Poor Diet and Mental Health…

Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are

Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

Over the years, I have experienced varying extremes of diets due to mental health issues. On one side was gluttony. Anything that changed my state of mind in a small amount must work better if I had MORE. More takeaways. More alcohol. More sweets. More salt. More fat. The outcome from this approach? I got more unhealthy and more miserable. On the other end of the spectrum is the complete obsession with diet. Counting calories. Skipping meals. Exessive exercise. Neither situation is desirable. Both lead to further mental health issues. Eventually, I learned what worked for me and found a balance.

My diet didn’t change because I became happier. I became happier because I changed my diet. I took the medication I was prescribed and started exercising (I talk about that here). All of those things combined have helped immensely in the last few months. But the lessons over my life around food have played a large part in my recovery. Here a few of the things that I have learned and hopefully if you are struggling it may help.

Firstly sugar. If you haven’t seen the documentary “That Sugar Movie“, I strongly suggest you do. Especially if you have children. It is a clear expose of the dangers of an unregulated sugar diet. And sugar is everywhere. Take Granola. Often seen as a healthy alternative to commercial breakfast cereal, Granola contains around 24g of Sugar per 122g. Now, what does that mean? Well, the recommended daily amount of sugar for women is 25g?! So the total amount is nearly consumed by one cup of Granola. Why does it matter? Excess sugar turns to fat. And sugar affects mental health as well.

A high-sugar diet impacts both physical and mental health. Sugar suppresses activity of a hormone called BDNF that is low in individuals with depression and schizophrenia. Sugar is also at the root of chronic inflammation, which impacts the immune system, the brain and other systems in the body and also has been implicated in depression.

4 Ways Sugar Could Be Harming Your Mental Health | Psychology Today

Take a can of Coke for example. One 12 ounce can contains 39g of sugar. One can. That is nearly twice what is recommended. But sugar is often seen as a safe energy boost. A banana is a safe energy boost. Processed sugar is far from it. Switching to sugar-free seems like a safe option? Not quite. Artificial sweeteners trigger the hunger response which can lead to overeating. Which in turn can lead to guilt and remorse. And let’s just be clear here, I am not shaming peoples shapes. What I am promoting is a healthy lifestyle that benefits individuals both physically and mentally. A diet based on artificial stimulants such as caffeine and sugar leads to a peaks and troughs mental cycle. Highs and lows. The highs are when we function or are productive. The lows are seen as a negative and demand rectification through further stimulants. An addictive cycle is created. But in a hyperactive, fast-paced lifestyle the highs and lows are seen as normal. Stress is a part of the rat race. Life is stressful sometimes. But surprisingly sugar intake is linked to stress“How can your blood sugar cause stress? When we experience regular stress, our adrenal glands make more of a stress hormone called cortisol. Along with managing stress, this hormone also manages your blood sugar. Whenever your blood sugar level changes too fast, your adrenal glands release cortisol to pull it back up again. Unstable blood sugar can make you feel the same as you would feel when an event makes you angry, frustrated or frightened.” Anxious basically.

Now, cortisol realised into the bloodstream to counter the increase in sugar. When this happens a craving for sugar starts to counter the loss of energy. If more sugar is consumed then the cycle repeats. A negative pattern is created with dangerous effects.

After the pressure or danger has passed, your cortisol level should calm down. Your heart, blood pressure, and other body systems will get back to normal. But what if you’re under constant stress and the alarm button stays on? It can derail your body’s most important functions. It can also lead to a number of health problems, including anxiety and depression, headaches, heart disease, memory and concentration problems, problems with digestion, trouble sleeping and weight gain.

Cortisol: What It Does & How To Regulate Cortisol Levels (webmd.com)

Sugar is portrayed as innocuous in our culture but the diabetes statistics suggest otherwise. Sugar is related to being overweight. Being overweight leads to diabetes. Like alcohol, sugar needs to be treated as harmful. Moderation is vital for balance. Maybe sugar will eventually become the new tobacco. By which I mean once they have rinsed all the tax possible from it, they will then profess to how dangerous it is. And then increase the tax some more after people are addicted.

Most of the blogs on my page are about being an alcoholic or being a recovering alcoholic. My life vastly improved when I quit drinking. I only quit alcohol because I couldn’t moderate. I used alcohol to mask my underlying mental health issues; anxiety and depression. Quitting didn’t cure them but it did make them more manageable. In fact, it made my whole life more manageable. There are of course ups and downs in life. Alcohol enabled me to ignore my problems and as a result, my life got worse. I then needed more alcohol… an addictive cycle.

For someone experiencing anxiety, a drink might help them feel more at ease, but this feeling is short-lived. The so-called ‘relaxed’ feeling somebody may say they experience after having a drink is due to the chemical changes alcohol causes in the brain. But these effects wear off fast. Relying on alcohol to mask anxiety could also lead to a greater reliance on it to relax. A likely side-effect of this is the increased risk of building up a tolerance to alcohol. Over time you will need to drink more alcohol to get the same feeling. And, in the medium to longer term, this pattern often leads to alcohol dependence.

Mental Health: Effects of Alcohol on the Brain | Drinkaware

If a friend who was experiencing depression asked how to reduce the symptoms. I would suggest they limit their alcohol intake. The short-term benefits of alcohol are vastly outweighed by the potential future negatives. Overindulgence in alcohol can be fun until the next day. Guilt, shame and remorse for overspending or behaviour that is out of character only exacerbate mental health issues. Added into this is the fact that alcohol directly affects brain chemistry and can lead to depression it should be treated with caution. Especially, in individuals with mental health issues.

Once I quit drinking I needed to find a treat in something. Alcohol was replaced by fast food. The Friday night takeaway meal became my indulgence. I would vary each week; Chinese, Indian, kebab, pizza. Each one would be seen as a treat. But after eating each I would feel worse than before. A treat doesn’t make you feel worse, does it? If I’m going to treat myself, then it should make me feel better? I mean if it makes me feel worse then it isn’t a treat. The initial hit of sugar, salt and fat would be vastly outweighed by the lethargy that would weigh me down. I soon realised it wasn’t a treat at all. It was an often expensive depressant. I had swapped one depressant for another.

The old adage “you are what you eat,” has an element of truth. Research has shown the link between what we eat and our mental health. This isn’t based on the external changes but the internal changes. The altering of brain chemistry (Is fast food making us depressed? – BBC Future). Maybe a change of diet will lead to a change of mood? It did for me. But it all sounds a little soulless, doesn’t it? A life without alcohol, sugar and fast food. It’s borderline monastic to live without these things! I would challenge this assumption. I would suggest that happiness has been conflated with pleasure. Without pleasure, there is no happiness. To be happy we must consume. But it is a deeply floored idea. For every up, there is a down. The highs lead to lows. The constant careering from peaks to troughs leads to anxiety and depression. By looking at what we consume we may be able to understand the way we feel.

Initially, a future without overconsumption of these things did seem bleak to me. It seemed pointless and empty. That’s when I realised it was a choice; try to change or accept the unhappiness. So I learned to moderate. I couldn’t moderate alcohol, I had to quit for good. The others I have learned to have in moderation. In all honesty, I prefer cooking something like tacos instead of ordering fast food. And paired with an exercising regime I feel better than I have for a long time. Who would have known that a healthy balance brings far more happiness than artificial stimulation?

Thanks for reading,

Charlie.

