It didn’t happen overnight. It was a constant downward spiral over many years that lead me to the gates of Hell. One terrible mistake after another. One morally bankrupt decision masked by a lie too many. Each fuck up another step downwards. As the heat rose, I needed more liquid to cool me down. Eventually, there I was. Standing at the gate to hell with nowhere else to go. Initially, I didn’t realise where I was. And when I did, the journey back seemed impossible. So with a heavy heart, I placed my hand on the gate, opened it and reluctantly took a step towards my future. A future of torment and torture. It was the least I deserved I told myself as I made my way inside. Suddenly, I felt a hand fall on my shoulder, pulling me back. I don’t know who it was, my higher self, higher power, intuition, morality, subconscious. Call it what you want but I heard the words “One more chance, Charlie. Waste it and you’re on your own.” I told him I couldn’t make the journey back because I was too weak. “Even if you have to crawl you will make it. Just don’t drink again.” I have to be honest it wasn’t a great offer. I mean it had taken me a long time to get here surely it was going to take me a long time to get back. The path had been littered with hardships, heartache, troubles and woes that I couldn’t imagine facing sober. But, no matter how hard it could be, it had to better than the hell I was destined for.
Man, it was tricky at times. Falling and crawling sometimes to try and get back to the light. Crying and screaming because I didn’t think I could make it. Over time the heat got cooler. The obstacles appeared large from afar but it was just perspective. When they needed to be tackled, I managed it and learned something from each. There were people from the past there who I had to shamefully acknowledge. Behaviour from the past that made me hang my head with guilt. I apologised and fixed what I could as I made my way. I got bruised and my pride took a kicking but I just kept going. Sometimes crawling on my knees sometimes making great strides. It seemed to take a long time but it was never intended to be a race.
One day, the sky was blue, the air was clean and against the odds, I had made it. My knees were scarred and my pride dented but I had made the long journey back. Here is what I learned:
People will treat you how you let them treat you.
Toxic situations do not improve by magic. If nothing changes then nothing changes.
I lived a life based on stories that were now redundant. Stories of how I was told by people I no longer knew. I learned to create my own story.
Life is constant change. Yet, some people will fight change.
Going against the grain takes strength. Strength that is often tested to see if it is genuine. So go to the mirror and tell yourself you are a fucking lion.
People will try to knock you off your positivity perch due to their lack of fortitude. Staying positive is the only response.
Not everyone who stands at the gates of Hell wants to be saved.
All I can do is my best.
Expectations create disappointment.
Not everybody will be happy for me. Nor will they be as interested as I think they will be.
Intuition is invaluable.
Negative emotions will pass and are a great lesson. Although it doesn’t seem so at the time.
Freedom is enviable.
Being clear-minded, calm and composed doesn’t mean everyone else will be. In fact, it enrages some people.
I am only human and still get annoyed. But nowhere near as often as I used to. When I do get annoyed, it doesn’t ruin my entire week. I also have the ability to identify my part and apologise accordingly. The other party/ies may not.
Fear in many forms dominates the lives of many people. Even though most things aren’t as scary as they seem.
Not everything works out the way I want but that doesn’t mean I should stop trying.
Things seem a bigger deal to me sometimes than they do to other people.
Sometimes the journey gets hard and I have to rest, take in my surroundings and appreciate how far I’ve come. This is sometimes overwhelming.
The last journey I took to hell was a long one. I now have an express elevator… one drink! And no hardship is worth that torment. No quick fix is worth the long term damage.
Peering through the fabric of reality Beyond normality disguising mass insanity Like stepping off a treadmill that is in the dark And wandering through a beautiful sun-drenched park
Therein lies the true-life mission Through the mind and into the intuition The constant negative affirmations with which we are bombarded Leaves the ego off centre, anxious and always guarded
To transcend the ego is the only escape And then the old ideals will dissipate A new age can be dawned From which a new society can be born
With love, compassion and gratitude Not self-entitled, hedonistic childlike attitudes Liberation from anxiety and depression Removal of manipulative covert oppression
The worrying will finally cease And amazingly the mind will be at peace And as the consciousness begins to shift The pressure of life begins to ease and lift
Consumerism offers an external solution to an internal problem Liberation from the ego allows a relationship with the true self to blossom. Enables the courage for you to be you The realisation of your true value
The dark parts of our lives are treated like a wounded soul And fixing that darkness is the ultimate goal But the darkness is part of the human psyche And the acceptance of our whole self is key
Because when we view the darkness as another part of us We are complete and can embrace ourselves and one another with love We accept that all humans are imperfect and we are not broken We then peer through the veil of reality for we have awoken.
Towards the end of my drinking days, I would drink to blackout six days a week. I didn’t do seven because if I could go without alcohol one day a week then I didn’t have a problem. That was the reasoning. In the light of sobriety, the excuses I made were madness but my entire life was madness then. The chaos that consumed my every waking thought was tiring. This, coupled with terrible sleep, meant that I floated through life like a spirit. I believed that’s how people functioned. Everyone had their vices. Some gambled. Some did illegal drugs. Some used food. Some prescription medication. All just trying to escape life even for a second. Just to get a breather. To switch off reality and just find a bit of peace. But it never lasts. It’s like the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan when an explosion goes off and the guy is in a state of confusion. Numbed to his surroundings. Unsure of where he is yet the war still rages around him.
