chastising and castigating myself over… everything. In sobriety, I have achieved wonderful things that I never would have thought possible. Go easy on yourself. You are amazing. Give yourself a hug. you deserve it.
“We drink the poison our minds pour for us and wonder why we feel so sick.”
Sobriety isn’t the end – I thought it was the end of my life. How wrong was I? It was the beginning. Quitting drinking wasn’t the magic wand that fixed everything but it was the strength, clarity and calmness for me to fix what I could. Patience and perseverance are a must because it doesn’t happen overnight but it does happen if you keep plugging away. Knock backs and setbacks will happen but keep going.
“You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life, but it ain’t about how hard you hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward, how much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done”
Don’t worryso much – I have played out scenarios in my mind. I’ve wasted energy thinking about how I will react to situations. Second-guessing life. Especially about drinking or other people asking me about drinking. And all of it for nothing because those situations never arose. I wasted energy I could have used on something more worthwhile. Don’t worry too much. You will have the strength to deal with situations you thought impossible.
“Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength.”
Corrie Ten Boom
Life is a beautiful thing – Without the turgid thinking that alcohol-induced anxiety brings, the world seems lighter. Brighter. Calmer. Birds sing. The wind blows in the trees. The sun shines and everything is cool. Then some bastard ruins it but hey that’s life. You’ve got the toolbox to let it wash over you… or swear a lot. The choice is now yours.
Life is beautiful but people are crazy.
Freedom – Alcohol stole freedom and freedom of choice. It stole joy and happiness. Money. Relationships. Jobs. Some of which return if you want because now you have the freedom to choose who, where and what you do with your life. Dreams do come true. We are the lucky ones.
“We want ecstasy as a way of life, not a liver-poisoning alcoholiday from it.”
At the height of my hedonism, I weighed 18 stone 6 pounds (117kg). And being 5’ 10” (177cm) meant I had a BMI of 36. I was obese. I felt like a stegosaurus, lumbering through life, consuming everything in its path. My heaviest weight coincided with some of my lowest points mentally. On reflection, I ate and drank because of how I felt physically and mentally. Which in turn made me feel worse and added fuel to the fire.
One day I was shopping for some new jeans and when I couldn’t squeeze my gigantic arse into a pair of 40” waist trousers. I decided it was time to change.
I would love to say I lost the weight in ten weeks and it stayed off but it took dedication. It was trial and error to find what worked. It also took a lot of perseverance and patience. Initially, I lost 3 stones in 9 months. I haven’t put that back on. I lost another three stone, over the next couple of years and have maintained that weight since. To coincide with the weight loss, my mental health has improved exponentially due to the things I started doing to supplement my physical health. The saying “Healthy body, healthy mind,” isn’t a true reflection of reality. It isn’t as black and white as that. Or it wasn’t for me. Both my mental and physical health had to be worked at to improve.
Over a ten year period, I have overcome depression, obesity, alcoholism and quit smoking. Here are a few things that I have learned along the way. I hope that something here is of use to you.
How I began…
I knew I needed to lose weight but had no idea where to start. Just getting out of bed was enough of an effort, but coupled with the diatribe that was rifling through my mind, exercising seemed unrealistic. I could barely walk due to the weight of excess around my waist and the world around my shoulders. I couldn’t do a press up or a sit up. Walking made me feel uncomfortable and I soon got out of breath. I felt worthless and hopeless. I realised that yoga was a simple exercise. I could do it indoors where I was guarded against the eyes of others. So I ordered a Detox and de-stress Yoga DVD I had no idea what kundalini yoga was at the time. I just liked the sound of detoxing and de-stressing. It was definitely what I needed.
When the DVD arrived, I attempted the hour-long session and was knackered before the end of the hour. It was far more active than I had anticipated but still a lot easier than running. The last ten minutes of the session was a guided meditation, which helped to calm my mind. Afterwards, I needed the toilet badly. All the bending and rolling had got my intestines moving and all the crap (excuse the pun) that had been building up over the years of inactivity began to move. I was also thirsty. I downed two litres of water. It was like I could now hear my bodies demands to be taken care of after all the years of abuse. I did the hour-long session again that week and then three times the week after. I carried on doing it three times a week. After a month, I still couldn’t do all the exercises but I just thought it was better to do something instead of doing nothing. I felt better about myself and life in general. I have to say it changed my life. Three hours a week changed my life for the better in so many ways.
