The one surprising thing that made it easy to give up alcohol for good
This week’s guest blog is from Vari Longmuir, a Melbourne-based illustrator and life coach. She helps creative women build businesses with more intention, authenticity and clarity. Vari has just celebrated 12 months since she chose to remove alcohol from her life. She shares her journey so far and why traumatic rock bottoms are not necessary in order to choose a life without alcohol.
Last week – with a mug of tea in hand – I quietly celebrated 1 year since deciding to remove alcohol from my life.
I will forever feel incredibly fortunate that my story of transition out of alcohol is not one of traumatic rock bottoms.
But, the truth is, having no ‘rock bottom’ almost makes it harder to make the decision.
If there’s nothing majorly at stake, and life appears to be ticking along just ﬁne, then why change anything?
It’s true – there was no major external drama around my drinking. Internally however, my relationship with alcohol had been something I’d been uncomfortable with for a long time.
Forever maybe …
When I look back, there were most deﬁnitely signs – in my late teens and early twenties – that me and alcohol did not have a healthy relationship.
Being suspended from school in New York, aged 17, for being drunk at a school basketball game, was just one of them.
But drinking had always been part of who I was. It was part of my identity – ‘Vari can sink pints with the boys. ’ – and my culture.
Wherever you go in the world, the Scots’ reputation for being able to ‘hold our drink’ precedes us. And man did I try to live up to this!
I knew that full-blown alcoholism was in my family. I’d watched it happen to family members, as a kid. The kind of addiction that actually kills people. I knew I wasn’t ‘like that’. So I must not have a problem … right?
I know … perhaps I’ll just moderate my drinking …
Moderation was useless for me.
Part of what made me uncomfortable about my drinking was how much energy it stole from me. Trying to decide if I’d drive tonight and have a drink tomorrow took up way too much of my already depleted energy.
My breakup with alcohol did not come with a big pre-planned announcement.
I didn’t wait for the start of a new month, or week, or day.
I just quietly decided – at 8pm on a Sunday night – that it was time. And the glass of wine I’d poured went down the sink.
Here’s what scared me the most when I thought about a life without alcohol:
- I’d lose friends
- I’d no longer be invited to things (and if I did, it would be excruciatingly painful to be there sober)
- What would it mean for me and my guy if we couldn’t go out for a drink or have a bottle of wine with dinner?
- Holidays, birthdays, weddings, family gatherings – how do you do these without alcohol?
But this seemingly insigniﬁcant, low-key decision changed my life. It changed my life in ways I could not have imagined.
I decided that I didn’t want to be someone who had iron-clad willpower to resist alcohol. I decided that I would be someone who wouldn’t have the desire for alcohol.
I wanted to be the woman who was interesting and creative and funny and outgoing. And who didn’t think about alcohol.
I wanted to be the woman who would happily go to a bar or have dinner with friends who were drinking. And not feel like the odd one out.
I wanted to be the woman who got on a plane, asked for a sparkling water and felt the same excitement as my champagne-sipping travel companions.
I wanted to be the woman who could pick up her keys and drive anywhere at any time. (This was a big one for me as a mother of two growing boys.)
I wanted to be the woman who could enjoy the natural pleasures of summer – long hot nights, ocean swims, warm early mornings – without diluting them with alcohol.
I wanted to be the woman who could count on herself every moment of every day and do what I said I was going to do.
Today, I am this woman. This is what a year without alcohol has gifted me.
My internal discomfort with alcohol was drowning me. It was distracting me from emotions that had to be processed, relationships that had to be healed, art that had to be created, words that needed to be written and decisions that had to be made.
The rich, full life I dreamed of was not available to me while alcohol was still present.
What I know to be true is this:
Balance does not come from the hardcore workout followed by the wine-fuelled nights – an increasingly scary zeitgeist of our time.
It comes from compassion and curiosity and gentleness towards myself.
A sober life doesn’t only ask us to step away from alcohol. It asks us to step towards ourselves. To be more fully us. To embrace our vulnerabilities and insecurities with all our beautiful shyness and nervousness.
