My word of the year is Challenge. And it’s definitely described my year so far.
At the end of 2021, I began to think about a ‘word of the year for 2022’. I was, and still am, facing the sort of personal challenge that tears your world apart, and forces you to evaluate everything you think about your life, everything you are.
I had no idea how I was going to face this challenge. What it was going to do to my mental and emotional wellbeing. How on earth I was going to get through it. I was falling apart, drowning in the tsunami of conflicting emotions that were crashing around my mind.
After the stresses of the pandemic, I was already struggling to stay afloat emotionally… was this going to be the thing that breaks me…. that sends me back to the wreck I used to be, getting through all struggles with a bottle, a smoke and a barely suppressed rage?
I was determined that wouldn’t happen. I’ve come through much in my 7 years of sobriety. It’s been a hard time for many people, and I’ve had plenty of personal turbulence try to throw me off course. I’ve faced so many of the painful emotions I used to numb away with alcohol. Not easy to do. Not pleasant. But better than waking up in the morning with a hangover, fragmented memories, and shattered self esteem.
So I was determined that while it is going to change my whole life, this challenge was not going to break me.
As with all things, the only way to get through any challenge is to face it head on. So I decided to choose ‘challenge’ as my word of the year.
This had two levels of meaning for me. On one level, I was acknowledging that 2022 was going to be a year of significant challenge. There is no escaping from this one… no sugar coating or positive thinking it away. It’s going to happen. It’s going to hurt. And it is going to change life forever.
I needed to own that the challenge is there. But more than that, I was owning my ability to withstand it. If nothing else in life, I am a survivor, a fighter, a warrior. I’ve been knocked down more times than I can count. Often, the blow that floors me has been self inflicted. Many times they have been caused by someone else. Or maybe by my reactions to someone else’s actions.
But I have got myself up. I have made myself stronger. There are many points in my life that I wonder how I survived. But I have survived. I needed to remind myself that I am capable of getting through this challenge, and I will grow and become stronger for it.
I am not a proponent of the concept of ‘manifesting’ and the law of attraction. But I am aware of how it is meant to work. And if I did believe in it, I would certainly be wondering if I have manifested something I didn’t want into my life with my choice of ‘word of the year. Is ‘The Universe’ giving my opportunities to test my ability to cope with challenge? Have I manifested a year of challenge?
Because that is certainly how it feels. After feeling quite adrift for the first 2 months of 2022, I started to feel my way back to life in March. A diagnosis of tennis elbow led to a month off from climbing, one of my favourite ways to push myself and remind me of my strength and ability to do hard things. I had just recovered from that, when the dreaded blue line on a test strip saw me on enforced rest, and almost 2 months (and counting) of Covid, and post Covid fatigue.
After even more stress in May, I was struck with what appeared to be a stress-related lymph node infection in my armpit, causing agonising pain, even more fatigue and utter misery on top of an already festering pile of misery.
And as I watch the news, and feel an overwhelming sense of dread and fear about the life for us all, the anxiety and stress about life just keeps rising…
So my year of challenge is certainly becoming that. And we’re only just approaching the halfway mark. I’m feeling somewhat anxious about what else the year might have in store for me. Even just looking outside at what is happening in the country, the world, is enough to reassure me (if that’s the right word) that there are challenges aplenty still to come. And I know that there is more in store for me in my personal life…things will definitely get worse before they get better.
So I sometimes find myself wondering if maybe my choice of word wasn’t wise. But it is the perfect word. I didn’t ‘manifest’ those challenges. They were all going to happen anyway.
But holding the word in my mind reminds me on a daily basis that I can get through it all. I am strong. I often find myself wishing that I could have some time in my life when I didn’t need my friends to remind me of my strength. That life could be just easy for a while. But acceptance of what life is, rather that trying to bend things to suit what we want, is the only way to truly get through the tough times.
Life is about accepting the challenges along the way, choosing to keep moving forward, and savoring the journey
Roy T Bennett
So I will face the challenges this year, and all subsequent years, bring me. I will allow myself to rest, to cry, to scream, bitch and moan when I need to. I will practice self compassion and remember that i am worthy of love and kindness, especially from myself.
And I will dig deep into myself and find the strength and courage to rise up to the challenges and meet them head-on.
I won’t do it alone. I do and will depend on a lot of support from my friends and family. Because I sometimes don’t know if it’s that I’m strong, or I have great scaffolding holding me up. Probably a bit of both I suspect. I have wonderful friends, and a supportive, loving family. I am strong because of their love and support. And I am grateful for each and every one of them.
