If you don't have time to read you can listen to this post below - just press play.
Perhaps you drink so you can chill out and relax after work. Or do you drink to drown your sorrows? Or to forget? Or do you drink to celebrate? Or perhaps because you're bored? Or do you drink to alleviate social anxiety?
I want to tell you my story in case it rings any bells, it might not, all of our stories are unique, but there is a huge message that I really want to get across to as many women as I can, as it's very important to me.
On a cold and dark Monday evening one January, I found myself walking up the steps of a crumbling community building around the corner from my apartment. I could smell that specific yet undefinable 'public' aroma that's universal to any property within the public domain.
The walls were filthy with greasy hand stains, the carpet was threadbare, and I could hear voices, bangs and echoes coming from some of the rooms above. I approached the door where I knew I needed to be with great trepidation, I looked around with shame - could anyone see me? My chest was tight, and my stomach was churning. I carefully opened the heavy fire door into an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
How had I got to this point?
I didn't really drink a lot when I was growing up, I didn't like the unusual taste or effects of alcohol and my parents didn't drink, so there was never any booze in the house.
I became a single parent when I was 21, and the days were long and hard and lonely. All my friends were travelling the world, or getting drunk and getting laid at parties, so I spent almost every evening, at home, alone.
It didn't matter, I found myself a new best friend, she was called white wine. I never got drunk as such, but every night when I put my precious daughter to bed, I'd pour myself a large glass of chilled Chardonnay. It was the only way I knew how to switch off and relax, and there was nothing wrong with it, that's what modern mums do. I'd learnt as such from the TV, from books, and from people I knew. Mums drink wine, it's a treat for them at the end of the day.
Our friendship grew and thrived, and I would turn to her on all occasions - celebrations, commiserations, as a treat, when I was feeling down, or when I was bored. I couldn't deny the relief I felt when I drank that first glass of ice-cold nectar, and I could feel my usually overactive mind becoming still. During the day, no matter how bad things got, I always knew in the back of my mind that at 7 pm I could have a glass of wine and everything would be ok, it helped me get through the days.
The years wore on, and my best friend accompanied me at all times. It got to the stage where I wouldn't even consider going out socially without drinking booze. "I can't go to the pub without drinking." I'd say, "I'm too anxious, I'm too nervous, I'm too shy". But of course, I never had to really justify myself, because everyone else behaved the same.
I didn't necessarily drink every day back then, but when my daughter got older, I inevitably got more freedom, she'd go to her dad's most weekends and also stay at friends overnight. I took this as an opportunity to drink more, and I couldn't even tell you in all honesty how many nights of total and utter debauchery I've had in my lifetime.
I could regale you with outrageous, hilarious, but often horrifying stories from my past but quite frankly we'd be here all day. What I can tell you is that nearly every single decision I've ever made that I've regretted has been from the result of drinking alcohol, either while drunk, or hungover.
I'd feel terrible when I'd drank too much, so I always regretted it in that sense, but I never ever questioned my own behaviour around drinking, or wondered why I drank so much, because, well everyone around me did too.
A big realisation
Fast forward to New Year at the age of 35. I was hungover, after yet another drinking session, I surveyed the empty wine bottles with disgust. I asked myself the question: "When was the last time you had an evening where you didn't drink?"
I couldn't remember. Perhaps I could count the times on one hand, or maybe I couldn't count them at all.
It was a turning point in my life. What the fuck are you doing, Hannah? Is this really what you want for your life, for your future?
My life had slowly turned to shit over the preceding decade - or had it always been shit? I'm not sure. It was all my own fault. A string of failed relationships that never should have been and career choices that were always a compromise. My self-esteem was so low that if a man were attracted to me and made it known, I'd have a relationship with him, it didn't matter if he was suitable or even if I liked him, I was just grateful that someone would have me.
I knew I had to be in a relationship for me to be happy as that's what I'd learned from a very early age. I needed to be desired by men because a woman's role is to be a wife, have a family, be a mum. Never once was an alternative option ever offered or considered.
On the surface, people thought I was ok as I mainly managed to present myself in public in a reasonable fashion, but deep down, I was dying inside. I was broken and lost, and I had been doing the only thing I knew how - numb the pain with alcohol in the hope that it might go away.