I used to be 18st 6lbs. And at 5’10”, I was massively overweight. The weight loss journey is documented here A guide to #wellness – Barstool to the Beach (fromthebarstooltothebeach.com)

Thanks for stopping by and don’t forget to follow and share 🙂

Exercise and Mental Health…

The last year has been overwhelming for many people. There is a growing mental health epidemic. Young and old are experiencing depression, anxiety, loneliness and despair at high levels. I have been negatively affected over the last year. Depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts plagued a large part of my life. It was hard to keep going. Getting out of bed took a monumental effort. I have missed lots of work due to these mental health problems. But, I have managed to walk back from the edge a couple of times. For the last couple of weeks, I have started to feel a sense of calm and balance. The loneliness has made way to self-love. The anxiety has evaporated into acceptance of uncertainty. Depression has eased into positivity. Suicidal thoughts have no place in my head anymore. This may change in the future. I am happy to accept the moment. I have got to a level of inner strength that will see me through. I don’t think for a second I have “cured” my mental health issues. I don’t think I ever will. But I am content despite them. The question is how? How did I turn it around?

Last year was tough. Some really dark periods resulted in me having a nervous breakdown. It was scary. I was lonely. My mind was chaotic. I was sure I would drown. I thought I was too weak to fight it. I went to the doctors and got some medication. I’d fought against using medication when I’d experienced depression previously. But this time I was at a loose end. The meds helped. They trimmed the peaks off the mania and slowed the crashing lows. The chaotic thinking eased. The world became more welcoming. That was in September 2020. By December I had started to ween myself of the meds. Reducing the 20mg Fluoxetine a day dose to every two days. And then three days. Until finally, I stopped taking it altogether. I had no adverse side effects. I thought I was in the clear. I thought the breakdown was over; life had other plans. Two events, one work-related and the other an ongoing wait to finalise the purchase of a house, slowly began to ramp up the stress. I thought I would lose everything. And once again, I began to slip into uncontrollable thinking. I fought for a couple of months. I tried everything; meditation, talking to others, walking. But nothing seemed to help. Soon my toolbox was empty. My waking thoughts were plagued with worry. My sleeping pattern reversed. My nutrition was non existent. The lack of food meant a lack of energy. Bed became my safe haven. I would wake and think what’s the point in trying? So back to the doctors I went.

I asked the doctor to put me back on 20mg of Fluoxetine. He was hesitant to. I explained that I just needed them to control the chaotic thinking. Hopefully, the clarity of thought would allow me to get back on my feet. He agreed but explained that once life had calmed down I should look to come off them. I agreed. This was in April 2021. So back on the meds, I went. One 20mg fluoxetine a day. Nothing really happened for a while. Initially, my sleep pattern became even more irregular. My short term memory got worse but not life-changing. Slowly, I began to come back to life. I tried to get going a couple of weeks after started the meds again. My energy levels were still low. I just kept trying to stay positive. It is extremely difficult to when there is a bombardment of negativity swirling through my mind. Any glimmer of hope was soon consumed by the torrent of anxiety. Eventually, it calmed down. I would wake in the morning expecting the carnival of chaos to start but it didn’t. I would wait but it never happened. For months I had been waking to instant negativity but after 60 days of fluoxetine, it subsided. I began the day with some positive affirmations. Saying “what will be will be.” “I can only do what I can do.” And “the only things I can change are my outlook and my diet.” The days got brighter. I would have porridge and banana for breakfast. Then I would take my meds. Along with the fluoxetine, I would take cod liver oil with added vitamin D. I read that omega 3 and vitamin D help improve the effectiveness of antidepressants. It had to be worth a shot.

My sleeping pattern was still a bit erratic. I started to get more energy as my appetite improved. Then, one day, for no particular reason, I decided to go for a run. I started small. A lap of the park. After a couple of days, I tried a mile. When I could do a mile comfortably. I started walking another mile. And then running as far into the second mile as I could. I had no plan to compete or anything. It just seemed like the right thing to do. The medication gave me the foundation to build upon. It gave me the clarity to make the right decisions. The negativity was replaced with self-support. If I couldn’t jog as far as I wanted one day, I didn’t chastise myself. I just put it down to a bad day. I started sleeping better. Instead of waking up at 11am and then slagging myself for wasting my day, I started waking at 7am. I’d have a coffee, banana and a pint of water. I’d wait for an hour. Do some stretches and then go for a run. Rain or shine. The 1 mile became 2 and then 3. I’d come back have my meds and have some tinned mackerel and poached egg on toast. It sounds so trivial but it was huge. The routine made a difference. I started looking forward to running. I started feeling happy. Then I pulled my hamstring.

I accepted that it was part of life. I rested for a week, iced it and compressed it. I was grateful it wasn’t torn. Again I started slow. Less than a mile and then built up to make sure it was okay. I just kept doing that every morning. I have been off work so I have had time to do this. When my situation changes, I will have to fit exercise around my work schedule. This routine has enabled me to find some balance. Exercise in the morning makes me feel like I have already won. It can’t go downhill from there because I’ve already achieved something. My diet became more healthy. More lean meat and fish. More veg. Lots more water. I lost weight and felt sharp. It is incredible how things can change. Also, how the simple things have an impact on my wellbeing.

Left – Total distance and total time Centre – Average mile Right- Date

To be clear I ran a lot last year during the lockdown. But as depression slowly robbed me of my energy the frequency of my runs declined. Until eventually they stopped altogether last October. So when I restarted this year I hadn’t run for nearly six months. I weighed 13st 6lbs. And I am 39 years old with love handles. But I endeavoured to persevere. I just thought that something is better than nothing. Any movement is better than wallowing in self-pity.

Running enabled me to push through the mental blocks that had kept me trapped in my own head. Every distance I went further than I thought I was a minor victory. I got up to 6 miles and vowed to run 10km a day for 10 days. Why? I have no idea really. I am conscious of manic episodes but this isn’t one. Maybe it’s to see how far I’d come. To show that my mental and physical toughness has rebounded from the doldrums of depression. I’m glad to say it has. Today is Thursday 24th June and so far I have run at least 6 miles for 10 days. I will get to 10 days of 10 kms but that won’t be until Saturday. I feel great. I will have to rest one day to protect my legs. If you see below I didn’t run on the 20th of June but I went for an 8-mile walk with a friend instead.

Left – Total distance and total time Centre – Average mile Right- Date

I wouldn’t advise trying to run that many days if you don’t run at all. But I would advise starting slowly if you can. If you can’t run then start another form of exercise that’s applicable. It has really helped me get back to a place of balance. Accompanied with a balanced diet, good sleep and plenty of water it really is the recipe for a balanced life. I don’t feel like I’m running from something. I feel like I’m running for something. That something is mental and physical health. Going to the edge and being out of options in life has taught me the importance of wellness.

If you are in the doldrums then there is a way back. Today I ran over a road bridge that had a rail line underneath. Last year I stood and wondered if it would be fair on the train driver if I jumped off. I was in the pit of despair. Seven months later, I felt stronger than ever as I passed over. I’ve tried everything in my life to find balance. It is the simple things that work for me. The things that people told me to do years ago but I couldn’t believe them because they were cheap and simple. How could something so simple be effective? Well, it is!

Now, I eat well, keep persevering and exploring new places whilst out running. I reward my hard work with treats. Because I’m worth it and so are you.

Charlie.

Staying Sober…

I haven’t drunk alcohol for many years. I used to drink a lot. Too much in fact. Too much for my body to take. To me, it was like I was getting one over the world. Like the kid smoking behind the bike shed who thinks he’s is a rebel. I wanted to rebel. Against what? I never knew, I was always too drunk to find a cause. In the end not drinking became my cause. I put that first and then everything started to fall into place behind it. I know why I stopped, I had to. I couldn’t take it anymore. Years before I had sought help for depression when I was left with two choices; death or help. Reaching out for help was the smartest thing I ever did. Drinking backed me into a similar corner; death or sobriety. I hated pretty much everything and everyone by that point but I still wanted to live. Fuck knows where the optimism was hiding but it was keeping me going. I decided to quit. The second greatest decision I ever made.

