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.


 

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A Weight of One’s Own

I’ve already written a lot about body image, about embracing my own shape, eschewing dieting, and women’s relationships with food. Before a female-only dinner I went to recently, I joked on Twitter that there should be a Bechdel test for women’s dinners where at least two women talk about something else other than food while eating. It never happened. Someone turned up and promptly announced how many calories they’d burnt off at the gym and it was all over.

This policing of food intake, both by ourselves and by the media, drives me mad. It’s taken me forty-eight years to realise I don’t have to be thin to live a happy life, that I haven’t fallen into oblivion by stopping dieting. I have gained around 20lbs since my decade of dieting in my 30s, and have gone back up to the size I was before the dieting kicked in.

I honestly went into a panic as the scales showed a significant increase earlier this year. And yet every time I looked in the mirror, naked, I saw a body I liked. How can this be? I panicked myself into another low-carb diet. It didn’t work. The panic subsided and the body I liked was still there. Rounder around the tummy, thighs and upper arms, but it actually looked like the shape it was meant to be. Some clothes didn’t fit, some clothes fitted better. I filled out the bits that were meant to be filled out. This made me laugh with joy a few times, getting ready to go out.

I think my body is lovely. Am I allowed to say that? Damn right. For years I thought it was bloody disgusting and thank god that’s over. There are men (and women) who’ve only known me as post-dieting Lisa and they say such nice things about my body. I’ve had them call me things like ‘full-on woman’. They’ve commented on my shape, and called it ‘beautiful’, ‘sexy’ and ‘lovely’. I bask in it, because my Inner Voice is saying, ‘Really? At this size?’ and then just when I’m about to say it out loud, I tell IV to shut the hell up and say nothing.

I must have my ‘fat radar’ set to high frequency because I was rewatching Love Actually the other day as part of my annual Christmas TV viewing and suddenly realised how fat-shamey it was.

From the start, Bill Nighy constantly refers to his ‘fat manager’, Nathalie gets called ‘plumpy’ by her parents, Emma Thompson bemoans her ‘Pavarotti’ clothing, Aurelia chides Jamie for getting ‘chubby’ and her ‘Miss Dunkin’ Donuts’ sister calls her a ‘skinny moron’. The movie even ends with Hugh Grant saying ‘God, you weigh a lot’ to his new girlfriend, the aforementioned ‘Plumpy’.

Someone making this film had some issues, I’d say.

Why is flesh so fearsome? Why do the Overweight Haters think it’s ok to distribute Fat Cards to women on the London Underground? Why is the worst insult a rejected man on Tinder can throw at a woman is ‘ur fat and ugly anyway’? They know it strikes at the fear in the very centre of our being. Even now, if someone shouted ‘fat’ at me, even though I know I’m not, I’d carry around the curse of that for days, weeks after. I know I would.

And then… And then that bloody women’s health report. Even though it rightly acknowledges that obesity is a nationwide, non-gendered problem, and has a significant effect on women’s health, the media has grabbed the chance to say “Women: You Are Responsible For a National Crisis By Eating Too Much.” Here’s what the Department of Health’s Sally Davies actually says in her summary of the report:

Tackling obesity in the population as a whole has to be a national priority, in order to reduce the impact of related, non-communicable diseases on healthy life expectancy and health services.

But guess what? The Daily Fail lays all the responsibility of a national crisis, just before Xmas, on women’s eating. Not the Cumbrian floods, not the terrorist threat – women’s eating:

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And rather effectively, it’s sandwiched (no pun intended) between an advert for ‘lady petrol’ and two feminine ideals (one of whom has been told to lose weight in the past). It’s a classic, ‘enjoy this, but don’t actually imbibe it if you want to look like this’ schematic.

I’ve returned again and again to the great feminist work Fat is a Feminist Issue by Susie Orbach, first published in 1978, and been amazed at how relevant it still is today:

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As Orbach goes on to say, “selling body insecurity to women (and increasingly to men too) is a vicious phenomenon. It relies on the social practices that shape a girl’s growing up to make her receptive … they are discouraged from using their body strength to explore the world.”

I have made it a life principle to take up space in the world, to increase my body strength, and to explore as far and wide as I can. On my own. I know that my anti-diet approach to life comes from a response to being body-policed from a young age, and from hearing female friends and relatives comment on their weight and others’ all my life.

I am happy to know a number of younger women who’ve taken a similar ‘This Girl Can’ attitude to life. But I know a hell of a lot more who’ll be monitoring their food intake and not have the strength to climb a wall or run a 10k. But it’s ok, because they’re skinny.

I will say again and again, and if I had a daughter I’d say it every day, that it’s our right (I see it as a duty) to be in the world, to take up space, to be sexual, to get into all its corners. Shrinking ourselves, Alice-like, is not the way to do it.