I accepted that as life. Convinced that it was meant to be that way; living in a state of unhappy numbness and seeking pleasure to alleviate my mood. I didn’t dare to attempt to change it. I just tried to escape through drink that’s how I ended up drinking six days a week. The war doesn’t stop, the fighting gets more intense and to block it out takes more alcohol. I just wanted to escape, myself and my life.
What I’ve learned in sobriety is that most of the wars that rage around me aren’t my wars. Most of the battles being fought aren’t for me. The chaos that follows people around like a needy child can be avoided but people don’t know. They, like I once did, believe that is how life is meant to be. It isn’t. The calmness I sought through mood-altering substances was available when I quit mood-altering substances. The problems I sought to escape from have been the GREATEST lessons of my sobriety. Perversely, the hardships have been necessary for me to learn. Imagine that! The things I tried to avoid were the things I needed to go through to develop.
My mother underwent brain surgery whilst I was in recovery. I wanted a drink soooo bad. It would have made the pain go away. It wouldn’t have got her out of the hospital. I made it through and thankfully so did she. I’ve experienced rejection, hardships, sacrifice and emotional turmoil in sobriety. All painful. All valuable. I wouldn’t be who I am without them. Life is hard. Very hard for some. Yet, the darkest days of sobriety are still brighter than most of the days when I was drinking.
Emotional pain isn’t preferable but it is a valuable lesson and shouldn’t be avoided. Once it has passed I have learned and grown from the experience. Avoiding emotional pain is only prolonging the agony. When I couldn’t afford to drink and suppress my problems anymore the demons came out in force to torment me. Escaping from problems is like escaping from prison; you’re always watching your back because you know someday they’ll catch up with you. So dealing with problems becomes the quickest way to peace.
Where I once saw chaos and drama as another means of dopamine. I now see it as a breach of my serenity. I began to identify the people who are “chaos creators,” and “Emotional vampires.” I would give them a wide berth. I learned to erect boundaries, were before I was trampled on. Life became simpler and more enjoyable. My mind went from toxic to tranquil. I began to feel alive, in tune and vibrant. I used to believe that living a peaceful life was tantamount to dying. That calm was boring and that chaos was life. Living a straight line doesn’t mean to flatline, it means the mind is at rest.
Having spent most of my life fighting to stay afloat in a torrent of negative and toxic thinking, I struggled to come to terms with contentment. The clarity and peace that came with sobriety felt undeserved. I didn’t believe I deserved to be happy. Even when I had learned that I was the bastion of my mind, I still couldn’t come to terms with the light that now shone internally. I felt like a fraud and an imposter. Like I would get found out at any moment and it would all come crashing down. Unbelievably, the opposite happened. I got stronger, calmer and more content. It still arises from time to time but now I see them as a reminder of how far I have progressed. Even now, five years later as I walk into a new chapter of my life that I have consciously written, I cannot help but ask the question “Why me?” “Why did I manage to escape?” “How did I manage to break free?” The answers are clear, yet the questions still persist. I managed to escape because I didn’t pick up a drink. I didn’t pick up a drink because that is the fast lane back to the torrent of shit! I know because I tried. I tried because I didn’t think I could be happy without alcohol. NOTHING could be further from the truth. Even if happiness does take some getting used to.
So now when I question my happiness in sobriety and think “Do I really deserve this?” The answer is “Yes, we all do.”
The video that inspired this blog is worth a watch:
Halfway between towns. In a field. Hiking up a hill in the driving rain and cold constant wind. I can’t help but think Why did I do this?
I had foolishly agreed to walk the length of Hadrian’s hall in northern England with some friends. At the point of regret, we had walked 44 miles over the two days before and were now 11 miles into the day that would end up being 26 miles and 347 flights of stairs. In total, we would end up walking 108 miles over 5 days.
All I could think was surely there will be somewhere to stop soon as I continued to march forward, my mood elevated momentarily by the delectable scenery being served up causing me to stop and admire in awe. Soon the wind began to force itself into my core, causing a shiver and driving me onwards in the hope of re-engaging my internal heating system. This continued for another ten miles or three hours in time. By which time I was tired, cold and hungry. There had been no shelter in that time. No rest bite. No option other than to keep going in the hope that something would change. And you know what? It did. Out of nowhere, there was a man selling coffee and hot chocolate. I couldn’t tell you how good that chocolate tasted but I do know that it was hot and that was more than enough. The hot chocolate man lent us a pair of gloves and asked us to drop them off at the next town. Which we dutifully did.
The rain and wind stopped. Completely. The last five miles of walking were glorious. So much so that by the time we reached the next town our clothes were dry. At the time there was no energy for reflection as it was spent on the gratitude for a warm shower but a couple of days have passed and I think that I learned a couple of things:
1) There are often beauty and positives to be found even in unforgiving situations.
2) We have a lot more resilience than we give ourselves credit for. Addicts I mean. We survived this long through a torrent of shit. We should use that strength to our benefit.
3) Asking for help is fine but sometimes we have to rely on our strength to keep going. Sometimes there is no shelter from the shit and nobody can help you out. Your only option is to keep going one step at a time, one mile at a time and before you know it you are through it.
4) Good company will make the journey seem a lot better even if you are digging deep.
5) Life can change so quickly. Like the weather. We never know what is around the corner no matter how much we wish we did. Sometimes the sun comes out when you least expect it. Just like it did at the end of that day.