So what has kept me going? I don’t have a program per se. I don’t have a god or higher power, beyond life in all its glory. I don’t have a daily routine. I have sat in cold halls on winter nights in AA meetings trying to find something to get me through. I have meditated and exercised. I’ve travelled far and wide. I walked pilgrimages and read books. I’ve listened to music that gave me the strength to just get through. I cleaned my workshop from top to bottom when my mum was having brain surgery and I wasn’t sure she would pull through. I’ve phoned people when I have needed to. I try to give as much of my sobriety away as possible. It doesn’t disappear by sharing it. It only gets stronger. I have realised, that like any animal, I will do whatever it takes to keep going. And without sobriety or being alcohol-free, I will have nothing. To drink is to die. As long as I remember the pain and suffering I had to go through to get to today I will never let it slip away. I will do whatever is needed whenever it is needed to get through. I do not care what people think. If the people who know me would rather me drink to be fun than to be sober and live, they do not have my back. They are not interested in supporting me. They are either afraid of me holding a mirror to their lie or I am supporting the platform that makes them feel better about themselves. I will not die for social acceptance. I say no to expectation and yes to life. Even in its current muted form.

I had to find a system that worked for me. I had to find what I liked and built an ad hoc plan. Which has a current success rate of 100% for as long as I haven’t drunk. The first time I quit I was 29 years old. My liver was screaming for a break. I lasted seven months until I succumbed to boredom and listened to the tales of deception that I weaved for myself. “It’ll be different this time,” so says the alky at the top of a slippery slope. A speedy return to the days of old was the reward for that bit of delusion. As if by magic alcohol returned and my money and integrity vanished. On reflection what I hadn’t done was fill the void with anything meaningful. I was just bucketing water out of the Titanic. I didn’t have the tools to keep a mental note of the weather in my head. I didn’t see the storm clouds on the horizon.

Now, I know. If I’m getting uneasy or wound up, I go for a walk. Or a run. Plus, I need a creative outlet. I have to eat well, sleep well and generally treat myself as someone I like. Which means I buy myself treats. I use the same reward system that I used for alcohol; I have done XY today, so I can have some chocolate. It keeps me moving. It keeps me balanced. That’s important. Balance. I used to crash through moods like a rocket returning to earth. Adulation would be replaced by despair within an evening. Mania and depression were just part of life I thought. I thought wild swings were normality and the only people who had balance were flatlining. I still have moments of wild thinking thankfully I became my own horse whisperer and soon the metaphorical back legs stop kicking with some steady rationalisations.

I like to think about time as a token to be spent. There are a lot of them. Some people have more than others and yes I have made some questionable purchases but now I have options. I have a wide range of activities to choose from. Why, then, would I choose to spend my time miserable, full of guilt and self-hatred? Why would I opt for that life? Because that is the life alcohol brought me and will bring me back. To drink is to turn my world black and white. The vibrancy and colour would diminish as my focus points to one thing only. I have a weakness for alcohol but if I don’t drink I maintain my strength. It’s simple; I don’t drink. I was devastated when I quit. I watched my world collapse and could do nothing. I was on my knees. I was beaten. I will never let it do that to me again. I choose peace and serenity. Creativity. Laughter and love. Fuck the chaos. This middle-aged hippie is happy to be free. Not only from alcohol but the lifestyle that goes with it. Do I miss it? Sometimes, of course. But not in a desperate desire way. More in a poignant recollection that I might have for an ex-partner who I would have liked things to have worked out differently. But I know it was the right thing to do and there’s definitely no going back.

I don’t think there is a single answer. AA works for some. This naked mind has helped many. Some handle going cold turkey. There is no magic bullet. There is just freedom to find out what works for you. To use the time that alcohol took and focus it on something that is fulfilling. Quitting drinking is the opportunity to build a healthy body and healthy mind. It is a journey. Sometimes difficult. Sometimes wonderful. It is what you make it. Without replacing the negative thinking patterns and negative behaviours with positive ones there will always be the romanticised allure of alcohol. But if it caused destruction once. The chances are it will do it again. Life is too short to spend it wondering what sobriety would be like. And we have too much potential to waste it trapped in destructive habits by our fears.

Charlie.

Worriers Anonymous

Worry is a chain of thoughts and images, negatively affect-laden and relatively uncontrollable.

I’ve cracked it. I have solved the problem. The previous worry that led me down the rabbit hole of despair has been dismissed. The pressure has been released. A moment of calm descends upon me. It feels nice. It feels natural. I bet it won’t last. I bet something goes wrong. I bet the antidepressants affect my creativity. They’ll kill off my outlet and force me to become a zombie. OH FUCK. I am a worrier. I’m addicted to worrying.

“My names Charlie and I’m a worryAholic!”

“HI CHARLIE!”

It’s ceaseless. It’s like having a little kid living in my head. Constantly needling me for information. I find peace… “It won’t last forever,” If things are going well, I prepare for the bad. The invasive, pervasive voice that I so proudly claimed to have conquered is centre stage. Singing and dancing his songs of woe. I’ve tried everything; meditation, yoga, exercise, vitamins, diet changes and city changes. Christ, I’ve even tried country changes. But there it is. Every fucking time. Waiting to make me feel inferior.

I only noticed its effect because when I look in the mirror I see a man I admire. A man who has done well by his own standards. Who one day decided to make a change and did. I am proud of that. But it counts for nothing to my inner critic. It is almost like being in unrequited love with myself. Nothing is ever good enough. If it is it will eventually go wrong. 

“Worrying is like a rocking chair; it gives you something to do, but never gets you anywhere.”

“What next?” was the message from within as the wheels touched down on the aeroplane having fulfilled a dream. I should have been riding high at achieving what I once thought unachievable. Even a life beyond my wildest dreams wasn’t enough. The judgemental disembodied tormentor demanded more. It is a toxic relationship with myself that saps all my energy. The future looms large and demands answers to questions that may never be asked. Anxiety is inevitable.

No angel and devil are sitting on my shoulder fighting for dominance. There is no negative voice in my head. I recently saw a Russell Brand video on negative thinking. (It appears that the Youtube algorithm gives me what I need when I need it.) In the video, Russell talks about even after all the work he’s done he still has moments of negative thinking. This came as a relief to me. But what struck a chord most was when he said: “I have personified the voices of the past!” It was like a jarring slap of realisation. I have created my tormentor for no other reason than believing it is what I deserve. Well, I don’t! Nor do you! So put the stick away and stop beating yourself up. Your imagination is a tool for liberation, not oppression. Yet the drill sergeant in my head is demanding more. Yes, it can be useful. Like when I am exercising and pushing myself. But I am not a record-breaking athlete. I am a thirty-nine-year-old teacher. I should motivate myself accordingly; getting my marking done. Not racing Usain Bolt.

I’ve heard people say “It’s like there are two of me; a positive and a negative. Each says its own thing!” What these people are failing to notice is that there is only one of them; the observer. They are watching the scenario play out. They are a spectator to there own decisions. The winning thought will be the one that aligns most with the observers’ personal experiences and expectations. Believe you should be spoken to like shit and you will. Many accept from themselves that they wouldn’t accept from others. It is just conditioning. We are just trying to get through life. Unfortunately, we pick up bad habits along the way. Some of the habits are an attempt to cancel out others. Coping mechanisms. But the pressure slowly builds underneath. It’s not possible to hide from myself forever. It’s tiring. Life is too short. 

I believe the inner chatter that recently turned my world a dark shade was the same negativity that made me drink. I wanted to escape myself. I wanted to silence the worrier and transcend the inner trainer that demanded more. Where it came from? Who knows. But now I can see it. Now I can identify as the observer and not the thoughts themselves. The worry has lifted somewhat… until next time.