Because that is when people see the real us. That is when we authentically connect on a soul level. And it is this willingness to be seen for who we truly are that inspires others to give themselves permission to do the same.
A marathon a day for 28 days: a legacy of life with less alcohol
This week’s guest blog is from Mark Avery, who works for Vodafone, allied to HSM’s longest continual supporter, the Vodafone Foundation. Mark has a massively ambitious plan to raise awareness for various causes, including HSM next year, and we’re grateful, but also a little nervous …
In June 2020 I’m going to be running 968 km from Brisbane to Sydney.
Not all in one go though – that would be crazy! Instead, I’m going to run a marathon a day for 23 days, finishing off at the Opera House on June 18th which happens to be my 40th birthday.
My heart is beating a little bit faster and my hands are a little bit sweaty just writing that.
Why am I doing this?
It’s not just to get out of work for a month, or to get away from the wife and kids.
Back in October 2014, and quite out of the blue, a close friend was diagnosed with cancer.
Frank sadly passed away in February 2015.
And it really felt as quick as it took you to read that sentence. One minute we were all laughing and messing about, passing our kids over the back fence to each other’s houses, and in a short space of time … we were all a bit lost.
Not only had I lost a friend, but I was trying to be strong – what I thought was strong, anyway.
I didn’t really know what to do. I didn’t know what to say, and like most blokes, I kept it in, tried to be ‘strong’. Although on the inside I was really struggling.
And of course when it rains it pours. At the same time I got promoted. Sounds great right?
I couldn’t concentrate. I couldn’t sleep. I felt anxious. Did I mention I couldn’t concentrate?
And I felt depressed. I was having panic attacks at work – something that I’d never experienced before. I had to keep pretending I had a phone call, to excuse myself from meetings to go outside to be able to breathe.
And I was drinking. I was drinking a lot to try to cope and numb the pain. Which of course, made it all worse.
“What you seek is seeking you” ~ Rumi
So I remember thinking about what happened to Frank and thinking I needed to do something.
I went to the doctor and when they asked how I was, I broke down in tears. And strangely enough, I felt better after that. Just letting it out and talking about it seemed to release the tension that had built up.
And then came one of those crazy synchronistic moments (if you believe in that stuff) that really changed the direction of my life.
For the tenth year in a row I was thinking about entering a marathon. I always really ‘thought’ about it. I had really good intentions of doing it, but I always made my excuses (being too busy is my favourite) and let myself off the hook. But this time was different.
Lily came home from school with a picture she’d drawn for me.
‘Daddy I’ve drawn a picture for you that I know you will love.’
It was a picture of Mickey Mouse with the famous Walt Disney quote …
‘If you can dream it, you can do it.’
I signed up 5 minutes later, with a big lump in my throat.
What’s your legacy?
I always thought I was invincible as a kid. I thought I would live forever and that I had plenty of time to do everything I wanted.
Frank’s death really hit me like a sledgehammer.
This was the first point in my life that I thought … really thought … about my life. It made me really think about what I wanted to leave behind. What I wanted to achieve. What I wanted to give. How I wanted to be remembered.
I wanted to leave a legacy I would be really proud of.
And so it was in this more optimistic state that I committed to start running in the morning, before work. I couldn’t sleep anyway so thought it would be a good use of my time.
And from here I started to cut down my alcohol.
Training for a marathon, and completing it, led to a 50 km. Which then led to a 100 km. Then a couple more 100 km. And next year to a 100 miler. Always with this big goal in the back of my mind …
So, back to my original question … why am I doing this?
I’m doing this for a number of reasons.
I’m doing this in memory of a great friend.
I’m doing this to acknowledge the great work of many charities out there, including mental health charity ‘Hello Sunday Morning’ whose vision is to change the world’s relationship with alcohol and the impact it has on mental health.
I’m doing this to share my story, to really highlight that you don’t really know what people are thinking and going through behind the mask they wear out in public, or what they put on facebook. It’s ok to take that mask off and to talk.
And of course I’m doing this for Vicki and the kids. I want Lily and Alfie to grow up thinking anything’s possible.
