This week's Sober Story comes from Rowan (she/her), a 56-year-old living in Western Australia.
Mrs D: How long have you been in recovery?
Rowan: Three years and two months.
Mrs D: What can you tell us about the last months/years of your drinking before you gave up?
Rowan: It was just business as usual really. I would try to limit my alcohol intake to the weekends, and sometimes that meant I would be smashed Friday, Saturday and maybe even Sunday nights. I could see that my drinking was detrimental to my life — I would switch over to another side of me after the first glass and I didn’t like that person at all. I tried to moderate but I just couldn’t resist and to be honest I was in denial. I felt as if I needed it. I am introverted and socially awkward and I wanted to be able to be the carefree party girl I thought I was. I wanted to gain a sense of freedom; I wanted to be the cool rockstar. I wanted to be able to talk to people and have fun — constantly. I was (and still am) a high achiever and a detail person so I was very hard on myself and those around me and I found drinking wine was the great off-switch. Trouble is, the on-switch was quite often angry or overly emotional. Not a good look when you’re in your mid 50s with teenage children. Not a good look at any age. When I was at my worst, alcohol was my constant. I could not imagine a life without it, I could not imagine a week without it. I loved it. But … the crippling hangovers, waking in the middle of the night feeling wretched and checking the fridge in the morning to see how much I had consumed. Wondering what I had said the night before, completely forgetting conversations — and that awful sense of righteousness when I was drinking. That I had some kind of responsibility to tell a truth that was not mine to tell. Ugh! What a mess!
Mrs D: So what led you to finally get sober?
Rowan: My tipping point? Too many stupid decisions, too many irrational nights, too many attempts to protect and hide my drinking. I could talk about all the awful things, all the stupid things; I could talk about one of my beautiful girlfriends who drunk herself to death on her third bottle of vodka; I could talk about the friend who fell over and hit his head and died before his wife came out in the morning and discovered him already cold. Good people who would still be alive, loving their families, if they had stopped drinking. How much did I drink? I’m not sure really. Two or three bottles of wine a week, sometimes more, never less. I would drink most of the bottle, and then need a top up bottle maybe the day after I had recovered. Not much, surely, not enough to be labelled an alcoholic surely, not enough to have a problem, right? Wrong. It controlled my life. I wanted to drink every night, and if I could, I would drink during the day too. After the first glass, I was focussed on the next and then the next. My marriage, in a precarious state already, was suffering, and I left my husband. My strong and loyal man, who took me back without batting an eyelid when I hit rock bottom. Because when I left him, I could indulge my vice as much as I wanted to. I self-medicated to ease my anxiety at being a single working mum, and I self-medicated so I could protect my children from … me.
Mrs D: Was there a final straw?
Rowan: I had been too drunk at a dinner party, as usual, and when I woke up in the morning my husband pieced together the evening for me. It was not pretty. I lay outside in the garden in the beautiful winter sun, unable to enjoy the gorgeous day, and had a big think about the person I wanted to be as opposed to the person I was being. I decided that I had to do something and it was then that I realised that I COULD do something. I could stop drinking. Wow, what a revelation! That week I thought more about it, quietly determined that I would start Dry July and stay sober for at least 40 days. Then I thought, nope, there’s no time like the present, start now, and secretly I wanted to be sober forever but I just didn’t go there. On 24 June 2016, friends came around for dinner and we shared a bottle of Moët that I had been given. The next day I quietly became sober.
Mrs D: How was it for you in the early days? What was most difficult?
