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 Year of Blogging

It’s a year to the day that I started this blog, and nearly seventy posts later, I’ve learned quite a lot. One the main things I’ve learned is how much I enjoy writing, and that is something I never knew about myself a year ago. I started the blog because some good friends gave me the confidence to do it, and I’m very grateful to them for that.

So here are the Things I’ve Learned:

I write quickly

I write fast and post quickly. It’s part of my character to want to do things in the moment, not wait for a more perfect time. I often write first thing in the morning, having woken up with an idea I want to write about, or the news might prompt something, as it did when 4chan released those pictures of Jennifer Lawrence. It takes me about half an hour to get everything down and I often edit material after I’ve posted it. I usually have to abridge a post to 750 words for Huffington Post.

Personal is good 

My blog is really honest and people seem to enjoy that. My most-viewed posts are the ones where I share something really personal from my life. I was surprised at the reaction to The Silence last year, in which I confessed to once having had depression. I think it’s something that should be talked about, not hidden away and that is part of the purpose of my blog.

People message me privately

Quite a lot of what I write about seems to resonate with people to the point where they have to tell me the same thing has happened, or is happening, to them. I don’t get a huge amount of public comments on the blog, but I do get a lot of direct messages from people telling me about their experiences. A surprising amount of men and women messaged me about Ping Pong, in which I talked about being child-free by choice.

I publish myself

I do try and make my posts timely and topical, tying in to current trends, ideas and news stories. By hashtagging my posts appropriately it can make a huge difference to the number of views. For instance, I republished my Epiphany ‘body image’ post on Huffington Post using the #everybodyisready tag, from the protest against Protein World adverts.

I work to a set of ‘brand values’ for Because I Can and my keywords are: clarity, honesty, openness, authenticity, myth-busting, revelation and debunking.

Dating is the hottest topic

My most-viewed post by far is Sixth Date Syndrome, and the myriad ways it is searched for on Google tell me that I’ve discovered a Thing that isn’t just happening to me. Every day (including today) people search for it, view it and hopefully learn that it’s not just them. I’ve also enjoyed debunking myths about female sexuality and the ‘cougar’ trope.

Men enjoy my posts

I have a posse of Secret Male Admirers for my blog. They come up to me at parties and tell me how much they like the insight into the female psyche. I am mainly writing for women like me but my main responders on Twitter and WordPress appear to be men. Surprisingly, women seem to have more of a problem with my feminist leanings than men.

People disagree with me but don’t say it

Recently a few people have revealed in person that they don’t agree with everything I write. I’d never expect them to as these posts are just my opinion, but they only tell me face-to-face, rather than on social media. I’m always surprised I don’t get more open disagreement in my comments, especially as they are inherently feminist.

I naturally ‘cluster’ things

I do this all the time at work and in life – see patterns of behaviour or trends and then cluster them together to make a Thing. This is what I’ve tapped into to write the blog. Noticing that women shove other women has been one of the more surprising moments in the past year, as has observing men leaping out of my way when I run.

I could actually write a book

I’m currently in the early stages of writing a novel based on my experiences. Writing the blog regularly has made me realise how I can write 1000 words really easily. I decided against a memoir because I wanted to shape my story and fictionalise some of the elements. I’m finding it quite difficult because my blog ‘voice’ is the one that comes most naturally to me.

A big thanks

To everyone who’s followed me, tweeted me, retweeted me and Facebook-shared me. It means a lot every time it happens.

To mark my anniversary, I’m going to be ‘live-blogging’ a solo walk around the entire coastline of the Isle of Wight next week, so stay tuned.

The top ten most-viewed posts on Because I Can (in descending order):

1. Sixth Date Syndrome

2. In Support of J-Law

3. The Silence

4. Things I’d Tell My Daughter

5. The One Where I’m Absolutely Not a Yummy Mummy

6. Toxic People

7. Bare-Faced Cheek

8. Ice-Breaker

9. In Praise of Younger Men

10. Epiphany

 

Share and Share a ‘Like’

Ever since I’ve started this blog, people have contacted me, often secretly by direct message, to tell me how ‘brave’ I am for sharing such personal information in public.

I’m not brave, I’m a Sharer. I tell people stuff. Not stuff that is top-secret business stuff, but all the other stuff.

