My name’s Sid and I’m an alcoholic…

I remember many years ago, when I was in my very early twenties, I standing outside a pub in Middlesbrough chatting to Jimmy Hartnett about this and that as we did when we bumped into one another when we heard laughter and a boisterous shout before we were swept up in a crushing hug by Malcolm Allison for a minute or so before he weaved down the pavement waving at people as he went.

I can see Jimmy’s face as he turned to me and said, “It’s such a shame he’s like that, he’s such a wonderful man.” I can still hear the thought passing through my brain that vowed I would give up drinking long before I got to that  point. I was there a few years later except that Malcolm was a lovely man and I was a savage drunk.

I’m not exactly Miss Sweetness And Light at the best of times. I don’t set out to snap and snarl but you people just aren’t psychic enough to read the signals that scream at you to go away. Drinking irritated my brain to the point that I wanted to pull it out and give it a good scratch. The irritation in my brain was verbalised and, in later years, I lashed out physically at people. I was that person who people were nice to because it wasn’t worth even trying to cross my path. I had a tongue so sharp that I could bite your head off and you wouldn’t know it was missing until you tried to shake it in disbelief.

My star sign was Bass the Brewer and by the time I was in my extremely early 30s I was a complete mess. I had never been exactly on the fat side (though you would never know it now). I was painfully thin and was described by my GP as ‘anorectic’. I was bloody ill, I knew it but I felt as though I couldn’t do anything about it and one visit to AA had me convinced that I couldn’t handle those Holy Joes, none of them even drank FFS.

Anyway there I was drinking half a bottle of whisky a day (My best friends were Jack Daniels, Jim Beam and Johnny Walker), I was smoking 40 fags a day and could quite easily get through half a weight a week if I really put my mind to it. I took pills to keep me awake, pills to get me to sleep, pills to stop me shaking and all of them, combined with the booze, a potentially fatal cocktail. Somebody up there likes me enough not to let me die.

My (now ex) husband was dying as a direct result of his alcoholism and when our GP called me in to see him at 11.30 on 23 April 1991 I presumed it was to talk about him. I’d had one or several liveners that morning so I had a bitter shandy so he wouldn’t be able to smell the booze on my breath. I was shocked when his first words were, “I don’t give a fuck about your husband but if you don’t do something about the way you drink you’ve got about two years to live.” I knew that he wasn’t telling me I’d have a two year long party then drop dead out of happiness whilst on a binge, he was telling me I’d have an increasingly painful life as I lost my life against a vicious element that possessed me and held me to ransom constantly. Purple prose you may think but this is how it was.

I went home that day, to the pub I was managing, wrote out my notice and I haven’t drank since the chat with the doctor. People say there are no magic words that will make you stop drinking but for me the words he spoke were magic.

I had no idea of what sobriety would be like. I started drinking when I was 14 to, as all addicts and alcoholics do, to change the way I felt about myself. I didn’t like myself and so I turned myself into a monster. Being that monster kept people at a distance because if people can’t love you then you can’t love them back and that way nobody gets hurt. In theory.

I’ve changed a lot. I don’t get into many fights these days but I’m still a mouthy cow with opinions that are far too strong at times. I like myself these days and understand that if I don’t like myself then I change until I do – there are no problems that can be solved with a bottle of spirits. I love these days – I’ve had my heart broken and I’ve broken hearts and, along the way, I’ve had a lot of very good sex.

I’m sitting here now in my untidy flat (though very clean posh kitchen) listening to music on a tablet. I would have stolen that tablet from someone when I was drinking and sold it when I need money to keep on drinking. I’ve eaten today and I’m no longer dangerously underweight but I’m fatter than I’d like to be.

It’s on this day every year I count my blessings and there are more every year. I love more people each year but still retain my sense of privacy. I’m working on that temper of mine (which is a blessing for everybody, believe me) and I try to be kind and do a kindness for somebody every day.

I think about Jimmy Hartnett and Malcolm Allison every year. Jimmy’s generous heart and the way he didn’t know he’d made me question my own drinking habits and, that ten or so years later, I’d gain sobriety. I wish Malcolm was still here and I wish that I could share this with him and give him a hug, just because – you know.

Lots of people get sober for a few months or a few years. Fewer people make it to five years and even fewer to 10 years. People 26 years sober don’t come along that often and people with who have bipolar disorder and have managed 26 years of sobriety barely exist at all. I am lucky. I am blessed. I am content.

My name’s Sid and I’m an alcoholic…

The first 90 days, a murmuration of starlings and hashtag mania

The 90 days refers to the first 90 days of sobriety. They’re hard and anybody that tells you otherwise is fooling themselves and lying to you. Sobriety is hard work however long it is since you had a drink and the temptation to drink a glass of death is always far too close for comfort.

