This week’s guest blog is by Club Soda member Simon Eastwood, about the various phases that he’s experienced on his quest to being alcohol-free.
At the time of writing this I am almost 8 months free of alcohol, so relatively speaking I have only just arrived here in Sober Land. It’s really rather lovely but daunting still as I try to acclimatise to what are very different weather conditions (temperate), customs (based on compassion) and ways of living (courageous).
I feel that by disclosing the following thoughts I am being somewhat presumptuous, considering my short time here, and I do have this superstitious feeling that by declaring them this new home will suddenly disappear like a mirage and I will find myself once again back in my old home – that dark, cold and desperately claustrophobic place I tried to escape from for years.
But I am going to give this a go anyway as I really do wish this to be of help and for it to give hope to other people who have just landed in Sober Land or who indeed might have been here for some time but are still grappling with a few things. Perhaps most of all though, people who are seriously considering making the journey here for the first time.
For me, there have been three key phases, two of which I have moved through and one I have recently entered. Each one to do with dealing with uncomfortable feelings. Please note that uncomfortable feelings are spread over a very wide spectrum of emotion from boredom, to somewhat stressed, onto varying levels of anxiety and depression, then further along to deep hurt, anger and finally despair. Interestingly, the relatively mild feelings of boredom, and what I can only describe as a sense of emptiness, are a bit of killer when it comes to wanting to reach for the bottle because they are everyday triggers. I do not underestimate them.
Phase 1 – Avoidance
This went on for about 30 years give or take. For the first 20 years, I had no idea I was dealing with my feelings by using alcohol to self medicate. Of course, I had heard the phrase ‘self medication’ being bandied around but I really only understood it at a theoretical level. I got the logic – people using alcohol to deal with their feelings. I just didn’t realise I was one of them. I mean, I sort of did but not really, truly. I knew I enjoyed the feelings alcohol brought because after a pint of lager or a glass of wine that warm and fuzzy feeling replaced all the other feelings. However, I didn’t realise that I was actually trying to escape something – even if it was only boredom sometimes.
For the last 10 years, I really knew something was up. The problem was that when those uncomfortable feelings came it was just too easy not to face up to them. The abundant and socially acceptable alternative to sitting with my feelings was just so overwhelmingly tempting. It was such an addictive pull and everywhere I turned it was in fact encouraged. What’s more, nearly all my friends and colleagues appeared to be doing the same thing. Difficult to say no really.
So, this phase 1 was a very long, drawn-out one which became more and more painful the more I practiced the art of avoidance. A terrible vicious circle, where the drug I used in order to deal with my feelings was either exacerbating those feelings or creating them in the first place. That’s the problem with alcohol – like any powerful drug you are coming down from it seriously depletes your mind, body and spirit, creating its very own particular brand of anxiety and depression. It also wreaks havoc on any naturally driven uncomfortable feelings you already have. So, come early evening you reach for the instant fix in a bottle and click repeat.
Phase 2 – Distraction
This phase started the moment I stopped drinking and really kicked in on that first evening. So, now we have the uncomfortable feelings coupled with the choice not to drink those feelings away. Help, what do I do? Well, this is what I did and many others do. In an agitated frenzy, I ran full on into a massive, messy pool of distractions. Anything to take me away from obsessing about having a drink. Here are a few of the distractions. Putting my pyjamas on very early in the evening (I didn’t do this in a frenzy) because for me pyjamas had this magical ability to trick my mind that I now wanted a cup of tea rather than a glass of wine. Thank you pyjamas. I ate early instead of building up to my evening meal by consuming 3 large glasses of red wine as if I was in training for something. I unashamedly turned to alcohol-free lager which I still love drinking. I read books on giving up alcohol, watched Ted Talks and YouTube videos on giving up alcohol, devoured blogs and articles about it, watched films where the central theme was about alcohol addiction and most importantly joined Club Soda, the mindful drinking movement.
A word about Club Soda. Here I can read and share posts in a secure and private online group with people who feel the same way as I do. I can attend events, workshops and even festivals. Knowing that I really am not alone and being able to reach out to others who are further down the line than me for advice makes a huge difference. Seeing milestones being reached daily on my feed, inspiring. Those who started on the same day as me are my online comrades in arms. It’s truly eye-opening when you realise just how many perfectly ‘normal’ people have developed a dependency on alcohol and we are just the tip of the iceberg, of that I am certain. And you know what is comforting to realise? It’s not you, it’s the drug called alcohol. Almost universally it creates the same pattern of behaviour and the same inner dialogue in all of us who have become dependent, like some omnipotent hypnotist. Alcohol, the socially acceptable, constantly encouraged, highly addictive drug marketed to the hilt, hiding its truth in plain sight.
There is no doubt that all these distractions made it possible for me to move more recently into phase 3. However, I must just say one more thing about this critical phase 2 period. At any point, I could easily have cracked and poured myself a drink as so many of us do. It is a challenging time but the more you overcome those challenges such as work do’s, family events and big nights out and discover that doing them sober is really not as bad as you imagined they would be, the more that mental muscle of yours builds and hardens your resolve. Phase 2 is also a time full of exhilaration. The unbelievable energy coursing through you, the sheer relief of not waking up in the middle of the night soaked in regret and instead waking early in the morning with a surge of anticipation of the day ahead. The clarity. The childlike joy in response to the simplest pleasures that neither money or booze can buy.
Phase 3 – Acceptance
I feel as if I have walked through a hidden door into a secret garden. The stormy, exhilarating weather I have encountered replaced by the gentle sounds of nature. So what about those uncomfortable feelings? Well, yes they still come but now something different is happening. I am not automatically looking for distractions to divert them. Instead, I am staying with those feelings, allowing them to pass through me. I am recognising them for what they are – feelings. And they are very important these uncomfortable feelings because they are my subconscious trying to tell me something. Sometimes, they are not even that, they are my body giving me a nudge. “I want food, and I mean food, not alcohol, ok?” It says to me. If I feel bored, that doesn’t mean I now have to have a beer to light things up. I am bored. That is a feeling that human beings have and frustrating as it might be, that’s life. So, now what can I find within myself rather than within a bottle that will re-engage me? Or perhaps I could just read – how grown up is that! I am feeling tense and I am out with friends in a bar. Well, that’s ok. I am in a bright, brash, noisy place and frankly I am a bit tired. That’s perfectly normal, particularly if I am not going to take a drug I used to rely on to manufacture feelings which are not real. But look, I am with friends and I know the tension will pass. Actually, surprisingly quickly as I navigate my way into a conversation and sip on my alcohol-free lager. Within an hour I will be more present and more engaged than most of the people around me because I won’t be drinking. Then another time the stronger and even more uncomfortable feelings come which are perhaps based on some unresolved experiences I have spent so many years avoiding. That is actually good because this time there is nowhere to hide. So, I look at those feelings in the eyes, scrutinise them, ask them what they are trying to tell me. I start to make connections. It starts to make sense, why I am feeling what I am feeling. I can now make some choices. I can talk to someone about them or work things out for myself and resolve to do something on my terms which will help me to move on.
I am now dealing with reality and it is liberating because it is, as it says on the tin, real. As people who have stopped drinking often say, life suddenly appears in HD, warts and all and it is quite something. The exhilaration of phase 2 just grows and grows here. However, I am under no illusion that temptation has gone, that I will not experience some very tough challenges in the future when it comes to alcohol. But something has changed now I have moved into this place of acceptance.
No more fighting those feelings, no more trying to avoid them or having to distract myself. Just finally embracing a completely new reality full of feelings and wonder and truth.