Agonda Diaries – week six

Whenever people say to me, “You’re living the dream! I’m so envious!” I always reply by saying it is possible to feel sad in paradise. Believe me, I’ve experienced it all over the world. I’ve cried on beaches in Thailand, Costa Rica and Egypt. Somehow these palm-fringed locations make a feeling of sadness or loneliness stronger because you’re not meant to feel those things here. But you can, and do.

I haven’t had a terrible week, I was just feeling sad and a bit lonely last weekend for reasons I won’t go into here. I started to do that thing of ‘wandering the earth’ that I do back home when I’m feeling like this, but this time the earth was simply Agonda. And then, just as I was at my lowest ebb, a motorbike came wobbling towards me carrying my friends Hannah and Dave and their precariously balanced luggage and guitar. It was so good to see them I nearly knocked them over with hugs on the street. They are just such great people – nice and normal. They love dogs as much as I do. Thank goodness for Hannah and Dave.

As well as his guitar, Dave has brought his harmonica and when he spontaneously began to accompany Taylor the guitarist at Silent Waves resort, it was a beautiful moment. He played along with guitarist Willem to Mr Bojangles – a song with such poignancy. I felt so proud of him as he shyly took to the stage. It takes guts to get up there.

Part of the reason for me feeling so discombobulated is that I’ve started teaching public yoga classes. I watched Dave get up on ‘stage’ (aka a raised bit of sand) and tried to channel a bit of his bravery. I think it’s the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done – preparing and teaching a class full of hopeful yogis. I tore myself to pieces beforehand and during the classes, feeling sure people would just leave or pick me up on something I’d got wrong. It turned out the only person who wanted to leave or criticise me was myself.

I’ve had so much encouragement from my friends at Sampoorna – hugs and kind words and “it’ll be fine” times a million. I’ve also had one or two people returning to my classes – thank you Daniela and Uwe. I have resolved to keep going and ‘screw my courage to the sticking-place’, but this whole week I’ve felt very emotional and I’ve hardly slept. There’s been another full moon, too. Perhaps that has something to do with it.

I haven’t spent as much time on the beach this week, but when I have it has more than delivered. Firstly sunsets to die for and secondly a sea otter, who emerged near Simrose last Wednesday at 8am, and swam all the way along the coast to its rocky home, accompanied by me alongside (walking, I might add). He, or she, swam silently by people in the ocean who didn’t notice they were sharing the ocean with such a glorious animal, and he stopped to come out of the water with a silver fish in his mouth at one point, to eat breakfast. I was pointing him out to people but few were interested. Vasudev (Captain Nitesh the boatman) was as excited as me, though, because he loves the nature in his home village.

I’ve also discovered the delights of Charlie’s street food van by Gita’s clothes shop in the main street. Gita introduced me to Charlie one day when she was having her lunch. I was persuaded to come back for a snack lunch the next day and sampled an omelette and bread roll for 25 rupees. The next day I had bhaji with bread roll for 50 rupees. Both were delicious and Charlie is so lovely. I like that you stand and chat with him while you eat. He’s there all day from 7.30am to 10pm at night serving delicious food. And for someone on their own, this is a way of bypassing the awkwardness of sitting somewhere on your own. I sense that I’ll be going to Charlie’s cart a lot from now on.

In dog news, Sweetpea has been spotted on the beach again and again, and I’ve just left her in the company of a Portuguese family, being fed titbits. It’s so lovely to see her out and about again. The old Sweetpea has returned. Zimbo and Sanjo are still my pack, but I saw Zimbo cosying up to a group of people at Jardim a few days back so I know I share him a bit.

Papaya, the Kopi Desa dog, has started to walk up to me for a cuddle whenever I stop by, after years of ignoring me. Same with Jerry (Gary? the jury is out on which name it is) at Simrose. He’s ignored me for years (apart from sitting outside my Simrose hut two Christmasses ago) and suddenly he’s butting my legs with his head. I don’t know what’s caused the change but I love it. More dogs to cuddle for me.

Ocean is growing bigger and stronger every day and now sits on the beach to watch the sunset with his human and canine friends from Love Bites. I saw the election news from back home and cuddled Ocean to remind myself that beautiful, innocent things exist in the world.