I put a huge amount of pressure on myself to find meaning. After returning from travelling I felt a sense of accomplishment tinged with loss. I saw no real point anymore. I had done everything I had wanted to do. Now what? I got lost in the search for meaning. Trying to find something. Anything. Just to focus on. Eventually, I got overwhelmed.

The one positive to the inner trainer is that it got me out of bed when I only wanted to avoid the world. I took a walk along the seafront and sat on a bench. As I sat looking out to sea, it dawned on me. This is all there is. Just this moment. Just this snapshot in time. I don’t have to walk the Inca trail or fly to Cancun. It’s here all the time. I just have to choose to see it. To accept it. To stop looking and it will come. It can be difficult to catch a breath when it feels like I’m drowning in life but all it takes sometimes is a step back. Just a moment to realise that the pressure is internal. That the weight on the shoulders is imaginary. That the whip that threatens punishment is in my hand. And that I don’t deserve that treatment from anyone. Especially myself.

Sometimes I need to remember that I’m a worryAholic. That my thoughts are not reality. And that everything could be a lot worse. I also need to remember that when my minds go off on a tangent, I can bring it back to the moment. Hopefully, over time, I can retrain my brain. I can kill off the drill sergeant and maintain serenity. The only way is through. Escapism and avoidance just cause more problems.

I need to remember that I still had anxiety when I drank alcohol. It’s just that it was focused on alcohol. I normalised my thinking to justify my behaviour. The only way to “relax” was through alcohol. That is not solving the problem. It is compounding it.

There is no other way than through. Avoidance and escape won’t help. Even after several years without a drink, I am still learning and growing. It wasn’t until I realised I was lost that I knew I had to ask for directions. I learned the methods that can mitigate the worry. Things like exercise, meditation, eating well and reaching out when needed. I also learned that there isn’t a cure to my mental gymnastics but keeping it on a level gets easier. There are days where my mind can go on a tangent. I can get trapped in stories that cause me a distress. I forget that my emotions are effected by my perception and ruin my own day. I have to put the action in place to stop that getting too severe.

A lot of life is out of my control. All I have is the moment. Whatever will be, will be. There is no point in worrying about it. Worrying solves nothing. I’ll just do my best for today. I’ll not worry about tomorrow… easier said than done.

Que Sera, Sera

Charlie

Seven years of sobriety…

Wow. Just wow. I couldn’t imagine seven days without a drink at one point. Now, one day at a time, I have made it to seven years. Has it been easy? Of course not. Has it been constant highs and euphoria? Nope. Has it been worth it? Absolutely.

I had no idea what to expect when I first got sober. I just didn’t want to drink anymore. In fact, I didn’t want that life anymore. I was broken. Completely and utterly smashed to bits. Yet, cyclic destruction was all I knew. What I didn’t know is that it was the cause of all the problems. My days would follow a similar path; wake up feeling rough, not really knowing how it had happened, vow not to drink, slowly recover throughout the day, vow to have a drink but only one, repeat. One drink starts the problem. If I don’t have one, I can’t have two, or three, etc. I didn’t know this until it was too late.

Thankfully, the rock bottom was enough of a bump to rattle me out of the cycle of destruction. It was enough pain to make me want to change. I just had no idea how to change. The first year, was trial and error. Insanity and desperation interspersed with moments of peace. Fleeting moments of happiness were a reminder that sobriety was the right thing to do. And they were enough to offset the trepidation of walking an alien path. It was a strange time. But I just kept going, one day at a time. Trusting the belief that things might not get better but at the very least, quitting drinking would stop things from getting worse.

The tools I learned in those early days have been the mainstay of my sobriety. Through trial and error, I learned what worked for me and allowed me to disregard the things that didn’t. Some things work for some and not for others. I can only advise you to find what works for you. As long as it isn’t drinking. That never worked. Ultimately, it is swapping negative vices for positive ones. The small things that kept me sober in the early days are the same things that work now; eating well, reaching out, exercise, meditating and learning. When I am feeling well those can slip. They take a back seat and my mood slowly slides into negativity. It doesn’t take long to realise why. The times I keep up the practices of staying well are the times I am rewarded. I have to practice to be well. It doesn’t come naturally to me. Even after all these years, I have to maintain the bridges to healthy living. By building a stable foundation it is possible to expand my life in areas that weren’t possible during my drinking days.

Alcohol consumed my wages and my soul. I was left with nothing but dreams and despair. Slowly rebuilding my mind, body and soul after quitting alcohol, seemed like I was bucketing water from a sinking ship. I never seemed to be progressing. I wanted miraculous changes overnight. I doubted they would ever happen. I expected a flash of light awakening and to be profoundly changed in some way but it didn’t happen like that. After seven years of sobriety, I can proudly look back at the things I have achieved and say that the miracle did happen. The change took time. The experiences took sacrifice. But I was rewarded far beyond what I ever could imagine. Moments of inner peace were a worrying trend when I first quit. I was so used to shame, guilt and chaotic thinking that I thought it was a mistake. But slowly they become more frequent. Until a chaotic mind was the signifier that something was wrong. It was a complete change. With this clarity, it was finally possible to try and point my life in the direction I would like to head. TRAVEL was always high on my list. Sobriety gave me back a LOT of time. But I was still in mountains of debt. Travel takes money. So I started to pay it off. It was liberating. Freedom from addiction and debt was the liberation I needed.

I’ve been lucky. I’ve met great people along the way. Even in the drunken chaos I still managed to hold down a job. That helped clear the debt. But I had to sacrifice trivial things to do it. I had to cut down on frivolous spending and miss opportunities. I always looked at it as travel was delayed happiness. The reward of doing it was worth the wait and the sacrifice of short term gratification. I can confirm, it was worth it. By doing this I have been lucky enough to visit; USA, Mexico, Peru, Belize, Guatemala, Egypt, Sudan, Jordan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, India, Thailand, Cambodia, Italy, Turkey and Germany. I have walked the El Camino de Santiago from France and Portugal. It has been an incredible journey. It is all thanks to sobriety.

It hasn’t always been exotic locations and blissful serenity. In the early days, I would sit at home on a Friday and Saturday night, imagining that everyone else in the world was having a great time. I would feel left out and isolated. Slowly, it faded and I found other things to do, with other people. There have been times when quitting drinking feels like quitting life and in the UK it could be deemed as such. But there are other things to do. It just takes time to find them. It is also important to remind myself why I quit. Was alcohol really giving me the joyous sexy freedom that was advertised or was it misery, self-hatred and debt? If you are unsure, it was the latter.

There have been difficult times that I wanted to escape. My mum was diagnosed with a brain tumour when I was three years sober. During her twelve-hour surgery I didn’t want to feel the fear I felt that she might not make it. Every ounce of me wanted a drink to take the pain away. But thankfully I knew that it would only delay the pain. I remembered all the pain that alcohol had caused. Thankfully, she was okay and I made it through without a drink. Each hill I overcame in sobriety prepared me for the next. Whether it is overcoming break-ups or a breakdown. Each served as a lesson for being better prepared if it happens again.

Last year I suffered a breakdown. By not drowning my sorrows in alcohol the turnaround time for an uptick in mood was vastly hastened. Swimming in a bottle of whiskey only serves to hasten the end of life and slow down the escape to freedom. Alcohol never brought me freedom for any sustained period. Just delaying and magnifying the pain. Facing problems seems hard. I can categorically state that delaying them is FAR worse. Sobriety gives the strength to face the present. To engage in life in ways I never thought possible. It isn’t always easy but it is easier than it was. Life still happens. Struggles still happen. Bad things still happen. But they just seem to be a little more manageable with the clarity of sobriety.