Removing alcohol from my life was the platform that all the following changes are built upon. Trying to implement changes whilst still drinking to access was difficult. I realised that for every step forward, alcohol dragged me back two. I was fighting a losing battle. By removing alcohol and replacing it with positive behaviours, I was able to maintain my sobriety whilst cultivating positive changes.
Alongside yoga, my diet changed. I used to hoover up alcohol, sugar, salt and fat. Basically, anything that would make me feel different. But now, after a month of doing yoga, the happy chemicals began to trickle into my system and my weight slowly began to drop. I started having jacket potato, tuna and salad every lunch. I started drinking more water. I cut back on sweets. I started getting weighed once every couple of weeks and writing it down. I would stick the paper I had written my weight on, to my mirror as a reminder of the progress I was making. Eventually, I needed to increase my exercise so I bought a cheap exercise bike and started doing half an hour every couple of days as well as the yoga. I felt amazing and the pounds began to drop off. I never had aspirations to be muscle-bound. I just wanted to be lighter because carrying around all that extra weight in the past had made living life such an effort. As I got lighter, I felt lighter. I still watch what I eat to this day. Every day I have porridge, banana and honey for breakfast. I eat plenty of fruit and veg. I still drink plenty of water. I don’t deny myself things but I don’t desire to eat junk food that often anymore. I have found that denying myself things just creates a desire. For example, if I deny myself sweets and use willpower to stop eating them eventually I will give in to temptation. I will gorge myself on them until I then feel guilty. I have realised that by allowing a little of everything I remove the unhealthy relationship with food. This can be obsessional eating habits on both ends of the spectrum.
Eating is a habit. It can be a bad habit or a good habit. Bad habits can be replaced with good ones but it takes practice and perseverance.
The loss of weight and a basic level of fitness has allowed me to achieve things that I couldn’t have done at my heaviest. Walking the Inca trail, hiking the El Camino and climbing the rainbow mountain are things that I wouldn’t have achieved had I not changed my lifestyle. It has been worth the effort. As of now, my preference is for healthy food automatically. Although, this can be undone by sugar. A small amount of sugar starts the cravings. A great documentary on the dangers of sugar is That Sugar Film, which should be mandatory viewing for everyone, especially parents.
I have mentioned water a couple of times and I believe it is a key component in the jigsaw of my recovery and well being. Years ago a hardened drinker said to me “The next best thing to a pint,” as he held up a glass of water. I never drank water in my drinking days. I drank lager at night, Iron Bru, coffee and Lucozade in the day to try to recover. I read something that said “The hunger and thirst signal is the same. People eat when they should have a drink of water.” It recommended drinking a glass of water before eating and if the sensation remains then have something to eat.
The kundalini yoga DVD ending with meditation opened my mind to its benefits. So I began to experiment with different forms of meditation and found some wonderful guided meditations on Fragrant heart meditation which helped with the anxiety and sleep issues I was having at the time.
In my humble opinion, meditating is to create a greater connection with the self. Something I was yearning for after years of using alcohol to escape myself. Like every new skill, it takes time and practice for it to develop. One second of meditation is better than no seconds of meditation. A great resource is Finding peace in a frantic world which is an eight-week mindfulness course and a great starting point. Along with How to meditate which taught me the basic principles of focusing on the breath and calming the chatter of the mind. What a relief it was to find a cure for the incessant noise in my mind. Meditation has been one of the greatest tools in my toolbox. It has allowed me to let go of problems. Control my emotions better. But most importantly it has enabled my mind to find moments of serenity even in the chaos of city living. A true gift.