I have decided that I won’t let the news get me down. I won’t let it fill me with negative thoughts and feelings of helplessness. I will simply strive to live a life that is as good as it can be. Many people have been quoting Gandhi on Twitter and Facebook: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” I’m not sure if he said those exact words, but that’s what we were taught in our yoga teacher training at Sampoorna because it’s part of Indian philosophy (otherwise known as Hinduism). It’s all you can do when it comes down to it – be in control of your own thoughts, words and actions.

So that’s what I’m going to do. I’ve hit my 11-month soberversary this week and the fact that I almost missed it shows how much I’ve moved on from my drinking lifestyle. I’d rather watch a sea otter in the ocean early in the morning and say hello to a dog named Sweetpea.

How Does It Feel?

I wanted to follow up my post about being newly alcohol-free with a few thoughts about how it feels, and the social, physical and mental changes I’ve observed. Today is day 66 for me – I’m heading towards my 10-week anniversary in a few days.

Clarity. I’ve already described how it feels in your head to go alcohol-free – like moving from a pixellated phone screen to hi-definition. Especially in the first few weeks. It may just be the crystalline spring light all around me, but the world literally feels lighter and brighter. Many recovering people report an improvement in eyesight which may well be due to rehydration. Whatever it is, it’s a wonderful sensation. I feel like I’ve had a factory reset.

Positivity. I used to feel as though I was dragging myself through the world, meeting challenge after challenge, obstruction after obstruction. Now I find I can meet the world head on, whatever it throws at me. I can see the positives and the opportunities, whereas my former self would feel sorry for herself. My former self would cry a lot when she drank too much. That’s all gone. Now I only feel like crying during yoga – but only because of the emotion it releases.

Productivity. I feel like I am chewing through my to-do list very quickly. I met a person recently who said I should ‘eat the frog’ each day – do the difficult thing I’ve been putting off first so I can enjoy the day. She was so right. It feels easier to do that, and move on to the next thing. I used to find it very hard to get out of bed, which brings me on to…

Sleep. I used to say that I was an insomniac. For some weird reason I always woke up at 3am and stayed awake for a couple of hours. I blamed age, I blamed stress, I blamed my low-carb diet. Even though those things played their part, the biggest culprit was alcohol. I knew that regaining blissful sleep was one of the key outcomes of giving up drinking but it took 45 days for it to kick in for me. If you’ve been drinking for about 27 years, and not even every day, it takes a while for your body to readjust to its factory settings.

Social life. I socialise more. You think that your social life will disappear if you stop drinking, but the exact opposite happens. You can go out for multiple nights in a row because you don’t have to build in recovery time. You don’t have to arrange your nights out around what you are doing the night before. Suddenly Monday night becomes a social prospect.

Friendships. I feel much more engaged with my friends when I’m with them. I feel less selfish in conversations. There is something about alcohol that made me more self-centred and I’m very glad to see the back of that. I can concentrate on the things my friends are telling me and ask them about them the next time I see them, rather than casting about for a memory of what they may have told me the last time I saw them. It’s more about them than me and that feels good.

Self-respect. I’ve stopped doing bad things that make me anxious the next day. No more drunk texts, ill-advised encounters, minor injuries, lost memories, inappropriate social-media posts or arguments with friends. No more ‘Lisa likes a drink’ comments or presents involving prosecco. I have my self-respect back.

Back to my youth. I do feel like I’ve had a factory reset to the age I was before I started drinking in earnest (around 25). My brain is sharper, my head clearer, but I am also slimmer, fitter and for some strange reason, my hair has thickened and feels bouncier. Apparently that’s also an unexpected bonus side-effect. I have spent way more time in the yoga studio which has taken me back to a level of fitness I was at when I was studying contemporary dance every day, but also back to a time when my head was less addled with anxiety.

Sugary sweet. Another unexpected outcome is a massive craving for sugar, which I’m told will subside. But for now, Cadbury’s Mini Eggs are my nectar. The advice is to be nice to yourself and get yourself through these weeks and months in whatever way you can. So my first move is a return to Goa – the place I said I’d never return to. My therapist asked me why I was giving myself that rule, why I wouldn’t want to return to a place that feels like home, with friends and animals I love, yoga and a place to write my book.

As always, she was right.