Someone recently asked me, in light of my emotional struggles, how I was coping with ‘my demons’ in the midst of the chaos of my life. It took me a few moments to realise that they meant my former demons of alcohol, cigarette and marijuana. The ‘coping methods’ I used to employ whenever life felt like too much. (or when it felt good. Or just so-so).
It fascinated me that they assumed that in the midst of chaos, I’d be battling with these long vanquished demons. They have known about the many struggles I have faced over the years, and how I have not once turned back to my former addictions. Or even wanted to.
But the idea of ‘once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic’ is deeply ingrained into our culture. Despite, as I understand the idea of neuroplasticity, it not being true.
It certainly isn’t true in my case. I don’t see myself as an alcoholic. I never admitted to it when I was one. And I’m not going to identify myself as one now. I am an entirely different person now, in so many ways. I found my way to sobriety when I started to change my relationship with myself. And my sobriety continues to change me.
I didn’t follow the common 12 steps to sobriety…. I’m not one for doing things the way other people do!
My sobriety didn’t come from an admission of powerlessness, of defeat and a need to surrender to an external ‘higher power’.
My sobriety journey began the moment I realised that the only person who had the power to make it happen for me was ME. That I needed to use tools to help me find new coping strategies. To change my self-perception. To learn to be in a different sort of life.
But that what would keep me there would be me. My self compassion and ability to sit through life’s storms. My ability to parent myself when life gets tough and I need to practice radical self care. My belief that life without the crutch of alcohol is better than any moment of temporary oblivion alcohol could provide.
And I know, throughout all the agonies life has thrown at me in recent years, that I can cope with them far better sober than I ever could with a bottle of Shiraz in my hand.
I’m reasonably certain that I wouldn’t have survived the isolation and existential anxiety of lockdown if I had been turning to alcohol to get through it. I certainly would have made it an even more miserable experience for both me and my then 10 year old son if I had. We had other huge challenges that we had to face together during that time, and I felt on the edge of despair and madness a lot of the time. Had I dealt with that with booze, it would have all hurt so much more.
If I was drinking now, through the challenges I and my family are currently facing, I would be making a deeply unhappy and traumatising time so much more difficult. When I was drinking I was always so focused on my own pain, that I rarely was able to hold empathy for another’s. And right now, I need to acknowledge and care for my pain, but I also need to be mindful and care for others’ as well.
It hasn’t once crossed my mind to attempt to navigate my way through my emotions with wine, cider, vodka or anything else that could ‘take the edge’ off the pain. I sometimes miss the comfort and floatiness that marijuana provided, but I know that my lungs and psyche would never cope with that anymore.
I know I’m better off without any of it. And I truly believe that this is because of how I initially approached my sobriety.
In the early days of my sobriety, I didn’t tell myself I was giving up drinking. I told myself each day that “I’m going to stay sober today”.
I had tried in the past to ‘control’ my drinking, to take breaks, and even think about giving up. These attempts always failed because my focus was on what I was giving up, what i was depriving myself of. I never looked at the benefits of what I was doing, only what I was “losing”.
In 2014, when I began my new life as a sober person, I did the opposite. I focused on what I was gaining. Remembering going to bed. Going to bed knowing I would remember it. Brushing my teeth before I went to bed. Putting my pyjamas on instead of crashing out in the clothes I was wearing. Actually MAKING it to bed rather than passing out on the sofa. Waking up in the morning remembering the night before. Not lying in bed trying to piece the evening together, wondering if I had done or said something stupid, had I hurt myself or someone I care about? Not battling with an ever-increasing sense of shame and self-loathing. My mouth not feeling like I had been licking a pub ashtray all night long. Having energy. Being able to do the things I had planned to do. Waking up early, Waking up with my alarm. Being able to get my son to school on time (ish!)
They were only small things taken individually, but together they led to a massive shift in how my life felt.
I wasn’t waking up in flight or fight.
I wasn’t counting down the hours till I could have my next drink.
I wasn’t wondering when I was going to screw up so badly that my son would be taken from me.
There were LOTS of positives.
When I made the decision 6 weeks later that I wanted sobriety to be the flavour of my life, it wasn’t with a sense of losing anything. I had enjoyed my 6 weeks of sobriety so much that I could no longer see the benefits of drinking.
Life wasn’t easy. It’s not the case that I stopped having the problems that led me to my self destructive habits. Far from it. And living sober did something I hadn’t anticipated…. It actually made the problems more visible.
Because, as I learned very quickly, alcohol wasn’t the cause of my problems. It had caused lots, but ultimately, alcohol had been my solution. When I was young, life had got so overwhelming it outweighed my ability to cope, and I turned to the promised oblivion of alcohol. It became my go to solution for any emotional state, good or bad. It became my habit, and then my addiction.
