The hardest thing about quitting alcohol has been and continues to be the complex journey of self-discovery I embarked on when I put the bottle down. While the clarity of sobriety allows me to live a better life in many ways, it also shines a blinding light on a harsh reality that I find quite painful. I used alcohol to escape the truth about me for a very long time. Without that fogging mechanism in place, I have had to come face-to-face with aspects of myself that I don’t like.
Ten years in a land down under
This week marks a whole decade since we moved lock, stock ‘n barrel to Perth, the city officially known as the most isolated city in the world. We had decided Australia was the place to live after spending a few holidays here over the years. We loved the Australian way of life as we experienced it through my sister’s eyes when we shared in her idyllic Sydney lifestyle. We witnessed first-hand what people had been saying about Australia and agreed that it was indeed a lucky country. We didn’t feel we had to give it any great thought when the job offer came through. We knew Australia would be a beautiful place for our kids to grow up. And we were right. When it came to meeting our own personal needs, we were wrong.
Isolation after isolation
When the world went into isolation back in March, I suddenly felt more relaxed about the fact that I don’t get out much. I secretly felt relieved that I was no longer the only one being deprived of a social life. I watched with concern as people posted memes about their drinking at home to cure boredom. I kept going with my sobriety, marking off major milestones, such as one year and 400 days, along the way. And then restrictions were lifted. I watched with envy as people posted their celebratory reunions in pubs, backyard barbecues and picnics in the park. At a time when people started celebrating being able to meet with friends again, I was lamenting the lack of friends in my life and the empty feeling of being tribe-less.
On one hand I know that I am a caring, loving mother and wife. I get great joy out of my relationships with my husband and my children. On the other hand, though, I am acutely aware of the stark lack of friends and meaningful connections in my life here in Perth. While I do see my family as my little tribe, it isn’t enough.
Acceptance is key
Our children are thriving here, so much so that we now have to accept that we are here for good. It’s unlikely they will ever consider anywhere else home given that they are living their formative years here and will receive all their education here. Whatever ideas my husband and I may have had about moving back to Europe one day are just fantasies now. We will not be moving to the other side of the world when the two people we care most about are here. We also believe there are many wonderful things about this country. So, that’s settled then.
I recently shared the story of the Glass Door with you which explained the traumatic note on which our lives in Perth began. The ten years since have been filled with awkwardness and poor judgment with regards to building friendships. Escaping into the bottle didn’t exactly help things. Time and time again we have reached out and made the effort to ‘fit in’ and build bonds with others, but more often than not we have fallen flat on our faces. Many an evening we have sat with a bottle of wine and dissected our failings which usually ended with the conclusion that we are somehow defective, and people don’t like us.
With my eyes wide open, I can see that this is an irrational thought. Nobody is perfect. Everybody makes mistakes and nobody deserves to feel left out, as though they don’t count. A more rational way of looking at it is that, despite our efforts, people don’t have capacity for us in their lives. Everybody we meet already has their core group of friends who they are happy with – people they’ve either gone to school with, worked with or have simply known forever. I have one or two people I will meet up with now and again for a dog walk or a bike ride but that’s as far as it goes. They are part of their own tribes while we remain on the periphery. Alcohol helped me forget about this for a time and it is so true what Gabor Mate says, ‘The opposite of addiction is connection.’ As long as I was numbing the pain, the absence of connection was allowed to fester like a sore beneath layers of bandages.
I’m fascinated by the role of a tribe in any given society. We all crave the feeling of inclusion in something bigger and better than ourselves. One Harvard study that I came across examined the lives of 3,000 people. Those that engaged regularly with others through shared activities outlived their reclusive peers by an average of two-and-a-half years. Another study of a small town of immigrants who looked out for one another were less likely to have cases of suicide, alcoholism, drug addiction or crime within their community. There is plenty of scientific data available to prove that intimacy with others can actually prevent disease. Loneliness is a killer. Being part of a tribe is therefore important for our survival. Yet we live in an era where more and more people find themselves uprooted and living in distant lands, away from their tribe. Whether it’s for economic reasons or because of a lifestyle choice, people find themselves having to start again, to create that support group around them. Some people will be lucky and will be welcomed into the flock through work or at the school gate, but others won’t be so lucky. Some countries and cultures are harder to penetrate than others. And it definitely gets harder the older we get because people are well embedded in their tribes and can be quite protective of them too.
No party to go to
Perth has proven to be a hard nut to crack. I will always remember one incident in particular that stands out as the perfect example of how Perth can be. We had only recently moved into the street where we have lived for the past eight years. Being outgoing, I had introduced myself to our neighbours. Soon our kids started playing ballgames together with other kids on the street. One Saturday afternoon, one of the neighbours who I had already spoken to a few times at the gate (as you do) came and knocked on our front door. I immediately invited him inside, but he chose to remain on the doorstep. He began by telling me that it was his 50th birthday and he was having a party. While I congratulated him, inside I excitedly hoped this was leading to an invitation to a party. (Perhaps this was naïve of me? I am convinced that if this were to happen in Ireland, I would have been invited.) Alas he went on to tell me that there would be lots of cars parked on the road later that evening and just wanted to apologise in case anyone parked too close to our driveway. With that, he turned and walked away leaving me with my mouth open and my heart sinking beneath me. And that pretty much sums up how it’s been ever since.
Light at the end of the tunnel
The good news is that I have confronted these feelings and am no longer beating myself up for being such an epic failure. Instead, I have spent time reflecting on the things that make me who I am, and I have a better understanding of the values that are important to me. With this knowledge, I can reach out and find new ways to engage with like-minded people. My ambition is to be part of a tribe whose common goal is the greater good and one that reflects my own values and accepts me as I am. I keep reminding myself that life is about progression, not perfection. As long as I am always trying to do better, then I will be OK. Thanks for taking the time to be here today. If you know of a tribe that might welcome a new member, please let me know.