I can’t tell you what to do with your life. All I can say is that one day I stood at a fork in the road. One was continuing down the same path. The one of guilt and shame. The one of misery and destruction. That road was to continue drinking alcohol. The other was to quit. I couldn’t moderate, I had tried. The road to sobriety was unknown. It appeared boring. I mean what do you do if you don’t drink? The answer? ANYTHING. The road less travelled is rewarded with some of the most divine experiences I have ever had. If I did not quit drinking I would not have done the things I have done. It is that simple. It isn’t easy. But it has been worth it.

So after all these years what is the reason I keep going? Because amongst the travel and breakdowns. The peaks and troughs of life. There lays the base layer of my happiness. The longer I go without drinking the more balanced that becomes. I used to think that a constant level meant flatlining. That without chaos and drama there was only boredom. What I found was contentment. I found the moments of bliss I’d searched for by consuming alcohol. Even on the dullest of days, there can be a wry smile at enjoying the simplicity. Life isn’t perfect. Nor would I want it to be. But it is a lot more manageable than it once was. It isn’t all butterflies and rainbows but it definitely isn’t the guilt, shame and chaos that it once was. I’ll take manageable contentment over chaotic misery. It really isn’t as boring as I once thought it would be. The clear-headed mornings and the feeling of wellbeing is irreplaceable. Life without alcohol isn’t easy but it is a challenge worth taking.

Charlie.

How much is enough?

Or more specifically, how much stuff is enough? Is the answer less stuff and more gratitude? We are conditioned to always want more. To keep searching for that elusive missing piece. And then we find it but still feel empty? Then what? What is the answer? MORE. Keep running the race. Keep chasing shadows. Pursuing the contentment that has been promised by the marketers. Always searching, never finding. But if enough is never enough, then where does it end? Will we ever achieve a level of fulfilment if we cannot take stock? Or will life be one long pursuit? One long struggle to achieve “something” but using the wrong avenue to achieve it?

The pressure to identify through items starts at an early age. A colleague was recently ruminating over which mobile phone to buy their six-year-old daughter. “An iPhone may give her the wrong perception of life but if her friends have Apple then she may be bullied if I get her Android.” was the thinking. A crazy notion that children of that age already have brand loyalty. The same mechanisms existed when I was a teenager but not at six. I recall getting some stick over a pair of Hi-tech trainers. My friends were wearing Nikes. Unbeknown to me at that time, their parent had bought them out of the catalogue and was paying them off on the weekly. The mechanisms of debt for acceptance had already been embedded. The borrowing of money to appear rich is pure insanity. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “debt exposes a man to confinement, and a species of slavery to his creditors.” But the fear of ostracization without the products fuels the consumption that keeps us trapped. But who are we really fooling? And is there any benefit in doing so? Ultimately how much is enough?

Greed is a little more than enough

Toba Beta, My Ancestor Was an Ancient Astronaut

We have been conned. Whilst walking down the street we see a new car driving along. Our initial response is “Well they must be doing alright for themselves.” This may be true but in 2019 “91% of new cars were on finance.” There is nothing wrong with wanting nice things but in the UK large numbers of people are experiencing financial stress. What do people believe would help them alleviate this stress? MORE. If they just earned more then they would be okay. RUBBISH. Maybe for some on low wages. Children are expensive and rents can be high after all. But the issue for a large number of people isn’t needing more. It is spending less. Are we really so insecure that we are killing ourselves for acceptance? I know it’s not that easy just to cut back. I am a recovering alcoholic after all. I understand the machinations of excess. I also understand that it never made me happy beyond the immediate moment. It was fleeting. Alcohol, like so many things, promises more than it delivers. And the promise of positive outcomes, ie happiness/pleasure is enough to get our juices flowing; “The anticipation is better than the pleasure. Researchers have found that the nucleus accumbens respond much more to the prospect of reward than to the reward itself. Further, it is all the same to the nuclei accumbens, which respond nearly identically to the prospect of food, sex, social contact, cocaine, or financial gain.” We are our own enemy. We believe the false promises and ignore the evidence that it isn’t working.

We believe that more money will solve our current problem but the change of jobs or last pay rise didn’t seem to change anything. If we don’t learn to “cut our cloth to suit” we will always be chasing the elusive more. But what if the answer is less? What if we take stock of our lot and look at where we sit on the ladder. Earlier, I mentioned a colleague deliberating over a very first world problem. When put against the fact the 16% of the world’s population don’t have electricity. 785 million people don’t have clean water. Yet, embedded in an early age we have an arrogance that all our whims should be met. And does it make us happy? Nope. Enough never seems to be enough.

How much destruction is worth progress? How many dead ends do we have to run down before realising that the path to happiness doesn’t lay there? The needs of humans are simple.

There have been positives to the pursuit of more. Health, hygiene, medical, technological advancements but does the pursuit of an ever-growing economy translate to increased happiness. Just because the pursuit of progress works in one area of life does it mean that it automatically works in another? Infinite growth and consumption are not possible on a planet with finite resources. But we are too far down the track to turn back. “More” is the answer to escape the problems it is creating. By escaping we are becoming detached from our roots. The technology we use daily is astounding. Yet pales against a true night sky. The infinite laid bare daring to be questioned. A sunset that flutters even the hardest of hearts. The simplicity of a cool breeze reminds our fragile ego that we are but a small part of the greater. It’s hard to accept. That amongst the progress there is only escape. We are running from the fear that without the identity of the external, the infinite would consume us. The expanse is overwhelming. But to realise the beauty of it all we have to pause. Take a breath and look around. Take in the machinations that are beyond our control. They are large. In the security we desperately cling to there is chaos. Everchanging. Relentless. But there is contentment and appreciation.

“Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated,” said Confucius. Is it fear that does this? Or perception? That with nothing we are nothing. That to exist we have to own. To have value we have to demonstrate that value through bought identity. We as consumers drive the market. We can create any world we want to live in. Most of life as we know it is a creation of our own making. We create the games then become snared by them. What is the ideal human experience? A recurring theme I’ve seen in the few places I’ve been lucky enough to visit is community. A connection and purpose with value. Most liked to laugh and feel secure. Not only in their environment but also within themselves. Society. Collaboration. Working towards a greater goal that benefits others and the self. In the west, we have been fragmented. Turned into competitors. Divided and conquered. Fragmented yet looking for a missing piece. The piece is all around. We just look in the wrong places.

Is it happiness we are seeking or is it the escape from unhappiness?

If we take the time to think why are we doing the things we do. Are we working a lot of hours in a job we hate to buy things to make us happy? Are we in a situation that we cannot change and feel resentful about it? Instead of comparing our situation with others. Which in itself is a form of self-harm. We should be looking at the things we have that we enjoy. Embracing the time we have. Identifying the things we can improve if need be and working towards them. Instead of trying to be happy. Or trying to buy happiness. We should try to be; present, reflective, grateful, understanding, comfortable with ourselves. Improving the way we look at our world and ourselves can go a long way to calm the pursuit of happiness through material means.

Take travel, for example, it was a fire that burned within me. I HAD to see the places I’d dreamt of. And when I had, the urge was no longer there. I understand that travel can be addictive but at what point does it become another THING? When the experiences are lost in the numbers of places visited? When the reason for doing something or visiting somewhere has been replaced by a lack of knowing what else to do? Some people genuinely love that lifestyle. Some people genuinely love shopping. Kudos. But how many of us are doing the things we do because we lack an alternative? How many already have enough but are lost in the pursuit of “something” that they can’t see they have already? How much debt, obesity and environmental destruction do we have to have before we finally admit that enough is actually enough? Maybe then we can accept that things have to change? Maybe then it will be too late.

