Greetings and best wishes to you all for this brand-new year ahead. I hope it’s started on a positive note for you. On the first day of 2022 I woke up as fresh as a daisy after my third new year celebration without alcohol. It feels good to be alive and my heart is full of hope.
The boozy past
I remember previous new year’s eves spent drinking from early evening and not making it to midnight because I was too tired from the effects of the toxins on my body and brain. I always used the excuse that I hated new year anyway, but the truth was I was depressed. Deep down I was probably worried that I was going to repeat the pattern of behaviour of previous years – resolving to live a healthier life and failing in my endeavours before January was through. I’ve written about the toxic effects of alcohol before, but it’s good to be reminded of how alcohol disrupts the delicate chemical balance of the brain and can lead to anxiety and depression. Looking back now, I can see how depressed I was in comparison to how I feel, and how I perceive my life now. I had no idea how much I was missing out on when I was in the subtle yet choking grip of alcohol addiction. If you’ve followed my story, you will know that I was never a day-drinker and could go for two nights without it every week. But just because I didn’t have a glass of wine in my hand did not mean I wasn’t thinking about it. It was all-consuming… the ‘will I or won’t I?’ followed by the nasty self-criticism when I gave in. Honestly, trying to moderate my alcohol intake became totally exhausting. In the end, I decided to give abstinence a try. Why the hell not! Who cares if people thought I was a freak or labelled me as alcoholic or weak. I had to do what was right for me (and my family too!) even if all around me people were downing drinks as though it was the coolest thing to do.
After 966 days (yes, I still count each glorious sober day) of sober living, I can now testify to the damage it was doing to my mental health, my physical condition, and my relationships. Admittedly, it took about six months for the magic to start to happen. But that’s not a long time in comparison to the number of years that I’d spent drinking. All up, I think I was in a relationship with alcohol for close to 40 years. Six months was a small price to pay for what I’d put my body through. I must acknowledge the miracle that is the human body for the stuff it can endure, and for being able to recover from years of abuse. I feel a deep sense of gratitude to my 55-year-old body for putting up with my bad choices for so long and for giving me a second chance to live a better life.
While I haven’t felt depressed for close to two years, I do notice anxiety creeping up on me occasionally, but I know where it comes from. In my case, it is a result of the self-critic who still tries to sneak her way into my head if I’m not careful. But I have an entire toolkit at my disposal that I use religiously to keep me grounded and ensure that my anxiety is kept at bay.
Breathwork & meditation in the now
I’ve added these three fantastic things to my self-care routine. Mindfulness is what allows me to be present, to fully embrace the moment and live it as if it were my last. I often remind myself that tomorrow is not guaranteed, and I must make the most of each moment that I have in the here and now.
Breathwork is something relatively new for me which I’ve been practicing with good results for a couple of months now. Every morning before I leave my bedroom, I do a session of deep breaths through my nose while in a kneeling position on my bed with a pillow resting on my calves which I sit back on. After emptying my lungs, I then take 30 massive inhales in and out through the nose and then I hold my breath while squeezing my tummy and pelvic floor muscles in. My husband and kids thought I’d lost my mind altogether when they first heard me doing it, but now they accept that it’s something really really good for me. I use a ticking clock to help keep me on track as it’s necessary to time the hold. The longer the better. When I first started, I was lucky to get past 45 seconds. But over time I’m reaching two-minute holds. What makes it easier is if I can clear my mind and relax into it. If my mind is busy, I tend to lose the ability to extend the hold. I do three or four rounds of this each morning, and I have found it transformational. I seem to be calmer throughout the day. While things still get to me, I deal with them in a way that ensures my self-care. For example, if an argument is taking place that I could easily get drawn into, I am much more focused on steering it in a direction that is productive rather than getting sucked into the negative energy. I guess I’ve learnt to rise above things much more. I think that’s one of the powerful benefits of meditation – it gives us the ability to watch the mind and know that we are not our thoughts. We are so much more than that. Inside every one of us is a higher being that can choose to think whatever we like.
