What “Should” I be doing?

For the past year, I have been involved in some voluntary work. It’s a befriending service. Designed to help the most isolated in society to feel more connected. I would like to profess some kind of saintly reason for signing up but in every act of selflessness there lays some selfishness.

The lockdown was a trying time for many. Some more than others. And as a result of this, my mood took a turn for the worse. Previous experience has taught me that to alleviate my mood I have to take action. Altruism is my path out of depression. Helping others just has this magically effect of pulling me back from the edge. Plus, it benefits another. In my eyes, that’s a win-win situation.
By chance, the individual I was matched with was a recovering alcoholic. He has mental health problems beyond anything I have had to deal with. And I’ll be honest it made me feel grateful for the demons I have to fight. Some are battling the devil himself. Each day is a war. Each tiny accomplishment takes massive energy. It put things into perspective. It has made me realise what some folks have to go through just to get through the day. The medication. The anxiety. The depression. All of it combined. It isn’t a wonder why he drank so much. It helped. Until of course it didn’t. Just like taking morphine for a broken leg. It may remove the pain. But it doesn’t fix the problem.

It’s made me realise that no matter how much support is offered. How much encouragement. Our minds are so powerful that we see reality the way it wants. Pain and suffering, sometimes where there is none.

There are recurring themes in our discussions; self-inflicted pain, unnecessary pressure, expectation, guilt, shame and alcohol. Many of the points come from an internal pressure that I/he imagines comes from outside. An inner narrator that demands perfection and is disappointed with anything less. Unrealistic expectations and the feeling of hopelessness that comes with it. But there is none. It is him. It is me. The feelings are just that. There is nobody telling me I “should” have run further. Or that he “should” have gone for a walk. It kept coming up, this word “should.” So one day I asked, “Why should you?” There was a long pause… “Because I wrote it on my list of things to do!” Sounds obvious but I’ll admit I’ve done it. Made targets and then gave myself a hard time for not meeting them. So I asked him ” So you set the targets? And you give yourself a hard time for not achieving them?” “Yes!” Why don’t you lower the expectations you place on yourself?

Like many addicts, myself included, he has an all or nothing attitude. If everything isn’t done, then it is the same as nothing being done. If there is nothing to be proud of then there is nothing at all. I tried to explain, numerous times, that getting out of bed is an achievement some days. In the belly of depression. When the grey veil is on and my energy has been sapped, getting up and washing the pots is an achievement. On the days I’m good, I do what I can. On the days I’m bad I do what I can. I don’t compare the two. A sick man will be envious of a healthy man.

Talking to him made me notice that many of the traits he carries I have carried too. The thinking patterns. The unrealistic expectations. The self-inflicted mental punishment for things I “should” have done. Numerous days drunk, mulling over the life I “should” be living. But it is just an illusion. An inner narrative that can be changed. It isn’t easy but it can be done. And it won’t solve all my problems but it will help. I still have days of nothingness. Of uncertainty. A lack of motivation. Some days I force myself to exercise. Some would say ” hey that’s the symptoms of depression. Get some meds!” I think it’s just winter. But another month and the days get a little longer. It might get cold but the days get brighter. Also, I’ve slipped off my meditation practice. All the things I recommend to my befriender I have forgotten to do myself. The things that, time and time again, get me out of that hole. The simple actions of checking in, meditating, taking a walk, sharing with others. Simple human traits that have been lost in the pursuit of external fulfilment… But that inner pressure. That “SHOULD” tells makes me feel there is more. More trips. Social media displays images of happiness. Maybe if I did that I would be happy… Maybe. It’s strange. I sometimes feel guilty for feeling happy. Just walking along the beachfront. A coffee and a smile. I think there “should” be more. That happiness can’t be that simple.
It’s been humbling volunteering. It made me realise how difficult it is for friends and families of people with addiction and mental health issues. Trying to make them feel love for the individual when there is nothing but self-hatred. Completely unjustified self-hatred. Trying to point out the inner and outer beauty. Trying to point out that not everyone in the world is living a perfect life. That there are options. There are choices. That doing something, no matter how small is something. Some days it is a huge achievement. But it is difficult to make somebody believe, who only sees themself as a failure. The gratitude I have for the people who supported me through the dark times of my life has grown exponentially. I never realised how difficult it must have been. And is for the people out there, trying to shine the light in the darkness of others. It is a ceaseless endeavour but I am so happy the people helped me along the way.

I’m going to take my own advice from now on and drop the “should” from my narrative. It creates unnecessary pressure. Unless of cause, it’s valid. But judging what is and what isn’t? Now, that’s the difficult part.

Charlie

Another day in paradise…

Yesterday was a beautiful day. A cool breeze like a rousing slap that forces engagement within the moment. The sun magnified the vibrant colours of autumn. I don’t think anyone has a greater palette to select from than nature. And if they do, no one uses it as well. It’s so simple yet so elegant. So available yet often ignored. How did I miss the divine beauty of life for so long? I was elsewhere. Lost in the chaos of the unnecessary. Swimming in a glass. Searching for something lost that was never really missing. I refused to see. Almost like attending an art gallery at night and refusing to turn the lights on. Only to then voice my displeasure at the exhibition. 

I only saw the negatives. My world was created by my perception of what I saw. And my perception was skewed. Years of depression made me see the negatives alone. I never conquered it back then. Depression I mean. I just learned that it wasn’t what people wanted to hear. They didn’t want to hear about the negatives in life. They didn’t want to wonder about the injustices in the world. They wanted to get drunk and get laid. It was easy for them. It was mapped out for them. I always felt different. Tainted. An outsider, desperate to be accepted. Which fuelled the uncertainty. I wanted to be honest but couldn’t be honest with myself. I wanted to talk about what I thought but no one seemed to think the same. A scary choice. Isolation or suppression. Suppress my own personality and be accepted for who I am not. Or be isolated for who I am?

Now let me be clear, this choice wasn’t given to me. That was the black and white thinking that fuelled most of my decisions. All or nothing. Simple. Not helpful in most situations but that’s the way it was. 

