Waking up on new year's day with a clear head, heart, and conscience is one of the great joys of my recovery. I may lie in bed on 31st December still feeling a little FOMO and thinking how lovely it would be to have a glass of bubbles to bring in the new year, while the flash of fireworks bounces off the walls, and then I remember...I remember that I am not a one-glass-kinda-girl. That'd I'd wake up on the first day of the new year with a horrible hangover and an even worse case of the blues, and make another promise to myself that I was never going to drink again. The first day of the year might even have involved more drinking; but that maudlin, loser kind of drinking that happens the day after the night before.
I didn't imagine that the decision to stop drinking 15 years ago would lead where it did, but that choice has had a profound impact on the course of my life. It was the desperate act of someone whose life had become unmanageable and who promised, mostly on Sunday evenings, that she was going to stop once and for all. I didn't know that morning as 2008 rolled in that I was going to be able to hook into that commitment I made to myself, emotionally and spiritually unhinged by my lifestyle choices at the time. When people hear the term alcoholic their thoughts may go to visions of Nicolas Cage in "Leaving Las Vegas" or Meg Ryan in "When a Man Loves a Woman", but not everyone with an alcohol use disorder stashes their vodka bottles or even tries to hide their drinking, some of us are just garden variety binge drinkers. What I didn't know then that I know now, is that denial is a really sneaky bastard that makes us feel better about how we perceive our actions and habits to be, no matter how self-destructive that behaviour might be.
"If I am an alcoholic so are all my friends" and "at least I don't drink alone" were strong contenders in my denial repertoire, and I could quite happily hide behind the notion of "I'm not a daytime- or before-work drinker". One of the lessons I have learned is that it's not how much or how often we indulge, as much as what happens when we do. I know now that it wasn't the physical illness as much as a the emotional sickness that was what would bring me to my knees. It was when felt like I wanted to drink, even when I didn't need to; and needed to drink even when I didn't want to. I thought I needed it to connect, and be part of a group, of something. I know now that that is another layer of the lies I was telling myself in my attempt to feel better about myself and the world around me. To be honest I am still kind of awkward at social events, and I am not much of a dancer these days, but I'll trade those big-nights-out for the depth of authentic connection I now experience on an almost daily basis, even if it's just with the person making my morning coffee or ringing up my groceries.
Some of the learnings have been a lot more challenging than others. One of those is how to manage my ego without the use of substances. Because I believe that what happened for me was that when I was drinking is that my ego would get pretty quiet, and I was able to be more okay with me and who I was. Call it false confidence, lack of inhibitions, a numbing...what I know now is that in my world tequila kicks ego's ass every time, and I wouldn't get as hung up on so many of the things that I now grapple with in my personal work. José would dull the "I'm not successful enough...smart enough...thin enough" narrative, and I could be completely comfortable, even confident, being me for as long as a the buzz lasted. Of course, when the ego pushes back in full retaliation mode, normally the next morning, armed with a jackhammer and a cup brimming full of you're such a loser, then the quiet is psychically disrupted, sometimes for days on end.
So, now I work at breaking down my very loud, histrionic ego with slow and steady personal and spiritual work, which is not as instantly gratifying as a double shot of Jack, but it doesn't turn into an emotional and mental bloodbath either. Meditation doesn't work as quick as Mescal, and mindfulness is far more difficult a habit to cultivate than after work drinks, but the benefits of inner peace and stillness beat the crap out of the false sense of being that alcohol created for me. Although I don't get to numb, escape or reward myself with booze, and I have to do the hard work of self-love and -compassion without a couple of glasses of wine, I know that sitting here in this very moment, listening to my 80s playlist, that it is so very worth it.