Thanks for reading,

Charlie

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Sobriety, The Gift of Peace…

In the crazy days of alcohol abuse, life was dramatic. It was chaotic. It was shambolic. Things were significantly worse than they are now. That’s why I had to drink. To battle on through the shitstorm that was raging daily. People, places and things only served to test my resilience. Alcohol was the prop that held me up against the hurricane of life. It brought peace to the war that raged all around. It brought respite from the uphill battle I was facing. Alcohol brought peace to the chaos in the beginning. 

Seeing the negatives in life was the fuel for my denial. The perception of chaos was to escape the fear of facing reality. Alcohol was to escape the fabricated reality. To remove the need to escape, I had to face the reality and understand why I was trying to escape. The only way this was possible was with a clear head. Alcohol had to go.

Life hasn’t changed much since I quit. It is still the same as it was. People, places and things test my patience. Sometimes they get the better of me. That’s life. Sometimes things arise that are unexpected. Life doesn’t always go to plan. No matter how meticulous that plan may seem. It can be difficult relinquishing control and accepting that it may not go the way I want. But accepting that I can only do my bit, instead of trying to control reality is the quickest way to peace. What will be, will be.

Ten years ago, that would not have been my approach. Shit, I used to make mountains out of molehills. Make monsters from mice. Paint the world as an enemy and me as a victim. It was difficult to be victorious whilst playing the victim. It is equally difficult to relinquish control of my thoughts. Recently, I vowed to meditate for 100 days to see if it made a difference. The first 50 days has made a noticeable change. The compartmentalisation of my thoughts is incredible. The ability to observe and acknowledge the punishing potential of thoughts is a gift. It has been so profound that during this period of stress, I have managed to find moments of peace. 

For thirty minutes of meditation a day, I have managed to maintain a sense of clarity. Most of us would say we don’t have time to meditate

As per eMarketer, the average US adult spends 3 hours and 43 minutes on their mobile devices. That’s roughly 50 days a year. 3. And the average screen time in the UK stands at 3 hours 23 minutes per day as per CodeComputerLove.

Screen Time Statistics 2020: Your Smartphone Is Hurting You (elitecontentmarketer.com)

I made time to meditate because I was coming off the back of a bout of depression. I thought meditation may help and thankfully it has. It didn’t cure but it has helped find some balance. It has been beyond my expectation. I am at day 50 and feel relatively calm a lot of the time. My mind in those drinking days was a ceaseless storm. Now it is like a crisp spring morning with a cool breeze that reminds me I am alive. There are moments of elevated anxiety but ultimately it is manageable. 

The biggest benefit I have noticed from the meditation is the ability to reign my thoughts back to the moment. Previously, my thinking would go walkabout. Before, my mind was like a dog in a park, off its lead, having a wonderful time, ignoring the repeated shouts of its owner. Now, it is a dog on a retractable lead. It can go so far and then I can pull it back. If I start to envisage the future. Or notice a train of thought that serves no other purpose than to cause unnecessary pain. I can pull it back to the moment. It is a gift. All it takes is a little time and practice.

Meditation is the medication I sought in alcohol. It is the access to peace I sought in alcohol but without the negative consequences. Much like alcohol, I have to be a repeat user to get the benefits but it is a practice I am happy to partake in. So, far I haven’t withdrawn £100 at 1am to carry on meditating. I often did that whilst drinking.

The practice has allowed me to notice temptation trying for my attention. Sitting silently, it is possible to feel the yearning to check Facebook. Watch TV. Anything that would take me out of the moment. It is strong sometimes. Like a child pulling at my sleeve demanding to be entertained. Thankfully, it is now possible to let it pass. I am not perfect. Temptation often gets the better of me. I don’t give myself a hard time. I just meditate again the next day. 🙂

It is clear that the chaos I felt in my life as an alcoholic was just the externalisation of the inner chaos. Alcohol was the white flag of surrender to the war that raged inside. Slowly throughout the day, the alcohol would wear off. The inner chatter would increase. As if the volume was at a 1 when I woke up but then, hourly, it would go up a level. By the afternoon, the noise inside was unbearable. My only option was to drink again until the noise went quiet. The cycle repeats. The chaos continues. The fight appears to be won. The morning brings reality. In the early days of drinking the noise was anxiety. In the latter days, it was an addiction demanding to be fed. Neither was healthy. 

Breaking that cycle has been the gift of sobriety. Peace has been the prize. My life has been far more chaotic without alcohol. But positively. No more fighting incessant noise daily. Instead, the chaos has come in the form of options. Of opportunities. And experiences. From having a linear path from work to alcohol, life has branched out like the tree of life. Shit still happens. Most things are out of my control. So I do the best I can when I can. Worrying about what I can’t change is a waste of energy and a stealer of time. If I spend my time thinking about how beautiful the roses will be whilst planting them, I miss the joy in the act of gardening. If I peg my happiness on the future, I miss the possibilities that will arise at the moment. 

Charlie.

The Dangers of Self-Reflection

Someone once said to me “The problem is you have started asking questions you shouldn’t have started asking. You have opened Pandora’s box!” I didn’t understand at the time. I would often wonder about the intricacies of life and the direction I was taking. Was I enjoying the things I did or was I doing them because of subconscious motivations? It is a rabbit hole. If you look in the mirror and don’t like what you see, it is difficult to unsee it. If you ask a question and don’t like the answer it can’t be unasked. The danger of self-reflection is finding something that you don’t like. Imagine finding out that your life wasn’t yours. Or the things you did was for acceptance not for joy. What if the labels you bought was due to a lack of self worth. Self-reflection is dangerous to the ego but liberating for the soul.

” The unexamined life is not worth living “

Socrates

Living on the edge of a nervous breakdown had become the norm. Energy drinks fuelled the chaos. Kept on the edge of life. Prolonging the anxiety and embracing it as normality. Busyness masquerading as productivity. Reality became exposed through the examined life. The questioning of our intentions exposes the motivations. Are they our drivers? Are the paths we pursue our own or the ones imposed on us?

I’d spent years focusing on travelling the world. The lesson I learned was that I didn’t need to travel to be happy. I learned that I had everything I needed to be happy. I had to travel to learn that I didn’t need to. This realisation was hard to take. The realisation that my life long dream had been a waste of time sent me into a depression. The time I had spent pursuing the dream had been for nothing. Or so I thought. Slowly I began to realise that I was lucky not only to have the experience. But I was also lucky to learn this lesson. Instead of pursuing happiness like some kind of elusive entity hiding in a mystical object or experience that just had to be found, I realised it was with me all along. It is with us all. This type of realisation is devastating to an economy that relies on the hedonic treadmill for sustenance. Without the cyclic pursuits of escape through consumption, the tills stop ringing. Debt decreases. Ironically happiness increases. It is almost as if anxious and unhappy citizens make good customers.

I am not talking about abandoning modern life and living in fields or mud huts. I am talking about asking the question “why?” Why do we do the things that we do? Who do we do them for? And do they serve us? I have pursued many paths in my life so far. I’ve been gluttonous to the point of addiction. I have been frugal to the point of destitution both forced and by choice. Always searching but never finding. It was until I started to look inwards that I could really find what I was looking for. The inner light guides if we are prepared to let it shine the way. I realised my needs are quite simple. Much like Epicurus suggested; food, shelter, friends, family and time for reflection.

I remember something written by Erich Fromm about the anxiety-inducing properties of the question “What next?” After all the external requirements have been acquired, a place to live, partner, kids/or not, food, and job, “what next?” The reason it induces anxiety is that our culture doesn’t have an answer. So we set about getting a promotion, a newer car or a bigger house. Then find ourselves faced with the same question. To me, this just demonstrates that the answer doesn’t lay externally. Contentment isn’t found in temporary things or things that can be taken away. It only can come from gratitude and appreciation. Only then will enough be enough. The pursuit of incremental dopamine hits to prolong the illusion of happiness will decrease. Contentment by its very definition isn’t fleeting. It is a deep realisation that everything is in alignment. And that everything is okay just as it is.