I chose the suppression route. Alcohol is wonderful for that. Want to forget something have a drink. Want to become a convoluted cocktail of false and real personalities? Have a drink. Want to slowly forget what it was all about? Who you are? Have a drink. Slowly the reason to drink was lost. Acceptance was secondary. I cared for nothing and no one other than alcohol. I have thought about this for years. Battled the belief that this view of alcohol was implanted by too many AA meetings. But unfortunately, it is true. In the end, I was a functioning alcoholic. I saw nothing. I held onto a job and juggled finances badly. My life was in tatters. Yet I was still seeking the same answers to different questions. I was no longer that teenager. Scared of not fitting in. I was a grown man. Lost in a world of misery. The mental health struggles had become battles. Ones I was losing all too often. 

I saw no beauty in Autumn back then. I just knew I had to sit inside to drink instead of outside. I knew the SAD would be here soon because I never went outside and got vitamin D. It was bleak. It was lonely. It was all because I couldn’t be honest.

The truth will set you free.

I was so used to being disappointed by myself that I had come to expect the worse. All the time. I expected everything to go wrong. Do you know how that impacts your life? Expecting the world to fall down, time and time again? It’s almost disappointing when it didn’t. Because when things go well I couldn’t say “I know it was going to go badly. Everything goes fucking wrong in the end!” Woe is me. No wonder I ended up drinking on my own in the end. I must have been a barrel of laughs. 

This mindset wasn’t alcohol alone. It was the underlying feelings that I used alcohol to suppress. Somewhere my view of the world got skewed. Somewhere I got lost. But do you want to know the truth? I used to fuck things up on purpose because it was what I thought I deserved. If things were going well I would fuck them up on purpose! Why? Because I had become so used to the misery that I thought I didn’t deserve happiness. I was so used to the darkness that I would rush to adjust the curtains if any light was getting in. 

“Hello, darkness my old friend!”

Alas, it wasn’t always to be that way. I thought it would be. I had accepted it as the norm. I accepted the same tired path. Day after day. Drinking to escape but begging for change. It came of course in the most painful of ways. A rock bottom. Physical, mental, financial, social breakdown. I was almost happy. But for different reasons than now. A choice; escape or remain. In a perverse way, sobriety seemed like the worse option. Almost like punishing myself by taking away the one thing I enjoyed. Or the one thing I had in life. But deep down I knew I had to change. 

I don’t recall the first time I saw the beauty in the people around me. I don’t recall the first time I smiled at the birdsong. I do recall the first time I cried from happiness. It was sitting at the end of the El Camino de Santiago. I was so proud. Almost disappointed that things had gone right. That I had achieved something. Something I’d set out to do. I saw it through to the end and didn’t fuck it up on purpose. That’s when I knew the mental health, drinking, drugs, whatever is lying. Mike Tyson once said, “my mind is not my friend!” If I don’t do the things I have to do then I will eat shit food. Get lazy. And start slipping down the road of self-loathing. Life is almost a biblical tale. There is temptation everywhere. And if left unregulated it will destroy me. I have to keep myself in check. I have to remember what I think is best for me isn’t always. I have to take stock. I have to remain as well as I can be; both mental and physical. By doing the things that keep me that way.

Do you know the reward for keeping myself in check? For keeping my demons in their seats? I get to walk through a tired old town in the north of England and see nothing but the simple beauty in the world around me. I sought that feeling in everything. And found it in simplicity by doing simple things that were readily available to me; meditation, gratitude, self-reflection, acceptance, therapy, exercise, good diet, removing harsh judgements of myself, removing comparisons to others, stopped reflecting on the past as if it can be changed “If I would have done this…” or “If I hadn’t have done that…”, control of worrying, I accepted that not every day will be good and not every day will be bad, questioned the narratives I had of myself, learned to erect boundaries, learned to take responsibility.

I went searching for paradise but was too blind to see I was already there.

Charlie.

4 million minutes

Each one without a drink. Not one sip of alcohol. 4 million minutes of life that I never thought I would have. Moments that I thought would have been lost to the darkness of a drunken stupor. 4 million lots of sixty seconds that were mine for the first time since my teens. I wasted a lot of those minutes. But the time you enjoy wasting is wasted time. I travelled. I loved. I remembered. I got down. I got up. I struggled. But kept going a minute at a time.

I wished some of those minutes away. I prayed never to relive some. I thought that some would never pass. And I wanted some to never end. I felt fear and anxiety. And I felt love and security. I felt wronged. And I felt wanted. I felt lucky to experience those minutes for what they were. Without judgment. I could condemn myself for not achieving more with that time. I COULD have learned an instrument. I COULD have helped more people. I COULD have earned more money. I COULD have. I COULD have. I COULD have. I did what I did at the time. I did what was right at that moment. Over four million minutes that’s a lot of decisions. I can’t expect perfection. And only a crazy person makes a decision knowing it is the wrong one. There are wrong outcomes but not wrong decisions. I tried my best. That’s all I could do. A minute at a time.

Four million minutes being stuck with me. The person I hated most. In my head. The place I hated most. No more drunken escapism to give me a break from babysitting my neurosis. The first 250,000 minutes were tough. Getting to know someone that you have known a long time but don’t really know. Kinda like a neighbour that you have lived next to for twenty years. One day, you’re trapped in a lift with them and forced to interact. Initially, it’s disjointed. And there’s panic. Then, it turns out you have everything in common. Holy shit. I wish we had talked in depth sooner. Just like that. That’s how it was. There were moments of worry and anguish but the first 250,000 minutes was good practice for the rest. Who knew there was such a good friend so close? I had been looking everywhere for that fulfilment.

I slept a lot of minutes away. I mean REALLY slept as well. Not fall drunkenly onto a bed and then get up a few hours later. I mean refreshed. I used to think sleep was a waste of time. Now I realise it is vital. And nothing promotes sleep like quitting drinking.

I’ve spent a lot of those hours outside. Walking, hiking, jogging. Sometimes with friends. Sometimes alone. Those are precious minutes to me. The most time I spent outside before quitting drinking was sitting in the beer garden. Those minutes walking or hiking is therapy. A reminder that in the big scheme of things I’m just a tiny cog in the machinery of life. That if left unchecked my ego will try to take over the machine. Which leads to all kinds of problems. Stay humble.