I couldn’t have walked that distance when I drank alcohol. I would have dismissed it as a waste of time. When really I would have been fearful of failing. On the 1st of June 2019, I haven’t touched alcohol for five years. And like that 26-mile walk in the pissing down rain, with aches and pains, it has been difficult but on reflection, I have learned so much and achieved so much. Just one foot in front of the other. One mile at a time. Eventually, I made it and so can you.
I spent most of my nights in the pub. Duped by some ludicrous delusion. The promise of greater things lead me to the trap. Every night I would fall for it. The next day I would vow not to fall for it again. Yet with symptoms similar to amnesia I would stagger back, thinking this all feels familiar. Days blended into weeks and then into years. My life spiralled out of control. I said “Never again…” but it always happened again. The allure pulling me back. That intoxicating brew. Devastation masquerading as a solution.
Until one day, it all got too much. Betrayal. The beer siren had lied to me. Cheated me out of so much. Like a jilted lover I was hurt. My heart was broken. I had nothing left. Alcohol had taken it all.
Broken and battered like the survivor of a shipwreck. I wretched and vomited. I shivered and cried. Happy to be alive. Frustrated at having nothing. Lost and scared. I had washed up on a beach. The island of sobriety. My clothes were torn and tattered. My mind scattered and fragmented.
In the early days of sobriety, I went to work during the day and sat at home at night. Constantly thinking “I want a drink.” followed by “I can’t have a drink.” It wasn’t fun. It was hard.
After six weeks it stopped. Well, it calmed down and the new thought “I am bored,” plagued me. Boredom was a trigger for me to drink so this is when I reached out for help but I think it was a turning point. It was the point that allowed me to stay sober. To use the Island analogy; I could sit on the beach waiting to starve or I could take action to try and make life resemble something close to normality.
When I got bored, I got busy.
I started new hobbies. I am not a huge people person so I chose things that kept me engaged and challenged. I read a shit ton of books. I learned musical instruments. I wrote. I made plans. I dreamed. I travelled. I meditated. I exercised. I loved and I lived. Eventually, I forgot about those beer sirens.
It is often said that a day sober is a successful day. In the early days, it was because I couldn’t comprehend doing anything else. But eventually I needed to do something with my sobriety.
We feel a man is unthinking when he says that sobriety is enough.
Big Book of AA
Boredom is our bodies way of telling us that it needs stimulation. Like a rumbling tummy when we’re hungry. So listen to the boredom and start living, learning, loving, growing, reaching out, meditating and exercising.
Sobriety gave me the time to do all the things I wanted to do when I was younger but was too scared to do. It took time though. To overcome the boredom I had to try new things. In order to try new things I had to overcome the fear of failure that held me back.
Often said as “False Evidence Appearing Real,” fear was the warden in the prison of my misery for many years. So strong was the psychological manipulation of the fear, I believed I was worthless and every attempt to break free of this misery, would fail. Slowly fear crushed my spirit. Inebriation was my only escape. It remained this way for a long time.
For me, the fear worked in a way that would stop me from attempting… anything. I became so terrorised by the fear that at the mention of trying something new my brain would go into overdrive. It would produce all the possible negative outcomes. Everything that could go wrong. It would paint me a picture of how people would laugh when I failed. How I would feel embarrassed. So I would decline, politely and return to the bar, my prison. The warden’s arm around me and his poisonous words in my ear.
The first goal I set was don’t drink. This is when I began to realise that I was the creator of the fear. I began to feel cheated. Cheated out of years of life. Years that I hadn’t lived because of a fucking illusion. An illusion that I was worthless and would never succeed. I had spent nearly twenty years of my life believing a story that wasn’t true. I HAD to prove it wrong.
In early sobriety, the fear was in full force, whispering in my ear; “You’ll be alone,” “You’ll have no friends,” “You’ll do nothing,” “A pariah,” “People will laugh,” “What are you going to say when people ask you why you don’t drink?” “Just do what you always do and give in before you try.” But I had a point to prove. I wanted to see what I was made of. Fuck it. I’d failed at life by not trying. I literally had nothing to lose.
After a stretch of not drinking, I felt stronger. Initially, I didn’t believe that I could do it but I just kept going. I was so proud of myself. Then, when I felt strong enough, I started building an escape plan.
A step at a time. A week at a time. A year at a time. A bill at a time. Life became manageable and I became unmanageable to the fear. It lost its power over me.
I’ve since learned, there are two types of fear; rational and irrational. Rational fear is the belief that there is a tiger in the grass and it is going to eat you. If you are in an area where you have seen a tiger there before then this makes sense. If you are walking through Oxford Street then it doesn’t. It is irrational. The latter is what held me captive for so long.
In a few months, I am going to embark on a journey of a lifetime. It would not have been possible if I was still held captive by fear. I would have talked myself out of it but thankfully I no longer waste my time with “False Evidence Appearing Real.” I much prefer the Ian Brown acronyms from the song F.E.A.R; “Fantastic Expectations, Amazing Revelations,” & “Free Expression As Revolution,” because that’s what life has become; a revolution of free expression and amazing revelations.
I was sixteen years old when this question first had weight behind it. In my head, it had been translated to “What do you want to do for the next fifty years of your life until you retire?” I didn’t know. All I knew was that I wanted to see the world, explore and learn. All of those were forgotten until twenty-one years later. When I finally regained my freedom and started following my dreams.