A few glimpses at the blog of somebody recently sober has underlined for me how seriously I took myself when I first got sober and what a pain in the arse it was for the people around me. Everybody I’ve ever spoken to who has went through more than two years of sobriety has been the same – we are earnest beyond belief!

The person whose blog I’ve glimpsed at has some quotes from partners of alcoholics and I want to shout at them to stop doing it. This kind of behaviour points a big arrow at your head that says in big letters, “I’m getting sober for somebody else.” I’ve tried to get sober for somebody else and I lasted a very short time (about eight hours). If you’re going to get sober then do it for you. Doing this kind of thing to make amends is doing it all arse backwards. Whether you’re following a 12-step program or not the making amends bit is way down the line because you have to understand a bit about you and the way you drank before you can understand how you fucked up somebody else’s life.

There is a rule around the rooms (which is the way AA members refer to meetings) that you shouldn’t share your story until you’ve been 90 days sober and that for the first weeks at least you shouldn’t really be opening your mouth at a meeting very much at all. The reasoning is that all you can talk about is your drinking and how it affected you and your family and friends and not about sobriety. Listening to people share about their sobriety gives you the tools to shape your own. As Zeno was supposed to have said, the Gods gave us one mouth and two ears to indicate that we should listen more than we speak.

All the above is my opinion of course but I know a good many long term alcoholics in recovery who will agree with me all the way.

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So what are the starlings all about? As I was waiting for Ogden to finish his staring at squirrels and cat morning routine before he allowed me to pick up yesterday’s food in a black bag I stood on the little hill in the Bark Park. As I did 30 or 40 starlings flew over my head and they were so close I could see the pattern of their feathers on their breast and the light of the sky through their wings.

The hashtags – well that’s something that annoys me no end. You look at a photo on Instagram and they have millions of hashtags screaming “notice me, I’m a wonderful photographer and you have to notice me” and that makes me want to kill. It’s like that toddler having a tantrum in the supermarket. If you want to finish your shopping you’ve got to try and cut out their noise and it never quite works. So less of the hashtags, if you’re that wonderful people will notice anyway. I had a photo published six weeks after I got my first camera and there’s been quite a few others since and none of them have had tags that scream in your face. Yes I am aware that there’s tags at the bottom of his page but they’re bloody easy to ignore – it can be done!

Oh yes, another thing, don’t buy Marks & Spencer low fat lasagne because they use too much oregano and all you can taste is pencil shavings.

 

My name’s Cecilia, I’m an alcoholic & today I’ve been sober for 25 years

I remember one night in 1991 going to play darts with the girls from the Spring Gardens over to a pub in St George. We were in two cars and I was stuck in the back of one of them with the landlady of the Spring Gardens and somebody I can’t remember. I do remember there being some joking going on and her seeming to shout out that I wouldn’t be in a hurry to get to the pub because I could go minutes without a drink. I had a half bottle of vodka in my bag and I was desperate to get to that pub just to get into the loo and take a swig of it. I knew I’d order a bitter lemon or a coke or something so I could carry on the everlasting story of having a bladder infection to explain the frequent trips to unsavoury toilets. I fooled nobody of course, not even myself, but the compulsion to lie about the amount that I drank was nearly as great as the compulsion to drink.

I didn’t start out like that. I wasn’t always 32 and I wasn’t always an alcoholic but I always had a reputation as a drinker and a nasty one at that. I’d like to think I was nasty only when I was in my cups but alcohol has a tendency to magnify the personality traits that are already there. I can be spiteful these days but I try not to be nasty but sometimes I am and these days I own up to it if only to myself.

I don’t think that my parents thought for a second when they gave their youngest daughter a much watered down Dubonnet & bitter lemon as a Christmas Eve treat when I was six that they were unleashing an alcoholic – I downed it in one & knew that the second one made with blackcurrant juice was different. I never sipped alcohol because the faster I drank the more I got to drink.

There isn’t an alcoholic alive (or dead) who drank for any other reason than to change the way they feel about themselves. It’s a bizarre mechanism that protects us from ourselves and destroys us in the process. I won’t go into the details of why I drank so enthusiastically because they don’t count but I threw myself into it like it was my destiny. Perhaps it was.

