For as long as I was drinking to excess, I wondered what it would feel like to be completely sober for a whole year. I had done many the stint of abstinence and completed a couple of one-hundred-day challenges over the years, but it never felt as though l was giving myself enough time to really feel the benefits of not drinking alcohol. It was as though my body, mind and spirit were crying out for me to be kinder, except I wasn’t listening.
Mother’s Day 2019
I finally gave in and listened to the calling on May 12th last year when I had my last drink. It was Mother’s Day and I had been treated by my family to a delicious lunch washed down with plenty of bubbles. As I sat there guzzling the wine, I looked at my kids who were already 12 and 14 years old and for a moment I felt guilty that I wasn’t being the best mother I could be. I thought about the times in the past few years when I had been grumpy due to the effects of the previous night’s excesses or declined their request to go for a drive to the beach on a weekend to watch the sunset because I was already over the limit. I thought about the nights to come when they would be out with their friends until late, needing a ride home. The mere idea of not drinking because I had to drive somewhere filled me with dread. I anticipated arguments with my husband about whose turn it would be to get behind the wheel. What filled me with even more dread was the thought of my kids following my example of substance-abuse in the future.
When we returned from the restaurant that afternoon, and I continued drinking sparkling wine in the sunny sanctuary of my backyard, I pondered further on my responsibilities as a parent. Conflict filled my head as the alcohol took effect and I began to feel very uncomfortable in my own skin. It was a moment of realisation that I was meant to be the grown-up here and it was time to truly own my role as a parent and to get on and do the best job I could while I still had the chance.
A new beginning
The following day, Monday May 13th, my journey into sobriety began. Of course, it began with a headache and a dry mouth – just like most Mondays began. The first night was easy because I never drank on Mondays, unless it was a public holiday. The second night was less easy, but the decision was made, and I knew what I had to do. Camomile tea and deep breathing replaced the wine at scratchy-o-clock when everyone was hungry and looking to me to comfort and satisfy them.
As the days turned into weeks, I began to notice a cloud lifting – the cloud of claustrophobia that kept me trapped in survival mode, feeling anxious and angry for as long as I drank. Eventually I noticed a clarity in my thinking that was completely new to me. I couldn’t remember the last time I had experienced such a clear mind. I guess it must have been before I started drinking to excess at the age of 18. After four months of not drinking, I could see the wood for the trees. With the help of my counsellor, I started to understand the difference between my reactive thoughts and feelings and those I consciously chose to own as mine. Ever before I gave up drinking, I had begun preparing for sobriety, albeit unconsciously. I still have this quote from psychiatrist and holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl, pinned to the whiteboard in the kitchen that says ‘Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.’ That for me sums up how I’ve learnt to heal my damaged mind. You see, alcohol did a lot of damage to not just my mind, but my body and spirit, too.
The damage to my mind was twofold: there were the obvious impairments to my speech and other activities caused by the alcohol at the time of drinking. But there was also the neurotoxicity that resulted in a chemical imbalance in my brain leading to increased anxiety and depression that lasted well beyond the time of drinking. As if that wasn’t bad enough, I then had to deal with the self-loathing that came from the knowledge that I was doing something I knew to be damaging me.
Although I tried to convince myself that it was nothing, the pain under my rib cage was most likely related to my liver trying to process the toxins in the alcohol. Fatty liver results from damaged liver cells and affects 90% of people who drink to excess so why should I have been immune?
No matter how hard I ran, cycled or worked out in the gym during my drinking days, I still carried that band of fat around with me which was directly related to the excess calories.
A couple of months before I stopped drinking, I was diagnosed with advanced gum disease and was at serious risk of losing some of my teeth. Alcohol contributed to this in two ways: I wasn’t as diligent about my oral hygiene at night-time while under the influence and a dry mouth while sleeping meant my gums weren’t in a healthy environment.
It made no sense to me to sit and meditate if the night before I had been intoxicated. The incongruity of it made me feel uneasy so I chose to drink instead. On the occasions we went to church, like the good Catholics we were brought up to be, I would shed a silent tear while sitting among the congregation. It felt wrong to be suffering with the self-inflicted pain of a hangover, all the while trying to connect with God. Many was the Sunday I uttered the Serenity prayer to myself in a bid to be enlightened and to finally address my addiction. I could feel alcohol getting in the way of my connection with the Higher Power. It was as though it kept me down in the doldrums where no light could get in.
Then the healing began
The first four months of alcohol-free living were dedicated to detoxifying the body and dealing with the feelings I had been suppressing for years. Feelings of self-loathing and believing I was defective dominated my unconscious mind since I was a child and fueled my reasons for drinking. Without alcohol, I had to face up to the truth about my warped thinking. I discovered things about myself that hurt, such as my epic failures in maintaining friendships due to deep insecurities and my reluctance to trust others. I had to accept that I had done damage and hurt others over the years by lashing out in anger. But here’s the thing – in confronting these truths, I found a way to heal.