The question, “What do you want to do for a living?” was the start of adulthood or as I like to think of it “The signing of a social contract.” That social contract came with proposed security, promises of reward for hard work and happiness. In exchange for, servitude, social conformity and getting in debt. I didn’t know this at the time I just lived my life, paid my bills and drank alcohol on the weekend to have fun.
The anxiety-inducing question that sent shock waves through me. Once I had a job, could afford to cover my basic human needs were met and could afford some unnecessary items. Now what?
“Replace the things you have with newer things!”
That was the solution that was offered to me. Nobody really knew the answer. A few people had dreams but those dreams had become unachievable due to them not having time or money. Usually down to the fact they had a car they couldn’t quite afford or a mortgage larger than they really needed. Because when they got to a position of asking “Now what?” they realised it was time to step up to a bigger house. Rinse and repeat.
“If you do what everyone else does, you will get what everyone else gets.”
My solution was to try and not think about it. Alcohol switched off the part of my conscience that posed those questions. I was blissfully ignorant to my life being pointlessly, pissed away. The real kicker is that I was miserable as fuck but had no idea how to get out. I would spend my evenings drinking and talking about a life I wasn’t living. Endlessly talking in childlike awe of wondrous places like Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat and the Taj Mahal. These places that were visited by other people but not by me. I would bemoan my life. I would blame everyone for my situation. I would say that it wasn’t my fault.
When I stopped drinking, I stopped passing the blame and started taking responsibility for my life. I wasn’t happy because I wasn’t being true to myself. I wasn’t being true to myself because I was scared of living. It was easier to drink my woes away in a bar than to face them, deal with them and move past them. Drinking numbed me to my worries but it also numbed me to life. It washed away my woes but it took my joy with it. When I hit rock bottom I had no other choice but to step up to the plate. My problems came pouring back. Magnified and demanding their pound of flesh.
Sobriety was not the end for me. Sobriety was the awakening to the reality that I needed to change in order to live a life more in line with how I wanted. It was the clarity to plan the changes needed and the courage to go through with them. Giving up alcohol was the freedom to focus my efforts towards a better life.
First, I needed to clear my debt. A UK politician once said “A man in debt is a slave to his manager,” and I have to agree. Once the shackles of alcohol began to loosen I noticed the other shackles that were holding me back. My debt was keeping me financially unstable which caused more anxiety and fear. It was also limiting my freedom.
The plan: I owed £4500 on a credit card and £15,000 on a loan.
To give you an indication of paying back that £4500 credit card debt:
Paying £70 a month off the credit card would mean that it would take me approximately sixteen years to pay of the debt and it would have cost nearly £9000 extra in interest.
Next, I took out a £15,000 loan over five years. The interest rate was higher then than it is now. It was about 10% then. Now it is about 3%, it is a perfect time to get out of debt. Many people think “Ohhh debt is cheap I’ll get more.” Which is fine if it is used wisely but I had turned my debt into alcohol and drank it all. I refinanced the loan after two years when the balance was lower and decreased the number of years to keep the repayments the same.
Spending money is a habit
Working a job to buy shit I didn’t need in the hope of finding happiness wasn’t working for me. The more entrenched in that life I got the more miserable I became. The more miserable I became the more alcohol I consumed, the more sugar, fat and salt I ate and the more shit I bought. Something had to change.
Every Friday, I would think “I have worked hard this week, I deserve a treat,” and would order a takeaway. Usually, after eating the takeaway, I would feel bad. Not guilty just uncomfortable from the sugar, fat and salt. Eventually, it dawned on me that it wasn’t a treat all. I had just been using a reward system that had bestowed upon me. The same reward system that kept me drinking every night under the pretence “I’ve worked hard I deserve it.” I should buy shit because I’ve been good/worked hard/feel down, the approach is the same to them all. I had to rewire those habits (I’ve talked about changing habits here https://fromthebarstooltothebeach.com/2019/07/13/my-sobriety-health-and-well-being-toolbox/) by doing something different until the feeling to treat myself was no longer there. The same with spending money; I had to resist the urge to buy shit I didn’t need. I got into a position where I could choose what I bought. Did I need it? Or did I want it? Could I afford it? I did this by setting goals and reminding myself that the choices I’d made previously hadn’t worked.
It took me a year to start seeing real financial improvements. Enough that I could go on a holiday to Italy without having to borrow money to go. A great feeling. The clearing of debt for me was cathartic. Closure on a previous life. I needed to get rid of the debt because I had planned to take some time off work to travel. A dream I’d had for years. So I needed to minimise my outgoings. If you want to be free from debt then you have to retrain your spending habits.
“Less is more.” It took me years to realise by buying less I would have more options. It also took me years to pay off the debt and liberate myself from the consequences of following a path to self-destruction disguising as liberation. I had chipped away at my debt, made sacrifices and stuck to the task. After five years, I was free of personal debt.
Quitting drinking, stopping borrowing money and stopping over consuming allowed me to reverse the problems I had encountered. It also gave me the financial and mental freedom to choose a path of my own creation. To create a life that was more of a reflection of my inner desires. A life that allowed me to feed my spiritual, creative and physical pursuits instead of shutting them down.
You can have anything but you cannot have everything.
Alcoholism took my freedom of choice away. Debt did the same. Now, after five years of sobriety and finally clearing my debt. I have visited many of the places I used to talk about whilst propping up the bar; Angkor Wat, Taj Mahal, Machu Picchu and many more. I am on course to take six months off work and see the things I used to dream about; The Grand Canyon, Teotihuacan, Chichen Itza, The Great Pyramid of Giza and Petra. It has taken perseverance and sacrifice but it has been worth it. It truly has become a life beyond my wildest dreams.
