40 Years Of Sobering-Up
People who drink too much, by definition, can’t appreciate the damage they are doing a) to themselves, and b) to those around them. They lack feeling.
Alcohol, like any addiction or addictive behaviour, takes away feeling. It blurs and disconnects the intimate synchrony between the body, the mind and the emotions – and consequently, of course, with the world. Individually the person atrophies, and collectively we all become less connected. Alcohol clogs the organs to the point that they’re no longer able to operate magically, as a part of the harmonious and whole human being.
When I say ‘magical’ I’m referring to the epic complexity of any average person, who holds a veritable internal planet; a beating, running, dancing universe even – of myriad layers and scales, rivers and oceans, weathers and climates – all held together mysteriously by this potent alchemist that we call a ‘will’.
I grew up with alcoholic parents, in a tiny wee village, on an island, in Scotland, in the 1970s. Even if they wouldn’t have classified themselves as continually-alcohol-dependent, this was a world absolutely saturated with booze, reeking of it, days and nights measured in pints. All emotions were related to drinking; either full of it, the angry hangover from it, or the pent-up lack of it, and the tense striving for money to fund more of it.
It was sanctioned, because that’s what everyone else was doing in the village, on the island, in the country, as that time. It was normal, and folks even got highly agitated with a person who didn’t drink (a lot of) alcohol – non-drinkers were a tiny percentage of religious, ill, uptight weirdos… or in the least, super-boring. Drinking was seen as an escape, as a means of becoming a more exciting, loosened-up version of the self, a way of becoming more connected.
But the reality of a community or a life fuzzying between party and hangover is quite the opposite of being connected: it’s a subtle destroyer of soul, of energy, of love, and of consciousness. It eats away over time at our ability to know ourself, to express ourselves clearly, to pursue goals, to get on in the world. It closes down the very internal dialogue that should be at the core of any healthy human being, and thus is changes beyond recognition the conversation that we have with the rest of the world. We become like toxic wee islands of senselessness.
What are the knock-on effects of having been raised in an alcoholic atmosphere – a place where it is normal to be numb, and to blame the world for all your hidden pain, which you have genius-elaborate means of avoiding? How easy is it to rise from the ashes and truly transform into the fullness of what we can and should be?
It’s well beyond time that we started understanding a much deeper, more integrated model of alcoholism – rather than our common reference to alcoholics as people who take drunkenness to the point of severe addiction, leaving an irredeemable soul. Whilst simultaneously condoning what we term as ‘casual’ use of alcohol, and downgrading it to good old harmless fun. Perhaps we could look at how the very character of alcohol affects the depths our culture and mentality, and our individual and collective well-being and spirituality.
I’ll explain a little about my own first four decades of healing from alcohol:
My 42nd birthday had just passed, and there was something weird going on in my body: clouds of pain manifesting here-there-everywhere, jumping somewhere else as soon as I looked at them. It was a fairly intense fall-out from some deep massage work by a talented practitioner, and I wasn’t able to get to grips with it. I knew that there was something very wrong with my internal (detoxification) organs, that my body was trying to clean itself profoundly, and it couldn’t quite do it – I was helpless to support the healing.
After several days of being barely able to raise my head in the morning, and aching with the kind of pain that happens when one has fallen from a height… Having tried gallons of water, electrolytes and multi-vitamins, napping, and the like… I began just plain old letting go, accepting it, because there was no other option available to me. Not judging or trying to understand what was happening. Just listening.
Sitting in meditation some days later, and allowing thoughts to align, to synchronise with my body, I got a strong clear story rising up into my surface consciousness: I saw a clearly-defined map of all the trails I’d taken, the challenges I’d struggling with…. versus this beautiful near-future which seemed tantalisingly close, but barred. At the core of this map was a primal urge to give everything up – it was pressing on me from behind, pushing me as if towards the edge of everything, and I had knew that this sensation related to this repeating story of how things could never just coast along quietly for me.
I recognised this as a profound final stage of my co-dependent relationship with alcohol.
Much of my younger years were spent surrounded by heavy drinkers, from parents to pub culture, to parties at home to drinking sessions on beaches up glens behind village halls… There might have been many quiet, beautiful moments, but the ones which really stick out are the dramatic ones. The worst ones are completely blocked-out like the darkest night. The rare parental comfort that I do recall was drenched in booze, and the familiarity of that morning reek of spirits being sweated out, the dark funk of parents and visitors dragging themselves into the day, groaning… The continuous atmosphere of distance; of everyone being totally fucking out of it. They were just young adults, letting loose the tensions of their age and time. BUT we were profoundly sentient and intelligent human children, being formed and educated by every inebriated nuance and misstep.