Four million minutes of life. Of struggle and strife. Of travel and adventure. Of lessons and fulfilment. Of more questions than answers. It’s been a quest to find a replacement to fill the minutes that alcohol consumed before it. It’s been a trek to find the serenity that alcohol promised but didn’t deliver. It’s been an awakening to the fact that everything I sought, I already had. And everything I wanted to be, I already was. It is minutes of acceptance. Of rewriting old messages. And removing old labels. It is minutes of dreams becoming reality. And changing perceptions, holistically. It is nothing like I thought it would be.

I expected to watch those minutes tick away. In Gods waiting room, watching the clock tick past. The chattering of voices going to the pub in the distance. A reminder of the only joy I once had in this vapid thing called life. Taken away by the bastard sobriety. That’s the picture I saw. That was the message I received. That every minute from quitting drinking will be boring as fuck. “No alcohol, no life!” Initially, that was the case. Eventually, I realised it was a choice. I am free to spend these minutes staring at the clock thinking about the life I no longer have or want but am too fearful to leave behind. Or I can try something new. Learn something new. Make goals. Use these minutes more productively. Or learn to love those minutes for what they are. And that is the essence of quitting any addiction. It is the return to the choice to use the time how you wish. It is a return to autonomy. To responsibility. Which was the thing I feared most. I didn’t want to have to take ownership of the clusterfuck I was as a person. I didn’t want the shambolic charade that masqueraded as a life. I wanted to drink and blame drinking for my problems.

Four million minutes is a long time to have to put shit right. The rest of my life is longer. An apology only takes a minute. Although some can take a lifetime. Quitting drinking is a lifetime apology to myself.

The first few thousand minutes wasn’t me picking up my life. Or making plans. It was me laying on the sofa sweating. I wasn’t fixing my life but my body was starting to fix itself. Then slowly I began to spend a couple of minutes picking up the pieces. Planning. Taking ownership of my problems and trying to find solutions. Minutes delving into things I didn’t want to. But had to. It seemed daunting but only took a few minutes to overcome.

A lot can happen in a minute. Lives change in a minute. And the minute I decided to have a go at quitting drinking? That was the best decision I ever made. It took one minute to make but gave me millions back in return.

Charlie.

As the dust settles…

The chaos of life stares up the dust. It clouds the rooms and blinds us to the bigger picture. Consumed within the moment. The air becomes restricted. Suffocating. This is life. It is busy. It is tough. But a lot of the chaos is unnecessary. Busyness in place of progress. Busyness to be doing something. Busyness to distract. Escapism for the sake of avoiding reality. Drugs, alcohol, sex, anything to heighten the escape. To add to the chaos. And then to block it out.

But step outside of that tornado for a short while and the dust begins to settle. A fine layer on the ground that we can leave our mark. The air becomes breathable. Life becomes manageable. The tornado still spins. Tearing through lives with no regard but we have a choice. To engage or not. To dare to seek other ways to connect. To face life without the constant need to escape. The dust settles. There is calm. It is addictive. The chattering falls to a hum. The clouds of dust kicked up by the furore cease to block out the light. There is a world beyond chaos. And there is a world inside of us. Each yearning to be heard and adored. Each wants to be loved and cherished. Both were lost in the chaos.
That day doesn’t come easy. Fighting to get out of a storm takes strength. Especially when the world we know and the people we know dwell within it. But by finding peace on the outside, we can offer a haven to others. Offer a hand and offer a taste of what life outside of the madness can be like. We can reassure that eventually, the dust will settle and like a snowy winters day, there will be calm.

It doesn’t seem possible from the inside. The forces seem unbeatable. The pressure to remain is too great. But there is lead in those boots. We have to dare to walk. To venture into the unknown. Away from the destruction. There is another way. And it might not be the first attempt that frees us but it is impossible to escape without trying. As Winston Churchill said, “Success is going from failure to failure with losing your enthusiasm.” That is life. Smaller storms may kick up on the periphery. But they are dust devils by comparison. And they don’t have the might to destroy like the chaos we once knew. That blinding energy-sapping existence is an unnecessary fight for survival. There is another way. Who knew?

Who knew? Years of fighting and struggling. Inner and outer chaos. Seeking peace in all the wrong places. Fighting noise with noise and problems with problems. What outcome did we expect? It was only going to end one way. But it is hard to see beyond the next escape when consumed in the madness. The swirling strangling madness in the pursuit of… something. Convinced that there is nothing outside of this storm. That the moments of calm are to be savoured because the madness is what we deserve. Anxiety, uncertainty, insecurity, depression, misery, self-hatred, guilt and shame are the emotions we deserve. But, alas, they are not. Step outside and take a breath. When the dust settles feel the warmth of the sun. See the joy within the moment. It is beautiful and it is you. The version of you that never got the chance to exist whilst trying to cling to the image that was on display to the world. This is you. There is a chance to be at peace. Just to breathe in that quiet contemplation before the madness of another pursuit takes over. Another goal. Another dream. A self-selected storm that is worth fighting through. Because it is a test we want to pass. One we made for ourselves. Those are the moments of growth. But it is only possible by first removing the chaos that hinders.

Maybe the quiet contentment is enough. Maybe the chaos of the past is enough for a lifetime. The time is to hang up the lead boots and enjoy the moment. It is a choice that comes for the first time in a long time. Choices were there once were none. Enough silence to ask pertinent questions. Enough clarity to pick a path and walk it with sincere contentment. With genuine love that will transcend life. That is the beauty of fulfilment. That is the gift of being present. That is the joy of daring to see if there was another way of living outside the chaos of addiction. Who knew it could be so beautiful. Who knew it would be so quiet that it could overwhelm. The silence can deafen. The yearning for the madness can arise. It seems like the only escape is to go back. But there is always somebody wanting to experience the beauty you have cultivated. Not as frequently as someone seeking something to cling to within the chaos.