I follow the breathwork with a few minutes of meditation. Just sitting comfortably, gently noticing my breathing and not allowing any thoughts to settle. They will come, and I let them go. I connect with the higher being that is me, and I feel the peace that comes from deep inside.
Once I’ve finished my breathwork and meditation, I write three pages in my journal. It’s an interesting time of the day to do it as the waking mind tends to be more honest. I have dumped lots of stuff on those pages that I would’ve ordinarily carried with me through the day. Journaling is my way of making sense of my world. It allows me the chance to pick apart what’s bugging me about myself and others, these two things are intricately linked. It’s also an opportunity to capture some deep and meaningful ideas and observations that come to me in my dreams. Yesterday morning I ended up writing six pages as I listed all the amazing things about 2021. We’ve gotten used to hearing about what a horrible year it’s been because of the pandemic. But it hasn’t all been bad. If I hadn’t stopped to take stock yesterday, I wouldn’t have remembered half the fantastic things that happened to all four members of my family in 2021. It made me realise how lucky we’ve been and gave me much to be grateful for.
Rather than tell you about all the times I’ve been to the gym since I became sober, I’ll tell you instead how much I’ve enjoyed walking, cycling and even swimming in nature. I’ve become more awakened to the joy that nature offers us. I love doing little spurts of resistance training such as push-ups or pull-ups when I’m at the park with the dog. I stopped worrying about what other people think of me when I’m exerting myself publicly. Life is too short. As long as I’m not hurting anyone or breaking any laws, I give myself permission to do what feels right.
I love the concept of functional fitness – strength training that will improve your long-term ability to do simple things like lift heavy items without putting your back out, climb stairs without feeling completely drained, get in and out of a low chair using good core muscles, run to catch a bus or your dog when you drop the lead by accident!
I absolutely love yoga and try to squeeze in a few minutes here and there if I can’t attend my class.
I have also discovered the incredible feeling of having a strong core for the first time in my life. Planking, in my view, was too hard and not important enough. A-ha, that’s where I was wrong. Now I realise the amazing benefits of having a strong core as we get older. I try to do one or two 3-minute planks every week, and I still shake for the last 30 seconds!! But I’ve noticed less back-ache, stronger glutes and hamstrings while my posture has improved hugely.
People are always talking about this thing called self-love and how you can’t love others if you don’t love yourself. Here’s the thing, action speaks louder than just saying you love yourself. So, what does it really look like? For me, the perfect act of self-love was acknowledging that I was abusing my body with alcohol and deciding it was time to do something about it. For others it might be admitting that their relationship with food is affecting their health, or someone might be spending all their money on gambling which is affecting their marriage etc etc. We don’t need anyone to tell us where we’re going wrong. We KNOW. When we are ready to listen, our heart, or intuition or whatever you wish to call it, will speak to us and we will KNOW. The first step is acknowledging the problem, and then accepting what needs to be done. It takes courage, but it is the only way. It might be that some people need counselling to help pick apart the underlying reasons for the unhealthy patterns of behaviour. I did! And I honestly couldn’t have reached this place without it. I learnt so much about myself and the human condition through group therapy and with one-on-one counselling over a period of two years. And it’s not over yet. I will always value the opportunity to talk through where I’m at with a professional counsellor. One of the greatest things I’ve learnt from counselling is this: I am not alone in my struggle. My struggle is real. I suffered, I made mistakes, I hardened my heart to protect myself and I numbed the pain with alcohol. I learnt that there is no shame in admitting my failures. I am worthy of love and happiness as much as you are. I learnt to forgive myself and others. I have embraced compassion for myself and every living creature. By facing my demons head-on and choosing life over addiction, I have come the closest to loving myself as I’ve been in my entire life. No-one will ever be able to tell me that I am not lovable because I know that I have given myself the greatest gift of self-love, sobriety.
I believe so much in the incredible benefits of talking to a trained counsellor that I have already started studying for my Diploma in Counselling and am hoping to be qualified by the end of this year. I look forward to working in private practice in 2023. What plans have you got for this year? Make it matter because you deserve to.