Chasing the High

I’ve taken on so many new things recently that I’m both exhilarated and terrified all the time at the moment. Who needs alcohol when you’ve got a healthy dose of adrenalin, right? It’s all good, satisfying stuff that is for myself; I’m studying, pursuing new career directions, renovating and generally carving out a new way to live.

And yet, somehow, I still feel a lack of something. I’m reminded of the way Mrs D described needing more wine as wanting to feel ‘full’. That’s exactly it. And I’m in an awful spiral of eating junk food in an attempt to do the same thing, and it’s completely unsatisfying – which means that I try again the next evening and in a shocking turn of events, it continues to be unsatisfying. I’m sure it’s an addict impulse, this conviction that if I just find the right substance to put into myself, I’ll feel better (maybe salt and vinegar crisps will do it? Maybe if I go on a special errand to the one store that sells lime and chilli soy snacks?) whereas clearly, what’s needed here is not going to come from external sources.

But I don’t know what it is that I am yearning for. Relaxation? I’m quite relaxed, these days, though. Life is so much easier without wine that I feel like a lady of leisure. Evenings are packed with possibilities, all of them satisfying in their own way; shall I have an indulgent bath? Spend the night cooking and listening to music? Go to bed early with a book? Write another few pages of the book? All of them are things that make me feel good, all of them are quite healthy ways to spend my time. When it stops with the blizzard conditions outside* I may even take up exercise again.

So why do I go back to this idea that I am not full, that there is something missing? A magic key that somehow unlocks a new level of joy or deep satisfaction? Something, above all, that will make me feel satiated.

When I was eighteen, I intended to write the definitive Australian youth novel, along with almost every aspiring teenage writer out there. It was going to be about my friends and I (along with almost every aspiring teenage writer out there) and our experiences in share houses, at parties, in tangled relationships fuelled by dope and booze. And then John Birmingham wrote He Died With a Falafel in His Hand, so I didn’t bother. Well, and I was too busy with the aforementioned, and also Boys. Anyway, I was going to call it Chasing The High, because it seemed to me even then that that’s all any of us were doing.

The first time we do anything, it has more power and resonance than ever again. Do you remember the knee-weakening amazement of your first kiss? The first time you heard a song that spoke to your soul? The day that you got your first paycheque? The first time you discovered that you could make yourself come? And then we want to do these things again and again, but they wear out with use, they lose their power. The lyrics become trite, the kiss becomes a mere stepping stone on the way to something else.

And of course, if you’re an addict you find an external substance that enhances the sensation you’re looking for, the high you’re chasing. But then you build up a tolerance, and you know how the rest of this song goes. The very definition of addiction is chasing a high.

Right now, I’m on another high, because I’m pursuing a long held dream that is starting to come true. But what happens when the novelty wears off? When the ‘firsts’ stop and I’m back in reality, doing the same things over and over. Even if my entire life is comprised of things I love doing, they can’t be newer and higher and more exciting every time. One day soon, they’ll be routines. The most exciting love affair in the world becomes your daily domestic life eventually. There is no magic formula for living that means that you stay on the high.

I don’t know how to stop chasing highs. I don’t know how to just live.

That’s the hollow inside me that I’m trying to fill, this time with external validation and an audience for my words. A hollow where peace should be. I don’t have peace, because I’m still chasing the high.

*It’s not a real blizzard. I’m in Australia. It’s just quite chilly and there’s some drizzle. But if my English friends can describe 30 degrees as ‘scorching heat’, and believe me, they can and do, then I’m calling this a blizzard.

Talk to your children about alcohol

Growing up, there was never any alcohol in the family home.  My mother drank red wine at parties, a glass of champagne at Christmas and in later years, a gin and tonic with me on a Friday evening.  My father drinks a single beer with his dinner.

As a result, I don’t remember either of them ever having a conversation about alcohol with me, either positive or negative.

But even very early, I knew that alcohol was cool, and that drinking it was an excellent idea.  I remember a party that my mother hosted when we first arrived in Australia.  I would have been about twelve, and somebody brought along a wine cooler; white wine and fruit juice mixed together in a cardboard box.  