If only I’d realised this thirty years ago.

Happy Christmas, ladies – eat, drink and be merry.

A Comment on Women and Food

Last year, I gave up any form of weird food restriction after a Dieting Decade which saw me trying every single fad going to keep my weight under control. Atkins, Dukan, 5:2, GI – I’d done the lot. And I was heartily sick of it.

I had my ‘epiphany’ on a Turkish beach, when I suddenly realised that it was all utter bollocks – I didn’t have to adhere to some magazine advertising executive’s view of female body shape and I could simply be me, as I am, eating normal foods and being my normal shape. The world didn’t end and I didn’t suddenly die socially – if anything, I became happier, more confident, sexier and sharper-minded. I simply realised that restricting food restricts a woman’s ability to perform well in the world and I describe my Road to Damascus moment here: https://becauseicanblog.com/2014/07/24/epiphany/

Since then, I’ve really noticed how other women seem amazed that I order normal food in restaurants, and don’t sit there picking at a protein-based salad (as I used to do). When I offer up the excuse that I walked to work that morning (it takes an hour and twenty minutes) they seem happy that I’ve ‘earned’ the right to have a proper meal (ie with carbohydrates). What I’m eating is always commented upon, and I notice more and more that the other women feel the need to ‘be good’ at the dinner table. And to tell everyone about it.

I went for a dinner last year with a group of friends and sat next to a Serial Restricter. She talked about the calorific value of her food throughout, then told me all the various ways she was going to ‘work it off’ the next day. When women go out for meals together the topic often turns to weight control, and the more they eat and drink at that meal, the more they tell everyone about all the ways they’ll keep the weight off afterwards. I used to do it too. Yawnsville. You can guarantee the guys aren’t talking about this shit.

Recently, a friend I hadn’t seen for a while turned up for lunch and another female friend immediately ‘complimented’ her on how ‘skinny’ she looked. A little piece of me died inside, knowing that this is the first thing we value, or monitor, about each other. Now, I make a point of never commenting on appearance, until I’ve at least asked about how a friend’s life is. And that applies to women and men. If I tell them they look ‘well’, it’s because they truly do look healthy – I’m never going to use it as a codeword for ‘slimmer’, which is what most women do.

I’ll never forget seeing a work colleague take a brownie from someone who’d baked for the office and watching her scrape her teeth down it before discreetly throwing it in the bin. That moment has stuck in my mind as a truly tragic one. This woman was, and is, an amazing person. She is better than brownie-scraping.

But women in groups police each other’s weight. Codewords are used to comment on shape and you get used to your body being surreptitiously scanned by other women when you walk into a room. I’ve worked in female-heavy offices where eating disorders break out because one woman goes on a crash diet. When I taught ballet, a promising young girl of twelve became anorexic because another girl told her she had a ‘funny’ body.

I think that women owe it to themselves to be strong and healthy-bodied, able to stand, walk and run in the world without fear of a small gust of wind knocking them over. I think we owe it our brains to keep them well-fed, so that we are able to speak confidently, debate loudly and deliver a killer pitch at work. Not to mention show younger women a good example. You can’t do any of this well if you’re surviving on 500 calories a day.

Ladies, let rip. We don’t need to do this. No one is asking us to be control-freak skinny and unhappy except us. And we are agreeing to it because we think that’s what the world wants from us. Ask yourself who is going to love you more for being ‘skinny’ – possibly the magazine advertising executive because he/she is selling you products based on your biggest fear. It won’t be anyone else, not even you. Because you’ll never be skinny enough.

Don’t be scared. Have the brownie, then walk out of the door and take up your space in the world.

You’ve earned it.

———————

On policing women’s appetites: http://www.dailylife.com.au/life-and-love/parenting-and-families/stop-policing-my-daughters-appetite-20140423-373ur.html

Epiphany

It happened on a beach in Bodrum, Turkey, three weeks ago.

I’d been to the same hotel twice before (I love it, mainly because it’s mostly Turks, it’s childfree, and it has a cute little water-taxi to take you in to town) but right before those holidays, I’d worked hard to get my ‘bikini body’. I’d gone into a near-panic if my weight, a few weeks before each holiday, wasn’t at the target I’d set myself and arranged to immediately go on some food group-avoiding diet plan to get there. I’d then congratulate myself on hitting the target and feel ready to hit the beach.

But this time I’d done the exact opposite.