I can’t remember exactly when I made Machu Picchu my desktop wallpaper on my PC but it was before I stopped drinking. It was in a time of my life when places like Machu Picchu were fantasy destinations. Places that others were destined to visit but not me. I was destined to prop up a bar somewhere, bemoaning the fact I couldn’t visit places like Machu Picchu.
That was, of course, until I quit drinking. Now, after four and a half years of sobriety, I was crossing the Urubamba River and making my way along the Inca trail which winds its way to Machu Picchu. The excitement I felt was a welcome relief after having spent a few days on a cold hotel bathroom floor, cuddling the toilet, vomiting, shivering and questioning my life choices. Thankfully, it was due to altitude sickness and not a hangover. It was a great reminder of those drinking days, though. Where praying to the porcelain God was an all too often occurrence.
The guides with us were beginning to unravel their tales about the Incas. They must have told those stories thousands of times but their words still crackled with energy and excitement. I guess it’s difficult to get bored of work when your office is the Inca Trail. I was hanging on their every word, whilst trying to take in as much of the scenery as I could.
These are the experiences I got sober for. Sobriety allowed me to be present and grateful.
Eventually, we came upon Patallacta. I had seen numerous terraces whilst we were in Peru but standing looking over the ruins was my first real experience of how efficient the style of living was. It looked as though everything the residents of the Town needed would be made or grown there. We stood for a while and I tried to imagine what it would have been like when it was a living and breathing place. I had seen what they wore and imagined the place bustling with life but I could not even begin to imagine what day to today living was like.
We carried on walking until we reached Wayllabamba camp where we would be stopping for the night. When we arrived at the camp, the porters, these miracles of men, had set up everything for us. This was after carrying all of the equipment to start with. I have to admit it’s a little shameful as someone who professes to have a reasonable level of physical fitness to be passed walking up a hill by a man carrying a full rucksack that he could probably fit inside.
The porters had even provided some warm water to wash our faces and some drinking water for us on arrival. The food that was prepared by the chef was of high quality considering we were camping and his equipment was minimal.
After dinner, we sat chatting and drinking tea. It was a welcome return to simplicity. Being present without the addictive pull of technology as a distraction was also a nice change. Although, I have to admit I felt a slight withdrawal from the addictive tech that fills my life. I was asleep early and slept soundly thanks to the silence that surrounded us.
The following day we were woken by the porters for breakfast which was waiting for us. The camaraderie between them was evident and I’m sure that’s what helps get them through. That and the cocoa leaves.
A few members of the group were concerned about this day due to the 4,198m altitude and the climb to get the peak affectionately known as Dead Woman’s Pass, due to its resemblance. I was looking forward to the challenge. Quietly confident that I would be okay. That was until we started the climb and every step felt like a flight of stairs due to the lack of oxygen. Again being passed by a man carrying a massive bag is somewhat disheartening.
Eventually, we made it to the top and were greeted with fantastic views… of clouds. But it was so peaceful. I would have liked to have sat a little longer but the cold began to seep into my bones, so I had to keep moving.
When we got to the camp the porters were just setting up the tents so we hadn’t done too bad for time. We tried to help but they refused and made us a cup of tea instead. Which I drank gratefully whilst looking at the wonderful views and enjoyed the peaceful atmosphere. I began to feel a sense of calm by this point of the trail. The manic, hustle and bustle of city living faded away to leave me feeling serene.
Again, we enjoyed a fantastic meal, whilst chatting and taking in the stories from the guides. Another early night as my body clock found some sort of normality in the naturally dark and serene surroundings.
After breakfast and refilling our drinks canisters we started our hike for the day. After a couple of climbs, we entered the delightfully named Cloud Forest. Which was densely grown and filled with a variety of plants and trees. Thankfully, there were two botanists in our group so I was firing questions at them like an inquisitive child.
We passed through a tunnel that was carved through the solid rock. It demonstrated the lengths that the builders went to to ensure that their path made it to the destination. A wonderful metaphor for the obstacles we encounter on our journey through life.
We were soon greeted with the ruins of Phuyupatamarca, the city above the clouds. Which unfortunately was the city IN the clouds when we arrived but at the altitude we were at it was to be expected.
We continued until the trail opened up to reveal another ruin, Winay Wayna. Sitting on a steep hillside and looking out over the Urubamba Valley, the ruins demonstrated how the Incas made the mountain their own whilst also harmonising with it. Like most of the Inca trail, I found it peaceful and spellbinding.
We sat for a while as the guide shared his stories about the history of the Incas and how the history we are told is created by western culture. “How can those people tell me how my people lived?” It was a welcome relief to hear someone say “We don’t know how a lot of things happened.” The guide explained about the Incan Goddess, Pachamama, the embodiment of Earth, Water, Sun and Moon. Which made sense to worship as those things are visible and bring life. The guide talked about the Spanish invasion and the end of many indigenous ways.