I’m doing this to leave a legacy.
The best reason to give up alcohol: a personal journey
This week, we have a guest post from our mates at Sober in the Country, curated by Shanna Whan.
I can’t speak for anyone else’s experience of beating their alcohol addiction.
In my case, there was this tiny, seemingly inconsequential moment – the kind that happens thousands of times a day – that proved the catalyst for change. It was nothing I could have planned or set up. I could never have foreseen what would make the difference.
I had tried AA meetings, tried quitting drinking for a month here or three months there, tried drinking only on weekends, or drinking by an ever-shifting set of rules that was designed to give me the illusion of control but only left me exhausted and defeated.
My husband, Chris, had landed a new job that included a lovely house on acreage. I was always a country girl in an urban world, so my bag was packed before the ink had dried on his contract. We were only about a month into our new arrangement and still in awe of our good fortune.
Sitting on the front verandah of our beautiful new house on a warm October afternoon, our 18-month-old daughter was playing on the lawn in front of us. I was drinking a glass of white wine – my second or third for the afternoon – when she waddled up to me and stretched her hand toward my wine glass.
‘Tah?’ she said.
In an instant I saw my daughter – not 18 months old now – but eight years old, then 10, then 13, then 17, then an adult, then a parent herself.
I saw her growing and as she did, learning what the glass meant. Learning that after a couple, Mum would become boisterous and funny, after another one or two, quieter, with eyes that were slower to focus, speech that would slow down, imperceptibly at first, just the odd word here and there.
She would learn that awful dread feeling when she saw her mother’s glass being filled. The feeling of knowing what was to unfold over the next few hours and being powerless to stop it. She would learn the shame of despising a parent you love because of their weakness. The inability to respect them as you hear them slurring and repeating themselves, or see them stumbling and holding themselves up on the furniture. The fury at their vehement denial of a problem.
It was October 31, 2009 and that was it. That was the moment.
The day after
The next afternoon when Chris got home, I went to the gym. It was not so much about a healthy lifestyle change as it was about breaking a pattern. If I was at home at the pre-dinner hour, I didn’t trust myself to stick to my promise.
Every day for the next three weeks I went to the gym at 5 o’clock. Then one day, I didn’t. The spell was broken. My days of opening a bottle of wine when Chris got home from work, were over.
There was Christmas to get through, but by then I was two months in. The longer it was since my last drink, the more determined I was not to cave. I didn’t want to have to start the counter again from Day 1, and because I had made this promise to my daughter, I felt that if I didn’t make it work this time, I would never be able to kick it. It felt like life and death to me.
Onwards and upwards
My decision to quit drinking coincided with my first semester of a Graduate Certificate I had enrolled in at university, as a mature-aged student.
I had been a bright kid at school: I was dux of my primary school and went to a selective high school and on to university before wasting my 20s and early 30s in a self-destructive haze of mediocre jobs and a lack of direction.
The time that I reclaimed through sobriety I put into study, and was rewarded with four High Distinctions from four subjects. The certificate I received at the end of that course represents to me a point in my life so significant and poignant, a point where I chose a life of quality and dignity over one of careless disregard for myself, and by extension, my family. That piece of paper signifies a return to self-love and self-respect. I am so proud of it.
One of the things I have come to understand as a recovered alcoholic (I use ‘recovered’ rather than the term ‘recovering’, because I know there will be no going back for me) is that your choice becomes an inspiration for others.
Struggling with alcohol can feel very shameful and lonely, but once you are sober you learn that many, many people fret about their levels of drinking.
When I meet people and they learn that I don’t drink, they are often curious about my reasons. I try to be open about my past, although it depends on the company – I am not always immune to worrying about what others will think.
When people learn I have overcome alcoholism, more often that not, they will say something along the lines of ‘I really need to look at how much I drink’ or ‘I wish I could be as strong as you’.
If I ever lost sight of how important my sober life is to me now, I am occasionally reminded by a nightmare that is always the same scenario.