I never really hid my drinking and there was more than one person commented on how much I drank before I got out of my teens but I tended to hide amongst those that drank more than me – where better to hide an alcoholic than in a horde of heavy drinkers? I think I married my ex husband because he was brilliant to hide behind but I became his patsy and assumed a responsibility for him that wasn’t mine. It really backfired on me when I was assessed for treatment at the same centre as he’d been through – the staff were very good at comparing us to the point that I was declared not at risk less than six months after I’d been told the get my act together or I’d be dead before I was 35.
I’m glad now that I didn’t go down the route of the treatment centre as peer “support” (as I saw in AA and other similar groups) is often more about telling people where they went wrong, how bad they are and then telling them off when they resort to drinking to cope with the way they feel.

I stopped drinking because the day a doctor told me I may not see 35 a light went on in my head and, to put it mildly, it scared the shit out of me. I wanted to give up and wanted to stay stopped but I was also aware that it was almost impossible to stay stopped. Pop into any open meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous and see how many people are under a year sober and how many, if any, are over 10 years sober. Addiction of any kind isn’t about choosing to use the chosen substance or stopping using the chosen substance it’s very hard work. There are times over the past 25 years when all I’ve wanted was a bottle of Jack Daniels (he was my best friend you see) and a very long straw and there are times when I’ve walked up and down the booze aisle pretending I wasn’t seriously considering picking up a bottle with a degree on nonchalance and getting pissed as a fart. Had I actually touched a bottle then I would have bought it. It’s simple to stop but it’s hard to stay stopped and staying stopped does not get easier but you do learn a few coping mechanisms along the way.

People kept telling me that I’d get my life back once I got sober and I was really an emotionally stunted wreck who hadn’t had much of a life to begin with. When your life is ruled by booze then you tend to neglect life. I’d enjoyed being a beekeeper and I’d loved being a life model but neither a great achievements – anybody can don a white suit & veil and work with bees just as anybody can strip off and sit still. Really, I’d achieved nothing of note.

Since then I’ve made up for it. I’ve done some really good community work around the theme of anti-social behaviour (ASB) and, being a self-made expert I know what I’m talking about, I’ve worked with a former Arsenal player turned fire fighter coaching kids (football of course) and reducing ASB in the park where we played by 50% and I’ve been the troubleshooter on a street refurbishment (including resurfacing the road!).

I’ve taken up photography and had my photos used in books, I’ve learned that I’m not responsible for the world but I think I am and I’m learning to let go of the things that I really can’t do anything about though cyclists on pavements is hard to let go of. *shakes fist at cyclists on pavements*

I’ve challenged the way NICE have traditionally gathered testimonies for presentation at committees and now blog posts are allowed as long as they contain all the information needed. I’ve spoken to countless medical students over the years and spoken at schools and youth groups.

I’m not perfect. I’m a ratty, irrational ex drunk with a fondness for swearing far too much and being far too crude. I don’t suffer fools gladly, if at all, I really don’t like people much some days. I do like social media and everybody thinks I’m nice because I bite my virtual tongue a lot but the person that was the nasty drunk has her roots in the me of today.

Drinking doesn’t change our characters and stopping drinking doesn’t make us angels and I think that’s the lesson that’s the hardest to learn. We alcoholics drink to change the way we feel about ourselves and so, to be in with a chance of lasting sobriety, we have to accept that we’re flawed, scared and hopeless at times and that’s more than okay. Saying we’re fine doesn’t have to mean fucked-up, insecure, neurotic and emotional it can mean that you really are very well indeed.

On being confronted with the past me

Cecilia 19860001

This is a photo of me in the summer of 1986. I was 27 coming up to 28 in the photo and I’m stood on Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol. I’d moved there with my husband in May that year and I really love the city. It’s was a different one than the one it is today – less pretentious and more honest.

I was a heavy drinker then but could always stop when I wanted to or needed to and never really saw my drinking as much of a problem though, with hindsight, it was.

Cecilia 1989

This is me in 1989, almost three years after the photo above was taken. I was 30 going on 31 and felt like a hundred years old. I had gone from being a heavy drinker to a full blown alcoholic. Two years after this photo was taken my (now former) husband almost died as a result of his drinking and I was told if I didn’t smarten up my act I had two years to live.

What struck me so much was how I changed physically. I’d went from a healthy sized woman with a happy face and relaxed demeanour to a thin, old woman in a matter of three years.

Twenty four years have passed since those photos were taken and seeing them today has reminded me of how much I don’t want to be the woman in the second photo and exactly how much I have to lose. I’m not talking hard assets but of love and respect but by others and of myself. Sometimes it’s good to look back as long as we don’t stare too hard.

On celebrating 24 years without booze…

It would be odd if it went without notice that today was St George’s day or Shakespeare’s birthday (and his death day if you want to be picky) but for me it’s the day I celebrate how long it is since I stopped drinking and today it’s 24 years. For someone who didn’t think that they could ever manage 24 hours without a drink it’s pretty good.

