There was a time when camping was all about kicking back by the fire, beer in hand. And then another beer. And another. Until I’d be put to bed by a responsible adult.
Of course, I’d occasionally feel a needle of discomfort when my fellow campers trilled, ‘well you must feel pretty ropey this morning?!’ But in the main it was par for the course. Camping = drinking, drinking = passing out. Then came the time I took a sleeping tablet, on top of already going to bed extremely drunk. The next morning a fellow camper shook her head disapprovingly at me. Said my children had been screaming the tent down over a spider – crying for help, which she’d had to come in and give because I was dead to the world.
I remember thinking, ‘how bloody sanctimonious’, as I brushed off her judgement.
But, even so, it ate away at my soul a little bit. Underneath my nonchalant shrug, I felt ashamed of myself as a mum.
Over time, those twinges of guilt and shame built up, but I did a stellar job of ignoring them. And it was that eyes squeezed shut, hands over ears, ‘I can’t hear you, la la la la la’ approach that was quite literally killing me.
My body, my heart, my soul and my mind were sending up every imaginable flare. The message was clear – alcohol wasn’t serving me. But I didn’t dare listen, because I was terrified of what would seep out. What I would have to deal with. When I finally did, I realised nothing was worse than what I was already putting myself through. I had driven myself into the ground because of the responsibilities I was carrying, but medicating myself through that just pummelled my self-esteem even further, until I was a shell of a woman… strung together with adrenaline and alcohol.
For me, alcohol was just a coping mechanism, which I then re-used to take away the ensuing shame. It’s an insidious, messy and – amazingly – a completely socially acceptable cycle of doom.
We all give ourselves a by-ball with the morning-after platitudes of, ‘you were fine! Everyone does it!’, but I knew deep in my soul that I wasn’t where I wanted or needed to be. I was leaning on, misusing and hiding in alcohol because something was making me uncomfortable, and then my ‘solution’ only deepened that discomfort.
It’s only when I got the courage to take a long hard look at the reality of how I was living, with alcohol and everything around it, that I was able to make a change. And facing up to the truth of that experience meant accepting that I’d been hurting myself all along …much more than I’ll ever truly know.
But that wasn’t my only challenge – there’s this confronting notion of taking a stand, of going alcohol-free being a wagon you are either ‘on’ or have fallen ‘off’. But I finally realised that alcohol is just the symptom – one of many crutches we human beings use to navigate (or hide from) the messy intricacies of life. The exhausting, overwhelming, depleting parts we don’t know how to manage.
If I wanted to ditch that crutch, I first needed to rehabilitate the tired, lonely, sad, scared, overwhelmed woman underneath. The woman who needed a hefty measure of self-compassion, rather than gin.
When I started to look after myself, before and above others, I was better able to set meaningful boundaries to protect my own wellbeing. From there, alcohol became incidental. And this was a process, not a success/failure equation. No great skill is ever learned in a day, and those skills are developed in layers and over time. Setting myself up for an alcohol-free future meant doing the groundwork on how I viewed my place in the world – how I care for and nurture myself in the mire of demands that threaten to engulf me. And that wasn’t easy! So why would putting the glass down be?!
Ultimately, I’m so glad I listened to that ‘niggle’, that ‘sanctimonious’ commentary rather than continuing to brazen my way through the tidal waves of shame and despair.
I’m glad I realised that I wouldn’t be a failure if I ‘fell off’ my self-compassion wagon – I was learning, and I still am.
When I stopped berating myself for my stumbles, I could invest energy in looking around – working out what it was that made me fall so hard. And each time I patched up my grazed knees and got going again.