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Learning to love yourself

Anna was nowhere ready to give up drinking but the damage to her liver after years of alcohol abuse forced her to get sober.

What was your drinking like?

I started drinking in my early teens after losing my mother at the age of 11. I loved the feeling it gave me, especially how it gave me the chance to escape from my emotions and the sadness that I felt. This drinking continued into my university years, and I loved partying and taking anything that would get me drunk or high.

Throughout my 20s and 30s, there were numerous occasions when I drank too much and got into trouble. I started having blackouts, I injured myself, I woke up in strange places, I lost jobs and boyfriends, I moved countries.

By my late 30s, I was drinking daily, always starting at 5pm and drinking to blackout every night. On the weekends or days off I sometimes woke up and started drinking. I was starting to realise that my drinking was a real problem and that I couldn’t stop.

What led to you finally deciding to put the cork in the bottle?

On the weekend of my 40th birthday, my partner and I had a binge to celebrate my milestone. The following week, he was hospitalised for pancreatitis. My doctor told me that I couldn’t carry on drinking the way I was if my partner was to give up, so I begrudgingly went to see a drug and alcohol counsellor.

My counsellor tried to get me to do harm minimisation, which was a joke! She suggested I mix my wine with soda, drink glasses of water in between or eat before I started drinking. I half-heartedly tried all these things, but I always ended up drinking the same amount and going in to blackout.

Finally my counsellor got me to have a blood test. The results showed that my liver was in a terrible condition, and that I was about to get cirrhosis of the liver. She suggested that I need a medical detox and rehab. By this time, I was finally ready to do something about my drinking. I was terrified and knew that I was killing myself. It didn’t take all the blackouts, injuries, job losses or relationship break ups to convince me. It took a blood test that told me I was slowly killing myself.

Did you find it hard in early recovery?

I had a planned medical detox in the hospital for five nights, then attended residential rehab for eight weeks. During this time, the world seemed like a brand new place of discovery for me, and I embraced it. I loved going to bed sober, and I especially loved waking up without a hangover. I started to enjoy food again, as I had practically stopped eating in my last year of drinking.

The hardest thing I found in early recovery was dealing with my emotions sober. I had used alcohol and drugs for over 20 years to block out my emotions, so I felt like a newborn baby, learning how to live in the world without any substances to give me an escape.

Have you managed to stay sober?

Yes I have. When I left rehab, I started attending 12-step meetings, got a home group, did service, got a sponsor and did the steps. I didn’t work for a few months so that I could navigate my way into my new life. I started doing yoga and meditation. I travelled around going to various AA camps and assemblies, meeting new people and talking about recovery. I learnt new tools on how to deal with life’s ups and downs. I celebrated my sobriety with other people in recovery, and supported newcomers. I threw myself into my recovery the same way I had thrown myself into my drinking. I think these things have helped me to stay sober.

Tell us about socialising sober

For the first year of my sobriety, I didn’t socialise much. I was terrified of going anywhere that had alcohol. I remember my first major exposure to alcohol was when I went to Thailand when I was 11 months sober. I found it surprisingly easy to be around people drinking, and from then on I have not worried about socialising where there is alcohol.

I make sure I have an exit plan if things get tough, and I don’t really stick around too long because I find it boring sitting around watching people get drunk. I have so much more richness in my life now and would much rather be doing other things.

How did your life change?

The biggest change I have felt is having a new sense of freedom from the mental obsession I had with alcohol. This obsession took up so much space in my head, my bank account, my time, my relationships, my job. I didn’t need to worry about whether I had enough alcohol every night, or spend the majority of the afternoon watching the clock, counting down the time until I could have a drink.

I am now able to face problems and obstacles with authenticity, self-compassion and patience. Life is certainly different without using substances to escape my emotions, and I was very tired at the beginning of my sobriety. I have learnt how to be gentle with myself and give myself a break after years of feeling guilty and isolated with my drinking.

What are the biggest wins in sobriety?

My health, my authenticity, recovery friends, real relationships with people, reading in bed, appreciating nature, not living in a constant state of fear and guilt. The biggest win of all is waking up in the morning remembering everything I did the night before.

Would you do anything differently?

I would be gentle on myself from the beginning. When I got sober, I thought that all of a sudden I would be a ‘perfect person’. I was trying to make up for lost time. But who is perfect, and who would want to be perfect?!? I spent a lot of my early sobriety berating myself for my thoughts and behaviours, not realising that these behaviours were entrenched in me from my years of drinking. Self-compassion is one of the best tools I have learnt in sobriety.

Advice or tips for people wanted to get clean and sober?

No matter what has happened, where you have come from or how old you are, it is never too late to begin this amazing journey of recovery. Surround yourself with people in recovery, including doing service and going to meetings. Get a sponsor and do the steps. Listen for the similarities, not the differences, in meetings.

Most of all, learn to love yourself again.

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