And so now I found myself having what I can only describe as a massive identity crisis. I realised nearly every single decision I'd made in my life had been made because I thought it was expected of me, or because other people wanted me to make it, not because I genuinely wanted to make it. I felt an unbelievable burden for being a woman that I'd only just realised, to conform, to look a certain way, to act a certain way and my whole life up until this point had centred around this, without me even knowing.
Who was I? I didn't know.
I've engaged in a lifetime of using substances, both legal and illegal, to numb a deep emotional pain that I was feeling inside, alongside excruciatingly low self-esteem that I couldn't identify. I carried on self-medicating as it's the norm, without even realising I was doing it.
But then I had this kinda social awakening, and it was also the first time in my life that I asked myself:
"Why are you drinking?"
Up until then, It had never even once crossed my mind to get to the bottom of this pain, what is this pain, where did it come from, how can I heal it?
I didn't like the AA meeting. The people were friendly enough, but as I sat there for 1.5 hours listening to the way these poor people's lives had crumbled, how they'd lost their jobs, found themselves homeless, or even lost custody of their children, I just didn't feel like any of that was me, I'd always managed to hold things together for the most part.
Nevertheless, I knew that I was an 'alcoholic' because, over the last year, I had not had a day without alcohol. I've heard many people talk over the years about alcoholism and the general consensus seems to be that if you don't have a drink for breakfast, then you're not an alcoholic. This is absolute bullshit.
It's also problematic because this definition also goes along with the idea of someone who has completely lost their shit, has no self-control and gets drunk for breakfast. So there's a lot of shame and embarrassment attached to seeking help, and also a barrier to realising you have a problem.
If we do something that deep down we really don't want to do, because we feel like we can't help it, then this is a big problem. Even if we do want to drink, because it numbs the drudgery or our futile lives, or fills the void of lost love or self-esteem, or distracts us from heartache and pain, then this is also a problem. Alcohol will never solve these issues, only make them worse.
Maybe your life hasn't turned to shit, you probably don't have a drink for breakfast, perhaps you even have reasonable control over your drinking? Are you one of those people who can have one or two and leave? If not, why not? What I want to say, and essentially is one of the main points of this post is that life without alcohol is a beautiful thing. Whether you consider yourself an alcoholic or not.
The big WHY
When we drink regularly, we have no time or space in our mind to investigate our feelings and deal with them. We're either drinking, hungover, or thinking about our next drink.
There's a massive problem in the way people perceive alcohol problems. We have simply never ever asked ourselves WHY, why are we drinking? There may be multiple reasons why we are drinking, and we can find the answers easier than you think.
Example Excercise - Asking Why
I had a drink last night.
Because I was stressed .
Stressed about work.
Because my boss keeps giving me extra work.
Because I don't like saying no.
Because I don't want people to think I'm lazy.
Because I want people to like me.
We can apply this form of questioning to every situation.
Then we have to ask ourselves, why would somebody not like me just for asserting ourselves? We daren't be ourselves, we daren't be authentic and show who we really are, perhaps we don't even know who we are anymore? We're so consumed with wanting everyone to like us and to fit in with the status quo. We've forgotten that we are good enough, just as we are. Just. As. We. Are.
It seems to be commonly accepted that alcohol is an excellent remedy for social anxiety. This is wrong. How about asking first WHY we have social anxiety? Do we feel bad about ourselves? Do we need to work on our confidence? What is it? What do we need to work on? Or do we just want to accept this label for the rest of our lives?
The label 'alcoholic' isn't a particularly useful one, 'Depressed' or 'Anxious' isn't helpful either. When we accept the labels that society or others place on us, it removes the idea of change, of movement, of progression. I firmly believe that as human beings, we all have the power to change our situations.
In the AA meeting, we talked about how to identify triggers and how to avoid drinking and what happens when we drink. I knew that I'd rather spend my time relaxing in a hot bath with a good book rather than focusing on alcohol. I never went back.
Millions of people do enjoy Alcoholics Anonymous, they find it hugely beneficial and absolutely fundamental to their recovery, so please do give it a try if you're struggling with your alcohol use. I'm just a very private person and wanted to do things my own way. In hindsight, it would have been a lot easier if I'd have had some sort of community I could connect with.