Who knew? It never seemed likely once upon a time. In the chaos of my own mind and life. An anxious storm tearing to pieces from within? And with no control externally. There never seemed a solution. There seemed no contentment. But it was there. Just a few steps away. I just couldn’t see it until I stepped away from alcohol and let the dust settle.

Charlie

Prisoner to the past…

My problem with AA meetings is that many are almost reminiscing sessions. Like the guy at the end over the bar who never got over that one woman. His friends tried everything to help him move on but he refused. Instead of living life, he is spending his time reliving the glory days again and again. Closed off to other opportunities. A prisoner to his past.

But what defines us, not only as drinkers but as people? Does a job define you? Am I a teacher even though I am not being paid to be one? Or am I potential? To be whatever I am capable of being? Am I labels of the past or the blank canvas of tomorrow? I think we can be whichever we choose. I met a woman called Becky, a few years ago who told me the story of her family. Her mother had an accident in her early thirties that left her paralysed from the neck down. The father had to shoulder a lot of responsibility raising their 3 children. The older children helped where they could. I thought that was impressive. Becky went on to explain that her dad had retrained as a doctor before the accident which helped a lot with his wife. The father had retrained as a doctor at FORTY years old from being an electrician. It got me thinking that the labels we wear are written in pencil. We can erase them and change them any time we wish. And we should if they are not the ones we wish to wear.

It is nice to reminisce about good times but to constantly dig up the sludge at the bottom of calm water for no other purpose than to disturb it seems like a form of self-punishment. To relive the opportunity that was missed results in missing many more. The path lays out in front of us. Not behind.

I drank a lot of alcohol and often. I made mistakes. I made terrible financial decisions. I destroyed my health. I could sit and wallow on these wrongs. I could let them define my future. Or I could learn from them. Vow not to make the same mistakes again. And that is what I did.
I made peace where I could. I repaid my debt. I worked on my health. And it worked out better than I could have imagined. Those lessons in life that at the time had been painful were the greatest lessons I ever received. I had to have it that way. I am a thick-skulled fool sometimes who ignores the warning signs and blunders through. Thankfully I learned to listen. I got tired of getting hurt by my own hand. I was tired of being leashed to a life of pain. Those chains that tied me were with locks to which I had the keys. I just didn’t want to wander into the unknown. A chain offers some security even if it is detrimental.

Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

People still tell me how I was. Remind me of those dark days. “Do you remember when you did….?” is often the question. “I don’t remember!” That is my reply. It is genuine. I made peace with those days. Alcohol defined me when I drank. It will not continue to define me now. Those days are gone. Times and people change. Each period of life is a chapter in a greater story. A story of pain and regrowth. Of heartache and love. Of desperation and fulfilment. And ultimately of depression and contentment. The pain of the past doesn’t have to be the template for tomorrow. Pain is going to happen in life but carrying forever is a form of punishment. Why suffer twice?

I quit drinking because my liver was screaming out for the time to fix itself. The constant alcohol intake was killing it and as a result me. I had a choice of course. I didn’t have to quit. I could have soldiered on all the way to the bottom of my early grave. I was scared of not living. I got scared of not doing the things I had always wanted to do. I saw a future on dialysis and restricted living. All brought about not by an unfortunate illness but by my own hand. It seemed such a waste of life. Such a waste of potential. I couldn’t face that future.

When I was 29 years old my liver gamma was 50% higher than the recommended highest level. I was told it was a warning. I quit drinking for a bit but then slipped back into the abyss. An enlarged liver made me quit the second, and final time. A life of necessary treatment became an increasing reality. Yet, five years after quitting drinking I had a health check and my liver function was normal. From destruction to restoration. All I had to do was allow it to happen. But much like my liver, my life has recovered. Who would have thought that the physical and mental pain I felt for such a long time would lift? I used to be convinced that the life I lived then, in the drinking days, would be the template for a life to come. That was enough of a thought to add weight to my depression. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Small changes today lead to bigger outcomes in the future. The seeds we plant today grow into the flowers of tomorrow. If we don’t plant seeds, weeds take over. Knotting and binding us to the same old thinking patterns that keep us trapped in a life we no longer want. The stories that others tell us about ourselves don’t have to be our narrative. That drunken fool who embarrassed themselves and others only exist in the minds of those who wish to keep the pain alive. The memories of mishaps and mistakes get worsened over time. Bits get added and changed. Our memories contort the original event to harshen the punishment years later. Make peace with the past and look to the future. Tomorrow isn’t here yet.

It was surprising how many people saw my behaviour differently from how I saw it. My version of events was created by a mind intent on misery. When I tried to make peace with the people who I had wronged, they saw it differently. Wrote it off as drunken hijinks or had forgotten it completely. I was the one carrying the cross through the streets daily. The tales I told myself was keeping me, prisoner, to a thinking pattern that served no purpose. By quitting drinking I not only repaired my body but also my thinking patterns.

I thought I would be a prisoner to a life of destructive drinking. Of guilt and shame. Of watching life happening through a pub window. But instead, I am on the other side of the glass. Life isn’t written yet. Change is always an option. Break the routine of destructive drinking and break the chains that keep us locked in a life of misery.

Charlie

Sober and grateful…

For a long time, I tried to be something I wasn’t. Tried far too hard to be liked and accepted. Acted roles in a life I didn’t like to try and find something or someone who understood. But as I changed like the wind I was often left wanting. That exacerbated my misery. Cemented my belief that I was unlikeable and unloveable. I was a mixed-up individual who knew how to be what the people in his presence wanted but didn’t know what I wanted. It was the making of an addict.  

Alcohol was my friend. It understood. It gave answers that I sought. It was my everything. I don’t care for the label but I am an alcoholic. I love drinking. I fucking love not being present. I love not having to think about life. I love not taking responsibility for my actions and love pushing boundaries and using alcohol as an excuse. Yet, in spite of this love, I don’t go back. I have turned my back on that love and found another, inner love that brings peace instead of the destruction that once was. I know alcohol is out there. I know where to find it. But I don’t go looking. For that love isn’t healthy. It is toxic. Just like the substance.  