Due to a combination of the scenery, the days without technology and the stories the guide was telling about Pachamama my mind began to wander. Thinking about how we are raised in certainty. The stories we are told in school are absolutes. Our way of living is the right way. It dawned on me that the egocentric nature of certain cultures throughout history has had a devastating impact on the planet and each other. The cultures that showed gratitude and sorrow for the things they took from the planet were destroyed for not wanting to adopt the “Right” ways. Now, hundreds of years later we reflect on our childlike approach and realise that it has had a huge impact. Almost as if our technological advancement outweighed our emotional advancement. Just children with weapons. It dawned on me that just because I believe something doesn’t make it true. Although we will fight people to protect our beliefs purely on the basis that we believe them to be true. The same arrogance that kept me in denial. Shackled to addiction. Chained to the bar. Refusing to admit my problem even though it was killing me. It wasn’t until I’d lost everything that I was prepared to try another approach and open my eyes. Maybe that’s the depths humanity will have to reach before changes are made.
The guide made an offering of a few of his best Cocoa leaves to Pachamama to ask for good luck on our journey to Machu Picchu.
Deep in thought, I made my way to Winay Wayna camp.
After dinner, we were presented with a delightful cake that the chef had baked as it was the last night, which was a remarkable achievement.
I went to bed that night deep in thought about what the guide had said. Every place I have visited in sobriety has taught me a new lesson. Each new experience has knocked the sharp edges off me and broadened my world view.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
We were up at dawn to make the final journey to Machu Picchu. After we said goodbye to the porters, who wouldn’t be making the journey with us, we proceeded onward. The journey to this point had been mind-expanding and so calming but Machu Picchu was the place I used to dream of. Soon I would be there.
Arriving at the sun gate, I climbed the steep steps fuelled by the excitement of seeing Machu Picchu for the first time. To be greeted at the top with a view of nothing but clouds was a big disappointment. All that distance travelled and now I wouldn’t see the famed site from this perfect vantage point. I had heard that many people saw the same thing, so it was partly expected. I sat and reflected for a while, as I tried to catch my breath after those monstrous steps. Suddenly, there was a slight cheer and applause that grew in volume.
I looked across to see that the clouds above Machu Picchu had cleared just enough to see the iconic city in the sky. It was like a gift from Pachamama. I felt overwhelmed with gratitude and had to fight back the tears, as awe sent a tingle down my spine.
I have tried to write many times the feeling I got being there. How the energy created by the people around me felt. A dream. A gift from sobriety. The best explanation I could come up with:
If you stared at perfection would perfection describe it? Would there be words in the entirety of known language to be able to articulate it? Wouldn’t the moment constrict your throat and demand to be appreciated? Words dancing on your tongue mockingly; knowing their own limitations. Emotions demanding to be expressed but bubbling and dying as the moment consumes all facalties. The brain manages to force a inhalation, a single breath… A gasp. This is the sound that expresses what words cannot. That is the sound of the brain forcing itself to not be starved of oxygen and to force survival. Because the moment you are experiencing becomes so overwhelming that survival becomes secondary. Consumed by beauty, debilitated by wonder, no words can express that feeling.
I said thank you. To who? I don’t know. Pachamama? God? The universe? Myself? The porters? The guides? The Incas? The weather? The people who have helped me along the way? Probably a combination of them all. It is all those things combined that made it possible. Life is a journey we walk together but experience alone.
We continued towards Machu Picchu. This was “Pinch me” time. I had climbed down from a barstool and made a journey back from hell. I was now being rewarded with my dreams.
As we got closer the crowds grew larger, which was something I hadn’t accounted for. A small percentage of visitors walk the Inca Trail. So there had been times where we hadn’t seen anyone outside of our group for a couple of hours. The crowds were an unwelcome return. Especially after not showering for four days but the stillness of the Inca trail resided within, so patience was abundant and necessary.
The guide explained the various theories of who built Machu Picchu, how it was built and why. Whoever built it, it is a remarkable achievement of engineering achievement and demonstrates what humans are capable of when they work together on a common goal. I wandered around for a few hours, just looking at the brickwork and the views. The builders certainly knew how to pick a location.
I stayed for as long as possible and didn’t want to leave when it was time to go. I noticed a variety of stonework that was created to a different quality. Almost as if created by different builders. Some of the finishes were of unbelievable quality and the tolerances they worked to were minuscule. It is either a site built by a lost technology or we are doing ourselves a great disservice as we have far more potential than we are using. Potential that is diminishing all the time as our dependence on technology replaces our natural ability.
I would have loved to go back the following day and have another look but our tour pressed on.
Even though it was only a few days hike and a day visiting Machu Picchu, the experience will stay with me. It was a profoundly spiritual experience and my view of the world has been changed because of it. Which are the reasons why I travel and the reason why I got sober. In the five years since quitting drinking, I have learned so much about myself and the world. It has been a great journey and the Inca trail was a fantastic part of that. It confirmed that my decision to quit drinking was the right one.
Alcohol stole my freedom. Sobriety gifted it back.
Thanks for reading,
I walked the Inca Trail as part of a larger tour called Absolute Peru which I booked through GAdventures. The tour was very good but the Inca Trail was mind blowing.
By nature, I’m a cynic. Suspicious to the point of paranoia and an ardent demander for proof. For years, I would pooh-pooh spirituality as new age commercialisation of archaic practices. I still believe some are but I cannot deny that gratitude and spirituality have transformed my outlook exponentially.
In my drinking days, I was angry. Not violent. Just angry at everyone and everything. I thought the odds were stacked against me and life hated me. I was closed off emotionally and just wanted to be left alone to drink.
In sobriety that has changed; life doesn’t seem as difficult now and the world doesn’t seem as dark as it did. All of which is down to a change of outlook. So I apologise if it comes across as preachy, that wasn’t my intention.