When I remember to, I play the following guided meditations. I don’t believe the universe delivers things. But I do believe that taking action definitely gets results and these meditations help keep me focused:
Books, like most hobbies when I was drinking, went unfinished. I would start reading one and then lose interest. I would then start reading another and then repeat the process. With the clarity of sobriety, I became hungry for knowledge and intent on becoming the best version of myself. To achieve this I had to learn from others. I wanted to know how to be happy and also, how to let things slide as I used to get angry over the smallest slight. Three books that helped with this (alongside the meditation) were:
The art of happiness – a book written by a psychologist based on a series of interviews with the Dalai Llama.
Buddhism, plain and simple – a book that liberated me from the tyrannical thinking I used to impose on myself. (I do not consider myself a Buddhist but the philosophy is fantastic.)
“Stoicism doesn’t concern itself with complicated theories about the world, but with helping us overcome destructive emotions and act on what can be acted upon. It’s built for action, not endless debate.” – Taken from The daily stoic. I needed action after years of standing in the pub talking about the things I was “Gonna” do with my life.
“The more the drive toward life is thwarted, the stronger is the drive toward destruction; the more life is realized, the less is the strength of destructiveness. Destructiveness is the outcome of an unlived life.”
“In every walk in nature one receives far more than he seeks”
The saying goes; “If you want to happy for a few hours, get drunk. A few years? Get married. For a lifetime? get a garden.” I miss having a garden. Moving to the city, a garden is a luxury I can’t afford. A window box just doesn’t fill the void. So, instead of having my own green space to relax and ruminate, I have to frequent the nearest nature spots. This is where I calm my mind and stay active. I started out walking small distances until eventually, I was walking sixteen miles at a time. It became so time-consuming that I had to upgrade to running but I still ensure that one day a week I take an afternoon stroll in nature. Sometimes with music. Sometimes without. Either way, it is free therapy. Both physical and mental. All the walking led to me walking the El Camino de Santiago. A luxury of change. It was a privilege afforded by the gift of wellness.
Due to the time that walking was taking and the fact that I had stopped smoking, I began running (and using nicotine gum. I’ve been stopped two years.) Initially, I couldn’t run a mile without wheezing. I would cough out the shit that 23 years of smoking had left in my lungs. I used to walk for a bit and then carry on running whilst thinking you owe it to your lungs to be clean. You did this to them.
I carried on running and after a while, I could run two miles and then four and then 10k. Like all the things I have written about here. Running takes time, patience and perseverance. Most quick-fix solutions are just that. Quick fix but not long-lasting. Replacing old habits takes repetition of the new, healthier ways until they become a habit.
I learned quickly that running in bad running shoes is a bad idea. I got shin splints and was in agony often. I stopped being a tightwad and bought some good running shoes. I noticed the difference instantly. The pain in my shins disappeared. So if I have some advice it is getting some good shoes.
If you’re starting then don’t expect too much too early. Like many things in life, perseverance is important. A little is better than nothing. Just keep going. Keep reminding yourself why you are doing it.
Because I am always running or writing or planning or something, I forget to take the time to relax. When I say rest I mean doing nothing. I have to remember to put my feet up. Doing nothing, give my body and mind time to recover. Prevention is better than a cure. Putting too much stress on myself only ends up with me getting sick and not being able to function. Rest is as important as the other things to develop a balanced lifestyle. It is important to accept that rest is a vital part of the process. The little voice of guilt used to drive me on but would only hinder me.
I have made a lot of changes. I can make a comparison between being healthy and unhealthy. I was miserable when I was unhealthy. I used food and alcohol to make me feel better. This would make me more unhealthy. A little bit of exercise and good living goes a long way. It’s hard in the beginning but it soon becomes natural to live well.
QUIT MAKING EXCUSES! START MAKING CHANGES!
A life beyond your wildest dreams
As a result of the changes listed, I have been freed to pursue dreams. Goals in life that were once impossible became achievable. I sense of self I desired in others cultivated inside. My self-worth increased. My sense of inner love grew. The feelings of contentment and peace I chased in escapism came available. Those incremental changes became a new person with a new outlook. The time I spent drinking became the time I spent developing. Like all investments, I was a gamble. It was worth the risk. You are worth the investment also. You are only a series of small changes away from becoming the person you deserve to be.
What would you do if you had more money and more time? Spend time with your kids? Improve your golf swing? Travel the world? Do that qualification you’ve always wanted to do? Buy that car you always wanted? Treat your kids? Your spouse?