Sometimes it “worked”. I could pretend I was happy, pretend to be confident and outgoing when I felt like I wanted to run away and hide. Pretend that all was ok when it was anything but.
But more often than not, the problems would still loom large in my mind. I simply wasn’t able to deal with them when I was drunk. And my drunkenness would lead to a raft of other problems that sobriety would have protected me from. How I never landed myself in jail, hospital or a morgue because of things that I did, or that happened to me when I was drunk is a mystery I’ll never be able to solve.
But the drinking gave me a sense of escape., even if it was a fantasy. With a glass in my hand, I could handle life. Or so I thought. At least, I could fool myself into thinking that I was giving myself a break from the stress.
Once I took away the numbing power of alcohol, I could clearly see the lie in my devotion to it.
Alcohol is the ultimate wolf in sheep’s clothing. It mimics the ‘happy chemical’ GABA, the neurotransmitter that makes us feel calm, relaxed and at peace. But, like the propaganda merchant who distracts us with bread and circuses while they carry out their evil empire builder agenda, alcohol is busy raising the cortisol level and putting the mind and body into the stress response behind our back.
Alcohol is a mess of contradictions….
We drink it to relax, but it stresses out our whole system. We think it makes us feel happy, but it is a depressant. We drink it to be sociable, but it renders our ability to truly connect almost non-existent, We think it is a reward, but it is attacking every part of our being,… mental, physical and emotional health are all harmed by too much alcohol. We think it enhances our lives, but how many lives are devastated because of it?
Before I embraced my sober life, I couldn’t imagine life without drinking. Now I can’t imagine making the choice to drink.
While I have never subscribed to the 12 Step method, I have spent quite a few years assuming that if I have a ‘higher power’ it was Yoga. It was during and through my Yoga teacher training that I was able to get sober. The tools and practices I learned during my training allowed me to face life, myself and my emotions in a different way. IT gave me the space to heal. It helped me to release decades of tension in my body and mind, and gave me tools to self soothe in times of strain.
I had suspected for a few years that if I ever stopped my yoga practice, my sobriety would be at risk.
Well, it turns out that this isn’t the case.
Last year, after seeing so much anti vaccination, conspiracy theory Q-Anon thinking in the yoga world, I started to question a lot. And once I started questioning, I felt myself disconnecting from my own practice. Yoga no longer became my go to practice when life gets hard. I no longer felt peace and contentment on my mat. I stopped practicing almost without even noticing.
And you know what happened to my sobriety?
I didn’t replace yoga with anything else. I workout, I walk, and I write, all of which also help me to process my emotions. But none of those things ‘keep me sober’.
What keeps me sober is my certain knowledge that there is not a problem in the world that will be solved by my getting drunk. That the promise of oblivion is a lie. That no matter how bad I might feel in a moment when I might be tempted to drink, I will feel a thousand times worse when I wake up having succumbed to the lure.
I rarely think about alcohol anymore. I don’t miss it. I don’t crave it. I never have to fight against myself to maintain it. I never have in all my years of sobriety. I know that this might not always be the case. But having got through the chaos of the last 7 years and 7 months without once coming close to relapse, I feel reasonably confident that I’m ok.
I don’t consider myself to be an alcoholic. I used to be. I’m not anymore. I am not the same person I was 8 years ago when I couldn’t deal with the slightest bump in the road without turning to booze. I didn’t have a disease, I had a set of highly self-destructive, maladaptive coping strategies.
We don’t refer to ourselves as children once we are adults. If a person recovers from cancer, we don’t insist that they still identify as someone who has cancer. So why, when I am able to thrive in sobriety, should I continue to identify as the person I used to be, to define myself by my past behaviour.
I firmly believe that by focusing on my sobriety, and the benefits it brought, rather than the idea of giving up alcohol, I freed myself from the shackles of my addiction. Why focus on the problem when you can focus on the solution and the benefits of the solution?
Those who believe in the power of manifesting tell us that ‘what we focus on grows’. So maybe in focusing on challenge in my choice of word of the year, I opened myself up to more challenges. Maybe I’m just more aware of the challenge because of my focus.
But I know that by focusing on being sober, and the benefits of sobriety, I created a life in which sobriety feels like a positive choice. There was never any sense of deprivation, of loss, of negativity. It brought a lot of life changes, and I had to let go of a lot, but they were all parts of life that would interfere with a life of sobriety, so cutting them off was easy.
I need to remind myself of this now as I find myself focusing on how hard life is, how much of a wreck I feel, how overwhelmed I am. These are all true, but is that what I want my life to be about? It’s time to flick the switch and focus on what I want to create that’s good in my life once more! And that starts right now.
What are you focusing on today? Is what you are focusing on helping you to create the life you want, or is it getting in the way?