Someone is looking out for me.
I woke up last Monday morning ready for school and there was a big glass of water and my thyroid medication beside my bed so I didn’t forget to take it. My bag was packed with all the books and neatly organised notes I needed. It had my bus ticket and a water bottle and all the things I like but usually forget – headphones, lip gloss, chewing gum. This set the tone for the week. I had everything I needed when I reached for it. I was the student other students were asking for advice because I had my shit so together. I made a little group of friends to have lunch with every day. I even unexpectedly enjoyed some of the oral assessments I had been dreading. Instead of a huge night at the pub to celebrate my achievements, I got a pretty bracelet and some new work clothes.
Even when I have been drinking every night, I have never missed a class. I have never asked for an extension on an assignment and I have always passed everything. But it has been inordinately difficult. For the last two years in particular I have felt like I have been crushed under an enormous weight. I have dragged my feet along this path and I haven’t been able to see a clear way ahead.
The fairy godmother sending me to bed early, making sure I have vitamins, packing my bag for school – she is me. She is me when I like myself enough to bother. She is me when I look in the mirror and say “you look nice”. She is me when I drive home from parties sober and singing.
A year ago, the absence of hope in me is frightening when I think about it now. I was too thin and manic, grinding myself away with work and washing myself away with alcohol. My rock bottom was a swirling, confusing period of about 9 months when I would hit what I thought was the very end of my sanity on a weekly basis and then go further the next week. I was so full of self-loathing I couldn’t meet my own eyes in the mirror.
Since I started this blog last July, on one of those rock bottom days, I haven’t managed to string more than two weeks of not drinking together. I started off not drinking during the week and blasting my brain into outer space on the weekends. Then I would drink one glass a night during the week and have a slightly less toxic weekend. Then I would stay sober for a fortnight and drink on the weekend. And the drinking occasions have started to get less frequent and less catastrophic. I have been getting stronger with every day sober, every sunny Saturday without a hangover, every good night’s sleep, every sober giggle. You know that saying, “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels?” Well, replace “skinny” with “sober” and you know where I am now. I am still slipping up every now and then but I slip up with a glass or two instead of a bottle and I get straight back on the wagon in the morning. A year ago, I would have taken this as evidence that I can moderate my drinking and continued on my merry way. Now, I take it as a sign that, no matter how much I like being sober, alcohol still has a hold over me which isn’t entirely healthy. Instead of taking it as a sign to keep going, I take it as a sign to stop.
This sober world has been instructive in teaching me how to not drink. But what I have really been learning from it is how to live. How to like myself more, how to be kinder from the inside out. I would not be where I am now – happy and healthy on a Monday morning with absolutely nothing to regret from the weekend – unless I had tried to quit drinking and immersed myself in recovery blogs and literature. I’m still trying. I am not naive enough to think that this battle is won. For the first time in a year I feel like the odds are stacked in my favour. If you were a gambler, you’d put your money on me.
The point of this blog is not to rant about people’s behaviour. It is about my behaviour and how to be someone I can be proud of. But tonight I am far from home and tired after a long day and missing my husband and babies like I left a couple of limbs behind and I am pissed off. It’s only a small thing and it’s not even about me, but it annoyed me. The conversation went like this:
Me: Oh my gosh! I just checked Facebook and our cousin and his girlfriend are expecting a baby in September! This is so exciting! Those two will make such great parents! (Does happy baby welcoming jig).
My brother: Cool! We’ll have to call mum and let her know. It will really cheer her up. That’s great. (Cracks fifth beer of the night)
Brother’s girlfriend: Really? I hate that Facebook post. Why do people do a stupid photo or postcard or something when they are having a baby? God, it’s just a baby. And it’s Facebook. Why would you even tell people on Facebook? Far out. I never do anything on Facebook. If people want to know about me, they can call me. And you know what? They do, because I have real friends and not just Facebook friends.
This is not an argument about the merits of social media use. This is about being a negative, smart-arsey so-and-so about everything. I draw your attention to dinner conversation.
Brother’s girlfriend: Shame about that medication. Your brother is pretty disappointed you two can’t have a drink together, and you don’t get to see him very often. Bit of a party pooper.