Self-reflection is dangerous because it may expose the path we have been walking down as one we don’t desire to be on. That the hamster wheel of consumption no longer serves. That the people who look unfavourably on your decision to retire from the illusionary competition are only doing what they believe to be the right thing. We are encouraged to promote the status quo after all. I have been taken aback by the question “why are you so happy?” many times. I’m not talking about bouncing around annoying happy. Just content. Just accepting that situation is where I was and accepting it was the best choice. Free of worry. No other reason than being present.

The hedonic treadmill – In psychology, a hedonic set point is the general baseline level of happiness a person experiences over their lifetime, despite any temporary changes in the level from positive or negative life events. The theory argues that although events and environmental factors can affect happiness in the short term, people will naturally adapt back to their hedonic set point in the long term.

Hedonic Treadmill Definition (investopedia.com)

It has been argued that after a “life changing event” there is a return to a “base level” of happiness. Winning the lottery would be amazing… for a while. But after ticking off the bucket list, then what? A return to the base level of happiness. So would winning the lottery guarantee happiness? Or is it to raise the base level? If so then how?

By aligning our life with our inner morals. By connecting with others who hold the same values. By finding purpose within those values. Basically, by becoming a human being again. Cultivating connection and social bonds that stand the test of time. Instead of clinging to anyone who offers an alternative to being alone. This way it is possible to find real people. But to do so we have to be real ourselves. Not changing with the breeze hoping for acceptance by similarity. Be genuine. By introspecting it is possible to see who we are. To connect with who we are. To be comfortable with who we are. Then it is possible to find like-minded others.

One 2020 study showed that regularly practicing gratitude can help ease symptoms of anxiety and depression. An older study from 2003 noted that gratitude was linked to improved mood.

The Benefits of Gratitude and How to Get Started (healthline.com)

Searching for the next fix. Slobbering over the next escape. Running the treadmill of consumption. It is easy to lose focus on the things we have. The last material good that was the motivator soon becomes old. The shiny newness fades and is replaced with the blinding light of the next product that offers fulfilment. Rinse and repeat. By taking stock of what we have. How lucky we are. And how bad things could really be. Liberates us from the illusionary competition with the “Jones’s.” Gratitude is proven to lessen anxiety and depression. It redresses the mindset that all in our own lives is bad whilst everyone else is living the high life. Exacerbated of course by social media and the attempts to prove a point to people you don’t know. I am not suggesting that gratitude cures mental health problems but as a practice, it can help to raise the base level of contentment. If we spend our lives looking at how “successful” everyone else is whilst we flounder, of course, it is going to makes us feel inferior. It may also motivate us to want to become like those. But does it result in happiness? Or is its promise of happiness the carrot attached to the stick that keeps us running on that treadmill?

Individuals’ with an understanding of their innate desires or lack thereof are dangerous. Not to each other but to the expectation bestowed upon them. The realisation that taking on debt for the purchase of an item under the expectation of an increase in happiness will most likely result in the happiness finishing long before the debt does. It is an addiction. And like all addictions, it needs feeding often. Unfortunately, many addictions aren’t broken until it has consumed the addicts’ life to the point of destitution. It is only with no other options but to tackle the problem is the problem faced. A rock bottom. It isn’t a guaranteed wake up call. Many will increase the mechanisms of escape to hide from the problem.

Ironically, the opposite of addiction is connection. It is the connections made in recovery that has liberated me from my previous life. The fake competition only serves to separate and destroy the connection. There is power in connection. There is movement in collectives. But without an understanding of our moral compass, it is difficult to find out where we belong. My desire is to help. My inner light burns brightest at the service of others. I have tried the materialistic pursuit but was often left wanting. I used to feel guilty. Or think I lacked ambition. Just because I didn’t desire hierarchical dominance. It took years of questioning to finally accept my path. I fought against myself for years. Forcing myself to do things I didn’t want to do. Just in the hope that the things I could buy with the money I earned would bring the happiness I sought. I was often disappointed. I had fun. But it ultimately felt directionless. I will never be rich. But I may be happy. That very notion is difficult to accept. Especially as the last forty years of my life have emphasized the connection of material commodities in the place of real connection to life and the self.

As Shakespeare wrote “To thine own self be true!” How is this possible if we dare not ask who we are?

Charlie.

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle…

My weight crept up on me. Until one day my clothes stopped fitting properly. I didn’t really notice until it became an issue. The same with mental health. If I stop doing the things that keep me balanced and well, then slowly I begin to descend downwards. My thinking gets a little derailed. Eventually, it can become frantic. That’s when I realise I’ve forgotten the little things that keep me well. Maintenance is as important as the hard work of reaching a target. It’s easier to maintain than it is to start all over again.

The things that keep me sane are simple; walking in nature, talking to people, eating well, sleeping well, reading and playing an instrument… Prozac. They are all interlinked. I never slept well when I drank alcohol. I just fell onto my bed and slipped into the darkness of night. I would wake unrefreshed and hungover. It was the norm. It took a while after quitting before I had a good nights sleep. I woke one morning with energy. I couldn’t believe it. For years I’d fallen out of bed and fought the unearthly gravity of my hangover to get my work clothes on. But for the first time, I understood the importance of sleep. That sets me up for the day. 

Even the smallest exercise can be hard when there is no energy. When the world seems dark and life seems hopeless. It can seem like a waste of time. Pointless. But the small steps are what lead to the long journeys. Slight changes make a huge difference. I’ve laid in bed in a low mood, staring at the mess all around, whilst thinking I really should do something about that. I’m so lazy. It just fuels the fire. Inaction breeds a low mood. Something as small as getting up and making the bed has a big effect. Slowly tidying up. Washing the pots. Doing the laundry. It may seem small but at times can feel like gargantuan tasks. By overcoming them it gives a small spike of achievement. The same as going a day without eating crap food. Or setting a target for losing 1lb in weight. Do it 14 times and you lose a stone in weight. The small changes lead to those milestones. But it is the maintaining of those activities that breeds contentment. By not only using those small goals to hit the life goals we can use them to maintain our weight and mental health.

I’ve seen people lose huge amounts of weight in a short time. Which is commendable. I have also seen many of those people put the weight back on. Why? Because they didn’t embed the behaviours to maintain a healthy lifestyle. If people are offering you a quick fix then they will sell you it twice. That’s why it’s important to take small steps. Instead of increasing the pressure by adding expectation in a short amount of time, it is important to nudge ourselves incrementally into healthy patterns over a longer period.

When I lost most of my weight, I was still a functioning alcoholic. I’m not saying that is a wise diet choice. It was a hindrance. I would eat healthily, exercise and then go to the pub and drink ten pints. It took a long time to lose weight and get healthy. It was still possible even in that situation but drinking copious amounts of alcohol would be the first thing I would stop if I was going to lose weight. I would cut down if I could. If I couldn’t I would stop altogether. I’d reward myself in other ways. After I quit drinking, I rewarded myself with a takeaway. Eventually, it didn’t feel like a reward. To be honest feeling good is a reward on its own. Slowly, I naturally favoured fruit and veg. I would drink water instead of drinking soft drinks. I used to think the soft drinks gave me energy. When I started to get healthy I had the energy to burn, naturally. I still enjoy the odd cake or chocolate bat but it is just in balance. I learned years ago by denying myself anything, it would just result in binge eating. So I stave that off by enjoying a protein bar instead of a Mars bar. If I fancy a Mars bar I will have one but not every day. Because it certainly doesn’t help me “Work, rest and play!”