That’s partly why my friends were encouraging me to write this blog – I was forever regaling them in the pub with my stories of fortysomething dating or my theories on why women shove each other in clubs. And those stories and theories were always connected to a personal experience that I didn’t mind telling people about. Why the hell not? It gives the story more power and the theory more credence.

I think people are either Sharers or they’re not, and I tend to prefer the former. Social media has given my sharing a whole new level of exposure. No longer confined to the pub, I can share my thoughts and feelings, stories and theories, with a whole bunch of people who share too, although maybe not quite as much as me.

Within my group of Facebook friends there are those that share, and those that lurk. I’m connected to the Sharers on almost every form of social-media and we interact on every one. The Lurkers maintain that they’re ‘just not that bothered’ about looking at Facebook or Twitter but they’re there.

And boy, are they taking in everything you post.

They usually come up to me at parties and mutter darkly into my ear, “I’ve seen your blog…” like it’s a dirty secret.

“OH YEAH?” I shout, “DO YOU LIKE IT??” Then watch them flinch because I’ve outed their secret lurky behaviour in public.

Ha.

You see to the Lurkers, I am giving away my very core of power in nuggets of information about myself. This sort of person thinks that others will take those nuggets and somehow use them against me. They guard their own information fiercely, thinking that the moment they let their guard down, the vultures will move in and steal their nuggety strength.

Not so.

In my experience, people take the nuggets you are most fiercely guarding and use THOSE to bring you down. The minute you put everything out there, they’ve got nothing to take from you. You spoil their game. And boy do I love spoiling that sort of game.

So here’s what I’m doing. I’m laying all my nuggets out there, where they can be picked up by other people, examined and put back. Like exhibits in a case in a museum, most people will move on by without even stopping to read the descriptions. Some will stop and admire one or two or more of the nuggets, ask questions about where they came from, tell you they don’t like what they see, or marvel at what you’ve laid out and the rarity of the pieces.

And of course, the Lurkers will wait for everyone else to leave the room and secretly roll the nuggets around in their hands before tiptoeing out.

Maybe I’m taking the museum metaphor too far, but you get my drift.

My parents’ generation kept everything a secret. Growing up, I had to learn what you could say and what you couldn’t say to adults, and like many families, we even kept secrets from ourselves, refusing to say out loud those things that might rock an otherwise stable world. Maybe that’s why I enjoy saying things out loud now – the relief of getting the information out of my brain, and into the world.

I’m the same at work. People that have worked for and with me will know that I Say Things Out Loud and it’s become somewhat of a trademark. I call it the Honesty Policy, with its ‘Nowhere to Hide’ remit. I like information out there, in the open, where everyone can see it and I like to communicate it. It has really good results, once everyone gets used to it.

There is always a period of discomfort where the Lurkers are forced out into the open and made to discuss information with a team. Others take to it instantly, thankfully, or find themselves enjoying the openness and the calm it creates. I don’t do game-playing or politics – straightforward, direct, rational, open and honest are my key words.

So really, I’ve started to direct the Honesty Policy to my personal life, because for years, I wasn’t honest with myself or with other people about my thoughts or feelings. I kept them secret and they ate away at me. I’d blurt them out occasionally and then pack them away for another few years.

I’m being more honest with myself now, but I’m still not at the stage where I can go up to someone and say, “I really need to speak to you about that thing that you did because it upset me.” For me, that is the worst-ever scenario and I admire people who can do it enormously.

I genuinely think that I watch The Only Way is Essex and Made in Chelsea because both series consist entirely of people doing just that, continually taking each other to one side to ‘clear the air’. I think by watching it, I’m seeing if I could handle the confrontation. Nope – probably not. I’d just rehearse with a friend in the pub and then not actually do it.

Do other people actually do this stuff in real life? I’m not so sure. Perhaps that’s why both series are both so successful – they live out our Fantasy Confrontation Lives for us.

A few people have said to me that they don’t share because they think people wouldn’t be interested in the information. Well unless it says something about them, they won’t be. People are fascinated by personal information and opinions and I’ve had nearly 8,000 views so far that prove it.

It has been scary, posting some of what I’ve posted, and I’ve had moments in the middle of the night where I’ve inwardly screamed, “You told everyone that thing!!! THAT THING!!!” But then the next morning, I’ll invariably get a message from someone saying that they loved ‘that thing’ and want to read more.

So I carry on.

Because I can.

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http://www.forbes.com/fdc/welcome_mjx.shtml