So, a seamless shift into teenage years using drink because that’s just what we did: that’s what the language of youth was – it was as natural as learning how to use pounds sterling. At least it gave us a sense of collective belonging, of semi-catharsis, or at least some movement and sense of shared experience. It kept us outside in nature! Well, initially, connecting with the land – yeh… or not, as we were pretty sozzled. Despite the fact that my access to alcohol was erratic (under-aged and no income) my use of drinking was relatively intense in my teenage years, and this culminated in a violent drunken row with my dad at age 16, in which I dramatically left the family home.
And, though I was a student who excelled in many subjects, I became more and more unruly at high school, desperate to gain any kind of attention, and happy to go way beyond all the boundaries where everyone else stayed inline. I sneaked wine into school, put it in a juice carton and drank it in class, having confounded the teacher the week before by passing round juice in a wine bottle, letting him check it and taunting him for not trusting me. I played with teachers’ minds, pushed them to anger, acting out the archetypal kid wanting to be taken care of. Really just needing the simplest of kind words, someone to see me hear me, to know me, encouragement and positive patterns. Getting ineffective harsh discipline and attempts to shame me into submission. I was un-shame-able, as numb people can be, and pushed on to more raucous boundary crashing.
Being drunk was never a particular goal. But being around others who drank, the act of joining in, of sharing sips and smiles and laughter and stupidity; of daring and pushing and shoving, of the glorious chaos of it, of the drama the next day, the stories and exaggerations… One gained notoriety, and this was infinitely more familiarly-uncomfortable to achieve, than the impossibly neat ladder of being a good student. I didn’t particularly want to rebel, but I definitely didn’t want to conform: why the fuck should I? What could possibly be in that for me? Respect from a bunch of folks who were toeing the line, and thus putting even more of a muffler on my nervous energy?!
There were several core patterns that came out of having being influenced so much by booze in my formative years: all of them took literally decades to understand the scale of:
- A deep lack of self-worth; not trusting myself, my perceptions, my feelings – nor able to express them.
- A tendency to neglect the self – physically, emotionally, spiritually – even when I had intense needs wanting to be met.
- Being attracted to chaotic situations and people – in particular, to people who drained me terribly, or who were horribly mean or manipulative.
- Feeling the need to expose myself in some way: it just felt right, like I should be being hurt, always. Every time I got an ounce of energy or happiness, I’d go and blow it on someone who needed it more than me or who was skilled at sucking it out of me.
- The strongest urge to periodically abandon everything; to literally up and leave it all behind: I moved home up to three times a year, or at the least every couple of years, for at least two decades.
- The inability to finish things: a business for which I couldn’t get a taproot down, a sense of what I wanted impossible to get a grip of, it all swilled around like a muddy soup – with my grabbing at strands and desperately trying to make them stay still.
A million-billion daily habitual repetitions, echoes of formative years, accumulated and wore down my vital force. For year after year after year, there was this unfolding of all the bad habits, and the evolving of a deeper cynicism and more extensive neuroses, to support the paradigm – to make the world make sense.
There really isn’t a short cut for permanent healing – it has to follow a natural course, and it can be a life-time dynamic. Patterns set deep in the primal and early periods of our lives, in our impressionable young-adulthood, they need more than a few therapy sessions, more than one season of discussions, more than a series of workshops or counselling with friends. Some shit needs literally a lifetime of unwinding tangles and re-stitching the fabric of our reality.
Throughout my life, I’ve set myself healing challenges: put myself out into the wilderness, made myself take a journey which exhilarates me but scares me shitless, randomly moved abroad. It always felt like I needed something to jolt myself into being – to ‘sober me up’ – to move myself forward, and help me wade out of the quagmire. Sitting still meant ants-in-my-pants, itchy feet, cabin fever.
