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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Thank F*** It’s 2015

A lot of things have been conspiring, lately, to make me remember the nineties, and the experiences I had during those years.

I’ve just watched the return of TFI Friday on Channel 4 and I recently returned to the scene of my nineties ‘heyday’, if you can call it that, when I made a trip to Brighton. I lived there in my mid-to-late twenties, and in many ways it’s the perfect place to experience that period in your life.

Mine wasn’t the usual trajectory, though. When I moved there I was still a naive Welsh girl, even though I’d lived in London from 1989. I have more in common with Kelly McDonald in Trainspotting (1996)  now, then I ever did as an Actual Young Person. I watched films like that in a state of disbelief. I’d never been near a drug, or a one-night-stand in my life. I’d been to a Catholic school, done a pretty much female-only degree (Dance and English) and worked at Liberty for three years, in which I’d discovered the delights of drinking, but still dressed like a nun on her holidays.

I now think that there’s something about places like Brighton and San Francisco that call people like me to them. I had a sexual epiphany in each of them, and my life changed as a result of experiencing them. I arrived in Brighton ostensibly to do an MA in Post-Modern English Literature but I gave it up after eight weeks, because I now think I’d moved there for an entirely different purpose. I met people who shook me out of my buttoned-up life, taught me how to live a little and put it out there. I wore mini-skirts and tight tops and realised I looked good in them.

But never quite good enough.

I met my ex and his group of friends a year into living in Brighton. We met while clubbing and we went out a lot – mainly to pubs with dance floors, that played Oasis, The Prodigy and The Charlatans on a loop. Hilariously I’d met my ex on my very first one-night-stand, but I ended up marrying him. Typical.

It was the era of the ladette – there we were, drinking and being lairy like the lads, joining in the ‘banter’, watching sport, Baywatch, and laughing along with Loaded. I’ve written about my struggles with the pressure to be a ‘cool girl’ before, and the fact that I maintained it so long. All of us seemed to be being marked against a parade of professional girl-next-door’s who were ‘up for it’: Denise Van Outen, Gail Porter and Louise Redknapp, to name but a few. I knew I’d never be able to match their ‘hotness’ (little knowing that most of it was photoshopped) and it really did upset me. I’d see my ex poring over their pictures in Loaded and grab his copy afterwards to examine them more closely. Was there a way I could be more like that?

There was never any way. Even though I hit my lowest-ever weight at that point in my life, I was still a pale-skinned curvy woman with hips and a muscalature that would always be concealed by a layer of fat. I’d never be an All Saint or a Spice Girl, and I certainly wasn’t cool enough to be a Louise from Sleeper or a Gwen Stefani. And heaven forfend, I’d never be a Pamela Anderson.

Even though I’d shed my ‘ugly duckling’ huge clothes, I still felt pretty awful most of the time. While my ex continued to wax lyrically about his love for Denise V O, I’d cross the road if I saw a bunch of men coming along so they couldn’t see my face too closely, with all its flaws. There was only one gaze back then, and it was definitely male on female. I squirmed under it.

Some women would say that they felt empowered during this time – ‘one of the lads’. It was an extremely liberating time, and very much so for me, but I unwrapped myself just at that moment where in order to be one of the lads, you had to be a ridiculously attractive girl who only had to pull on a vest top and denim shorts to qualify. I remember seeing that outfit described as the ‘girlfriend uniform’ in Loaded and knew I’d never get into it (I did in my 40s though, when I was single…)

Watching old clips of TFI I can see the female guests adopting that wide-mouthed YEAH expression that meant they were ‘up for it’. They fooled me at the time, but they don’t now. What strikes me about that time is just how many of the guys who propagated this lads ‘n’ ladettes lifestyle were deeply unattractive. Chris Evans could have been their poster-boy. The guys commenting on women in Loaded could look like a wedge of cheese, but every girl had to be an image of gleaming perfection. It was perhaps the biggest act of ‘look over there!’ transference we’ve ever witnessed.

If the ladette wasn’t a bad enough role model, then along came Sex and the City in 1998 just to cement the idea that you had to be impossibly thin, unattainably groomed and attached to a man to be a valid person. I love the series, I really do (not the movies), but it did offer a very narrow set of options for women, whilst purporting to be about a new breed of independent females.

I know for a fact that I staggered by default into marrying my one-night-stand because I didn’t question the cultural signals that were all around me. All I knew was I needed to be thin, attractive, cool and attached to a man to be a valid person. Bridget Jones (1996) knew that too, and while she offered an alternative to the first three of these things, she was the chardonnay-swigging ladette who managed to get her man by being cute and bumbling. Falling off gym equipment has never been my schtick.

How things have changed now, where all around me are young women questioning everything, not settling for anything and making their own decisions about their lives despite cultural pressures. They have men in their lives that they see casually, who are no doubt hoping for some relationship pay-off, which is clearly never going to happen. These women would rather use online porn than have casual sex and they are makeup free and happily hanging out in public in yoga leggings, loose t-shirts and their specs.