Well you can. If there is two things that stopping drinking gave me it is more time and more money. With the added benefits of improved sleep, clearer thinking and improved health. Best of all it’s free.
I didn’t want to quit. I loved drinking. So much so that a therapist went as far as saying that I had a love affair with alcohol. I had been telling myself and anyone that would listen, that my drinking was “Fine” and I was in control. The thought of quitting drinking made me want to drink. My whole life revolved around drinking. Any activity that didn’t involve drinking was dismissed as being boring and a waste of time.
At the age of twenty-nine, I had a warning about my liver from a doctor. She told me that I had been given an opportunity to do something but I continued to delude myself that the downturn in health was normal and a by-product of lifestyle. I even wore it as a badge of honour.
The second warning from my doctor about my liver came three years later and scared the shit out of me. I had spent a night in the hospital because of an enlarged liver. I was in agony. Even the copious amounts of whiskey I had consumed did nothing to alleviate the pain. The doctor told me I HAD to cut out alcohol for two weeks.
The following day, my car broke down which left me stranded at the side of the motorway. I just felt like life was sending me a message; This is how it’s going to be forever. I didn’t want that. I couldn’t take that shit any more. I was mentally and physically beat. I was skint. I was directionless, miserable and lonely.
I had wanted to do so much with my life when I was younger but my dreams had been washed away progressively over the years. Until I was left as nothing more than a mess chained to a bar, drinking out of necessity. While clinging desperately to the belief that I was still having fun. But the fear of dying outweighed the fear of not drinking so I was given an escape from the prison of addiction if I chose to take it. It wasn’t quite rock bottom but it was close. More importantly, it was enough to make me stop. I’m glad I didn’t keep searching for the bottom. I’ve heard some terrible stories from the people who kept searching. It’s not pretty. Stop before you have no other choice.
After the chaos of early sobriety had tempered, I began to question what I was going to do with this abundance of time. I had to do something because I was bored shitless. Without drinking, I had nothing going on. I began to worry that I would drink again because boredom was a trigger for me to drink. I had to find something to do. And then I saw this video:
I’d never thought about what I wanted to do with my life. I just accepted a routine of working and drinking. The people around me seemed to be doing the same thing, so I accepted it as a way of life. Now I had a quandary; the life I accepted as the normal way of life was killing me and making me depressed. I needed a new way of life. I needed something to keep me sober. A goal. And when asked the question “What do you desire?” my answer was always, “To travel.” I’ve been plagued throughout my life with the thought; there has to be more than life than this. So I sought to find out if there was.
I did not want to have a life of regrets and missed opportunities just because I didn’t have the courage to pursue my dreams. I was scared of failing but I wasn’t scared of trying, so I made a plan. The first plan was to walk the El Camino De Santiago. Each time I wanted a drink I reminded myself why I wasn’t drinking. It is hard because recovery takes time to see results. Alcohol gives effects quickly. It is easy to see why people relapse because recovery seems like an exercise in futility at times. You have to stick to the new path you have chosen. Whatever it may be. Trust that it will work out but accept that it might not. Just keep heading towards the goal one step at a time.
I fought off the boredom by not only planning goals but also by doing other things I’d always dreamed of doing. I learned guitar and piano. Educated myself about finances asI needed to pay back debt and had been crap with money previously. I read books. Exercised. Meditated. Met friends. Went to AA. I did anything that I wanted really but it was all heading towards walking the El Camino de Santiago.
El Camino De Santiago– September 2016
It took me two years to get into a position to walk the El Camino. I just kept plugging away and not drinking. Eventually, I made it. I was financially, physically and mentally in a position to do it. It had seemed impossible at times but now I was booking flights.
I was forever changed by the experience but also by the fact I had actually achieved something I had set out to do. In my drinking days I never did anything. I dismissed things as boring when in reality I was scared. Scared of living yet envious of people who were getting on with it. Now I felt like I was in control for the first time in years.
When I got home I made a plan to see all the places I’d dreamed of and pinned it next to my desk. Everyday I was reminded why I wasn’t drinking or wasting money.
