Since ‘coming out’ last week I have been moved by the support and appreciation from readers. I feel a transformation taking place in my life and in order to ensure that it’s not just a dream this week’s blog will be a testimony.
The feedback I received about my first blog warmed me to no end. Comments such as ‘beautifully written’, ‘so brave and courageous’ and ‘admire your honesty’ gave me all the encouragement I need to continue with my commitment to write and my sober life. The gratitude I feel towards you, my readers, is deep.
Waking up from a bad dream
But it’s not all rosy in the garden. Last night I dreamt that I was back in the cold, dank dungeon, trapped in the darkness with nothing but a bottle of wine for company. The future was bleak and there was no way out and I downed the bottle in one. Eventually a warm light came from the far end of the dungeon offering me hope. As I staggered towards it I felt sick in my stomach that I had fallen off the wagon. I emerged from the dungeon with the beginnings of a horrible headache, a dry mouth and remorse creeping through my bones.
Imagine my relief when I awoke in my comfy bed, in my lovely home, to realise that I didn’t have to reset to zero. All the pain and effort of the past 147 days of sobriety is making me resolute, compassionate and fully engaged in self-care.
Addiction is like Imprisonment
I compare my experience of addiction to imprisonment. As each day passes I revel in a sense of freedom that I imagine prisoners must feel on the day they are released into society again. Now that I have ‘come out’ I need to ensure that I stay out. This is almost as hard as the initial spilling of my soul which left me feeling vulnerable. I’ve no doubt that there are people who have judged me but at the same time there are people who clearly appreciate my opening up. The great thing is that I am free to choose how I react to what people think. I feel a wonderful sense of relief in accepting that not everybody will like me. For the first time in my life I am turning inwards and loving the person that I am, with all my flaws and all that I have to give.
There are many parallels between my experience as an addict and that of a prisoner. Between 40 and 60 per cent of people who conquer their addiction relapse within the first year. According to the Journal of the Medical Association in the US, changing behaviour is hard and requires a number of key things to make it happen.
Interestingly, studies on the number of people released from prison who reoffend are very similar to the number of people who fall back into their old habits within a year of quitting. Between 40 and 50 per cent of prisoners released from Australian prisons during 2014-15 returned within two years. And the things that ensure they don’t reoffend are almost identical to those that prevent addicts from relapsing.
Keys to staying free
Just like offenders, addicts need to stay away from people and situations that could prompt them to use again. It’s a sad fact that many recovering addicts are faced with unsupportive friends and family. I have already experienced this. I braved an outing to a pub recently as I wanted to be able to prove to myself that I can be around drinkers without having to drink. Not once but twice somebody asked me if I was sure I wouldn’t just have ‘the one’. These people know that I am on a mission to remain sober yet they actively tried to encourage me to join them in their consumption of alcohol. It highlights how alcohol is the only drug we have to justify not taking. If a smoker or a heroin user said they had given up we would congratulate them, not encourage them to have just ‘the one’.
Choosing supportive people
So I now have to choose wisely the people I invite into my life. This is one of the harsh realities that we must accept as part of a sober life. People who are unsupportive or drunk are not fun to be around now that I am sober.
Sobriety also opens our eyes to the obscene number of excuses people use to have a drink. Whether it’s celebrating successes, wetting a baby’s head, drowning sorrows or just unwinding at the end of a stressful day, it would seem that alcohol is a prerequisite to ensuring a moment is lived to the full. Ironically many of those moments are forgotten because of the very ingredient that was used to enhance it. I’m so over this now and much happier enjoying each moment without alcohol and remembering those moments the next day. I have missed out on remembering so much already!
Spontaneity is the spice of life
I am loving the spontaneity that has replaced my drinking. I never dared to drive after having a drink so I rarely took the kids anywhere on a whim. Now, even if it’s 9pm, we can be seen driving to the beach for a walk under the stars or getting amongst the revellers in town for churros and hot chocolate. There is definitely more fun to be had living a sober life.
This is good preparation for when our kids are older and wanting to stay out late on the weekend. We won’t have to toss a coin to determine who doesn’t have a beer or a wine so that we can get in the car and pick them up after midnight. Peace of mind and teenagers don’t always go hand in hand. At least this is one way to build some.
Living with pain and vulnerability
Getting back to the comparison I have drawn between reoffending and relapsing, from my research I have learnt that there are two other factors that influence success or failure which I want to mention here. When people leave prison they are excited about the future but they are also vulnerable. Once they are out in society they discover that real life is challenging, something they had forgotten when they were ‘inside’. Coming out can be a shock to the system. This is the same for addicts who have spent years numbing their pain. In the cold light of day that pain can be hard to bear. I am learning to be curious about it, to understand it and to be compassionate towards myself. Everybody is broken in some way and many engage in a host of self-destructive behaviours whether it’s with food, with lack of exercise, with smoking, gambling or sex but are living in denial. Nobody chooses a life of entrapment. Facing the truth about ourselves is hard but it is the only way to find freedom and peace.
One of the greatest things I have learnt is that we are not alone in our pain. It is a normal part of life and in accepting it, it eases. Having a support group helps. I have joined a support group online called Club Soda which is really helpful. Being a member allows me to read posts by people from all backgrounds, dealing with different issues, suffering incalculable pain yet overcoming their addiction to alcohol. It is a real lifeline for us all. The group oozes compassion and everybody is on a huge learning curve, some more advanced than others. There is connection and there is healing.
I haven’t yet found a face-to-face group to join but I know they are out there. AA is one of these which I believe is hugely supportive and there is also SMART Recovery that helps not just people suffering with problems relating to alcohol but all addictive substances.
Education means more power
Which brings me onto the other factor I want to mention; education. According to one study, when inmates use educational programs while in prison they are roughly 43% less likely to reoffend than those who received no education while incarcerated.
Education is a key factor in relapse rates for addicts too. The more we learn about the damage alcohol does to our body and mind, the better armed we are to remain steadfast in our fight to remain sober. I often used to ponder whether I drank because I was depressed or whether it was in fact my drinking that made me depressed. Thanks to all the scientific research available out there, I know that alcohol is a neurotoxin and it impacts on the brain’s ability to function normally. Education gives ex-offenders and ex-addicts the power to make better choices about their lives.
Living not just surviving
My life now is about being the best version of myself. I acknowledge my need to trust more and to build close and meaningful relationships. I can do this when I am OK with who I am and what I stand for. We are all made up of different parts. For me, being a parent, a wife and a homemaker is an important part of who I am but I have other parts too which have been somewhat abandoned over the years. I have decided to go back to work! It’s been almost 15 years since I was in paid employment. There is an opportunity on the horizon that I am exploring which fills me with a sense of excitement. I am looking forward to putting my skills to work and to being part of a team. Through my work I hope to be able to support people who feel they have become imprisoned in a place that keeps them living in survival mode only. To live a full life we need to feel joy, sadness, gratitude, love and more. I believe that emotions give our lives meaning and allow us to connect with others. Without them we would be nothing.
So, on that note I will leave you with this beautiful quote from Thich Nhat Hanh:
You need to wake up from your autopilot mode.
You have to live deeply and with more awareness so that you can be attentive to each moment.
Thank you for taking the time to read my second blog. I hope you got something out of it. Please do share it as I want it to bring hope and strength to others.