Each year I look back on the day that I stopped drinking and marvel at the fact that even though people say that there are no magic words that can make you stop drinking the words that stopped me in my tracks felt like a magic spell.

In April 1991 my former husband was in hospital as a result of his alcoholism and he was not expected to live. Even if he beat the odds he was expected to be so badly brain damaged that his life would be worthless as it was believed he had a wet brain as well as pancreatitis and only 25% of his liver was still working which meant that his liver was a hardened lump with a little softness in the centre.

I went to see him most days and his drug induced coma reminded me so much of how I was not that far from ending up like him but, to quote a song, I was tired of living but scared to die. It’s a heartbreaking place to inhabit and one that none addicts, whatever the drug, cannot possibly understand.

While he was in hospital and I was working out the notice on the pub I was running while he lurched around drunkenly from the moment he woke until the moment he collapsed into unconsciousness I was making several visits a week to our local GP. I thought I was going so that he could keep up with Dave’s progress but the words he said to me during the visit I made on the 23rd of April that year really shocked me.

I had know for about six years that I was an alcoholic. I’d always drank a lot and could drink at least two drinks in the time it took most people to get two thirds down the way of one but I’d always been able to stop when I wanted to and I was always aware that I drank excessively even if I denied it when I was challenged.

Around 1985 I discovered that I could no longer stop when I wanted to and, even though my preferred drink was whisky of any kind (though I chose to drink expensive brands so that I didn’t look like an alcoholic), I often drank vodka because I mistakenly believed that it didn’t smell on my breath.

The morning of the 23rd April 1191 was a stressful one (but then they always were) and by 11.00 am I’d already had three large glasses of scotch to get me going. I was due to see my GP at 11.30 that morning and had a glass of shandy to cover up the smell of the scotch. I didn’t fool him and he burst out in the middle of the consultation that he didn’t really give a fuck about Dave but if I didn’t do anything about my drinking then I had about two years to live.

In the space of about a second I saw my downward path and I knew that he wasn’t saying I’d party well for two years and die with a smile on my face but that I’d gradually degenerate until it was too painful to stay alive. Given my history of depression (a diagnosis of bipolar disorder was still three years into the future) then it was highly likely that I’d kill myself before I got to that stage. I went home and I never drank again. It was difficult in the early weeks as I was still running the pub but I got through that and moved house. I had a stack of blood tests to check what, if any, damage I’d done to my major organs and got the all clear.

I had a rough couple of years being sober and only grudginly gave in and went to AA because I needed peer support. I hated AA because of the God aspect (I don’t think a belief in God is necessary in finding recovery) and because I was always being told that if I didn’t stick around AA I would never become truly sober and, to my mind, that encourages people to swap one dependency for another.

I went through a sticky period during a 13 year relationship with a man I met through AA. It started off well but it soon became obvious that he was very much a mummy’s boy and the only thing he really had going for him was that he had a Harley Davidson Sportster which he later swapped for a FatBoy. I miss those bikes though I’ve never missed him. It was a destructive relationship and he clung to me so tightly and obsessively that it took me nine years to get out of the relationship. He really wanted a stand in for when his mother finally died and I wanted a fun person who was keen on living life to the full and whose idea of a night out wasn’t a diet coke and a doughnut while sat in the car park of the local McDonalds. For the last couple of years of that relationship I knew that I had to get out of it no matter how difficult it was because I was wanting to drink more and more.

I did get out of it and because I had so much time on my hands I began to do things that he would never do or told me that I wasn’t capable of doing. I bought a camera and I’m quite good at it, I started to go to London regularly to take photos and to wander around the streets and I made contact with an old friend who has become one of the attorneys named in my Lasting Power of Attorney. I can’t work any more but I don’t feel useless about it in the way he made me feel useless just for being alive. I think he was projecting his feelings on to me.

Today life is very different from the day I stopped drinking. I couldn’t imagine what sobriety would be like and I never imagined that I’d have the life I have now. I’ve been diagnosed with an extreme case of bipolar disorder and my consultant used to tell his students that they would never encounter a patient with the same picture as I presented. I have to be different. Coming to terms with stopping work forever at the age of 42 was difficult and it took me a long time but I’ve grown because of that acceptance.

I’ve done lots of media work speaking and writing about having a mental health problem and I’ve always enjoyed that immensely. I continue to take photos, some of which have been published in books, and I also write a blog that is the main feature of my website. I’ve got lots more animals than I ever had back in the days when I was constantly at the beck and call of alcohol and I love them all dearly.

Had I not stopped drinking I would have been dead at least 22 years now but I live, I really live and, despite huge health problems, I live well.