On the 28th of October this year it was my one-year milestone for giving up drinking. YAY ME!!!
I’d been planning all year on this milestone being a much-celebrated event but unfortunately it was overshadowed by another anniversary the day before – the anniversary of the death of my younger sister to breast cancer, five years ago.
The closeness of dates of these two, major, life-changing events are not an accident. The last time I ever got drunk was on the fourth year memorial of my sister’s death it was the next day that I woke up and said, “Today is the day I stop drinking forever.”
Well in truth, I tentatively thought it but I didn’t say the words out loud. Not yet. But I knew it in my heart, the permanence of my decision to no longer drink.
My sister and I were always big drinkers. We both loved wine and beer and tequila shots and getting drunk and being outrageous and having fun. Oh the stories I could tell you! Like the time we partied with Al Jorgensen from Ministry after the Big Day Out and then she raced off interstate with him to the next event! (I crept back home to my husband with my tail between my legs from not having made it home that night.) But he forgave me. That time….
So when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, six years before she died, she did try to cut back on her partying ways and for the most part she did; just the odd binge sessions when circumstances got a bit hard to face; which was pretty often, come to think of it.
The years leading up to her death and then her actual death were the most excruciatingly, emotionally-painful days that I have ever had to face – and believe me, I’ve had some emotional pain in my time.
But she was my little sister, the person in life I always looked out for, the person who looked to me to rescue her. The person who trusted me to solve life’s problems. (Turns out there are some problems you just can’t solve for someone else).
She was the person I shared a whole lifetime of experiences with: the adventurous life, running free in the country, riding horses; the many houses and school moves; always being the new kids on the block; the breakup of our parents; the absent, hard-drinking, womanizing, charismatic, dynamic, handsome father; the loving, hardworking but desperately struggling mother; jealousies over boyfriends and careers; travel experiences; financial struggles; laughter; parties; emotional insecurities; loves and joy; pregnancies; the birth of her daughter and the many hours of deep, deep, discussions about love, life and… the finality of death.
After my sister died I was absolutely heartbroken. I spent a lot of time contemplating the transience of life, struggling to pull myself out of bed every day.
I had to keep moving forward because I’d assumed the guardianship of my 12-year old niece who was also struggling with grief; even more so than me.
I wish I could say that she turned to me in her grief but my similarity of looks, voice and manner to my younger sister was like constant sandpaper rubbing against niece’s brain and heart; a constant reminder that her mother was dead and I was alive. The cruelty of fate! The unfairness of life! She constantly threw anger and hatred towards me, “You can’t tell me what to do! YOU’RE NOT MY MOTHER! I HATE YOU! I WISH IT WAS YOU THAT DIED!!”
I tried to tell her that I wasn’t trying to replace her mother but I’d promised I would take care of her. I introduced her to CANTEEN, an organization for teenagers who’ve suffered loss through cancer. I took her to the singing and acting lessons she’d had since she was young. I stopped working so I could be on hand after school to make sure she wasn’t going astray. I gave her pocket money and cooked her meals and hugged her when she cried and talked to her often about her mum.
But she just wasn’t going to have it. I just wasn’t her mother and she wasn’t going to let me replace her. She held me at arms length with bitter determination.
She lived with me for six months and then she vehemently told me one night that she was going to live with her ex-step father. I tried to dissuade her but ultimately there was nothing I could do to stop her. So that’s where she went.
It was the catalyst for me to fall into a deep depression and I started drinking heavily again. I’ve had times in my life when I’ve been a big drinker and other times when I’ve been a light drinker. This time was somewhere in the middle but I was frequently binging and for some reason – I just wasn’t handling the alcohol as well as I might normally have. I was deeply unhappy because I felt that I had failed my niece and ultimately I had failed my sister.
I knew that I had to give up drinking if I was going to get my life back on track, so I took baby steps. I started walking along the beach where I lived every day, listening to music that allowed me to think about my sister’s life and my life, while slowly walking off the agony.
Over time I started to awaken out of the darkness. I started to consider how precious life really is and how little time we really have. I thought a lot about the mistakes we’d both made from drinking heavily, particularly with the knowledge that booze is such a huge contributing factor in some forms of breast cancer. I considered what I held dear and I suppose I started to appreciate – really, really appreciate – my own children, my health and my own life.
And so, the day after the 4th year anniversary of my sister’s death – nursing a hangover from the one too many wines in her memory – I awoke and said, “Okay, today is the day that I give up drinking and really start to value myself and life.”
And so I did.
So, I’m a few weeks late with my observations about being abstinent but as we all know, better late than never! In the twelve months that I’ve been abstinent, this is what I’ve learnt about being a drinker:
I justified to myself, and others, that the amount of alcohol I consumed was normal and that I was in control.
I lied to myself, and others, about things I did and things I didn’t do.
I made up excuses for taking days off work when I was too hungover to go.
I can now sometimes smell alcohol on people around me – at work, socially, at parties – and it’s vile! I wonder how often I smelt like that.
I don’t have the same emotional ups and downs – I still get happy and sad but I don’t feel overwhelmed with anxiety or anger.
I look forward to going out without worrying about having to try and stop myself from getting drunk.
I go further afield from home because I don’t’ have to worry how I’ll get home if I happen to get drunk. Which was nearly always.
I can’t be bothered with bullshit conversations but I really like to listen to people, hear their stories and have heart-to-hearts. I want to find out what is on the inside of people and the things that challenge them.
I am connecting more, with more people.
I’m not as selfish or self-absorbed.
People are really kind and supportive when you are honest about your frailties – even people you hardly know.
I’m much better off financially. When I was drinking I would NEVER have money left over at the end of my pay cycle. Now I always do – and I’m saving!
Drunks are really boring! Being drunk sucks away time and creative energy. I seriously regret the lost moments from being hungover and the lost moments from being drunk and the lost moments from not being able to remember.
I look at people very differently. I’m drawn towards people who have healthy lives, who are active and make goals.
I love dining out just as much without wine! I enjoy good food just as much!! This was a major realization to me because I had a huge food and wine appreciation.
I wake up early every day and rarely sleep in or waste the day in bed.
I’ve lost 7 kilos and I’m looking pretty damn good… even if I do say so myself.
My children enjoying spending time with me more than they used to. I don’t say or do embarrassing things. They tell me how proud of me they are.
My family and friends are proud of me.
I am really proud of myself and I know that the example I am setting my niece will eventually be what she appreciates about me – even if she’s old when it happens.
My 20-year old daughter admitted she hated finding me passed out on the couch.
People only tended to admit things about my drinking to me once I’d stopped; or perhaps I just never listened before.
I can see myself living another 50 years instead of dying a slow death, every day.
Thanks for reading, friends. And best luck on your own journeys. Please leave your comments. It means a lot to me to hear from others.