In these dreams, which I have maybe two or three times a year, I am at a party and I start drinking again after all the years sober. The devastation at having broken my promise to myself is palpable, and when I wake up I am always weak with relief to find that it is not real. These nightmares serve as a powerful reminder of what I would lose if I ever went back to drinking.
In the years since October 31, 2009, I feel like I have started living my life instead of reacting to it. I have found courage because I have stopped feeling like a fraud. I am more organised and more disciplined in every area.
My life of drinking was characterised by ‘I can’t be bothered …’ but now things are very different.
My home and career are as I have designed them, and I am devoted to my little family. Studying is still a big part of my life. Instead of using alcohol to ‘turn the volume down’ every night, I spend my evenings charting new intellectual territory.
We have horses and go riding as a family. I have the energy to experiment with new recipes when I cook. I do ‘tourist’ things in neighbouring towns. I plan holidays, I save money, I buy thoughtful gifts for people, I keep my home clean and uncluttered.
In short, these days I can be bothered.
But beneath all the shouts of ‘Cheers!’ and ‘Taxi!!’ there is a level of shame and concern for many people about the levels at which they drink.
For anyone wanting to embark on a life of sobriety, but who fears what that involves, you should be reassured. Waiting ‘on the other side’ is a life of peace and freedom from craving, of fulfilment and quiet pride, and of endless time to achieve all those things you’ve always wanted.
What I’ve learned halfway into my ‘three months without alcohol’ challenge
In its earlier days, Hello Sunday Morning encouraged people to “do an HSM challenge” – a period of three, six or 12 months completely without alcohol. I recently started working as Head of Marketing with HSM and decided to get into character by giving this a go for the first quarter of this year. I chose the easy-peasy three-month entry-level point, and at the halfway point of just six weeks, this is what I have found …
So, what happens when you give up the booze?
I imagine it depends on how large booze looms in your life before you jam the cork back in the bottle. In my case, I suspected that my drinking was on the wrong side of the bell-curve, although not to a reckless or unhealthy extent – but maybe I’ve been deluding myself. One time in my 40s I reviewed the previous year and realised that my casual drinking had become habitual, to the point where there probably hadn’t been a single 24-hour period in that 12 months when I wouldn’t have blown over 0.05 in a breathalyser at some stage.
I cooled it a bit on that realisation, but through my 50s I’d still drink nearly daily, although I started to leave a few alcohol-free days in the working week. My drinking left me functional and I had no problems with it domestically (I have a wife who matches me drink for drink). It was normal when compared against my circle of friends, and it was also normal when compared with what I remember of my parents’ drinking.
I like to drink. I don’t like being at the point where I slur my words (and that is quite a low threshold for me), but I certainly enjoy heading in that direction. On normal evenings, when I was working the next day, I would share a bottle of wine with my wife, and often get some way into a second. On weekends, it would be two bottles between us on both Friday and Saturday. I’m not a great one for following expert advice on health, but even I could work out that I was consuming up to 35 standard drinks per week, compared to the 14 that is recommended as a safe limit.
So what prompted me to give it up?
Well, I noticed that I functioned better on those days following an alcohol-free day. In particular, I slept very much better. On nights that I drank, I would go to sleep readily, but often wake up after midnight with a racing mind and anxious thoughts. Sometimes this would be accompanied by a hard-beating heart, and a return to sleep was always a few hours away (usually just minutes before the alarm clock went off). It left me feeling like crap the following day, even when there was no detectable hangover. On alcohol-free nights, I would usually sleep right through, and if I did awaken in the night, I could easily fall asleep again.
On working weeks that I went alcohol free, it was clear to me that my alertness, focus and general intellect improved as the week wore on, and I began to wonder if, perhaps, a late-40s career plateau had been partly self-inflicted.
Finally, I recently began to wake up in the mornings with distinctly tender feelings in the kidneys, which would pass after a couple of hours. On days following an alcohol-free night this never happened.