Rowan: Four days after that last drink, I discovered Living Sober. I Googled something like ‘help quitting alcohol’ and my whole world changed. I discovered a community of amazingly loving and supportive people who shared every step of the way towards solid sobriety with me. I had a lifeline; people who got it. Silly me — haha! I had thought I was the only one in the world who was struggling with alcohol consumption — I mean, you know, apart from alcoholics. It was just mind blowing! I remember that first welcome message — I thought ‘What the hell? Somebody cares about me and understands!’ God, just thinking about brings a tear to my eye. I felt so lonely in my pain. I felt so useless with the challenge. I felt unequal to the task — and here were people telling me I could do it without having to go into rehab or spend weeks on a farm in the middle of nowhere or whatever people in recovery did. And not only that, but giving welcome advice on how I could do it and what it would feel like. Because it was bloody tough. I wanted a drink badly. I loved drinking. It made me feel happy. It made me feel cool. It made me feel less stressed. Maybe it did. But it also made me feel sick and tired and made my relationships suffer and cost money and was a truckload of trouble. It didn’t agree with me. Alcohol was not good for me. I had an extremely dysfunctional relationship with it – and why wouldn’t I? It’s a known addictive substance. And this bunch of beautiful people knew exactly what it was like. They didn’t say things like, “I don’t drink very much anyway” like people do when you speak to them about it. They said honest things like, “I drank and it was ruining my life.” Just like me. They were tough love, they were smart and funny and sassy and brutally honest. They loved me for being brave and they helped me every hour of every day for more than a year. It was like stepping into a village and being given a home and hearth and a circle to sit around and people who listened and cared and let you be yourself. They knew that it was me doing the hard yakka — that when times were tough, when I reeeeeeally wanted a drink, when I just wanted to fall off the wagon and worry about it all tomorrow — and so many people do because it is tough, but they knew that I wouldn’t be happy with myself if I did that. They knew that I had made the decision and that was that. Sometimes oh God sometimes I wanted to just go to hell with it. But I never did. Because one drink, one night would not be enough. And my sobriety is enough. It is a beautiful thing and it is my strength and a gift of such natural and authentic beauty I am gobsmacked that I didn’t discover it earlier.
Mrs D: I'm so happy you found us! What about your family and friends, how did they react when you started getting sober?
Rowan: My friends were bloody amazing. They were supportive and didn’t drink around me in the early days. I think they appreciated the non-drinking space to be honest. There came a time when I could keep wine in the fridge and offer it to guests and sometimes they’ll have a drink. But mostly they like the cordial and alcohol free concoctions I give them. It’s nice not to have alcohol at the centre of everything. My family drink like fishes and I find it difficult to interact with them at social events now. I used to be right in there and now I usually head home early before it gets too messy. My sobriety is always the most important thing and I have no qualms about saying goodbye and cutting out if things get too difficult. The first New Year’s Eve party I went to six months after becoming sober I took home a posse of teenagers who just wanted to play on the X-box at 10pm, changed into my pyjamas and hung out with them. It was the best night ever.
Mrs D: I love that!
Rowan: I am pretty honest with people about why I don’t drink. I say things like, “I’ve had my fair share, girlfriend!” Once I sat next to a semi-famous person at a conference lunch and I decided the most interesting thing I had done recently was to become sober, so I told him and we had a fascinating chat. It is what it is, I am what I am, and I’m glad I’m working on that!
Mrs D: Have you ever relapsed?
Rowan: No. Not even close.
Mrs D: How long did it take for things to start to calm down for you emotionally & physically?
Rowan: I went to Bali with my daughter on Day 5 which was damn interesting. A mini bar, alcohol everywhere — who’s going to know? I’d know. And I’d have to confess to my new tribe. But look! Wonderful fruit juices and mocktails for dirt cheap! It was a period of an overwhelming feeling of coming home, of being the real me. We ate fresh fruit and drank juices and smoothies; we ate fish and salad in restaurants that sold Bintang 24/7 and perched on cliffs in a little bar in the middle of nowhere and watched world-class surfing in the glassy waters below while we drank sparkling water. I had travelled the world doing this when I was not much older than her. And I drank in those days. Oh boy did I drink. But now, sober and with my pre-drinking age teen, I was exquisitely and truly happy. This. This is why I became sober. It was perfect. I became an advocate for healthy holidays right then and there. I did experience some cracking headaches in the early days and used to drink a couple of litres of elderflower cordial. I experienced the text book waves of craving and pink clouds and felt sooooo tired until about Day 70. It blew my mind that the alcohol I had been drinking had so much effect on my body. Emotionally — well it’s still tough to take on the challenges of life with or without any crutch. But — that’s life!
Mrs D: How hard was it getting used to socialising sober?
Rowan: It was and still is tricky, I cannot lie. I much prefer to hang out with people who don’t drink. I have travelled to NZ a few times just to be with my Living Sober tribe and have discovered sisters and authentic lifelong friends. But general socialising I find much more difficult. Work events are tough — I may go but I usually leave early. Which is fine. I miss the crazy old days but also I don’t. It’s a funny thing. But as the Buddha says — nothing stays the same forever. The only constant is change. And I’m really really glad that I have changed. Moving into my autumn years, it feels good to be in the best possible space I can be. It is an amazing sense of freedom, which is a bit ironic because that’s what I thought alcohol gave me.
Mrs D: Was there anything surprising that you learned about yourself when you stopped drinking?