Believe me, it’s taken me a long time to get to a place where I even wear a bikini in public. Throughout my teens and twenties I had dreadful body-image problems, so much so that I’ve never learned to swim. The pool was a scary place where I felt completely exposed. It stemmed from having a curvy-hipped (otherwise known as pear-shaped but I’m rebranding it) body and wanting to be a ballet dancer. My ballet teacher made comments about my bottom half being a ‘problem’ for ballet and so the dysmorphia was born. I would look in the mirror and see terrible things, when in fact, I have the supposed ideal hip-waist ratio of 0.7. But I thought I looked hideous, and only began to think I looked ‘alright’ in my late twenties. I remember the day when I wore a short(ish) skirt with thick black tights IN PUBLIC for the first time. I cried with shame at the bus stop (I did!), but strangely, nothing happened. No one screamed in horror, apart from me, inwardly. My friends encouraged me to stop wearing huge clothes to hide myself, and the new me was born.

Or was she?

In my thirties, I started doing the fad-diet thing. I began running and did the Atkins diet, closely followed by Dukan, and pretty much didn’t eat complex carbs for a decade. Yes, I lost loads of weight, yes, I gained new-found energy and confidence, but I still didn’t feel bikini-great. Not until a game-changing moment in Bermuda.

I was with my ex-husband, and I asked him to take a picture of me in my bikini on the beach, just standing there, no special angles, no flattering pose. I remember saying, ‘I look quite nice’ when I saw the picture. I saw a very pale, but shapely figure standing a bit awkwardly, wearing an unattractive baseball cap. But I liked what I saw. I began to quite like my body.

After that you couldn’t get me out of bikinis, but before each holiday I was determined to control my weight so my curvy hips didn’t look too curvy and my stomach stayed flat. Until this year, that is. In the spring, I had tried the Fast Diet and it just succeeded in making me feel miserable and making me look older. I was heartily sick of cutting out major food groups and yearned for a normal relationship with food where I wasn’t starving myself one day and bingeing the next. I suddenly thought – why don’t I just do that? Stop all The Nonsense and see what happens.

I did it. Weirdly, I had no pre-holiday weight panic this time. I tried beach wear on before I packed just to check I didn’t look like a bean bag. Nope. I looked like a nice curvy woman in beach wear.

And then I saw the Turkish ladies on the beach. Many shapes and sizes surrounded me on loungers but they were mostly curvy. And they looked happy, with ice creams in their hands and adoring partners rubbing sun-tan cream into their ‘wobbly’ bodies. I learned about the Turkish love of the ‘kalça’ – everything between the waist and thigh area – from a guy who clearly liked mine. There were a couple of Dutch and Belgian women there – they were clearly where I had been in terms of the Dieting Decade and looked older and strained next to the Turks. And, well, next to me, really.

Since I’ve stopped The Nonsense, I’ve slept better, looked younger and felt happier. And much sexier. It’s like the gloom has lifted and all is clear. None of us need to do this to ourselves. Women I consider to be incredible in their personal and professional lives have admitted to me that they’re following some kind of mega-control diet like I was, like not eating in the daytime, or restricting their daily calorie intake to near-starvation levels. Why are we doing this??!! I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that my insomnia disappeared completely when I stopped restricting certain foods. I was sleepless for the whole of the Dieting Decade and probably not functioning as well as I could in my daily life.

When I stand in front of the mirror now I see someone different to the person standing there twenty years ago, but she was probably there back then. I just couldn’t see her. When I see a self-conscious curvy young woman on the street I want to go up to her and tell her she looks lovely, or at least I hope someone is telling her that. If I see an older, hollowed-out woman on the Tube I want to say ‘stop controlling it all – let it go, you’ll feel stronger.’ But it’s so much easier said than done, shedding that urge to control our bodies. After all, it’s taken me about twenty-five years to get there.

Most of all I want to say to any woman who is worrying about what she’ll look like on the beach, put your bikini on and get someone you trust to take a picture of you in it. Look at it. Objectively. Look how womanly you are, whether you’re apple-, pear- or pomegranate-shaped, stick-thin, fleshy or somewhere in the middle. Most guys I know can’t understand why we put ourselves through all the pain of constant body control. They like our fleshy, curvy bits (or whatever bits take their fancy) and don’t really get why we don’t. They stand by while we put ourselves through the self-imposed regime, watching us go crazy whilst they tuck into a bacon sandwich.

Ooh now that’s a thought. And I’m going to have white bread too.

Lisa

Some articles you might like to read:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jenny-trout/i-wore-a-bikini-and-nothing-happened_b_5546206.html

http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/jun/30/unspeakable-things-laurie-penny-book-extract

http://sploid.gizmodo.com/what-if-classic-paintings-were-photoshopped-like-todays-1578775305

http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/Magazine/article1452100.ece

http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2014/08/11/wilderness-festival-body-image-lucy-mangan-poorna-bell_n_5666366.html

http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/oct/14/women-body-image-anxiety-improve-body-confidence?CMP=fb_gu

http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/nov/08/feel-guilty-but-hate-my-body-feminist-confesses