My Naked Mind

I wasn’t intending to give up drinking alcohol forever, but somehow that’s what happened. And this is Day 50 as alcohol-free Lisa.

Day 50.

I am almost annoyed that I haven’t said goodbye properly, or had one last blast – although I did, on the last day of my Christmas holiday in Goa. I just didn’t realise it at the time.

Like many people my age, especially women who came of drinking age in the ‘90s ladette culture, I’ve been toying with the idea of cutting down or stopping drinking for a while. Last year I joined online forums where people discussed it and I paid particular attention to feature articles talking about it – so much so that algorithms started supplying me with more and more to read.

At first I congratulated myself for increasing my non-drinking days to three, four and eventually five days a week. I even got to eight days at one point. I’d go out once or twice a week and know that I was going to blast through a bottle of prosecco. I couldn’t seem to stop at one or two glasses – I had to keep going. I was a binge-drinker. I admitted that to myself at least.

But I excused myself too. I watched the Adrian Chiles drinking documentary on the BBC, and thought, “at least I don’t drink that much”. I’d started tracking my drinking on an app and being truthful about it. With my one or two days per week drinking I wasn’t exactly a raging alcoholic, but I was at least double the recommended 14 units per week for women (Chiles was well over 100 even when he’d cut down). I kept coming in at ‘increasing risk’ on the health-monitoring part of the app but I so wanted to achieve ‘low risk’ status.

By the time I went on holiday to Goa at Christmas, I knew I didn’t want to spend every day waiting for cocktail hour (which I’d done the year before). I was mildly ill for two days which meant I couldn’t drink, and decided I’d stick with it to see if it suited me. It did. I was going to bed early and getting up early to play with the dogs on the beach and go to yoga classes. I liked the way I felt in the morning. I wasn’t annoyed and anxious. I was smiling and friendly. People smiled back a lot.

On a few nights I had a couple of cocktails and regretted it as soon as the second drink touched my lips. It just didn’t seem to contain the same joy it once had. And it spoiled my beautiful mornings. I went back to drinking nothing. Then came the last night at my favourite bar and I went for it. “I’m on holiday!” I thought. I spent two days after the flight recovering.

Then a chance meeting changed everything. A woman I’d just been introduced to told me she was trying to cut down on her drinking. “Me too!” I exclaimed. She immediately recommended a book she was reading – This Naked Mind by Annie Grace. “I don’t want to stop completely,” she said. “Oh me neither,” I replied. “Just cut down a bit.”

But, dear reader, I stopped as soon as I started reading the book. It was instant. No looking back. Seriously – this book should come with a warning sticker. It promises to resolve any cognitive dissonance you may have around drinking – your conscious brain telling you you don’t want to drink and your subconscious telling you you want a drink very badly. In summary, it works by telling you the science behind your cravings and what alcohol actually is and what it’s doing to your body. Now I know what I know, I can’t go back. It’s very weird – I seem to have known all along that alcohol is a highly addictive drug, but I also didn’t. I also seem to have known it was toxic, because your body rejects it and hangovers happen – but I also didn’t know. When I was on holiday in Goa I read an article that described alcohol as a ‘toxic depressant’. Those words really struck a chord with me, even to the point that later that evening at the bar, I ordered “a glass of your best toxic depressant, please!” in my head.

But it is. It was a depressant for me. I didn’t know that it was the alcohol that caused it. I thought drinking helped feelings of anxiety and worry but in fact it created them and then pretended to resolve them. I didn’t know that the happiness I felt when I picked up that first sparkling glass of prosecco wasn’t the effect of the alcohol – it was the impending satisfaction of a deep craving. A craving that had got worse and worse as the years went on and the addiction grew. There is a reason why people around my age are struggling with their drinking – it’s because we’ve built this addiction up over decades. Although never tipping into full alcoholism as some do, it started to become something we needed and depended on. Anyone who opts out is eyed with deep suspicion. “I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t drink,” we’d say. I said that. I said it last year. I’m horrified at myself now I know what I know. I wish I’d never touched a drop because I never needed it.

Well, my body never needed it but the pain in my heart did. I now know that I drank to self-medicate – to numb the pain of existence. I can almost trace the journey back to that moment in the ’90s when my mum was on a downward trajectory with dementia and I’d already lost my dad. I couldn’t wait to get home to the wine in my fridge each night. I didn’t connect the two things until now.