Having the list really helped focus my attention. I have used a similar technique to lose weight in the past and that also got results.
I had spent the first two years of sobriety clearing debt, working on myself and relationships, all with a view of reaching my goals. The seeds you sow become the fruit you pick.
Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.
Six months after making the list, I visited the first place. Before stopping drinking, I had been on holiday a handful of times. They were a continuation of my drinking lifestyle dressed up as a holiday. That’s not to say I didn’t have a good time but it was a different type of experience. Now I wanted to not only be there but FEEL what those places were like. To experience something new and come away hopefully changed for the better.
Cambodia– March 2017
Cambodia was my first taste of backpacking. Arriving in a country with no agenda. I was there for three weeks because I had to go back to work. The friends I went with were lucky enough to continue on to Vietnam. Each place I’ve visited has altered my perception of the world we live in and the people who call it home. What I took from Cambodia was the startling fact that a lot more people seem happy with what they have and they have not very much. Large parts of the Western world are miserable with an abundance. It was eye opening and played a huge role in being more grateful for the simpler things in my own life.
Many places have filled me with emotion over the last few years. Usually, as I compare my life now to the drinking days. Walking to Angkor Wat at dawn, with tears in my eyes was one such occurrence. It wasn’t as easy as just jumping on an aeroplane, flying around the world and visiting the place. A huge amount of effort had gone into making it happen. The tears were of joy. At the beauty of the world. At the achievement. The tears were of happiness. I was present, grateful and proud. I had earned it. I deserved it. We all do.
In the lowest parts of my life, I often dreamed of maxing out my debt and running away. In the fantasy, I would rent a beach hut and read books, free of worry. On Koh Rong Samloem, in Cambodia, I was lucky enough to rent a beach hut. I had plenty of time to think, as I sat in a hammock sipping an iced coffee contemplating how far I had come since those dark days.
India & Nepal – September 2017
If serenity was a place on Earth Lumbini would be it. After the short tour of Lumbini (The supposed birthplace of Buddha), it felt like I had undertaken 8 hours meditation. I felt light and free. At peace and calm. A wonderful experience.
In Varanasi, the controlled riot of colour and religious worship that took place on the banks of the Ganges was a privilege to witness, as we floated along the river at sunset.
USA– September 2018
A road trip across America, the thing of movies. With good company, great tunes and mind blowing, life affirming scenery it was everything I hoped for.
The highlight for me was when approaching the Grand Teton national park. Surrounded by glorious views, I was overcome with emotion as the words “There’s still time to change the road you’re on…” from Stairway to heaven rang out of the speakers. I couldn’t help thinking of that feeling I had four years earlier, sitting on the side of the motorway, broken and lonely. No amount of time sober will stop me remembering what I went through to visit the places I am so fortunate to see now. The sacrifice for me isn’t stopping drinking. The sacrifice is giving up on my dreams to drink. I cannot let that happen.
Peru– December 2018
Machu Picchu had been my computer desktop picture for years. It still is except it is now a photo I took :). Standing at the sun gate looking over Machu Picchu as the clouds cleared to reveal the glorious Incan citadel, like a gift from Pachamama, will remain long in the memory.
The Inca trail gave a welcome, three-day break from technology and the opportunity to connect. Not only with each other and nature but with the self. A reconnect. An alignment. I came back to the city at peace until eventually, the frantic lifestyle began to steal my serenity and I dropped back into the old routine. Thankfully, that routine doesn’t involve drinking because I wouldn’t have been here if I’d continued.
When I stopped drinking I expected it to be boring. A mundane existence. That would mean Missing out on all the fun. But in reality, it has been the most liberating and eye-opening thing I have done. I realised that alcohol lied to me. It made me believe that standing in an empty bar on a Tuesday night due to the fear of missing out, was fun. When I look back with the clarity I have now it stopped being fun years before I stopped drinking. In fact, the drinking began to steal fun towards the end.