So this year I’ve decided to do a Hello Sunday Morning 3-month challenge: no booze at all until April. I’m now at the six-week midpoint and I’ve noticed some positive things, but I’ve also noticed a few downsides, so here they are in summary:
Upsides of going without alcohol
Sleep. The first and most unmistakable benefit is a great night’s sleep. This kicked in after the first 48 hours, but it also seems to be improving over the six weeks. Not only is the sleep deep and unbroken, but the quality of dreams also seems to have improved: they’ve been more detailed, linger in the memory for longer with an almost cinematic quality to them, and for some reason often feature Her Majesty the Queen (although I realise this last phenomenon may not be universal).
General well-being. You know how your car feels after you’ve just given it a 15,000 km service? You can’t put your finger on it, but everything seems tighter, more responsive and just works better? That’s how I felt at the two week mark, and it hasn’t fallen off yet. I know I would pay a lot of money for a vitamin supplement that had this effect.
Energy and focus. There’s been a small but definite improvement in my work performance, particularly in my ability to concentrate, organise and generally be ‘present’ during meetings. The effect carries over when I get home. Just the other night, I ate my dinner and then carried on painting a spare bedroom from where I’d left off over the weekend. That wouldn’t have happened if I’d opened a bottle of wine first. However, it doesn’t last long into the night, and I’ve been going to bed earlier than usual since starting this dry spell.
Mood. I’m told we all conduct a continuous dialogue with ourselves in our heads during waking hours. Over the past couple of decades, my dialogue has tended towards the unhelpful and self-critical, particularly at 2:00 am when I’m trying to get back to sleep. I think it’s had a corrosive effect on my self-confidence over that time, because I can feel confidence returning during this period.
Downsides to going without alcohol
Something’s missing. I’d got into the habit of coming home, starting the cooking and opening a bottle of wine each day. For the first few weeks I felt uneasy during the 5:00–7:00 pm window – like I’d forgotten to do something important. A glass in hand was a prop for the post working-day chit-chat with my wife, and it felt odd without the wine. It’s also noticeable that our conversation doesn’t flow or digress onto tangents in quite the same way.
Twinges. Every now and then, quite out of the blue, I get a pang of regret that I won’t be opening a bottle of shiraz tonight. It passes.
NA substitutes. During the first few weeks we tried some of the non-alcoholic options that are available, with mixed results. To my surprise, the non-alcoholic beers were pretty good. It’s obvious at first sip that Cooper’s Birell is non-alcoholic, but if you accept it for what it is, then it’s a very pleasant thirst-quenching lager-style drink. Carlton Zero actually does taste like a nicely hoppy-flavoured beer, but tends to bloat a bit. Other than the beers, there don’t seem to be any ersatz products that have the same satisfying depth of flavour of a wine or spirit. The NA wines were pretty dire; the whites were too sweet, and the reds were flat, like a bottle that has been left open for a couple of weeks. We also tried the non-alcoholic distilled botanicals which are promoted as an alternative to gin. For the life of me, I couldn’t detect the connection. One of them tasted like water that had recently been used to boil peas, and the taste of all of them was too weak to survive a mixer. (However, my wife really likes the Brunswick Aces with tonic water.)
Adverts. I’m realising now just how powerful adverts for booze are. They ambush you with a desire when you’re going dry, and either the industry has recently doubled its advertising spend, or the ads have always been all over the place. Product placement also works well on me. I’ve never been much of a spirit drinker before, but the sight of a couple of fingers of golden scotch being poured in a Netflix series gets me thinking “Mmmm – whiskey …” The cues are everywhere!
People’s reactions. This is quite a complex one, and I might expand on this at the three month mark. Most people don’t give a damn if you’re not drinking, and that’s great. However, some people take it as passive-aggressive criticism of their own drinking, or as a dismissal of their culture, almost a form of apostasy. I’m building a repertoire of responses beyond “mind your own business”, and I’ll give them a test run for the remainder of the 3-month trial.
Which brings me to contemplation of my return to boozing in April. On the one hand, I’ve got my eye on the exact bottle of shiraz for opening on 1 April. But on the other hand …
The last couple of weeks have been quite easy as I settle into new habits while still noticing the benefits, and I’m tempted to stretch this out to a 6-month HSM challenge period. I remember once reading an interview with Mel Gibson (okay, not the best choice of role model, perhaps – but this was about 20 years ago) who was talking about the benefits of staying off the grog. He said the real benefits don’t kick in until 6 months, but that most people simply don’t have the patience to last that long.