For all that try hard behaviour that fuelled my addiction, I was left lonely. Since quitting drinking I stopped trying so hard to please others. I accepted a lot of things. I took responsibility for myself (begrudgingly). I became an adult (whatever the fuck that means). I expected boredom. I expected misery. Yet found quiet contentment. I often ask if quiet contentment is enough. Should I not be pursuing happiness like in the old days. Looking for that elusive missing piece that will make it all complete? The guilt seeks in when I am enjoying a quiet moment. It tells me I am not doing enough with my life. That it is wasted. That wasting time watching TV is time spent learning an instrument or pushing myself further. It is just the remnants of the insecure egotist that had delusions of grandeur. But when it subsided and I accept my place in the world. I begin to realise that since quitting drinking I have been INCREDIBLY lucky. The acceptance I yearned for in my people-pleasing has been replaced with genuine friends. People who I can talk to for hours about the nature of reality of the solar system or religion. It achieves nothing but to me it is fun. I was once ashamed of my inquisitiveness. I didn’t want to be me. I wanted to be everybody else. They are taken and it is a gift to be at peace with yourself. You should be.  

Things disrupt that peace of course. And it seems to be a blindside that sweeps in at the least desirable moment. Yesterday, on the tail end of a couple of really good days I got invited to a meeting to be told the outcome of my disciplinary. It isn’t for another week. I was stewing. My mind raced in a thousand directions to gather all the negative outcomes possible. It’s as if my mind returns negative possibilities with the efficiency of a well-trained retriever. That would have been reason to drink years ago. That chaotic mess that happens in my head would have resulted in a blackout. I instead picked up the phone and spoke to people. The genuine people that I am guilty of taking for granted sometimes. That listened about my worries and then we talked like normal. We laughed and philosophised. Took the piss out of each other. Basically, I did all the things I would have done if I’d had a drink. The difference is the fear, anxiety and uncertainty would still be there in the morning. Whereas this morning I am sitting and writing this. It is quiet. I have a phone call soon to discuss reducing my anti-depressants. And in spite of what could be, today is okay. That’s all I can ask for. If I bring it back to the moment and remove the dis-ease around uncertainty then I can accept that things could be a lot worse. I am lucky. To have found me and then to have found genuine supportive people who believed in me. It is an absolute honour.  

Alcohol didn’t give a fuck about me. It wasn’t a real friend. It had no connection to me at all. I was a prisoner of my addiction. I had Stockholm syndrome. Now I see clearly. The minor blips in the road that catastrophise into epic drama were just excuses to drink. Like the shy guy at work who makes any excuse to go and see the receptionist, he has a crush on. I too made any excuse to visit my crush. But it was a love story with a tragic end. I have to remember that. 

I have said it hundreds of times; the joy of not drinking for me is peace. Not outer but inner. A subsiding of the inner chaos that forced me to drink. A toxic dangerous cycle. But by stepping back it is clear that it was all an illusion. A combination of two factors fear and cowardice. I was too fearful of what people would think if I quit and I was too much of a coward to walk the path of life without alcohol to hold my hand. The short version is that life got easier to handle without alcohol and the people who didn’t care about me really didn’t care anyway. It reminds me of a story from a national park. The rangers had been doing everything to stop forest fires. They thought that it protected nature. But then they realised that things don’t grow until all the shit is burned off the top and used to fertilise the future. Without getting rid of all the shit that stops us growing we will never feel the healing warm glow of the sun. 

Charlie.

Feeling the feelings…

The emotional stunting effects of alcohol are a quick escape. An emergency exit from life. But switching off the hardships doesn’t make them disappear. They are still there waiting to be felt. The more they are blocked out the greater they become. The intertwining of alcohol and problems is inevitable. Until the fear of quitting would mean facing the deluge of repressed emotions. Initially, it felt like the waves of emotions would wash me back to the bottle and leave me to drown. But the fear was a pretence. A facade. There was no tidal wave. There were feelings. Some unpleasant and difficult. But it is learning to ride those waves that make quitting drinking possible.

There is suffering in life. Some are worse than others. Some perceptions contort our suffering. Some fight through the pain where others would quit. Escapism through alcohol or any other means presents a false reality. Of more suffering that needs more alcohol to escape. The cycle builds. Or simple things become huge problems to justify the escape. Suffering, dissatisfaction and pain still happen in life. Without alcohol to fall back on life can seem daunting. But over time resilience builds.
At thirty-two years old I was emotionally a child. My emotional intelligence had been stunted by years of refusing to acknowledge reality. It is emotions that make me human. Without emotions, I am just a husk. Without the ability to perceive reality in its rawest form I am denying myself the beauty of life. It is the wonder of the here and now that breeds happiness. It is the processing of inner pain that makes recovery easier. Life is difficult sometimes. But by acknowledging the hardships and low times as a necessary part of the process the whole process of life comes into full view.

I had to put a lot of work in to overcome the barriers that had been constructed over the years. It took years of chipping away at the wall that separated me from my emotions for it to finally fall. I remember a therapist suggested a technique. He said “imagine you are a baby. You have just been born and the nurse has passed you to your mother. How do you feel?” I tried it on the train on the way home. It was a quiet carriage. Just the rhythmic thud of the wheels on the track for company. I closed my eyes and tried what he had suggested. Initially, I didn’t feel anything but I kept trying. Eventually, I got a feeling of warmth. An inner warmth. Like a good whiskey. The wall came tumbling down. My experiences and emotions began to connect like magnets. Drawn to each other. I was no longer just a witness to events I had experienced. I could FEEL them. It was overwhelming. It was the beginning of becoming human again.