Me: (sips soda water, raises eyebrows in what I hope is a smugly disinterested fashion)
I don’t know what this is about. The girlfriend herself rarely drinks, so it’s not one of those comments you get from people who are cranky about you not drinking because it draws attention to their own problem. And I can’t imagine that my brother is crying himself to sleep over it. Nope, it’s just a case of when there is some blank airspace you’ve gotta fill it with something negative. Which is what I have just done so pot kettle black and I am taking my sober self off to bed.
It occurs to me this morning (day 4, no hangover, sparkling like a toothpaste advertisement) that I have done the hard stuff. I have reached out for help (and received it in waves – thanks sober and non-sober friends). I have conquered sober socialising to the point where I actually (gasp!) prefer it to drunk socialising. I have taken up sober hobbies, made new friends who don’t drink very much, told the people closest to me. I have made other attempts to improve my health with exercise and cleaning up my diet. I get down on my yoga mat to stretch and feel grateful every day. I have even stopped my antidepressant and feel fine. Not bouncing off the walls with joy, but that has never been my style. I have stopped letting alcohol interfere with the things I need to do, most of the time. I have written about it at length and figured out, after many short-lived attempts, that I feel better, look better and behave better when I don’t drink. I have a very full life and I don’t, thankfully, have to face the awful challenge of waking up sober one morning and thinking “what now”?
I have everything I need and more.
So all I need to do now is stop drinking my face off every couple of weeks and going back to square one. I don’t even actually like it any more. The last time I drank I felt over it after the first sip but I still kept going. It’d be funny if it wasn’t so serious. Girl drinks a drink she doesn’t even like in an effort to achieve a feeling she knows doesn’t exist for her any more. It no longer works. It makes me feel worse. I go back in the hope that something has changed, but I am slowly coming to the conclusion that it has changed forever. Like when you look at an ex you used to be overwhelmingly attracted to and think “why did I even go there?”
Stop drinking. That’s my one job. Everything else is okay. The hard work has already been done.
Oh, this week. It was like a punch in the face from the universe. First of all, I was supposed to have my three days off work (the other two I am with my little ones) to prepare for the second on-campus part of my course next week. Taking time off work is all very well and good unless you run a very small family business and there is literally nobody else to do it. We had a big criminal trial to run, a new staff member start and, to top it all off, some sort of apocalyptic cockroach invasion of the office kitchen.
The only time I did end up getting off work was all of Tuesday afternoon, when I crawled into bed with a raging fever and glands the size of rockmelons.
I struggled through long days of work on Wednesday and Thursday. On Wednesday afternoon, it became apparent that I really urgently needed to speak to a client who was in China and had not left any information with her family apart from the name of the tour company. Several hours were wasted on that little adventure. No course work was done that evening because I was still unwell and decided the best way to deal with that was to drink four glasses of wine and smoke a bunch of cigarettes (It’s okay, I’m getting this – I am still very much on the long term sobriety train). Thursday continued in much the same way, plus hangover and minus international diplomacy. My poor babies came down with my disease yesterday and fortunately (I say this feeling guilty) slept for a good part of the day while I got some work done. Then they got up and fought with each other all afternoon. Last night I was just at the end of my rope. Fell asleep on the floor with books at 9pm, woke up half an hour later, accused husband of unfair things like hating me and not understanding, went to spare room and slept for 12 hours.
This never happens. For one thing, I don’t have time for such luxuries. But gosh I needed it. And I have woken up still feeling a bit rubbish in the head but also clear, focused and knowing that if I put my mind to it today I can get the things done that I need to do and it will be okay.
The moral to this story is: sleep. It’s marvellous. I can always tell when my kids are overtired and need a rest – I need to be that nice to myself.
The coming week will be busy and I will miss my family, but at least I will only have the one thing to focus on. I am staying with my brother and I don’t have time to go into all the triggers of that scenario, but in an effort to avoid him being uncouth about my not drinking I shall just tell him I’m on medication and mention the words “explosive diarrhoea”. That should do the trick.