This discontentedness led to my prioritising freedom over stability at every turn. Freedom over stability: it sounds kind of fun, eh? The happy, carefree nomad: never holding onto anything too long, brave enough to just stride out anywhere new spontaneously, not being stuck among the shackles and minutiae of a conventional lifestyle. People saw me as ‘lucky’, my CV looked bloody colourful, and I created a massive international network of contacts and friends from all the communities I lived in. I spent my 20s lurching from place to place, only latterly feeling that something wasn’t quite right, when I began to want to stabilise, but the roller-coaster kept running. It was an adventure for sure, but was it mine?!
My sense of self was growing but also drooping, my income was periodically sufficient but regularly non-existent, my housing situation was manageable but dangerous at times. My heart was just keeping the faith but felt empty a lot – I tried not to look at that too closely. My friends were many but far away. Constancy was like a scene from a sci-fi movie – not of this time or place. There was a conspicuous lack of long-term calm visible ahead of me. And all of this was wearing away at my core strength; I had very little sense of wholeness, presence or validity, qualities often found lacking in children of addicts.
In my mid-30s – particularly when my mum passed away, and I began to remap my reality. The draining of my vital force reached a crisis point, and I realised that I was going to have to improvise. I’d have to learn both how to find a safe house, and how to construct some sort of self-love ability, because these simply weren’t there in my life. They’d have to be made from scratch, with possibly no resources and it’d all have to be done by myself – as I couldn’t trust anyone or anything around me with such delicate work.
I began looking for purpose and meaning outside of myself, as it seemed more logical than trying to reconstruct my inner world. My work that decade involved transforming community, land, energy: building abundance – and sharing it with everyone. Especially those with very little. I threw myself into project after project, won awards and created positive vibes, became an activist of sorts, and developed a passion for the new politics growing in Scotland’s grassroots for independence. I tried so hard, prayed and dreamed and vision-boarded and painted, to create a happy long-term, to put down roots, find deeper purpose, build a business and professional identity. I dared to stay in one place long enough to build up clients and income, even. I gave and gave and gave and gave and gave.
But crisis after crisis met everything that I did: from tetchy landlords blocking my art events, to self-sabotage by ignoring important stuff like eating and sleeping, from stalker-posing-as-confidante, to poisonous nut-cases who set out to undermine my character and business. Never mind the disastrous relationships with narcissistic men who subtly or excessively pulled me apart thread by thread – or never quite got violent, but all the lead-up to it was there… Individually, these dramas were not life-threatening, and yet they each took me further away from what I truly wanted, which was just a healthy sense of self, an ability to nourish myself, a feeing of being safe in the world – and to feel like I belong here. But this safe place was feeling more and more like a holy grail, and I felt like a Monty Python chump louping about in search of it.
My use of alcohol and drunkenness popped up again – and I saw it as a harmless party hat to wear, just a way to meet folk. We communed, it was fun, I felt part of the community. I now see that this was a point where I was no longer even coping; that I was using drink just to connect with anyone, and the people with whom I was connecting were always more addicted than me: I was the companion, the less drunk one, the counsellor, the support. And that this had, in some form or another, been running as a parallel world alongside my everyday. I just had thought it was okay, I wasn’t any way near as alchy as the rest of them!
I did began to understand the self-fulfilling-prophecy though, at this time: I slowly began to see how, when we have a lack of worth or confidence driving us, this radiates out into our relationships with all things.
If I had trusted in my own perceptions, I’d have asked my stalker a long time before to back-the-fuck-off. In fact, I did that, but then felt sorry for him and invited him in again. I perpetually thought ‘but I shouldn’t feel bad’ as if my very gut instinct were wrong. I welcomed needy, neurotic, demanding people into my inner circle and my home. Though I am a brilliantly intuitive being, I wheedled out my healthy sense of things not being right – even a gut-wrenching sickness in my stomach and heart about the stalker-masquerading-as-biggest-fan (when I finally told him to stay aware forever – he left me a large knife in a black bag).
The knock-on effect of this numbing out of my feelings bound me to others: that state of being always around folk who were sucking the life out of me, and of leaning into them… it was a kind of attention and connection, which I couldn’t differentiate from positive influence. It seemed enough that someone was über-enthusiastic about my work and ideas; even if that interest was superficial and missing the point – even when it made me feel physically ill.