It’s easy to check your weight, step on some scales or look in the mirror naked. That will give you an indication of where you are. But mental health isn’t so easy to check. This is why people usually seek help when the shit hits the fan and it all gets too much. The trick is to check in on ourselves often. Take stock of the inner weather system. It takes courage to approach ourselves. Many people would rather be distracted in bad company than left in their own. It is imperative to listen to the inner dialogue. It is those thoughts that control our decisions. So we must dare to venture to the inner place that often we seek to avoid. The key to this is through meditation. If there is something traumatic then professional help is a must. Or if there is constant chaos or low mood, then a visit to the doctor is advisable. Peace can be obtained. I have explained to people that the moments of inner tranquillity they have experienced in fleeting moments, is possible more often. It just takes a bit of work. A good start is here: Free meditations from Mindfulness – Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World | Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World

It’s difficult, to begin with. The mind can wander away. That’s fine. It takes practice. But it is the key to observing the distracting call of temptation. It is the start to mastering the inner chatter that stops us from pursuing the goals.

One trick I found useful in the early days when my life was a mess, was writing lists of goals. I would stick the lists to my bedroom mirror. This way, I was often reminded of the path I was on. It allowed me to remind myself why I couldn’t spend money frivolously. I would need that money later on to achieve something I had written down. I use the same method for losing weight. I would write a weight goal and then get weighed at the end of every week. If it stagnated then I wouldn’t give myself a hard time. I would just look at what I’d been doing. Had I been slipping? I would check it and keep going. It wasn’t an expectation to lose x amount in x amount of time. It was just to lose x amount of weight.

Maintaining healthy living isn’t as easy as cutting something out for a couple of weeks. It is an incremental change. It is changing the course of your life by slowly changing harmful behaviours. We are creatures of routine. All we have to do is change the pattern of the behaviour that dictates our routines. If it is too difficult to moderate the use of something then it may be a problem and seeking help would be advisable. For example, if you intend to only have a couple of alcoholic drinks but end up drunk more often than not. Then it may be a sign of something more sinister. But that doesn’t mean the spontaneity of life has to be eradicated. It is just about accountability for our own lives and what we consume.

There is an abundance of calorie counting apps and fitness trackers available now. By cutting down on 500 calories a day it is possible to lose 1lb a week. The trouble is people want to lose 10lb in two weeks so they are ready for the next holiday. It doesn’t have to miserable, dieting. It should be rewarding. It should reap positive returns. Not feel like a punishment or deprivation.

‎NHS Weight Loss Plan on the App Store (apple.com)

NHS Weight Loss Plan – Apps on Google Play

Start the NHS weight loss plan – NHS (www.nhs.uk)

Lifesum – Diet Plan, Macro Calculator & Food Diary – Apps on Google Play

‎Lifesum – Diet & Food Diary on the App Store (apple.com)

I’ve seen people on diets save up all their “sins” and binge drink on the weekend and then have a kebab. Then only to be perplexed by the fact it doesn’t work. Little changes reinforce the behaviours that are needed for the maintenance of a healthy life. And that’s what I am talking about here; a healthy balanced life. I have been on either end of the spectrum. I have been obsessed with losing weight and purely gluttonous. Neither made me happy. I am not talking about unrealistic expectations or setting false ideals for people. I am just advocating a healthy lifestyle for the people who can achieve it. And by embedding those behaviours it is possible to enjoy things in life without any negative feelings attached. “Everything in moderation… including moderation.”

If you are looking for some tips or a bit of motivation, I have written about my health journey here; A guide to #wellness

Thanks for reading,

Charlie.

Don’t forget to follow 🙂

A “Pink cloud” in sobriety…

Pink clouding, or pink cloud syndrome, describes a stage of early addiction recovery that involves feelings of euphoria and elation. When you’re in this phase, you feel confident and excited about recovery.

Pink Cloud: The Euphoria of Fresh Sobriety (healthline.com)

I remember clearly the first time it happened. I’d quit drinking for a couple of years, but I was, as known in recovery parlance, “white-knuckling it.” I had returned to AA after finding myself yet again in a cul de sac. The 12 steps helped bring me out. My sponsor helped immensely. It was after about three months of this return that I felt a pink cloud moment.

It was about ten to eight on a Tuesday morning. I had just stepped off the tube train and as my foot hit the platform it was like a vacuum before an explosion. Everything seemed to go quiet. Life seemed to pause as I carried on forward. I felt like I was in exactly the right spot at exactly the right time. For the first time in my life, my mind and body felt aligned. I felt present. In the moment. Within a matter of seconds, it was gone. And the hustle and bustle returned around almost as if it had chased the serenity away. But it was enough. It was an indicator that I was on the right path.

The addict in me wanted more of that feeling. I wanted permanent peace. I wanted an end to my chaotic thinking. It was what I had sought in alcohol and now I had experienced it in sobriety. I was blown away by the fact it could even happen. I’d spent more than a decade drinking copious amounts of alcohol, trying to get that feeling I’d experienced the first time I was drunk. Yet, here it was on an average Tuesday morning. And it hadn’t cost a penny. Not only that but I’d felt it on the way to work. Which most often than not is not my favourite part of the day.

I couldn’t wait to share at the next AA meeting. I couldn’t wait to tell everyone about this moment of divine connection. So I did. With bold optimism and glee, I shared the story. I didn’t know what to expect from the other members of the group. Maybe I wanted some advice on how to prolong the feeling? How to tap into it at will? Or how I could use it? What I got was “don’t worry it will pass.” I wasn’t worried about the feeling. But was now worried about it not returning.

Addiction for me was prolonged periods of bleakness. Of low highs and deep lows. This feeling of elation was a revelation. It made me want to be soberer. I wanted enlightenment. I wanted divinity. I was hooked on sobriety.

It felt like a reward for the hard work. A welcome gift from recovery. One that I could get out and use at will. Alas, it was not to be. I would keep having these moments of bliss intermittently. They would come and go almost randomly. I never experienced any crashing lows like bipolar disorder. Just a return to normality. Each time they came I wanted more. I wanted to prolong the experience and learn from it. But I never could conjure it at will. There have been times that create something close. Walking the Inca trail is one that came closest. An intense feeling of connectedness and silence. Surrounded by beauty and nature. Free from the concrete jungle and the distraction of technology. It made me feel like I did that morning stepping off the tube. Ensconced within the moment. Engulfed in the here and now. Nowhere to be but where I was. I was connected to something greater than myself. What that is? I don’t know. What I do know is that on my return to London, I wanted to cling to the feeling. But by doing so I suffocated it. Slowly it disappeared and the stress of the city seeped back into my soul.

What I learned from this is to stop looking for it. It is a feeling after all. It exists in moments all the time. It is there. Just today walking to the shop, I cut through the park. Just being in nature reminded me of that feeling. That sense of being present. It was calming. It was comforting. If I accept its temporary nature I understand that it will return. The feeling began to wane as soon as I walked back into the busy street. It was like a jarring edit in a video. Designed to get the viewers attention. That it did. But I know in those brief moments, the feeling of serenity exists. The peace I sought in alcohol is ever-present. When I stop looking and start seeing, then I can notice it. The stress and anxiety that fuels the addictive behaviour is part of the addictive behaviour. The feelings are created for the reasons to escape to exist. It is a destructive cycle that gives little but takes a lot, especially peace of mind.

The members of that AA meeting were right, “it will pass!” But it will also return in moments. Brief flashes of beauty remind me why I chose the path I walk. Because away from the madness of seeking answers is where the answers lay. The years of questions asked in a state of tearful drunken confusion have been answered in the quietest moments of acceptance. The peace I sought arrives often enough to remind me it is still there and not to worry.

So if you experience a pink cloud moment. Embrace it. See it as a sign that you are healing not healed. That it isn’t over but the universe/God/each other/whoever is sending a sign that it might not be perfect but it will be better than it has been for a long time.

Charlie.

Photo by Mariajose Vernet from Pexels

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