I like the new cool girls. They’re not trying to join the Lad Gang, or any gang. I think we’re in a new era of independence where we’re less likely to be defined by the recruitment of a life partner, and more about what we did before, during and after we met them. If indeed we do meet them.

So, I did love you, TFI, but you remind me of a time when I was never good enough. And I look at Chris Evans interviewing a gushing Helen Mirren now, and think, ‘WTF?’ Thank f*** it’s 2015.

My Former Life as a Cool Girl

The release of Gone Girl in cinemas recently has reminded me all over again about why Gillian Flynn’s book resonated so loudly with me and other women when it was published.

This key paragraph, from the main character Amy Dunne, establishes the central concept of womanhood in the book:

“Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.”

And in the brilliant article on the subject by Jezebel’s Tracy Moore (link to the full article below), she encapsulates the concept:

“…when a woman for whatever reason embraces traditionally straight male interests while retaining aspects of straight female interests, and is hot (she always must be hot)—when she manages, for all intents and purposes, to somehow combine the best of both genders into one bangin’ superpackage of awesomeness—you have what is called a Cool Girl.”

I was trying to be Cool Girl, at least for a while. My phase timed with the emergence of the ’90s ladette, which to all intents and purposes was the defining era of the Cool Girl. Women like Sara Cox and Zoe Ball were bouncing around on our TV screens and in lads’ mags, drinking pints, partying ’til dawn and still managing to look oiled and hot in a tiny vest and denim shorts as they leered lairily at the Loaded cover-shot camera.

When I met my husband I tried desperately to be the Cool Girl – he seemed very keen on the Loaded ladettes and I scoured the pages of his magazines to pick up tips on how to be one. I was determined, unlike his friends’ wives and girlfriends, to give him as free a rein as possible, to never complain (indeed, actively encourage him) when he announced a boys’ golf weekend or a skiing holiday, or when he got wasted with the boys. I even actively embraced any trips they made to a lapdancing bar, which I was told to keep secret from the other wives – I was the ‘Cool Wife’ who would laugh at their stories of who got a dance, and then ask questions about how they controlled their erections in a public place (I’m still not quite clear on that, or on why they would want to risk it happening).

I remember feeling really aggrieved when I once overheard him talking to the lads, referring to me as some kind of social sign-off person on their latest boys’  weekend plan – they were all discussing how they’d get it past their wives. I burst in on their conversation and pointed out that he was free to do what he liked (subtext – I was not like the other, more controlling, wives). They all looked at me, rather shocked, and he was embarrassed – I’d spoiled his ‘lads-only’ camaraderie over their shared experience of the stereotypical controlling woman.

Over the years, I continued to be a version of Cool Girl and kept any grievances inside. And they festered. And in the end, these internalised resentments built up and up until they spoiled everything. I wasn’t really me during those years and I wasn’t honest with myself or my husband. I don’t know why I pretended to be someone else who was cool about everything, when I seriously wasn’t. This is why my ‘honesty policy’ is so important to me now. During those thirteen years of the relationship, I hardly ever raised any grievances, for fear of a horrible confrontation –  I just saved them up into one massive one that ultimately couldn’t be resolved. It had all gone too far.

It really surprised me that my ex and his friends pretty much all ended up with women who clearly ‘set the rules’ in their households, and seemed to enjoy being told what to do. I tried and tried not to be that woman, but ultimately it backfired. But I always maintained that I was a director at work and didn’t want to direct the marriage at home as well – I’d still maintain that mantra, if I ever went there again.

In many ways, the last four years have been about gradually shedding the need to be Cool Girl. I’ve found myself more and more exposed to the realisation that I don’t need male approval to be in the world, and that some men aren’t expecting to approve me according to the Gone Girl rules (some are, though, it has to be said.) I now see female friends masking grievances in their own relationships with gritted-teeth smiles and feel glad that I’ve left those scenarios behind. If I ever got there again, I would make sure I never let these scenarios pass without comment – that a reasoned discussion would happen about every single one, if I felt something unjust was happening to me. I’m pretty sure any reasonable guy would expect me to do that – it’s how they would deal with those things. Mostly.

When I first read Gone Girl I couldn’t believe that someone had written about Cool Girls so brilliantly – lots of female friends were clearly experiencing the same self-resonance as I was when they read it. Our online book club was alive with comment. I think we all recognised something of ourselves in Amy, although of course, she takes the concept to an extreme level.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many women of my age find the concept so familiar – I do think the ’90s emergence of ladette culture really didn’t do us any favours. Men were being marketed with a feminine ideal that has no basis in reality – a complete fantasy of sexual availability, hotness, and, well, blokiness. I know I struggled to meet its impossible criteria, but it didn’t stop me trying.

Thank goodness that’s over.

http://jezebel.com/the-cool-girl-is-not-fiction-but-a-phase-1642985632