Sobriety isn’t the end. It is the beginning…
If I can do it, anyone can. It just takes patience and perseverance. It doesn’t have to be travelling. It can be whatever you want it to be. That is the beauty of sobriety; freedom. Freedom to choose to do something or do nothing. To see the world. To learn. To grow. Or sit with your family free of the anxiety and just enjoy their company. Whatever it is, just pick a goal. Write it down and make it your focal point. As you wrestle back control of your life, you will be surprised at what you are capable of doing.
A year of sobriety had whisked past. I was firmly entrenched into a routine; swimming, sauna, hiking in nature on the weekends, meditating, chipping away at debt, meeting friends and reading. I’d been promoted at work. Which was a surprise because it was the first interview I’d done sober and I was convinced it had gone terribly, due to my nervousness. My nervousness had been for nothing as it turned out I was the only applicant but had interviewed quite well none the less.
I hadn’t only made progress in my career. My physical fitness improved, thanks to the walking, swimming and improved diet. My mental health improved thanks to meditation and reading. I just felt better.
I would love to say everything was fixed after that year and that life was like living in a happy, glowing cartoon but it was not the case. That doesn’t mean it was bad because it wasn’t. Compared to the drinking life it was heaven. It’s just that the wreckage of the past was taking time to clear and I was being forced to learn to be patient. The progress was reassuring though. Seeing my debts coming down and being more manageable meant a vast improvement in my anxiety and I was sleeping better. I reminded myself often that it had taken sixteen years of recklessness to get to this point. It wasn’t going to be fixed over night.
One evening, I was with some friends when they began discussing going away on holiday. This put me on edge somewhat because I hadn’t been on holiday sober and every trip we’d been on together in the past, were excuses to drink without reproach, poorly disguised as holidays. The places being thrown around were in a similar vein as the times previous; cheap flights, all inclusive, warm weather & not too far away. I’d stopped drinking to see the world but was very reluctant to go on holiday and sit in a free bar. I was quite comfortable visiting pubs by this point but that was a test I wasn’t willing to take. I kindly declined and said in a sarcastic way, “I would rather go to Rome on my own. I can’t risk everything.”
“Rome?” said my friend.
“Yeah, Rome. I’ve wanted to go for years,” I said.
“So have I. I wanted to go with my missus butmeant wasn’t interested,” said my friend.
That was it. From standing my ground and putting my sobriety first, it enabled us to compromise. I could go somewhere that I had longed to go and visit for a long time and my friend could still have a drink if he wished. Then, another friend said he would come along but “Only if we have a road trip,” and who doesn’t love a road trip? So it was set. My first sober holiday would be a twenty-two-hour road trip to Rome.
The first year of sobriety had been tricky at times but this trip was what I had got sober for; to see the world, taste other cultures and experience life without the glazey, hazey vision of alcohol. My goal was coming to fruition and honestly, I couldn’t wait.
Road trip to Rome
I threw some clothes into a rucksack a couple of days before we were due to leave and began planning how to see the places I’d wanted to go for a long time; Vatican, Colosseum, Roman forum & Sistine Chapel. I couldn’t believe it was actually happening. Even when we were in the van making our way there, I still couldn’t believe we were going. As we hastily headed through France, the temperature began to rise, which was a problem as the van had no air conditioning but the sweat did nothing to wash away the excitement. Plenty of iced coffees gave a welcomed cooling and a much-needed caffeine boost as we made as much headway as we could before we were too tired to continue. We safely cut through the Alps along the winding roads that are made dangerous not by the winding but, by the distracting beautiful scenery that surrounds. I soaked up every detail as it passed us by as we headed towards Turin, where we decided to stop.
Waking in the morning, to the sight of the Alps was an experience. Almost as if I’d expected to wake in my own bed again. Hungover. Having spent the previous night in the bar drinking and talking in great detail about what I would like to do with my life. But it wasn’t so. I was actually here. Humbled by the majesty of the mountains and happy to be alive.