Here are ten things I’ve learned from sobriety and travel: 😊
1) In the western world, water is readily available to the majority of people. This is an outstanding benefit that is often taken for granted. Every time I run the tap to get a drink I say thank you. To whom? I don’t know. What I do know, is that it keeps me grounded and which in turn reminds me what is important in life; friends, family, love, adventure, altruism. It also keeps my problems in perspective as it is a reminder that I am so lucky compared to the 2.5 billion people that go without proper sanitation and even more lucky the 780 million people that don’t have clean water at all.
2) Over the last forty years, there has been a rhetoric that we are individuals and that whatever happens to us is a result of our own actions. This is only partly true. Many things are out of our control and yet we cling to the belief that if we just try to control things a little bit harder then everything will be alright. The saying goes “If you are trying to control everything, then you are at war with everything”.
3) If 10 years ago, I was offered the life I lead now I would have flatly refused on the basis it sounded boring. Sitting in the sun and reading books? Or walking in the woods? Where is the hedonism? Where is the chaos? Where is the fun? Because I believed that those things brought entertainment to my empty life. Now I think they bring disruption to my peaceful life. Drama is for the television, not my life. But on reflection the drinking life was boring. The cyclic mundanity of bouncing from work, pub and home in a zombified state. In sobriety, I have spent a lot of uncomfortable time with myself but eventually, it happened. The world seemed brighter and my head wasn’t such a scary place to visit anymore. I hear people say “I can’t meditate,” and you know what neither could I when I started. Maybe, people think it’s a quick fix solution much like the delusion reading a 300-page self-help book will transform your life. If you don’t keep working at change then those new behaviours won’t be written over the old ones.
4) We are constantly bombarded with messages about happiness… No, wait. We are constantly bombarded with messages explaining why we are; too fat, too thin, too old, not old enough. That our car, phone, shoes, suit, etc etc are out of date and by proxy so are we. This is the commodification of happiness. In my humble opinion, happiness is a marketing word used to sell shit that people don’t need. A by-product of which has resulted in people believing that they have to be constantly happy. This is further compounded by the illusionary lives of social media. I say fuck finding happiness. Find yourself and happiness will follow. You are happiness. You are complete and always have been. You have so much to give that even a fraction of that potential would make you realise how wonderful you are. So close the Amazon app, get a glass of water and revel in the simplistic beauty of sobriety. You are all you ever needed.
5) Test yourself. You’ll be surprised by what you will achieve. That picture you wanted to paint? Paint it. To hell with the fact it isn’t the Sistine Chapel. That book you wanted to write? Write it. If you had time to drink alcohol then you have time to develop those skills. There is no failure. Only opportunities to learn and grow.
6) The shit from the past will hold you back like being tied to a bolder. The only way to make it lighter is to start to chip away at it. Piece by piece it breaks down until it is no longer bothersome. It doesn’t matter where you start to chip away, just start somewhere. The feeling that being freed from this weight gives is amazing.
7) I have never been to prison but it often felt like I was. The pub was my cell and my workplace was the yard. Exacerbated by the debt that tied my wrist like a tether, I was trapped. Clearing as much debt as possible and stopping drinking made me feel like I had dug a tunnel and pulled off the great escape. The pleasure that was offered by the products I got into debt to purchase was far outweighed by the anxiety induced by the precarious financial situation it placed me in. Freedom from addiction emboldens. So does freedom from debt.
8) In Eastern cultures, when people are feeling low they do something for someone else. In the west, when we feel low we do something for ourselves. We usually buy something for ourselves. When the effects of the act of the thing we do for ourselves has worn off we do it again and thus a cycle is born. By performing an act of altruism it helps maintain relationships, improve mental health and gives a sense of purpose. While also improving self-esteem. What’s not to like about that?
9) Walking in nature is another natural way to improve mental wellbeing with the bonus of the exercise. The calming effect of this simple thing is wonderful and I try to have it in my weekly routine.
10) Life is short. Put on your favourite song. Dance, sing, smile, laugh. Overcoming addiction is hard. Life is mental, balancing life and navigating its pitfalls is hard. I assure you it is easier sober. So keep going. No matter how difficult sobriety seems to be, keep going. Don’t let a splash of rain ruin the parade.
I don’t know if any of this makes sense or is of any use but I found I had to change my outlook to stay sober. So far it’s working 🙂
All our energy is spent for the purpose of getting what we want, and most people never question the premise of this activity: that they know their true wants. They do not stop to think whether the aims they are pursuing are something they themselves want. In school they want to have good marks, as adults they want to be more and more successful, to make more money, to have more prestige, to buy a better car, to go places, and so on. Yet when they do stop to think in the midst of all this frantic activity, this question may come to their minds: “If I do get this new job, if I get this better car, if I can take this trip–what then? What is the use of it all? Is it really I who wants all this? Am I not running after some goal which is supposed to make me happy and which eludes me as soon as I have reached it?” These questions, when they arise, are frightening, for they question the very basis on which man’s whole activity is built, his knowledge of what he wants. People tend, therefore, to get rid as soon as possible of these disturbing thoughts.
Erich Fromm, Fear of freedom (1941)
I remember standing in the smoke shelter of a power station somewhere in the Midlands, UK. I was twenty-six years old and the other person there was explaining in great detail the intricacies of the car they had just bought. I could see it from where we were stood, parked in the carpark and gathering coal dust from the heaps of coal all around that was waiting to be turned to electricity.