My mum got lost for the first time yesterday. She couldn’t find her dentist, two blocks from home. I dropped in unexpectedly and she was crying and shaking, having walked around town trying to find it but eventually giving up. This is a new point in her disease that made me want to hold her and weep for hours, maybe days. Seeing her suffer shatters me. I don’t cry in front of her, though. She doesn’t need that. And I remember when I was a child and things were really tough sometimes and mum never, ever cried in front of me. It made me feel safe if she was holding herself together. I said it was okay and that people forget things all the time and we went for coffee and played with the kids and she calmed down. I said she was probably subconsciously trying to avoid the dentist because she has always hated it and that made her laugh.
There’ll be no point to dentistry soon, anyway. While early onset familial Alzheimer’s disease (let’s say EOFAD for convenience) is an unpredictable thing, people usually die within about six years of diagnosis. Mum was diagnosed two years ago. Her quality of life deteriorates daily.
EOFAD cannot be stopped, delayed or cured by lifestyle (despite what many people with a degree in Dr Google have tried to tell me). It is caused by a genetic mutation. This is determinative, meaning that if you have the mutation, you will get the disease. No amount of freaking quinoa or turmeric will help. Mum has always had a healthy lifestyle. Healthy weight, varied diet, low blood pressure, no blood sugar issues, a very moderate and ladylike glass of champagne three or four times a week. She even claims to have found childbirth “quite easy”. She got symptoms at 55. Her own mother, who was obsessed with health, made it a bit longer. My grandmother’s siblings went downhill in their forties.
There’s a 50 per cent chance I have inherited this mutation. I can find out for sure but I think the risk of receiving a positive result is too great for my mental health. As it is, knowing what my life could look like in the future is the second hardest thing I have ever had to deal with, after watching my beautiful mum suffer from this. There is no treatment, and progress in this area of research is maddeningly slow.
It makes me think “fuck it”. Fuck it all. What’s the point of studying if I forget it in 15 or 20 years time? What’s the point of being a good mum if I eventually forget my own children’s faces?
I also have a serious case of FOMO. (That’s Gen Y speak for fear of missing out). I never say no to anything because I don’t know how long I have. I worry that by the time we finally get the finances together to travel I’ll be dribbling in a nursing home instead of travelling the world with my husband in our retirement. I make risky choices because a severely shortened life does not seem very valuable. I am missing out now, on my mum, which is hard enough, but the thought of missing out on my own life is devastating.
The only thought that comforts me, the ONLY thought, is that I am not going to suffer what mum is suffering. She wouldn’t be suffering if she had a choice. As soon as symptoms appear, I will drive up to a cold mountain on a frosty night, take a bottle of pills, drink a shitload of whatever and freeze to death. It’s the least painful way I can imagine. I will not get lost on the way to the dentist. I will not.
So, let’s talk about the time I decided to quit antidepressants, sugar and nicotine while doing some really stressful studying and dealing with some heavy family stuff.
Actually, let’s not, because I’m in the thick of it and I have no idea how it’s going. I’m too foggy in the brain. But the rationale goes something like this: I have stopped taking my antidepressant (after tapering off) for reasons which shall be outlined below. The withdrawals have made me feel like complete and utter rubbish, mainly physically (dizzy, nausea, headaches, you name it). And since I already feel like rubbish, why not add smoking (obvious reasons) and sugar (not a massive issue but I have been indiscriminately stuffing my face with lollies while studying) and get the feeling like crap over and done with all in one go at a time when my life isn’t going to be much fun anyway? I’ll let you know how it goes. Hopefully not in such long and convoluted sentences.
Given the sense of deprivation going on right now, it seemed logical to do my usual Monday night thing and pour a glass of wine to enjoy in the bath after my pole dancing class. Which I did. It was nice, expensive prosecco left over from a party for my Dad’s birthday on the weekend. I had a sip and it was nice but not what I wanted. I wanted soda water with lime. (Seriously, if the powers that be ever discover that carbonated water is bad for you I will have NOTHING left to live for). I tipped the glass out and bathed in the expensive prosecco instead of drinking it.
I have no idea what any of this means.