That’s got me curious …
It’s never too late
June 17, 2018. The day that would change my life forever.
I started drinking at the young age of 14, and I fell in love with being drunk. It made life fun and entertaining, and turned me into a more sociable and likeable person. It helped ease my nerves in a social environment and made me not care what others thought about me. To be frank, it made me not care at all.
I liked the feeling of security and invincibility when I was intoxicated. It wasn’t until after years of drinking and getting older that I learned my lessons the hard way. I started experiencing the negative impact alcohol had on me but it still didn’t stop me. I was blind to it. I was too stubborn and delusional to admit I had a lost control with my drinking.
My drinking turned me into someone I hated
I would say and do things to family members and people I loved that I would regret years later. I would say and do whatever I wanted without thinking about the short- or long-term consequences.
Alcohol let me live in a distorted world where anything goes. I thought I was on top of the world and in control of everything, only to have the world fall apart and crush me underneath. After a failed relationship, I was no longer drinking for the same reasons I did when I was younger. It was no longer for pleasure, enjoyment or social gatherings; I was drinking to kill or at least ease pain, loneliness, self-pity, blame, anger, hatred, shame, guilt and depression. It was the end of the world. I was in a black hole. I felt like there was nothing left for me. I was literally trying to drink myself to death.
I couldn’t function normally without alcohol in my system
The only way to stop the sweating and shaking at night was to wake up and have a drink. I thought I could never break this vicious cycle, so I lost hope and accepted my defeat.At this point, the few people who still loved and cared about me saw a version of me that nobody had seen before; a version of me that I never thought I could be. They knew I was battling demons stronger than I had thought possible. I didn’t want anyone’s sympathy or pity because the hard truth was I had put myself in the position I was in. I didn’t want to admit it, accept it or even face it.I told myself that death had to be better than whatever this thing called life was, and by this stager my family had seen and heard enough. My parents mentioned the idea of sending me into a detox and rehab center for my drinking. I still can’t say how or why it happened but one day I could see how much my self-destructive drinking was hurting my family. Parents were watching a son, and brothers were watching a brother inch closer to his funeral.
I finally decided, after spending half of my life in denial, that I had a problem with my drinking and it was time to get help
So low was my self-regard that I feel that the decision to go into detox and rehab was done more for the sake of my family that for myself. Ironically, it was the first time in a long time that I wasn’t being selfish. I wanted to die but my family wanted me to live. It took a lot of courage and willpower for me to finally admit that I had a problem, and that it was time for change.
That decision started me on the road to controlling my life again. It gave me a higher sense of personal responsibility and ownership. I agreed to enter a detox and rehab center on June 17, 2018. The idea of entering a detox and rehab centre was terrifying at first. I asked myself, “how did I ever get to this point?” I told myself, “I’m nothing like these other people here, I don’t belong in a place like this.” But I realised on the very first day just how wrong I was.
We all shared an obvious weakness in common. However, we were also defiant, courageous and strong enough to admit we needed help. People like us come from all ages, backgrounds and walks of life, and if you saw us on the street you would not know that we had lost control of our drinking habits.
I came to understand how my choices and behaviours had affected people who’d had the misfortune of crossing paths with the old me. I acknowledged and accepted the chaos and destruction I’d inflicted on others – I had no choice but to. I was finally able to forgive myself for what I had done in the hope that, one day, those that I have harmed can forgive me, even though I may not deserve it.
The new, sober me has learned to love myself and others again
The new, sober me is the strongest version of me I’ve ever known. It was the longest, darkest and hardest battle I had ever fought. Accepting that I needed help allowed me to take back control of my life. It made me feel I was human again, and not an abomination to society. My only regret is not going through treatment sooner…but I also learned it’s never too late to seek help.
Written by Hello Sunday Morning supporter, Kevin Repass