We made our way the last eight or so hours of the journey and finally arrived in Rome in the late afternoon. We had picked the place to stay before we set off and had chosen to stay at Camping Village RomaQ (https://humancompany.com/it/strutture/villaggi-camping-in-town/roma-camping-in-town) due to its price and location. It was perfect for what we wanted and after we checked in, found our bungalow, took a much-needed shower and hastily made our way to the restaurant. We raised a glass and discussed how we would spend the next two days in Rome. I was disappointed we couldn’t have more time but my friends had family commitments that they had to honour, so it was the best they could manage. It was decided on the first day, we would visit the Roman Forum and the Colosseum. The second day, we would visit the Vatican and the Vatican museum. Over both days, we would see anything else we had time to see. We sat in the restaurant late into the night talking about the journey here and how good it was to be in Rome. As I sat, sipping my cool sprite in the warm Italian evening it dawned on me that this only happened because I had stopped drinking. The thought pushed my smile a little wider.
I was woken by the cold in the middle of the night. The room was so cold that I had to get a sleeping bag to supplement my duvet. I could see my breath it was that cold and thought the air conditioning was broken, so I turned it off.
I was shaken awake in the morning by one of my friends, who asked me if I’d turned the air conditioning off in the night.
“Yeah, it was freezing in here,” I said.
“I was trying to keep my beers cool and there’s no fridge in here. You shouldn’t have turned it off. They’re warm now,” he said.
“So it’s okay for me to freeze to death, as long as you can have a cool beer?” I said.
Alcohol was still trying to kill me.
Rome was like walking around a huge museum. History dripped off every building and the Italian culture was clear to see. It was a wonderful experience, heightened by the sight of the Colosseum. It was easy to see why people come from far and wide to visit. As its dominant size, iconic design and spectacular engineering gave a delightful taste of the brilliance of the Romans.
I’d seen photos of the Colosseum before but it was nothing like standing inside and imagining what it must have been like when it was in use. The sounds, smells, nerves, fear and excitement all battling for supremacy as the brutal spectacle unfolded.
Inside the Roman Forum, I stood in the scorching Italian Sun in awe of the wonders that laid before us. Like so much of Rome, the huge columns/buildings were intricately carved to make them grandiose. With each new sight, my yearning for exploration grew a little more and I was becoming hungry for knowledge.
The following day, we made our way to the Vatican in the scorching Roman summer. I wasn’t hugely concerned about visiting the Vatican but when in Rome. Saint Peters square was a beautiful sight but paled in magnificence compared to the sight of the Colosseum. When I walked through the door of the Vatican my breath was taken away.
I had never experienced a feeling like that before in my life. It wasn’t a religious feeling. More a feeling of pure wonderment. The place was one of pure beauty, of which a photo could never do justice. It really was that overwhelming. I stood for a moment, paused in time until my body demanded oxygen and I regained composure. We slowly made our way around and absorbed every detail before heading through into the Vatican Museum. The intricate detail on the stonework was mind-blowing in both its beauty and finesse. The statues were a combination of wonderful engineering and sublime art. It was an experience I didn’t want to end. This was the reason I gave up drinking and it was worth the sacrifice. Sobriety gives us not only freedom but also the freedom to choose how we spend it.
The tour ended in the Sistine Chapel. As I stood looking at the ceiling with sweat dripping off my face, shoulder to shoulder with other tourists, I felt an overwhelming urge to cry. Yes, it is a beautiful painting but it was more about how this moment had seemed so far away. So unrealistically achievable only a year or so before. But, one repayment, one day, one test at a time, I made it here. Even though I could have visited Rome when I still drank alcohol. I wouldn’t have been as present as I was at that moment, basking in the frescoes.
Afterwards, we made a slow walk back through Rome towards the accommodation. We had driven twenty-two-hours to get here and it had exceeded my expectations. The whole experience had cemented my belief that quitting drinking, to get a taste of life, had been the right choice. Everything about Rome was wonderful. The weather. The atmosphere. The pistachio ice-cream was especially wonderful.
We sat into the night talking about the large amount we had squeezed into two short days whilst enjoying one last delightful Italian meal. I was sad it was over, but it had been such a wonderful time. I was grateful to my friends for coming along and making it happen. They enjoyed a beer, as I enjoyed a sprite. Any thoughts of drinking were shot on sight. The counter thought to any thought of drinking was “If I still drank, I wouldn’t even be in Rome.” It became my mantra for survival.
At that moment I realised, for the first time in my life, I was in control.