I was in an AA meeting recently and someone explained the pain they experienced at the passing of a family member. How they didn’t want to feel what they were feeling. How they wished to escape the feeling. The yearning for the deadening sensation of alcohol. But in the long term how they knew the short term pain would pass. Escapism would result in further troubles down the road. Pain isn’t nice. Especially inner pain. Emotional pain. The type that returns the morning after a night of drinking, with its friend’s shame and guilt along for the ride. The twisting of years of avoidance, pulling at the mind and gut. The only way is to accept and deal with it the best you can. That is life. That is sobriety. Being able to deal with things when they arise. And understanding when the weight is too heavy to carry alone. Sharing the burden with people who understand. That is what it all comes down to for me. I suffered in silence for years. A twisted knot of anxiety and fear. Ashamed for not getting help. Even more ashamed to ask for help. Deadening was my choice, it was the wrong choice. The fleeting feeling of escape brought about by the initial emotional block of alcohol was always exposed as a trick. Soon reality was waiting.

In sobriety, I have found a level of contentment that I would have never expected to have found. It wasn’t what I set out to do. I set out to get my life into some sort of order after the destruction of addiction had asset-stripped me. I found a level but I also found a quiet bliss. A joyful serenity in the peaceful moments of life. The ability to just reflect on decisions and experiences. No longer does the past batter me with shame. It has gone. I have made peace with it. It is now the closed chapter in the story of my life. It is the learning stage of the hero’s journey. Without it, I wouldn’t have made it here. Without the trials and tribulations, I wouldn’t have learned my strength. Without the depression and loneliness, I would never have come to appreciate contentment. Without daring to feel the feelings of life I would never have become attuned to the moment. And at this moment I am okay. Life can change like the wind and when it does I’ll adjust. That is all I can do. I’ve learned that controlling the flow of life is impossible. All I can do is adjust my perception.

Watching or reading too much news is bad for me. A bombardment of negativity creates a false perception of a world full of hatred. It exacerbates my anxiety. I accept that bad things happen daily. All I can do is try to tip the balance in the favour of love. All I can do is the next best thing. All I can do is embrace what life offers and try to deal with it the best I can. This approach was very new to me. Alcohol was my excuse for not engaging in life. Sobriety forced me to engage in my emotions and the here and now. Neither was easy. Feelings aren’t something I was accustomed to as a working-class man. “Push feelings down and carry on” was the advice given. But it can only go on like that for so long. And unpacking the bag of negativity I had filled through my life was difficult. But it was the first step on the path to liberation. It was trial and error. Learning what works and what doesn’t. It was reading and reflecting. Learning who I am and who I thought I SHOULD be. It has been a revelation. I am not who I thought I should be. Where I sought chaos and noise, I now seek peace. Give me the waves hitting a beach or the birds singing over a noisy bar any day. I turn down visits to the bar now. I don’t find them fun. I think I only went because of the alcohol anyway. Remove that and the appeal vanishes.

I see my life in chapters. Hardship, lessons, growth, contentment. From it all, I would only change a couple of things; I would have quit drinking sooner and I would have followed the guiding inner light instead of following the lights of others. I spent too much time trying to be them, the people who I wanted to be like. But as I can’t go back I am grateful for the lessons.

Today has been a good day; nothing bad happened and I didn’t have a drink. Those minor victories are more important than I ever imagined.

Charlie.

My drinking isn’t THAT bad…

My drinking days weren’t a string of arrests. There wasn’t broken bones. There weren’t many fights. There wasn’t much blood. There were laughs. There was connection. There was chatting into the light of the morning. There was sitting in the dawn drinking cooking brandy from the bottle because everything else had been drunk. There wasn’t the type of stories that would make an AA meeting hall of shame. But there was a lot of misery.

There was internal chaos which I tried to silence with the deadening effects of alcohol. There was persistent darkness that followed me around. Behind the laughs, there was the real me trying to escape myself. There was disconnect. There was a prevalent fear of the following day. Of reality returning and being transported back to the person I hated for no real reason other than it was easier to hate than love myself. There was a reluctance to feel emotions. A fear, of putting my adult pants on and dealing with life. Alcohol was an escape. From everything. It was the divide between fantasy and reality. It was the wedge that kept me safe from myself. It was the promise of romanticised joy of beautiful melancholy. Unfortunately, the melancholy wasn’t beautiful. It was as aggressive as cancer and equally as destructive. Yet it is what I knew and what I thought I deserved.

Sitting in my garden, alone in a drunken haze blowing smoke signals to a starry night. Hoping for answers but getting no reply. Trying to plot an escape. Trying to figure it all out. I could never decode the flickering stars. If they offered hope it passed me by. That’s where my drinking days ended. Alone. Even in company. I always felt alone.

I never liked too much company. I couldn’t be the person a group of people wanted. I was a chameleon. Shifting personas to suit the company. A bad actor in a terrible film. Too scared to engage with me. What I would confuse in those quiet moments staring at the stars was that at that moment I was genuine. Yet I believed it was the alcohol who made me that way.

Ironic, that I spent my moments in quiet reflection wondering how to find peace. Wishing away the moment in the hope of finding a solution to the chaos. Using the mirror to ask questions, not to see reality. It is difficult to see clearly with blurred vision.

In the end, it all became too much. But even my rock bottom was a normal day to others. An accumulation of mishaps. A signal from the universe too clear for me to ignore; “if you keep drinking life will keep getting worse.” Stranded on the side of the motorway, my car had just broken down. I was alone. I felt the most alone I ever had. I lit a cigarette. That instance was the straw that broke the camels back. It was the slap from life that roused me from my drunken slumbering. The message was clear. Stop drinking.

Others have thicker skulls than me. Some have greater resilience to pain and can carry on drinking until death is staring them in the face. Others, through fear, see sobriety as a prison sentence. There is something that keeps us engaged in that destructive life. Maybe addicts are naive optimists. Believing that it will all come good in the end if we just drink or use a little bit more. It’s the same thing that makes us watch a bad movie in the hope it gets better. It’s only when the credits roll we wished we had trusted our instincts. Unfortunately, the time the credits roll on an addicts life it is very rarely with a happy ending.