There are days when I imagine how lovely it would be to sit on my balcony and sip on a gin and tonic. Yes, I too suffer from the enticements of euphoric recall. But then I remind myself that unlike so many others, my sundowners become sunrisers, and I don't get back to a normal, functional space for days. And it's not just the queasiness in my stomach that I can't get rid of, it's the anguish in my soul that lingers long after last rounds have been called. It's that I simply don't have an off-switch and when the house lights come on and the audience leaves, I am sitting centre stage in a cold, harsh spotlight of self-loathing, my mascara tracked in my tears and my integrity in tatters. You go home and I find somewhere else to be; anywhere but with me. What I have learned is that "me" is actually a really wonderful place to be and that I add far more value to the world now, not buying and slamming shooters to ensure that I am now left alone to figure out who I am or where I fit in.
Even writing this makes me feel a little bitter-sweet because not everything I did, experienced, and took part in during my drinking years turned to mud. There are wonderful memories, friendships, travels, and times that I cherish; relieved as I am that social media was in it's infancy. Those happy times mostly happened before that part of night when things got really messy...and I am grateful that many of the people I loved then, and still love now, were not around most of the time to see the very worst of it. Although I didn't drink alone, I did spend a lot of time drinking with complete strangers, bonded in our desire to avoid ourselves in the harsh light of day. It's heartbreaking to experience loneliness in a group of people, connected in self-destruction; a slow suicide of the soul. Those experiences have, however, shaped me in part into who I am today, and although it is a bleak and desolate place in the canyons of my mind that I have no desire to return to, I have worked honestly to integrate these experiences into my healing and wellbeing.
Because I have never worked the steps I have never done a formal amends, I only hope that the way I show up now and the work that I do shows those that I hurt or harmed that I am aware of my shitty behaviour, and make it my personal endeavour to live and act differently now. And so the actions I take now and the behaviour I engage in are my living amends.
And so as I reflect on the learnings and lessons, I know that being in recovery is not easy, but that it is worth it! That I would rather be uncomfortable at times, facing myself and life with courage and authenticity then hiding behind the smoke and mirrors of an alcohol induced haze. Of course, I don't always like what I see now, and there are plenty of parts of me that I would like to improve. Some of them are physical, and some of them are mental and emotional, while others are social and spiritual. I know that behavioural change takes time, and that practicing spiritual principles like patience, acceptance, and tolerance will try my patience, acceptance, and tolerance. I miss the instant soothing of that first drink, and recognise that using breath and mindfulness is a much more difficult way to get there than pouring myself a lovely little glass of wine. I know that my body and brain work more effectively when I breathe than when I booze, and that if I strive to maintain some sort of normal homeostasis in my brain, I am going to feel a lot better than when I'm hitting on the pleasure side of things to often often, only to experience the counterbalanced punch of pain.
I am aware that I only have today, and that there are no guarantees when it comes to anything. Recovery is central to my life, and yet not the centre of my life. I didn't know that I'd end up working to support others in their personal processes on that dark Taiwanese night when I fell in the sewer. All I knew in that moment was that I didn't want to choose alcohol anymore and that whatever I did choose I wanted to be able to do from a place of clarity and consciousness. It's taken me years to realise and learn some of the things I've written about here, and understand the gifts of my recovery- and life choices. In fact, some of them have only actually occurred to me in the writing of this post. There have been shitty experiences and fucked up moments too in the past 15 years, not everything has been wonderful or even tolerable at times. Moments when I wanted to escape, experiences that I wanted to vapourise, and feelings that I wanted to obliterate by ordering a round of drinks, opening a bottle and then disappearing into it, or just sitting quietly in a corner, hanging out with Jack, Johnny, and José, getting morbid about how unfairly I've been treated by the universe.
But the feeling passes, the cloud lifts, and the gratitude of be being a well person wraps itself around my heart and reminds me that I am a sum of all the choices I have made in the past, and will continue to make in the future, and I am at peace with that. I have learned that I like myself a lot more in recovery, even when it's challenging because things aren't working out. What I know for sure that I get to experience my life in all it's vivid reality, without any blurry edges, iffy memories, or total blackouts, and I'll take a double shot of that over anything that they may be serving in the bars, backyards and vineyards this summer!