The first month that I stopped drinking was difficult. My anxiety was high, it was like there was a vice around my neck, preventing me from breathing correctly, and I just could not relax or sleep. I was beside myself and felt incredibly uncomfortable just being alone. I started to feel waves of emotions, all working their way out of me after years of hiding. I cried a lot, but I laughed a lot too. The feelings were mixed.
I suddenly found had so much time on my hands, a significant gap appeared in my life. This could have potentially been risky, but I spent the month obsessively cleaning my apartment and doing all of the jobs that I'd been letting build-up, and I exercised a lot.
I learned to identify my triggers. Triggers are situations, thoughts or feelings which make us want to drink, and I had plenty of them. For example, when I got home from work, the first thing I'd usually do is go to the fridge for a glass of wine, almost without even thinking. So I intercepted this by turning the kettle on as soon as I got in. I didn't particularly want a cup of tea, but I made one anyway. And this became my new routine, if we do things often enough, they soon become a habit.
After about a month, the craving for booze went entirely, and for the first time in years, I felt energised and positive and like I had a great future to look forward to.
Fear of the unknown
Before I'd tried any periods of abstinence, I was terrified, I thought I was going to be missing out on so much and like my life would never be able to be the same. How would I be able to live my life without my best friend? What I hadn't considered, even for one second, was that my life was going to expand in ways that I never thought possible and that only by stopping drinking alcohol my life was actually going to start.
Once I'd completely stopped drinking, and no longer had booze on mu mind, I found that I wasn't actually anxious, or nervous, or shy in social situations. I was calm, collected, confident and engaged, and this was because my life was totally back on control, and I felt good about myself. There were no nagging doubts or fears and insecurities about ...
Once an alcoholic always an alcoholic?
I don't have alcohol problems anymore. I can drink alcohol if I choose to, and I do so occasionally without any issues or desire for more. I seem to be one of those 'lucky' people who can take it or leave it.
But my whole outlook on alcohol has changed. I get so much pleasure from doing simple things like writing and reading and walking outdoors, and none of these I can enjoy after drinking.
The reason I can do this (in my opinion) is that I have worked out the reasons why I drank and addressed them. I'm not trying to cover up any pain anymore, I'm not trying to fill a void. The pain's gone because I've dealt with it in other ways. I've unearthed it and set it free. Yoga, meditation, counselling, retreats, journaling, walking in nature, they all contributed. There's no anger, no resentment, no regrets, no judgements, no guilt. There's no pain, no low self-esteem, no void.
Not only do I not suffer from addiction problems anymore, I rarely suffer from Anxiety or Depression. I sometimes get some mild anxiety around certain things, but I just power through, and it's always short-lived.
I'm certain that my anxiety, which I had suffered with for years, was a direct product of my drinking. It was like a vicious circle, I'd drink to calm my anxiety, and it would feel good in the short term, but in the long term always made me feel worse. It's such a relief to be free of all that now.
I'd like to make the bold statement:
If you drink regularly, or you drink to relax, or you drink for confidence, or to ease anxiety, then there is something deep down within you that needs teasing out, addressing and healing. If you cannot sit alone with yourself regularly and feel content, then there IS something fundamentally wrong.
I don't say this to offend, and I don't say it to be judgemental, or like I have all of the answers, I mean it as your friend.
I'm not ashamed that I was an 'alcoholic'. Society force-feeds us alcohol which is more addictive than heroin and then takes umbridge when we fail to control our consumption of it. If you feel like your alcohol use is becoming a problem, there's absolutely no shame in that. There's no shame in trying to reduce or stop, there's no shame in seeking help, there's no shame in wanting a better life for yourself.
Signs that you could have an alcohol problem
- You hide your drinking from friends or family
- You hide evidence of your drinking - ie. hide the empty bottles from neighbours
- You start to develop a tolerance and need more to get drunk
- You can't always remember what you've done the night before
- You drink alcohol to calm anxiety
- You want to stop or reduce, but you don't seem to be able to
- You can't say no to a drink
- You drink more days than you don't
Hello friends. I am Hannah Anstee, Women's Coach & Mentor. I warmly welcome you to The Future of 40, a space for independent, open-minded women who are looking for more. Namaste