Once the pain had been dealt with during therapy last year, the reason to anaesthetise disappeared. I knew I didn’t need to do it any more. The book simply gave me more ammunition – it confirmed what I’d subconsciously known all along. Alcohol is not good for me. It’s not good for anyone.

What’s crazy is that I’ve always prided myself on opting out of substances that are harmful to me, even if they’re socially condoned. I’ve never smoked, I’ve never taken drugs apart from one puff on a special cigarette, and I don’t take the pill because it makes me suicidal and not ‘the natural me’.

Turns out I was never the natural me under the influence of alcohol either. It takes ten days to fully leave your system. Ten whole days. Which means, in reality, it never really left. I can’t believe I’ve been in the grip of this addictive poison for over twenty-five years, ‘enjoying’ something that is hugely carcinogenic whilst simultaneously feeling smug that I’m not a smoker.

In sobriety, I’ve rediscovered someone I used to be years ago. I remember this clear-headedness and this ability to smile at people and not feel annoyed about everything. It feels as though I’ve gone from a pixelated screen existence to hi-definition. This is me at around 25, almost 27 years ago. I could cry when I think of all that time wasted.

I can’t say I regret everything I’ve done after having a drink – some of my best friendships have been forged in the pub and some of my best lovers have been met at pubs, clubs and parties. I have done bad things as a result of drinking, like proposing to a man that didn’t love me, but also things I’ll never regret.

But now, at this stage in my life, my relationship with alcohol is over. We had good times, we had bad times, but we’re done. In the first few weeks it did feel like a mourning period, looking back on those sparkling moments through rose-tinted glasses (which I now know is a thing called Fading Affect Bias or FAB).

There is also a thing recovering people call the Pink Cloud. In the early alcohol-free days your body and brain are rejoicing in their new-found liberty and they make you think it’s all going to be easy. It’s wonderfully euphoric and it doesn’t last. I know I have some testing times to come but I know I won’t cave in. I know I can now go to gigs on my own without booze, can be on holiday without booze and go to bars with my friends without booze. And all of those times are still fun. More fun, even, because I’m not trying to stay to the end, or go on to another bar or have a seconds night out when my friends go home. I go home to my bed and sleep.

In my first month I read voraciously – apparently it’s a thing, this obsessive reading about sobriety in the early days and weeks. After This Naked Mind, I moved on to Alcohol Explained by William Porter, The Sober Diaries by Clare Pooley and then The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober by Catherine Gray. Where Annie and William both gave me the science behind what I’d been doing to my body, Clare and Catherine put it into context. As women from media backgrounds, they’d both fallen prey to the ever-present alcohol. Their journey had been speedier than most as a result and their recoveries nothing short of epic. They reminded me of extreme versions of me and my friends and helped put everything I’d learned into a relatable context. My voracious reading is not unlike every other sober person I’ve encountered in a forum, including the order in which I read those particular books.

That initial frenzy of content imbibing has now slowed and I don’t need to read other people’s stories any more, but I know they’re there if I need to go back (I read This Naked Mind twice).

The reaction from my friends has been interesting – a couple of them stopped drinking as soon as they heard my news. Some reacted by immediately telling me how I was different to them – they didn’t drink that much, they could handle it, they like the taste, they could never give it up. One thing I’ve learned is that this is a deeply personal journey but one that does touch other people if you dare to share. I read in one forum that people are just waiting for permission to stop drinking, because the social rules are so strongly weighted towards it. If you mention you’ve stopped, pretty much everyone tells you what their relationship is to drink straightaway. They know it’s a problem.
I have always prided myself on acting on choices – to not have children, to not stay in a loveless marriage, to remove toxic people from my life. Just because everyone else is doing something doesn’t mean you have to. The social pressure to join in drinking is perhaps the greatest pressure we experience in the west, along with to get married and have babies, to get a good job and a mortgage. Opting out is hard, which means we often keep it a secret. On my 50th day of sobriety I have decided to share my story – I don’t do secrets. (Well, maybe just a few, but usually to protect other people.) I’ll see you at the bar because I’m still going to be there. But I promise I won’t be making you stay until the end.