Alcohol for people who don't like the taste of alcohol.  Or appreciate anything that is good and right in the world.

Alcohol for people who don’t like the taste of alcohol. Or appreciate anything that is good and right in the world.

I have no idea who invented such a vile concoction, but it did have one redeeming feature; it could be drunk by a twelve year old.  I remember sneaking a couple of glasses of the stuff and drinking them in my room on a dull Sunday afternoon.  I also remember being surprised that the room didn’t spin and nothing felt different.

Nothing daunted, I did the same thing a couple of years later.  By this time, my mother occasionally travelled overseas for business, and when she did she would bring back a large duty-free bottle of gin, or white rum, which was then stashed in a high cupboard.  Both spirits being clear, it seemed to my fifteen year old self that I would be betraying teenagers the world around if I didn’t pour myself a glass and top up the bottle with water.  

It doesn’t escape my notice, now, that my first drinks were illicit, and underwhelming.  But what intrigues me more is that I wanted to drink so young.  Intrigues, but doesn’t surprise: I was a precocious reader, and by twelve I was reading books written for adults.  Jilly Cooper was a particular favourite, and as anyone who has read her works of utter genius knows, they are packed full of impossibly glamorous dissolutes who do things like swig champagne from the bottle at fourteen, roll up to play in international sporting matches with awful hangovers, or wake up in a rumpled bed of blondes and drain the glass of red wine that is still there from the night before. Her oeuvre is basically an ode to problem drinking, and there I was, reading them before I hit my teens proper.

Cooper wasn’t the only influence on my young mind, telling me that drinking was  a sure-fire route to the louche, beguiling person I wanted to be.  There was Dorothy Parker, and Fanny Hill.  Later there was David Bowie, eyes glittering with cocaine and booze, Cocker singing about dancing and drinking and screwing, all these twisted, glamorous deviants using drink to set them apart from the herd.

When you’re young, you want so desperately to become someone worth being.  And since you can’t see the insides of your idols, you try and mimic their outsides.  Perhaps the quips you admire come from the long swallows from the bottle they carry; their eye liner frames a world you want to see too.  You can’t sort the good from the bad, when you’re young, so you adopt things almost at random, layering personalities like charity shop finds.  

More important than the voices telling young people about the glamour of drinking are the voices that are missing: the voices that talk about the danger of alcohol and the way it can turn on you.  I knew that alcoholics existed, as a child.  I didn’t know anything else about them, though.  I didn’t know alcoholism doesn’t discriminate and doesn’t announce itself.  That you can be as respectable, and as careful, and as conscientious as you like, and you can still find yourself, one day, apologising for a drunken rant you don’t even remember.

I wish people would talk to their children about alcohol, before the world does, because the world lies to children.  

Drinkaware, a British charity funded by the alcohol industry, aims to raise awareness of responsible drinking for young and old.  Their current campaign is aimed at parents and recommends that parents talk to their children from as young as eight, to deliver messages about the potential harm that comes with drinking before the world drowns them out.

The things we teach our children are the things they take with them throughout their lives.  The voice we use becomes their inner voice.  Parents have power.  This is an area where it’s worth using that power, because if we say nothing, other people will.

Some ideas from Drinkaware about talking to your child are here.

(For transparency: this is not a sponsored post.  I reached out to Drinkaware because I noticed their campaign on Twitter and I believe in it)

Making it look easy: a brief history of dysfunctional drinking

In a private conversation with a friend who reads this blog the other day, I learned that I was making this sobriety thing look easy.  It was meant as a compliment.

Goodness knows, very few things in life feel as easy as they look from the outside, but I am aware that I’ve been posting relentlessly optimistic, cheerleading posts for a while now.  It helps that my life is completely amazing at the moment; I’m studying something I love, I moved into my dream house in April, last year’s financial worries have dimmed somewhat, and I’m not sure how much of that is directly attributable to sobriety or not, but it all adds up to amazing.

But this is what I want to say:  You guys are reading the success story because the failures never made it to air.