I was always searching for something. Trying to fill a void that existed within. Alcohol did the job for an evening. Took away that twisted knot of fear and anguish. Lightened the imagined burden on my shoulders. It gave me a sneak peek at a life of contentment. But it was always short-lived. The rock bottom made me question my actions. Made me seek out other ways to fill that void. Healthier ways of living replaced the old ways of destruction. Learning and discovery replaced ignorance and escape. But in the end, I learned there is no void to fill. There is no missing piece. It is just an illusion. A trick to make me drink one more drink. Or buy one more item. It is the feeling that without those things there will be no progress. For years I convinced myself that if I didn’t go to the pub I would miss out on some fantastic event. That the one night I didn’t go would be the thing I had been hoping to find. It never happened with or without me there. It was a fantasy fuelled by insecurity. It kept me chasing a dream that wasn’t mine. I was blind to the fact I was going backwards but assumed I was going forward. I didn’t realise until I felt the cold hard floor of reality.

There were uncomfortable truths I had to accept. I cannot moderate alcohol. I don’t believe in the disease model but I do believe I am an addict. One drink will start it again. I know this because I have tried. I don’t do it because I don’t want to end up on that cold stony ground again. Why? Because it took a huge amount of effort to get out once. I don’t want to have to do it again. I don’t want to relinquish control of my life to alcohol. I did once and it ended badly. Do I miss drinking? Sometimes. Is the pining to drink greater than the fear of hit rock bottom again? Not today or the previous seven years.

The point is how bad does it have to get? How much pain do you have to go through before you realise it’s enough? Admitting to having a problem isn’t weakness! It is strength! It is taking action and taking responsibility. I am grateful I’d had enough when I did. Listening to the war stories of other addicts makes me realise how bad it can get. It reminds me that it COULD still get that bad. All I would have to do is drink. Alcohol is the red button that launches the nuke. I may not have utopia but it is a damn sight better than the apocalyptic wasteland, pressing that button would bring about.

Self-destruction is easy. For years, I searched for a tranquil environment in my mind. I would meditate and read spiritual books. Only to go searching for problems. Only to drink again. Even in sobriety, I can fall into the trap of criticising my life as being less than. Forgetting the misery that once was and damning my life for it not being “perfect”. Whatever the fuck that means. I had to learn to accept my weaknesses and my failings. Once I accepted that less than perfection was okay, then I stopped damning my failure at obtaining it. I accepted that the ideals I was sold and adopting as fact were not to be. Alcohol was not the answer. It was not my saviour. It didn’t solve problems. It created them. It took more than it gave. It will again if I let it.

Charlie.

The good ship sobriety…

Hello, it’s been a while. I haven’t written anything for months.

I’ve been swept along by the insanity of life. It all seemed to happen at once. Not a manageable trickle but a deluge. The chaos of closing my house sale, moving in and decorating. Coupled with uncertainty at work. Buffeted by the tides. The storm has calmed yet the horizon is dark with a promise of a foreboding future. I should be worried. I should be concerned that I will fall overboard and into the murkiness of the drink. But I am not. The good ship Sobriety is strong. I wish it didn’t need to be tested to demonstrate its seaworthiness. It comes through, time and time again. For that, I am grateful.

It’s the difficult times that cement my decision to quit drinking. It is the times that would have had me dashing in a panic, screaming foul at a starless night sky, in drunken revelry. Claiming to be damned by some invisible force. It is those times when the benefits of not drinking appear like a fortunate piece of driftwood to a drowning man. Who would have thought that uncertainty would create certainty? An uncertain future creates resilience that the best possible outcome can only be achieved with a clear mind. A clear mind can only be achieved without alcohol or drugs. I may overindulge in other vices, I am not immune. Too much caffeine and too much sugar. But they are not destroying me as alcohol did.

Chapters close in life and things move on. Some people move on with me. Either in person or in memory. Positive or negative. But I know that the best years of my life thus far have been at the service of others. The sober version of me did more positive in the world than I could have ever imagined possible. For that I am proud. And being proud of myself wasn’t something I experienced much, if at all, whilst drinking.
The greatest realisation amongst all this chaos is the relative peace I can find. Getting caught off guard by the silence no longer brings the need to escape it like it once did. The inner chatter no longer berates and demands like it once did. Outer peace now brings a smile. It once only brought fear. Contentment, I think it’s called. It came when I stopped searching.

I don’t know where this journey ends. I don’t know what the future holds. It could bring destruction to my reputation and career. It could not. All I know is that even if I need to batten down the hatches, the good ship sobriety will make it through the worse of storms. But I must ensure that it is maintained properly.

If I look after it, it looks after me. Those small things that work for me are all it takes to keep the mast high and ship sailing. There are storms. There are fearful moments but so far I have come through them. The choppy waters are a reminder to enjoy the stillness and calm of life while it is there.

For a long time, I felt like I was waiting. Waiting for change. Waiting for a saviour. Waiting for it to all go wrong. Just living on tenterhooks. Too concerned about the next catastrophe to enjoy the sunshine. On reflection, most of those worries never came true. I spent vast amounts of time living beyond the moment. Living in fear. In angst. But they never came to pass. The things that did arise were unsighted. Often things I wouldn’t have thought about. Yet still, I managed to come through them. That is an incredible testament to the life and character changing potential of quitting drinking and taking the helm. Dearing to venture into waters that the tales I told myself stopped me from exploring. The world I have seen and the life I have been fortunate to live thus far brings a smile to my face in the moments of silence. No longer are my thoughts of worry and regret. Of shame and guilt. They are of a sense of daring and sometimes winning and sometimes losing. That is life.
It’s crazy to even write that I am sure the future will be alright. Whatever happens, I will be able to make it work. That’s because I have done so for the last seven years since I quit drinking. Trial and error. As long as I didn’t drink.

I have found my weaknesses and my strengths. I have admitted defeat and accepted mental health issues. I’ve learned to accept I can’t go it alone and need to reach out for help once in a while. I’ve learned that not all people are as villainous and treacherous as I once thought. Some are though. I’ve learned that good friends are hard to come by. And the ones who encouraged me to pursue my potential. Who created belief, when all I had was doubt. It is those people to who I owe it all. I often thought I was going it alone. That I was battling the elements and trying to navigate the perilous waters of life without a crew. But it is when the storms hit and I am struggling. This is when I see who has my interests at heart. Tough times are great lessons.