“How much was it?” I asked
“Thirty thousand,” he said
“Why did you pay thirty thousand pound for a car?” I asked.
“Because I like it,” he said.
“But you work twelve hours a day to pay for it. For twelve hours a day, it’s parked here gathering coal dust and then you drive it home?” I said.
“What’s the matter with you?” he said.
That’s when I realised it was a con job. Life I mean. An absolute blag. A culture of artificially implanted desires that lead us down roads of supposed happiness yet to be met with disappointment. I was working eighty-four hours a week at that time and was being paid quite well for it but I was miserable. I should have been happy; I had money and I could buy things but felt trapped. I was drinking heavily every night. My life had become a cycle of work, drink, sleep, repeat. Months passed by without me realising. Life was passing me by.
That conversation about the car made me think about what I wanted from life. I have a finite time on this planet to do something. Something, I hoped more than working my entire existence away under the belief that I would be free when I retire. I have been promised freedom at every step; when I left school when I got a job etc but every new phase of life comes with its chains that bind. Addiction being the worse. So if I wanted to find freedom then I had to remove the hooks of the chains.
I have to come to think that the external consumption model exists to plug an internal void. To mask an uneasy question. To make life seem a little more colourful even for a moment. For example; I drank excessively because I hated my life and myself. I hated myself because I didn’t have the strength to change my life. So I kept telling myself if I worked more, earned more and drank more it would get better. It only got worse. A lot worse. The same could be said of buying things; if you are unhappy with the shit you own then you will sure as hell be unhappy with the shit you buy. If that is the case, then maybe the problem isn’t an external one. It could be argued that the external is a reflection of the internal.
On my commute in the morning, I stand on a crowded tube that is bereft of colour. The only colour that exists is splattered on the adverts that line the sides of the tube train. Children and adults alike adorn their uniforms of conformity disguised as professionalism. We are a culture repressed. Seeking excitement externally while fearful of our minds. As we age we are weaned of creativity. Our existence is one of production not pleasure. The only pleasure we are encouraged to seek just happens to deaden our desire to live or increase our productivity at work; Nicotine, sugar, caffeine, alcohol, opium-based pain killers, anti-everything tablets. You get the idea.
Russell Brand said, “Drugs and alcohol are not my problems, reality is my problem, drugs and alcohol are my solutions.” I would argue that yearning for reality was my problem. Yearning for life. Yearning for meaning, beauty and connection. Like the quote at the beginning says I used alcohol to rid those disturbing thoughts. Alcohol switched off that yearning but made me into automaton.
The feeling of being deadened to life becomes the accepted norm. Yet sobriety has taught me otherwise.
So I say throw off the shackles. Dust off the paintbrushes. Throw colour into your life. Embrace your eccentricities and be true to who you are. Life’s too short to live as someone else. I mean whose life is it anyway?
What I was doing was staring into the nearly empty glass in my hand.
“Thinking,” was my reply.
“What about?” she asked.
“Nothing important. Can I have another pint?” I said, before finishing the remainder of the lager in my glass.
The barmaid brought the drink over and I paid with a gruff “Thanks.” She took my money and went to the till. I returned to my staring. I was alone. I felt alone.
The barmaid didn’t ask me the question again when she returned with my change. She just left it on the bar. My answer “Nothing important,” hadn’t been completely truthful. I knew what I was thinking about I just didn’t think she would understand or that she could help. The chaotic storm that blew constantly in my mind was not for the faint of heart and had I began to explain, I would have come apart at the seams. Almost as if it only became real if I vocalised it. Keeping it internal meant that I could continue to live a charade. A charade that only I believed. To any curious observer, it was apparent that my life was a complete fucking mess. That’s what the thoughts were about “How the fuck do I get out of this mess?” I couldn’t escape it. I drank until the questions in my mind stopped being asked. When the storm died down I could relax.
I remember the moment in the bar because it was the first time I had got to last orders and the questions were still there. The storm had not abated in my mind. The drinking didn’t switch it off anymore. The miracle cure turned out to be snake oil and the salespeople had long since departed with my money. I was fucked. My problems were queuing up and waiting for their turn to give me a good kick in. I was scared. I didn’t think I was strong enough. Or smart enough. Or good enough. All I could think was “How the fuck do I get out of this mess?”
This was approximately two months before I stopped drinking. It was the beginning of the end and the beginning of the beginning.
My solution? I increased the amount I drank. That was my solution. I had no other solutions. That had been my go-to for everything. It had worked fantastically well so far. But now, no matter how much I drank I couldn’t shake the problems. I kept trying though until my liver gave up.
Game over. Fess up. Come clean. No more running. No more hiding. I was devastated.
How did I get over it? I rolled my sleeves up and got a dustpan and brush. I started cleaning up the wreckage of the past a bit at a time. A scoop at a time. Sometimes a little. Sometimes none. Progress, not perfection. It seemed like trying to flatten the Himalayas at first but eventually, it got easier. Sometimes there was defeat. But I didn’t drink. Some heartache and I had to sit with it. Some disappointment but that’s life. Eventually, I had a clean street and the tools to keep it clean.
I would implore anyone contemplating quitting drinking to do so. I thought about it for years and my only regret has been; why didn,t I do it sooner?
Sobriety has been an absolute gift that I hold dearly. A badge of honour I am proud to wear. An accolade I have earned. It wasn’t/isn’t always easy but it is so worth it… well it has been for the last five years.