Reaping the benefits – Mind
- The clarity of mind I now have allows me to see that I have suffered with anxiety all my life. Alcohol made it worse. I am now able to better understand the triggers and go easier on myself. With a deeper understanding of myself, I am able to make better choices with regards to the things I do to relieve my anxiety. Now, instead of drinking, I enjoy the simple things like writing my journal, reading a book, walking my dog under the stars of the night sky, sitting with my kids while they practice their music or watching a TV show with my husband.
- The chemical balance in my brain has been restored with the help of a good diet, lots of exercise and quality sleep.
- The impact sobriety has on sleep is not to be underestimated. It is hugely important that I wake up rested every day as it gives a positive slant to my day.
- With less anxiety, I am coping better with the challenges of day-to-day living. I am calmer.
- Ask my kids, they will tell you that I don’t lose my cool with them much these days! I can be the grown-up now and be a good role model for them. They have learnt a lot about the danger of not dealing with anxiety in a healthy way. And they know that alcohol is a drug that needs to be treated with caution.
- I have rekindled my love for writing and have been consistent in delivering my blog every Monday since I started in September. I get a sense a pride from knowing I haven’t missed a week and that you are reading it. I know this from the feedback I receive, and it fills me with encouragement.
Reaping the benefits – Body
- My body has been thanking me since day one. The suspicious sensation that pestered me from under my rib cage has gone completely. I don’t need tests to prove this. I feel it.
- At my recent periodontist check-up, I was given the all clear. Where once there was advanced gum disease, there is now a healthy smile.
- I took up a challenge in January to start planking every day for a month. If you know me well, you will know that I have always detested any core work, always using the excuse of a sore back. With a new sense of commitment to my well-being, I planked every day of January culminating in five whole minutes. Who would have thought!! I have continued planking every other day since and usually do more than three minutes each time. My core is so much stronger now which helps in many areas of movement.
- My hair… yes, my hair has never felt so good. I guess it makes sense if you think about it. Apart from the toxic nature of alcohol, the dehydration it causes will impact on the hair.
- My skin is also showing signs of happiness as it doesn’t have to put up with dehydration either, not to mention the redness I used to suffer from.
- Being a menopausal woman, I have been bestowed with hormonal deficiencies that were causing me to experience regular hot flushes when I drank. Imagine how red I used to get! Those dreaded flushes are few and far between these days. I have no doubt that alcohol exacerbated their occurrence.
- As I mentioned already but must mention again because it is fundamental – I am sleeping so well that my body feels rested and ready for action every morning.
- I am six kilos lighter than I was this time last year.
Reaping the benefits – Spirit
- I have always held the belief that spirituality is an important aspect of my life, yet I mostly abandoned this aspect because of alcohol. Deep down I’ve regarded it as part of my search for the meaning of life. I was brought up in the Catholic faith, but I also enjoy the teachings of His Holiness The Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh and other spiritually enlightened leaders of the modern day. Everything I’ve learnt from both my Catholic upbringing and subsequent studies point to the importance of connection with the entire universe, which is a higher power, greater than each of us and rooted in love and compassion. Alcohol got in the way of my connection with this higher power hence why I found myself lacking in compassion and love.
- I feel more connected with my true self which has given my life greater perspective and meaning and made me more compassionate, forgiving and loving.
The power of connection
I am extremely grateful to all the people who have helped me get this far. In particular, my husband and children, my family in Ireland, my brothers and sisters, my support group at Holyoake, my counsellor, Carmen Dougall, my friends, my subscribers and, last but not least, the best Facebook support group in the entire world, Sober Ninjas. I have also been massively encouraged and hugely inspired by many amazing and enlightened people such as Dr Brené Brown and Russell Brand as they continue to articulate so well the challenges of living with addiction, anxiety and disconnection.
Self-love leads to love of others
I can’t emphasise enough the power of compassion and forgiveness in helping me recover from addiction and becoming the best version of myself. I feel more connected and at one with who I am than I have ever felt in my entire life. This is paying huge dividends in terms of my relationships with others as I have learnt to be more tolerant and less judgemental. Once I learnt to forgive myself for my failings, I also learnt to forgive others for theirs. I am no better or worse than anyone else, and I am just as deserving of peace, harmony, love and success.
I wish for anyone struggling as I once did to also free themselves from the shackles of addiction. It all starts with one decision… and the rest falls into place with the right support.
I hope that by sharing my story, I can bring hope to others. Thanks for reading this far, I know it’s been a long one!