It’s not that I wasn’t also cultivating real friendships and real successes, but I was navigating by the more sinister aspects, like following a dark star on a beautiful sunny day. It wasn’t like I was ever in an abusive relationship , but it was like I sought out things which would drag me down, because it was so fucking impossibly alien, the concept of thriving upwards. I told the wild stories to more trustworthy, stable friends – punctuating them with ‘a strong woman like me would obviously never tolerate that kind of shit from a man…’
I started noticing phenomena like, I was fanning the flames under all my frenemies by passionately reasoning with them, blindly determined that open-mindedness and kindness could get anyone to work together for the good of all… In the end, a literal witch hunt drove me into hiding, and my coping world was finally crushed.
I was now my 40s, and the whole dynamic began to shift. The physical reach of alcohol into my life abated. The roots I’d put down actually began to take hold. A series of courses popped up online, which helped me take this inwards route: to focus and organise my energies, my ideas; to plan ahead and build towards a goal, rather than consistently fiddling about in a mess. I bought a house for under £10K! I discovered energetic body work, which I’d actually been doing all along, with my art practise, and I enhanced and super-enhanced this by going deeper and deeper – into the organs and the feminine core, awakening-transforming-healing the cervix, womb, pelvic bowl. I learned how to harvest energy – something I’d always thought about and believed in, but hadn’t had the tools to explore, nor the trust in my own intuitive knowing to follow. I started attracting the right teachers, and an incredible worldwide network of gloriously real women who were also doing work like I was.
As I stayed in one place for another year, and another (now in my eighth!), my relationships developed too; the chaotic superficial ones fell away completely (both my stalker and the nut-case suddenly left town, a super-aggressive neighbour moved out) while my close friends and colleagues became closer and dearer to me. My work became aligned more and more with the sacred in my life, and my relationships with clients became meaningful and beautifully harmonious for us all. I found my worth and value in the world, and it became easier and more fulfilling to earn money. My home in Italy acted like an alchemical cauldron: into this semi-abandoned building in an semi-abandoned town, I drew in great floods of colour and culture, love and authenticity, people and events, dialogue and cultural exchange. The house slowly became the safe container I needed, for me to accumulate serious creative energy – and to finally get over my attachment to pain. My previous life ebbed out gently like a stagnant old tide. My business finally got over the invisible wall I’d been throwing myself against, and methodically expanded into more significant success.
Like tiny wee ghosts, an occasional self-destruct mantra floats about me: I build up resentments about all the small things which folk might be doing to harm me – they’re just other humans’ daily foibles, but I gather evidence like for a court case – to give me the right to abandon everything yet again. The baby-ghost shadows who crave fear-full chaos, nipping at me and waking me up in the night shaking. But now I have a mind clear of murk, as I already put reins on the wild horse of my broken spirit, and I already started gently riding with her through a new, raw, beautiful inner landscape: my very own queendom.
There’s a phenomenon in spiritual healing called a healing crisis: a moment when everything seems a lot lot worse, just before it suddenly heals – a period of more severe symptoms, just before a clean dawn rips open the night. For me, this manifested in my pain body, which called loudly for me to sit and listen. It’s a great good gift to know one’s own body and symptoms like this, to have created the space around myself that I can actually hear and act on them.
Healing crises don’t always lead naturally to transformation: they need our conscious involvement, our humility and acceptance of where we are – old wounds need to be integrated, before we can step across a threshold into a new self. Life will throw up specific challenges to check you on this: particularly for the feminine with her cyclical nature – the Universe checking consistently if we’re going to just carry on with that non-energising pattern, or if we’re going to move forward. I can’t always catch myself, but I adore the satisfying click of something making sense, an old skin falling away behind me, and a new habit falling synchronised into place ahead.
I’m now walking gently and confidently into new waves of pure creativity, which lap perpetually in me: my writing and painting flow in a way I never imagined possible. I feel like a great wide channel for deep creative inspiration. I have opportunities to travel and to love, to grow friendships and make connections, every day. People write to me having been inspired to make, grow, change their lives into their dreams. I know I am useful, and I am loved and I am happy. I feel sunshine on my limbs, and hear birds chattering and a waterfall shushing down nearby. I live in a town where I know practically everyone, and am met wherever I go by smiles and loving greetings. My relationship with my soul mate is something so incredibly imperfectly perfect, it makes me weep with gratitude. My branding and business, my interactions and relationships come easily to me, and are deeply, excitingly fulfilling. I speak yet another foreign language, and this time I even am even using it in my art and books. I feel settled fully in my self, I feel anchored and I feel free: in my heart, my mind, my emotions, my energy and my every day.
What would my country and culture become, if we all felt like this?