I have been fortunate to learn through my recent hard times, not only who my friends are, but also how much of an impact I have had on other people. More positively than negatively thankfully. The feedback I received recently let me see how the hardships of my life have been useful to others. The dark times when I felt damned to a life of punishment have become lessons of hope for others. The long crawl back from the rock bottom of debt, drunkenness and destruction was not for nothing. To realise that there is meaning in all the years of torment make it a little easier to accept. Students I gave life advice to, who, years later, remember it fondly and have incorporated it into their life is all I set out to achieve. I couldn’t have done it whilst drinking. I was a reckless selfish prick with a single ambition during my drinking days. To be of value to others I must not drink. To gain value in myself I have to not drink. To reach my goals and dreams I must not drink. To get what I deserve I must not drink. To steer this ship through the stormy waters of life I must not drink. Not because I can escape danger but because I have more chance of dealing with it if I am clear-headed.

I use the ship and water analogy because I was once smashed against the rocks. Now I am standing at the bow pointing fearlessly at the horizon. Excited about the future. No longer fearful of the dangers of the next wave.

Charlie

Do I miss alcohol in sobriety?

Every romanticised moment of envy that occurs in my comparison creating imagination, contains alcohol. Each visualisation of how my life should be at that moment is an idyllic drinking scenario. Everyone within that fantasy, known or unknown, is having the most wonderful moment. All of it centred around alcohol like our solar system to the sun. I don’t envy the people in these fleeting moments of punishing comparison. I envy the situation. I envy their ability to regulate alcohol. To use it to facilitate their lives and just forget about the shit of living for an evening. To act unrestricted. To be completely honest. To love and laugh… It’s all complete bollocks. These alcohol advertisements run through my brain trying to tempt me with an illusion. In these perfect bar scenes, there is no depression. No aggression. Blood and tears. Vomit. Mistakes. Pain. It is only bliss. Alcohol inspired utopia. Which by its very own nature is impossible.

The difference between now and the time before I quit drinking is that I know where drinking leads me; devastation. The Euros 2020 (soccer) is currently playing. There was no greater reason to get drunk than a major sporting tournament. Recently, during an important match, I was drinking a cup of tea. Inside me, there was a lingering slither of societal conditioning from the drunken days of old; “What the fuck you doing drinking tea? You should be out, on it!” Then the tape starts playing. The idealised temptation movie starts trying to test my sobriety. I’ve seen it too many times to believe it but it is a warning. It is a reminder that even after all these years without alcohol the potential is still there. That little inquisitive voice still murmurs that it would be okay to “just have one.” My own experience has taught me otherwise. That’s not how it ends up for me. The only idyllic moments that existed in my drinking days happened in the hours leading up to me drinking. It all went downhill from the first one. Yet, I fell for the bullshit every time “It’ll be different this time!” It very rarely, if ever, was.

One of the major concerns when I first quit drinking was “how am I going to do anything without alcohol?” It’s a toxic relationship. Just like a controlling partner, addiction made me believe that I wouldn’t survive alone. That life would be too overwhelming without it to lean on. And you know what? For a while, it seemed true. In the early days when all the acquaintances mistaken for friends cut me out like a leper. The doubts begin to circle, “Is this worth it?”, “Is drinking really that bad?”, “If this is life without alcohol then it is going to be miserable!” But it is just fear of change manifesting as the chains to a previous life. The only way to escape is to stay the course. Thankfully, in recent times, not drinking alcohol has become more accepted. With a large range of non-alcoholic beverages being created to cater for the increasing market. Maybe it was my own insecurities when I was younger but not drinking was seen as suspicious. People who didn’t drink were seen to be hiding something or boring. They must be guarded stiffs, too insecure to be honest. Or too fearful to be out of control. But if anyone wants honesty then spend an hour in a recovery meeting. There you will hear real, stripped back, raw as an open nerve honesty. Not the carefully manicured honesty of a socially constructed image. But alcohol isn’t really about fun. It’s about acceptance.

Drinking is often more for the benefit of everyone else’s comfort than it is for your own.

6 Reasons Why You Should Never Trust Someone Who Doesn’t Drink (elitedaily.com)

It’s a cultural custom. And thankfully customs change over time. They are not set in stone. If they are beneficial they stick around. If they are detrimental to the culture in which they exist then they change. Alcohol has its uses but who are they beneficial to? When I drank alcohol because everyone else did, I got what everyone else got. I didn’t do many of the things I wanted to do because I was scared of being different. My own insecurities kept me ill in more ways than one. I would dream about the things I wanted to do but would wash the dreams away with alcohol because I wasn’t strong enough to pursue them. Coincidently when I stopped doing the things I thought I should be doing and started doing the things I wanted to be doing, I achieved more than I ever thought possible. There is more to life than acceptance. The more I tried to be accepted the less connected to myself I became. People spend hours trying to be accepted whilst simultaneously not accepting themselves. But unhappiness isn’t the only cost of this social tradition. The cost of alcohol on the (British) National Health Service is approximately £3.5 billion a year. Which is £1 billion more than smoking costs.

I started this blog talking about the temptation that can creep in every now and then. My addiction testing my resilience. I have heard other addicts say “I wanted a drink the other day. I feel so bad!” Personally, if I can feel the pull of temptation then I am still aware. It is the day that I don’t feel it that scares me. That could be the day that one isn’t a bad idea then it all goes to shit. And I have thought about it. I have thought would I trade one year of consequence-free drinking for all the experiences I have had in sobriety? Not a chance. Do I miss alcohol? No. I miss an idealised version of alcohol. I miss the perfect night out that never happened. I miss the bars that were full of a good time in my head but empty in reality. I wanted the promise that alcohol made to be fulfilled but it will never be. I resent the fact that the innocuous innocence with which alcohol is portrayed allowed it to seep into my life? Yet, I don’t resent the fact it happened. Nor do I resent the fact I am an alcoholic. Because thanks to those lessons I can live a life of contentment. Maybe with the odd sprinkle of FOMO but it’s a lot less harmful than the life I once led.

Thanks for reading,

Charlie.

If you are struggling with alcohol problems then reach out for hep. There are people out there who know what you are going through and know how to get through it.

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