What I do know is that, if feelings were landscapes, I need a change of scenery. Where I am now is dry and gritty and ever so slightly uncomfortable. I cannot see an oasis on the horizon. I need humid jungles, desolate mountains, lush fields, long highways. Sometimes I need all of these places in the one day. The medication served me well for a time, but now the inability to sleep, the numbed nerve endings, the inexorable creep of weight and the sense of being emotionally drought-stricken have started to impact too much on my quality of life. Medication has also given me an excuse not to do the hard work I need to do to keep my head above water.
This could all end disastrously, of course. I could be eating cake for breakfast tomorrow morning and chasing it with a cigarette and a vodka-spiked coffee with four sugars. I’m not going to beat myself up if that happens, either. I’m just trying to find a better place to be and this path is the one I’m taking for now.
This is my fifth consecutive sober weekend. I haven’t been sober this entire time (I think I drank on 3 occasions – one disastrous, the others not so bad) but getting my weekends sorted is a huge thing. I don’t feel deprived or bored or left out. Today I feel sore – I squeezed in a really quick 4km run yesterday afternoon and did an hour of pole dancing this morning – so everything hurts in that lovely, contented, healthy way that exercise gives you. I love sober exhaustion. I love when I spend a day outdoors and collapse into bed knowing that I’ll be almost instantly asleep; as opposed to I-partied-too-hard exhaustion where I toss and turn and sweat and have nightmares.
This is still a tough time and will be until my course finishes in May. Today is gloriously crisp and sunny and my family and my husband’s visiting siblings are all working hard getting a path built in the yard while I struggle through a textbook on professional responsibility. I am, however, starting to realise that this will end. Maybe it’s all the chanting “this will end, this will end” to myself as I stay up burning the midnight oil and propping my eyes open with coffee and sheer determination.
I must be a tough little cookie to do this. Not many people raise three young children while completing a law degree. While I have a husband who pulls his weight more than most, I am still the one who keeps the wheels turning – making sure homework is done, sunscreen is on, birthday cakes are made, vegetables are consumed. In the rare moments when I allow myself to be proud, instead of beating myself up for doing a half-arsed job of everything, I feel strong and amazing. I have to do more feeling proud, less being mean to myself.
I am proud of five sober weekends. I caught up with a friend for a quick drink last night to celebrate the opening of an exhibition of her photographs and it was the first time it didn’t feel unusual not to have a wine. Not only that, it felt better to drink a soda water, have a laugh and then drive home (I will NEVER stop loving that) for a warm bath and a deep, dreamless sleep. Nobody noticed. Nobody cared. People want to see me because I am me, not because I am magnified while drunk. I still have a naughty sense of humour. I still swear like a pirate and hug everyone affectionately. But I also listen better, pay attention, respect boundaries (my own and everyone else’s) and go home knowing the next day will not be ruined. I wish I had figured this out years ago.
So maybe sharing a tent with a three-year-old and a six-year-old and camping with friends who are inclined to stay up drinking until 3am wasn’t the best idea for a totally exhausted person, but I did it and I’m glad I did it. There were moments of pure bliss, like crawling into the tent in between my sleeping boys and sending a silent prayer of thanks to the universe for the opportunity to be a mum to these amazing little people, to have somehow miraculously managed to not mess it up amongst the rest of the mess this decade has been. It was great to swim and walk and be away from phone reception and my books. But waking up at ohmygoditsfuckingearly o’clock to the sounds of one child telling me that the other child was in the process of eating a glowstick did not do anything to make me a radiant earth mother this morning. I was less than pleasant, to be perfectly honest. I actually feel hungover.
I’m very up and down at the moment. My moods swing between complete hopelessness and despair and total euphoria, with a lot of trudging around feeling overwhelmed and exhausted in between. Primrosehas suggested PAWS, and from what I have read so far it rings true. I am also aware that I am completely lacking in time I desperately need for self-care – for running, yoga, going to bed early, reading trashy novels in the bath, dragging Mr Jones off to bed for after-lunch shenanigans. I could postpone this not-drinking thing until study is over, but I think I would really just be making my life more difficult. And another thing – I logged on to the student forum for my course and there were heaps of people saying how hard they were finding it and that they were struggling to cope with the workload. I am not revelling in others’ misfortune, by any means, but I am incredibly relieved to know that I am not alone.