I woke in the morning that we were due to go home and couldn’t help thinking that I didn’t want to go home yet. I had come all this way and Pompeii was just down the road, yet we wouldn’t have time to visit. Unlike my friends, I didn’t have to rush home to see my kids as I didn’t have any. I would still be off work for another week so I didn’t have to rush home for that. At that moment, I realised, for the first time in my life. I was in control. I could stay in Italy on my own and go to Pompeii. I never trusted myself to go anywhere alone other than the pub when I still drank because I never knew what would happen but now I felt that I could control myself and my actions.
“Are you ready to go home?” asked my friend.
“I’m not going to go home,” I said, causing him to laugh.
“Yeah, nice one, Charlie. If only ay?” said my friend.
“I’m not joking. I’m going to stay and go to Pompeii,” I said.
“Fair play to you,” said my friend.
I couldn’t believe it. It had been so easy to say and now it was a reality. Throughout my life, I had been dictated to by fear and this simple act had liberated me from much of it. I walked down to the reception and asked if I could book a single room for two more nights. There was one available and I paid the few euros required. That was that. My friends packed. We shook hands. Said goodbye and then they left. For the first time in my life, at the age of thirty-three, I was in a foreign country on my own and all I had was a rucksack. Was I nervous? Of course. I had spent my life in the pub shackled to the bar. Was I scared of drinking? Not really. I had been fine around my friends drinking. Was I excited? Absolutely. This is what I dreamed of a year ago when I stopped drinking. This is what I sacrificed so much for; moments like this, of freedom and adventure.
I went to my room and dropped my bag off. Pausing for a moment to let the reality of the situation set in. Was I really doing this? A year ago I was sat on the edge of a motorway a broken man. Now I was living out a dream. I smiled with gratitude before heading to the cafe for an espresso and a lucky strike. A combination I had affectionately termed “My Italian breakfast.” With the map laid on the table in front of me, I tried to pick a path. A route. A tick list of things to see but I decided to just head into Rome and embrace my freedom with a nondescript wander. A plan that was brought to a halt by the forty Celsius sunshine that was blazing down that day. I would walk for a bit and then find some shade for a bit. It did nothing to dampen my spirits as I located the train station and bought some tickets for the next day. One of the highlights of the day was the Vittorio Emanuele II monument that I initially thought was another work of genius by the Romans but later found it was more modern. Yet still a work of genius.
I got up early the next morning to catch the bus and metro to the train station (Termini). Initially, I was a little nervous about travelling around on my own but then I remembered that I had travelled around Britain for work on my own. I was drunk most of the time and had still managed to get around. So I reasoned that I would be okay now. The metro system in Rome was easy to understand and navigate, which was a big help. I found the train and found my seat. I set off to Pompeii and watched the world pass by as we made our way there. I changed trains at Naples, again with ease and we passed around the foreboding Mount Vesuvius which had been the cause of so much tragedy all those years ago in Pompeii and the surrounding areas.
Inside Pompeii, I was blown away by the level of engineering that the Romans had at their disposal. Underfloor heating was in some of the villas. As was internal terracotta pipework. There was a takeaway. A brothel. Two story houses. Lots of brightly coloured and ornate decorations. Thermal baths. I expected a small town but it was a city.
I spent many hours wandering around exploring, sitting, imagining and just taking in the atmosphere before I had to catch my train. I could have happily stayed for the same amount of time again.
On the train back to Rome from Naples, I had a cabin to myself and sat staring at the Italian countryside as it passed the window. On the horizon, the Sun began to set. As it did, it painted a magnificent, bright pink on the underbelly of the dark, ominous storm clouds lurking above it. It wasn’t long until the storm clouds that were thinly veiled in pink began to produce bolts of lightning that added to the already wondrous sight. I lifted my phone to the window to record the vibrant show of nature only to be met with a blank screen… the battery had died. I laid the phone back on the seat and returned to the beautiful view out of the window. As I watched the magnificent display of nature I was convinced that I had made the right decision to stop drinking. At that moment I felt contentment for the first time I can remember. It was the perfect end to the beginning of a new chapter of my life.