Rowan: That I could do it. I stopped the cycle of self-abuse and opened the door to a better life. And it didn’t cost a thing!
Mrs D: How did your life change?
Rowan: So, so much. I embraced being an introvert – I accepted myself for who I am. I went back to my old creative ways. Creativity is such a positive way of letting off steam and stress. I sew constantly – it’s my Friday and Saturday night highlight now. I knit – knitting helps when I am in a social situation and gives me something to do with my hands. And I travel. I love that I am going to places and having incredible adventures that I don’t think I would have considered if I was still drinking. Most importantly and definitely not unrelated to any of the above, I feel able to explore my spirituality and for me that is grounded in humanity. I have volunteered overseas to help in impoverished communities and I have also helped out at my local homeless shelter. I am about to travel to India and Tibet. I am dealing with the challenges of teenagers and ageing parents, while I’m not the best at these difficult things, and while I still struggle with feelings of inadequacy and insecurity, I can honestly say that I’m doing the best I can. I don’t know about being sober forever; that’s a long time. I still don’t belong, but I take it on the chin. I experience that awkwardness, and so be it. It’s who I am, and at 56 years of age if I can’t be who I am then I never can! If it gets overwhelming, I politely make excuses and go home. I go home to my comfy pants, my loving dog and my sewing machine. I go home and turn the music up and clean the bathroom. I go home and lie on the children’s trampoline and drink soda water and watch the stars. I go home and have a cup of tea and read a book and relax. Because I work hard and I deserve it.
Mrs D: You sure do. Can you pinpoint any main benefits that have emerged for you from getting sober?
Rowan: Being fully present with my children. Trusting my judgement and myself. Knowing that I am not pouring an addictive carcinogenic into my body is such a good feeling! And it’s different, interesting, unusual to be sober. I am so much more accepting of who I am -- shy, geeky, awkward, strong, beautiful, sober me. And what a great role model I am being for my children!
Mrs D: Would you do anything differently given the chance to go through the process again?
Rowan: I don’t think so. Except I would have liked to have done it earlier!
Mrs D: Any advice or tips for those who are just starting on this journey?
Rowan: You have to make the decision. Once you make that, it’s non-negotiable. It’s like people who are allergic to shellfish – they can’t eat it, they can’t even be at the same table as someone who is sometimes. Your sobriety comes first – no matter what. That phase will pass; it doesn’t bother me to have wine in the fridge or be with people who are drinking. I don’t even think about it. But in the early days – do whatever it takes to stick to your decision. Be honest, be authentic and be firm with yourself. If I can do it, you can too. It is so worth it. The thing is, my friends, drinking alcohol is not natural. We don’t need it like they tell us we do. ‘They’ are everybody – the media, friends, family … the whole world thinks alcohol is essential, that we deserve it, that we need it to cope with our lives. Can you see how insane this is? If you look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we see that the things that humans need for survival are shelter, food, air, water. It gets more complex, because we are humans after all, and on the next layer we seek safety and security. And we crave love, family, belonging, self-esteem and self-actualisation. And you know what? Alcohol does not tick any of these boxes. It may, if you want it to, slip into the ‘belonging’ category. As a non-drinker, I miss this one. I miss sitting around, getting plastered with whoever would drink with me, talking shit, waking up with a massive headache and ruefully texting each other as we eat a stodgy and fatty breakfast in an attempt to right the wrong in our bodies. It was fun, right? But more likely, I’d be texting no-one because I drank alone, and had to hide my hangover while umpiring the nippers’ netball or sitting in a roomful of kids playing Gossec’s Gavotte over and over at the Suzuki violin class. Oh. My. God. Pure hell. There were the times when I drank appropriately, a couple of glasses with dinner, or a beer or two after gardening. In between the binges, in between the ‘I deserve this because I work so hard’, in between the self-loathing.
Mrs D: Anything else you'd like to share?
Rowan: I have met the most amazing crew through Living Sober. I love them and I thank them – and you, Mrs D – for helping me to change my life for the better. Being sober is not a magic wand – the tricky bits in life will still be the tricky bits. But it is so much better, and so much easier, to tackle the tricky bits with a clean head and a clear heart. I have had immensely satisfying social times while being sober. And I love knowing that I am authentic and real – if I’m feeling overwhelmed, then that’s because it’s overwhelming! If I’m feeling uncomfortable, then that’s because it’s uncomfortable! I remove myself, without any excuses. And the best thing is when I find a sober friend – and they are out there. I love to hear those words – “I don’t drink.”