It took me ages to learn to drive. As someone who had historically been a high-flyer and had quietly rejected or mocked anything I wasn’t good at (namely building anything practical and any sports involving hand-eye coordination), I really didn’t know how to cope with learning to do something that I wasn’t quick at. It made me feel very defeated. I hated it. I didn’t care about it (being bad at stuff is super-boring, right? I’d much rather be practising for a piano exam or getting full marks in a French test, thanks very much), I took naps at the wheel at red lights during my lessons (yes, really!). I gave up several times (I know, what a princess). My heart wasn’t in it. I couldn’t truly see myself as a safe, confident driver.
Eventually, after several failed attempts, I passed my driving test two years later, having realised that I valued independent travel more than I valued protecting my pride around displaying my mediocrity.
How? I just kept at it. I also found a lovely, empathic teacher who built up my confidence. By the final, successful test, I thought I was a pretty good driver, and I would still call myself that, 18 years later. I’ve only had one minor incident that was ‘my fault’, certainly a lot less than several friends who were ‘natural drivers’ and passed their first test.
Sobriety is a bit like this, I think.
I tried so, so many times to first moderate my drinking and subsequently to quit altogether. First I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t drink like many friends – just enjoying a few glasses on a Friday night. So I didn’t bother trying to moderate. After all, I was in my 20s- you’re only young once! I’d sort out my shit once I was a proper grown up (note: I still feel like I’m only pretending to be a grown up, and doesn’t everyone? You’re doomed if you leave anything until you feel properly grown up).
Later I realised I was squandering all my energy, money, relationships and mental well-being. I tried hard to moderate.
But of course, I couldn’t. So project Become Teetotal began. I couldn’t seem to manage the full month I kept attempting, so I lowered the bar to 3 weeks of sobriety back in early 2014.
I achieved it. Feeling bolder, I successfully attempted 6, and later, 8 weeks. By this point, aged 33, I had all the evidence I needed that my best possible future was an alcohol-free one. Still, each time my teetotal stints finished, I bounced quickly back to the same habits. Just like learning to drive, it felt pretty unnatural to not have a wine glass glued to my hand.
My heart wasn’t in it. I couldn’t truly see myself as a non-drinker.
By Autumn 2014 I was pregnant with my third baby, and, as before, I didn’t find abstinence during pregnancy difficult. Now, I know that was because a) I knew it wasn’t forever and b) I naturally upped my self-care to the max during pregnancy (I still hadn’t unpicked my deep-seated self-loathing, that would have to wait until permanent sobriety began in 2017, but it’s much easier to be loving to yourself when you are carrying a sweet little unborn human).
Abstinence was a relief. I really enjoyed not being a drinker. Despite this, it took me just a few short weeks to get back to my previous drinking habits after giving birth in 2015.
By Christmas 2015, I was severely depressed.
Contrary to the shiny, mendacious Facebook pictures, 2016 was the darkest year of my life. The combination of my antidepressant medication (Sertraline) and my nightly bottle of wine led my to blackouts, self-harm and suicidal thoughts.
Drinking not only brought me no joy, I was becoming aware it was practically a reflexive habit, like pushing my glasses up the bridge of my nose when I’m wearing contact lenses. Then the worst moments of my life unfolded as cracks began to appear in my marriage. I realised that there was no way I could raise my children by myself if I needed to. I was desperate to change this. Shortly after, my best friend was diagnosed with terminal cancer. I needed to become more resilient.
I knew that the answer was to become teetotal. I had known this for several years.
It was time.
Just like with learning to drive, several things led to my eventual success after many failures.
Firstly, I needed a teacher who inspired and nurtured me (I found Holly Whitaker and took her life-changing online “Hip Sobriety School”). This provided me with a gazillion coping tools and a supportive community. I learned that online friendships with people on the other side of the planet are not only a real, meaningful, rewarding thing – they are a lifeline in inevitable moments of struggle that befall us.
Secondly, I needed to believe that things would be better in the future, whilst acknowledging that things were far from easy in the meantime. I had to learn to be uncomfortable at times. Shock, horror – there will always be difficult times, and – shock, horror – I’m becoming OK with this.
Thirdly, I needed to be tenacious. I needed to keep on walking/driving towards the goal. To stop berating myself every time I put my car in the wrong gear or got in the wrong lane at a roundabout. Yes, yes, a clicheed metaphor, but errors are the way that humans learn: whilst making sure we avoid hitting pedestrians and stay on the correct side of the road, we should forgive ourselves the occasional gear crunch.
And of course, I’ve stopped filling myself with the wrong type of fuel. That seems pretty obvious, right? No longer filling up my little engine with ethanol was the first and crucial step to getting back on the road.