It's like alcohol was the captor, and I was the hostage, and we were in a cheesy film with no sense of irony

It’s like alcohol was the captor, and I was the hostage, and we were in a cheesy film with no sense of irony

Here is a thing that I wrote to some close friends, back in 2005, nine years ago:

I think this is a problem. But because I fall in that huge in-between area between ‘a glass of wine at a party’ and ‘guzzling mouthwash’ the doubts remain.

And I’m really scared. 

I’ve been to events where I stay stone cold sober – but only rarely, I’m so used to being tipsy when I’m being sociable that it feels really weird not to be. 

Mostly, I just get tipsy. I don’t end up an embarrassing blubbering drunk or anything. But I’m not going out and staying completely sober.

But then the two of us also have a routine of sharing a bottle of wine two or three nights a week. And when there’s wine in the fridge I have a glass or two of an evening just generally.

And when Lovely Husband’s not here – which of course is half the time – I still have a glass or two of wine of an evening. And sometimes it’s not a glass of two. It’s the best part of a bottle. Every now and then, it’s a bottle. I tell myself that if I was out I’d be drinking a similar amount. Which is true, but doesn’t make the quantities less.

I have a problem, don’t I? I’m saying that when we socialise, I drink. When we have a ‘date’ evening at home, I drink. And when I’m at home alone with nothing better to do – I drink.

I’m functional. I don’t miss work, I don’t damage relationships, I don’t spend money I don’t have, I don’t do any of the things that scream ‘alcoholic’.

I’m not going to go to an AA meeting. I don’t think this is something I can’t control, and it’s not something I feel so helpless about that I need to make a complete break from. But I needed to say this to you guys, even if I can’t yet say it to the people I love. And I need to find a way of breaking the dependence. I need to make sure I’m driving home so I can’t drink sometimes. I need to stop myself drinking at home alone.

I just needed to write that all down. 

Oh God.

What strikes me, reading that back, is not the quantities I’m talking about – it’s the fear.  And I did nothing at all about it.

Here is me again, in 2011.

I’m sober at the moment. But I’m sober because I’m pregnant. And even that might not have been enough to do it, but a very handy side-effect of pregnancy, for me, is a total aversion to alcohol.

Being sober is what’s given me the courage to post; I didn’t feel I could post if I didn’t know that I wouldn’t drink that evening. And on any given day, I didn’t know that. Well, I guess I did know; I was pretty much always going to drink. Sometimes I would manage a night alcohol-free, but then I’d tell myself that it proved that I could drink responsibly, and drink the next night. 

It’s very telling what I miss, at the moment. I don’t miss being able to have a small glass of wine at dinner. I miss drinking glass after glass of wine over an evening.  I’m scared that I’ll just go back to it as soon as it tastes good again. I’m very high functioning, and I mostly drink at home, but I know that if I continue, there’ll be a point where the consequences catch up with me.

My plan, when I posted that, was to use the pregnancy as a chance to break the habit and any physical addiction, and then stay sober.  In fact, I had been so out of control in the year before that pregnancy that I looked upon it as a chance at rescue.  I knew I needed to stop, I knew I’d be able to stop when I got pregnant, I was impatient for the pregnancy to happen because I needed the cut-off point.  I didn’t think I could quit ‘on my own’.

And then I had Little Girl, and my drinking went straight back to where it had been, and worse.

Those are only the quotes that I have in writing, and that I could find easily.  There is the collection of alcoholic memoirs, which date back to at least 2009 and attest to the fact that I have known, for a long time, that there is something wrong.  There is also an initial attempt at a sobriety blog at the end of 2010, which lasted three days before I drank and then deleted it.  There is my attempt at Dry July, also in 2010, which lasted two days. There’s the long, terrified email that I sent to a sober friend, back in 2012 when I was very, very drunk, basically pleading for her to tell me what to do to make it stop.

I’ve posted before that I knew I was an alcoholic before I quit, and that the realisation wasn’t a blinding moment of salvation, but rather an another excuse to drink (‘I’m an alcoholic!  Of course I can’t stay sober!”).  I don’t know that I’ve ever posted about all the times that I looked into my life, felt terror, and reached for the wine glass.

Sobriety is easy.  There’s nothing easier in the world than living without alcohol.

But quitting was so fucking hard that it took me almost a decade to do it.